For much of the 19th century, the world’s two great superpowers of the time, Britain and Russia, were engaged in a struggle for control of the lands and, by extension the people, of Central Asia. On Britain’s part, the struggle was primarily to protect British India from possible incursions from the Russians. The Russians were attempting to gain trading partners as well as land and to keep Britain at bay.
This era, known as the Great Game, is the time of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, a time when spies traveled Afghanistan and the Caucasus, making deals with emirs and other local leaders, all of whom had their own angles that they were pursuing. Cultures clashed, and people were betrayed and sometimes murdered. In the time of the Great Game, you could never be quite clear where you stood as the situation was in constant flux and the players couldn’t always be trusted.
Peter Hopkirk’s exhaustive account of these years makes it clear just how perilous and unpredictable the Great Game was for the players on every side, and the game did indeed have many sides. Generally characterized as a dispute between Russia and Britain, the Great Game drew in players from every nation in Central Asia and many others from the surrounding area. At times, these nations were treated as mere pawns, but these were pawns with a will of their own, and the ultimate outcome of the game often hinged on their decisions.
Because Hopkirk covers such a long period, nearly 100 years, we get to see certain patterns emerge and we get a sense of just how vast and ongoing the game was. And because he draws extensively from first-hand accounts by the men who were part of the Great Game, we get details that add color and excitement to the narrative. But the comprehensive nature of the book means that after a while the people and the nations and the events start to blend together, and after finishing the book, I find that as much as I enjoyed reading it, I cannot think of one particular incident that stands out. Instead I’m left with impressions. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the book, though perhaps it’s a flaw in this reader when encountering this kind of book. I love these kinds of comprehensive accounts, because the big picture is so valuable, but it’s the specific, close-up narratives that stick with me more.
As far as impressions go, one thing that kept coming into my mind was how these events would be described by historians from Afghanistan or India or Tibet or Persia. Most of Hopkirk’s sources are British, and although there’s no reason to assume they’re lying about, for example, the treatment of Westerners taken as slaves, there is every reason to imagine that they might have twisted the facts to make their own choices sound better. Hopkirk doesn’t paint over some of the brutal acts of the British and the Russians, but did his sources?
Toward the end of the book, Hopkirk makes this comment:
As for the Indians themselves, they were neither consulted nor considered in any of this. Yet, like their Muslim neighbours across the frontier, it was largely their blood which was spilt during the Imperial struggle.
So many people were touched by this struggle that ultimately had nothing to do with them. The British and the Russians so rarely seemed to be looking out for the interests of the people of Central Asia. When they tried to bring a particular ruler into power or gain control of a specific city, they were looking out for the interests of their own nations. If bringing a less autocratic, capricious ruler into power benefited England, that was all well and good, but it wasn’t their goal.
And like today, political struggles in the West ended up having significant consequences for the Central Asians caught in the Great Game. Britain’s aggression in the world of the Great Game often depended on which party was in power. It’s sobering—and frustrating—to see just how long this pattern has been in place.
If you’re interested in this period and if you enjoy these sorts of widescreen histories, I definitely recommend this book. Too often, I find that these kinds of histories turn into dry recitations of facts, which is never the case here. Hopkirk writes well, bringing more than enough suspense and drama to the story to keep my interest throughout.