The Great Game: Tale of a Century

Great game Russian bear and British Lion
The cartoon is by Sir John Tenniel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Great Game is a phrase often attributed to Rudyard Kipling who immortalized it through his classic spy novel Kim. In fact, it was one of the earliest players of the ‘game’ Arthur Conolly — a valiant soldier and explorer in the service of the British East India Company, who coined the phrase. The Great Game was the name given to the century-long tactical maneuvers of Great Britain and Tsarist Russia, two mighty imperial powers of the 19th century, whose efforts were centered on the most glimmering and enviable jewel of the colonial times: India. The British sought to shield this jewel from the covetous Russian gaze, while the Russians endeavored to wrest it decisively from the British. The theatre of the Great Game was the vast, dusty and untamed Central Asian region lying between the expansive Russian empire in the north and British India in the south. The region at that time was dotted with widely scattered Khanates and Emirates where modernity was yet to dawn and whose cultures were laced with medieval brutality, vengeance and deceit.

The game was characterized by reconnaissance missions undertaken by officers of either side, often in a private and unofficial capacity while on long leaves from duty, seeking glory and advancement in their careers. They would navigate the treacherous towns and bazaars under the disguise of pilgrims, doctors and merchants, using their knowledge of local tongues like Persian and Pashto to their advantage. Their purpose would be to explore and sometimes map the hitherto unknown terrain, especially strategic mountain passes and rivers of the region, and also to gather intelligence about the political inclinations and motives of the Emirs. Above all, the mutually paranoid rival officials would be most interested in trying to gauge the influence that the other side had been able to achieve amongst the Emirates. This would often be indicated by the extent to which the manufactured goods of either side appeared in the still traditional and agrarian markets of the region. In one instance, a British official deduced the pre-arrival of the Russians in a village by a pair of European dogs owned by a native but clearly inherited from a foreigner, most probably of military occupation. Both British and Russian officials made appearances in the courts of the Khans and Emirs seeking their friendship on behalf of their respective governments, and at the expense of their rival. Many a proud Khan in his merry oblivion would end up believing that the two European nations were no more than small principalities, much like his own or his neighbors’, vying for his favour.

The Russophobes in Britain repeatedly pointed to the supposed (but never substantiated) death-bed wish of Peter the Great in 1725 for his country’s world dominance which made Russia’s attempts on India seem like a part of the grand design decreed by the country’s greatest leader. The early years of the 19th century kept the Russians occupied in skirmishes with the tumultuous Turks and Persians on its south-western frontier, and also to fend off Napoleon’s massive invasion in 1812. After the long and decimating retreat of the French troops from scorched-earth Moscow, Russia gradually regained its position and established itself as the sole power of the region, much to the anxiety of the British in India. To keep the Russian menace at bay, they sought to build a unified Afghanistan as a bulwark to shield their prized Indian colony, for it was only through its mountain passes that the Russians could pour into India. Perpetually fighting Afghans could be played off by the Russians against each other and in the ensuing chaos, they could channel their way through the region. 

In 1837, the Persians with Russian support attacked Heart, a strategic city known for its vast fertile fields and abundant food and fodder, making it an attractive prospect for establishing a garrison. If the city fell to the Persians, the British knew that it would most definitely be wrested by the Russians and used as a launch-pad for an attack on India. With the assistance of a British officer Eldred Pottinger who provided the defending Afghans with valuable insights on modern siege-craft, the city was successfully defended and the nine-month long siege ended inconsequentially in September 1838. Pottinger would henceforth be celebrated as the ‘Hero of Herat.’ Immediately after this, Shah Shujah, a former Afghan ruler who had been living in exile in India was seated by the British on the throne of Kabul replacing the indomitable Dost Mohammad, and proclaimed as the king of the whole of Afghanistan.

Two geographical factors that played a decisive role in shaping the tactical milieu of the two sides were the daunting distances in the vast, featureless region and the unforgiving winters. In 1839, General Vasily Perovsky seemed to overlook both in a shocking miscalculation when he led his troops to capture the Khanate of Khiva (today a city in modern Uzbekistan) at the pretext of freeing Russian slaves held there. The campaign began from Orenburg in late November and met the harshest winter of the steppe in a long time. Camel after camel fell and the Kazakh camel drivers rose in mutiny. Soon, men and horses began to be lost at an alarming rate and nearly mid-way on the way to Khiva, Perovsky decided to return. The campaign ended without firing a shot and the Russians never having even come close to the city. Over a thousand men and innumerable horses and camels were lost in what came to be seen as a major embarrassment for the Russians. Soon after, the British sent Lt. Richmond Shakespear to the Khan of Khiva, who convinced him to release Russian slaves and even accompanied them to a Russian fort on the Caspian Sea, thus removing any pretext for the Russians to send another expedition to Khiva.

Not long after this Russian misadventure did the British have to beat their own retreat from Kabul after the local Afghans were disaffected and even inflamed at the alcoholic and womanizing behavior of the British troops in the garrison established to secure Shah Shujah’s position in Kabul. As hostilities grew under the leadership of Dost Mohammad’s son Akbar, the troops were forced out and began a long march south towards India, their columns frequently marauded by vicious Afghan horsemen, leaving a long trail of corpses and carcasses on the snowfields. Soon after, the weakened Shah Shujah died and Dost Mohammad returned to the throne of Kabul. If anything, this proved that the Great Game was not going to be played by the two European powers alone while the local tribes watched on as mute spectators. They would time and again make their presence felt and give both sides a flavor of oriental barbarity. The decades of the 1840s and 50s had a somewhat resigned air on the parts of both Russians and the British, neither of whom seemed interested in the region anymore.

In 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny broke out in India amongst the widely disaffected Indian soldiers of the British East India Company. This was a turning point in the game as the British shifted their entire focus to consolidate their position within India rather than pursue the Forward Policy in Central Asia. The ensuing vacuum gave the Russians ample opportunity to establish their influence throughout the region. Otto Von Bismarck, who would go on to become the great unifier of Germany, those days was working as the Prussian ambassador to Russia. He is known to have prodded the Tsar to go deeper into this region as this would keep the Russians out of European affairs. A quick succession of Russian breakthroughs took place beginning from the acquisition of territories from the Chinese in North-East Asia in 1860, and compelling them to permit Russian consuls in Kashgar, Turkestan and Mongolia to facilitate their trade in the region. This was followed by a speedy capture of the Khanates of Khokhand, Tashkent, Samarkand and Bokhara.

This mounting Russian threat woke up the British from their long slumber of ‘masterly inactivity’ and as a defensive measure, they started sending cartographers to northern provinces like Kashmir and Ladakh in order to explore and map the potential passes or routes through which the Russian army could march south into India. Many independent princes hitherto British allies, like the Maharaja of Kashmir now saw Russia as the ‘coming power in Asia’ and hence could not be trusted fully as they had ample motivation to switch sides. The southward Russian march however never materialized as the Russians remained occupied in a war with Turkey during the late 1870s.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, a powerful leader Abdur Rahman had come to power with British support and for the first time a stable buffer state was established there which alleviated British fears to a great extent. However, the Russians were now focusing their energies westwards on the eastern banks of the Caspian Sea. In 1881, they captured the Turcoman fortress of Geok-Tepe and in 1884, organized a bloodless takeover of Merv. Shortly afterwards, the Russians began work on the Transcaspian railway line which once again alarmed the British as a significant strategic move, seemingly to mobilize troops for an attack on India.

In 1890, the British sent Francis Younghusband, an exceptional officer and explorer to survey the Pamir gap, a region where Afghanistan and China merged and was largely a no-man’s land. They were anxious that the Russians might occupy this gap and pose a threat to Ladakh and Kashmir. In 1891, the British fears came true and the Russian troops occupied the gap while the British surveyors were wintering in Kashgar. However, to avoid a confrontation with the British amidst an economic turmoil at home, the Russians soon pulled out of the Pamirs. As a precautionary measure, the British decided to occupy the Hunza, Nagar and Chitral chiefdoms to the North-West of Kashmir, and hence shut all doors on Russia.

Following this, the Russians shifted their attention to East Asia and started the work on the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891. This alarmed the Japanese who had an established presence in eastern China. Substantial Russian troop build-up in Port Arthur on the east coast of China finally incensed the Japanese and led to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 which ended in a shocking defeat for the Russians. Being vanquished by an obscure Asian nation shattered Russian confidence and exposed the vulnerabilities of the Tsarist behemoth. 

Finally, in the Anglo-Russian convention of 1908, the Great Game was effectively put to an end after both nations marked their territories in Persia and pledged non-interference in Afghanistan and Tibet. It was an end of nearly a century of mutual rivalry which gave both nations innumerable stories of courage and adventure to cherish for ages to come. Although, very few direct confrontations occurred between the two nations, it was marked by a characteristic paranoia towards each other. The fears were often unfounded and failed to materialize on the ground and yet ensured that each player slept with one eye open. The Russian attempts were continuously marred by sideline skirmishes and wars, a floundering economy and lack of an imaginative leadership which choked their dreams in the cradle. On the other hand, British fears were multiplied manifold because of their patchy assessment of the enemy and its strengths. Their policies were often shaped by the war-mongering Russophobes in London. Someone like Lord Curzon, who would go on to become the Viceroy of India at the age of 39, even suggested that the Russians never really sought to capture India and their real plan was to keep the British occupied in Asia, as they marched west to capture Constantinople.

The Great Game is a tale of turning tides and fickle fortunes, of astounding breakthroughs and appalling reversals. But what makes the story of the Great Game so absorbing is the enigma that surrounds its very purpose, one for which thousands of men leapt into the hazy deserts and scaled the mighty mountains of High Asia, immortalized for their valor and toil, making these lands an eternal sanctuary of their pursuits.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.