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  • Spying for Empire: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, 1757-1947
  • John Brobst
Spying for Empire: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, 1757-1947. By Robert Johnson . St. Paul, Minn.: MBI Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1-85367-670-3. Maps. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 320. $34.95.

The Great Game in Asia is the subject of a substantial and growing historiography. Over the past decade or so, Peter Hopkirk, Charles Allen, John Keay and others have done much to popularize and reinvigorate the subject with gripping and well-written accounts of real-life derring-do in defense of Britain's Indian Empire. Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have recently issued a second edition of their history of the Great Game, which covers the imperial struggle for mastery in Asia from the Victorian era through the liquidation of the British Raj after World War II.

Robert Johnson's excellent contribution to this field is closest in scope to the last, covering the Great Game from its origins in the era of Clive through that of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. Like the rest, Johnson aims to provide an accessible overview of British intelligence activities along the strategic arc around India from the Persian Gulf up through Iran, Afghanistan, and Kashmir to Tibet. What sets his book apart from the pack is its simultaneous effort to engage and anchor itself in the technical, academic realm of intelligence studies.

Johnson argues that the Great Game represents a key yet largely missing dimension in our understanding of how the modern (British) concept and practice of intelligence evolved. Studies of Britain's early intelligence machinery, he suggests, emphasize Europe, all but ignoring the degree to which India's defense represented a primary concern for policymakers and the military. Worse, scholars tend to dismiss the Great Game as rank adventurism and at most an interesting chapter in topographical exploration. In fact, the Great Game, while often reflecting exaggerated fears and the misreading of intelligence, substantially catalyzed the development of modern intelligence machinery not only in India but in Whitehall as well.

Much of Johnson's story is familiar—Britain's Afghan wars, the Younghusband expedition to Tibet, and so forth. But much is fresh as well, [End Page 256] not least a detailed account of Robert Baden Powell's Great Gamesmanship. Of particular interest and resonance, given current debates over intelligence reform as well as Johnson's emphasis on intelligence machinery, is the author's assessment of Henry Brackenbury's efforts to centralize intelligence as Britain's first Director of Military Intelligence during the 1880s and '90s.

The book's treatment of native agents in the Great Game is perhaps not as original as the author suggests, but it is a chief strength. Moreover, through his discussion of compradors and collaboration in the intelligence system of the Raj, Johnson illuminates the importance and utility of much recent scholarship in the field of post-colonial studies for those of us who are somewhat more traditionally minded. And he does so in blessedly clean, clear, jargon-free prose.

While the book offers a particularly strong evaluation of the Great Game as an intelligence contest, it is weaker on the Great Game as a conception of geostrategy and great power politics. The author's lively (and persuasive) challenging of received wisdom on espionage from such historians as Gerald Morgan left this reader eager for his take on influential works on grand strategy by David Gillard, Milan Hauner, and John LeDonne among others. Johnson's qualified rehabilitation of H.W.C. Davis' seminal lecture on Great Game spying to the British Academy in 1924 leads one to wonder what he makes of classic expositions of Great Game geopolitics by the likes of Halford Mackinder.

To say this, however, is perhaps to criticize the author for a book he neither wrote nor intended to write. On the whole, Johnson offers a superb introduction to the Great Game for anyone interested in British imperialism as well as intelligence—and an invaluable reference for old hands.

John Brobst
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio