The real Great Game

THE GREAT GAME: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk (1990)

The Great Game was the 19th century cold war between the British Empire and Russian Empire for control of Central Asia.  To generals and statesmen in London and St. Petersburg, it must have seemed like a global game of chess.

Peter Hopkirk, in his book, The Great Game, told the story mainly from the point of view of the chess pieces —agents of empire, British and Russian, venturing alone, sometimes undercover, into territory where their governments could not protect them.

I read this book as a follow-up to reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which was about a young boy being groomed to be a player in the Great Game.  Hopkirk referred to Kim in his book; he said the Mahbub Ali, Hurree Babu and Colonel Creighton characters were based on specific individuals.

Hopkirk gave a clear explanation of the geopolitical background, but his book also can be enjoyed as a series of real-life action-adventure stories.  The careers of some of the British political officers read like fiction.

While still in their twenties, they mastered local languages and customs well enough to disguise themselves as natives and penetrate unknown territory.  They were explorers, map-makers, spies, diplomats and sometimes commanders of troops in the field.

They command admiration—regardless of whether you think the game of empire was worth playing.

Their field of operation was mainly in what later became the Soviet Central Asian republics, but also included the Caucacus, Tibet and Xinjiang.  The Central Asian region historically has been a center of civilization, but in the 19th century, it had been overrun by warlords, bandits and slave traders. Dealing with them was no job for the timid or the trusting.

One political officer, Eldred Pottinger (not an action-hero name!), at the age of 26, was operating undercover in Herat in 1835. A Persian army with Russian advisers attacked and beseiged the city, and Pottinger offered his services to the local ruler.

He soon established himself as an effective and tireless leader. At one point, the besiegers broke through and the Herat commanders panicked, but Pottinger rallied them and drove back the attackers. In negotiations that followed, one of the Persian-Russian demands was that the Herat send Pottinger home.

This was only one of his exploits.  He died at age 32 of a fever.

Hopkirk focused mainly on British agents.  He did justice to Russian agents.  He barely mentioned the “pundits,” native Indian agents, because permanent records were not kept on them.

The pundits were regarded as more expendable than the white agents, but many of them, like Kipling’s fictional Mahbub Ali and Hurree Babu, faithfully served an empire treated them unequally.

In general, there was a high level of competence and realism on both sides. The one big exception was the occupation of Afghanistan in 1839, which replaced its ruler, Dost Mohammed, with a more compliant ruler. General Elphinstone, the commander, allowed his troops to outrage local sensibilities by drinking alcohol and seducing local women, but refused to take reasonable measures for security. The upshot was an evacuation and retreat, in which literally all but one of the 16,000 retreating troops were massacred.

What followed was 20 years of back and forth struggle for control of Afghanistan, which ended with the British inviting Dost Mohammed back.

Most people would say the Russians were the winners of the Great Game.  At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the border of the Russian Empire was 2,000 miles from British India.  In 1907, when the Great Game ended with the British-French-Russian alliance against Germany, it was only a few hundred miles away and, in a couple of places, less than twenty.

The advantage the Russians enjoyed was that their form of government, rule by a hereditary autocrat and a military aristocracy, was better suited to gaining and controlling an empire than the British form, a two-party parliamentary system.  (This is not to say I prefer autocracy to parliamentary government.)

The Russians followed a long-range, consistent policy, while British policy shifted depending on which party was in power, the aggressive Conservatives or the conciliatory Liberals.  But the British might argue that they achieved their goal, which was to safeguard and preserve their rule in India.

The struggle for Central Asia resumed, in different forms, in the 20th and early 21st centuries.  It may not be over yet.

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4 Responses to “The real Great Game”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    It is only re-beginning.


  2. halbauer Says:

    China is investing in an infrastructure for the future, with trans-
    continental RR lines and sea ports beyond the Asian continent.


  3. philebersole Says:

    Infrastructure and empire have gone together since the construction of the Roman roads. The Russian Empire became a serious potential threat to British India only after they constructed railroads through Central Asia, which would allow rapid movement of troops to the frontier.

    The British Empire, Russian Empire and the Soviet Union all constructed transportation and communications infrastructure in order to better control and exploit their colonies. The USA built infrastructure in Afghanistan, and previously in Vietnam, for the same purpose.

    The great innovation of present-day China is to use offers to construct infrastructure, rather than military threats or subversion, as a means of extending its influence and power.

    What the Chinese are doing is of great potential benefit to all the peoples of Europe and Asia. But their work will become moot when affordable fossil fuels run out, the integrated globalized world economy fractures and the world’s peoples strive for local self-sufficiency.


  4. vᚻællKᚱᛁᛗvosᛏ Says:

    Reblogged this on Vermont Folk Troth.


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