Shortly after the massacre and rout, the British sent an army of retribution. Which sought savage revenge for its losses and razed to the ground Kabul’s historic bazaar. But, having dealt the Afghans a punishing blow with the Sepoy Rebellion. Instead of occupying the country, they ended the first Anglo-Afghan war with a deal.

Professor Tom Barfield
Professor Tom Barfield

Tom Barfield “At this point they announce, ‘Now we’re going to withdraw. But now you can see that if we want to come back, we can do it. You guys have not defeated us militarily. Now we need to cut a deal.’ And they take Dost Mohammad, the ruler that they had dispossessed, they say ‘OK you can go back again.’ So it’s like Dost Mohammad part two, but he tells the British, ‘I understand your needs. You must understand mine’, and the two sides, come to a modus vivendi.

So, yes, the Afghans can claim a great victory. But on the other hand, the ruler they’ve put back in power understands what Britain needs. To such an extent that when the mutiny occurs in India in 1857. The so-called Sepoy rebellion and the Afghans are urged to march on Peshawar to ally with the rebels. Dost Mohammad says, ‘No, I’ve signed an agreement with the British and, besides, I think they’ll win.’.”

Sepoy Rebellion

The Afghans took enormous pride in their resistance to the British. And the political settlement led to a period of confidence and relative stability. During which time the British and the Afghans treated each other with a wary respect. But the rivalry between Russia and Britain only continued to intensify.

A thousand miles from Afghanistan, in 1854, the two powers fought a brutal war in the Crimea. And, if anything, the fears of Russian ambition was growing. Then, in the late 1870s, Russians again appeared in Kabul. A new generation of British hawks decided that the only response was again to invade. Again, there was a public outcry. Again, imperial paranoia triumphed and once again a British Army, this time 40,000 strong, was marching into Afghanistan.

Sepoy Rebellion
Sepoy Rebellion

To prevent Kabul from being taken, the Afghan emir signed an agreement with the British. That a new envoy, Sir Louis Cavagnari, another swashbuckling multilingual officer, was installed in Kabul.

Remembering that Burnes had been massacred escaping from his unfortified house in the old city. Cavagnari took up residency in an ancient citadel, the Bala Hisar. So Louis Cavagnari, the new British envoy, rode in on his elephant into this citadel with the tiny escort. He’d taken three lessons from the death of his predecessor Alexander Burnes. Always live within the fortified citadel. Don’t come in with a large army of occupation, and never touch the local women.

But despite all his care, he was soon hearing rumours that the Afghans wanted to kill him.

Afghan Sensibilities

Cavagnari thought he’d learned from Burnes that it was better to be in the Bala Hisar. But this was actually the Palace of the Afghan kings, and his presence there also caused offence.

Sir Louis Cavagnari
Sir Louis Cavagnari

Here I met up with Prince Ali Seraj, a member of the Afghan royal family whose palace this was. People were not very pleased that the British ambassador had been put in the Bala Hisar. Why were they angry about that?

Prince Ali Seraj “Because it reminded them of the first Anglo-Afghan war, they don’t forget. Here comes the British again you know, and they’re here to occupy Afghanistan once again. We have never, ever liked to be conquered. We have accepted poverty because they want to be free. They don’t understand the Afghan psyche. They forget that they were in India and they took the East Indian company. You know, but so successful in India, they think, my ‘Oh, Afghanistan, rowdy people with baggy pants and turbans’. You know we’re easy to rule, easy to control, but they forget that Afghanistan is a nation of warriors.”

Prince Ali Seraj

I couldn’t help asking him if we were making the same mistakes today.

Prince Ali Seraj
Prince Ali Seraj

Prince Ali Seraj “There was an American, I will not say which organisation, he say, oh! Prince Ali, I have received a billion dollars from the United States I said, ‘What are you going to do with this money?’ He said, ‘Well we’re going to roll into the village and we’re going to build things’ I said, ‘Sir, if you roll into the village, they’ll roll you out.’ I said, ‘You’ll roll up to the village, then you send an emissary inside the village, talk to the elders. They will do one of two things. Either invite you in or they will send somebody out to meet with you. Then once they invite you in, you sit down and you talk to them, but don’t tell them what you’re going to do. Ask them what they want. Respect, if you do that, you’ll have them in your pocket.’ “

The Afghan king who’d negotiated with the British was seen as weak. Ordinary Afghans hated the deal he’d struck with the British and they hated the presence of Cavagnari in Kabul. Finally, an Afghan regiment mutinied and marched on his residence. Cavagnari looked out on the screaming mob, knowing the nearest reinforcements were hundreds of miles away. He led a suicidal charge, was killed, and his mutilated corpse was put on display.

Mortified by his death and desperate to salvage their credibility, Britain launched another invasion into Afghanistan. The commander of the league General Roberts, was told ‘Your objectives should be to strike terror and to strike it swiftly and deeply.’

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sepoy-rebellion-after-upsetting-afghan-sensibilities---learned-on-tv-pin
Sepoy Rebellion after upsetting Afghan Sensibilities