June 16, 2016

Under the Absolute Amir

Under the Absolute Amir is an account of life and work in Kabul by Frank A. Martin, who for eight years was engineer-in-chief to Amir ʻAbd al-Rahman Khan (reigned 1880−1901), ruler of Afghanistan, and later to his son and successor, Habibullah (reigned 1901–19). The book provides a first-hand overview of Afghanistan, written from a European perspective, and is particularly interesting on subjects such as roads, trade, and economic development, with which the author was directly involved. It includes chapters on travel, the city of Kabul, manners and customs, the life of Europeans in Afghanistan, soldiers and arms, geological conditions in the country, religion, and the political situation. As indicated by the title, Martin is especially struck by absolute monarchy as the Afghan system of government. He opines that “fortunately there are few parts of the earth where such a form of government exists, for it is not one which is likely to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.” Chapters devoted to the character and policies of Amir ʻAbd al-Rahman Khan, prisons and prisoners, and tortures and methods of execution underscore the despotic character of the state. Martin also stresses, however, the interest of both ʻAbd al-Rahman Khan and his son in the modernization and development of the country and the keen interest that both took in trade, commerce, and mechanical tools of all kinds. The chapter “Trades and Commerce” draws on Martin’s involvement in managing the government workshops, which at this time constituted the main industrial base of the country. The chapter on the political situation contains accounts of Martin’s conversations with ʻAbd al-Rahman Khan, including one in which the Afghan ruler expresses his interest in obtaining a strip of territory in Baluchistan that would provide direct access to the sea. The book is illustrated with photographs and drawings by the author.

German Intrigues in Persia: The Diary of a German Agent

In November 1914, after the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of Germany and the Central Powers, Sultan-Caliph Mehmed V issued a call for a worldwide jihad against Britain and France. The Germans and their Turkish allies hoped to stir up Muslims against British rule in India and to draw Persia and Afghanistan, both of which had declared their neutrality, into the war on the side of the Central Powers. In furtherance of these objectives, Germany, with the active support of the Turks, sent a mission led by Captain Oskar von Niedermayer and diplomat Werner-Otto von Hentig from Berlin to Afghanistan (via Constantinople, Baghdad, and Isfahan) with the aim of convincing its ruler, Amir Habibullah Khan, to join the war on the German-Turkish side and to attack the British in India. The mission ultimately failed, as the cautious amir feared that if he entered the war he would be exposed to attack by Russia and the British Empire and would lose the benefits of trade with these two neighboring empires. German Intrigues in Persia is an English translation of a diary by a certain W. Griesinger, a German agent who is described in the anonymously written introduction as having split off from the main Niedermayer mission in Baghdad in order to carry out subversive activities against the British in southern Persia. The diary, which is said to have fallen into the hands of the British authorities, was translated and published in New York in 1918, no doubt as part of the widespread British propaganda effort to fan anti-German sentiment in the American public. It reveals Griesinger as an unscrupulous individual, in the words of the introduction, “a very interesting figure of a German intriguer, at once brutal and hysterical, stopping at no outrage… ready to intrigue with anyone….”

A History of India under the Two First Sovereigns of the House of Taimur, Báber and Humáyun

William Erskine (1773–1852) was a Scottish-born scholar and administrator who held a variety of posts in India between 1804 and 1823. He mastered Persian and in 1826 published an English translation of the memoirs of Babur, the first Mughal emperor and the founder of the Mughal dynasty. In 1831 Erskine began formulating plans for a history of the first six Mughal emperors. He died before he could finish the work. In 1854 Erskine’s son, Claudius James Erskine, a member of the Indian Civil Service, published this two-volume study of the first two emperors, Babur (born 1483, reigned 1526–30) and Humayun (reigned 1530–40 and 1555–56), which his father had completed before his death. The book is a pioneering study of Mughal India, based on Erskine’s painstaking research and close reading of original Persian sources. Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire and dynasty, was descended on his father’s side from the Turkic conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) and on his mother’s side from the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. He was driven from his ancestral domain in Central Asia, but established himself at Kabul from where he secured control of the Punjab and eventually expanded his domains to become ruler of all northern India. Babur was succeeded by his son, Humayun, who ruled for a decade before losing much of the empire to the ethnic Pashtun Sher Shah Suri (1486–1545). With Persian help, Humayun reestablished control of the lost territories 15 years later, after he had passed much of his interregnum in Afghanistan, and ruled until his death in 1556. Following preliminary sections on the Tartar tribes and Genghis Khan and Timur and their dynasties, Erskine recounts the history of Babur and Humayun in meticulous detail. Volume two concludes with supplementary remarks entitled “On the State of Government and Manners in Kabul and the Surrounding Countries during the Reigns of Babur and Humayun.” The topics covered in this section include government and regal etiquette, the court, the state of the provinces, the army, fortresses, inhabitants, administration of justice, men of learning and piety, literature, sciences, architecture, and several others.

Lumsden of the Guides: A Sketch of the Life of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Burnett Lumsden

Lumsden of the Guides is a biography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Burnett Lumsden (1821‒96), co-authored by his younger brother, General Sir Peter Stark Lumsden (1829–1918) and George R. Elsmie (1838‒1909), a judge and writer in British India. Harry Lumsden was a soldier in the army of the British East India Company who was part of the Anglo-Indian force that occupied Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839−42). He subsequently held posts on the North-West Frontier of India and in 1857‒58 undertook a mission to Kandahar to ascertain whether the Afghan ruler Dost Mohammad Khan was adhering to the terms of a treaty that required the Afghans, in exchange for British subsidies, to maintain their defenses against Persia in the region of Herat. The “guides” of the title refers to the corps of guides, locally recruited soldiers that the British used to defend the frontiers of India from attacks and uprisings by warlike tribes hostile to British rule. Lumsden recruited and commanded this force at different times in his career, beginning in 1846. The book covers Lumsden’s background and education and his military career and diplomatic missions. Three appendices consist of unpublished writings by Harry Lumsden, including sections from a notebook entitled “Frontier Thoughts and Frontier Requirements” concerning all aspects of the recruitment and command of the guides; an essay entitled “A Few Notes on Afghan Field-Sports” dealing with hawking, hunting, and related subjects; and a few pages of recollections of the march from Peshawar to Jalalabad in 1842. The book is illustrated with drawings and photographs and contains a fold-out map of the Afghan frontier with an inset of the route from Kandahar to Herat. Peter Stark Lumsden was also a distinguished soldier in the Indian army. He accompanied his brother on the Kandahar mission of 1857‒58 and in the 1880s headed the Anglo-Indian side of the Joint Boundary Commission formed with Russia to define the northern border of Afghanistan.

The Russian Advance towards India

The Russian Advance towards India is based on a series of interviews conducted by English author Charles Thomas Marvin in Saint Petersburg in March 1882, a year after the Russian conquest of the fortress of Geok-Tepe and the incorporation of Akhal (present-day Ahal, Turkmenistan) into the Russian Empire. The most prominently featured individual in the book is General Mikhail Dmitrievich Skobelev (1843‒82), a hero of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877‒78 and the Russian commander at Geok-Tepe. Other interviewees include the diplomat and official Count Nikolai Pavlovich Ignatiev (1832–1908), Baron Osten-Sacken of the Asiatic Department of the Russian Foreign Office, the diplomat and scholar of international law Friedrich Fromhold Martens (also known as Fedor Fedorovich Martens, 1845‒1909), and other military and civilian officials. Marvin expresses complex and ambivalent attitudes toward Russia, whose policies in Central Asia he generally defends as posing no threat to British interests. He admires Skobelev but, in perhaps the most remarkable passage of the book, recounts the general’s admission to him that his troops slaughtered 8,000 Turkmen men and women, and his observation that “in Asia the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict upon the enemy.” Skobelev was later removed from his command because of the massacre. Marvin was a writer and briefly a Foreign Office staff member who had lived many years in Russia, initially with his father, who was employed in Saint Petersburg, and later as correspondent for a British newspaper. His trip to Russia in 1882 was sponsored by the Newcastle Daily Chronicle.

Four Months in Persia and a Visit to Trans-Caspia

Four Months in Persia and a Visit to Trans-Caspia is a compilation of articles that originally appeared in various newspapers and journals in India and the United Kingdom. The author, Cuthbert Edward Biddulph, was an official in the Indian Civil Service who specialized in Central Asian and Afghan affairs. The articles are based on travels that Biddulph undertook in 1890 and 1891. The first and longer part of the book concerns a four-month journey via the Orient Express to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and from there to Baku (in present-day Azerbaijan) and on to Tehran, Isfahan, and other parts of Persia (present-day Iran). The second part documents a trip on the Russian-built Trans-Caspian Railroad through the region of the Russian Empire east of the Caspian Sea (known as Trans-Caspia). The places visited and described include, in present-day Turkmenistan, the city of Merv and the Merv Oasis and the fortress at Geok-Teppe; the Oxus River (today known as the Amu Darya, and forming the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan); and, in present-day Uzbekistan, Bukhara and Samarkand. Biddulph offers observations about the people, government administration, military forces, economics and economic development projects, and customs in the regions visited. On both journeys, he interacts with a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups, including Persians, Armenians, Turkmens, Afghans, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kirghiz, and Russians. Biddulph was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and entered the Indian Civil Service in 1878. He served in the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878‒80 and held various posts in British India. He died in 1899. His other works include Our Western Frontier of India, Afghan Politics, Afghan Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, and Army Reforms in Native States.