Poetry and the First Afghan War 37


I am still pruning back Sikunder Burnes to reach the publisher’s target of 180,000 words (which to be fair is more generous than modern publishers generally are). It is a difficult process, and it feels like deadwood and weak branches went some time ago, and sap is now flowing with a vengeance.

Had I room I would have added a section on poetry. For those of you who are not Great Game aficionados, the dramatis personae here will be obscure, and make a note to come back to this after you have read the book. But in a tale of adventure, exploration and ruthless conquest in British India, I have been constantly surprised by the connection of almost all the leading characters to poetry, and how closely the poetic was woven into their lives.

Alexander Burnes’ grandfather was of course first cousin to Robert Burns. Alex continually quotes Burns in his correspondence, but not only Burns. He was very fond of and frequently quotes Thomas Moore, and Alex’ correspondence with Moore and meetings with him in London are accounted an influence on his poetry. Alex also frequently quotes Fergusson, Ramsay, Byron, Milton, Shelley and often passages of poetry I cannot place. He also had a real passion for the Persian classical poets, who he regularly quotes in Persian.

The Burnes family were stationed at the cantonment in Bhuj, Cutch for 13 years. Their first chaplain in Bhuj was James Gray, himself a noted poet, editor of Fergusson, Hogg’s brother-in-law and one time teacher of Robert Burns’ children.

The President of the Board of Control, John Cam Hobhouse, had been Byron’s closest friend and companion. The Secretary of the Secret Committee working under him was the poet Thomas Love Peacock. (I digress from poetry to note the Secretary of the Political Committee was John Stuart Mill). Alex’ friend and colleague Darcy Todd was the son of Coleridge’s muse Mary Evans. Henry Torrens, Auckland’s secretary, was a minor poet of some merit and in addition to his original work translated the Thousand and One Nights, on which even the apparently unpoetic William Hay Macnaghten worked (a sadly bowdlerised affair). Surprisingly, Mohan Lal reckoned Charles Masson a “great poet”, very probably in the Persian language, though I have been unable to find his poetry among his papers in the British Library. Lal was himself a poet. Shah Shuja was reputed a fine poet. Mehir Dil Khan of Kandahar, a key participant in Burnes’ Kabul negotiations of 1837, led an important revival in Afghan courtly poetry.

There is much more. I was not in any sense considering poetry as a theme when I started research, but have been struck by the way that poetry was interwoven into daily life, and a poetic sensibility was part of the world view of the administrators of the British imperium in India in the 1820s and 1830s. I did not expect that at all. How their world views were reconciled with imperial aggression, exploitation and even atrocity (and individual reactions were very different) is a major part of the study.


37 thoughts on “Poetry and the First Afghan War

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  • Archer Navy

    Oooh that’s lighting my fire!!. I’ve been fascinated by similar links & some of those same characters whilst researching the first Iron paddle steamers of the East India Company. Particularly Thomas Love Peacock’s role in formulating fairly influential plots & schemes for the first Opium War.

    Id assumed that records from the secret committee would be very sparse.. Is that the case Mr. Murray? Or is it well worth delving into at the brittish library?

  • craig Post author

    Archer Navy,

    Aha, I have just been writing about the Hugh Lindsay and Semiramis! Yes, there is quite a lot in the British Library from the Secret Committee.

  • bevin

    and Meredith was Peacock’s son in law.
    “The President of the Board of Control, John Cam Hobhouse, had been Byron’s closest friend and companion. The Secretary of the Secret Committee working under him was the poet Thomas Love Peacock. (I digress from poetry to note the Secretary of the Political Committee was John Stuart Mill). Alex’ friend and colleague Darcy Todd was the son of Coleridge’s muse Mary Evans. Henry Torrens, Auckland’s secretary, was a minor poet of some merit..”
    Stokes’ English Utilitarians in India (I think that is the name, it is somewhere in this room!) is a good source. Macaulay was another literateur who served his time and secured his finances in imperial service. And the list, which includes Thakeray and, damn it, the Lyttons and the Stracheys and the Woolfs and the Stephens and the Sassoons, goes on.
    It gives us an idea of how deeply involved the British intellectual and professional classes were in the imperial project (also known as the looting of the world).
    An interesting exercise is to list those who were not only opponents of Empire but opponents who were not, through laissez faire commerce, taking a fat slice at the cannibalistic feast. There are a few of them and they, unlike the Peacocks and Mills, were serious rather than flighty thinkers playing with words and ideas as if, in the final analysis, they realised very clearly that, underneath all the rationales, evangelical excuses and Scotch Feelosophy, they knew what it was about-screwing the villages for revenues little less than the total product, ripping off every thing of beauty, every jewel and every lakh of unhidden silver and all because, thanks to military advantage and superb divide and rule diplomacy (the living legacy of Empire from the Gulf states to Malaysia) they could.

  • ------------·´`·.¸¸.¸¸.··.¸¸Node

    “Alex also frequently quotes Fergusson, Ramsay, Byron, Milton, Shelley and often passages of poetry I cannot place.”

    Forgive me, Craig, if I’m suggesting the obvious, but have you tried placing a distinctive phrase from some of the unidentified poetry between inverted commas and Googling it?

  • BrianPowell

    I had read that the disconnected British imperialists were fewer in the colonial service in the earlier days and many considered themselves orientalists. Learning the languages, dressing in the local custom and living in the same type of accommodation, though luxurious in style.
    And it wasn’t until the mid Victorian times that the ‘movie’ version appeared, those that we think were always Colonial government. Separated from the people of the country, living in British middle class ghettoes.

  • bevin

    BY the way, did you ever run into Brian Hodgson, political resident in Nepal 1823-43?
    See pp 84 et seq of Beatrice Webb’s My Apprenticeship.
    Which reminds us too of the provenance of such characters as the second Lord Ellenborough whose father was the equivalent of Braxfield in Edinburgh or Lord David Burn of Tommy Sheridan fame- an utterly cynical political hatchet man in judicial robes.
    Really looking forward to your book and Archer Navy’s too (the Opium War seems to have been largely cooked up by Utilitarians with time on their hands.)

  • bevin

    Brian Powell, you make an interesting point. The Hodgson I refer to above was just such an orientalist. He had a very valuable collection of Buddhist scripts. Ellenborough fired him because he protested vigorously against Macaulay’s decision to use only English as the language of instruction in India. Hodgson had the sense to understand the incredible phillistinism which under pinned Macaualay’s famous Minute of Education.
    The struggle against orientalists and the vernaculars was waged not only by the Liberals but by the Evangelicals who sought to demolish all traces of pre-Christian culture to pave the way for their projected conversion.

  • Mary

    I was looking for some modern poetry concerning Afghanistan and came across this article on Dissident Voice. The author, Dr Ridhwan Saleem, quotes Craig at the end from his piece in the Mail.
    ‘Britain is protecting the biggest heroin crop of all time’,è Daily Mail, 21 July 2007.

    Daisy Cutters and Poppy Wearers
    Obama’s War Against Afghanistan and the History of Opium
    by Ridhwan Saleem / November 11th, 2009
    http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/11/daisy-cutters-and-poppy-wearers/

  • Mary

    On the same site, there is some rap! on a video and a poem included in this article.

    The Peace Poets Write from Kabul
    by Luke Nephew / October 17th, 2013
    http://dissidentvoice.org/2013/10/the-peace-poets-write-from-kabul/

    The 12th Anniversary of the United States War in Afghanistan

    Today,
    As the war turns 12
    Me and other Youth in Afghanistan worry we will not make it alive to visit our families
    for Eid,

    /..

    Sweet.

  • BrianPowell

    While we’re on the subject of imperialists screwing other countries, can anyone explain how Tony Blair managed to get his new position?
    Most countries of the EU didn’t support the Iraq war without UN resolutions. Now one of the architects of it is supposedly going to put forward proposals for laws to combat what he created and strengthen pro Israel actions.

  • Archer Navy

    Craig,

    Oh my! really looking forward to reading that Sir!

    I’d skipped past taking an intensive look at the likes of those 2 boats, due to My infatuation with Nemesis & Phlegethon.

    The Semiramis was one of the pioneers of the Suez route home I believe?

  • Aggrieved

    As a compromise/work around the Donate quandary, you will consider selling a £14.99 e-book after the hardback release of Sikunder Burnes. Downloadable from this site, payable via PayPal to simplify matters.

  • Enoch

    I’d hate to be one of your friends. You really fuck them over in public. It’s not all about you, is it? Or maybe it is. So sad.

  • doug scorgie

    Mary
    4 Jun, 2015 – 3:00 pm

    “Brian Powell I have just read Gilad Atzmon’s take on the new job for BLiar. As usual he is spot on.”
    ……………………………………………………………

    Yes Mary Gilad is spot-on.

    Like many Jews (mostly outside Israel) he rejects Zionism and because of this he is branded an anti-Semitic self-hating Jew.

    Zionists (including Christians) are the problem – not the Jews.

    Israel should be combined with Palestine into a single country where all its citizens are equal in every aspect of life.

    There are, of course, obstacles to that – fascistic Jewish supremacy: US/UK foreign policy; corrupt Arab leaders and powerful; unrestrained, unaccountable and corrupt capitalists.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    “John Harris joiner who exposed corruption in London’s courts found hanged.

    http://www.tpuc.org/john-harris/
    ____________________

    Is he the author of “Memoirs of the AntiChrist” or is that another John Harris?

    A work sub-titled “Now is the time for the story that has never been told”….

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    RoS

    Thanks for that YouTube of John Harris in action, but could you please tell me whether he is the author of the intriguingly-titled “Memoirs of the AntiChrist”?

    Thanks (and if he is, have you read the book? Is it any good?)

  • Mary

    Doug This is what a newly built Palestinian home looks like after the Israelis have demolished it

    http://www.abc.net.au/cm/lb/6519246/data/house-data.jpg

    The story.

    Fifteen demolitions in East Jerusalem so far this year, says city mayor
    http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2015/s4249137.htm

    Micky Rosenfeld of the Israeli police is quoted. He is omnipresent and his name often appears in BBC reports. He is from the UK and made aliyah to Israel. He is the pin up boy of the Israeli PR machine and speaks here on video.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0WQHqBoYig

  • Republicofscotland

    Jerusalem (AFP) – Canada’s foreign minister on Wednesday reaffirmed his country’s ironclad support for Israel and said the realities of the Middle East left the Jewish state no choice but to defend itself.

    Meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his first visit to Israel, Rob Nicholson’s comments were welcomed at a time of growing pressure on Netanyahu and his rightwing government to curb West Bank settlement and renew talks with the Palestinians.

    We believe we have no better friend than Canada, Netanyahu said as he met Nicholson in Jerusalem.

    Any who turn their back on Israel, or turn a blind eye to the nature of Israel’s enemies, do so in the long run at their own peril.

    Oh my it sounds as though the Canadian representative Mr Nicholson is issuing a threat,I wonder if the Canadian public feel the same way.

    http://news.yahoo.com/canada-pledges-unwavering-support-israel-143520276.html

  • Ba'al Zevul

    Less OTT and more considered than Atzmon’s* take, linked above, on the new Blair Inc enterprise is the Guardian article that inspired it:

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/04/tony-blair-tolerance-reconciliation-european-council

    Neither mentions the extensive form sheet which is not much publicised by Viatcheslav Moshe ( ne Vladimirovitch) Kantor, the president of ECTR, or the notion that while it has European in its title, its connection with the EU is tenuous indeed. You can find these linked on the An Apology thread, also Blair’s trips to schmooze with the Milken and Simon Wiesenthal people in LA and Toronto last week.

    An exhaustive critique of the EJF’s and ECTR’s ambitions to selectively curb free speech here –

    http://www.politicsforum.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=28&t=160511

    *I fear Atzmon is a bit of a Galloway.

  • Republicofscotland

    Following a harrowing earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, the American Red Cross launched a project to raise funds and rebuild the area. Roughly $500 million was donated.

    The Red Cross claims to have provided homes for more than 130,000 people in Haiti, but according to a new report from ProPublica and NPR, as it stands today, only six homes have been built in the four years since those efforts began.

    The organization won’t say where the rest of the money has gone. When they declined to show ProPublica’s Justin Elliot and NPR’s Laura Sullivan the grounds of one of their projects in Campache, the reporters visited the area on their own.

    This is what they saw.

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/happened-red-cross-donations-haiti/

  • Republicofscotland

    Hundreds of Palestinian are facing imminent displacement as Israel plans to demolish a village in the occupied West Bank.

    Nearly 300 inhabitants of Susiya village are at risk of being displaced after Israel’s high court last month rejected a petition filed by local residents to halt demolition orders for the village, the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency reported on Wednesday.

    International law prohibits the destruction of private or public property in occupied territories.

    But as you well know nothing will be done to stop the demolition,the EU and the UN will look the other way.

  • Ba'al Zevul

    By way of expiation for the above post. grossly O/T as it is, in Victorian times, our adninistrators at least made some attempt to understand the societies they were attempting to control. Their cultural education was at least appropriate to this, and their postings often reflected their interests and knowledge. I think I’m right in saying that FCO Arabists, their modern parallels, were largely marginalised by the time of Iraq 2, which would likely never have even been considered as an option by someone brought up on Greek and Roman history and versed in Persian poetry….

  • Fwl

    Paul Dukes, John Godolphin Bennett, Lord Wavell, Francis Young Husband and Alexander M Jacob aka Kim’s Lurgan Sahib…. I look forward to reading about Burnes.

    Perhaps there is a correlation between spookery and mysticism with the unknown being the common factor. The poet is usually a close relative of the mystic. Perhaps it was freemasonry or rosicrucianism, or something psychological, or a clever cover, or perhaps we were just not materialistic as we are now. We may have done worse things and been blind hypocrites, but if you believe that an idea comes before a thing are you not starting off on the right track?

  • Fwl

    Ba’al I agree (although it is curious why at the end of WW1 Government then chose to believe that Sykes was a learned Arabist rather than the author of a travel guide in possession of a ruler).

  • Fwl

    Brian Powell: I had read that the disconnected British imperialists were fewer in the colonial service in the earlier days and many considered themselves orientalists. Learning the languages, dressing in the local custom and living in the same type of accommodation, though luxurious in style.
    And it wasn’t until the mid Victorian times that the ‘movie’ version appeared, those that we think were always Colonial government. Separated from the people of the country, living in British middle class ghettoes.

    ……

    Some say that in and around China, Macao and Malaysia some of the English and other fellow early colonialists were keen on going native, and on recognising (and misunderstanding) local customs and law until their wives started appearing on the scene.

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