In writing history it is important for me to develop a feel for the characters involved. I started off picturing William Macnaghten as an Edward Carson type; but as my knowledge expands he strikes me more and more as a Peter Mandelson figure.
Macnaghten was, in modern parlance, Burnes’ line manager. Macnaghten detested Burnes because Burnes had opposed the invasion of Afghanistan and the imposition of the puppet Shah Shoojah. Macnaghten had been one of the architects of this invasion. But Burnes had been persuaded that, as the British government’s acknowledged Afghan expert, he had a patriotic duty to assist the invading force. I liken this to Tony Blair persuading Clare Short to stay on to help reconstruct Iraq. That is the more appropriate because what follows is a report from from Burnes on the state of the occupation, in which Burnes’ real concern for the welfare of the ordinary Afghan and what we would call good governance shines through. It is also plain that he still sees the occupation as a disaster.
Macnaghten submitted Burnes’ report to the Governor-General with his own comments added, in which he spins everything as a great success for British policy.
Burnes, Macnaghten, Shah Shoojah and the large majority of the Kabul garrison were killed in the sunsequent Afghan uprising.
William Macnaghten to the Secretary of the Government of India, August 10 1840, enclosing Burnes report:
Although stern in the execution of justice (as was exemplified only the other day in the case of the murderer in whose pardon so much influence was exerted), yet his majesty is merciful and kind-hearted in the extreme, and if the personal qualities of a monarch could ensure popularity, Shah Shoojah could not fail to obtain it. My longer experience of his majesty’s character more thoroughly convinces me of the truth of what I have already asserted, that there is not an abler or better man than himself in all his dominions.
Burnes report with Macnaghten’s comments:
7 August 1840
Sir William Macnaghten
“Yet though I have not even a local habitation in this country, I find myself so mixed up with it, both in the public mind and in the despatches of government, together with my being in such constant communication with you, that it seems due to myself, I should, to you at least, clearly and candidly state the opinions I hold – opinions not lightly formed, but based on much personal intercourse with people of all ranks, and vitally affecting the sacred interests of our country in Afghanistan.
Let me here, then, without further comment, place before you the facts of the past year in every quarter of Afghanistan, and if they be as fairly as they are fearlessly stated, they will, I am sure, arrest your most serious consideration, and lead you to join with me in the conclusion, that much reformation is required somewhere, and that if his Majesty has not the power to what is passing, it remains for us to guide him through the dangers of the way.
I never doubted that much reformation is required. The difficulty is how to bring it about. W.M.
The inhabitants of Shawl, who had long suffered under the grinding yoke of the ex-chief of Khelat, had hoped for protection from the strong arm of our new Government. Their return is plunder and devastation; the party of Shah Niwaz Khan at Khelat had increased in number and strength in the same hope, and it has proved equally futile. That we are bound to make good the losses of these people is evident, that we shall have promptly to retrieve our honour is equally apparent: but the melancholy truth which prevents itself is, that our agents were rejoicing in the peace and tranquillity around them, when an organised rebellion, which has ended in revolution, was passing before them. The moral ought not to be lost.
I am of the opinion that too much has been made of the misfortune which elicited this paper. Similar misfortunes have very generally occurred to us in the first establishment of our influence in other parts of the East. Witness the occurrences at the commencement of the Nepal and Pindaree wars. A party of twenty of the Shah’s disciplined troops were destroyed on their march from Khelat to Quetta; but all the attempts of the rebels in the last mentioned place were nobly repulsed. Doubtless we shall do all in our power to relieve the suffering occasioned by the ravages of the rebels. W.M.
Adjoining Khelat to the east, we have experienced two serious disasters in the province of Cutch Gundava; but although it belongs to the King of Cabul, his majesty’s control over it has as yet been nominal, and it is not my object to dwell on anything beyond the limits of Afghanistan. As a link in our policy, however, the calamity of two detachments must not be overlooked; the effect of it may have roused into action the insurgents in Khelat – it certainly gives courage to barbarous tribes, whom it is difficult to subdue by force of arms, and who, by the fixing of one large detachment among them instead of many small ones, might have been taught to fear our power, and by that wholesome fear even by kindness and conciliation led to serve as local troops, instead of plundering and attacking us.
I know little or nothing of the proceedings of our authorities at Cutchee, and I have more than once remarked on our want of information. The district is, I believe, managed altogether as if it were a British possession. W.M.
Between Bammean and Cabul lie the districts of Koh-i-Damun and Kohistan; there are no parts of the kingdom of Cabul where the feeling towards the present regime is more hostile than here. It was in those districts that Dost Mahomed ruled them with a rod of iron. He put to death most of the chiefs, he quadrupled the revenues drawn from them; in fact he was helpless – he could not have held Cabul a week if he followed any other policy, for the Kohistanees command Cabul, and could “chappao” the city at any time if united. To sow dissension amongst them was Dost Mahomed’s policy, and in this he completely succeeded; it is the only district in the country where the name of the late ruler is execrated.
One would have supposed that here, at least, his Majesty’s government would have found favour, and the more so as the Kohistanees flocked in great number to welcome his majesty on his entrance into Cabul last year, and exhibited the strongest feelings of loyalty and devotion.
I visited in May last this country; the change that had followed was fearful; I found governors levying duties of an unusual nature; taxes demanded which his majesty had declared to be obsolete, and a great proportion of the population of the districts of Shunkendurra had actually quitted their homes and fled to the hills.
I did present the facts to his majesty. The minister, Moolah Shikore, pronounced the complaints groundless. The minister imprisoned the complainants, and after much delay, meted half justice, with which the people went to their homes, blessing his majesty.
In three weeks they returned to state that the king’s officers, in hopes of the affair having been forgotten, had exacted what his majesty had excused., and again the same process had to be gone through. At this time the feeling in Kohistan is feverish in the extreme; many more of the distant parts of it, as Tiguao and Nijrow, pay nothing to his majesty’s treasury and an j insurrection may break out at a moment’s warning, in that very part of his majesty’s dominions where circumstances have him a certainty of the most trusted subjects, and where a hatred of Dost Mahomed assured him of faithful adherents; famed too, above all the tribes in Afghanistan, for their courage and their valour.
The Kohistanees certainly did flock in great numbers to Cabul, and were well received. I have no reason to believe that they are generally not well affected, though they are proverbial for their love of turbulence and rapine. Some of their chiefs commenced correspondence with Dost Mohamed at Khollom last year, before his majesty had been a week on the throne.
The district is in Koh-i-Damun, not Kohistan. The grievance of the people was, that demands were made on them for taxes levied in the time of Dost Mahomed, but remitted on the accession of his majesty. It is not unlikely that, on hearing of Sir A Burnes’ approach, they adopted the means here described of ensuring his intercession. This instance of oppression was brought to my notice, by Sir A Burnes, at the time of its occurrence, and his majesty was much distressed when we informed him of it. But do not these, and worse than these, occur every day under native governments? The more distant parts pay nothing to his majesty, why should they rebel there? The answer is obvious – the people are naturally fractious, and addicted to intrigue and plunder. W.M.
So much for the state of affairs in the kingdom of Cabul on this day – the anniversary of our entrance into its capital. At court, I fear, we shall not find matters in a better state. Much is said of the king’s popularity; this is a subject I feel anxious to grapple with thoroughly. To me it would be very astonishing if any Afghan king who had allied himself to the Sikhs and English would be popular; it is not in the nature of things. His majesty’s successor may hope for a better share of the public favour, but Shah Shoojah must, I fear, get on without it.
The present system is not popular with some classes. The causes of this feeling I have repeatedly enumerated. The Shah himself is, I believe, personally popular with all, though he may not be able, with his limited resources, to satisfy unreasonable representations. W.M.
I would not, however, dwell much on the abstract question of unpopularity – I would rather inquire into the causes of it, if they exist, or are only imaginary. Bad ministers are, in every government, solid grounds for unpopularity; and I doubt if ever a king had a worse set than Shah Shoojah.
His principal advisor is an old servant, by the name of Moolah Shikore, who has grown grey with his majesty in exile, where he distributed, in some hundred fractional parts, the pension which the Shah received from the Company. He is not a man of family, but a Moolah; his faculties are impaired by age and disease; he once incurred his majesty’s displeasure, for which he forfeited his ears – a subject fruitful in witticism to the discontented about the court, and little calculated to elevate the representative of his majesty. So completely is the poor man’s memory gone, that he never recognises a man who he has once seen; that the commonest business requires half a dozen notes; in fact of him it may be said, that his whole business is to gather money, and to this one end his remaining faculties are applied.
Moolah Shikore passes by the name of vizier, or minister, but his majesty gets offended at his being so called, so we may presume he thinks it possible to get on without a minister. By facts which have come under my own knowledge, I shall depict the vizier’s character, and all of them can be tested by yourself. In the last winter, his notions of political economy led him to seize all the granaries around Cabul, on which he put his seal, and from which he drew forth the grain, and had it exposed for sale in the bazaar by his own officers, at a price fixed by himself.
When spring arrived, he conceived it would please his majesty to adorn the royal gardens which have been long neglected – a measure most laudable, and to a people so fond of gardens like the Cabulees, highly popular. – this was to be done gratis, and by conscription on all around the district.
The poor peasantry were dragged in hundreds from their homes at seed time, when their lands required their care, and compelled to labour without any reward. Discontent rose to such a height, that I sent to the minister, and plainly told him that he was disgracing the king and himself, and that I would no longer stand silent, as policy dictated I should on all occasions, unless he at least gave the poor wretches bread, and if he would not do it, I would next day open my treasury and supply it.
After this the workmen got two pice worth of bread per diem, while our engineering officers were paying seven times that in the adjoining garden, where our cantonments were erecting.
The next freak of this minister was to reduce the number of butcher’s shops in this populous city, and to compel these to sell at his own price, thereby ensuring a monopoly of meat to a few and injuring many. For days, the loudest complaints were uttered, till free trade was at last established. As I write, the shops in which flour is sold are now shut, the minister having turned his views from meat to bread ; and it is painful to pass through the bazaar in consequence. With such an adviser, can his majesty be popular? – do he and his minister deserve it?
I think that the picture of Moolah Shikore is rather a caricature. His only fault, I believe, lies in his age. He is thoroughly honest, and devoted to his majesty’s interests, and so scrupulous he will not allow his majesty to be cheated by others. This is the secret of much of his unpopularity. The system of forced labour is certainly not new in this country; and as for Afghan notions of political economy, we can only grieve that such things are. Sir A Burnes has himself heard me read many lectures to his majesty on this subject, and when I have prevailed on him to leave the market alone, his orders have been issued not from conviction, but from deference to my wishes. W.M>
I have spoken of the duties assigned to Oosman Khan with the revenue, and that brings me to that very important subject, and the system on which his majesty conducts it, if system it can be called, and which calls loudly for reform. The collectors of the revenue are the soldiers; they receive assignments on certain districts for their pay, and they proceed there, living at frr quarters on the community, till the peasant pays the amount of the assignment; causing thus a more fruitful harvest of dispute than any other human invention could have devised. Distant from the capital, the subject refuses to submit to such oppression, and before the snow falls, expeditions are sent forth to levy his majesty’s rights; if the snow does fall, the people defy the officers of the crown, and escape for the year. By one of these expeditions the system will be explained.
Khan Shereen Khan, the head of the Persian faction, was despatched, in the fall of the year, to the countries of Koorum and Koost, south of Suffaid Koh; he levied his majesty’s dues and lived five months, with 1800 men, at free quarters in the country! As he is a good man, he did his duty with more mildness than an Afghan, but to continue such a system must clearly alienate all the people of the country from Shah Shoojah and from us; for the force we give him ensures what, if left to himself, he could not otherwise command. Iit is therefore incumbent upon us, by sending religious men, or by demanding hostages to live at the capital, as security, to see that some other revenue arrangements be adopted; bby the present we can neither rely on the Afghan nor our own, for the former implied that if a subject paid his duties one year, he was called out to plunder the Punjab or Hindoostan the next!
One would have supposed that the system of collection here alluded to was new, instead of being introduced from time immemorial in this country. A better system will, I trust, be gradually introduced, but it is too much to expect that H.M. Should clean the Augean stable he found here, in the space of a twelvemonth. If left to himself, H.M. Could not have had recourse to any other systen. I fear the religious men would be found defaulting collectors, and the capital would not be large enough to contain hostages for all the revenue payers in the country. W.M.
But if these sentiments apply to such troops, what is to be said of a body of Sikhs, in the costume of their country, as the king’s guard in this Mahomedan capital?
A few evenings ago I was saluted by several of them with the Wajerojee ka Futteh in the very streets of Cabul. I assert, without feat of contradiction, that no Sikh (Khulsa) ever durst, in the time of the Afghan monarchy, appear thus in this city; and I further assert, that there presence here is odious to the people, and to the last degree injurious. We all know that panic and mutiny are very infectious among soldiers. If Hindoostanees successfully demand their pay with arms in their hands, what will prevent Afghan horse and foot acting likewise? – and where men are so irregularly paid, what so probable? And if it occurs, are we to bayonet and slay his majesty’s subjects, because it pleased his majesty to live beyond his means? Place these facts before any soldier, and I shall retract all these opinions, if he deems them unsound or unprofessional.”
Surely it is not desirable to perpetuate this exclusive spirit? Nor does there appear to be anything very objectionable in a Sikh making a respectful salutation, after the custom of his own country, to an English gentleman in the street of Cabul. W.M.
Sgd. Lt Col Alex. Burnes
PS 22 August 1840
The above paper was written on the 7th August, or fifteen days ago; it has been deemed too gloomy. The following events have occurred since, and if the facts enumerated were insufficient, they may serve to indicate where the truth lies.
1. Captain Hay, beyond Bameean, where all was indeed quiet, was invited to occupy some forts ahead of his position, he accepted the offer; 29 of his 100 men were wounded, and 9 killed, the party only saved from destruction by Lieutenant Hart leading two companies to the rescue!
2. Captain Macgregor sent 1500 Afghans against a place north of Jellalabad; they were defeated, lost their gun, and 100 men – 200 went over to the enemy!!
3. The Shah was going to Koh-i-Duman, thirty miles from his capital; the chiefs objected to it; he is obliged to give up his trip, and return his tents into store!!!
4. Kelat has no sooner fallen, than Beloochees have moved against Shawl again, and troops have gone down to Candahar to the rescue!!!!
5. The chiefs of Khooloom and Khoondooz have joined in a confederacy against us, and prevented Dost Mahomed coming in!!!!!
6. A conspiracy has been discovered by myself, and believed by the king and the envoy, implicating almost all the first men in Cabul and the surrounding countries in a plan to subvert the country!!!!!!
7. Letters from the Sikhs to Dost Mahomed have been intercepted, sending money!!!!!!!
With seven points of wonder I close the result of twice seven days.