Tag Archive | Afghanistan

An Afghan Evening at Astley’s

Circus image

Gosh, time flies. Three years ago I was deep in writing The Buddhas of Bamiyan. I’d reached my favourite part of it, the nineteenth century, when a motley bunch of spies, prisoners, missionaries and dreamers brought the giant Afghan buddhas to the attention of the European public for the first time.

It’s a close call, but for me the most charismatic and interesting of all these visitors to Afghanistan was Lady Sale, a tough, opinionated military wife taken to Bamiyan along with her widowed daughter and baby granddaughter as a prisoner of the Afghans in 1842: I’ve blogged here and here about Florentia Sale, her granddaughter, and the enormous celebrity she enjoyed as a result of her captivity. For a period in 1842-4 Lady Sale was the second-most-famous woman in the British Empire, and when her diary of her time in Afghanistan was published in 1843, A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, 1841-2 was a bestseller.

Lady Sale

Lady Sale encapsulated a lot about the Western encounter with Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. But back in 2011 there was a detail about her I’d seen but ignored, because I didn’t appreciate its significance. In Punch (1845, p.236) a humorous review of the annual exhibition of paintings at the Royal Academy mentioned “No. 33”, “A Portrait of Lady Sale, with whom we had become familiar at ASTLEY’S.” The portrait in question is presumably this one in the Somerset Military Museum in Taunton: it forms a pair with another, by the same artist, of her husband Maj.-Gen. Sir Robert Henry Sale. Astley’s, I knew, was a circus in London, but that was really all I knew.

It was at this moment that I found myself being dragged, not entirely willingly, to a circus performance in a muddy field one Friday evening. It was Gifford’s, and the best night’s entertainment I’d ever had, a “traditional” circus taking its lead from early circuses like Astley’s. Inspired, I did enough reading to establish that, if somebody’s portrait was being exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and that person was also being featured in an Astley’s production, well, they really were a phenomenon. Lady Sale was the toast of the toffs in their salons at one end of Victorian society, and a 24-carat British heroine in the eyes of the very different demographic of the Astley’s audience: Marius Kwint, a scholar of the early circus, describes the “plebeian elite” of “artisans, governesses and small tradespeople” whose domain was Astley’s Amphitheatre (Past & Present 2, p.109).

So Astley’s circus got a sentence in my book. This year, though, my involvement with the circus reached a whole new level. Well, not really, but I did find myself in a rather giggly, star-struck state at Gifford’s HQ discussing circus-friendly classical myths, and how flexible Greco-Roman myth could be (answer: as flexible as you like). Last week the Morgan family went to see the finished product, Gifford’s funny, thrilling and also very beautiful show The Thunders, and I took away a programme containing something like my name for the scrapbook. To cut a long story short, there’s nothing like having a role in a circus production, albeit a vanishingly small one, to reawaken interest in the subject. As I watched the 2014 Gifford’s Circus, my mind turned back to Lady Sale. I needed to find out what Astley’s had made of the heroine of the hour in 1843.

Thunders E-shot

Our most detailed information about this show is in Punch again (Punch felt a strong affinity for circus, and it’s not too hard to see why). I’ll get to that account soon, but some background first. Lady Sale had been taken prisoner by the Afghan leader Akbar Khan in the course of a massacre of British forces retreating from Kabul, during the First Afghan War in early 1842. She and her fellow prisoners, including a daughter widowed in the retreat, and a baby girl born to her daughter in captivity, were finally rescued near Bamiyan in September 1842, but by that time “the Cabul Prisoners” had become a cause célèbre that has been compared to the US Embassy hostages in Tehran in 1979-81, their situation tracked minutely by newspapers, and sometimes illustrated by letters smuggled out from the captives themselves. In the plight of the prisoners the British public seemed to invest its profound anxiety about the Afghan campaign, culminating as it had done in one of the greatest catastrophes British forces ever suffered. When the captives were rescued, in turn, it was felt as a surrogate victory, and the family, Maj.-Gen. and Lady Sale, their daughter Alexandrina Sturt and granddaughter Julia, toured Britain amid great excitement in 1844.

Meanwhile Astley’s Amphitheatre, the venue of this production, was having its own problems. In 1841 it burned to the ground, the third time this had happened since Philip Astley, the father of modern circus (with an unfortunate penchant for wooden construction), first established it beside Westminster Bridge in 1769. (For an interesting history of the building, see here.) On Easter Monday, April 17, 1843, Astley’s reopened under new management, and with a brand-new show. A report in The Times (April 18, 1843) describes the plush new venue, including drop curtains representing “the procession of the competitors and the glorious Olympians as they progress to the Greek city”, and the show that had been chosen to inaugurate it, “a new piece entitled The Affghanistan War.” The incidents depicted in the production, although “enlivened … by a few drolleries and a little love”, would be all-too-familiar to readers of The Times, but “afforded an excellent means of displaying those equestrian performances for which Astley’s has been so long distinguished, and … received the warmest plaudits of an admiring multitude.” The leading character in the show was obviously Lady Sale, who, according to The Era (April 23, 1843), “stormed through the night with irresistible fortitude at the head of her little band of more timid fellow-captives.” Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine (1843, p. 62) was very impressed, and indicates that the show was both spectacular and a big hit:

The grand military and spectacle of the Affghan war, which has been visited by thousands, continues to draw nightly crowds. It is got up in unparalleled grandeur, and the many scenes throughout the spectacle convey an excellent and true idea of the sufferings of the Caubul army, and the retreat to Jellalabad… [T]here can be little doubt that the heads of families will avail themselves of this great treat, for where do we expect to find amusement for juveniles if it is not at the Amphitheatre?

The equestrian scenes in the circle are novel, and the dresses and decorations are magnificent, exciting praise and admiration.

What The Times and Blackwood’s are describing here, the precise plot aside, is a pretty typical production at Astley’s: horsemanship predominates, as it had since the days of Astley himself, but trick-riding was interspersed with fairground acts like acrobatics, clowning, and tumbling, the classic circus recipe. Over time Astley’s had come to specialise in “swashbuckling melodramas on horseback, or ‘hippodramas’” (Kwint p.95), productions that knitted the various individual acts into a narrative, typically of recent events, and since Astley had been a military man, and his circus always retained a slight military flavour, recent military events fitted the bill nicely. Astley’s staged The Death of Tippoo Sahib; or, the Storming of Seringapatam in 1799, the year Seringapatam was captured, for example. One of the images here is of the staging of a battle during the Crimean War about a decade after The Affghanistan War, again more or less contemporaneously with the real events.

Punch‘s description of the Affghanistan War production appears in Punch’s Pocket Book for 1844 (pp. 128, 131), a diary for 1844 combined with humorous pieces on events of the previous year:

(128) THE CAPTIVES AT CABOOL

[We are enabled to extract the following highly interesting details from WIDDICOMBE’s Journal of the Astley’s Affghanistan Campaign; and offer no apology in bringing them before the notice of the reader.]

THE DISASTERS OF THE KHYBER

THEIR situation was exceedingly distressing. No sooner had they traversed the pass, than the dying English were obliged to throw a white tunic over their uniforms and climb up the ladders to the platforms at the back of the set pieces, whence, as Affghan chiefs, they fired blank cartridges upon their fellows: and when the curtain fell on this dismal tableau, the smoke was most overpowering. The paper snow fell without intermission during the whole of the scene, and the cavalry were sadly harassed by the unceasing volleys of oaths from the prostrate supernumeraries who had laid down upon the sawdust to die.

AKBAR KHAN

The behaviour of Akbar Khan, whilst in the green room, surrounded by our officers, was mild and courteous; but the instant he appeared on the stage of his exploits, he became savage and ferocious, offering a fearful example of Affghan treachery.

SUPPLIES

Amongst the auxiliaries provisions generally ran short and a penny was frequently given in exchange for a meat-pie brought by a camp-follower, who proved to be the emissary of a Feringhee confectioner, and was allowed the entry of the stage door and Khoord Cabool fort, between the acts, upon parole. Higher-priced luxuries were beyond the reach of the supers, who never got beyond the pies, for few could command the necessary sixpence to arrive (131) at Jelly-le-bad–from its indifferent composition very properly named.

CAPTURE OF GHUZNEE

The taking of Ghuznee was not that severe struggle that has been imagined. It was chiefly owing to the tact of General Broadfoot, who, whilst the Affghans were defending only the front ramparts of the first set piece, directed our troops to a ladder placed behind the side-scene at the left second entrance, by scaling which they gained the platform leading through the Canvas Tower direct to the Capital. At the conclusion of the contest, it was pleasing to see the English sharing their accommodations in their dressing-rooms with the Affghans, and drinking together.

RETURN OF THE CAPTIVES

The meeting between Lady Sale and her husband, for the first time after her imprisonment, took place in the prompter’s box, through the exertions of the call-boy. The interview is described as remarkably affective; but as there is a two-and-sixpenny fine for loitering in the first entrance, it was not seen by many. The heroic manner in which she fought the double sword combat with six Affghans, whom she put to flight, drew down the loudest praise; and her beautiful sentiment, that “the heart of the Briton, even amid the snows of India’s icy clime, still beats warmly for his native home upon the sea-bound isle,” threw an enthusiasm into the auxiliaries never before equalled.

This is Punch and satirical, so obviously a very distorted picture of the production. The basic joke is to present the difficulties of staging this ambitious theatrical production as if it were the Afghan War itself: the audience are turned into “auxiliaries”, and the whole account imitates the form of reports, based on letters or diaries of captives, Lady Sale especially, that had appeared in newspapers during and after the First Afghan War, often headlined “The Cabul Prisoners” or “The Cabul Captivity”. The role of Lady Sale, author of the definitive  eyewitness account of events, is given to John Esdaile Widdicombe, the ringmaster at Astley’s and a well-known London figure in the first half of the nineteenth century. Dickens recalls Widdicombe in the eleventh of the Scenes in Sketches by Boz, “Astley’s”: 

Everybody knows the man, and everybody remembers his polished boots, his graceful demeanour, stiff, as some misjudging persons have in their jealousy considered it, and the splendid head of black hair, parted high on the forehead, to impart to the countenance an appearance of deep thought and poetic melancholy.  His soft and pleasing voice, too, is in perfect unison with his noble bearing, as he humours the clown by indulging in a little badinage…

Wiidicombe

The episodes of the First Afghan War spoofed here are the retreat from Kabul towards Jelalabad through the Khurd Kabul pass in January 1842 (confused, as it often was, with the more famous Khyber Pass); the capture of Ghazni by the British “Army of Retribution” led by General Nott in August 1842 (W.D. Broadfoot was the name of the “Acting and Stage Manager” at Astley’s); and the rescue of the prisoners and reunion of Lady Sale with Maj.-Gen. Sir Robert Sale in September. The references to the prompter’s box and the call-boy seem to suggest that the performers playing Lady Sale and her husband missed their cues, and the description of the transformation of (the actor playing) Akbar Khan from friendly to savage plays off descriptions of the real Akbar Khan’s perceived hypocrisy, at times charming and hospitable, at others bloodthirsty. Lady Sale described an encounter in her Journal: “Mohammed Akbar Khan passed us; bowed, and smiled– ‘he can smile, and smile, and be a villain.'” The London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion (1843, p. 48) offers an intriguingly conflicted take on the representation of Akbar Khan, very much the villain in the dominant British narrative of the war and the massacre:

Akhbar [sic] Khan is the very beau ideal of a savage hero, and we could not but feel an agreeable self-congratulation that there is no attempt to represent him in a mean and degraded point of view. We very much doubt, small step as this may seem in liberality, if it would be the case on any other than an English stage.

Two things strike me as particularly interesting about this circus production and Punch‘s reaction to it. The first is what we learn about how the events of the First Afghan War were realised in a circus performance. One of the things I discovered in that meeting at Gifford’s was that, no matter how elaborate the plot of a production, circus is circus, and the individual acts always have priority over the wider narrative. At Astley’s the Afghan War, as The Times report tells us, provided lots of scope for the specialist skills of the circus performers: trick-riding, in particular, but we also get hints of acrobatics and maybe highwire acts. Lady Sale and her husband furnished a handy love motive. It’s harder to see where clowning might come in, but The Era talks of “two or three comic characters … introduced with good effect,” and they may have included that perennial butt of humour, the Welshman (see below). A review in the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine gives an impression of the elaborate scenery: “The Hall of Audience is a very splendid and gorgeous piece of grouping [the impressive tableau, or posed scene, was a stock-in-trade of Astley’s]… The Khyber pass with its rocks heaped on rocks, its snowy summits, and horrid rugged masses and its narrow defile brought forcibly before us the grandeur and romance of the place.” But the most vivid insight into how recent events became circus entertainment is Lady Sale herself, played (according to Theatrical Times 1848, p. 480) by Mrs H. Campbell: given her “double sword combat with six Affghans, whom she put to flight”, it’s clear that her role was acted by a performer specialising in spectacular sword play. I would love to have seen that.

The second thing that intrigues me is how rapidly, on this evidence, the British public processed and came to terms with a catastrophe on the scale of the massacre of 1842, often considered the greatest reverse ever suffered by British arms. Barely a year after the ghastly scenes in the Khurd Kabul pass they were the subject of a popular circus, complete with “drolleries”, making excellent amusement for juveniles. A year on again and Punch is getting a food pun out of the name Jelalabad, the destination of the ill-fated retreat, to which only one man from the whole army, Dr Brydon, succeeded in making it. The appalling privations suffered by the soldiers and camp followers during the retreat, struggling through snow and under withering fire from the heights above them, are turned into a circus audience’s quest for affordable refreshments in the interval. In this version of events, of course, the First Afghan campaign was not ultimately a disaster, because the British are vindicated: the full title of the show was apparently The Affghanistan War! or, the Revolt of Cabul! and British Triumphs in India. “Of course, the British arms are not suffered to be degraded in this national piece,” the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine explains. “Everything is done to maintain the honour of the nation, alike by a Welshman who fights with his toastingfork, and by Lady Sale, who cannot be affrighted into ignominious terror.”

Certainly, if by 1843 Britain was well on the way to converting humiliating defeat in Afghanistan into moral victory, what comes across clearly from the production at Astley’s (and Punch‘s satirical take on it) is the crucial role that Lady Sale played in that psychological process.

Lady Sale in the ILN

I’ve read some extremely interesting material on early circus in the last few days. I recommend anything by Marius Kwint, for example this, and for the images especially, M. Rendell, Astley’s Circus. Nell Gifford writes movingly about her life in the circus here, the director Cal McCrystal is interviewed about the current show here, and if you are anywhere near the Cotswolds, do please go and watch Gifford’s Circus, this year or someday. Tracy Chevalier’s novel Burning Bright recreates Astley’s circus at the end of the eighteenth century. There are still quite a few copies of The Buddhas of Bamiyan available, too, and they’re going increasingly cheap…

POSTSCRIPT

A nice surprise in my email inbox yesterday (July 29th). I had found a reference to an original playbill, or programme, of The Afghanistan War in the Harvard Theatre Collection at the Houghton Library, the special collections library of Harvard University, and I wrote to them, speculatively, to ask if they would send me a scan. An outrageous request, to be honest, but they did, bless them. It’s so well preserved, and the printed text still so vibrantly colourful, that suddenly the whole event seemed to me rather modern and familiar, rather than late-Georgian and strange.

Playbill tight

The playbill gives the cast, a sketch of the plot, and some hints as to how the events of the Afghan War were realized by circus acts. My suspicion that a Welshman provided laughs is confirmed by “Taffy a Tap”, played by Mr Robert Power, and it looks like the same applied with an Irish character Mahoney McHard, and three Afghan women Leola, Kela and Balascha. I’m intrigued by the “Captain Vincent” played by the producer/director of the show, W.M. Broadfoot, since one of Lady Sale’s fellow-captives, also the author of a bestselling journal of his captivity, was an officer called Vincent Eyre, an amateur artist who captured the portrait of Lady Sale above and this image of Bamiyan:

Morgan006

Naturally Widdicombe, the ringmaster, was cast as Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General of India.

The circus had three acts, and the playbill advertises, in BIG, COLOURFUL LETTERING, a string of visually impressive set-pieces, including “Interior of the Royal Citadel of Shah Soojah, the DEAN KHANEH, or SPLENDID HALL OF AUDIENCE”, “The CITY OF CABUL!!!“, “The SNOW STORM!” The uprising against the British occupiers was shown in Act 1, the retreat through the passes in Act 2, and Act 3 presented the reconquest of Afghanistan by the British in 1842, culminating in “Lady Sale the Heroine of Cabul with Fame guarding the Sovereign of Great Britain and Watching over her protectors forming a Last Tableaux of ENGLAND’S GLORY!” Needless to say, a very positive spin on a notoriously disastrous campaign, with the character and story of Lady Sale very crucial to that spin.

Astley’s introduces itself on the playbill as “This Established Temple of Equitation”, and there was obviously great scope in all this for performances with horses. The Afghanistan War was also followed on the programme by other acts. But the playbill offers more information as to how circus performers other than trick riders and clowns found a place in a historical hippodrama. A festival in the city of Kabul in Act 1, apparently staged by Kabulis to distract the British from the uprising, featured the “first appearance of the Belechee Tribe, in their Wonderful Jeux Gymnastiques and Incredible Feats, Messrs. Nunn, Honey, Walker, and Felix,” “Kyberee Tribe in their Extraordinary Wonders–Messrs. Twist, Steward, Baker and Boswell,” and (my favourites) “The Dancers of Bameean in their Bell Dance–Principal Dancers, Mdlle. Cromini and Mr. Lake.”

Stet Fortuna Domus

group

I had a feeling I hadn’t finished with this photo. Three visitors to Bamiyan, with local guides, stand in front of the smaller of the giant Buddhas, in about 1926: the photo comes from the archives of the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. A while back I wrote about identifying the two figures wearing solar topees, Major Noel Williamson Amps on the right and Mary Amps, the latter of whom, I discovered, was in the process of becoming a dominant force in the world of Afghan-hound breeding.

Well, back in September I obviously got distracted by all the dogs. I certainly failed to do justice to Major Amps, and I failed even more abjectly to do justice to the impressive figure standing between Major and Mrs Amps, because at the time I had no idea who he was. I now know a bit more about Major Amps, and a lot more about the Ampses’ companion on their trip to Bamiyan, Sheikh Mahbub Ali Khan.

In 1928 Noel Williamson Amps received a gong for coordinating the construction of the new British Legation in Kabul, a grand construction set in 23 acres to the N-W of the capital city. It was impressive even when I first saw it, in 2008, although by that stage it was a gutted ruin. For me it also had particular associations. A long time ago in Cyprus I met someone who had helped to catalogue the Legation library in the 1970s; more recently I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Jonathan Lee, a truly remarkable man who among many contributions to the preservation of Afghan history and culture had arranged for what remained of the library in 2001 to be transferred to the AREU, a Kabul research institute.

When it was built, in the 1920s, this splendid building fulfilled the Foreign Secretary’s requirement (at the time Lord Curzon, a man with a longstanding interest in Afghanistan and firm views regarding Britain’s proper place in the world) that Her Majesty’s representative in Afghanistan should be “the best-housed man in Asia.” There was more to it than that, of course. Exhausted by war, Britain’s influence on India’s strategic neighbour to the West was on the wane. After a short conflict in 1919, known as the Third Anglo-Afghan War, Britain had handed back to Afghanistan control of its own foreign policy: that moment is celebrated by Afghans as their Independence Day. Britain’s grand new complex just outside the city, constructed in the decade after those political developments, was clearly designed to assert Britain’s ongoing influence in Afghan affairs. Meanwhile the new king of Afghanistan, Amanullah, was doing his own bit of architectural self-assertion, marking his nation’s independence by building an extravagant new administrative district, Darulaman, to the S-W of Kabul, inspired by nation-building architectural programmes at Ankara in Turkey and at New Delhi.

An impression of the grandeur of the British building and grounds can be got from this film, from the fabulous collection on the website of the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University. But this footage in fact shows the Legation after it had come very close to destruction. On the foundation stone outside the front door was engraved Stet Fortuna Domus, “May this House Prosper,” but barely a year after its completion, in 1928/9, King Amanullah was overthrown by a revolt under the leadership of a man known as Bachaye Saqao (“Son of a Water-carrier”). The provocation for the rebellion was a series of reforms that might look innocuous to a Western liberal (for example, measures on education and female emancipation), but which were too radical for the deeply conservative population of Afghanistan outside Kabul. Amanullah’s implementation of his reforms was also far too precipitate. As the rebellion closed on Kabul, the British Legation and its population of men, women and children found themselves on the front line between government and rebel forces for an extended period, trapped and hit by “sixty-six shells and thousands of bullets”, according to the head of the Legation, Sir Francis Humphrys. Some impressive old-school sangfroid was on display: Lady Humphrys, Sir Francis’ wife, describes in her diary the difficulty of using the bathroom one day: “Dressing difficult today. Bath filled with water as a reserve because of pumping difficulties and wash basin in fire zone.” Sir Francis’ pipe, never seemingly extinguished, became key to the morale of the people in the Legation. The story of the successful evacuation to India of the British staff and other foreign missions around Kabul is compellingly told in Anne Baker’s Wings over Kabul, a great read if you can find it. Here, incorrectedly identified by Pathé, is some remarkable film of the uprising against Amanullah, and the airlift (the planes in the snow are RAF Vickers Victorias) that extracted the foreigners:

 

By this stage the Ampses had left Afghanistan, it seems. But Sheikh Mahbub Ali Khan was in the thick of it at the (effectively besieged) Legation. Mahbub Ali was Oriental Secretary in the British Legation, a Pashtun from Peshawar who had joined the (British) Indian Political Service, and to whose “most wonderful work and courage” was attributed much of the success of the evacuations. In this photograph of the Legation staff Mahbub Ali is third from right, and I think that it’s Major Amps on the far right.

Amps & Mahbub

Mahbub Ali comes to prominence again, in very different circumstances. It is about 20 years later, by which time he held the position of Political Agent of Malakand, the senior British official in a section of the tribal territories along the border between British India and Afghanistan. In an image that is now iconic, originating in a Life Magazine special issue on the establishment of Pakistan in 1947, Mahbub Ali is shown in an assembly or jirga collecting thumbprints as signatures from tribesmen in Swat, indicating their agreement to be governed by the new state of Pakistan.

Mahbub fingerprints

Not long before, as India moved messily towards Partition, Mahbub Ali had been caught up in a vicious controversy. In 1946 the leader of the Indian National Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru, travelled to the N-W Frontier in the hopes of garnering support among the Pashtun population there for Congress and its ideal of an undivided India. Nehru was accompanied on his trip by Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun campaigner against British rule whose supporters, the Khudai Khidmatgars, “Servants of God,” or Red Shirts, were allied with Congress and opposed to the Muslim League’s demand for a separate Muslim homeland in Pakistan. Here is Ghaffar Khan with Gandhi in Peshawar in 1938.

Indian spiritual leader Mohandas Karamch

Nehru’s visit in 1946 was not a success. It became pretty plain very quickly as the party toured the tribal territories that support for an alliance with the predominantly Hindu Congress was not high. The visitors suspected that, behind the abuse and violence that they found directed at them more or less everywhere they went, were the British authorities, and in his autobiography, My Life and Struggle, Ghaffar Khan reserves his most withering criticism for Mahbub Ali in Malakand:

This Agent, Sheikh Mahboob Ali, was an extremely mean and unscrupulous individual. He had been responsible for great suffering and even spiritual agony among our people. He was the same Mahboob Ali who, when he was in Kabul in the service of the British Ambassador David Humphrey [sic], had made a name for himself for the part he played in overthrowing Amanullah Khan, and placing Bacha Sakka on his throne.

This is a pretty exaggerated claim, even if the job of Oriental Secretary at the Legation suggests its share of local intrigue. But Ghaffar Khan was very supportive of Amanullah’s reforms in Afghanistan, shared his passion for education and women’s emancipation, and felt his demise deeply. In his autobiography he goes on to blame Mahbub Ali for the rough reception that he and Nehru experienced in Malakand, and Mahbub Ali was in fact subsequently suspended and prosecuted (and in the event, I should add, acquitted) for his role in events.

Ghaffar Khan really doesn’t pull his punches when he talks about Mahbub Ali, but in the process he provides (in how distorted a form, I can’t be sure) the only further information about Mahbub Ali’s later life I could find. A deeply religious man, Ghaffar Khan uses Mahbub Ali as evidence of God’s unerring justice:

A man may forget God and become so full of pride and arrogance that he thinks he can get away with anything. But he should remember that the wrath of God may overtake him at any moment. Everyone knows that where Mahboob Ali’s house once stood, now asses bray. At the end of his life he met with so much disrespect and had to bear such terrible suffering that even the hardest of hearts would soften towards him. He had a wife and two daughters. One of his daughters was shot by his nephew, in his own house and before his very eyes. The other daughter also died. His wife ran away, with every penny he possessed. And today no one even remembers his name. He has left neither children nor a good reputation and he himself has already been called to account for his deeds before God, to whom belongs all reckoning.

Vindictive words indeed from a man known as the “Frontier Gandhi”, committed to non-violence and the disinterested service of mankind. His tolerance had limits, and he clearly detested everything that Mahbub Ali of the Indian Political Service stood for. But Ghaffar Khan helped to ensure, despite himself, that Mahbub Ali wasn’t entirely forgotten. I should say that in my own case my first tip as to the identity of Mahbub Ali came from Owen Humphrys, grandson of the pipe-smoking head of the British Legation and the equally indomitable Lady Humphrys, who came along to a talk I gave on Bamiyan last year.

We’re a long way from that sunny image of Bamiyan in 1926. For the British Legation in Kabul, the British Empire in India, Mahbub Ali, Ghaffar Khan,  and indeed for Afghanistan and its neighbours in general, there were turbulent decades to follow that peaceful scene. In 2013, though, so a report in the Tribune tells us, the old Legation building, now the Embassy of Pakistan, has been fully renovated. Symbolically, perhaps, while Darulaman, the symbol of Afghanistan’s independence, remains in ruins, Pakistan’s representative in Afghanistan has his “vice-regal seat”, in the words of Hamid Karzai, the current President of Afghanistan. Pakistan inherited the building from the British. It also inherited the role of Afghanistan’s intrusive, overbearing neighbour.