In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the high mountain passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk.
On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the nineteenth century: an entire army of the then most powerful nation in the world ambushed in retreat and utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen.
Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the First Afghan War, told through the lives of unforgettable characters on all sides and using for the first time contemporary Afghan accounts of the conflict. Prize-winning and best-selling historian William Dalrymple’s masterful retelling of Britain’s greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times
Once I got into the tale and the style of writing I was gripped, though that did take a bit of time and it is a must read for anyone wondering about Afghanistan today. For a country that has such an impact on Britain this is a must read for anyone trying to understand why Britain is there, where it went wrong and why they should never have gone in the first place.
It is hard to read without thinking about today’s conflict as there are so many similarities. Dalrymple has amazingly researched, how much time did all that take yet it is a very readable, not a dense academic work. He gave a fair and hopefully balanced view about both sides in the conflict and yet at times it read like a brilliant story and in some cases I was drawn to “like” some of the leading people in the conflicts.
I felt that he was/is really trying to deliver a message to the power to be today that they have gone about Afghanistan all wrong and so you get a deep and detailed understanding of how Afghanistan culture exists, how it works and probably has not changed and most importantly how it will not be changed. I’ve not read WD before and if this is his normal standard his writing is amazingly, accessible and very readable.