The Great Game – Peter Hopkirk

December 15, 2013 at 18:17 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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the great gameThis book was given to me recently by a colleague. As he gave it to me, he mentioned that it was his favourite book – which is always a bit of a worry, in case it turns out to be terrible. That worry was even more acute in this case, as the colleague in question is actually my boss.

I read most of it on a couple of long plane journeys, and it passed the time very satisfactorily. It documents the machinations and manoeuvres of the British and Russian empires in the central Asian region from the late 1700’s to the start of the First World War. Throughout that entire period, the British and the Russians never engaged directly, but moved to occupy and then cede various areas of what is now Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and other neighbouring central Asian states. In the process, of course, various Khanates, kingdoms and city states were variously sacked or occupied, puppet regimes were installed, and various promises and treaties were made and broken.

The primary concern of the British was to protect India from hordes of Russian troops funnelling down the various passes across the Karakorams and into what was the ‘jewel of the empire’. The Russians, for their part, were keen to extend their influence eastwards to gain riches from the trade routes from the east, and find ways around the virtual monopoly the British had on the sea trade routes.

The story is a fascinating one, and in so many ways sounds very contemporary, with ‘hawks’ pushing for ever more intervention in the region, whilst others called for ‘masterly inactivity’; relying on the difficult terrain and puppet ‘buffer states’ to maintain the status quo.

It’s also a story of considerable heroism, with individual explorers undertaking journeys of extraordinary hardship in order to return maps and intelligence to their superiors. Disguises, deceptions and canny negotiation with local chiefs were necessary to survive in this hostile environment – all whilst battling some of the most extreme geography on earth.

Balancing the heroism is sheer ineptitude. Huge but ill-equipped armies setting out at the wrong time of year, only to perish in the bitter winter snow. Bungled negotiations with local chiefs that result in months or years of degrading imprisonment. And the constant misreading of the enemy’s intentions leading to yet more misadventures.

The scale of operations in the region was staggering. Parties would set out with tens of thousands of troops, thousands and thousands of camels and horses (including such delicious details as two camels dedicated to carrying nothing except cigars for the senior officers, and another four pack horses to bring the brandy) and a multitude of camp aides. Enormous quantities of gold and fine gifts would be carried, to bribe local tribes and pay off populations as necessary. And huge artillery pieces would be literally dragged over the highest mountain passes in the world, with men marching for weeks or months before reaching their intended quarry.

Forming a backdrop to all of this military activity were the local tribes. Hard, canny people all to often used as pawns in this Great Game – and yet again and again gradually driving out their occupiers in an endless war of attrition and shifting allegiances. The nature – and ultimate futility – of the current operations in Afghanistan are brought into sharp relief when reading this history. Global powers have been attempting to impose control on this region for  over two hundred years – and yet the situation today seems little changed from the mid 1840s, with endless attacks on British forces by local tribesmen unhappy with the regime installed by the Empire.

Peter Hopkirk’s writing style is natural and the book flows along nicely – the narrative is often quite gripping, and Hopkirk follows individual stories and people as a way of bringing the story to life. This is not a dry and dusty history book. The one thing I wish the book did have is better maps. My knowledge of the geography of this region is somewhat hazy, and whilst there are some rough maps I struggled sometimes to place where the various pieces of the jigsaw lay. Reading on the plane meant, of course, that I did not have the internet nor an atlas to refer to, which would have solved that problem. Still, it would have been nice to have some plates showing not just the contemporary borders and states, but also the modern day borders, to help with context.

Anyway, it was a book I enjoyed – which is a relief, as I can now refer my boss to this blog to read about his favourite book without fear of an upset. But by the same token, dear reader, you must weigh up the possible conflict of interest I have in presenting a favourable review in order to further my career…

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