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The Great Game

Greater Persia at the beginning of the Great Game in 1814 Central Asia, circa 1848

The Great Game or Tournament of Shadows (, Turniry Teney) in Russia were terms for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. A second, less intensive phase followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Great Game ended as the United Kingdom entered the post-WW2 post-colonial period.

The term "The Great Game" is usually attributed to Arthur Conolly (1807 1842), an intelligence officer of the British East India Company's Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry.[1] It was introduced into mainstream consciousness by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim (1901).

Contents


British-Russian rivalry in Afghanistan

Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria, during the latter's visit to Hughenden Manor. From the British perspective, the Russian Empire's expansion into Central Asia threatened to destroy the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, India. The British feared that Afghanistan would become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India, after the Tsar's troops would subdue the Central Asian khanates (Khiva, Bokhara, Khokand) one after another.

It was with these thoughts in mind that in 1838 the British launched the First Anglo-Afghan War and attempted to impose a puppet regime on Afghanistan under Shuja Shah. The regime was short lived and proved unsustainable without British military support. By 1842, mobs were attacking the British on the streets of Kabul and the British garrison was forced to abandon the city due to constant civilian attacks.

The retreating British army consisted of approximately 4,500 troops (of which only 690 were European) and 12,000 camp followers. During a series of attacks by Afghan warriors, all Europeans but one, William Brydon, were killed on the march back to India; a few Indian soldiers survived also and crossed into India later.[2] The British curbed their ambitions in Afghanistan following this humiliating retreat from Kabul. Lake Zorkul, Pamirs, 1874, watercolor by British Army officer Thomas Edward Gordon After the Indian rebellion of 1857, successive British governments saw Afghanistan as a buffer state. The Russians, led by Konstantin Kaufman, Mikhail Skobelev, and Mikhail Chernyayev, continued to advance steadily southward through Central Asia towards Afghanistan, and by 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed.

Samarkand became part of the Russian Empire in 1868, and the independence of Bukhara was virtually stripped away in a peace treaty the same year. Russian control now extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya river.

In a letter to Queen Victoria, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proposed "to clear Central Asia of Muscovites and drive them into the Caspian".[3] He introduced the Royal Titles Act 1876, which added to Victoria's titles that of Empress of India, putting her at the same level as the Russian Emperor.

British Lion]] (1878)

After the Great Eastern Crisis broke out and the Russians sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878, Britain demanded that the ruler of Afghanistan, Sher Ali, accept a British diplomatic mission. The mission was turned back, and in retaliation a force of 40,000 men was sent across the border, launching the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The war's conclusion left Abdur Rahman Khan on the throne, and he agreed to let the British control Afghanistan's foreign affairs, while he consolidated his position on the throne. He managed to suppress internal rebellions with ruthless efficiency and brought much of the country under central control.

In 1884, Russian expansionism brought about another crisis — the Panjdeh Incident — when they seized the oasis of Merv. The Russians claimed all of the former ruler's territory and fought with Afghan troops over the oasis of Panjdeh. On the brink of war between the two great powers, the British decided to accept the Russian possession of territory north of the Amu Darya as a fait accompli.

Without any Afghan say in the matter, between 1885 and 1888 the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance, but retain Panjdeh. The agreement delineated a permanent northern Afghan frontier at the Amu Darya, with the loss of a large amount of territory, especially around Panjdeh.[4]

This left the border east of Zorkul lake in the Wakhan. Territory in this area was claimed by Russia, Afghanistan and China. In the 1880s the Afghans advanced north of the lake to the Alichur Pamir.[5] In 1891, Russia sent a military force to the Wakhan and provoked a diplomatic incident by ordering the British Captain Francis Younghusband to leave Bozai Gumbaz in the Little Pamir. This incident, and the report of an incursion by Russian Cossacks south of the Hindu Kush, led the British to suspect Russian involvement "with the Rulers of the petty States on the northern boundary of Kashmir and Jammu".[6] This was the reason for the Hunza-Nagar Campaign in 1891, after which the British established control over Hunza and Nagar. In 1892 the British sent the Earl of Dunmore to the Pamirs to investigate. Britain was concerned that Russia would take advantage of Chinese weakness in policing the area to gain territory, and in 1893 reached agreement with Russia to demarcate the rest of the border, a process completed in 1895.[5]

Great Game moves eastward

People of Central Asia c.1861-1880 By the 1890s, the Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand had fallen, becoming Russian vassals. With Central Asia in the Tsar's grip, the Great Game now shifted eastward to China, Mongolia and Tibet. In 1904, the British invaded Lhasa, a preemptive strike against Russian intrigues and secret meetings between the 13th Dalai Lama's envoy and Tsar Nicholas II. The Dalai Lama fled into exile to China and Mongolia. The British were petrified at the idea of a Russian invasion of their crown colony of India, though Russia badly defeated by Japan in the Russo-Japanese war and weakened by internal rebellion could not realistically afford a showdown against Britain there. China, however, was another matter.[7]

The Middle Kingdom had badly atrophied under the Manchus, the ruling ethnic caste of the Qing Dynasty. Two-and-a-half centuries of decadent living, internecine feuds and imperviousness to a changing world had weakened the Empire. China s weaponry and military tactics were outdated, even medieval. Modern factories, steel bridges, railways and telegraphs were almost nonexistent in most regions. Natural disasters, famine and internal rebellions had further enfeebled China. In the late 19th century, Japan and the Great Powers easily carved out trade and territorial concessions. These were humiliating submissions for the once all-powerful Manchus. Still, the central lesson of the war with Japan was not lost on the Russian General Staff: an Asian country using Western technology and industrial production methods could defeat a great European power.[7]

In 1906, Tsar Nicholas II sent a secret agent to China to collect intelligence on the reform and modernization of the Qing Dynasty. The task was given to Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, at the time a colonel in the Russian army, who travelled to China with French sinologist Paul Pelliot. Mannerheim was disguised as an ethnographic collector, using a Finnish passport.[7][8] For two years, Mannerheim proceeded through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, Henan, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia to Beijing. At the sacred Buddhist mountain of Wutai Shan he even met the 13th Dalai Lama.[9] However, while Mannerheim was in China in 1907, Russia and Britain brokered the Anglo-Russian Agreement, ending the Great Game.

Anglo-Russian Alliance

In the run-up to World War I, both empires were alarmed by Germany's increasing activity in the Middle East, notably the German project of the Baghdad Railway, which would open up Mesopotamia and Persia to German trade and technology. The ministers Alexander Izvolsky and Edward Grey agreed to resolve their long-standing conflicts in Asia in order to make an effective stand against the German advance into the region. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 brought a close to the classic period of the Great Game.

The Russians accepted that the politics of Afghanistan were solely under British control as long as the British guaranteed not to change the regime. Russia agreed to conduct all political relations with Afghanistan through the British. The British agreed that they would maintain the current borders and actively discourage any attempt by Afghanistan to encroach on Russian territory. Persia was divided into three zones: a British zone in the south, a Russian zone in the north, and a narrow neutral zone serving as buffer in between.

In regards to Tibet, both powers agreed to maintain territorial integrity of this buffer state and "to deal with Lhasa only through China, the suzerain power".[10]

Criticism

Gerald Morgan s Myth and Reality in the Great Game approached the subject by examining various departments of the Raj to determine if there ever existed a British intelligence network in Central Asia. Morgan wrote that evidence of such a network did not exist. At best, efforts to obtain information on Russian moves in Central Asia were rare, ad hoc adventures. At worst, intrigues resembling the adventures in Kim were baseless rumours and Morgan writes such rumours were always common currency in Central Asia and they applied as much to Russia as to Britain. [11]

Kokand]] in the time period of 1902-1903

In his lecture The Legend of the Great Game , Malcolm Yapp said that Britons had used the term The Great Game in the late 19th century to describe several different things in relation to its interests in Asia. Yapp believes that the primary concern of British authorities in India was control of the indigenous population, not preventing a Russian invasion.[12]

According to Yapp, reading the history of the British Empire in India and the Middle East one is struck by both the prominence and the unreality of strategic debates. [12]

British-Soviet rivalry in Afghanistan

Caption from a 1911 English satirical magazine reads: "If we hadn't a thorough understanding, I (British lion) might almost be tempted to ask what you (Russian bear) are doing there with our little playfellow (Persian cat)."

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 nullified existing treaties and a second phase of the Great Game began. The Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 was precipitated by the assassination of the then ruler Habibullah Khan. His son and successor Amanullah declared full independence and attacked British India's northern frontier. Although little was gained militarily, the stalemate was resolved with the Rawalpindi Agreement of 1919. Afghanistan re-established its self-determination in foreign affairs.

In May 1921, Afghanistan and the Russian Soviet Republic signed a Treaty of Friendship. The Soviets provided Amanullah with aid in the form of cash, technology, and military equipment. British influence in Afghanistan waned, but relations between Afghanistan and the Russians remained equivocal, with many Afghans desiring to regain control of Merv and Panjdeh. The Soviets, for their part, desired to extract more from the friendship treaty than Amanullah was willing to give.

The United Kingdom imposed minor sanctions and diplomatic slights as a response to the treaty, fearing that Amanullah was slipping out of their sphere of influence and realising that the policy of the Afghanistan government was to have control of all of the Pashtun speaking groups on both sides of the Durand Line. In 1923, Amanullah responded by taking the title padshah "king" and by offering refuge for Muslims who fled the Soviet Union, and Indian nationalists in exile from the Raj.

Amanullah's programme of reform was, however, insufficient to strengthen the army quickly enough; in 1928 he abdicated under pressure. The individual who most benefited from the crisis was Mohammed Nadir Shah, who reigned from 1929 to 1933. Both the Soviets and the British played the circumstances to their advantage: the Soviets getting aid in dealing with Uzbek rebellion in 1930 and 1931, while the British aided Afghanistan in creating a 40,000 man professional army.

With the advent of World War II came the temporary alignment of British and Soviet interests: in 1940, both governments pressured Afghanistan for the expulsion of a large German non-diplomatic contingent, which both governments believed to be engaging in espionage. Afghanistan complied in 1941. With this period of cooperation between the USSR and the UK, the Great Game between the two powers came to an end.

Twenty-first century

Recently there has been some use of the expression "the Great Game" to describe relations between the United States, Russia, the People's Republic of China and other nations such as Pakistan and Turkey, over influence with the Central Asian republics and access to energy resources and military bases.[13][14][15][16][17] The accuracy of this comparison is debated.[18]

While energy resources and military bases are mentioned as part of The Great Game, so is the continuing jostling for strategic advantage between great powers and between the regional powers in mountainous border regions in the Himalayas.[19]

In popular culture

See also

References

Notes

Bibliography

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