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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 (2013)

by William Dalrymple

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5982130,520 (4.18)50
Examines the mid-19th-century Afghan war as a tragic result of neocolonial ambition, cultural collision and hubris, drawing on previously untapped primary sources to explore such topics as the reestablishment of a puppet-leader Shah, the conflict's brutal human toll and the similarities between the war and present-day challenges.… (more)
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The pattern of the story is familiar to students of contemporary history. A Western power invades Afghanistan. Their army easily overcomes the forces of the local government and occupies the country. The victory soon turns sour, however, as missteps in dealing with the complex tribal politics of the region soon engender an uprising in the mountainous countryside. Eventually, exhausted by the drain on their resources, the army withdraws, leaving the victorious survivors to squabble over the remains and rebuild their country.

This is a narrative that could easily describe the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and increasingly it looks to be the inevitable outcome of the ongoing U.S.-led operation as well. But it is also one that could also serve as a summary of the British invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1830s. It was those parallels which inspired William Dalrymple to write a history of the first Anglo-Afghan War, one that spotlights the folly of such an effort and the disastrous consequences for all involved.

To tell the story of the invasion, Dalrymple begins not with the British but with the Afghans, specifically with the Afghan ruler Shah Shuja. A member of the Durrani dynasty, he was overthrown in 1809 by his half-brother and predecessor, Shah Mahmoud, and forced into exile. Over the next 29 years Shuja mounted three attempts to reclaim his throne by force, all of which were thwarted by his successors. In between these attempts Shuja languished in Ludhiana, where he and his entourage subsisted on a pension provided by the British East India Company on the off chance that they might need an Afghan monarch at some point.

Shuja’s fourth opportunity to reclaim the throne came about as a result of the growing Anglo-Russian competition in the region. As Russia advanced into central Asia, securing the northwestern frontier of India became an increasing anxiety for both East India Company officials and British politicians. Fearing that Russia would ally with the current ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan, the company’s governor-general, Lord Auckland, decided to remove Dost Mohammad and reinstall Shah Shuja on the throne. Allying with the neighboring Sikh kingdom, Auckland used the Sikhs’ war with Afghanistan over the Peshawar Valley as the pretext for a joint invasion of the country, which began in December 1838.

Over the next eight months the British forces gradually occupied Afghanistan. Dalrymple’s account of the invasion stresses the arrogance of the British, who brought with them a massive train of camp followers and camels carrying luxury goods. Though their march though the rough terrain took a toll on their ranks the Afghan tribal levies proved a poor match against British-trained sepoys on the open battlefield, and Dost Mohammad fled Kabul ahead of its capture in August 1839. With Shah Shuja restored to the throne the British withdrew the bulk of their forces, but the remaining British presence soon alienated the Afghan population. This was exacerbated by the company’s parsimony, as efforts to curtail the massive financial drain of the occupation on the company’s coffers by reducing payments to tribal leaders soon turned them against Shah Shuja’s reign. The result was an uprising in November 1841 that forced the British out of Kabul.

Despite the growing signs of Afghan disaffection, the British were unprepared for the scale of the attack on their forces. Dalrymple’s description of the fighting underscores the poor decisions made by British leaders throughout the period, particularly those of the company’s pompous political officer, William Hay Macnaghten, and the ailing commanding general, William Elphinstone, whose disregard for the deteriorating situation left British personnel vulnerable to the rising. While an agreement to withdraw was reached at the start of 1842, the retreating British forces came under constant attack as they withdrew under punishing winter weather, with many of those who survived subsequently enslaved by Afghan tribesmen.

Though the newly-elected Tory government under Robert Peel wanted to end the British intervention, news of the uprising was greeted with a determination for vengeance. An “Army of Retribution” was quickly gathered to relieve other besieged garrisons and to punish the Afghans. Dalrymple does not minimize the atrocities committed by British forces, who gutted whole villages during their march on the Afghan capital. After retaking Kabul in September 1842, however, the British withdrew just a month later, leaving a ravaged kingdom to be ruled a restored Dost Mohammad, who over the next two decades confirmed his dynasty’s hold on the throne and established the borders of the country as it is known today.

Given the epic fate of Britain’s intervention of Afghanistan there have been no shortage of books written about it. Yet Dalrymple’s account surpasses them all, thanks to his lucid writing and incorporation of Afghan and Persian sources ignored by previous authors. These he uses to create an account that provides a wealth of insight into the Afghan perspective of the conflict, one all too often lacking in most English language chronicles. Using them he spins an engrossing account of a war which produced no winners but cast a shadow in the region that stretches down to the present day. It is difficult to imagine a better book ever being written about the first Anglo-Afghan War, nor one that is more necessary reading for anyone who thinks that a war in the region could produce a positive outcome. As Dalrymple so powerfully demonstrates, the Afghans have more than enough experience with invasion to thwart the will of any conqueror. ( )
  MacDad | May 25, 2021 |
A book of detailed and fascinating history. An enlightening back-story giving insight and understanding to the current situation in Afghanistan. ( )
  neal_ | Apr 10, 2020 |
After reading City of Djinns, William Dalrymple had become one of my favorite authors.
Whereas that book was a slender but intense personal account rolled into a historical narrative of The City, Return of a King seemed like the opposite: sprawling with dozens upon dozens of characters, describing solely events of almost 200 years ago.

But this is as good of a historical narrative as any other that you could read. What really shines through is the author's empathy and even keel. Criticism, praise, and sympathy is set in appropriate measures towards all parties. Even more so, Dalrymple has a keen sense of the times; although he does judge the morality of the actors, its tempered by the prevailing mores rather than on modern/post-modern terms.

It is thrilling, exhilarating, and more than anything else, heart breaking. Well-deserved of all the awards it has garnered. ( )
  raheelahmad | Mar 22, 2020 |
Page-turner. Didn't expect to be so gripped, given this could reasonably be classed as "military history". ( )
  sometimeunderwater | Nov 8, 2018 |
Good story, but this book dragged for me...I had to really work at finishing it--a new experience for me as I have enjoyed all of the author's previous works (and even made a special trip to central India to visit some of the sites of White Rajah. Maybe it was the long quotes from original material; it was undoubtedly exciting for Dalrymple to find them, but I felt they weighed down the storyline and flow.

For this reason, I would recommend reading the last chapter first, where Dalrymple puts the story in context and explains the work and research that resulted in the book. Had I done so, I believe I would have been more appreciative of the long quoted passages and detail.

Nevertheless, if you're a Great Game historian, or a historical wars buff, you will want to read this work that fills in the Afghan side of the British-Afghan 19C wars with all their appalling atrocities, horrors and arrogant behaviour (witnessed and suffered by both parties). ( )
1 vote pbjwelch | Jul 25, 2017 |
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Epigraph
Great kings have always recorded the events of their reigns, some writing themselves, with their natural gifts, but most entrusting the writing to historians and writers, so that these compositions would remain as a memorial on the pages of passing time. Thus it occurred to this humble petitoner at the court of the Merciful God, Sultan Shuja al-Mulk Shah Durrani, to record the battles and events of his reign, so that the historians of Khurasan should know the true account of these events, and thoughtful readers take heed from these examples. - Shah Shuja, Waqiat-i-Shah Shuja
Dedication
To my beloved Adam And also to the four people who did most to encourage in me a love of history: Veronica Telfer Fr. Edward Corbould OSB Lucy Warrack and Elsie Gibbs (North Berwick, 10 June 1922 - Bristol, 4 February 2012)
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The year 1809 opened auspiciously for Shah Shuja ul-Mulk.
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Examines the mid-19th-century Afghan war as a tragic result of neocolonial ambition, cultural collision and hubris, drawing on previously untapped primary sources to explore such topics as the reestablishment of a puppet-leader Shah, the conflict's brutal human toll and the similarities between the war and present-day challenges.

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