The Akhund of Swat

I’m reading a 1972 book called Queen Victoria’s Little Wars by Byron Farwell, an American historian. The book’s about what it says it’s about – the myriad, forgotten military campaigns the British Empire fought across the world that the history books just leave out. The Irish-American attempted invasion of Canada in 1870, for example, had passed me by.

These are battles that have barely left a mark on history – often there were campaign medals issued, some new line added to regimental lore, or some curios in local museums. The casualties tended to be ‘light’, in the sense that, at most, only a few hundred would die on either side. The British tended to prevail, it was a question of how long it took them, not what the end result would be.

It’s commonplace now that whenever there’s a war, some TV news channel will run a survey that shows that the vast majority of people can’t point to where the war is on a map. There was the rumour, which has to be untrue, that Ronald Reagan was so concerned with Gaddafi and Libya in his day because he’d somehow got it mixed up with Cuba and thought he wasn’t just up to no good, it was all happening off the coast of Florida. Well … the British people of the nineteenth century did the same. Farwell’s book claims that one of the reasons the British held on to Hong Kong, at the time just a small boggy island, was that Queen Victoria found the name, and the thought she ruled such a place, extremely funny.

This love of exoticism, of the thought they lived in a big odd world drove Victorian England. The morality that dare not show an ankle no doubt existed in some corners of the UK, but for the most part it was a mere construct, a straw man designed to be transgressed. What they were all up to was so daring compared with the norm, a line to be crossed joyfully and frequently. Victorian England wasn’t really hidebound or prudish, it was a constant freakshow. They loved to be shocked, and to think they were shocking others.

Wars were the same – the British Empire loved to go up against colourful opponents. Literally, in many cases, people of colour, of course, but Farwell’s book makes it plain – they kind of lost interest in most of India and China when they got used to the fashions and customs. It was at the frontiers, where the fighters were particularly fierce or had particularly exotic weapons or customs that the real action was. England traded and jostled with the boring old West Coast of Africa or the Kaffirs for centuries, and didn’t think much of it. But when someone like King Theodore caught the imagination, or the Zulus showed up and gave them a good hiding, the game was afoot.

That was among the soldiers and sailors. Mostly, at home, there was indifference, ignorance and a concern for domestic issues. As ever, there were all the usual concerns about cost, long term strategy and simple short term utility. We blanche when we hear Chamberlain’s description of Czechoslovakia as ‘a far away country of which we know little’ in 1938, but at the time, incredible though it seems, that was broadly true. Imagine what it must have been like in the mid 1800s, when so much of the world was unmapped by the West (when Britain went to war with China, it knew the coasts well and that China was a big country, but that was about it). Most people in Britain were, at best, only dimly aware of Empire. It was much like Blackadder’s objection to Raleigh  – all these people finding new countries and bringing back new vegetables was, well, boring.

The Akhund of Swat seems to have been symbolic of all this, even at the time. During the Umbeyela Campaign of 1863, he was seen at the leader of the fight against the British. And he had a silly name which caught the imagination. But the main point was this: the Army was off somewhere fighting him, this was clearly important, but … huh? Edward Lear wrote a verse that expressed the attitude of the home country:

 

Who, or why, or which, or what?

Is the Akond of Swat?

Is he short, or tall, or dark, or fair?

Does he sit on a stool, or a sofa, or a chair,

Or squat?

The Akond of Swat.

 

The full poem is here.  The American poet Eugene Field asked:

 

Now the Ahkoond of Swat is a vague sort of man,

Who lives in a country far over the sea;

Pray tell me good reader, if tell me you can,

What’s the Ahkoond of Swat to you folks or to me?

 

Well, the Akhund of Swat has a Wikipedia entry, but it’s a short one. We are now, hopefully, aware that the Swat Valley is in Pakistan, that it’s in the Khyber region. The Akhund was a Muslim holy man, Abdul Ghafoor, who was seventy years old in 1863. Up until that point, he was revered as a living saint by the local Muslims (the Bunerwals) and had taken a volatile situation of tribal violence and brought peaceful leadership along Muslim principles to the area.

An expedition led by Neville Chamberlain – who was no relation of the future Prime Minister – wanted to punish the Pashtuns and decided to march his army to their territory through the Swat Valley, which he believed to be peaceful, co-operative place. The Akhund objected and rallied local resistance, and the British were attacked by 15,000 Bunerwal troops. The British occupied a fort, and lost control of it three times in the following month. After losing 1000 men, reinforcements arrived, the Akhund’s forces sued for peace, and the British told them that the price of peace was that the Bunerwals had to go and burn down the Pashtun villages, which they duly did.

It was an odd, opaque vaguely pointless war. It furnished a couple of Victoria Crosses and provided much excitement to the British soldiers involved. This, as much as anything else, seems to have been its purpose. It’s tempting to look at the Swat in the modern day and see it’s still  tribal, that the West is still fighting Muslims there (the Taliban are active in the area) and to talk about how little has changed. In the end, though, the story of the Akhund of Swat is one of a war, or battle, or campaign, or whatever, that’s a little like the War of 1812 fought between the British and Americans, in that it’s hard to work out exactly why it started, defies legalistic or scholarly analysis of ‘reasons’, with very murky links to the broader context of the time, let alone now. It makes a mockery of questions like ‘what are we fighting for?’ or ‘who won?’. In the end, I think it doesn’t make the history books because … well, we want our stories to have better starts, middles and endings than that.

 

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3 responses to “The Akhund of Swat

  1. Narrative seems to be _the_ way that human beings make sense of everything, which of course shapes the way we tell our histories, large and small: history gets shaped and edited to fit our preferred narrative structures. But the idea that bits of history are forgotten because they make an unsatisfying narrative is a new one on me!

    I am so reading Queen Victoria’s Little Wars.

  2. “But the idea that bits of history are forgotten because they make an unsatisfying narrative is a new one on me!”

    I think we see it all the time. I honestly think the West were slow to respond in Yugoslavia in the nineties, for example, because it wasn’t at all clear cut. Part of the problem with the War on Terror is that … well, it’s not Captain America v Hydra. Conversely, although these things are always more nuanced, and there are always differing perspectives, Fighting Nazis *was* goodies v baddies, as noted by Mitchell and Webb:

  3. Just stumbled across your blog, fascinating stuff. You have a new subscriber.
    Great piece on the jolly old empire, I must track down a copy of this book.
    (And dig out my copy of sinister ducks!)
    Cheers.

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