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The Hornets’ Nest Britain’s fear of Russia led her to attempt regime change in Afghanistan, but it cost many lives and damaged the army’s reputation.

In two parts

Queen Victoria 1837-1901
Music: Mily Balakirev

By Elizabeth Thompson (1846-1933), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

‘Remnants of an Army’, by Elizabeth Thompson.

About this picture …

‘Remnants of an army’ by Elizabeth Thompson (1846-1933), later Lady Butler. On January 13th, 1842, he rode into Jalalabad alone, the only one of a company of some 16,500 British soldiers and their families and servants to reach the town after fleeing rebellion in Kabul. Brydon, a surgeon, was badly wounded by a sword-blow to the head which had sheared a slice from his skull. He was not the only survivor of the trek: more than a hundred had been taken prisoner, and about two thousand sepoys and servants had returned to Kabul. But he was the only one to reach the column’s intended destination, save a Greek man who arrived two days later, and died.

The Hornets’ Nest

Part 1 of 2

Jawaharlal Nehru has been telling his daughter about the rise of the Punjab State under Ranjit Singh, who died in 1839. From there he passes on to the stirring events unfolding to the north-west. The British East India Company, then ruling most of India, had been struck by a sudden fear that Nicholas I’s Russia might invade Afghanistan and threaten their Indian monopoly.

Farther to the north, or rather north-west of the Punjab, lay Afghanistan, and not far from Afghanistan, on the other side, were the Russians. The spread of the Russian Empire in central Asia upset the nerves of the British. They were afraid that Russia might attack India. Almost right through the nineteenth century there was talk of the “Russian menace”.

As early as 1839 the British in India made an entirely unprovoked attack on Afghanistan.* At that time the Afghan frontier was far from British India, and the independent Sikh State of the Punjab intervened. Nonetheless, the British marched to Kabul, making the Sikhs their allies. But the Afghans took signal revenge. However backward they may be in many respects, they love their freedom and will fight to the last to preserve it. And so Afghanistan has always been a “hornets’ nest” for any foreign army that invaded it.

Although the British had occupied Kabul and many parts of the country, suddenly there were revolts everywhere, they were driven back, and a whole British army suffered destruction.* Later another British invasion took place to avenge this disaster.*

Jump to Part 2

* Britain stepped in to resolve a succession dispute between the current emir Dost Mohammad (Barakzai), who was felt to be too friendly with Emperor Nicholas I Russia, and former emir Shah Shujah (Durrani), London’s preferred ruler. The Prime Minister at the time was William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. At this time, India was not governed directly from London but by the British East Company on London’s behalf. After The Indian Mutiny of 1857, control passed from the East India Company to the Crown.

* The Kabul uprising began on November 2nd, 1841. As the situation became threatening, a company of around 16,500 people, of whom some 4,500 were military personnel and over 12,000 were camp followers (family members and servants) hastily evacuated the city and fled east towards British India. In deadly cold, they were hunted down by the Afghans and slaughtered in the Gandamak pass some thirty miles from Kabul, though some of the camp followers (especially those of Indian background) were taken prisoner and absorbed into Afghan communities. Throughout the whole sorry business there was much treachery and inhumanity on both sides.

* This was in September 1842. A young Neville Bowles Chamberlain (1820-1902) saw what British soldiers did at Istalif as they made their way to Kabul, and was utterly horrified by their plunder of private houses. “Tears, supplications were of no avail, fierce oaths were the only answer; the musket was deliberately raised, the trigger pulled, and happy was he who fell dead! Sometimes they were only wounded, and were finished by a second ball, and sometimes the powder only flashed in the pan as if in mockery of their agony. These horrible murders (for such alone must they be in the eyes of God) were truly wicked.” It was not just the Afghans who suffered. “We lost a very nice young fellow of the name of Evans. It being reported to him that our own people were ill-treating the women, he flew to their protection, when he was shot dead.”


Continuing his world history, Jawaharlal Nehru told his daughter how in 1839, the British had launched an unprovoked attack on Afghanistan, after becoming anxious that the Russian Empire might beat them to it. The Afghans resisted fiercely and inflicted a bruising defeat on the mighty British army, which the British nevertheless avenged soon after. (53 / 60 words)

Part Two

By John Burke (1843-1900), via the British Library and Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

Mohammad Yaqub Khan, Amir of Afghanistan, with British officers in 1879.

About this picture …

In May 1879, photographer John Burke (1843-1900) recorded this meeting between Yakub Khan and British military and diplomatic officials. It was Yaqub who signed the Treaty of Gandamak on May 26th that year, ending hostilities that had broken out over the revolt of his father, Sher Ali. The agreement compromised Afghan sovereignty in foreign affairs, and his half-brother Ayub led a revolt that brought about Yaqub’s abdication that October. Ayub was deposed after the Battle of Kandahar handed control of the country back to the British Crown; after a further failure to regain his crown, he was exiled to India where he lived off a British pension. Yaqub is shown here dressed in white, as was his custom. The others, from the left, are named as Mr Jenkyns, Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari (1841-1879), an Irish-Italian aristocrat who was the British resident in Kabul, Afghan general Daoud Shah, who was his commander-in-chief, and Habibullah Khan, the Prime Minister.

The British occupied Kabul and blew up the great covered bazaar of the city, and the British soldiery plundered and set fire to many parts of the city. It was clear, however, that Afghanistan could not easily be held by the British without continuous fighting. So they retired.

Nearly forty years later, in 1878, the British in India were again unnerved by the Amir, or ruler, of Afghanistan becoming friendly with Russia.* To a large extent history repeated itself. There was another war, and the British invaded the country and seemed to have won, when the British envoy and party were massacred by the Afghans* and a British army defeated.* The British took some measures of retribution and again withdrew from the hornets’ nest. For many years afterwards the position of Afghanistan was peculiar. The British would not allow the Amir to have any direct relations with other foreign countries, and at the same time they gave him annually a large sum of money. Thirteen years ago, in 1919, there was a third Afghan War which resulted in Afghanistan becoming fully independent.*

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* Following the Afghan civil war of 1863-6, Sher Ali took control in Kabul. He allied first with Britain, but then in 1876 he welcomed an envoy from Russian Emperor Alexander II at the same time as he rebuffed an envoy from Queen Victoria. The was enough to anger and frighten the Foreign Office. As it happens, London and St Petersburg quickly smoothed over their differences but the Afghans were not appeased and the Second Afghan War broke out in 1878. Sher Ali fled and his son Mohammad Yaqub Khan signed the Treaty of Gandamak May 26th, 1879, ceding land and sovereignty in foreign affairs to the British.

* Sir Pierre Cavagnari, a flamboyant and unpredictable Irish-Italian aristocrat who was the British Resident in Kabul, was murdered along with his escort on September 3rd, 1879.

* The rebel forces then moved towards Kabul, and some 10,000 of them inflicted a heavy defeat on a British relief force numbering around 170 men before laying siege to the Sherpur Cantonment. The Cantonment was relieved by Brigadier General Charles Gough on December 23rd, defeating a much larger Afghan army.

* The disquiet over the Treaty of Gandamak prompted Yaqub’s half-brother Ayub Khan, governor of Herat, to lead a rebellion, and Yaqub stepped down as Emir that October. Ayub Khan renewed the revolt and defeated a British detachment at the Battle of Maiwand on July 27th, 1880, and went on to lay siege to Kandahar. Major General Sir Frederick Roberts lifted the siege and put an end to Ayub Khan’s uprising on September 1st, 1880. His cousin Abdur Rahman Khan was awarded the title of Emir of Afghanistan.

* The Third Anglo-Afghan War ended with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, signed on August 8th, 1919. The Afghans regained their sovereignty, while the British gained confirmation of India’s border with Afghanistan.


The wrathful British destroyed Kabul’s famous bazaar with explosives and torched other parts of the city. But in 1879 the Afghans rebelled again, and once more sorely tested Britain’s military power. Control was eventually restored, but the Emir’s exclusive loyalty came at the cost of substantial yearly payments. Independence came at last in 1919, following the Great War. (56 / 60 words)


From ‘Glimpses of World History’ Volume 1 (1934) by Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). It is subtitled ‘Being Further Letters to His Daughter, Written in Prison, and Containing a Rambling Account of History for Young People.’ Nehru was the first Prime Minister of India (1947-1964). Additional information from ‘Life of Field-Marshal Sir Neville Chamberlain’ (1909) by Sir George Forrest (1846-1926).

Suggested Music

Islamey: An Oriental Fantasy, Op. 18

Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)

Alexandre Kantorow

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