Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42
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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

4.35 of 5 stars 4.35  ·  rating details  ·  733 ratings  ·  171 reviews
From the prizewinning historian, a masterly retelling of the first Afghan war, perhaps the West's greatest imperial disaster in the East: an important parable of neocolonial ambition and cultural collision, folly, and hubris.

With access to previously untapped primary sources, William Dalrymple gives us the most immediate and comprehensive account we have had of the spectac...more
Hardcover, 515 pages
Published April 16th 2013 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2013)
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Does this sound familiar? Afghanistan is invaded by the army of a superpower keen to reinforce its power and prestige within the region. An easy victory is achieved, a puppet ruler is installed and at first things seem to go relatively well. However, resistance to the occupation force grows over time. Serious and humiliating defeats are suffered and the occupier eventually withdraws.

This could describe the past thirteen years of Afghan history following the invasion by coalition forces in 2001....more
Ranjeev Dubey
Between a timeless subject, a world recounted in the raw, a skilled historian and a brilliant writer, what can you get but a book you can't put down...all 2000 grams of it!

I don't do 600 page hardbacks for the love of my aging wrists, and I don't do 600 page hardbacks when I've already read three previous versions of the same story (Peter Hopkirk's "The Great Game" and "On Secret Service", James Perry's "Arrogant Armies" and of course, J.A.Norris's "The First Afgan War" to say nothing about TV...more
Feb 01, 2013 Laura rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Bettie, Carey
FRom BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:
William Dalrymple analyses the first Afghan war, 1839-1842. Read by Tim Pigott-Smith
Christopher Saunders
Peerless account of the First Anglo-Afghan War, besting extant volumes by Patrick Macrory and Peter Hopkirk. Dalrymple presents fresh primary research, tapping Afghan, Indian and Russian archives to provide a more rounded portrait. Dalrymple counterpoints the Anglo-Russian "Great Game" with ongoing Afghan tribal rivalries. Ousted Shah Shujah manipulates the British into placing him on the Afghan throne, as more compliant than the cagey Dost Mohammed. Dalrymple fleshes out the familiar story of E...more
Superb account of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 and the subsequent revolt in 1841 which led to a disastrous retreat in which most of the army and accompanying civilians and administrators were wiped out. The author draws parallels with the situation in the present decade and the omens are not good. Dalrymple has the ability to explain complicated agreements, rivalries and geographies in a clear manner. What might have been a dry account becomes a stylish account full of fascinating...more
This is the story of the first 19th century British invasion of Afghanistan. It is the work of a fastidious historian, but it is as gripping as any novel. And always behind the story are the uncanny parallels between that invasion and the present one still in progress. You finish this book understanding very well all that is now playing out and its likely outcome. Very little of significance has changed in a century and a half. Like America and its present allies, the British for strategic reaso...more
Rajendra Dave
The tale, very gory and very sordid is told in a very readable manner. Therein lies genius of its author.

Though the time span of the story is extremely short for a history- hardly a decade- the spatial canvas is sizable; spanning from Bhuj to Bukhara and Ludhiana to Herat and beyond in Persia. That covers at least five present-day nations. Casual manner in which movement of various persons - Indian, British, Afghans and Russians across this vast landscape is described makes one wonder whether o...more
William Dalrymple is the definitive modern historian of the East India company's reign in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. With already two brilliant books – 'The White Mughals' and 'The Last Mughal' – on the subject, he has now written this masterly chronicle on the disastrous British misadventure in Afghanistan during the years 1839-1842. In his words, this first British war in Afghanistan was one of colonial arrogance, hubris, folly and cultural collision. What else can you call a fo...more
For anyone who has progressed beyond middle school history remains a dry but occasionally colourful record of past events constructed from a motely bundle of dates, names,events and personalities.It was the same for me too, until William Darlymple came along. His books make for interesting reading. I was drawn to his books intially because most of them were based on India's colonial past, a chapter in Indian history that has retained it's magical spell on me. Text books in the school gave sparse...more
William Dalrymple opens up and makes accessible an entire section of history that is the stuff of legends and poetry. The first British invasion of Afghanistan was a adventure that the British Empire walked into with an astonishing arrogance fuelled by their belief that they were somehow invincible.

The book tells the story of Shah Shuja, his exile from Afghanistan and the subsequent British attempts to restore him to the throne occupied by his rival Dost Muhammed. The British motivation for this...more
Emmanuel Gustin
Dalrymple can be trusted to bring history to life, and his treatment of the tragedy of the first British invasion of Afghanistan is full of rich sketches of the people who lived through it and often died in it. It is a remarkable history, often of unimaginable contradiction and irony: This was not a straightforward battle between two sides nations, but a complex encounter between several peoples, with lines of loyalty and conflict criss-crossing in extremely complex ways. If the British invasion...more
Reshmy Pillai
Though Dalrymple takes us on an in-depth nearly 500-paged journey through the war prone and war-torn land of Afghanistan – the narration never loses its impact, the interest is only deepened over the pages. The details, tale and the language are in perfect balance. The parallel he draws at the end comparing the best military powers of 19th as well as 21st centuries fighting the same tribes of the land of Afghanistan and being routed by them is the perfect masterstroke. Full Review:
Ashraf Dockrat
Enjoyed every page. The language and manner of speech the narrative records is, to me, very appealing. There are "quotable" lines in every chapter. In his typical style William Dalrymple has brought the history of the Afghan War alive and for me, almost palpable to my senses.Look forward to his next offering.
Petra X
Interesting background to the present situation. It's the same tribes still fighting the same enemies. It was a good history but only an average read. 3.5 stars.
Mansoor Azam
Before I write further you must know I'm an ardent fan of William Dalrymple.
The reasons I jumped at this title n devoured it quickly include that I have always been fascinated by the land that is now known as Afghanistan. The Anglo British wars are an important part of it and especially so the first one.
The book is well researched and it speaks for itself as the author brings you those sources which hitherto one has never heard of before. The attention to detail is great. Authors knowledge of...more
Paul Pensom
The 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan is a conflict I've read of several times before. As with his earlier book 'The Last Mughal' though, Dalrymple commands attention on even familiar subjects through both the mastery of his narrative style and the thoroughness of his research.

'The Last Mughal' was distinguished by its use of hitherto unpublished Urdu and Persian court documents. Similarly, for this book, Dalrymple has uncovered first-hand Afghan accounts of the war, bringing a new perspectiv...more
Steve Gillway
Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. This book shows how this dictum can be applied to many military escapades in Afghanistan including the current one. This book concentrates on the 1839/42 British campaign to reinstate an old leader (Incredibly related to Hamid Karzai and still regarded as a Quisling type figure even now) in order to stymie Russian diplomatic/miltary aims to threaten British India. The author has assembled a multitude of primary sources from all side...more
There is no greater international problem today than what is going on in Central Asia, particularly in Afghanistan. But Mr. Dalrymple's fabulous book points out that Afghanistan has been a problem for the West for quite a while now in this history of the first invasion of Afghanistan by Britain in 1839. Through fabulous prose and citations from witnesses on both sides of the conflict, including epic poems written by the Afghans themselves, Mr. Dalrymple draws parallels between this war and today...more
Kislay Verma
I'd actually rate it 3.5.

From my review at Solomon Says:

Return of a King is an excellent chronicle of the Great Game of imperialism in Asia in the 1800s. William Dalrymple has done a commendable job of researching, exploring, and compiling data from hitherto unknown sources. This wealth of information, along with the author’s skill at telling an engaging story; make this book a pleasure to read. The mountain passes, forts, cities, bazaars, and monarchs of Afghanistan (or Khurasan, as the afghan...more
Stephen Joyce
My Review from the Asian Review of Books

In the early 19th century, Afghanistan (or Khurasan as it was known to its inhabitants) was a hotchpotch of competing fiefdoms with shifting tribal allegiances based on power, money and blood ties. According to William Dalrymple it was a “poor, fractured and uncontrollable country,” prone to civil and fratricidal conflict. This is the backdrop to his magnificent history of the first war for Afghanistan (1839-42).
Dalrymple is the first historian to use an e...more
A fascinating piece of history, masterfully presented. In the wake of Napoleon’s fall, Russia looked to expand south just as England looked north from India, and the Great Game began. As misinformation followed misunderstanding, the British decided they needed to contain the Russians by controlling Afghanistan, thus launching the First Anglo-Afghan War. Much of the appeal in the book lies in individual stories of the brilliant and intrepid figures – linguists, explorers, archeologists, engineers...more
Akash Nair
The timing of the book is impeccable.Impeccable because there are a lot of similarities between what is Afghanistan now and what it was then.The book describes the history of Afghanistan from 1839-1842.
The similarities..
World's super-power : Then Britain , now USA.
The reasons for the battle for Afghanistan are also similar.The Brits wanted to secure India's borders and feared(wrongly) Russian influence in the region.The present situation has arised from what was a cold war skirmish between USSR...more
Amber Darr
Fabulous. Solidly historical yet paced like a novel. Brings the era and the people alive. Must read for history buffs!
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" is the first quote that came to mind when I finished this book. Darlymple history of Afghanistan from its founding as a nation state till the 1840s is a finely crafted piece of scholarship that is more gripping than any thriller.

The author skilfully brings out the tangled web of tribal and family alliances and rivalries that made (and make) the country difficult to conquer and impossible to hold for any foreigner. While all accounts...more
Stefan Vollering
Excellent read. Perhaps intentionally, the book leads one to draw the parallel to later invasions into and occupations of Afghanistan. * spoiler alert * I sniggered by the strategic decision of the English to install Shah Shuja at great cost as a new and friendly ruler, while the incumbent leader - Dost Mohammed - had so often expressed his interest in aligning with the English. My sniggers temporarily turned into respect by the relative ease of invasion. With the tribal leaders sensing the migh...more
Victor Gibson
On a visit to Aberdeen I went to Waterstone's and bought a couple of books, but on my way out there in the window I saw an enormous pile of 'Return of a King'. So I went back and bought a copy. This is a stunning book, and the only drawback of it is that there are many many extracts from eyewitnesses of the events during the 1839 invasion of Afghanistan by the British. William Dalrymple writes better than those recording the events did, but maybe all the quotes have a place.

It is an amazing nar...more
Barbara Taylor
This book was very well written! So many words unfamiliar even to my dictionary! So British, and so revealing of the imperial mindset of the British foreign authorities and military of 1830 -1840s Afghanistan. The boots on the ground, the opinons of men who knew the minds and hearts of the Afghans, were overlooked because of their "ignoble" origins. The ones who created policy relied on their own idea of what might bring glory to England, Nevermore the consequence or reality of the occupied terr...more
This is pretty deep history. It is not for the casual reader. It is 500 dense pages. Although this book only covers 3 years, it covers them very thoroughly! I read several chapters at a time, putting the book down for awhile between each reading. … The British officers who first came to Afghanistan were arrogant, and ignorant. They did not understand the people and the people didn’t understand them. 3 bloody bloody years of war and mayhem followed. Treachery and foul play abound: Atrocities on a...more
Phillip W.
Sep 18, 2013 Phillip W. marked it as to-read
Past is prologue: If you want to grasp the present you need understand the past. This book is an excellent work of history that shows the reality of imperial folly of the past and offers enlightenment on the follies of the present. Bottom line: Not much has changed in Afghanistan and those in power should have known something about that. The past doesn't repeat itself, but it does a damn good job of reminding you what came before you matters in the present.
Marcus Pailing
Just fantastic. I've read a lot of books about the First Afghan War, but this goes way beyond anything previously published. Dalrymple has sourced all the old Indian Records Office documents, and also managed to dig up the Afghan sources, which have been ignored before now (or haven't been known about). It's an excellent book - and very well written, as well! Highly recommended.
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Dalrymple writes fascinating books. 1 11 Feb 03, 2013 08:35PM  
  • Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain
  • Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan
  • Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War
  • The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers
  • Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965
  • Afgantsy: The Russians In Afghanistan, 1979-1989
  • Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
  • Year Zero: A History of 1945
  • The Crimean War
  • The Opium War
  • Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India
  • From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia
  • In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire
  • Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan
  • The War That Ended Peace: The Road To 1914
  • Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game & the Race for Empire in Central Asia
  • Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present
  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha Globe)
William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the highly acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu when he was twenty-two. The book won the 1990 Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award and a Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award; it was also shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. In 1989 Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six year...more
More about William Dalrymple...
City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 Nine Lives White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India In Xanadu: A Quest

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“The first Embassy to Afghanistan by a western power left the Company's Delhi Residency on 13 October 1808, with the Ambassador accompanied by 200 calvary, 4,000 infantry, a dozen elephants and no fewer than 600 camels. It was dazzling, but it was also clear from this attempt to reach out to the Afghans that the British were not interested in cultivating Shah Shuja's friendship for its own sake, but were concerned only to outflank their imperial rivals: the Afghans were perceived as mere pawns on the chessboard of western diplomacy, to be engaged or sacrificed at will. It was a precedent that was to be followed many other times, by several different powers, over the years and decades to come; and each time the Afghans would show themselves capable of defending their inhospitable terrain far more effectively than any of their would-be manipulators could possibly have suspected.” 1 likes
“To subdue and crush the masses of a nation by military force, when all are unanimous in the determination to be free, is to attempt the imprisonment of a whole people; all such projects must be temporary and transient, and terminate in a catastrophe...” 0 likes
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