Return of a King: An Indian Army in Afghanistan – William Dalrymple – Book Review

return-of-a-king-400x400Goodreads blurb: In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time, re-establishing Shah Shuja on the throne, in reality as their puppet, and ushering in a period of conflict over the territory still unresolved today. In 1842, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers, and the country exploded into violent rebellion.

In what is arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East, more than eighteen thousand cold and hungry British troops, Indian sepoys and camp followers retreated through the icy mountain passes, and of the last survivors who made their final stand at the village of Gandamak, only one man, Dr Brydon, made it through to the British garrison at Jellalabad. An entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world was utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen.

The West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan has clear and relevant parallels with the current deepening crisis today, with extraordinary similarities between what NATO faces in cities like Kabul and Kandahar, and that faced by the British in the very same cities, fighting the very same tribes, nearly two centuries ago. History at its most urgent, The Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the first Afghan war.

With access to a whole range of previously undiscovered sources, including crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian, and contemporary Afghan accounts including the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself, prize-winning and bestselling historian William Dalrymple’s masterful retelling of Britain’s greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of neo-colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times.


My interest in this book was first piqued when I heard the author William Dalrymple narrate in great detail about it in The Hindu Lit Fest in Jan 2014. I would have immediately bought the book then if not for the fact that it was available only in the Hardcover format of which I am not a big fan of (and trust me at 500+ pages, this book would have been more than a handful in that format). However, when Bloomsbury India, the publishers launched the Paperback format earlier this month I immediately jumped at the opportunity to finally get my hands on the book. And it truly was worth the wait of almost a year.

With this book, the author simply outdoes himself in terms of the sheer depth and breadth of the research he has undertaken. The fact that the bibliography and research sources run into 30+ pages at the end of the book stand testimony to the fact that he has spent quite a good amount of time, effort and energy into unearthing the true story behind the First Anglo Afghan war and all of it is clearly translated into this wonderful book. Apart from the vast and copious amount of reading and research, the fact that the author actually travelled to the various places of significance mentioned in this book also lends it quite an authenticity which a majority of books and authors fail to deliver with their works.

This book is important and timely for yet another reason. The fact that it deals with the misguided and misinformed adventures of Western powers, Britain in this case, far away from their shores and their interference in the natural order of things halfway across the world, Afghanistan in this case, is something that keeps repeating itself time and again. In fact, Britain is part of the NATO Occupation Force that is currently pulling out of Afghanistan, yet again an unsuccessful attempt at trying to interfere with the workings of a country halfway across the world. In fact, it is almost as if the Western powers are doing everything they can to ensure that history is repeated by committing startlingly similar errors in judgment, taking misinformed and miscalculated decisions and so on. It is almost as if they refuse to learn their lessons from history.

Apart from the entire story about how the British place Shah Shuja on the throne of Afghanistan and prop him up as a proxy to extend their influence in the region and how their plan backfires due to various factors, the least of which was the fact that the Afghans as a race were never united enough to bow down to a single ruler, the fact that this narrative also talks about the various atrocities that were committed by the British Army of Retribution, as it was called served as a shocking reminder for the fact that war and armed conflict never ends in a good state of affairs at the end of it all. It is a grim reminder that when at war, we humans are at our worst behavior and tend to commit atrocities which are otherwise unthinkable and indigestible. How the British managed to ravage almost entire cities such as Kabul, Jalalabad and others was first shocking and then plain sad when I read it in the book.

In essence, this is one book which must not be missed by anybody who loves good writing, and who loves reading a good historical yarn about British misadventures in Afghanistan in the 1800s. Purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link] and you won’t regret it one bit.


A review copy of this book was offered to me by the publishers in return for an honest and unbiased review.