William Dalrymple's Return of a King

Posted by sepoy on March 05, 2013 · 3 mins read

Over at Caravan, I have a review of Dalrymple's latest on the Anglo-Afghan War.

How to do Empire Right?

In Return of a King, Dalrymple seeks to offer a corrective to the imperial mission in Afghanistan while highlighting the work of Afghan historians and accounts in Dari or Persian from the 1840s so as to tell a history of the country in the voices of its own historians. He argues that the first Anglo-Afghan war resonates with the events post October 2001, especially in the figure of Hamid Karzai and the tribal politics of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Dalrymple makes an attempt to connect the claims of imminent Russian intervention in Afghanistan, which spurred the first Anglo-Afghan war, to the spurious evidence regarding the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which launched the Iraq War in 2002, but this is not a strong argument and he does not make it strongly either. He is more successful in highlighting the hubris in the British (and by corollary American) officials, as well as the short-sightedness of policy in both the 19th century scenario and the 21st century one. Just as the attempt to caution the imperial capital echoes Butler's Remnants of an Army, making space for the native voice as a corrective to the current project in Afghanistan recalls the work of Henry Miers Elliot, whose eight volumes of History of India as told by its own Historians appeared between 1866 and 1877.

On the central bit of the critique about William Brydon, see that Rory Stewart in August in NYRB:

Some 15,000 soldiers and camp followers marched out of their compound through the snow, heading for the British garrison at Jalalabad. Some died of exposure, others were taken hostage or escaped, but most were killed. Five thousand men, women, and children died as they struggled through a five-mile gully outside of Kabul, picked off by muskets or cut down with swords. On January 13, sentries looking for the Army of the Indus saw a single wounded man moving across the plain. Dr. William Brydon was what remained of the Army of the Indus.

I feel like my work was done. (thank you to BTW for bringing the Stewart to my attention).

Do read, comment, let me know how you feel.

Previously on CM, I have reviewed WD's Nine Lives (with an accompanying painting by lapata). I also reviewed The Last Mughal which generated a huge discussion and Dalrymple wrote a response.


Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2013 | January 03, 2014

[…] completing his Berlin series (III , IV), and ended by translating Faiz. In the middle was his review of Dalrymple’s latest that found D’s critique of empire to be “at the service of […]