Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

William Dalrymple

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

William Dalrymple

In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the high mountain passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the nineteenth century: an entire army of the then most powerful nation in the world ambushed in retreat and utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen.

Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the First Afghan War, told through the lives of unforgettable characters on all sides and using for the first time contemporary Afghan accounts of the conflict.

Prize-winning and bestselling historian William Dalrymple’s masterful retelling of Britain’s greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times.


William Dalrymple’s talents as an academic historian and travel writer come together in this captivating narration of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). Inspired by the failings of the ‘latest western adventure’ into Afghanistan, Dalrymple set out to write a comprehensive history of Britain’s first unsuccessful mission to control Afghan territory. The volume and variety of sources he has used is remarkable and include previously unpublished material ranging from Afghan epic poetry to documents uncovered in the Indian National Archives. The latter reveals an inquiry into atrocities committed by the British army, which Dalrymple comments read ‘like a Victorian version of Wikileaks’.

Particularly noteworthy is Dalrymple’s inclusion of sources from female observers at the time. Often absent in historical analysis, especially that of politics and warfare, it is refreshing to see the inclusion of accounts by Emily Eden, sister of George Eden, who was the Governor General of India at the time, and Lady Sale, a formidable prisoner of war who took up a musket to lead a rebellion in order to shame the other male prisoners ‘into doing their duty’. Dalrymple gives equal weight to Afghan and English sources, drawing attention to their often contradictory interpretations of the same events and the subjectivity of both official documents and of memory.

In order to accurately describe the geography, Dalrymple embarked on a dangerous expedition to follow the route of the British retreat in what is today an area controlled by the Taliban. At the site of an 1842 British massacre, he asks his guide, Anwar Khan Jagdalak, a regional tribal leader and former Karzai government minister, if he sees parallels with the current war. Jagdalak replies, ‘it is exactly the same … both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say, “We are your friends, we want to help.” But they are lying.’

Due to the novelty of the sources and Dalrymple’s unique interpretation, Return of a King is still a great read for those who know a lot about this period in history. However, his engaging prose and travel-writing style also make the book accessible to readers who are new to the long and complex history of the battle for Afghanistan.

Kara Nicholson is from Readings Carlton

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