- A History of the British Conquest of Afghanistan and Western India, 1838–1849
Frank Wallis’s A History of the British Conquest of Afghanistan and Western India offers a detailed narrative of the westward expansion of the East India Company’s empire on the South Asian subcontinent in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Relying on the voluminous holdings of the India Office Records, Wallis’s work provides a high-politics perspective on the workings of British imperialism during this tumultuous time. Starting with the First Afghan War, Wallis paints a portrait of an imperial juggernaut let loose that would not come to rest until it had swallowed up Sind and the Punjab (most of present-day Pakistan) and consolidated its rule in central India through the annexation of Gwalior. All this would be accomplished by 1849, making the decade between Lord Auckland’s proclamation of the invasion of Afghanistan and Lord Dalhousie’s proclamation of the annexation of the Punjab the most expansionist since Richard and Arthur Wellesley’s tenure in India.
The book is organized into nine chapters, including the introduction and conclusion. Wallis devotes two chapters apiece to British activities in Afghanistan, Sind, and the Punjab, interrupting this chronological narrative with a brief chapter concerning the effective annexation of the princely state of Gwalior in 1844. Each chapter gives a blow-by-blow account of the Company’s activities, presenting a rich tapestry of well-documented minutia. The accounts are derived from the correspondence of the East India Company’s servants, reflecting their prejudices as well as their shortcomings. The thrust of Wallis’s argument is that imperial expansion during this period was not the result of “a fit of an absence of mind” in the words of John Seeley (The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures [Macmillan & Co., 1891], 8), but rather the outcome of a complex of political and strategic calculations made by a number of actors, related to but often quite independent of one another. Consequently, while there was no overarching schema of imperial conquest and expansion, there was definitely a coherent and consistent logic to the extension of Company power throughout the Indian subcontinent.
Wallis addresses an important and often overlooked period in the history of British imperialism in South Asia. Since Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson’s “The [End Page 117] Imperialism of Free Trade” (1953), formal imperialism has largely been thought of as a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon. The moment of expansion in India that Wallis discusses, however, definitely runs at odds with such an assessment. Between 1838 and 1849, the Company effectively swallowed Western India; the annexations of Sind, Gwalior, and the Punjab in particular brought some of the most productive agricultural lands of the Indian subcontinent under its direct control. This would prove a boon to the Raj’s revenue. The invasion of Afghanistan, though ultimately a failure of imperial overstretch, likewise marked a willingness by the British to assert their influence and control beyond the historic bounds of South Asia proper.
With the exception of the First Afghan War, which has received renewed, but largely superficial, attention since the American-led invasion of the country in 2001, much of this material has not been critically examined since the 1970s. Indeed, the definitive works on these events, at least in British historiography, were largely authored in the 1960s (for example, J. A. Norris, The First Afghan War, 1838–1842 ; Robert A. Huttenback, British Relations with Sind, 1799–1843: An Anatomy of Imperialism ), a fact reflected in Wallis’s bibliography. Given the relative importance of these areas, especially the Punjab, to the later British imperial project in South Asia, this is rather surprising. Wallis thus has a largely open field to re-examine a transformative moment in the history of British India. Unfortunately, he does not take advantage of it.
Wallis’s manuscript gives a comprehensive account of British imperial activities, clearly narrating the chronology of events as well...