Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Tournament of Shadows: the Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia

Meyer, Karl E. and Brysac, Shareen Blair. Tournament of Shadows: the Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia.

Meyer and Brysac set out to portray the entirety of what they and others have alternately called the “Tournament of Shadows” or “The Great Game” in its entirety, from the consolidation of the British East India Company’s power in the former Mughal domains through the final defeat of the Soviet Union’s Afghani puppet government by the mujaheddin in 1997.  They generally accomplish this grand goal in a sprawling six hundred-page tome that varies in tone from that of a novel like Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels to a peer-reviewed journal article.  Considering that parts of the text have previously appeared in The Quarterly Journal of Military History and other forums this is hardly surprising.

The overarching premise of Tournament of Shadows is that the regional competition between Great Britain and Russia for domination of Central Asia was pivotal to world events in other arenas.  However, while interesting, the data presented by Meyer and Brysac do not make a compelling case for this argument.  Even the emergence of Middle Eastern oil wealth does not necessarily support the claim that “Who rules the Heartland ... commands the World,” particularly given the increasing ability to replace petroleum products with renewable sources of fuel such as vegetable oil, bio-diesel, and ethanol to fuel vehicles around the world, much less the development of practical hybrid and electric vehicles  Still, Meyer and Brysac weave an interesting tapestry of characters and places that draw the reader into the Indian sub-continent and its intrigues.

While other authors give reasons of economics, trade, and security (for the Russians) as the primary motivators for British and Russian expansionism in Central Asia, Meyer and Brysac focus on British paranoia regarding security for India and national pride, with trade as a lesser issue.  The first of their enlightened Russophobes must be the renowned Sir John Macnaghten, the Secretary of the Political and Secret Department, who believed that the best response to suspected overtures toward Afghanistan’s ruler Dost Muhammed by Russian agents was a quick and dirty overthrow of his popular reign.  Although primarily directed at Russian influence, the true purpose was shrouded in accusations that Dost was conniving with Persia against the Sikhs in his former possessions in Peshawar.

Although Meyer and Brysac appear to have the greatest sympathy toward their British protagonists, they do not fall into the trap of excusing all of their actions and decisions.  Before even discussing the disastrous British adventure later called the First Afghan War, they illustrate the inherent flaws in the campaign, writing, “Only a willing suspension of disbelief can explain what came to be called the First Afghan War.” A critique of the four assumptions that Meyer and Brysac believe that the British leadership held follows, with a further assertion that the campaign was undertaken despite the fact that the fatal flaws of the endeavor were already evident.

The assumptions that the British made regarding the First Afghan War: that the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh would bear the brunt of the fighting, that the fall of Herat to Persia was imminent, that Dost Mohammed was a Russian pawn, and that the Afghans would welcome and support a British selected and led government, are obviously the type of fantasy held by those who believe that they can make reality conform to their desires or those who are not given proper advice and full information by their subordinates.  It is clear that many members of the government in British India pushed for war for their own reasons, but the situation with Ranjit Singh must have been obvious to even the most obtuse political leader.  An astute political leader himself, he maneuvered the British into providing forces to accompany his and to impose unpalatable economic and political terms in the form of tribute on the Afghan King to be set on the throne.

Meyer and Brysac dutifully detail the catastrophe about to befall the British in exquisite detail, including the poor sighting of the British garrison on flat ground dominated by hills on all sides when there was a stout, almost forbidding, fortress nearby, the inadequacy of British weapons (the venerable Brown Bess musket of American Revolution fame, and the duplicity of their Afghan tormentors who broke covenants and truce agreements at every turn.  The end results being that the British perished almost to a man, many with their families.  However, the authors do not take the strictly dispassionate tone found in much modern historical writing.  Throughout, the episode bears the air of a great tragedy, as if a trusted comrade betrayed the hero of a Greek play.  In this, they hark back to an earlier era of writing when respected scholars such as C.W.C. Oman heaped scorn or praise upon the shoulders of those they wrote about.  The idea behind this style of writing is obvious: a likeable protagonist makes for an easier and more interesting story.  This tendency in Tournament of Shadows makes for a more enjoyable read, but it also makes it more difficult to pull information from the text.

Meyer and Brysac continue in a similar vein through the course of the British occupation of India.  Their emphasis throughout is the ongoing conflict between Great Britain and Russia in Central Asia, and they examine the source of this conflict after beginning their narrative of events from the British perspective.  Like most other western scholars, past and present, Meyer and Brysac see the most imperative Russian goal as security for the Russian heartland.  Like their predecessors, they lay the almost paranoid security consciousness on two main factors: the long domination of Russia by Central Asian steppe tribes and the lack of any significant natural border to Russia’s east short of the Pacific Ocean or the Himalayas to the southeast.  Meyer and Brysac contend that the only method open to Russia for ensuring security was for it to conquer all of the territories from which it was vulnerable to attack, and then to rule them with a totalitarian fist. This particularly Russian preoccupation and tendency toward autocracy continue to serve as the main explanatory factors in Western attempts to explain the excesses of Soviet Communism, particularly under Stalin.

Again, Meyer and Brysac step outside the obvious thinking regarding Russian expansion toward the east and southeast, and demonstrate that Russian expansionism was simultaneously affected by two dissimilar groups: the Stroganovs were the Russian version of Britain’s gentleman-adventurer combined with a merchant-trader that appear to be a land-based version of Western Europe’s British and Dutch East India Companies.  Like the East India Companies, the Stroganovs sought fortune and glory for their monarch.  The other group led the advance eastward in the pay of the Stroganovs in the name of the Tsar.  These were the famous Cossacks, who conquered Siberia in the same manner as Cortez in America: using guns, germs, and steel.  The Cossacks used musket and pike against indigenous peoples who also had no natural defense against smallpox, which the Cossacks brought with them.  Meyer and Brysac equate the result with Cortez’ victory over the Aztecs.

Russian expansion toward the southeast is the ultimate cause of its pre-World War I, as it caused British paranoia about the loss of their possessions in British India.  This fear was almost entirely economic in nature, as the physical security of the British Isles was not threatened by the Russian expansion into Asia unless it is taken that trade with India was the main source of British economic power in the 19th century.  In many respects this competition seems almost irrational on the part of British peers searching for a manly sport to engage themselves in and thereby gain prestige.

In the second section of Tournament of Shadows, Meyer and Brysac take a strange side turn into the British and Russian obsession with opening non-threatening Tibet to foreign trade and exploration, with the British even fighting a limited war using Maxim machine guns and modern artillery against the matchlock wielding Tibetans on the pretext of opening trade negotiations.  The result for the Tibetan forces was predictable.  What the British did not expect was public outcry against the war at home and abroad.

Here Meyer and Brysac take another odd detour, this time into the world of “competitive” geography.  Geography and exploration it seems were the arenas that produced the superstar media personalities of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Central Asia presented an inordinate amount of blank, white spots on world maps, and so became a key hot spot for exploration.  The primary competition in Central Asia was between British and Russian explorers with one key exception: Sven Hedin.  The story of Hedin, like much of the rest of Meyer and Brysac’s treatment of Tibet and geography is an interesting aside that seems to add little to the advancement of their discussion of Empire creation in Central Asia.

Hedin was, in their words, “the lone Swede to take part in the imperial drama.’ The depiction of Hedin is of a man singularly focused on the fame that followed exploring untouched (by Europeans) places and mapping them out.  He did this with a religious zeal that earned him a reputation for utter ruthlessness, founded in part on his crossing the Taklamakan Desert at the cost of four men, seven camels, and two dogs.  His return trips to the desert found archaeological ruins and produced detailed maps. His feats of exploration won him degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, an honorary knighthood, and the Founder’s and Victoria Medals of the British Royal Geographical society.  All of this came to naught when members of the RGS for not being scientific enough and his subsequent adoption of Hitler and Nazi Germany criticized his methods of cartography and surveying as his preferred partners.  Meyer and Brysac assert that Hedin’s “conversion” to Nazism was not that of the political convert, but of the opportunist who seeks out the greatest available power, and in order to tweak the noses of the British who had spurned him.

The problem with this passage, and the subsequent passage dealing with 19th century archaeology, is that it does little to advance the discussion of imperial conquest and competition among the British and Russian Empires, except in the matters of international prestige.  Meyer and Brysac attempt to connect archaeology to imperial regimes by harking back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, writing “archaeology has been entwined with Europe’s imperial enterprise from the time Napoleon put to sea for Egypt in 1798 with 38,000 troops and a Commission of Arts...” (pg. 375) However, in focusing on the removal of artifacts and papyri immediately after discussion Sir Aurel Stein’s looting of Chinese relics and papers during his expeditions at Dunhuang, all Meyer and Brysac accomplish is to irrevocably tie imperial archaeology with grave robbery.

The final section of Tournament of Shadows is devoted to two topics: the American entry in Central Asian affairs and developments in Central Asia during the 20th century particularly after World War II, with a focus on tensions between India and the People’s Republic of China.  It is particularly interesting to note that Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru followed the British pattern of “forward policy” in claiming disputed lands between Tibet, China, and India and placing checkpoints run by his intelligence services to control India’s northern borders.  Meyer and Brysac believe that Nehru’s insistence on this policy was in order to provide strategic depth to allow for defense in case of conflict with China.  Unfortunately for Nehru and India, the result was a humiliating war with China that India’s smaller army had no chance of winning.

Meyer and Brysac conclude Tournament of Shadows by questioning whether the benefits of increased trade following imperial acquisitions truly stand up to objective cost-benefit analysis.  Meyer and Brysac fall on the negative side of this argument by presenting the case of the British possession Corfu, which had no strategic value and that no right-minded person would sacrifice anything to maintain.

Tournament of Shadows is a compelling read, primarily due to the engaging writing style employed.  The narrative imparts the feel of an adventure story, which makes the text accessible to a larger audience than the strictly academic historiography many volumes adhere to.  However, the focus of the work seems to wander from the strict discussion of Empire in Central Asia, unless the areas of geographical exploration and archaeological expeditions are taken to be promoting the ends of Empire in some manner.  The narrative style can also make it difficult for serious scholars to pull desired information from the pages, although it certainly provides a more emotional “feel”, or context, for the events described.  That said, Meyer and Brysac admirably fulfill their goal of assessing the age-old competition between Russia and Western Europe for the resources of Central Asia.

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