Return of a King – A critique of Dalrymple’s book

By Farrukh Husain

Dalrymple commissions translations of Persian sources: Eight Persian sources have been translated and utilized by Dalrymple to varying degrees. Chief amongst these translated sources are the memoirs or Waqayat of Shah Shuja Ul Mulk. The Shuja memoirs were quoted by Kaye in his 1851 History of the war in Afghanistan. The Shuja Memoirs had previously been translated by a Lt Bennett and published in a Calcutta Journal in the early 1830s. Dalrymple has updated the Shuja memoirs translation to cover the first Afghan war and cites this source. Dalrymple further uses a court history produced during Amir Habibullah’s reign entitled Siraj Ul Tawarikh translated by McCheshney. Other sources newly translated and quoted works include the Jangnama, Akbarnama, Letters of Aminullah Logari and Nawa Marek. Rather annoyingly the letters of Aminullah Logari are only cited once, even that paraphrased. Most quotes are from Naway Marek, Waqayat and Siraj Ul Tawarikh. However Dalrymple has done well to bring these works to a wider audience.

Nothing really new to learn about the first Afghan war from Dalrymple:

2 quotes from other Amazon reviewers with a much larger common complaint:
1. “I regrettably didn’t find much new in this work on the First Anglo-Afghan War.” (Reviewer: Romulus)
2. there is very little in it that is new about the First Afghan War(Reviewer: Dr Barry Clayton)
A lazy historiography filled with mistakes:
1.Page 5 Dalrymple Return of a King: “Here, eighteen months earlier, Napoleon, at the very peak of his power, had met the Russian Emperor, Alexander II”
Napoleon met Alexander I, not Alexander II

2. Afghan women and British officers (p.223 Dalrymple): ‘Afghan’s sense of honour was now beginning to be seriously offended by the growing number of affairs taking place between British officers and Afghan women. The most prominent was probably the marriage between Captain Robert Warburton and the beautiful Shah Jahan Begum, a niece of Dost Mohammad, to which both Burnes and Lt Sturt were witnesses’ Equally sensitive was between Lieutenant Lynch, the Political Agent at Qalat, and the beautiful sister of Walu Khan Shamulzai, the local Ghilzai Chieftain.”

The marriage by Captain Warburton to Shah Jahan Begum was a forced marriage: See Collister Hostage in Afghanistan page: 21-22. Dalrymple cites Collister in his bibliography but had he bothered to familiarize himself with this work, he would not have made the above mistake.
Dalrymple provides no evidence that Lieutenant Lynch married Walu Shamulzai’s sister Afghan or that there was an ‘affair’ – again this appears to have been a forced relationship since a British officer the infamous Nicholson intended to kill Walu Shamulzai and relented under pressure from Lynch who in turn received Walu Shamulzai’s sister: See p.321 Yapp Strategies of British India 1980.

3. Witnesses to assassination of A Burnes: “there are no eyewitness accounts surviving of the final moments of Burnes”p302 Dalrymple:

Buwh Singh a servant of Burnes witnessed the killing and gave a full statement which is in existence still and was available to the Victorian Historian Kaye. I quote Buwh Singh on pages 233-234 of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires.

4. Dalrymple states with a large hint of anti-Pashtun bias there is no evidence Shuja could speak Pashto: “Shuja created around him a highly cultured Persianate world – there is no indication that the Shah ever knew Pashtu, and he certainly did not write in it. He lived, as the Mughals did before him, a life of mobile kingship and in many ways he emerges as the last Timurid, exercising his rule in a country that was still at the crossroads of Iran, Central Asia, China and Hindustan, not the mountainous periphery it would later become.” p.501 Return of a King.

“He was a man of considerable ability, an Arabic scholar and a poet, well acquainted with Persian literature, speaking Persian perfectly, and Hindustani with ease, besides his mother-tongue Pushtu; yet, strange to say, the court language on public occasions is Turki! Everything said to the Shah in Persian was repeated to him by his Master of the Ceremonies in Turki, and he replied in the same manner, a curious reminiscence of the time when Afghan kings reigned from Bokhara to the Indian Ocean, and from Meshed to Sirhind.p .185 Helen Mackenzie ‘Storms and sunshine in a soldier’s life’. Ironically Colin Mackenzie, Helen’s husband is Dalrymple’s wife’s ancestor. Colin must surely be turning in his grave at Dalrymple’s ignorance of the central figure in Darlymple’s book, Shah Shuja Ul Mulk.

Dalrymple appears to look down on spoken Pashto and furthermore blames the Afghans for their country ceasing to be at the “cross roads” of the region but becoming a neglected “mountainous periphery” in effect a forgotten backwater. Afghanistan was forced into becoming a “mountainous periphery” by Britain which did not want foreign travellers coming to Afghanistan and by the expansion of Russia and Britain which came to border Afghanistan. Britain failed to integrate Afghanistan into its trading systems until after the second Anglo Afghan war. Dalrymple merely blames the victims for the crimes of imperialism, an imperialism which Dalrymple’s family has benefitted greatly from to keep them in the style in which they have become accustomed.

5. In the Epiloque there is an imagined veteran:
Dalrymple claims to quote from a veteran of the first Afghan war named Gleig: “In 1843, shortly after his return from the slaughterhouse of the First Anglo-Afghan war, the army chaplain in Jalalabad, the Rev. G.R. Gleig, wrote a memoir about the disastrous expedition of which he was one of the lucky survivors” – unfortunately it does not appear Dalrymple read Gleig’s book in entirety since Gleig points out he never was a veteran of the 1st Anglo-Afghanistan war: “An accidental meeting with the 13th regiment at the sea-bathing quarter of Walmer during the autumn of last year gave me an opportunity of hearing more of the particulars of the Jellalabad siege than had previously been communicated to me. The narrative was full of interest when detailed by actors in the scenes which they described” (p (v) Gleig). Gleig in fact l was a famous Victorian author. I am sure he would be greatly amused to know that he has been raised to the status of being an Anglo-Afghan war veteran!

6. A depiction of Mullah Shakur?
One of the plates used by Dalrymple in Return of a King, claims to represent Mullah Shakur standing with Shah Shujah Ul Mulk, Safdur Jung and Timur Jung. The individual is in fact an unidentified servant. There is simply no proof that this is Shakur as claimed, other than an over fertile imagination or literary licence.

6.1 Dalrymple condemns Pollock alongside the portrait of Pollock in Dalrymple’s book as being the “meticulous but merciless Major-General Pollock commander of the Army of Retribution who laid waste to South-Eastern Afghanistan and burned Kabul to the ground.” Regretfully it was not Pollock who was the most merciless of the two British Generals Pollock and Nott. In fact Nott was the most merciless and pushed Pollock for retribution in Kabul, as Rawlinson wrote:

“The two courses of policy approved of by Gen Pollock and Gen Nott are distinctly opposite … He (Pollock) finds it absolutely necessary to remain at Cabool for a short time to obtain both camels and grain he thinks that this object cannot be fancied unless there be the appearance at any rate of an organised Government. He accordingly wishes to stretch a point in consolidating Futteh Jung’s power in fact by as far as supporting him as he possibly can without compromising the Government of India, in such a view he has determined to do no injury to Cabool or the surrounding villages. He has agreed to grant a political amnesty to all engaged in the recent rebellion, whose allegiance to Futteh Jung may seem likely to strengthen the Suddozye power against the Barukzye that is he has sanctioned the invitation to Cabool of the Dooranee Chiefs concerned in the insurrection on the understanding that he will not molest them. He proposes to obtain grain through the Govt authorities paying for the same to Futteh Jung and he further contemplates remaining at Cabool till late in October with a view to placing matters in some working condition prior to our withdrawal all this is I have said is schematically opposed by the views of Gen Nott. The latter has with him sufficient supplies to carry him at once to Jellalabad. He considers therefore that the dignity of the Government having been sufficiently asserted by our triumphant march to this place we should return immediately. There is a passage in Lord Ellenbrough’s dispatches of July 4th which directs the General in the event of reaching Cabool “to leave a permanent mark of British power without impeaching it’s humanity”. An order which the General understands to signify that we destroy the town but to avoid the massacre of the inhabitants. Gen Nott further considers it folly or worse than folly to have attempted any arrangement with Futteh Jung or the Qizilbash and as for the Dooranees who participated in the insurrection they should be hung … He will hardly permit an Afghan to enter his Camp and he thinks that we should be fully justified in helping ourselves to all the supplies in the different villages as a reprisal for the plunder taken from us in the winter. The General has always declared that if he had his way he would not expend a farthing of money or move a soldier an inch, but he would place all the Qizilbash chiefs in confinement and threaten them with death unless the officers were brought in within a given time. ” (H C Rawlinson HC7 RGS)

Nott considered all ‘Afghans’ as uniformly being the enemy when that was not the case since the Qizilbash did not even consider themselves to be Afghan. (p.335 Afghanistan in the Age of Empires, F Husain (2018))

7. Superficial or non-existent analysis :

i) Surrender of Dost M Khan

Arguments advanced as to why Dost M Khan surrendered were originally produced by Jonathan Lee but Dalrymple, ever the gentleman, does not bother to cite Lee as the source of his inspiration.

ii) The destruction of the Kabul Bazaar:

Dalrymple says that it is ironic that the East India Co came to Afghanistan to develop trade and instead destroyed the greatest bazaar of Central Asia – this is not a new observation and was made by The Times and other contemporary observers. Overall the analysis of events is either superficial or lacking in Dalrymple’s fat door stopper of a book. There is in fact no original analysis in Dalrymple’s book at all.

Orientalist and derogatory views about the role of Afghan women in Combat

According to Dalrymple the role of Afghan women in particular Afridi women in combat was to mutilate the British war dead by cutting their testicles off and stuffing these in the deceased’s mouth citing Allen’s book ‘Soldier Sahibs’. (p467 Return of a King). No positive images of Afghan women in combat are given. In contrast in my book Afghanistan in the Age of Empires I cite an Afghan female engaged in hand to hand combat in the citadel of Ghazni in July 1839 and another female leading Afghan men in a cavalry attack at Zamindawar in May 1842. In essence to cite no positive accounts of Afghan women in the war leads to the conclusion that this British author engaged in a Kiplinesque treatment of Afghan women. Kipling in his poetry well known to the British wrote,

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Mohammed Akbar Khan by referring to him as “Ruthless”

Page 310 Return of a King Dalrymple refers to Dost Mohammed’s “CLEVER AND RUTHLESS SON, Akbar khan,”- ruthless is not an apt description. Mohammed Akbar Khan cannot be said to have no pity or compassion for others as Dalrymple himself writes on
page 401 prisoners account citing Akbar’s care for them. “Lawrence …noting that Akbar gave up his palanquin to Ladies Sale and Macnaghten…When Lawrence told Akbar that the prisoners needed a little money he was immediately offered a thousand rupees: ‘on giving him a receipt for it, he tore it up, saying such things were only required among traders, not between gentlemen’. “ So to claim that Mohammed Akbar Khan is “ruthless” is utter nonsense.

Dalrymple misrepresents a retreating British army from Kabul as ‘REFUGEES”!

P369 Return of a King “They (Afghans) travelled parallel to the British, on both flanks of the column firing parallel into the jostling rabble of refugees they were now driving between them” This is an utterly nonsensical description of a retreating army as “refugees”. Refugees are people who are being forced to flee their country of origin due to e.g. political persecution or ethnic persecution not an army retreating from a country they have occupied illegally. Indeed this British armed force was capable of inflicting harm on Afghans. Mohammed Akbar Khan had promised safe passage to the British out of Afghanistan if they disarmed and handed over their weapons at Kabul but the British refused to abide by this agreement. Dalrymple continues the above sentence with further metaphors portraying the retreating army as defenceless sheep to the slaughter: “they (Afghans) were now driving between them, like shepherds expertly controlling a flock of panicked sheep”. I have never seen “sheep” with cannons or rifles. Dalrymple is attempting to very subtly engage the sympathy of the reader with the retreating British army. A soldier has his bayonet and rifle, the writer has words and knows the effect of their words, Dalrymple in this passage condemns himself as being sympathetic to this invasion. There is no surprise here since Dalrymple’s wife’s ancestor was party to the invasion and some of Dalrymple’s distant cousins are related to Sir William Macnaghten. Though Dalrymple himself does not have direct blood links to Sir William Macnaghten. For a man like Dalrymple whose father served in India and generations of his family benefitted from Afghanistan and India there is little surprise that his writing attempts to portray the British invaders as the innocent victims.

In conclusion, Dalrymple’s book does not benefit greatly our shelves groaning under another voluminous work by this writer. Dalrymple should have stuck to writing about India which he loves rather than writing on Afghanistan of which he so obviously lacks the passion for. Therefore my own book Afghanistan in the Age of Empires presents the best and more balanced account of the First Afghan War, with meticulous analysis. Indeed as Professor Mohammed Hassan Kakar states,

“As far as I know no other author has covered Afghan affairs during the first half of the nineteenth century and particularly the First Afghan war in such detail. This work is a major contribution to the field of Afghan studies.”

Other acclaimed author’s have written the following comments:
“Farrukh Husain captures an aspect of Afghan history others have failed to find. His narrative is rich in Afghan and British archives, which he has painstakingly researched , recreating the story of Imperial Britain’s ill-fated attempt to control Afghanistan in the mid-19th Century. In their own words, the key protagonists are brought to life, their thoughts and actions illustrating the complexities of retaining power in this troubled region, the cultural and political issues they faced resonating in the present day.”
Victoria Schofield

“Afghanistan in the age of empires is without doubt the most thorough and scholarly work of modern times to consider the fascinating complexities of this ancient history of culture and conflict. Both readable and informative, it draws one down through interwoven layers of history, many of which have been ignored by other historians until now. Making use of source material translated into English for the first time, as well as an inside understanding of events, Farrukh Husain has surpassed all expectations, with a truly extraordinary book”.
Tahir Shah

“This book is a treasure of images as well as insights”
Nancy Hatch Dupree

The kindle version of “Afghanistan in the Age of Empires (2018)” can be purchased on Amazon: 

According to William Dalrymple Rev G R Gleig was a Veteran of the first Afghan War but in fact he was just a Victorian writer and not a war veteran at all.
“Meticulous but merciless’ according to William Dalrymple but never a more incorrect description of General Pollock.


Here is Reverend G R Gleig’s book in which he states on the page misleadingly headlined as an advertisement that he met some veterans of the first Anglo-Afghan war and this led him to write an account of the conflict.


Here we have the second page of the ‘advertisement’ in which G R Gleig tells us in the preface to his work that he is not a veteran of the 1st Anglo-Afghan war.


Dalrymple errs and claims that the marriage between Warburton and Shah Jahan Begum was voluntary and further errs by claiming that Lynch married the sister of Walu Khan Shamalzai.


Here we have an account from Hostage in Afghanistan by Peter Collister which confirms that the Warburton marriage was a forced marriage.


This page from Hostage in Afghanistan confirms how Warburton married his Afghan Wife through deception and force.



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