#40 The Great Game and Empire in Central Asia, Part 1–Guest Blog by Matt Delman

Note from Ay-leen: This the first in a series of guest posts this week from Matt Delman, Proprietor of Free the Princess and Doc Fantastique’s Show of Wonders.


A map that tracks the decline of the Ottoman Empire from 1798 to 1923. Image courtesy of zonu.com

The time: 1807, when the Napoleonic Wars still raged in Europe. The place: London, England. Agents of the Crown have recently reported that Tsar Alexander I of Russia signed a treaty with Napoleon Bonaparte that suggested the French Emperor would receive Russian aid in his war against Great Britain, and in return Russia was to receive Moldavia and Wallachia — two European possessions of the flagging Ottoman Empire.

If the Ottoman Sultan refused to turn over the provinces, then France and Russia would invade the Empire and partition its lands — Greece and much of the Balkans included — between their two nations. The addition of such wide swathes of territory to its two enemies’ spheres of influence was bad enough news for the British Crown. However, even worse news was that Napoleon suggested that France and Russia steal away the jewel in the British Crown.


“Napoleon’s plan – which died with his defeat – was that a French army of 50,000 should march across Persia and Afghanistan, and there join forces with the Cossacks for the final thrust across the Indus River into India (Kathleen Burk).”

There remained a singular problem with this plan: Napoleon had no idea of the geography of India. For that matter, the British realized, neither did they. More than two centuries of involvement in the nation of India hadn’t garnered any knowledge of the internal geography of the landscape; the British had previously confined themselves to the coastal regions where their ships could easily reach.

The focus of the East India Company was on sea routes and sea routes only, which were the best way to transport trade goods back to England. Napoleon’s plan, though abortive, necessitated an investigation into the interior of the Indian subcontinent. For if the East India Company didn’t know where the overland lines of attack were, then how could they defend against an invasion?

Thus, in 1810, orders were given, and Lt. Henry Pottinger and Capt. Charles Christie volunteered to conduct a survey of the potential land routes invasion could come by. The men exercised extreme caution, disguising themselves as Indians and taking two servants and a local horse dealer along as companions. Such a disguise was necessary because if the tribesmen along their route saw two Europeans, they would assume that Christie and Pottinger were making notes to plan an invasion of the tribal lands. Notes had to be made in secret and hidden on the body where no one could find them.

Christie, Pottinger, and their party travelled from Bombay to Sind via ship, and then overland from Sind to Kalat. The men were immediately recognized as British officials, and were forced to escape in the middle of the night. Eventually, they reached Nushki, a city near the border of Afghanistan and Baluchistan.

At Nushki, Christie went northwest to Herat, and thence to Isfahan, whilst Pottinger travelled through Kerman to Shiraz, and joined Christie in Isfahan. Each had feared the other had died, but when each heard that there was another European in the town, they agreed to meet – but only after some minutes did they recognise each other. Other explorers followed over the years, filling in the blanks on the maps. (Burk)”

Thus began the opening moves of what would come to be known as The Great Game, a term crafted by British spy Arthur Conolly in 1829 and popularized in the 1901 novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling. In 1807, there were 2,000 miles of territory between British and Russian lands in Central Asia. By the end of the classic Great Game period in 1907, fewer than 20 miles separated the possessions of the two empires.

The Russians made the next move with the First Russo-Persian War from 1804 to 1813, which ended in a humiliating defeat for the Persians. The opening salvos of the war were fired at Echmiadzin, which was the holiest city in Armenia. That attack failed, however, and the Russian commanders fell back to Yerevan. Fath Ali Shah, ruler of Persia between 1797 and 1834, was forced to respond to these attacks and the Russian annexation of Georgia in 1801. Despite overwhelming numbers, however, the Persians fell to the superior technology and tactics of the Tsarist forces.

The First Russo-Persian War ended with the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan, which expelled the Persians from the modern Caucasus Mountain nations of Georgia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan among others. Great Britain took little notice of this Russian success against the Persians, however, as the Caucasus Mountains were far enough from British India that there were still several buffer states between the two imperial territories.

In fact, from the opening years of the century and even up to the 1840s, the focus of the British was further west; for beside the Dardanelles strait and on the coast of the Black Sea there lie the city of Constantinople — capital of the Ottoman Empire and the focus of a particular conundrum that plagued European politics for nearly 150 years.

The Eastern Question

At the start of the 1800s, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Asia Minor to Northeast Africa, and included the modern nations of Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Bosnia, Serbia, Romania, and others. However, throughout the years of the 18th and 19th centuries and leading into the early 20th, several key international events contributed to the decline and fall of the Islamic empire that once covered much of Eastern Europe.

Though the term “The Eastern Question” wasn’t coined until the 1822 Congress of Verona, it was the Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774 that first broached the topic in the minds of the European powers. The governments of France, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Russia, and others saw the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire as imminent, and rushed to safeguard their political, military, and commercial interests in Turkish territory. They went about this in different ways, of course. Great Britain and Austria-Hungary saw preservation of the Empire as beneficial, whereas the Russians saw opportunity in the decay of the Ottoman state.

The Eastern Question grew even more prominent after two successful revolutions in Ottoman territory — the Serbian Revolution of 1804 to 1815 and the Greek Revolution of 1821 to 1832. Both of these conflicts threw into stark relief the administrative and military difficulties facing the Ottoman Turks in the waning days of the Empire.

The 1806 Takeover of Belgrade (Serbian Revolution). Image courtesy of Wikipedia (click for link).

These difficulties included the vastness of territory the ruled by the Ottomans — as with any Empire their size, the differences between client states were sometimes stark. In the case of Greece and Serbia specifically, the Ottoman Turks were a Muslim power ruling over Christian subjects; these Christians, while tolerated to keep their own faith, were never truly accepted as full citizens under the law. An additional problem, at least in the Serbian case, was that the Serbs had the Christian nation of Austria-Hungary across the Danube River. The Serbs could thus visit a place where Christians were not second-class citizens.

In the case of Greece, there had been numerous failed attempts at revolution more or less since the Ottoman Turks took control of the country after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th Century. Success finally came in the form of the Friendly Society (Filiki Eteria), which was founded in Odessa in 1814. The Friendly Society began plans to coordinate revolutions across the various portions of Greece, and eventually the Greek Maniots (so named for the Mani region of the country) led the first successful battle of the Revolution to retake the city of Kalamata.

The 1827 Naval Battle of Navarino, one of the turning points of the Greek War of Independence. Image courtesy of Wikipedia (click for link).

George Gordon, Lord Byron, travelled to Greece in 1824 to assist in the Greek Revolution, which had gained traction among the liberal-minded elites of Britain. The death of Lord Byron due to fever catalyzed the imagination of the British people, and would eventually lead to official British — along with French and Russian — intervention in the Greek Revolution in the form of naval vessels sent to defend the Greeks against the combined navy of the Ottomans and Egyptians.

It’s worthwhile to note that Greeks did hold positions of prestige in the Ottoman Empire, so a direct comparison with the events leading up to the Serbian Revolution isn’t possible. The Phanariot Greeks who lived in Constantinople enjoyed responsibilities ranging from moneylending to trading with foreign nations.

The Greeks received their independence with the 1832 Treaty of Constantinople, like the Serbs had crafted a nation of their own in 1815. Unlike the Serbs, who suffered numerous abuses of the 1815 settlement that granted their nation nominal independence from the Ottomans (and didn’t receive complete independence until 1833), the Greeks showed the world that a small, ethnic minority could fight for and win total independence from their imperial masters.

It was this Greek success that truly sparked considerations of what would happen after the Ottoman Empire fell. Though Britain and Austria maintained their desire to keep the Empire alive until the 1870s, at which point both countries abandoned that idea for different reasons, the political and commercial machines were already in motion to maintain Western Europe’s interests in the Turkish sphere of influence.

In 1829, after the Second Russo-Turkish War (1828 to 1829), Tsar Nicholas I completed the Treaty of Adrianople with the Ottoman Sultan, which granted additional territory to Russia along the Black Sea, gave Russian commercial vessels access to the Dardanelles, and enhanced the commercial rights of Russians inside the Ottoman Empire. With this treaty, and the Greek victory in their War of Independence, the Russians moved along their path of making the Ottoman Empire a client state of the Russian Empire.

The 1828 Siege of Akhaltsikhe — from the Russo-Turkish War that lead to the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople. Image courtesy of Wikipedia (click for link)

As the Greek Revolt drew to a close, the Ottoman Empire faced new difficulties with Egypt, its most powerful vassal state. Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt, had in his possession a modernized and powerful Egyptian military that looked like it could wrest control of the entire Ottoman Empire away from Constantinople. Egypt’s invasion of Syria in 1831 sparked the First Turko-Egyptian War, under the pretext that Muhammad Ali wanted to recapture the Egyptians that had fled the draft system responsible for turning Egypt into an industrialized nation.

Egyptian forces conquered Syria and Arabia with ease and by 1832 threatened Constantinople itself. Throughout this campaign, Muhammad Ali watched the European powers closely. He kept the Sultan’s name in use at Friday prayers, and continued to circulate Ottoman coins in the conquered territories, instead of replacing them with ones bearing his likeness. The ploy worked: so long as Muhammad Ali did not directly threaten the stability of the Ottoman Empire, the European powers were content to remain observers only.

Interview with Mehmet Ali in his Palace at Alexandria (1839) by David Roberts

This show masked Ali’s true intentions, however, which were to replace Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II with the sultan’s infant son. This possibility so terrified Mahmud that he agreed to the Treaty of Hünkâr İskelesi (1833), which turned the Ottoman Empire into little more than a vassal of Russia. In exchange from protecting the Ottomans from external attacks, the Russians received the assurance that Constantinople would close the Dardanelles to warships whenever Russia was at war.

It was a misreading of the treaty by British, French, Prussian, and Austrian foreign ministers that led to the “Straits Question,” which wasn’t resolved until the 1841 London Straits Convention, during which the Russians agreed to the abrogation of the Hünkâr İskelesi treaty. Muhammad Ali’s initial forays into Ottoman territory were first halted by the 1833 Convention of Kutahya, which gave the Egyptian ruler dominion over Crete and the Hijaz as compensation while granting rule of Syria to Ibrahim Pasha, Ali’s son and heir. This agreement didn’t grant Muhammad Ali the independent kingdom he really wanted though.

The Ottoman Sultan, who knew the Kutahya Convention wouldn’t stop Ali, tried offering hereditary rule of Egypt and Arabia if Ali would take his forces out of Syria and Crete and renounced any desire for full independence. Ali refused, primarily because he knew the Sultan didn’t have the strength of arms to force the Egyptian military out of Syria or Crete.

On May 25, 1838, Muhammad Ali told the British and French that he was going to declare independence from Constantinople. These intentions ran very much contrary to the status quo of keeping the Ottoman Empire intact. Britain, France, Russia and the other European powers tried to prevent this from happening, but already the Egyptians and the Sultan’s forces were gearing for war.

The Sultan attacked, and was repelled. To add the proverbial insult to injury, the entire Ottoman naval fleet defected to the Egyptian side. Mahmud II died a few days after that particular battle, and it wasn’t until 1840, when the European powers came to the aid of 16-year-old emperor Abdulmecid, that Muhammad Ali’s desires were finally quelled. Ali withdrew from Crete and the Hijaz, and downsized both his navy and his army as part of the Convention of London.

For roughly the next decade, after Muhammad Ali threatened to break up the Ottoman State through force of arms, the Eastern Question lay dormant. However, it became important yet again when the Revolutions of 1848 consumed France, Poland, Latvia, Wallachia, Prussia, Austria, and many other Central and Western European countries.

Rather than attack the Ottoman Empire, the Russians under Tsar Nicholas focused on protecting Austria during its internal strife. After the Austrian revolution was taken care of, however, a war between Austria/Russia on one side and the Ottomans on the other seemed imminent. The Austrians wanted rebels that had taken refuge in Ottoman territory returned. The Ottomans refused, and it took an intervention by Britain and France to prevent Austria and Russia from invading.

And then, of course, there was the Crimean War.

Tune in on Wednesday for Part II.

Matthew Delman is the creator of Free the Princess, a “practical literary guide” to Steampunk, as well as the Founder/Editor of Doctor Fantastique’s Show of Wonders, an online Steampunk magazine. He writes on Steampunk (and Social Media topics) from his home in Eastern Massachusetts.



Filed under Essays, History