A Shameful Episode

Before following the fortunes of the Administration formed by Sir Robert Peel, reference must be made to mournful news which, while people at home were crowding round the hustings and polling booths, were slowly approaching this country from Central Asia. The most serious reverse to British policy and the greatest disaster to British arms which have happened in the present century were the outcome of events which may thus briefly be recapitulated. In 1837 Captain Alexander Burnes, Orientalist and traveller, arrived as British agent at Cabul, capital of the province of that name, in the north of Afghanistan. The Prince of that fragment of the ancient empire of Ahmed Shah was Dost Mahomed Khan, n usurper, it is true, but a popular hero, a soldier of remarkable ability, and a sagacious and bold ruler. Dost professed the friendliest feelings towards England, but, for some reasons now unknown, was profoundly distrusted by the Foreign Office. Captain Burnes thoroughly trusted Dost, but his repeated assurance failed to convince his employers that in his disputes with neighbouring States, Dost greatly preferred relying on English influence to accepting the advances continually made to him by Russia and Persia. Burnes was instructed to regard Dost as dangerously treacherous, and at last Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India, made a treaty with Runjeet Singh, hostile to Dost, and with the purpose of restoring Shah Soojahool-Moolk, whom Dost had deposed from the throne of Cabul. A British force invaded Cabul, overthrew the brave Dost, and enthroned 'Soojah, whom nobody wanted. But Dost Mahomed was a foe of no ordinary mettle. On November 2, 1840, he encountered the allied force of the English and Shah Soojah at Purwandurrah and if he did not actually win the battle, the gallantry of his Afghan cavalry caused it to be drawn. Dost, however, was too wise to believe that he could resist for long the force of England. On the evening after the battle he rode into his enemy's camp and placed his sword in the hand of Sir W. Macnaghten, the British Envoy at Soojah's Court. Dost was honourably treated, his sword was returned to him, he was sent to India and provided with a residence and pension.

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But Dost was the darling of his people. They hated Soojah, whom the English had forced on them, and they rose in revolt against him. Burnes was the earliest victim, for although, in truth, he had all along stood stoutly for Dost, the insurgents believed  him to have betrayed their ruler. He and his brother and all their party, man, woman, and child, were hacked to pieces. Akbar Khan, second and favourite son of Dost Mahomed, now put himself at the head of the insurrection, and the shameful part of the story began. Hitherto, there had been blunders enough in English dealings with this brave people : but there is nothing to blush for in blunders provided they are clear of disgrace ; one cannot, however, ignore the truth that, after a few weeks' fighting, British troops, having been repeatedly beaten, became so demoralised that their officers could not get them to stand before the fierce Afghans. General Elphinstone, the chief in command, was an experienced, able soldier ; but his health had broken down before the insurrection began, and he had written to the Governor-General begging to be relieved of his command, which he felt he was physically unfit to continue. Unfortunately there was some delay in appointing his successor, and the trouble came before Elphinstone could be relieved. Against the personal courage of Brigadier Shelton, the second in command, no reflections have ever been made, but he proved lamentably supine at moments when prompt action was most required. Affairs went from bad to worse with the British force in cantonments outside Cabul, until at last Elphinstone, grievously weakened by disease, could be brought to contemplate no course but abject surrender. Abject surrender ! Not quite unconditional, it is true, but on most humiliating terms, including the release of Dost Mahomed and the immediate evacuation of Cabul by the British.

Bad as this was there was darker disgrace to come. The evacuation was delayed—on the part of the British from a foolish " Micawber " hope that " something would turn up "—on the part of the Afghans, no doubt, in order that the advent of winter should make the passes impracticable. Macnaghten, the British Envoy, seems to have been infected by the prevailing demoralisation, and fell into a trap prepared for him by Akbar Khan. At the very moment when he (Macnaghten) was negotiating openly with the chiefs in Cabul he entered into a conspiracy with Akbar to destroy them, to establish Shah Soojah as nominal monarch, and to secure the appointment of Akbar as Vizier. Macnaghten's punishment made no long tarrying, for Akbar was acting a subtle part. Macnaghten, accompanied by- three officers, rode out one morning to a conference with Akbar on the west bank of the Cabul river. It was a solitary place, a befitted the discussion of the contemplated treachery, but they had not been conferring long before they were surrounded by a crowd of armed country people. The British officers remonstrated with Akbar ; at that moment Macnaghten and his companions were seized from behind; a scuffle took place; Akbar drew a pistol, a gift from the Envoy himself, and shot him in the body. Macnaghten fell from his horse and was instantly hewn in pieces ; Captain Trevor was killed also, and the other two officers, Mackenzie and Laurence, were carried off to the town.

Deeper and deeper grows the horror--more profound the shame—as the story proceeds. General Elphinstone and Brigadier Shelton lay in their cantonments with 4,500 fighting men, with guns, and camp followers to the number of 12,000. Macnaghten's bloody remains were dragged in triumph through the streets of Cabul, yet not an arm was raised to avenge him. Major Eldred Pottinger was for cutting their way out and dying on the
field, but no one would listen to him : negotiations were opened with Akbar Khan, and the British force were allowed to march out, leaving all their guns except six, all their treasure and six officers as hostages. They started, upwards of 16,000 souls, to march through the stupendous defiles to Jellalabad in the very depth of winter. Akbar Khan's safe-conduct proved the shadow of a shade; either he would not, or, as seems to have been the case, he could not, protect them from hordes of fanatic Ghilzies, who hovered along the route—shooting, stabbing, mutilating the wretched fugitives. Akbar, indeed rode with Elphinstone, and probably it was true, as he declared, that he could do nothing with his handful of horse to keep off the infuriated hillmen. At last it became evident that a choice must be made of a few who might be saved either from a bloody death or from perishing of cold in the snow and searching wind. Akbar proposed to take all the women and children into his own custody and convey them to Peshawur. The awful nature of the dilemma may be imagined when such a proposal was agreed to. Lady Macnaghten was placed in charge of the assassin of her husband: with her went Lady Sale, Mrs. Trevor, and eight other Englishwomen ; and, as an extreme favour, a few married men were allowed to accompany their wives. General Elphinstone and two other officers were also taken as hostages. The rest struggled on as far as the Jugdulluck Pass. Then came the end: the hillsides were crowded with fierce mountaineers ; the 44th Regiment were ordered to the front ; they mutinied and threatened to shoot their officers, broke their ranks, and were cut down in detail by the Afghans. A general massacre followed. Out of more than 16,000 souls who marched out of Cabul a sorry score of fugitives were all that left that horrible defile alive. Sixteen miles from Jellalabad, only six remained: still the murdering knife was plied, until, at last, one solitary haggard man, Dr. Brydon, rode into Jellalabad to tell of the literal annihilation of the army of Cabul, and announce to General Sale, commanding in that place, that his wife was in the hands of Akbar Khan.

Annihilation of the British Force.


[From Sketches obtained on the spot.] The gate shown is the Cabul Gate of Jellalabad. It was from the top of that gate that the sentry on duty first caught sight of the solitary figure, clad in sheepskin coat and riding a bay pony, lean, hungry, and tired, who alone survived the massacres in the Huft Kothal and Jugdulluck Passes. Dr. Brydon's form was bent from weakness, and he was so worn out with fatigue that he could scarcely cling to the saddle. The snow-covered mountain in the background is the Ram Koonde.



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