The Great Game

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For other uses, see The Great Game (disambiguation).
Map of Central Asia today
1902–1903 borders of the Imperial Russian Territories of Bukhara, Kiva, and Kokand (Fergana Region) that form modern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

"The Great Game" is a term used to describe the competition that emerged during the 19th Century between the British Empire and the Russian Empire in a mutual contest for territories situated between each empire's colonial possessions, therefore primarily centered around Afghanistan and its surrounding regions.[1] The use of the term "The Great Game" to describe Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia became common only after the Second World War. It was rarely used before that period.[2]

British intelligence suspected Russia's goal was access to warm-water ports into the Persian Gulf or potentially valuable Indian territories and therefore wanted to prevent Russia's expansion.[1] From the British perspective, the Russian Empire's expansion into Central Asia threatened to destroy the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, India. The British feared that the Russians would subdue the Central Asian khanates one after another, and then the Emirate of Afghanistan might then become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India. From the Russian perspective, British commercial and military expansion into Central Asia was feared.

The Great Game is proposed to have begun on 12 January 1830 when Lord Ellenborough, the President of the Board of Control for India tasked Lord William Bentinck, the Governor-General, to establish a new trade route to Bukhara.[3][4] The Great Game is proposed to have ended on 10 September 1895 with the signing of the Pamir Boundary Commission protocols,[5] when the border between Afghanistan and the Russian empire was defined.[6][7][8][9]:p14


People of Central Asia c. 1861–1880.
Silk and spice festival in modern-day Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The term The Great Game was used well before the 19th century and was associated with games of risk - cards and dice. The French equivalent Le gros jeu dates back to at least 1585 and is associated with meanings of risk, chance and deception.[10]

In the summer of 1840, the principle British agent in Afghanistan, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, argued in a letter for the annexation of Herat in western Afghanistan by the British, and stated:

We have a beautiful game on our hands.[11]

The term "The Great Game" is attributed to Captain Arthur Conolly (1807–42) who had been appointed as a political officer.[12] In July 1840, in correspondence to Major Henry Rawlinson who had been recently appointed as the new political agent in Kandahar, Conolly wrote:

You've a great game, a noble game, before you.[13]

Conolly believed that Rawlinson's new post gave him the opportunity to advance humanitarianism in Afghanistan, and summed up his hopes:[12]

If the British Government would only play the grand game — help Russia cordially to all that she has a right to expect — shake hands with Persia — get her all possible amends from Oosbegs — force the Bukhara Amir to be just to us, the Afghans, and other Oosbeg states, and his own kingdom — but why go on; you know my, at any rate in one sense, enlarged views. Inshallah! The expediency, nay the necessity of them will be seen, and we shall play the noble part that the first Christian nation of the world ought to fill.[13]

One common popular use of the term is related to spies and their military value or political influence on the peoples of a region.[14] It was introduced into mainstream consciousness by the British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim (1901).[15] It was first used academically by Professor H.W.C. Davis in a presentation titled The Great Game in Asia (1800-1844) on 10 November 1926, well after the close of the event, when it referred to what had once been British and Russian rivalry in Central Asia and the possible invasion of British India from the North West by Russia.[16] The use of the term "The Great Game" to describe Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia became common only after the Second World War. It was rarely used before that period.[2]

India invasion fears[edit]

1909 Map of the British Indian Empire, showing British India in two shades of pink and the princely states in yellow.

The start of the 19th Century saw the Indian subcontinent ruled in part by independent princely states and in part by the company rule of the British East India Company.

During most of the 19th Century there existed a political and diplomatic confrontation between the British Empire and the Russian Empire centered around Afghanistan and its surrounding regions. It later became known as The Great Game.[17] From the British perspective, the Russian Empire's expansion into Central Asia threatened to destroy the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, India. The British feared that the Russians would subdue the Central Asian khanates (Khiva, Bukhara, Khokand) one after another. The Emirate of Afghanistan might then become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India.[17][18] From the Russian perspective, British commercial and military expansion into Central Asia was feared.[17]

Napoleon had proposed a joint Franco-Russian invasion of India to his Imperial Majesty Paul I of Russia.[19] In 1801 Paul, fearing a future action by the British against Russia and her allies in Europe, decided to make the first move towards where he believed the British Empire was weakest. He wrote to the Ataman of the Don Cossacks Troops, Cavalry General Vasily Petrovich Orlov, directing him to march to Orenburg, conquer the Central Asian Khanates, and from there invade India.[20] Paul was assassinated in the same year and the invasion was terminated. Napoleon tried to persuade Paul's son, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, to invade India however Alexander resisted. In 1807, Napoleon dispatched General Claude Matthieu, Count Gardane on a French military mission to Persia, with the intention of persuading Russia to invade India. In response in 1808, Britain sent its own diplomatic missions, with military advisers, to Persia and Afghanistan under the capable Mountstuart Elphinstone, averting the French and possible Russian threat. However, Britain was left with concerns about being able to defend India.[19]

In 1810, Lieutenant Henry Pottinger and Captain Charles Christie undertook an expedition from Nushki (Balochistan) to Isfahan (Central Persia) disguised as Muslims. The expedition was funded by the East India Company and was to map and research the regions of Beloochistan (Balochistan) and Persia because of concerns about India being invaded by French forces from that direction.[21] After the disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812 and the collapse of the French army, the threat of a French invasion through Persia was removed.

The Great Game begins[edit]

Map of the Indus river basin today. Britain's intended strategy was to use its steam power and the river as a trade route into Central Asia.[4][22]

Britain's view[edit]

The Great Game began on 12 January 1830 when Lord Ellenborough, the President of the Board of Control for India tasked Lord William Bentinck, the Governor-General of India, to establish a new trade route to Bukhara.[3][4]

Following the Treaty of Turkmenchay 1828 and the Treaty of Adrianople (1829), Britain feared that Persia and Turkey would become protectorates of Russia. This would change Britain's perception of the world, and its response was The Great Game. Britain had no intention of getting involved in the Middle East, but it did envision a series of buffer states between the British and Russian Empires that included Turkey, Persia, plus the Khanate of Khiva and the Khanate of Bukhara that would grow from future trade. Behind these buffer states would be their protected states stretching from the Persian Gulf to India and up into the Emirate of Afghanistan, with British sea-power protecting trade sea-lanes. Access to Afghanistan was to be through developing trade routes along the Indus and Sutlej rivers using steam-powered boats, and therefore access through the Sind and Punjab regions would be required. Persia would have to give up its claim on Herat in Afghanistan. Afghanistan would need to be transformed from a group warring principalities into one state ruled by an ally whose foreign relations would be conducted on his behalf by the Governor-General and the Foreign Office. The Great Game meant closer ties between Britain and the states along her northwest frontier.[4][22]

Britain believed that it was the world's first free society and the most industrially advanced country, and therefore that it had a duty to use its iron, steam power, and cotton goods to take over Central Asia and develop it. British goods were to be followed by British values and the respect for private property. With pay for work and security in place, nomads would settle and become tribal herdsman surrounding oasis cities. These were to develop into modern states with agreed borders, as in the European model. Therefore, lines needed to be agreed and drawn on maps.[4][22] Two proud and expanding empires approached each other, without any agreed frontier, from opposite directions over a "backward, uncivilized and undeveloped region."[8]

Here we are, just as we were, snarling at each other, hating each other, but neither wishing for war. - Lord Palmerston (1835)[23]

Russia's view[edit]

Siberian Cossack of the Russian army c1890s

In 1557, Bokhara and Khiva sent ambassadors to Ivan IV seeking permission to trade in Russia. Russia had an interest in establishing a trade route from Moscow to India. From then until the mid-19th century, Russian ambassadors to the region spent much of their time trying to free Russians who had been taken as slaves by the khanates.[24] Russia would later expand across Siberia to the Far East, where it reached the Pacific port that would become known as Vladivostok by 1859. This eastward expansion was of no concern to the British Foreign Office because this area did not lie across any British trade routes or destinations, and therefore was of no interest to Britain.[25] Beginning in the 1820s, Russian troops would begin to advance southward from Siberia in search of secure boundaries and reliable neighbors. This advance would not cease until Russia’s frontiers and her sphere of influence were firm in the Central Asia, and this would include Bokhara and Khiva.[26]

Between 1824–1854, Russia occupied the entire Kazakh Khanate (modern-day Khazakstan). This raised Russo-Khivan tensions in addition to Khiva’s legal discrimination of Russian merchants who were just beginning to penetrate Central Asia, and the ongoing issue of Russian slaves. Russia launched an attack in 1839–40 but it failed to reach Khiva because of the tough terrain and weather. However, the khan of Khiva feared a further Russian assault and released a number of Russian slaves.[27]

For more details on this topic: Kazakh raids on Russian settlements

During the 1840s and 1850s, Russia’s aims in Central Asia were for Bukhara and Khiva to refrain from hostile actions against Russia, cease possession of Russian slaves and the granting asylum to Kazakhs fleeing from Russian justice. Khiva must cease her attacks on caravans along the Sir-Darya. Russian merchants must to be allowed to trade on the same terms as native merchants in Bukhara and Khiva. The khanates must guarantee the safety of the persons and property of Russian merchants, levy no excessive duties, permit unhampered transit of goods and caravans across Central Asia into neighboring states and allow Russian commercial agents to reside in Bukhara and Khiva, and free navigation on the Amu-Darya river for Russian ships. None of these aims were realised.[27] Russia's borders remained insecure and in addition there was growing British influence in the region.[28]

Anglo–Russian rivalry in Central Asia[edit]

Afghan tribesmen (in British service) in 1841

Under the East India Company[edit]

William Moorcroft was an explorer, doctor, veterinary surgeon, and Superintendent of the East India Company's horse stud. He had an interest in expanding trade in Central Asia, where he thought the Russian traders were already active. In 1820, Moorcroft, George Trebeck and George Guthrie left India for Bokhara to buy Turkoman horses and reached Bokhara in 1825. However, all three died of fever on the return journey.[29] His travels were published in 1841.[30] Charles Masson, formerly of the East India Company, resided in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Punjab between 1826 and 1838 and published his travels.[31] In September 1829, Lieutenant Arthur Conolly of the East India Company travelled from St. Petersburg, Russia to the Caspian desert, to Kir (northern Iran), was detained in Astrabad (northern Iran) as a Russian spy, then traveled with a caravan of pilgrims to Meshed, marched with the Afghan army from there to Herat, then traveled to Kandahar, to Quetta, then across the Indian desert to the British frontier in January 1831. He published his travels in 1834.[32] However, after 1830, Britain's commercial and diplomatic interest to the north-west would eventually become formidable. In 1831, Captain Alexander Burnes and Colonel Henry Pottinger's surveys of the Indus river would prepare the way for a future assault on the Sind to clear a path towards Central Asia.[33] Burns went on in 1832 to reach Afghanistan and through the Hindu Kush to Bokhara, returning in 1833. He published his travels in 1834.[34] Between 1832 and 1834, Britain attempted to negotiate trade agreements with Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh empire, and the Amirs of Sindh. However, these attempts were unsuccessful.[4][22]

In 1835, Lord Auckland was appointed Governor-General, and replaced Bentinck who had pursued a non-intervention policy. In that year, Lieutenant John Wood of the Indian Navy commanded the first steamboat to paddle up the Indus River and surveyed the river as he went. In 1838, he led an expedition that found one of the River Oxus' sources in central Asia. He published his travels in 1872.[35] In 1837, the Russian envoy Captain Jan Vitkevitch visited Kabul, and the British believed that it was to facilitate some form of diplomatic or military presence in Afghanistan. While in Kabul, he dined with the British envoy, Captain Alexander Burnes, who reported negatively on Russia's intentions.[36]

Political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his "friends" the Russian Bear and British Lion (1878)

In 1838, Colonel Charles Stoddart of the East India Company arrived in the Khanate of Bukhara to arrange an alliance with Nasrullah Khan. Nasrullah Khan had Stoddart imprisoned in a vermin-infested dungeon because he had not bowed nor brought gifts. In 1841, Captain Arthur Conolly arrived to try to secure Stoddart’s release. He was also imprisoned and on June 17, 1842 both men were beheaded. On hearing of the execution of the two British officers, Emperor Nicholas I of Russia would no longer receive Bukhara's gifts or emissaries, and its ambassador was turned back at Orenburg with a message that the Emperor would no longer have anything to do with the Emir of Bukhara.[37] After its two representatives were executed in Bukhara, Britain actively discouraged officers from traveling in Turkestan.[38]

During 1838, there were rumors in London of a coming Russian move towards Khiva. Additionally, Persia intended to annex Herat to make up for territory it had lost to a in the Russo-Persian War (1826–28), however the allegiance of Herat to Afghanistan was crucial to the British strategy.[39] Once Persia commenced the Siege of Herat (1838), Britain threatened to take military action and Persia withdrew in September. In December, the British marched into Afghanistan and arrested Dost Mohammad Khan (Emir of Afghanistan), sent him into exile in India and replace him with the previous ruler, Shah Shuja, who shared their more progressive vision for the people of the region.[4][22] Shar Shuja ul-Mulk had ascended the throne in 1803 and had signed a mutual defence agreement with the British in 1809 against a possible Franco-Russian invasion of India via Afghanistan. In the same year he was deposed and imprisoned by his half-brother. There were a number of Amirs of Afghanistan until Dost Mohammad Khan gained power in 1836.[36] Shar Shuja was not popular with the Afghans and tensions grew, leading to the killing of the British envoy, Captain Alexander Burnes, in 1841. By January 1842, the Afghans were in full revolt. With a weakening of military discipline, the British decided to withdraw from Afghanistan. Some 4,500 fighting men and 12,000 non-combatants left Kabul for Jalalabad that was 80 miles and 5 days march away. They were attacked by 30,000 Afghans and only one British soldier, Dr William Brydon, made it to Jalalabad. A few of the British were taken hostage and the rest killed. In April a punitive expedition was dispatched and recaptured Kabul and freed the captives in September. The new Governor-General, Lord Ellenborough, decided to withdraw all British garrisons from Afghanistan and Dost Mohammad Khan was freed in India to return to the throne.[36] "A mob of heathen savages, armed with home-made weapons had succeeded in routing the greatest power on earth."[40]

For more details on this topic, see First Anglo-Afghan War.

In 1839, acting Captain James Abbott of the Bengal Artillery undertook a mission to the Khanate of Khiva in an attempt to negotiate the release of Russian slaves that would deny the Russians a pretext for invading Khiva. If war had already broken out, Abbot was instructed to attempt to negotiate a settlement. The attempted Russian assault on Khiva failed to eventuate due to poor weather conditions. He was hampered by a lack of understanding of Khivan language and culture, and the attempt to release Russian slaves was unsuccessful. He did agree with the Khivan rule, Allah Quli Khan, to establishing a British agent to Khiva and to mediate between Khiva and Russia. Abbott set off from Khiva in 1840 towards Russia to commence negotiations, which he did on his own initiative and it was not authorised by his superiors. His caravan was attacked by Khazakhs and he was wounded in the hand and taken hostage, however he and his party were released because they feared retribution. He reached St Petersburg but the attempt at mediation failed. His bravery was recognized through promotion to full Captain.[41] In the same year, Lieutenant Richmond Shakespear of the Bengal Artillery was successful in the negotiating the release of 416 Russian captives, which he escorted into Russia.[42] He was knighted for this undertaking.

In 1843, Britain annexed the Sind. Between 1845 and 1846, the First Anglo-Sikh War was fought between the Sikh Empire and the East India Company, which resulted in the partial subjugation of the Sikh kingdom. Between 1848 and 1849, the Second Anglo-Sikh War was fought between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company, which resulted in the subjugation of the Sikh Empire, and the annexation of the Punjab and what subsequently became the North-West Frontier Province.

For more details on this topic, see First Anglo-Sikh War and Second Anglo-Sikh War.

In 1856, Persia commenced an assault on Herat and the British Home Government declared war on Persia. The Anglo-Persian War was conducted under Major General Sir James Outram until 1857, when Persia and Britain both withdrew and Persia signed a treaty renouncing its claim on Herat.[43]

For more details on this topic, see Anglo-Persian War.

Under the British Crown[edit]

Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the East India Company's remaining powers were transferred to the British Crown[44] in the person of Queen Victoria (who in 1876 was proclaimed Empress of India). As a state, the British Raj functioned as the guardian of a system of connected markets maintained by military power, business legislation and monetary management.[45] The Government of India Act 1858 saw the India Office of the British government assume the administration of British India through a Viceroy appointed by the Crown.

In 1863 Sultan Ahmed Kahn of Herat, who was placed into power by Persia and issued coinage on behalf of the Shah, attacked the disputed town of Farrah. Farrah had been under Dost Mohammad Khan's contol since 1856, and he responded by sending his army to defeat Herat and reunited it with Afghanistan.[46][47]

The Crimean War had ended in 1856 with Russia's defeat by an alliance of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. The new and wary Alexander II of Russia waited some years so as not to antagonize the British, then Russia expanded into Central Asia in two campaigns. In 1864, a circular was sent to the consular officers abroad by Gorchakov, the Russian Chancellor, patiently explaining the reasons for expansion centering on the doctrines of necessity, power and spread of civilisation.[25] Gorchakov when to great lengths to explain that Russia's intentions were meant not to antagonize the British but to bring civilised behavior and protect the traditional trade routes through the region.[48] The first campaign started from Orenberg and proceeded in the direction of Kabul in Afghanistan. Russia occupied Chimkent in 1864, Tashkent in 1865, Khokhand and Bukhara in 1866, and Samarkand in 1868. Russia's influence now extended to outlying regions of Afghan Turkestan. The second campaign started from the Caspian Sea and was in the direction of Herat, near the Persian frontier. Khiva was occupied in 1873.[25] Notable Russian generals included Konstantin Kaufman, Mikhail Skobelev, and Mikhail Chernyayev.

In the same year, Afghanistan's northern borders were to be respected in the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1873.[49]

Elephant and Mule Battery, Second Anglo-Afghan War

In 1878, Russia sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul. Sher Ali Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan, tried unsuccessfully to keep them from entering Afghanistan. The Russian envoys arrived in Kabul on 22 July 1878 and on 14 August the British demanded that Sher Ali also accept a British mission. The Amir not only refused to receive a British mission under Neville Bowles Chamberlain but threatened to stop it if it attempted to enter his country. Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of British India, ordered a diplomatic mission to set out for Kabul in September 1878 but the mission was turned back as it approached the eastern entrance of the Khyber Pass, triggering the Second Anglo–Afghan War.[50]

For more details on this topic, see Second Anglo-Afghan War.

The Treaty of Gandamak of 1879 required that Amir Abdur Rahman Khan had to accept British control of Afghanistan's foreign relations and to cede to the British a number of its southern frontier areas, including the districts of Pishin, Sibi, Harnai, and Thal Chotiali. In the following years, other tribal areas would be annexed by the British.[51]

Anglo-Russian Agreement[edit]

Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission[edit]

The Great Game is located in Turkmenistan
to Herat
to Herat
Panjdeh Incident (overlayed on a map of modern-day Turkmenistan)
Dot-yellow.svg = Hari-Rud river Blue-circle.png =Murgabh river

In 1881, Russian forces took Geok Tepe and in 1884 they captured Merv.[25] As the Russian forces were close to Herat, the British and Russian governments formed a joint Anglo-Russian Afghan Boundary Commission in the same year to define the borders between the Russian Empire and northern Afghanistan.[52][53]

In 1885, a Russian force annexed the Panjdeh district north of Herat province in what has been called the Panjdeh incident. The Afghans claimed that the people of the district had always paid tribute to Afghanistan, and the Russians argued that this district was part of the Khanates of Khiva and Mir which they had annexed earlier. The Afghan Boundary Commission was supposed to have settled the dispute, however the battle occurred before its arrival. The Afghan force of 500 was completely overwhelmed by the superior Russian numbers. Britain did not aid Afghanistan as was required by the Treaty of Gandamak, leading the Amir to believe that he could not rely on the British in the face of Russian aggression.[54]

Between 1885 and 1888, the Afghan Boundary Commission agreed that Russia would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance, but retain Panjdeh. The agreement delineated a permanent northern Afghan frontier at the Amu Darya, with the loss of a large amount of territory, especially around Panjdeh.[52][53]

This left the border east of Lake Zorkul in the Wakhan region to be defined. This territory was claimed by China, Russia and Afghanistan. In the 1880s, the Afghans had advanced north of the lake to the Alichur Pamir.[9]:p13 In 1891, Russia sent a military force to this area and its commander, Yanov, ordered the British Captain Francis Younghusband to leave Bozai Gumbaz in the Little Pamir. The Russians claimed that because they had annexed the Khanate of Kokand they had a claim over the Pamirs. Afghanistan claimed that the region never paid tribute to Kokand and was independent, so having annexed it the region was theirs. The British claimed that this was a breach of the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1873. Unfortunately for Britain, the Indian government pointed out that Bozai Gumbaz was not included in the Agreement and so it was in an undefined zone. Bozai Gumbaz had not appeared on the Russian map as being in Wakhan. Additionally, the British became aware that Younghusband had mistakenly entered Russian territory near Kara Kul and could have been arrested by the administrator there. Yanov offered a verbal apology if he had mistakenly entered the Wakhan territory, and the Russian government proposed a joint survey to agree on a border.[55]

This incident, and the report of an incursion by Russian Cossacks south of the Hindu Kush, led the British to suspect Russian involvement "with the Rulers of the petty States on the northern boundary of Kashmir and Jammu".[56] This led to the Hunza-Nagar Campaign in 1891 and British control over Hunza and Nagar.

In 1892, the British sent Charles Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore to the Pamirs to investigate. Britain was concerned that Russia would take advantage of Chinese weakness in policing the area to gain territory, and in 1893 reached agreement with Russia to demarcate the rest of the border, a process completed in 1895.[9]:p14 Murray was engaged in some form of diplomacy or espionage but the matter is not clear.[57]

Pamir Boundary Commission[edit]

A watercolor of Lake Zorkul, Pamirs, by British Army officer Thomas Edward Gordon (1874).

The Great Game is proposed to have begun on 12 January 1830 when Lord Ellenborough, the President of the Board of Control for India tasked Lord William Bentinck, the Governor-General, to establish a new trade route to Bukhara.[3][4] The Great Game is proposed to have ended on 10 September 1895 with the signing of the Pamir Boundary Commission protocols,[5] when the border between Afghanistan and the Russian empire was defined.[6][7][8][9]:p14 The Pamir Boundary Commission was conducted by Major-General Gerard who met with a Russian deputation under General Povalo-Shveikovsky in the remote Pamir region in 1895, who were charged with demarcating the boundary between Russian and British spheres of interest from Lake Victoria eastwards to the Chinese border.[58] The report of the Commission proved the absolute impracticality of any Russian invasion of India through the Pamir mountains.[59] The result was that Afghanistan became a buffer state between the two powers.

It was agreed that the Amu Darya river would form the border between Afghanistan and the Russian empire. Russia gained full possession of all of the Pamir Mountains, except for Taghdumbash, which would be the subject of a later Afghan-China agreement. To conclude their agreement, one peak was named Mount Concord.[8] In exchange for a British agreement to use the term Nicholas Range in honor of the Emperor Nicholas II of Russia on official maps, the Russians agreed to refer to Lake Zorkul as Lake Victoria in honor of Queen Victoria of England.[60][61]

The Russians had gained all of the lands North of the Amu Darya which included the land claimed by the Khanate of Khiva, including the approaches to Herat, and all of the land claimed by the Khanate of Khoqand, including the Pamir plateau. To ensure a complete separation, this new Afghan state was given an odd eastern appendage known as the Wakhan Corridor. "In setting these boundaries, the final act of the tense game played out by the British and Russian governments came to a close."[6]

Anglo-Russian Entente[edit]

The timing of the beginning and end of the Great Game is not completely agreed. One author believes that the Great Game commenced with Russia's victory in the Russo-Persian War (1804–13) and the signing of the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813 or the Treaty of Turkmenchay of 1828.[18] Another believes that it began between 1832–34 as an attempt to negotiate trade deals with Ranjit Singh and the Amirs of Sind.[4][22] Another believes that it started in the aftermath of the Crimean war (1853–6) and Caucasus war (1828–59).[62]:94 One author proposes that The Great Game was over at the end of the First Anglo-Afghanistan war in 1842 with the British withdrawal from Afghanistan.[4][22] Some authors believe that the Great Game came to a close with the three Anglo-Russian agreements of 1907 which delineated the spheres of interest between British India and Russian Central Asia in the borderland areas of Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet.[18][62]:276–298[63] Another that it was trailing off not long after that time,[64] and another with the Boshevik Revolution in 1917 and the end of Russia's interest in Persia.[65] One has stated that unofficially, the Great Game in Central Asia might never end.[18]

When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before. - Rudyard Kipling[66]

Reviews of the Great Game[edit]

The Great Game was a legend[edit]

Kipling's use of the term was entirely fictional, "because the Great Game as it is described in the novel did never exist; it is almost entirely Kipling's invention. At the time when the story is set (i.e. in the late Eighties), Britain did not have an intelligence service, nor an Ethnographical Department; there was only a governmental task force called "Survey of India" that was entrusted with the task of charting all India in response to a typically English anxiety of control."[67]

Two authors have proposed that The Great Game was a legend and that the British Raj did not have the capacity to conduct such an undertaking. An examination of the archives of the various departments of the Raj showed no evidence of a British intelligence network in Central Asia. At best, efforts to obtain information on Russian moves in Central Asia were rare, ad hoc adventures and at worst intrigues resembling the adventures in Kim were baseless rumours, and that such rumours "were always common currency in Central Asia and they applied as much to Russia as to Britain".[15][38] After two British representatives were executed in Bukhara in 1842, Britain actively discouraged officers from traveling in Turkestan.[38]

Later, the same author proposed that Russia never had the will nor ability to move on India, nor India the capability to move on Central Asia. Russia did not want Afghanistan, considering their initial failure to take Khiva and the British debacle in the First Anglo-Afghan War. In order to invade Afghanistan they would first require a forward base in Khorasan, Persia. Moscow had decided by then that a forward policy in the region had failed but one of non-intervention appeared to work.[68]

Another author proposed that Britons had used the term "The Great Game" in the late 19th century to describe several different things in relation to its interests in Asia, but the primary concern of British authorities in India was the control of the indigenous population and not preventing a Russian invasion. "Reading the history of the British Empire in India and the Middle East one is struck by both the prominence and the unreality of strategic debates".[69]

Britain had lost The Great Game by 1842[edit]

One author proposes that Britain lost The Great Game. "The Great Game was an aspect of British history rather than international relations: the phrase describes what the British were doing, not the actions of Russians and Chinese." The Great Game was an attempt made in the 1830s by the British to impose their view on the world. If Khiva and Bukhara were to become buffer states, then trade routes to Afghanistan, as a protectorate, along the Indus and Sutlej rivers would be necessary and therefore access through the Sind and Punjab regions would be required. The Great Game began between 1832–34 as an attempt to negotiate trade deals with Ranjit Singh and the Amirs of Sind, and the "first interruption of this magnificent British daydream was caused by the determination of the Amirs of Sind to be left alone." Its failure occurred at the end of the First Anglo-Afghanistan war in 1842 with the British withdrawal from Afghanistan. The failure to turn Afghanistan into a client state meant that The Great Game could not be won.[4][22]

In 1889, Lord Curzon, the future Viceroy of India, commented:

Our relations with Afghanistan in the forty years between 1838 and 1878 were successively those of blundering interference and of unmasterly inactivity.[70]

Other uses of the term "Great Game"[edit]

The TadAZ aluminium smelting plant, in Tursunzoda, is the largest aluminium manufacturing plant in Central Asia, and Tajikistan's chief industrial asset.

Since the late 1990s, some journalists have used the expression The New Great Game to describe what they proposed was a renewed geopolitical interest in Central Asia because of the mineral wealth of the region, which was at that time becoming more available to foreign investment after the end of the Soviet Union.[71] One journalist linked the term to an interest in the region's minerals[72] and another to its minerals and energy.[73]

Other authors disagree with these views. One strategic analyst has written that the Central Asian states are not pawns in any game and the so-called "New Great Game" is a misnomer that has not eventuated. Rather than two empires focused on the region as in the past, there are now many global and regional powers active with the rise of China and India as major economic powers. The emergence of Russia from a local-level player to an international-level one has seen Russia regarded as not an offensive power by the Central Asian states, which have diversified their political, economic, and security relationships.[74] Other authors have written that the "Great Game" or the "New Great Game" implies that the Central Asian states are passive pawns in the hands of more powerful states. However, their membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, established in 2001, shows that they have gained a degree of real independence, with China offering a predictability unknown in the "Great Game".[75][76][77]

The Great Game has been described as a cliche-metaphor,[78] and there are authors who have now written on the topics of "The Great Game" in Antarctica,[79] the world's far north,[80] and in outer space.[81]

In popular culture[edit]





  1. ^ a b Adamec, L.W. (2012). Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan. Scarecrow Press. p. 177. ISBN 9780810879577. 
  2. ^ a b Yapp 2000, pp. 187.
  3. ^ a b c Secret committee to governor-general in council, 12 Jan. 1830, India Office Records, Ltes/5/543
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Edward Ingram. The International History Review, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1980), pp. 160-171. Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: Great Britain's Great Game: An Introduction
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