I must have slept through the unit on the 19th century in high school World History. Until I read Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, I was woefully ignorant of the events that took place in Central Asia during that era, despite having lived in Pakistan for two years after college.
Those who have read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, or anyone familiar with the history of 19th-century Central Asia, will know, as I did not, that the term “Great Game” refers to the contest between the Russians and the British for control of Afghanistan and the territory that is now the Central Asian republics–everything between modern-day Pakistan (then British-occupied India) and Russia. Spies, soldiers, diplomats, officers, and others to the north and south of this region all played a part in the effort to expand their respective empire into this region.
With this sort of subject matter, Hopkirk had a head start in crafting an intriguing narrative (as Kipling recognized when he transformed the Game into an adventure story in Kim). Nevertheless, it takes a master storyteller’s skill to make history read like a novel; or rather, a series of novellas. The Great Game is composed of stories about individual players—Russian and British, winners and losers, failures and heroes.
Some of the more memorable episodes include: the disastrous Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842 (also the subject of the second half of MM Kaye’s Far Pavilions); the chilling fate of Col. Charles Stoddart and Capt. Arthur Connolly at the hands of the emir of Bukhara; and the various adventures of Col. Francis Younghusband and Capt. Frederick Burnaby (see also On Horseback Through Asia Minor, by Burnaby).
It is my impression that the British Hopkirk gave fair treatment to both sides of the contest, although having read the book some time ago, it is difficult to make such a claim with certainty. In a postcolonial world, a book that celebrates the sagacity and heroism of individuals operating on behalf of empires could be controversial, but Hopkirk also acknowledges the missteps, blunders, and overweening ambition of the colonizing individuals and governments.
Hopkirk’s knowledge and research are impressive. I have read The Great Game once and listened to it a second time and now, about seven years later, am ready for another reading. Refreshing my knowledge of the history is one motivator, but the information is only half the reason to read Hopkirk. Perhaps Kipling fans will forgive my admission that I found The Great Game more engaging than Kim.
Also by Peter Hopkirk:
Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet
Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire
Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia
Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia
Quest for “Kim” (In Search of Kipling’s Great Game)