~ Shop ~

AFGHANISTAN – KANDAHAR / URUZGAN / HELMAND: [Untitled Manuscript Map of the Region to the North of Kandahar, Afghanistan, made during the period of the ‘Derawat Rebellion’].



An extraordinarily rare discovery – an original, large military field manuscript map from the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), depicted the region to the north of Kandahar, then, as now, a hotbed of tribal insurgency, made during the period of the ‘Derawat (Deh Ravod) Rebellion’ by Edward Sanders and Charles Frederick North, military engineers serving under General William Nott, the British commander in Kandahar.


Manuscript, pen and ink, watercolour and pencil drafted upon multiple irregular-sized sheets of wove paper, contemporarily mounted upon linen and paper backing (Good, large old glue stains and other stains affecting large portions of map, although details of the exquisite draftsmanship are still sharp, some chipping along old folds), 121 x 91.5 cm (47.5 x 66 inches).


The present map is an incredibly rare survivor, being one of only a handful of remaining original manuscript maps made in the active conflict theatre during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42).  The map is reconnaissance survey made by Edward Sanders and Charles Frederick North, military engineers who were chosen to act as pathfinders for Major-General William Nott’s expedition to suppress the ‘Derawat (Deh Ravod) Rebellion’, an insurgency of tribesman of the Durrani Clan that occurred to the north of Kandahar in September 1841.

The region in question lies to the north of Kandahar, home to the largest British garrison in Afghanistan throughout the war, and encompasses parts of the modern Kandahar, Uruzgan and Helmand provinces.  The map extends from the old walled city of Kandahar, in the far south, up to include the districts of “Derawut” (Deh Ravod), on the Helmand River; “Neesh” (Nesh); and “Teeree” (Tarinkot).

The map is very well drafted, evidently in the hand of Charles Frederick North, and showcases a wealth of detail.  The region’s innumerable mountain ranges are expressed though fine webs of hachures and shading, while the rivers are coloured blue.  Villages, fortresses, ruins and rural homesteads, as well as topographical landmarks are carefully marked and labelled; in some regions the density of the labelling is impressively intense considering the dangerous frontier conditions.  The route of Nott’s army and its various detachments are delineated in red and show that the main force travelled north from the city of Kandahar (at the very bottom of the map), up to the “Neesh” (Nesh) District, before fanning out into various units.  Interesting details such as the locations of the “Camps” of Nott’s army are marked by the circles located along the red itinerary lines.

While predicated upon reconnaissance surveys, as opposed to more precise systematic trigonometric methods (not possible to conduct amidst a guerrilla war zone), the map is broadly accurate.  The appearance of latitude coordinates in red is evidence that Sanders and North ascertained the geodetic locations of basepoints predicated upon astronomical observations.

A large map, composed of several different pieces of irregular sized papers, mounted together on original linen, the piece possesses a curious appearance.  While the quality of the draftsmanship is high, it has the manner of having been crudely put together amidst lively field conditions, as opposed to having been created in a calm place well away from enemy lines.  While all topographical features and details of Nott’s army’s movement are carefully recorded, the map does not have a finished appearance, lacking such details as a title, signatures, scale or borders, while preserving the original grid of graph lines in pencil, indicating that the map was always intended to be a provisional working document, recording field surveys and observations that could later be used create a finished, fine copy manuscript.

It appears that the present field map served as the base map for the refined, finished manuscript “Map of the Country to the Northward of Kandahar Surveyed by Major Sanders & Lt. North of Engres, when serving under the orders of Major General Nott in 1841 & 1842”, today preserved in the India Office Records at the British Library (Shelfmark: IOR/x/3058).  This map, definitively drafted in North’s hand, bears an unmistakable resemblance to the present map in its style of draftsmanship and its content.  However, it features some details, notably on the movements of Nott’s army, that did not make it on to the fine copy.  Moreover, the fine copy features some details that were likely picked up by Sanders and North in the months postdating the present map.

While a small number of European explorers and adventurers had made reconnaissance maps of parts of Afghanistan prior to 1839, up to then the country had scarcely been mapped to any degree of accuracy.  During the First Anglo-Afghan War, the British Army of the Indus and related forces were accompanied by several professional military engineers, such as Sanders and North, who possessed relevant experience working in rugged parts of India.  The British occupation of Afghanistan placed a high value on cartography and considerable resources were spent to map cities, fortifications, transport corridors and regional/tribal boundaries, as well as creating general topographical maps of regions and then nation in general.  This saw the birth of the modern scientific cartography of Afghanistan.  Most of these maps remained in manuscript form, while a few were published, variously in Calcutta, Simla, or London.

All manuscript maps of Afghanistan from the First Anglo-Afghan War period are exceedingly rare.  Today, few pieces exist in institutions outside of the British Library’s India Office Records, and we are not aware of any such maps as having been offered on the market until now.  Moreover, even within the realm of known surviving manuscript maps of Afghanistan from this period, the present field manuscript is an extraordinary find, as most such maps were discarded or neglected leading to their loss once the fine copy was produced.  Having been made in an active war theatre amidst the events its portrays, it is an authentic artefact from the front lines of the First Anglo-Afghan War, providing valuable insights into the cartography of military movement and the process and nature map production by contemporary British engineers fighting a guerrilla war.  While the present map may not be “pretty” in the conventional sense, that is not where its value lies.

It is also worth noting that European contact with Afghanistan was limited between 1842 and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80), such that few new maps of quality were made during that time.  Consequently, and as a testament to the high standard of the British military maps made between 1839 and 1842, many of these maps were taken out of the archives to be used again in military operations between 1878 and 1880 (and were, in some cases, published).


The Scene in Focus: The British Occupation of Kandahar and the Derawat Rebellion

Kandahar is the principal city of Southern Afghanistan and has been an important location since its founding by Alexander the Great in 330 BC.  In 1747, it became the birthplace of modern Afghanistan as the first capital of the Durrani Dynasty.  While Kandahar lost it role as the national capital, to Kabul, in 1776, it remained a major centre.

In late 1838, the British regime in India planned to invade Afghanistan, placing the country’s former ruler, Shah Shuja Duranni, on the throne as their puppet Emir.  The British force’s first major target was Kandahar.  Not only was the approach to the city easier than advancing directly upon Kabul, the lush Arghandab River valley could yield sufficient crops, that if well-managed, could support a large army.

The massive British Army of the Indus took control of Kandahar at the beginning of May 1839, and for the next three and a half years or so the city became home to the largest garrison of British troops in Afghanistan.  It also served as a useful base for the successful British expedition to take Ghazni and Kabul later that same year.

While many of the Kandahar’s residents bitterly resented the British presence, and actively supported the insurgents who fought against the occupiers in the surrounding countryside, the British were able, albeit with difficultly, to maintain control of the city.  The diplomatic mission of Major Elliot D’Archy Todd to Herat (June 1839 to February 1841) did much to subdue the unruly tribes to the west and northwest of the city, while the small British garrison at Girishk, in the Helmand Valley, anchored a tenuous peace.  Overall, in sharp contract to their shambolic, nearly tragicomic occupation of Kabul, the British military operations in and around Kandahar were generally well executed.

The fortunes of British forces in Kandahar and Southern Afghanistan were greatly advanced in the autumn of 1840 by the appointment of Major-General William Nott (1782 – 1845), an esteemed Welsh soldier with over 40 years of distinguished service in India, to be the military commander for the region.  Nott was a clever, calculating leader who had the correct balance of patience and boldness to counteract a guerrilla insurgency.  Nott arrived just in time, as tribal insurgencies were breaking out to the west, north and east of Kandahar.  Not only did the disturbances, if left unchecked, threaten the vital communication lines between Kandahar and Kabul and the Punjab, it also imperilled the British hold on Kandahar itself.

In January 1841, Yar Mohammed Kamran, the Wazir of Herat, was discovered to be plotting an attack upon Kandahar in conjunction with his former nemesis the Shah of Persia.  While this operation was never launched, it caused the British mission in Herat to leave the city and turned up the pressure on Nott.  The Herati Wazir proceed to foment rebellions amongst the Durrani tribes to the west and northwest of Kandahar.

In February 1841, the British had to fend off an attack upon Girishk mounted by Durrani tribesmen from the Zamindawar District (the area around “Old Zamindawer” marked on the far left of the present map) led by the chief Akter Khan.  From April to June of the same year, Nott personally led an operation to subdue a Ghizlai tribal insurgency around Qalati Ghilji, to the northeast of Kandahar.

In the summer of 1841, Akter Khan and his fellow Durrani chief, Akram Khan, joined forces to mount another attack up Girishk, but were defeated by British forces at the Battle of Sikanderabad (August 17, 1841), along the banks of the Helmand River.

Of direct relevance to the present map, in the late summer of 1841, Durrani tribes led Akram Khan mounted an insurgency centred upon the Deh Ravod (Derawat) District that extended into the neighbouring districts of Nesh and Tarinkot.  This insurrection came in the form of classic guerrilla warfare, with small, highly mobile contingents of tribal warriors mounting rapid, stealth attacks upon British forces, before disappearing into the mountains without a trace.  Worringly, the geographical location of the so-called ‘Derawat Rebellion’ threatened to sever Kandahar’s line of communications with Ghazni and Kabul.

Nott decided to personally lead an expedition up to the Deh Ravod, Nesh and Tarinkot districts to snuff out the rebellion.  Much preparation was made, and nothing was left to chance.  As the districts in question were poorly mapped, with rugged terrain that naturally favoured the Durrani warriors, the presence of military engineers skilled in navigation and mapmaking in the most difficult wartime conditions was a necessity.  Archival documents show that the appointment of Edward Sanders and Charles Frederick North to act as pathfinders and to map the routes of the expedition was a top priority for Nott and his superiors.

By the beginning of September 1841, Nott assembled the expedition, which included the 2nd and 38th Bombay Infantry; a regiment of Shah Shuja’s Cavalry; a detachment of Sappers (led by Edward Sanders); plus, the support of two 18-pound guns and two horse artillery guns.

As shown on the present map, by the red lines, the British force set out, heading north from Kandahar to Nesh, before dividing with the main force going to Deh Ravod, while a detachment went to Tarinkot.  Nott followed the advance parties, taking field command of the main force at the fortress marked “Meer Alum” (Mirin) on the map, in the heart of “Derawut”, (Deh Ravod) on September 23, 1841.

While Nott was expecting a fierce fight from all quarters, the overwhelming British show of force intimidated the local tribesman into submission.  Most stayed inside their homes, while those who ventured out were amazingly hospitable to their supposed enemies.  Akram Khan, who Nott was determined to hunt down regardless of the peaceful situation, was surprised and captured and sent by express to Kandahar.  There, in keeping with the local custom for the treatment of ‘rebels’, Akram Khan was tied to the end of canon, which was then fired.  This gruesome spectacle was meant to ‘discourage the others’, serving as a lesson to the unruly elements of the Kandahar region.  Nott retuned to Kandahar on October 1, 1841, rightly satisfied with the outcome of the expedition.

Nott continued to manage the difficult security situation in Kandahar and the surrounding region with great skill, always quickly responding to, and crushing, local disturbances.  The January 1842 withdrawal of the British garrison from Kabul and the slaughter of almost the entire retreating army made the British position in Afghanistan untenable.  It was only a matter of time before the entire occupation would be rolled up.

In July 1841, Nott had to suppress another serious rebellion led by Aktar Khan.  Shortly thereafter, he received orders from Lord Ellenborough, the new Governor-General of India, to withdraw his forces from Afghanistan via a route of his own choosing.

In August 1842, Nott oversaw an orderly phased withdrawal of British forces from Kandahar and the surrounding region, leading most of his forces northward to Ghazni and Kabul to mount a revenge campaign against Britain’s Afghan opposition.  While Nott successfully took his targets, making his point, his forces soon departed Afghanistan, along with the remainder of the British occupation.  British forces would not return to Afghanistan until the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80).

The First Anglo-Afghan War: Throwing a Wooden Spoon

The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) was the earliest of several major Western military forays into the country and was inarguably one of the greatest disasters to ever befall the British Empire.  While the conflict produced some impressive operational and tactical victories for the British forces and was responsible for the birth of the scientific cartography of Afghanistan, it was an unmitigated strategic failure.  It proved that any Western victory in Afghanistan is pyrrhic and fleeting, a lesson seemingly lost on the Soviets during the 1980s and NATO forces since 2001.

Afghanistan was never considered by Europeans to be a prize in and of itself, but its geographic position as a highland occupying the keystone between Central Asia, Persia and India, imbued it tremendous strategic value.  Invading empires since the time of Alexander the Great saw Afghanistan as the ‘Gateway to India’, and used it to their advantage.

Modern Afghanistan was created in 1747, when the Ahmad Shah Durrani (1722-72), a regional leader based in Kandahar, rebelled against Persia, the country’s long-time overlord.  He progressively conquered all of Afghanistan, parts of north-eastern Persia and much of what is today Pakistan, forming the Durrani Empire.  The height of Afghan power came in 1759, when Ahmad Shah conquered Delhi, the capital of the Mughal Empire.  He subsequently defeated the Maratha Confederacy, the Subcontinent’s greatest indigenous power, at the Third Battle of Panipat (1761), ushering in Afghan rule over all of what is today North-western India.

However, Afghan hegemony over the north-western part of the Indian Subcontinent was not to last long.  The Durrani Dynasty descended into infighting, while Afghanistan faced determined regional adversaries.  Through the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Afghan territory was progressively clawed back ever closer to the modern-day borders of the country. Several palace coups in Kabul saw a succession of short reigns of ineffective emirs.

The East India Company (EIC), the private enterprise which ruled British India, backed by Whitehall, became keenly interested in Afghanistan in the context of The Great Game, an epic contest between Great Britain and Russia for domination of the heart of Asia that lasted most of the 19th Century.  Often referred to in Russia as the ‘Турниры теней’ (Tournament of Shadows), in Central Asia the conflict was dominated by proxy wars and grand designs of espionage, bearing amazing similarities to the 20th Century’s Cold War.

Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, the British and Russian empires had a relationship limited to trade. While they were occasionally allies or opponents in various multi-national wars, the vast geographic distances separating their domains ensured that they did not really see themselves as rivals.  Russia was more concerned with Sweden, Prussia and Poland; and Britain was preoccupied battling France and Spain.

In 1800, the clinically insane Czar Paul, and ally of Napoleon, ordered a Russian invasion of India, although this guaranteed misadventure was cancelled before it over got off the ground, upon the czar’s assassination in 1801.  While Czar Alexander I made an agreement with Napoleon to jointly invade India in 1807, this prospect was not practically feasible, and was regarded in both London and Calcutta as much ado about nothing.

The Peace of Vienna (1815) reordered World geopolitics, creating a power vacuum.  France and Prussia were brought low by the war, and while they would eventually recover, their absence as existential threats gave Britain and Russia the freedom and financing to pursue their own expansionist designs.

From 1800 to 1828, Russia had progressively conquered the Caucuses, placing pressure on both Persia and the Ottoman Empire, two states where Britain maintained vital diplomatic interests.  This came on the heels of their conquest of large parts of the Kazakh Steppe, in Central Asia, which they added to their Siberian domains.

Meanwhile, Britain had gained domination of most of the Indian Subcontinent upon her conquest of the Maratha Confederacy in 1818.  While still hundreds of miles apart, both empires had formed large domains bordering the heart of Asia.

British theorists began to openly warn about the threat Russia posed to India.  Notably, Colonel George de Lacy published The Designs of Russia (1828) and On the Practicability of an Invasion of India (1829).  Works such as these caused great (and perhaps exaggerated) alarm in both Whitehall and Calcutta, spawning wild conspiracy theories.

At this point, something must be said of the motivations and objectives of both Britain and Russia, which like the players during the Cold War over a century later, were not always clear or consistent.  In short, Britain aimed to shore up its control of the Indian Subcontinent and to gain suzerainty over the Persian Gulf and Red Sea regions (areas where the Royal Navy was already the main power).  It also harboured less-defined designs to control the vast mineral wealth of Central Asia.

On the other side, Russia, wanted to eventually take control of the Turkic khanates of Central Asia (Khiva, Bokhara, etc.), to not only gain their vast agrarian and mineral wealth, but to place pressure upon Persia so that it would become a client state.  To that end, Russia adamantly desired a warm water port with direct access to the Indian Ocean.

The Great Game heated up considerably during the 1830s.  The Royal Geographic Society (founded 1830), while a legitimate sponsor of cartographic and scientific discovery, also served as thinly-disguised espionage arm of the British government.  It sponsored numerous exploring expeditions into Central Asia, notably incuding Alexander Burnes’s voyages to the Punjab (1831) and Afghanistan and Bokhara (1832).  News of these expeditions caused alarm in St. Petersburg.

Meanwhile, John O’Neill, a Tehran-based British diplomat anonymously penned a work The Progress and Present Position of Russia (1836) that caused a great furore amongst British policy makers.

In the late 1830s, Britain became acutely concerned about Afghanistan.  It believed that if Russia ever made Afghanistan a client state, then enemy armies could quite easily sweep down into the Indus Valley and overrun the Gangetic Plan, just as the armies of Ahmad Shah had three generation earlier.  The EIC doubted that it would have the military muscle to stop a well-executed invasion of this kind, so considered British India to be in imminent danger.

Afghanistan was ruled by Emir Dost Mohammed Khan (1793 – 1863, reigned 1826-39; 1845-63), while corrupt and not exactly enlightened, he was clever and unbelievably tenacious.  Dost Mohammed was smarting over the Sikh Empire’s 1834 annexation of Afghanistan’s winter capital, Peshawar, and was eager to strike a deal with Britain to regain the city.  While some EIC officials were sympathetic to the Afghan Emir’s proposal, Britain had a conflict of interest.  The Sikh Empire was technically a British ally, and its French-trained national army, the Dal Khalsa, was regarded as a fearsome force.  Meanwhile, Afghanistan had no standing army, relying only upon the traditional call to ‘jihad’ to rally tribal forces.  To Britain, it seemed that the Sikhs were a much more valuable ally than the Afghans.

Dost Mohammed was undeterred.  He understood that his mere mention of the word ‘Russia’ would make the blood of EIC officials boil.  In December 1837, he invited the Russian envoy Count Vitkevich to Kabul for a conference.  This had the desired effect, as Alexander Burnes, the British resident in the Afghan capital, immediately wrote hysterical letters to Calcutta warning of an imminent Russo-Afghan alliance.  In truth, Dost Mohammed had no intention of negotiating an alliance with Russia, an ally of his arch-nemesis Persia.  The trick worked (in a fashion) – Britain henceforth took Afghanistan much more seriously than it did the Sikh Empire; however, this resulted in unintended consequences for all involved.

On January 20, 1838, Lord Auckland, the hawkish and easily provoked Governor-General of India, issued an ultimatum to Dost Mohammed that was, in the words of Burnes, “so dictatorial and supercilious as to indicate the writer’s intention that it should give offense”.  Dost Mohammed, a proud man, responded simply by expelling the British mission from Kabul.

Meanwhile, relations between Dost Mohammed and Russian had deteriorated dramatically, to the point where Russia backed a Persian attack upon the important Afghan city of Herat (1837-8).  Instead of trying to make a deal with the Emir, Lord Auckland became paranoid that the siege of Herat was the first step of a Russian takeover of Afghanistan.  To pre-empt this, Britain would invade the country and install a trusted ruler who would do Calcutta’s bidding, so keeping Russia out of South Asia.

The British decided to back Shah Shuja Durrani (1785 – 1842), who had previously served as the Emir of Afghanistan from 1803 to 1809.  Shuja was distinguished for his recreational cruelty (he enjoyed mutilating his courtiers for sport) and indolence.  He had spent the last thirty years in exile in British India, where he lived a lavish lifestyle with his harem, courtesy of the EIC.  Shah Shuja had convinced Lord Auckland that he was immensely popular with large segments of the Afghan population, who would welcome him home should the ‘despotic’ Dost Mohammed be removed.  Moreover, he had no discernible political vision or ambitions, and it was assumed that he would be happy to return to Kabul as Britain’s puppet.

On October 1, 1838, Lord Auckland issued the Simla Declaration, which essentially declared war on Dost Mohammed’s regime, citing the Afghan Emir’s provocations against Britain’s ally, the Sikh Empire.  He also concocted a line that Shah Shuja was still the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan, even though he enjoyed no public support, while many Afghans had no memory of him after his three decades abroad.

To accomplish the conquest of Afghanistan, the British assembled the ‘Grand Army of the Indus’, the largest European force ever assembled on the Indian Subcontinent.  Led by General John, Baron Keane, it boasted 21,000 British and Indian regulars, plus 38,000 camp followers, supported by 30,000 camels.  Additionally, this juggernaut was planned to be supported by 6,000 Dal Khalsa troops; however, the Sikh king inevitably withheld this support, deeming it both unnecessary and expensive.

In December 1838, the Grand Army left the Punjab, en route for Afghanistan.  Most British commentators were gung-ho over the invasion; however, the Duke of Wellington was a notable exception, calling the invasion “stupid”, predicting that the British forces, although initially victorious, would be tied down in a guerrilla war, fighting only for a land of “rocks, sands, deserts, ice and snow”.

It was decided that the Army of the Indus should first seize the main centres of southern Afghanistan before marching upon the capital, Kabul, which possessed a geographically challenging location.  By late March 1839, the British forces reached Quetta, before crossing extremely difficult terrain to arrive at Kandahar, the premier city of the southern Afghanistan.  Kandahar’s defenders abandoned the city, and headed for the hills, allowing Keane’s army to take possession on May 4, 1839.

To open the route between Kandahar and Kabul, the British needed to take the heavily fortified town of Ghazni, in eastern Afghanistan.  Keane unwisely left his siege engines in Kandahar, and upon investing Ghazni found its defences to far more formidable than anticipated.  The British only managed to take the fortress on July 22, 1839, following a daring surprise s assault upon its weakest point.

Next, the Army of Indus advanced towards Kabul, decisively defeating one of Dost Mohammed’s sons on the plain before the city.  Realizing that their situation was untenable, the Afghan court abandoned their capital, allowing Keane to rake possession of Kabul on August 7, 1839.  Shah Shuja was returned to his throne after an absence of thirty years.

Dost Mohammed proceeded to wage a fierce guerrilla war against the British and the Shah Shuja regime.  While he was defeated in every conventional battle, his warriors always returned the next day to mount deadly surprise attacks, their ability to terrify and wear down the enemy seemingly undiminished regardless of the extent of their losses.  Dost Mohammed’s irregular forces were almost like ghosts, haunting the British, striking hard and then disappearing before the stunned victims even processed what had happened.  Curiously, this is the exact same experience recounted by both Soviet and NATO troops fighting in the same region generations later.

Dost Mohammed taunted the increasingly frustrated British, writing a letter to one of their senior officials boasting: “I am like a wooden spoon. You may throw me hither and yon, but I shall not be hurt”. 

Dost Mohammed certainly possesed amazing survival skills, in 1840, he fled with his followers to the court of the Emir of Bukhara, who promptly threw him in prison.  Incredibly, the Afghan leader managed to escape, returning to the Afghan front.

Despite the ferocity of the guerrilla war in the countrywide, and the innumerable ‘rebellions’ of local tribesmen against Sha Shuja’s highly unpopular administration, the British held most of the country’s major cities, including Kabul, Kandahar, Ghazni and Jalalabad.  They naively felt secure in their positions, so decided to withdraw most of their forces, leaving only 8,000 troops to hold down the entire country.  They even sent for the families of the British soldiers and their camp followers to reside in the urban encampments and barracks, so as to improve morale.  A dangerous air of complacency set in.

Afghans who reluctantly tolerated the British invasion and the reinstallation of Shah Shuja now came to fear that the foreign occupation would be permanent.  Moreover, the reinstated Emir’s rule was gratuitously cruel, corrupt and ineffective, ensuring that the regime became universally despised.  Even many of Shah Shuja’s own Durrani tribes switched allegiance to the other side.

Another factor that should not be minimized was the licentious conduct of the British soldiers.  The troops were often intoxicated, and many were engaged in romantic liaisons with local women – behaviour which was extremely offensive in a traditional Islamic society.  Alexander Burnes, the lead civilian British official in Kabul, was an especially egregious offender, setting a bad example for his subordinates.

In late 1840, Dost Mohammed was cornered while fighting the British and surrendered; he was exiled to India.  However, the guerrilla war continued under the leadership of his sons.  The British meanwhile became even more complacent and proceeded to make decisions that were against established military protocols, and that were, in some cases, bizarre.

In Kabul, the British abandoned the hilltop fortress of the Bala Hissar in favour of new cantonment constructed on the flats.  While the new quarters were inarguably more comfortable than the medieval fortress, they were in an utterly indefensible position.  Strangely, the British also decided to store their supplies and in a separate facility, 300 yards from their cantonment.  In April 1841, a new supreme field commander of the Army of the Indus was installed.  Major-General George Keith Elphinstone was an aging, ailing veteran who was bedridden most of the time.

From April to October 1841, Dost Mohammed’s son, Akbar Khan, reinvigorated the guerrilla war, fuelled by the growing resentment of the British occupation and the Shuja regime.  The British pursued an aggressive policy, striking back hard against the ‘rebels’.  At the same time, they unwisely decreasing their subsidies to tribes that had hitherto supported the British side.  By the mid-Autumn of 1841, many of these tribes switched sides to Akbar Khan.  However, these rural rebellions were nothing compared to what would happen next.

On the night of November 1, 1841, various tribal chiefs met in Kabul to launch a rebellion against the British occupation and the rule of Shah Shuja.  The insurrection broke out the next morning, and the poorly prepared British Kabul garrison had difficulty holding its scattered and exposed positions.  Several key British officials were assassinated, and by December, Elphinstone had lost effective control of his forces; all-out chaos ensued.

In a move that is now viewed to have been lethally naive, Elphinstone negotiated a deal with Akbar Khan for safe passage to withdraw his army of 4,500 men and 12,000 camp followers from Kabul and the surrounding region.  The operation commenced on January 1, 1842, during the height of winter and called for the British force to cross high, icy mountains to the next nearest British-held city of Jalalabad.  Part way through this hellish journey, tribesmen loyal to Akbar Khan ambushed the retreating army, and after several days of carnage slaughtered almost the entire force.  Only a single British soldier, plus a handful of sepoys, made it to Jalalabad to tell the story.  The ‘Retreat from Kabul’ is remembered as one of the greatest disasters in the history of the British Empire.

The British subsequently mounted a revenge campaign against Akbar Khan, defeating his allies in several key battles, and retaking Kabul.  However, the replacement of the bullish Lord Auckland as Governor-General, with Lord Ellenborough, who was determined to end the war, saw the British withdrawal completely from Afghanistan.  The nightmare was finally over!

Dost Mohammed was returned to his throne, upon which he would rule until his death in 1863.  The Afghan Emir memorably remarked to the British:

“I have been struck by the magnitude of your resources, your ships, your arsenals, but what I cannot understand is why the rulers of so vast and flourishing an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.”


References: N / A – Present Manuscript Not Recorded.  Cf. [Re: Related Sanders-North Mss.:] British Library, India Office Records: British Library: IOR/x/3058; A Catalogue of Manuscript and Printed Reports, Field Books, Memoirs, Maps, Etc., of the Indian Surveys: Deposited in the Map Room of the India Office (London, 1878), p. 481; [Re: Sanders’ appointment as the chief engineer of the Derawat Expedition] J.H. Stocquelier (ed.), Memoirs and Correspondence of Sir William Nott (2 vols., London, 1854), vol. I, pp. 325-31; [Re: On the Derawat Rebellion and Related Events:] H. Helsham Jones, ‘Paper VII. The History and Geography of Afghanistan and the Afghan Campaigns of 1838-9 and 1842’ in Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Occasional Papers, vol. III (Chatham, 1879), pp. 89 – 184, esp., pp. 152-5; John William Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan (3 vols., London, 1874), vol. II, pp. 130-4.

Additional information


Place and Year