It is interesting how one book can stimulate your thinking. Over the weekend, I read a book by Fitzroy Maclean called A Person from England (published by Jonathan Cape for the Readers Union, London, 1959). The book’s title is a little misleading, because the book is all about peoples’ adventures in what we now call ‘Central Asia’, but which many of the adventurers discussed in the book knew as ‘Turkestan’.
Of particularly interest was the first chapter, from which the book takes its name. The ‘Person from England’ was the Reverend Joseph Wolff, a Bavarian Jew who converted to Christianity and became a vocal advocate for his newfound religion. In the early 1840s, Wolff went on a mission to Bokhara (also spelt Bukhara), to see if he could determine the fate of two British Army officers, Colonel Charles Stoddard and Captain Arthur Connolly. The Emir of Bokhara apparently had imprisoned, treated brutally, and possibly executed these two ‘Britishers’, possibly because he felt that, even though they claimed to be on a diplomatic mission, they actually were spies. This was a reasonable assumption given that the British and Russian empires had long been playing their shadowy ‘Great Game’ (Torniree Tenye, ‘Tournament of Shadows’, for the Russians) of strategic one-upsmanship on the edges of their respective expanding empires in India and Central Asia. In 1838, when Stoddard arrived in Bokhara, which some regarded as the holiest city in Turkestan, the emirate was located roughly in the middle of these two competitive empires. In 1868, the Russians subsumed it.
Going as a lone Englishman or feringi (foreigner) to Bokhara from London was a long, difficult and dangerous undertaking for Wolff, even though this widely travelled Anglican minister had visited Bokhara before in the 1830s. In his favour, Wolff was a resourceful, resilient, outgoing man who made friends easily. Importantly, many who met him, including Muslims, considered him to be a dervish or mystic—a man of God. Conversely, Wolff’s mission was dangerous because he was going to parts of Asia remote from British influence, with almost no possibility of British officials supporting him diplomatically or militarily. Closest was Persia, through which Wolff travelled to Bokhara. Additionally, the Emir of Bokhara, Nasrullah, who was all-powerful locally, was somewhat erratic and apparently had a sadistic streak that had worsened with age. According to Maclean, he was an ‘ugly customer’ who had murdered his father, elder brother and three younger brothers in 1826 in order to seize the Bokharan throne. While inexcusable, such regicide and fratricide were not unknown practices at this time throughout the world.
In the event, Wolff arrived too late. The long-suffering Stoddard, who may converted to Islam under duress, and Connolly had already been beheaded. Both apparently died proclaiming themselves to be Christians, which appealed to Wolff, but not to Muslim Bokharans.
I find this story interesting for a number of reasons. First, there is a man in our district who is a distant relative of Charles Stoddard. More then once, we have talked about the unfortunate demise of his forebear in Bokhara. Second, having studied Russian, I am interested in how the Russian Empire began, expanded, consolidated, then crumbled after the 1917 Revolution, including in Central Asia, but which the Communists in the mid-1920s essentially re-imposed, albeit under a different name.
Third, communications. Even though the two imprisoned British officers were closely surveilled, they managed to get limited communications to people far away from remote Bokhara. This was not unusual. Throughout Maclean’s book, there are many instances where feringis (usually British or Russian) used locals to successfully—on occasions—communicate with people far away from their immediate location. Indeed, the whole book is riddled with examples of intrigue, double-dealing and people’s loyalties appearing to be fluid. Even though the khanates of Central Asia—Bokhara, Khokand and Khiva, and their various vassals—were remote, no one in them, it seems, lived in a vacuum.
Fourth, the playing of the strategic Great Game. One reason why Nasrullah felt he could kill the Britishers was because things had gone very badly for the British Indian Empire in Afghanistan, to Bokhara’s south. In 1839, British-led forces from India had invaded Afghanistan in order to impose their own ruler on this recalcitrant state moving diplomatically towards Russia—or at least not kowtowing sufficiently to British strategic desires to limit (expanding) Russian influence in Central Asia. After some British ineptitude (to put it mildly), xenophobic Afghan warriors in early 1842 slaughtered some 16,000 British Indian soldiers and associated non-combatants trying to flee Afghanistan. In response, the British sent an ‘Army of Retribution’ to punish the Afghans and to free captured Britishers and Indians, after which they (the British) left Afghanistan to its own devices until 1878 (when basically the same British invasion, Afghan slaughter and British retribution occurred). By late 1842, the Emir of Bokhara, empowered after defeating Khokand to his east and by the chastened British fleeing Afghanistan, felt strong enough to execute the two British ‘spies’ with impunity. There was nothing that the British, who by now controlled almost all of India, could do, or chose to do.
Fifth, Central Asia connects to South Asia via Afghanistan, which nation also straddles the South-West Asia region via neighbouring Iran. Some analysts talk of a new ‘Great Game’ being played involving energy and pipelines, particularly from Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea region southwards to India. The Central Asian region also has major water and border issues. It is an important region to watch—and understand, including in relation to its rich history—for the future.
5 August 2013