The Kabul social scene, 167 years ago

I’m reading Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game at the moment. Having recently written about today’s Kabul social scene, I thought I’d quote this passage, about the social scene in 1841.

Ever since their arrival in Kabul two years earlier, the British had been making themselves thoroughly at home there. Kabul’s exotic location and invigorating climate had attracted the wives, and even the children, of British and Indian troops up from the hot and dusty plains of Hindustan. Every kind of entertainment was laid on, from cricket to concerts, steeplechasing to skating, with some of the Afghan upper classes joining in the fun. Much of what went on, particularly the womanising and drinking, was to cause great offence to the Muslim authorities and the devout majority. At the same time punitive action, often very severe, was taken against those tribes refusing to submit to [the Afghan puppet ruler] Shujah’s (but effectively Macnaghten’s) rule, while others were bribed into submission with lavish helpings of gold, or ‘subsidies’ as they were officially termed.

Macnaghten, the British leader in Afghanistan, said at the time that ‘the present tranquillity of this country is to my mind perfectly miraculous’, though many of his staff were less sanguine.

There were plenty of reasons for this antagonism towards the British and Shah Shujah. For one thing the presence of so many troops had hit the pockets of ordinary Afghans. Because of the increased demand for foodstuffs and other essentials, prices in the bazaar had soared, while taxes had risen sharply to pay for Shujah’s new administration, not to mention his lavish personal lifestyle. Moreover, the British showed no signs of leaving, despite earlier assurances. It looked more and more as though the occupation would be permanent, as indeed some of the British were beginning to think it would have to be if Shujah was to survive. Then there was the growing anger, especially in Kabul, over the pursuit and seduction of local women by the troops, particularly the officers. (pp 237-8)

I’m not sure I’d describe Kabul’s climate as ‘invigorating’ but I’d say the historical parallels are pretty strong, from pissing off the locals to the paying of ‘subsidies,’ the occupiers’ ruler’s blind belief that all was well and the apparent permanency of the occupation. That time round it ended in the retreat of British forces and their final decimation at the village of Gandamack, which happens to be the name of a rather nice bar in Kabul today.

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One Response to “The Kabul social scene, 167 years ago”

  1. Bob Says:

    Another book that I think describes the aid world from 150 years ago is Max Havelaar by Multatuli (set in Java). It describes the mentality of much of the aid world I think.

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