Posts Tagged ‘Great Game’

The real Great Game

September 27, 2021

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.

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Kipling’s Kim and Kipling’s India

September 23, 2021

KIM by Rudyard Kipling (1901) with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Meyers (2002) 

I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

Rudyard Kipling was a British imperialist.  He believed the British Empire was, for all practical purposes, permanent, and that it was a force for good.  The first belief proved wrong, and there are few who would defend the secondW.

So why read Kipling’s Kim?

Kim is an interesting story about the coming of age of a young boy and his struggle to define his identity.  Like Huckleberry Finn, Kim is often mistaken for a boy’s book because its central character is a boy, but it isn’t. 

Kim is also an idealized but fascinating portrait of the diversity of India, with its varied religions and ethnic groups.

Kim is the first, or one of the first, espionage thrillers, a new genre in which the spy is the hero and not the villain.

And finally, Kim is a work by one of the masters of the English language.

Kipling was, as we newspaper reporters used to say, a great wordsmith.  Anybody who loves writing can benefit from reading his sentences closely and noting his word choices and the rhythm of the sentence.

He is one of the few 20th century writers admired by both critics and the general public

His books of poetry were best-sellers.  Their rollicking rhythms stick in the mind, like Broadway show tunes.  He also wrote novels short stories, including the Mowgli and Just-So stories for children.  Henry James praised his prose style and T.S. Eliot edited an edition of his poetry.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

The hero of Kim is Kimball O’Hara, the orphan son of an Irish ex-soldier and a servant woman.  We meet him at age 13.   Kim has allowed to run wild in the streets of Lahore (now part of Pakistan).  He speaks local languages better than he speaks English, and is so sunburned nobody thinks of him as white.  

He earns money by begging and carrying messages.  The closest thing he has to a mentor is Mahbub Ali, an Afghan horse trader who turns out to be an agent of British intelligence.

As the novel opens, Kim encounters a Tibetan lama and decides to follow him on his religious quest.  They have adventures as they travel along the Great Trunk Road, meeting varied people.  These passages show Kipling’s genius as a descriptive writer, both of people and of the sights and sounds of India.  

He makes contact with his father’s old regiment, which takes him in.  He attends the regimental school briefly, then a Catholic school that serves India’s native Catholics.  These include the Thomas Christians, whose ancestors were supposedly converted by the Apostle Thomas, and mixed-race descendants of Portuguese seamen and traders who came to India in the 16th century—another example of India’s diversity.

Manbub Ali and Colonel Creighton, the secret head of British intelligence in India, are impressed by Kim’s talent for languages, disguise and deception and determine to groom him for a career as an espionage agent.

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