The Great Game

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Greater Persia at the beginning of the Great Game in 1814
Central Asia, circa 1848.
For the film, see The Great Game (film)

The Great Game was a term used for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 a second, less intensive phase followed.

The term "The Great Game" is usually attributed to Arthur Conolly, an intelligence officer of the British East India Company's Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry.[1] It was introduced into mainstream consciousness by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim (1901).


[edit] Origin and scope

At the start of the 19th century there were some 2000 miles separating British India and the outlying regions of Tsarist Russia. Much of the land in between was unmapped. The cities of Bukhara, Khiva, Merv, Kokand and Tashkent were virtually unknown to westerners.

As Imperial Russian expansion threatened to collide with the increasing British dominance of the occupied lands of the Indian sub-continent, the two great empires played out a subtle game of exploration, espionage and imperialistic diplomacy throughout Central Asia. The conflict always threatened, but never quite developed into direct warfare between the two sides. The centre of activity was in Afghanistan.

The term "Great Game" has no currency in Russian and Soviet historiography. In retrospect, it appears to have been a rather one-sided affair resulting from Victorian Imperialism and Russophobia[citation needed]. The only evidence of Russia's interest in challenging the British Raj was the Indian March of Emperor Paul (1801), a Russo-French adventure that got as far as the Aral Sea, roughly a thousand miles short of the Khyber Pass. Nevertheless, it created quite a stir in London and touched off a war scare between Britain and Russia.

Further, the conclusion of the twin agreements known to history as the Treaty of Tilsit between Alexander I and Napoleon I in 1807 firmly divided Europe into French and Russian spheres, and committed Russia to the profoundly anti-British Napoleonic Continental system. This alignment with the national enemy of Britain gave rise to all manner of mania as to Russia's intentions with regard to Turkey, the Caucasus and Persia, and of course central Asia.

Also, fondness of the study of history amongst the ruling classes of Britain was relevant to the creation of this mania[citation needed] as historically the invasions of India that occurred through the Khyber Pass provided a physical nexus for British fears. The Afghanistan policies were chiefly aimed at either controlling both sides of the Pass, or at the minimum ensuring that the Russians did not have significant influence on the Afghan side.

Although the Great Game is usually taken to refer to the conflict of British and Russian interests in Afghanistan, there was also intense rivalry in Persia and (later) in Tibet. Britain was alarmed by Russian expansion into Transcaucasia at the expense of Persia. The Treaty of Gulistan (1813) and Treaty of Turkmanchai (1826) resulted in substantial territorial gains for the Tsar.

In order to contain Russia's expansion, the British set themselves the task of reorganizing the outdated Persian army into an effective fighting force. There was a chain of Persian-Russian diplomatic crises, to a large degree caused by Persia's new-found strength. One of these resulted in the gruesome murder of the Russian ambassador Alexander Griboyedov.

By the early 20th century, Northern Iran had become for all practical purposes a protectorate of the Russian Empire. At one point during the Persian Constitutional Revolution, Cossack colonel Vladimir Liakhov ruled Tehran as a military governor with dictatorial powers. The focus of the Great Game shifted considerably to the east. The British were impressed by the semi-military expeditions of Nikolai Przhevalsky, Pyotr Kozlov, and other Russian explorers that roamed the vast expanses of Dzungaria and Xinjiang.

There was a growing fear that Russia would annex this remote part of the Qing Empire. In order to forestall Russia's prospective claims to the area, Britain mounted a small-scale expedition to Tibet under Younghusband, driving the Dalai Lama from Lhasa in 1904.

[edit] British-Russian rivalry in Afghanistan

Political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his "friends" Russia & Britain (1878).

From the British perspective, the Russian Empire's expansion into Central Asia threatened to destroy the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, India. As the Tsar's troops began to subdue one Khanate after another, the British feared that Afghanistan would become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India.

It was with these thoughts in mind that in 1838 the British launched the First Anglo-Afghan War and attempted to impose a puppet regime under Shuja Shah. The regime was short lived, and unsustainable without British military support. By 1842, mobs were attacking the British on the streets of Kabul and the British garrison was forced to abandon Kabul due to constant civilian attacks.

The retreating British column consisted of approximately 4,500 regular British troops, 12,000 Hindu soldiers of the British Army, and support staff. During a series of attacks by Afghan warriors, all but one, Dr William Brydon, were killed on the march back to India. Dr Brydon was, with one of his servants, allowed to go free in order to deliver the message of the destruction of the British force in Afghanistan[citation needed].

The British curbed their ambitions in Afghanistan following the humiliating retreat from Kabul. After the Indian rebellion of 1857, successive British governments saw Afghanistan as a buffer state. The Russians, led by Konstantin Kaufman, Mikhail Skobelev, and Mikhail Chernyayev, continued to advance steadily southward toward Afghanistan and by 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed.

Samarkand became part of the Russian Empire three years later and the independence of Bukhara was virtually stripped away in a peace treaty the same year. Russian control now extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya river.

In a letter to Queen Victoria, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proposed "to clear Central Asia of Muscovites and drive them into the Caspian".[2] He introduced the Royal Titles Act, which added to Victoria's titles that of Empress of India, putting her at the same level as the Russian Emperor.

After the Great Eastern Crisis broke out and the Russians sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878, Britain demanded that the ruler of Afghanistan (Sher Ali) accept a British diplomatic mission. The mission was turned back and in retaliation a force of 40,000 men was sent across the border, launching the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The second war was almost as disastrous as the first for the British, and by 1881, they again pulled out of Kabul.

They left Abdur Rahman Khan on the throne, and he agreed to let the British maintain Afghanistan's foreign policy while he consolidated his position on the throne. He managed to suppress internal rebellions with ruthless efficiency and brought much of the country under central control.

Russian expansion brought about another crisis — the Panjdeh Incident — when they seized the oasis of Merv in 1884. The Russians claimed all of the former ruler's territory and fought with Afghan troops over the oasis of Panjdeh. On the brink of war between the two great powers, the British decided to accept the Russian possession as a fait accompli.

Without any Afghan say in the matter, the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance, but retain Panjdeh. The agreement delineated a permanent northern Afghan frontier at the Amu Darya, with the loss of a large amount of territory, especially around Panjdeh, however Britain continued to have troubles in the region towards the end of the 1800s.

In 1890-91 the British suspected Russian involvement "with the Rulers of the petty States on the northern boundary of Kashmir "[3] This was the reason for Hunza-Naga Campaign after which the British established control over Hunza and Nagar.

[edit] Anglo-Russian Alliance

In the run-up to World War I, both empires were alarmed by Germany's increasing activity in the Middle East, notably the German project of the Baghdad Railway, which would open up Iraq and Iran to German trade and technology. The ministers Alexander Izvolsky and Edward Grey agreed to resolve their long-standing conflicts in Asia in order to make an effective stand against the German advance into the region. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 brought a close to the classic period of the Great Game.

The Russians accepted that the politics of Afghanistan were solely under British control as long as the British guaranteed not to change the regime. Russia agreed to conduct all political relations with Afghanistan through the British. The British agreed that they would maintain the current borders and actively discourage any attempt by Afghanistan to encroach on Russian territory. Persia was divided into three zones: a British zone in the south, a Russian zone in the north, and a narrow neutral zone serving as buffer in between.

As regards Tibet, both powers agreed to maintain territorial integrity of this buffer state and "to deal with Lhasa only through China, the suzerain power".[4]

[edit] Criticism

However interesting the possibility of intrigues as they appear in Kim, it is doubtful that the Great Game unfolded in such dramatic fashion. In fact, the entire concept of the Great Game may have greater root in the British imagination than in the rugged passes of the Hindu Kush. Indian historian J.A. Naik cites several British historians who claim that the Tsarist government never took military operations against India seriously.

Gerald Morgan’s “Myth and Reality in the Great Game” approached the subject by examining various departments of the Raj to determine if there ever existed a British intelligence network in Central Asia. Morgan insists that evidence of such a network does not exist. At best, efforts to obtain information on Russian moves in Central Asia were rare, ad hoc adventures. At worst, intrigues resembling the adventures in Kim were baseless rumours and Morgan claims such rumors “were always common currency in Central Asia and they applied as much to Russia as to Britain.”

Malcolm Yapp’s lecture, “The Legend of the Great Game” offers additional evidence that the popular understanding of Anglo-Russian relations over Central Asia in the 19th century is seriously flawed. Yapp points out that Britons had used the term “The Great Game” in the late 1800’s to describe several different things in relation to its interests in Asia.

In addition, the meaning of “The Great Game” that is popular now does not reflect the real concerns of the British in relation to India in the 19th century. Yapp believes that the primary concern of British authorities in India was control of the indigenous population, not preventing a Russian invasion.

But however spurious the assumptions regarding the Anglo-Russian rivalry of the 19th and early 20th centuries, they are no less compelling. According to Yapp, “reading the history of the British Empire in India and the Middle East one is struck by both the prominence and the unreality of strategic debates.” And the prominence of the debates serves to obscure the real challenge the British faced in India which was their internal control, not the external threats from the far side of the Himalayas. Nonetheless, the power of the expanding Russian autocracy was a reality in Asia.

[edit] British-Soviet rivalry in Afghanistan

Caption from a 1911 English satirical magazine reads: "If we hadn't a thorough understanding, I (British lion) might almost be tempted to ask what you (Russian bear) are doing there with our little playfellow (Persian cat)."

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 nullified existing treaties and a second phase of the Great Game began. The Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 was precipitated by the assassination of the then ruler Habibullah Khan. His son and successor Amanullah declared full independence and attacked British India's northern frontier. Although little was gained militarily, the stalemate was resolved with the Rawalpindi Agreement of 1919. Afghanistan re-established its self-determination in foreign affairs.

In May 1921, Afghanistan and the Russian Soviet Republic signed a Treaty of Friendship. The Soviets provided Amanullah with aid in the form of cash, technology, and military equipment. British influence in Afghanistan waned, but relations between Afghanistan and the Russians remained equivocal, with many Afghanis desiring to regain control of Merv and Panjdeh. The Soviets, for their part, desired to extract more from the friendship treaty than Amanullah was willing to give.

The United Kingdom imposed minor sanctions and diplomatic slights as a response to the treaty, fearing that Amanullah was slipping out of their sphere of influence and realising that the policy of the Afghanistan government was to have control of all of the Pashtun speaking groups on both sides of the Durand Line. In 1923, Amanullah responded by taking the title padshah — "king", and by offering refuge for Muslims who fled the Soviet Union, and Indian nationalists in exile from the Raj.

Amanullah's program of reform was, however, insufficient to strengthen the army quickly enough — in 1928 he abdicated under pressure. The individual to benefit from the crisis was Mohammed Nadir Shah, who reigned from 1929 to 1933. Both the Soviets and the British played the circumstances to their advantage: the Soviets getting aid in dealing with Uzbek rebellion in 1930 and 1931, while the British aided Afghanistan in creating a 40,000 man professional army.

With the advent of World War II came the temporary alignment of British and Soviet interests: in 1940, both governments pressured Afghanistan for the removal of a large German non-diplomatic contingent, which was felt by both governments to be engaged in espionage. Initially this was resisted. With this period of cooperation between the USSR and the UK, the Great Game between the two powers came to an end.

[edit] New Great Game

With the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, the United States displaced Britain as the global power, asserting its influence in the Middle East in pursuit of oil, containment of the Soviet Union, and access to other resources. This period is sometimes referred to as "The New Great Game" by commentators [5], and there are references in the military, security, and diplomatic communities to "The Great Game" as an analogy or framework for events involving India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and, more recently, the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia.

In 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski published "The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives" which advocated a 21st century version of the Great Game. Popular media have referred to the current conflict between international forces and Taliban forces in Afghanistan as a New Great Game.[6]

[edit] The Great Game in popular culture

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Hopkirk p. 1
  2. ^ Quoted from Disraeli's letter to the Queen in: Mahajan, Sneh. British Foreign Policy, 1874-1914. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0415260108. Page 53.
  3. ^ Forty-one years in India - From Subaltern To Commander-In-Chief, Lord Roberts of Kandahar - The Hunza-Naga Campaign
  4. ^ Quoted from: Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. ISBN 1568360223. Page 520.
  5. ^ Edwards, Matthew (March 2003), "The New Great Game and the new great gamers: disciples of Kipling and Mackinder", Central Asian Survey 22 (1): 83-103 
  6. ^ Afghan success in the new 'great game' - BBC News
  7. ^ DocsOnline

[edit] References

  • Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, Kodansha International, 1992, ISBN 4-7700-1703-0, 565p. The timeline of the Great Game is available online.
  • Johnson, Robert, Spying for Empire: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, 1757-1947, (London: Greenhill, 2006) ISBN 1-85367-670-5 [1]
  • Meyer, Karl and Brysac, Shareen,'Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia', Counterpoint, 1999 reprinted with new introduction on the Middle East by Basic Books, 2006 ISBN 0-349-11366-1
  • Morgan, Gerald, “Myth and Reality in the Great Game,” Asian Affairs, vol. 60, (February 1973) 64.
  • Naik, J.A., Soviet Policy Towards India, from Stalin to Brezhnev, (Delhi: Vikas Publications, 1970) 3-4.
  • Vogelsang, Willem. The Afghans, pp. 245-272. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2002. ISBN 0-631-19841-5
  • von Tunzelmann, Alex, Indian Summer. Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York, 2007. ISBN-13: 078-0-8050-8073-5, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8073-2
  • Yapp, Malcolm, “The Legend of the Great Game,” Proceedings of the British Academy, no. 111, 2001, 179-198

[edit] External links

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