Bill's Reviews > The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk
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's review
Dec 02, 2009

it was amazing
Read in November, 2009

The Great Game is a cautionary tale showing the huge gamble the U. S. is now taking in Afghanistan. It is well a written history of Central Asia throughout the 19th Century.

Hopkirk records the repeated conflict, at war and through diplomacy, between England and Russia. England believed Russia would invade India and Russia was extending its empire in Central Asia and the Far East. Based on the recent availability of Russian archives, Hopkirk questions if Russia ever had a serious intent to invade India.

At the beginning of the 19th Century much of Central Asia, including Afghanistan, was a blank on English maps. Several brave Englishmen, frequently in disguise to avoid death or slavery, explored the huge territory. Mountains, deserts and warring tribes made their efforts exceptionally dangerous and lonely. Many, although assigned by the English government were told that they should deny any government involvement if they were captured.

One of these men was Alexander Burnes (1805-1841.) He is used in this report as an example of several other British explorers documented by Hopkirk. In 1831, he was a young officer in the Indian political service. England was trying to bring Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the Punjab into its orbit. Burnes was charged with the mission of bringing a gift of five impressive horses as a gift to Singh up the Indus River to Lahore. The gift was a cover. The real reason for the effort was to determine if navigation was possible on the Indus and to explore Lahore's defenses.

Burnes then used his success to obtain permission for a much longer and dangerous trip. He proposed an exploration, mapping and spying trip form India to Kabul, onto Bokhara and finally a return to India via the Caspian Sea and Persia. Bokhara is now the capital of a province in Uzbekistan and Persia, for the most part, is now Iran. As was the case with Ranjit Singh, Burnes charmed Dost Mohammed, the ruler of Afghanistan, and Koosh Begee, the Grand Vizier of Bokhara.

Burnes, in 1839, was appointed to be the English political officer in Kabul. By 1841 the English had ousted Dost Mohammed and replaced him with Shah Shujah a very unpopular move with the locals. Also unpopular was Burnes womanizing. A mob hacked him to death on November 1, 1841.

Hopkirk tells about many other brave men both English and Russian who face death or were killed because they were victims of international and local politics. An excellent read.

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