In the 19th century two distinct empires almost collided around the Eurasian landmass bordering the Russian and British Empires. For almost 150 years their agents fought a shadow war of influence and power, a war that was called The Great Game. A game that was described by one of it’s last living participants Harry Hodson:
The Game was really a game, with scores but no substantive prizes.
The geopolitical reality that motivated the game was that the Russian Empire through it’s eastern expansion threatened the British Raj. The British Raj maintained by the passive acquiesence of the locals and a tiny garrison, could not hope to withstand a determined assault by the Russian Empire. So the British struggled to ensure that Afghanistan and Tibet continued to be neutralized as pathways into India.
So much for history. The book itself is a cross between real history and a fantasy novel. In real history we are presented with a coherent thesis that is buttressed by facts and rationale argument. This book is a collection of tales about the various adventurers with no rhyme or reason to the story. So for example, we learn in Chapter titled: High Mischief as much about Dolan’s, an American explorer of Tibet, sexual piccadillos as we do about what he did in Tibet. The authors are torn between the colourful tales of the persons and the colourful tale itself.
I wish there was more exploration about the motivations for the Great Game. Why the Great Game was fought with so much passion. How the politics of the Great Game evolved and less vignettes into the personal lives of the protagonists. This reminds me of NBC’s Olympic Games Coverage where we learn of every athletes tragic childhood.
Nevertheless, the book is a fun read. It’s not good history, but the again Afghanistan and power politics between the Russian and British Empires are probably not sexy areas of modern historical research so this will have to do.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the book was the description of the “Forward Theory”. The British government was torn between two conflicting approaches to dealing with the Russian threat. On the one was the forward school that said that continuous expansion and creation of buffer zones was essential to the defense of the Empire. This theory said that unless the British occupied Afghanistan or at the very least neutralized Afghanistan, the Russians would swoop through her and destroy the British Raj. To this theory, Sir John Lawerence said:
In that case let them undergo the long and tiresome marches which lie between the Oxus and the Indus; let them wend their way through poor and difficult countries, among a fanatic and courageous population, where in many places every mile can be converted into a defensible position; then they will come to the conflict on which the fate of India will depend, toil-worn with an exhausted infantry, a broken down cavalry, and a defective artillery.
Sir John Lawerence, was pointing out that occupying territory was less valuable than occupying defensible territory. Sadly his position did not allow for conquest only defence and the adventurers in India would have none of that. So of course he was described as defeatists. One could observe reading this passage a lesson to all would-be conquerors and occupiers of Afghanistan.
Another interesting tale in this book is the obsession the West had with Tibet. Tibet in my mind is a country that was ruled by a parasitical monastic order that was absorbed into the China. I could never fathom why so many people for so long were fascinated with the country. It turns out that mystery and absurd race theories explain all. Tibet was the original forbidden country. For centuries no one was allowed in. This created a theory of what would be found inside. Including a belief that it was in Tibet that the Aryan race was born, and that the original pure Aryan’s lived there.
I wonder what Hitler would have said if he could have seen Tibetans…
This is a fun book. And once you take it for what it is: a history channel special it’s quite informative.