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After many defeats, Britain welcomed the successor to King Abdur Rahman. King, Amanullah the modernising leader of Afghanistan and lover of Rolls Royce Cars. The popular leader ruled from his extravagant palaces outside Kabul and was very accepting of European style and the modernising, intellectual leadership.

After decades of battling Russian influence in Afghanistan, the British Empire, at the peak of its power, bowed to Afghan realities and struck a deal with their opponent. Just as in 1842, Britain again allowed the most powerful Afghan leader to take the throne, even though he was their enemy.

Abdur Rahman
Abdur Rahman

Abdur Rahman was an ally of the Russians and had been living on Russian soil, but he was the only man who seemed to have the support and authority to control the country. It’s as though after 10 years of fighting the Taliban today, the United States and their allies left Afghanistan and put the Taliban back in charge.

This extraordinary gamble paid off. For his part, the new king, Abdur Rahman, demanded a massive subsidy and no internal interference in his country. In return, Britain got control of Afghan foreign policy and, most importantly, Abdur Rahman did not allow the Russians to threaten British India. For Britain, it was a perfect solution.

Khyber Pass
Khyber Pass

And even when Europe descended into the First World War, Afghanistan remained neutral. But this would change in the aftermath of that Great War, as the great powers of Europe met here in Versailles.

Here, empires were broken up, the new nation-states were created, and Afghanistan, although excluded from the negotiating table, had its own ambitions.

King Amanullah the Modernising Leader

For the first time, Afghanistan so often on the receiving end of British firepower, itself became the principal aggressor. The new king of Afghanistan saw Britain exhausted by war, facing unrest in India. He called another jihad, took his chance and invaded British India through the Khyber Pass.

King Amanullah
King Amanullah

Although Britain saw off this unexpected aggression, they suffered twice as many casualties as the Afghans. But with Russia no longer the threat of old, Britain saw less need for an interest in Afghanistan and granted the Afghans full independence. But what Afghanistan did with that independence was the opposite of what the British expected.

The new king, Amanullah, revealed himself to be a moderniser. The British policy was really to keep Afghanistan locked in the middle ages. The last thing they wanted was Afghanistan to change and modernise and then, suddenly, in 1919, modernity came. British ideas came to Afghanistan against Britain’s will, and this great process of modernisation came not through the Empire, came not through British bayonets, but through an Afghan king.

Extravagant Palace
Extravagant Palace

King Amanullah ruled from this extravagant palace in a European style, which he built on the outskirts of Kabul, and he championed a new modernising intellectual elite in Afghanistan.

But the country that he was determined to transform had changed little. In the century that had passed since Britain first took an interest here. It was a country with almost blanket illiteracy. A fragmented country of isolated villages and mountain valleys under feudal rule. The way Britain had found it and left it.

A Grand European Tour

Dreaming of modernity, in 1927, King Amanullah embarks on a grand European tour, the first such trip by an Afghan ruler. The Afghan king arrived in Britain for a full state visit. The flags were out and a slightly anxious British government responded in came-honoured fashion by taking him to shop for guns and for cars, which is impoverished country could hardly afford.

And when he toured the Rolls-Royce factory, he bought a fleet of cars to take back home. It started a long love affair between Afghan royalty and Rolls-Royce. And this car was later part of their fleet, now owned by businessman Richard Raynsford.

State Visit
State Visit

For an Afghan, possessing this car shows that you are part of an international group. You’re no longer part of an isolated country at the other end of the world.

Richard Raynsford “Well, that’s right. He was a very sophisticated man. When he went to Europe in 1928, he was not just looking for Rolls-Royce cars, he was looking, really, to… Means to be inspired by the West to how he could modernise his very backward country. And, therefore, the Rolls-Royce trip to the Derby works was part of that overall quest for inspiration and for modernisation.”

A car like this at the time was a pretty expensive thing.

Rolls Royce Car

Richard Raynsford “It would cost as much as a house in Fulham. About £1500 for the chassis and another £1500, even more, up to £2000, for the body. Depending on how exotic a body was ordered by the excited owner.”

Rolls Royce Car
Rolls Royce Car

What would an Afghan have felt, looking at this kind of car?

Richard Raynsford “It’d be like looking at something equivalent to the space shuttle, I imagine, to an Afghanistan farmer or peasant.”

I think it’s tempting today when we look at a car like this. Imagine King Amanullah as some sort of corrupt dictator who was spraying money around on Rolls-Royces. But in fact, really, this is part of his love of technology or machinery. It’s as though he’s returning to the country with a jet engine or a new computer system. He’s coming back with a whole new interest in railways and printing machines. And mining technology and medicine, but for the Conservatives in Afghanistan, this is all very dangerous and very dubious. The big story that spreads through the streets when he arrives is. He’s bringing back a new machine to turn human corpses into soap.

Amanullah was just beginning to discover how conservative his country still was. Wild rumours were circulating about how he had become a Catholic, ate pork and, drank alcohol. He became perceived as a foreigner in his own land, attempting to impose a foreign ideology on his own people.

Tribal Elders in Pin-stripe Suits

It’s easy to laugh at King Amanullah and, indeed, there’s a lot that you can laugh at him for. For example, he gathered the tribal elders and insisted they wore pinstripe trousers and western jackets, but there was also a highly developed serious programme of reform.

Tribal Elders
Tribal Elders

In fact, the most radical programme for state transformation in Afghanistan came from an Afghan. He wanted parliamentary elections, a progressive constitution, education, particularly for women. And, in the end, when photographs were circulated in the bazaar of his wife the Queen, with her head uncovered, with pearls and a plunging neckline, he had to flee, with the wheels of the Rolls-Royce spinning vainly in the snow, to exile in Italy.

Queen Amanullah
Queen Amanullah

It is ironic, when, today, we are concerned with the powerful hold of Islam and the problems of establishing democracy in that country, that the only attempt in this whole period to modernise and democratise Afghanistan didn’t come from British rule but from the Afghans themselves.

So why did the British go into Afghanistan in the 19th century?

It wasn’t really about Afghanistan in the end. It was about the fears of empire, fear of empty space, fear of the Russians, fear in the end about their own credibility, their pride.

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