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.