Books about the British Empire in Afghanistan?
November 13, 2009 2:27 PM   Subscribe

I was talking with a friend about the "graveyard of empires," b*tching about politics, and we both realized that we knew pretty much nothing about the British experience in Afghanistan in the 19th century. (I have a vague recollection about it being background for some Sherlock Holmes stories. She remembered some Kipling.) What books would you recommend for getting a good understanding of that period of history? Bonus points for an engaging writing style and for not being the length of an encyclopedia. Thanks!
posted by epersonae to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Flashman is about Afghanistan. The Flashman series will generally tell you a lot about the British soldier in that era. It is really funny and extensively researched historical fiction (complete with footnotes) and should give you a pretty good feel for the period.

The other Flashman books are about other 19th century events too, and well worth a read.
posted by Deep Dish at 2:38 PM on November 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia is, I believe, the classic volume relating to this period of history.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:45 PM on November 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding The Great Game. Excellent book, exactly what you're looking for.
posted by IanMorr at 2:51 PM on November 13, 2009

Sorry, meant to include link
posted by IanMorr at 2:52 PM on November 13, 2009

Best answer: "Kim" is the Kipling novel your friend remembers; the Sherlock Holmes connection is that Dr. Watson was a medical officer in the British army during the second Anglo-Afghan war.

The Afghanistan experience was part of a broader back-and-forth between the Russian and British empires, stretching across central Asia - a grand tumult of spies, invasions, proxy wars, and skullduggery called the "Great Game". The British involvement in Afghanistan only makes sense in the context of the Indian empire, since they only occupied it in order to keep the Russians from establishing a colony on the Indian border; most of the writing about the various Afghan wars is thus to be found in chapters of books about India.

I'd second the recommendation of Hopkirk's "The Great Game"; it's not a quick read, but it's a fascinating piece of history. Lawrence James' "Raj" is about the Indian empire but it explains the context and motivation behind the Afghan wars, and has a few chapters about them. Then there's Brysac and Blair's "Tournament of Shadows", a good fun read which focuses equally on Afghanistan and Tibet.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:55 PM on November 13, 2009

sorry, that's Brysac and Meyer
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:59 PM on November 13, 2009

Peter Hopkirk's book is an excellent read. You can't go wrong if you read it, but it can be dry at times.

Former British military officer and historian James Morris (he later underwent a sex change and changed his name to Jan Morris - I mention this only to explain any confusion you might have when and if you look for these books on Amazon or elsewhere) wrote a trilogy of well written and wonderfully detailed books that examine the British Empire and the exploits of British military forces across the globe, including Afghanistan.

They are:

Farewell the Trumpets

Heaven's Command

Pax Britannica

There was another fellow I was going to recommend, but his name escapes me at the moment. I will not be home until Thanksgiving or else I would check my bookshelf. If I think of him later on I will come back to post his name.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 3:00 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I found The Great Game to be too long and detailed. (It's more than 500 pages.)

News From Tartary by Peter Fleming (brother of James Bond author Ian Fleming) is from the 1930's, but it recounts a trip overland from China, through Chinese Turkestan and Pakistan to India. It may be good for describing some of general environment of that part of central Asia (and more accesible than 19th century diaries.)
posted by Jahaza at 3:00 PM on November 13, 2009

The Russians had a different name for the Great Game. They called it the "Tournament of Shadows", which I think we can all agree is fucking awesome. For a look at the contest with a wider view on Asia, take a look at Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia.
posted by spaltavian at 3:10 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, The Great Game.
posted by mixer at 3:54 PM on November 13, 2009

"Kim" is the Kipling novel your friend remembers

While border machinations are the Macguffin of Kim, the novel is set in the major cities of India and northeastern highlands. The Man Who Would be King is set in Afghanistan, but I'm not sure if that's a really accurate representation of even the British experience...
posted by nangua at 2:59 AM on November 14, 2009

Hopkirk is good but a bit toooo into the GREATNESS of Brits.
posted by tarvuz at 3:09 AM on November 14, 2009

This slightly OT but leads into what you ask: I just finished The Sewing Circles of Herat which is an awe-inspiring, moving book about modern Afghanistan. It includes plenty of background detail and mentions of historical books and characters (which I don't have time to look up right now). It's not about the military situation, it's about what people do to survive organised brutality. It puts the present situation into the context of the British and Russian involvements in Afghanistan.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 3:57 AM on November 14, 2009

This goes back somewhat further than the Anglo-Afghan period, but Into the Land of Bones is an excellent modern examination of what happened when Alexander the Great passed through Afghanistan on his way to India.

In the process it covers key points in the following 2000 years of Afghan history, largely in the context of showing what is consistent about external experiences of the region.
posted by dhartung at 2:19 PM on November 14, 2009

Beyond the Khyber Pass by John Waller is about the First Afghan War. It's out of print, but you may be able to find it used. It's narrower in scope than The Great Game, but it's also a couple hundred pages shorter.
posted by joaquim at 7:00 PM on November 14, 2009

Don't miss Eric Newby's lively and engaging A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, either. It takes place in the mid-20th century, but even so it's essential for anyone who's interested in the British experience of the region.
posted by tangerine at 10:42 AM on November 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks! I've been busy since I posted this (NaNoWriMo!) but I've put The Great Game, Tournament of Shadows, and Flashman on hold at the library. Will try to remember to come back & report. :)
posted by epersonae at 12:18 PM on December 14, 2009

Response by poster: Checking back in: Flashman was awesome! The Great Game was humongous, but fascinating. I just started Tournament of Shadows; we'll see if I finish before it goes back to the library.
posted by epersonae at 3:47 PM on January 4, 2010

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