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The Great Game: Russia and Britain's Imperialistic Rivalry

They fought for influence in Central Asia throughout the 19th century.

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  • Elephant and Mule Battery in the Second Anglo-Afghan War.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“The Great Game” refers to a period of colonial competition between the British and Russian Empires that took place mainly in present-day Afghanistan, Iran, and a series of smaller, independent khanates. It was coined by writer Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim, but later used by many of those involved in the efforts. Referring to a period of war and subterfuge, punctuated by clumsy attempts at diplomacy, in this way is very telling; the two empires saw the lives, politics, and borders they were so readily changing as pawns in a strategic game.

Up until the beginning of the 19th century, the British quest for empire mostly ran it afoul of France. Great Britain had been making inroads on the Indian subcontinent since 1600 with the help of the East India Company, while Napoleon and his powerful navy continuously tried to push their borders eastward. Owing to the philosophy of the White Man’s Burden, also an invention of Kipling, British colonizers genuinely believed themselves to be on a "civilizing mission", and assigned themselves the duty of spreading that ideology throughout the wider world. Similar thoughts took hold in Russia. 

Meanwhile, Russia’s own campaigns of conquest had kept it far to the north, spread out across the frozen wilds of Siberia. However, as the 19th century crept nearer, Russia was expanding southward. Finally, they were only separated from British India’s front door by a series of fiercely independent and frequently competitive khanates. For a time, though, there was nothing to worry about. 

That was until Napoleon proposed a joint invasion of India to Paul I, Tsar of Russia. Paul declined, but in 1801, he decided to go it alone. He ordered the Cossacks to muster in the khanates, eventually planning to use them as a launching point for an Indian invasion. However, Paul was assassinated that same year, and his son and successor, Alexander I, was less inclined to take up the mantle. Still, he was no isolationist; in 1804, Russia mounted an invasion of the Persian Caucasus. Now, there was cause for concern in British India. 

By 1830, despite major victories that saw both Persia and the Ottoman Empire cede territory to Russia, the occupying forces were preoccupied with dire problems in the khanates to the south. Bukharan and Khivan envoys had journeyed back and forth from Russia since 1557. They were less welcoming, though, of Russian traders in their own lands. Those who were lucky became subject to laws that restricted foreign enterprise, and those who were not ended up enslaved. Russian leaders still attempted to maintain diplomatic relations, but found themselves spending too much time on expeditions of emancipation.

In 1830, Lord Ellenborough, president of the Board of Control for India, attempted to succeed where Russia had failed by sending diplomats to Bukhara in the interest of establishing a trade route. In theory, a friendly relationship with the Bukhara Khanate would provide them some measure of protection—or at least advance warning—in the event of a Russian invasion. They also resolved to defend India’s waterways with their powerful navy, which now included a fleet of steamships. In order to make this work, though, they’d need access to the Sind and Punjab regions, both of which they had annexed by 1849. 

British officers were also working behind the scenes to undermine Russia’s claims. Acting Captain James Abbott of the Bengal Artillery traveled to Khiva in 1839 in an attempt to negotiate liberation for the Russian captives. This was no humanitarian mission; the ultimate goal was to rescind Russia’s pretext to invade. However, Abbott neglected to master the particulars of the local language and culture, so he was unsuccessful. He did, however, establish a British office in Khiva to mediate negotiations with Russia.

Abbott immediately made for Russia to deliver the good news, but along the way, he was ambushed and taken hostage by Khazakhs. Fearing a reprisal, they let him go mostly unscathed, and he continued on to St. Petersburg. Mediation failed again in the Russian capital, and Abbott slunk back to India. 

The British Empire also attempted to sow discord in the khanates. Dost Mohammad Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan, had once been their ally. However, they had requested he concede the territory of Peshawar and give them more control over operations in his domain, so he switched sides and patched things up with Russia. In 1838, the British Empire issued the Simla Manifesto, which slandered Dost Mohammad Khan’s reputation by accusing him of attacking their troops unprovoked and resisting peaceful negotiation. 

The threat of war was ever-present during the years of the Great Game, but when the two sides did come to blows, it was rarely so simple. They each took sides in the 1837 First Herat War, with Russia offering aid to Persia in reclaiming lost territory while Britain helped defend the independent emirate. When the British Navy occupied Kharg Island, Russian troops retreated. The war was over, but the very next day, British officials issued orders to the Indian Army to gather near the Afghan border.

The Indian Army marched on Dost Mohammad Khan’s palace and exiled the Amir. In his place, they installed Shah Shujah Durrani, who was sympathetic to their cause. Shah Shujah had previously served as King of Afghanistan from 1801, signing an agreement with the British to defend against a Napoleonic invasion. However, Shah Shujah had not been a popular ruler. He was known for excessive cruelty, applying methods of torture and dismemberment to his slaves and rivals alike. Over the next few years, unrest fomented until Afghanistan was in open revolt. Shah Shujah was assassinated on April 5, 1842, and the British withdrew. Dost Mohammad Khan returned to the throne. 

11 years later, Russia had turned its attention elsewhere, beginning an attempted conquest of the Black Sea coast with an invasion of Crimea. All the while, though, Tsar Nicholas I heard proposals for a war against British India. The so-called Duhamel plan, created by General Alexander Osipovich Duhamel, involved stationing a Russian force near the southern frontier. There, he hoped, they would gather the support of peoples who had come under British sword or sovereignty, including Persia, Afghanistan, and the Sikh Empire, and finally proceed to India and spark a larger revolt. 

Another plan, the Khrulev plan, was drafted by General Stepan Khrulev, and entailed strategic assassinations of British officers in order to turn the Indian Army to their side. However, Russia could spare neither money nor manpower for an Indian invasion. When the Tsar died suddenly of pneumonia in 1855, the invasion plans were never revisited, despite defeat in Crimea the following year.

In 1857, the people of India galvanized in an uprising against British East India Company rule. They succeeded in removing much of the company’s influence, but in its place, Queen Victoria took over as Empress of India. This was the founding moment of the British Raj, a more direct form of British power in India that would last for almost a century. 

Over the next two decades, Tsar Alexander II was busy, too. By 1873, he had invaded and occupied several buffer states, including Shymkent, Tashkent, Khokhand, Bukhara, and Samarkand. This might normally have provoked further military action from the British, but the Tsar had the benefit of an excellent chancellor, Alexander Gorkachov, who kept British questions at bay.

Britain was apparently satisfied, as on January 21, 1873, they met with Russia in a diplomatic setting. They split the buffer states with national borders according to the European model. The agreement was not comprehensive, however—it failed to include Khiva, which Russia invaded and annexed later that year. 

Nor did diplomacy prevent all-out war from erupting again. Russia sent troops on a diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878, but Sher Ali Khan, the son and successor of Dost Mohammad Khan, knowingly refused their visit. The troops came anyway, and Britain demanded the Amir receive their own visitors, too. Sher Ali denied them, threatening force if they tried to cross his border. They did, only to be turned back at the Khyber Pass. In response, the Raj sent a contingent of 40,000 to Afghanistan, and Sher Ali fled the country. Negotiations commenced almost immediately under his successor, Mohammad Yaqub, and fighting died down in 1879. 

The Great Game came to an end with a series of treaties, pacts, and agreements between Britain and Russia, which ultimately lasted into the 20th century and concluded in 1907. They divided economical and political power between themselves as they continued to carve up the region into bordered nation-states in the European style, which has had an indelible impact on national borders to this day. The Great Game may have ended with no clear winner, but its repercussions are still sorely felt by the economies they destroyed, the political movements they quashed, the lives they took, and by the attitude with which they viewed it all as sport.