Posts Tagged ‘the Great Game’

Central Asia: Though Writers’ Eyes

October 29, 2021

     If you’ve never done any armchair exploration of Central Asia, then this anthology isn’t a bad place to start. Although the two sketchy maps are inadequate, there is a very good bibliography and pointers to further reading for those who are more curious.

Initially I found the book odd from the conceptual point of view, consisting as it does of a series of chapters focused on key places in the history of the region, but arranged alphabetically. However, the region is comprehensively covered, with a history of each place supplemented by lengthy quotations from the writings of a good number of travellers though the ages. But the main focus of much of the narrative and quotation is the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with particular emphasis on the ‘great game’, the rivalry between Russia and Britain as we feared the former’s designs on the jewel of the empire, India. So overall, it feels a little unbalanced. There is a good selection of historical photographs, and I have to say my overall opinion of the book gradually improved as it progressed. Quite a few of the books I felt moved to read at some point turned out to be available as free e-book downloads too, via the Internet Archive, which can’t be bad. I think, in the end though, I’d already read rather too much about Central Asia before coming across this book for it to be very enlightening.

Fitzroy Maclean: A Person from England

June 9, 2019

51CDaOHf69L._AC_UL436_  A fascinating piece of ‘old school’ travel writing from over sixty years ago, focusing on the ‘Great Game’ of the Victorian era as Britain vied with Russia for influence over Central Asia, the Russians expanding and consolidating their empire and the British looking over their shoulder at the possible threat to India… and nobody managing to do anything effective in Afghanistan – no change there, then.

Maclean tells the stories of a number travellers who got into all sorts of scrapes, particularly if they managed to reach the fabled goal of the emirate of Bukhara. English arrogance astonishes, as does the gung-ho approach to non-British peoples, their laws, beliefs and customs; there is an over-weening pride in Britain, British arms, Christianity. The account of an eccentric clergyman who travels to Bukhara in an attempt to free two captive English officers reads like a Boys’ Own Paper story, such an implausible yarn it seems to be. Alas, the officers have been beheaded before he arrives…

We do learn about the dangers and difficulties facing travellers at that time, crossing territories known to locals but not to outsiders; the Russians also encounter unexpected challenges in their advance, and some of these are documented by an intrepid American reporter. Gradually the entire of Central Asia does fall under Russian suzerainty; they are keen to have the territory pacified and under control so that they can move about freely, but are not that concerned with actually ruling it.

The author’s own attempts to get to Bokhara in 1938, and his tales of evading the NKVD in his efforts, are most entertaining, and sadly, when he returns twenty years later, much of the old attractiveness of Central Asia seems to have gone forever. A good, easy and entertaining read: Maclean writes well.

Burnes: Travels into Bokhara

August 21, 2013

9781906011710Another of Eland‘s nicely-produced re-issues of travel-writing from the past, but I’m not really sure how to take this one. It’s from the 1830s, and Alexander Burnes was basically a British spy at the beginning of what is, I feel, insultingly called ‘the Great Game’ – the rivalry between empires, especially the British and Russian, over the lands in the Middle East. He basically blagged his way up the Indus river, across what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, pretending, lying and deceiving the local inhabitants, whilst secretly mapping and storing information which would later be invaluable in Britain’s empire-building and outwitting the Russians, and for which he was much praised by his colonialist superiors.

And yet, it’s a fascinating account of the places and the people from nearly two centuries ago, with lots of detail, and an extremely good (original) map to help you follow the journey. Burnes took considerable risks, and, because he was a spy in disguise, came into close contact with people and their customs and way of life, through his familiarity with their language.

What offends me really, I suppose, is the tone of superiority that sometimes comes through towards them, confident in the military power of the British. On the other hand, his explorations eventually led to the first British adventure in Afghanistan, which was a disaster, like all subsequent ones, including the present unfinished business there.

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