Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

Book Review: Return Of A King

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Return Of A King by William Dalrymple
(Bloomsbury $36.99)

'Return of a King' by William Dalrymple. Photo / Supplied
'Return of a King' by William Dalrymple. Photo / Supplied

Compare these two statements. "If the foreign forces are ready to leave our country ... then we can help them. But if they insist on continuing the war, we don't have any other way than fighting." An Afghan warlord, speaking in 2009.

"You have brought an army into the country ... but how do you propose to take it out again?" An Afghan warlord, addressing a British official in 1839, quoted in historian William Dalrymple's accomplished, quite brilliant account of the first British invasion of Afghanistan, a disastrous, humiliating enterprise that ended in mass slaughter in 1842.

Many books have been written about the first "Retreat from Kabul" but Dalrymple, first inspired in 2006 "just as the latest Western adventure in Afghanistan was beginning to turn sour ... history was beginning to repeat itself", has completely refreshed and balanced the narrative by visiting as many key sites as safely possible; by accessing records of the occupation held in the Indian National Archives, which included army and court records, private letters and diaries; the Punjab Archives in Lahore, the Afghan National Archives in Kabul and, via a second-hand book dealer in Kabul, a goldmine: the private libraries and memoirs of Afghan noble families who were players in the conflict.

Those treasures included two epic poems recording the events from an Afghan perspective but, as Dalrymple notes, "not one of these accounts ever seems to have been used in any English-language history of the war".

The saga begins in 1809 with Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, 24-year-old ruler of the Durrani Empire, a collapsing and fractious region otherwise known as Afghanistan, populated by tribal and clan rivals embroiled in blood feuds that ran for generations. Shah Shuja's unpopular rule was suddenly boosted by the arrival of a British convoy from the East India Company seeking to "woo" the Afghans. They came bearing gifts: elephants, guns, pistols, clocks, even an organ. The alliance, Dalrymple writes, "would change the course of [Shah Shuja's] own life, and that of Afghanistan, forever".

The British were not interested in Afghanistan for its own sake, but were frantic that its neighbours, Russia and Persia, had their own plans for invasion, thereby threatening Britain's trade interests in India. Yet as the Brits and Shah Shuja negotiated, the country was beset by rebel uprisings seeking to overthrow him, which they succeeded in doing within a few weeks. The king was left, "a lone fugitive, cantering blindly through the darker provinces of the Afghan night", carrying a massive diamond, "the single most valuable jewel in the world". He was soon captured and imprisoned in Lahore, where he was held in exile.

He would wait around 30 years before the British reinstated him as a puppet on the throne, outraging his opponents and sparking the flame that would soon blow the Westerners down through the Khyber Pass to death.

The politics of mid-19th century Afghanistan and British colonial aspirations, explored clearly in Return of a King, are far too convoluted to cover in this review, but the book is also particularly remarkable for the characters brought to life by Dalrymple's meticulous research.

Among the many memorable figures are the lady who travelled to Kabul with her soldier husband and her Persian cat, and the wily British "spy" Alexander Burnes, remembered in an Afghan poem as the incarnation of deceit: "This sedition-sowing Burnes - he is your enemy. On the outside he seems a man, but inside he is the very devil."

In 1841, Burnes was murdered by a Kabul mob. According to an Afghan witness they "killed him, hacked his body to pieces, shaved off his beard and exhibited his head through the streets of the city".

At least Burnes did not have to endure the terrifying retreat through the Khyber Pass. The details are excruciating, with more than 18,000 troops, family members, Indian sepoys, cooks and servants marching through the snow, picked off by snipers, weakened by lack of food and water, freezing to death at night.

"The whole road for a distance of five miles was covered with dead and dying," wrote one soldier. The British women had to be handed over into the care of Afghan leader, Akbar Khan (the man who was co-ordinating the slaughter), who protected them but held them hostage, and the march proceeded until just one man - Dr William Brydon - made it through after clambering over a huge man-made holly barrier.

That wasn't the end of Britain's efforts in the region. Later in 1842 they sent in an "Army of Retribution", and set about a path of wild destruction, burning towns and gardens, raping and killing - but they were quickly and bloodily booted out again. Those deeds still live on in the collective Afghan memory.

Dalrymple draws his book to a conclusion in the present day, where he travels through the route of the 1842 retreat, a region that is now the Taliban's main recruiting ground, in the company of a tribal leader whose ancestors took part in that very attack. Dalrymple listens to their tales of present-day corruption, on both the Allied and Afghan government sides, echoing the debacle from 170 years before in so many respects, then gives the last words to a tribal elder.

"These are the last days of the Americans ... Next it will be China."

Like previous Dalrymple histories, this is a towering achievement, beautifully written and compulsively readable, augmented by an indispensible list of "dramatis personae", bibiliography and index as well as a fine range of illustrations.

- NZ Herald

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