Although this grandiose term was coined by Rudyard Kipling to describe the intrigues between Great Britain and Russia for control of, of all places, Afghanistan, this term must mean something broader: The intrigues and struggles between the all of the colonial Powers of Europe, and later the United States and Japan, for political and economic control of the rest of the world. A description of the Great Game is a description of 19th century world history.

The Great Game was characterized by two competing forces:

The Napoleonic Wars had left Europe extremely war-weary, and the 1815 Congress of Vienna had set up a framework to prevent future Napoleons from setting everything off again. The infant United States's Monroe Doctrine, and more effectively, the overthrow of Spanish colonial rule in Latin America, kept the Powers from the stage of the Game's 18th century predecessor, the Americas. The Powers had to find new regions to expand their spheres of influence:
  • Africa. The slave trade no longer being profitable, it was abolished, and the Powers began to turn to agricultural development, and mineral extraction on the Continent itself. Britain had seized the Dutch colonies in South Africa during the Napoleonic wars and didn't want to give them back. The Royal Geographical Society sponsored expeditions into the heart of Africa, ostensibly to test theories about the 'Source of the Nile' or to spread Christianity.
  • The Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, was the 'sick man of Europe', growing ever weaker because of its feudal structure. Egypt was effectively independent, and Napoleon's expedition had left Frenchmen wanting more.
  • Central Asia. Great Britain had taken effective control of India by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and used it as a base to extend its influence outward. Meanwhile, Russia had just taken control of Siberia and was pushing southward. These interests met in Afghanistan.
  • China. Again, a decaying empire left a power vacuum. Qing Dynasty emperors tried to hold onto power by restricting trade with the West, making the Powers use less salubrious methods, such as the importation of opium into the country, leading to the 1850-1851 Opium War.
  • Europe itself.
Although the Great Game played itself out in thousands of intrigues, diplomatic missions, skirmishes, and atrocities all over the world, events that went little-noticed by history, several crises threatened to send the Powers into conflict with each other:
  • The Catholic southern half of The Kingdom of the United Netherlands had been thrown in with their Protestant northern neighbors despite having been separated from them for over 200 years. The Dutch king was physically kicked out of the country in 1830; he returned with an army in 1831. After beating up on the Belgians for ten days or so, he was expelled again by a French army. This made the British very, very nervous, since the Congress of Vienna had explicitly forbidden the French from annexing the Spanish/Austrian Netherlands. However, this was an easy resolution; no-one wanted to go to war over it, not even The Netherlands, and both Britain and France recognized the independence of Belgium. In an 1839 treaty, France and Britain gained The Netherlands' acceptance by guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality.
  • The Revolutions of 1848 frightened all of the Powers for a time, but everyone knew that one Power's support of another Power's insurgency could easily be returned in kind. The only country that changed its government was France, which gained a new Napoleon.
  • The Ottoman Empire's weakness in the Middle East was mirrored in its European possessions. Everyone was happy to let new states like Greece, Serbia, and Romania fill in the Balkan power vacuum, but greater temptations for certain Powers made the others nervous. Although Austria was weak, it was not nearly so weak as Turkey, and tried to gain influence over places like Bosnia and Herzegovina. The temptation for Russia was Constantinople itself, naval control of the Bosporus. In 1853 Russia decided to go for it. The other Powers couldn't let this happen, and The Crimean War resulted.
  • Another decaying empire was the absurd Austro-Hungarian Empire, a conglomeration of Hapsburg inheritances and conquests of the previous 500 years. Austria's only post-1815 sphere of influence was Italy whose national aspirations were kept firmly in check. After an 1848 attempt by Piedmont/Sardinia,  Napoleon III involved himself in Il Risorgimento, winning the battles of Magenta and Solferino; Garibaldi surprised everyone by showing up in Sicily in 1860.  The Kingdom of The Two Sicilies crumbled rapidly, and Italy was born.
  • The American Civil War broke out in 1860 when Southern plantation owners decided that Europe couldn't do without the cotton produced by their slaves. Dreams of European intervention were a fool's paradise as the need to keep the Balance of Power would have led some powers to support the Union, and the others to support the Confederacy.  Of course, after the Civil War, the United States entered the Game itself, carving its own sphere of influence out of China, buying Alaska from Russia, and later fighting a war with Spain and taking several of its possessions, most notably The Philippines.   An attempt to set up a sphere of influence in Japan, however, turned that country into a player.
  • The Suez Canal was designed, engineered and built by the French, but financed by British bankers.   Much of the debt was owed by Ismail, beylik of Egypt, who also had a half interest in the canal.  Ismail's attempts to raise taxes to pay his debts caused unrest in Egypt, resulting in British forces being sent to protect the bankers' interests.  France fumed over the loss of its toy.
  • Into all of this stepped Otto von Bismarck and his campaign of German reunification. Bismarck played the Great Game like no other, playing Powers off against each other, meanwhile strengthening support for Prussia within all of the tiny German states.   After watching the French isolate themselves from any potential allies in the wake of the Suez Canal affair, he engineered a war with France.  Winning the Franco-Prussian War got rid of Napoleon III and gave birth to The Second Reich, but it also gave Europe the loose cannon Wilhelm II...
  • Russia, frustrated by the Crimean War, and Austria, frustrated by Italian reunification, turned their attention towards the Balkans.  Russia played it safe by enlarging Serbia and eventually creating Bulgaria during several Balkan Wars between 1908 and 1913; Britain and Italy worked to enlarge Greece.  Nobody, especially the Serbians, liked Austria's growing influence over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Wilhelm's saber-rattling and military buildup eventually caused everything to gel.  The other Powers felt it necessary to form Continent-spanning alliances and enter into military buildups of their own.  Industrialists of all nations were, of course, all too happy to rake in money making guns and ammunition.

And then, in 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo, and his car happened to pull up alongside young Gavrilo Princip, sent by Apis and his Black Hand to assassinate him.  A shot was fired, opportunities were seized (German troops marched into Belgium), alliances (such as the 1839 London treaty mentioned above) were invoked, and the Great Game erupted into World War I.  When the smoke finally cleared over the rubble in 1945, there was a new Great Game: The Cold War.

A Brief Chronological Aid to the History of the Great Game and Anglo-Afghani Involvement:

1608: William Hawkins’ ship Hector drops anchor off the Tapti River on the west coast of India, becoming the first merchant ship to reach the region from England.
1747: Ahmad Shah Sadozai Durani comes to power in Afghanistan supported by Pashthun tribal council.
1757: Robert Clive defeats the troops of the French-financed Nawab of Bengal in the battle of Plaset near Calcutta, effectively eliminating all other European powers in India. This cements the relationship between the Moghul Court and the British- and means the roughly 1000 Company administrators at this point command the world’s second largest army and presides over 1/15th of the planet’s population, at the request of the waning Moghul administation.
1772: Warren Hastings appointed first Governor-General of British India
1775: Timor Shah shifts the capital from Kabul to Kandahar
1784: Pitt's India Bill passed by the British Parliament, which establishes a Board of Control over all merchant operations in India.
1786-90: Reforms of Governor General Cornwallis, to eradicate profiteering and corruption, take place in the shadow of the Napoleonic Wars, and threat of invasion by French troops moving through Persia is considered a very real possibility.
1790: Third Mysore war
1793: Permanent settlement of Bengal
1799: Death of Tipu Sultan
1807: London politicos insist upon new allies in the region in case of French incursion into Persia or the Sind – so Governor General Lord Minto officially begins the Great Game in an effort to win over various ethnic, regional or religious interests in Central Asia, by flattery, bribery, threat or trickery, before French envoys do the same. This same year, Ranjit Singh’s Sikh army marches out of Lahore in the Punjab towards Delphi, radically shifting the balance of power. British envoys are immediately dispatched to sound the leader about his ambitions and allegiances – but Capt. David Seton blunders badly when he promises on behalf of the Crown that England would defend his small nation against any incursion. For the time, however, Singh is convinced he can side with the British to his advantage against the Afghani clans which have control of Peshewar, so he signs a treaty of perpetual friendship, even though the British soon return to a position of official neutrality between Punjabi and Afghan forces.
1808: Montstuart Elphinstone is dispatched to Peshewar to negotiate with Shah Shujah, Singh’s sworn enemy.
1812: Russians expand into Persia at Aslanduz and force the signing of the Treaty of Gulistan which cedes control of the Caucasus back to Russia.
1814-16: Conquest of Gurkhas. British forces in the region number nearly 300, 000, including 40, 000 English officers. Almost all the infantry are native Indian sepoys.
1818: Dost Mohammed seizes Herat, which is soon followed by the destruction of Marathas by British-supported Persian dissidents and a spreading civil war in Afghanistan leads to the division of the country into two political entities until 1835.
1826-63: Consolidation of power by Dost Mohammed Khan in central and western Afghanistan - he abandons his youthful decadence and commits himself wholly to Allah by donning spartan clothes, memorizing the Qu'ran and forbidding alcohol in all cities under his control.
1828: Lord Bentinck appointed Governor-General. Russian armies expand further in to Persian territory, now controlling Tabriz and Yerevan, pushing the Czar’s influence ever further into Asia, as spies begin to circulate as far as Tehran, thus pushing the British to solidify their forces in the Sind as a precaution. A 25 year old officer, Alexander ‘Bokhura’ Burnes is dispatched to survey the Indus River in preparation for extensive troop movements, which sets off the chain of events leading to the Afghan invasion.
1829: Brahmo Samaj founded by Raja Rammohan Roy; prohibition of sati.
1835: Introduction of English as medium of instruction
1838: Said Jamal-ul Din Afghan credited with the Pan-Islamic movements in the region, while the threat of expansion into Central Asia by Czarist Russia now supercedes any threat from French forces. The British intensify their efforts to co-opt competing groups of Afhgan tribes. The English are referred to derisively as ‘ferangi’.
1839: Death of Ranjit Singh and outbreak of the first Opium War
1839-42: First Anglo Afghan war
1843: East India Company forces officially occupy the Sindh region.
1848-49: The end of the Sikh War leads to the annexation of the Punjab.
1856: Annexation of Oudh by the British and the introduction of Hindu widow marriage to combat the prevalence of traditional widow burning after the death of the husband.
1857: Indian Mutiny, led by disenchanted Muslim element of the Bengal Army. The uprising began in newly-occupied Awadh and quickly spread throughout the region, devolving into what was for all intents and purposes a race war, as rebel factions across the sub-continent tried ‘to turn back the clock to a previous era where those dreadful reformers from Britain had not existed, and Company rule had appeared in a far different form from its Victorian incarnation.’
1858: Transfer of India’s political control passes from the East India Company to the British Crown
1868-1879: Amir Shir Ali Khan
1878-80:: Second Anglo Afghan war
1880-1901: Rule of Dost Mohammed's grandson, Abdur Rahman Khan
1919-29:Anglo-Russian agreement delineates specific borders and regions for both sides military and commercial activities.
1919-29: Amanullah Shah
1921: End of British involvement in Afghan affairs
Notes:
The Portuguese actually had gotten to India first, and had begun trading immediately in spices, slaves, and anything else they could get their hands on and wasn’t tied down. So protective of this lush bonanza were they that assassins were immediately dispatched from Europe to kill Captain Hawkins before he made contact with the ruling Moghuls, or at the very latest before he returned to London to tell anyone of his trip. However, he did manage a meeting with Emperor Jehangir in Agra – thus began the British epoch in India.
Burnes, who arrived in India at age 16 as a clerk, had advanced quickly to the Political Bureau, given his discipline and talent of languages. In ’29 he had, alone, traversed and mapped the Great Indian Desert of Rajputana. Now he went upstream through the Sind to the Punjab, at great risk, with a gift of six Scottish stallions for Ranjit Singh and a proposal that the Company and Sikhs ally themselves against any Russian advance. The British would occupy the Sind, use the Punjab as a platform, and keep close tabs on the frontiers in the North. Meanwhile, Singh was welcome to Peshewar, and the Kashmir beyond. See John H. Waller Beyond the Khyber Pass: the Road to British Disaster in the First Afghan War (NY, Random, 1990), p. 11 –33, or Burnes’ book Travels in Bokhara… (London, John Murray, 1834)
P. Lawson, The East India Company (NY:Longman, 1993), 161. This is a fantastic condensation on a heavily researched aspect of British imperialism – and Lawson is an astute, balanced observer who avoids any contemporary revisionism, while at the same time remaining eloquently critical. In explaining, for example, the ‘mission creep’ suffered by British forces in India during this period, he explains how ‘by the mid 19th c. the Indian land empire had become a solid mass of princely states and company territory guarded by an army that kept the enemy at bay on the ragged edges of its domain…in its own logic, pacification required constant military action to deal with homegrown insurgents and external threats…this policy entailed still further wars and annexations, usually justified on a point of security.’ (145) Thus, once British forces entangled themselves in one area, they found themselves quickly mired there while being drawn into some adjacent region’s intrigues, for varying corporate or political motives. Only the ruinous retreat from Kabul, and then the bloody Indian Mutiny, revealed to the English that the necessity of extracting themselves from this dismal latticework of unprofitable bloody mindedness.

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