Review: The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

I’ve written  on this blog before about the first British invasion of Afghanistan, and the disasters that followed.  In fact, I’ve written about it more than once.  It’s a story that never fails to fascinate me, but when I received William Dalyrmple’s The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 to review I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything new to say.


In White Mughals and The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple introduced readers to the complicated relationships between South Asian rulers and the British East India Company in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He returns to that world in The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42. As in his earlier works, Dalrymple reveals a version of “British India” that is not merely, or even primarily, British.

The story of the First Anglo-Afghan War has been told often and well, most recently by Diane Preston in The Dark Defile.  Previous writers have focused primarily on the tangle of misinformation, paranoia and bad decisions that led to the destruction of the Army of the Indus by Afghan forces. Dalrymple broadens the story. Using not only new sources from British participants, but an array of Russian, Persian and previously unknown Afghani sources, he describes the war from both a British and an Afghani perspective. Readers already familiar with the details will be fascinated in particular by excerpts from the memoir of Shah Shuja; the deposed Afghan ruler whom the British attempted to return to the throne as a shield against Russian expansion appears as more than a shadow puppet for the first time.

Written in an engaging narrative style, The Return of a King is a nuanced account of what one of the expedition’s survivors described as “a war begun for no wise purpose.” The inevitable analogy with modern events at the end of the book is clumsy by comparison.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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