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  • Simla, 1879
  • John R. Reed (bio)

We are in Simla, Northern India. It is early in the day on 5 September 1879.Word has just reached British Army Headquarters that the newly appointed British agent to Kabul, Afghanistan, Major Sir Louis Napoleon Cavagnari, along with his British escort, have been killed by Afghan soldiers. The situation is serious because Cavagnari had been assigned to his post as a result of the Second Afghan War, which had begun in November 1878 and had concluded only a few months before, in July 1879. Now the war will have to resume on a more ambitious scale. Britain's reputation, not only in India but in Europe as well, hangs in the balance. [End Page 38]

We are in Simla when we receive this news because Simla is the summer seat of the British government. While he was Viceroy of India (1864-69), Sir John Lawrence established Simla as the summer government site, for its refreshing mountain location in the far north of India: "It was the appropriate place, he argued, because it had one foot in the Punjab and another in the NWP" (Gilmour 223). Subsequent governments maintained the practice of moving the twelve hundred miles from Calcutta every spring.

Now we must go back to find why the British are in this position, a hinge point in time for the Empire. For simplicity's sake, we may begin with the First Afghan War (1839-42), which was prompted by the British concern that Russia, expanding its own dominions south and west in Central Asia, would soon reach and influence or occupy Afghanistan, thus posing a threat to Britain's Indian domain. The Second Afghan War arose from a version of the same concern. Amir Sher Ali, ruler of Afghanistan, had allowed a Russian agent to reside in Kabul but denied the same courtesy to the British. Edward Robert Bulwer, Lord Lytton was Viceroy (1876-1880) when the issue of Afghanistan arose again. Lytton was appointed by Disraeli's Conservative government, and his views were perhaps even more conservative—that is to say, aggressive—than those of the government itself. Before his term of office, the government had been content to remain on good terms with Sher Ali, but Lytton would not tolerate what he considered an affront to British dignity, and invasion followed in 1878. Lytton had not wanted a traditional war but only wished to make his point about a safe northern border. After all, the British forces did push on toward Kabul (under Major-General Sir Frederick Roberts) in the north and occupied Kandahar (under Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Stewart) to the west. As the British advanced on Kabul, Sheri Ali fled to Afghan Turkestan, where he died soon after, leaving his son Yakub Khan as the new Amir at Kabul. Hostilities ended when Yakub Khan agreed to a treaty, which was signed at Gandamak on 26 May 1879 and ratified by Lytton at Simla on May 30. The issue seemed over, and an English agent was accepted at Kabul.

It is important to view these events in another context—the Eastern Question in Europe. Turkey was obliged to put down a revolt in Bosnia and Herzegovina by Christian Slavic peasants in 1875, but in the next year another revolt, this time in Bulgaria, was savagely repressed. Russia, sympathetic to the Christian Serbian Slavs, demanded that Turkey institute reforms in Bulgaria. When it did not, Russia declared war, on 24 April 1877. Russia defeated the Turks, and, on 3 March 1878, the treaty of San Stefano ceded properties to Russia. During this conflict, there was a good deal of concern in England, with strong sentiment in favour of war against Russia, since a victory by Russia might give the British access to the Euphrates Valley and hence a pathway to India. At the Berlin Congress, however, any such hostilities were averted when Disraeli managed to negotiate better arrangements for the Turks that were acceptable to the great powers involved; he could boast that he had kept Russia out of the Mediterranean, where England had just acquired Cyprus (Weintraub 596). [End Page 39] This modest victory for Disraeli was also seen...


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