First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842) – Causes and Results

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The apprehension of Russian invasion of India and the attempt of the British to check it on the border of Afghanistan was the primary cause of the first Anglo-Afghan War.

Dost Muhammad was the ruler of Afghanistan at that time. He had captured the throne of Afghanistan only in 1826 and was yet not free from difficulties. Ranjit Singh had captured Peshawar, Shah Shuja, the previous ruler of Afghanistan had found shelter with Ranjit Singh and was attempting to recover his throne with the help of the Sikhs and the English and the border of the Amur was insecure because of repeated revolts by rival Afghan chiefs. At that very time, Afghanistan became a prey of the European politics because of the growing differences between Britain and Russia over the Eastern Question. When Britain put a check on the progress of Russia towards Turkey, Russia directed pressure towards Persia and Afghanistan. The British felt that it posed a threat to their Indian empire. Lord Palmerston who became the foreign minister of Britain in 1830 was determined to stem Russian advance towards the East and favoured a forward policy to achieve that purpose. He appointed Lord Auckland particularly with a view to pursuing that policy in 1836. He also deputed McNeil as ambassador to Persia to put pressure on that country for checking the Russian advance.

Events of the first Anglo-Afghan War

In May, 1836, Dost Muhammad sought the assistance of the English to recover Peshawar from Ranjit Singh but Auckland refused to oblige. In September 1836, however, he attempted to befriend Afghanistan and deputed Captain Alexander Burnes to Afghanistan to find out the possibility of some settlement with the Amir. At that very time the Russians also deputed their representative at the court of the Amir. Dost Muhammad was first more inclined towards the English and welcomed Alexander Burnes. The English proposed that they would attempt t restrain Ranjit Singh from attacking Afghanistan and, in return, asked the Amir to promise not to have political contacts with any foreign power. On his part, the Amir asked for positive help of the English to regain Peshawar from the Sikhs. Therefore, there could be no agreement between the two. The Amir then exhibited favourable inclination towards the Russian representative with a view to pressurizing the English. In the meantime, Persia attacked Herat in 1837 with the goodwill of Russia, Alexender Burnes realized his mission as failure and left Afghanistan in April 1838.

The British then put diplomatic pressure both on Persia and Russia which brought fruitful results. McNeil had left Persia in description but he had advised Lord Auckland to despatch a naval fleet in the Persian Gulf. Auckland acted accordingly. The British government also strictly demanded that Persia should raise the siege of Heart. Persia grew nervous and raised the siege in September, 1838. Britain put diplomatic pressure on Russia as well and it withdrew its representatives both from Persia and Afghanistan. It seemed that everything was settled for the time being. Of course, no settlement was possible with Dost Muhammad but there also remained no reason for waging a war against Afghanistan.

Tripartite treaty between the English, Ranjit Singh and Shah Shuja

But, Auckland had decided otherwise. He became determined to oust Dost Muhammad and place the fugitive Shah Shuja on the throne of Afghanistan. He managed the tripartite treaty between the English, Ranjit Singh and Shah Shuja in June 1838. It was settled that :

  1. Ranjit Singh would keep Peshawar and all that territory of Afghanistan which he possessed at that time.
  2. Ranjit Singh would keep five thousand soldiers at Peshawar for the assistance of Shah Shuja and, in return, would receive rupees two lakhs from him.
  3. Shah Shuja and Ranjit Singh would have no claim over Sind.
  4. Shah Shuja would not have any relations with any foreign power without the consent of Ranjit Singh and the English.

Ranjit Singh and the English promised to put Shah Shuja on the throne of Afghanistan on the above conditions. The main burden of the war, however, fell on the shoulders of the British. The English accused Dost Muhammad of several things as pretext for war against him. But all those allegations were false. Dost Muhammad had done nothing against the English or Ranjit Singh while the Persians had raised the siege of Herat. Thus, there was no cause of war against Afghanistan. Auckland’s aim was clear. He desired to turn out an unfriendly Amir and place a friendly person on the throne to protect the North-West frontier of the English empire in Ladia. The British, therefore, attacked Afghanistan in 1839.

Divergent opinions have been expressed regarding this policy of Lord Auckland. His supporters say that ‘Shah Shura had a better moral claim than Dost Muhammad on the throne of Afghanistan’; ‘Auckland had no option in the matter’ and ‘British government was responsible for this policy of Auckland’.

But, the logic of the arguments of the supporters of Auckland is not accepted by the majority of historians. Most of them have roundly criticised his policy. They contend that Dost Muhammad was a capable and popular ruler and therefore, had a better moral claim than Shah Shuja over the throne of Afghanistan. Auckland could very well change his decision to attack Afghanistan when once the Persians had raised the siege of Herat. Dost Muhammad was an independent ruler and the British had no moral right to coerce him to conduct his foreign policy according to their wishes. The war was not justified on the ground of expediency as well. Distance, climate and nature of the land where the English army was going to fight, were not taken into consideration. Many experienced people like Lord Wellesley, Sir Charles Metcalfe and Elphinstone had forecasted the failure of the expedition. Innes also wrote: “It was the most unqualified blunder committed in the whole of history of the British in India.” The war was morally unjustified. Mr. Macnaughten felt it that way and therefore, requested Auckland to treat Dost Muhammad gracefully when he was sent as a prisoner to India. Thus, the English had no justification in attacking Afghanistan.

Story of the first Anglo-Afghan War

The army which had to attack Afghanistan was called the ‘Army of the Indus’. It assembled at Firozpur in November 1838. The command was handed over to Sir John Keane. Mr. Macnaughten was appointed as the principal adviser of Shah Shuja while Alexander Burnes was deputed as his assistant. Afghanistan was attacked from two sides—one army proceeding towards Kandhar and the other towards Kabul via Khyber Pass. Initially, the English succeeded. They occupied Kandhar in April and Ghazni in July, 1839. Dost Muhammad fled from Kabul in August and Shah Shuja entered the city in August. Dost Muhammad surrendered himself to the English in November and was sent to Calcutta as a prisoner. It seemed that the expedition had succeeded completely.

But, it became clear very soon that Shah Shuja could not keep the throne without the assistance of the English. Therefore, six English regiments were left at Kabul. General Nott and Colonel Sale were also left in Afghanistan though the nominal command of the army was handed over to General Elphinstone. The rest of the English army returned to India. The Afghans, however, could not tolerate Shah Shuja and revolts Started at several places. Various causes contributed to this revolt. Shah Shuja was governing Afghanistan with the help of the English. This made the Afghans to feel humiliated. The presence of the English army created Inflation in Afghanistan. The burden of rising costs of even necessary articles fell on all Afghans, rich and poor. The English were often tempted by the beauty of Afghan women and that provoked the Afghans to fight against the English for the honour of their homes.

Revolt in Kabul

The Afghans revolted in Kabul in November, 1841. Alexander Burnes and some other English officers were killed. The English took no immediate measures to suppress it. The revolt, therefore, spread far and wide and its leadership was taken over by Akbar Khan, son of Dost Muhammad. Akbar Khan besieged Kabul. Mr. Macnaughten was forced to accept a treaty with the Afghans on December 11. It was agreed that the English would leave Afghanistan as early as possible; they would free all Afghan prisoners including Dost Muhammad and Shah Shuja would be granted a pension.

The terms of the treaty were humiliating for the English but, at that time, they were left with no other alternative. The treaty, however, remained useless, Macnaughten attempted to divide the Afghans. The Afghans, therefore, lost faith in the English. Macnaughten was murdered on December 23, when he went to meet Akbar Khan to talk for a fresh treaty. General Elphinstone was demoralised. He agreed for a fresh treaty on January 1, 1842. By this treaty, the English agreed not only to the terms of the previous treaty but also to some more terms. It was agreed that the English would surrender all their cannons and gunpowder to the Afghans; the entire treasure would be handed over to the Afghans and the English would pay rupees fourteen lakhs to the Afghans.

After signing this treaty the English army was permitted to leave Kabul for Jalalabad. The Afghans assured the English a safe Passage. Thus, after losing all the prestige, arms and money, sixteen thousand people left Kabul. They were attacked by the Afghans at several places on the way. Except for one hundred twenty people who were sick and were handed over to Akbar Kkan, rest of the English soldiers were murdered on the way. Dutta and Sarkar write: “The retreat became a rout, the rout a massacre.”Only one man, Dr. Brydon reached Jalalabad on January 13, 1842 to let out the news of this disaster. However, General Nott defended Kandhar and Colonel Sale protected Jalalabad.

Lord Ellenborough restored prestige of the English

When the news of this disaster reached India, Auckland was deeply disturbed. He immediately sent reinforcement under Colonel Pollock. But, before Pollock reached Jalalabad, Auckland was recalled and Lord Ellenborough was sent to India as the governor-general. He assumed his office on February 28, 1842. But, when he received the news of the reverses of the English at several places, he ordered the English army to withdraw from Afghanistan. Colonel Pollock and General Nott, however, ignored his orders for some time. They decided to restore the English prestige first. Colonel Pollock joined General Sale at Jalalabad. The Afghans were defeated near Kandhar. Pollock then proceeded towards Kabul and en route defeated Akbar Khan near the pass of Khurd. The English occupied Kabul on September 15, 1842. General Nott also succeeded in capturing Gazni. Thus, the English restored their prestige in Afghanistan. The main market of Kabul was blown off by cannons. The British army, then, returned to India and brought with it the so-called gates of the temple of Somnath which Mahmud Ghazni had taken away from India centuries back.

Lord Ellenborough praised the success of the English arms in aloud tone, criticised the mistakes committed by Lord Auckland and declared that he would accept any person as the Amir who would command the loyalty of the Afghans.

Results of the first Anglo-Afghan War

But, the first Anglo-Afghan war brought no advantage to the British. Their primary object was to place a friendly person on the throne of Afghanistan. They failed in this attempt. Shah Shuja was murdered by the Afghans and Dost Muhammad, freed by the English from imprisonment, went back to Afghanistan and again captured his throne. He ruled there till 1863. Thus, the same person ruled in Afghanistan after the war, who had ruled it before the war. Besides, there was no change in the relations of the English with the Amir after the war. Dost Muhammad kept himself free from British influence. Thus, it is clear that the British drew no advantage whatsoever from the war in which they lost nearly twenty thousand soldiers and rupees one and a half crores. Kaye writes: “No failure, so total and so overwhelming as this, is recorded in the pages of history.”

Points to remember

  1. The apprehension of Russia invasion on India and the attempt of the British to check it on the border of Afghanistan was the primary cause of the first Anglo-Afghan War.
  2. When Britain put a check on the- progress of Russia towards Turkey, Russia directed pressure towards Persia and Afghanistan.
  3. Lord Palmerston, the foreign minister of Britain decided to check the advance of Russia towards India at the border of Afghanistan.
  4. Lord Auckland was deputed as the Governor-general Of India to put pressure on the Afghan ruler, Dost Muhammad to accept English help against impending Russian advance in Afghanistan.
  5. Auckland deputed Alexander Burnes in 1836 with a view to convincing the Amir Dost Muhammad to come Yo an understanding with the English.
  6. The Amur asked for positive help of the English to regain Peshawar from Ranjit Singh which was not accepted by Auckland and therefore, Burnes left Afghanistan in 1838 without any agreement with the Amir.
  7. In the meantime, instigated by Russia, Persia besieged Herat.
  8. Britain put diplomatic pressure on Persia and Russia both and Auckland was advised to despatch a naval fleet in the Persian Gulf which advice he followed.
  9. Persia raised the siege of Herat and Russia withdrew its representatives both from Persia and Afghanistan.
  10. Thus, though no settlement could be made with Dost Muhammad, there also remained no reason for waging a war against him.
  11. But Auckland decided to place a friendly person on the throne of Afghanistan for which he chose the fugitive Amir Shah Shuja who was, at that time, at the mercy of Ranjit Singh.
  12. A tripartite treaty was signed between the English, Ranjit Singh and Shah Shuja in 1838 to attain that objective, charges were fabricated against Dost Muhammad and Afghanistan was attacked in 1839.
  13. Auckland had neither moral justification to attack an independent, capable and popular ruler, Dost Muhammad, nor he had taken into consideration the distance, climate and nature of the terrain where the English army was going to fight.
  14. The English captured Kandhar and Ghazni , Shah Shuja was declared the Amir and Dost Muhammad was sent to Calcutta as a prisoner.
  15. But, complete dependence of Shah Shuja on the English, the rising costs of life’s necessaries because of the English army of occupation and dishonouring of Afghan women by the English provoked the Afghans to revolt in November 1841 at Kabul.
  16. The revolt became widespread and Akbar Khan, son of Dost Muhammad, became the leader of the revolt.
  17. Akbar Khan besieged Kabul and forced the English to sign a treaty by which they, along with Shah Shuja, agreed to leave Afghanistan and free all Afghan prisoners including Dost Muhammad.
  18. The English, instead of fulfilling the terms of the treaty, tried to divide the Afghans, who murdered Macnaughten and imposed a fresh treaty on General Elphinstone.
  19. The English agreed to pay rupees fourteen lakhs to the Afghans and leave Afghanistan after surrendering the treasury and all their cannons and gunpowder.
  20. The English army left Kabul for Jalalabad but en route was butchered by the Afghans so much so that only one Dr. Brydon reached Jalalabad in January 1842 to convey the news of this disaster.
  21. Auckland sent reinforcement under Colonel Pollock but, before something could be achieved, he was recalled and Ellenborough was sent to India who ordered the withdrawal of the English army.
  22. Pollock and General Nott, however, ignored his orders, decided to restore the English prestige and joined General Sale at Jalalabad.
  23. Pollock defeated Akbar Khan and captured Kabul while Nott occupied Ghazni.
  24. The main market of Kabul was blown off by cannons and then the English army returned to India bringing with it the so-called gates of the temple of Somnath.
  25. The first Anglo-Afghan War brought no advantage to the British because Shah Shuja was murdered by the Afghans. Dost Muhammad, after being freed from captivity, again became the ruler of Afghanistan and no treaty was made between the Afghans and the English.
  26. It simply resulted in loss of money, men and prestige by the English.

Source used : NCERT, Tamil Nadu Board, IGNOU Modern History, NIOS textbooks. Wikipedia notes for UPSC exam.

Tags : PDF for UPSC exam short notes on the first Anglo-Afghan war. When it occured? Causes and result of the war.

Questions for UPSC mains :

Discuss the causes and results of the first Anglo-Afghan war.

Or

Evaluate the policy of Lord Auckland towards Afghanistan.

Or

“The first Anglo-Afghan war was politically unwise and morally unsound.” Discuss.

Or

Write a critical note on the cause of and events of the first Anglo-Afghan war.

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