Sarfraz Khan* and Abdul Hamid Khan**


This paper views Afghanistan as perceived by the Indian-born English colonialist, a creative genius, Rudyard Kipling, who has written on the British Indian Empire with a distinct style. From literary standpoint, his works under review may be termed as distinctly political, vivid examples of how an indigenous native state and its people were suitably constructed to the exigencies of the Empire, during the Victorian Era. The paper explores Rudyard Kipling’s perspective on Afghanistan and its rulers with a particular reference to Amir Abdur Rahman, beside his colonial stance on the Anglo-Afghan relationship, in the backdrop of the so-called ‘Great Game’ between England and Russia, in the 19th Century. A spokesman of British Indian Empire, he presents Afghanistan as a native state and strategic space in the colonial context. The paper provides critical analyses of seven of Kipling’s works including four poems and three short stories using this framework. Two of his works, A Young British Soldier (1892) and Ford O’ Kabul River (1879) directly focus the bloody conflict, known to history as the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War. Rudyard Kipling dwells upon the theme, Afghan Amirate, particularly, the ruling style of Amir Abdur Rahman (r.1880 to 1891) in: Her Majesty’s Servants (1894), The Ballad of the King’s Jest (1890), The Ballad of the King’s Mercy (1889), TheAmir’s Homily (1891) and The Man Who Would Be King (1888).
Keywords: Kipling, Afghanistan, Great Game, Kabul River, British Soldier, Empire, Amir Abdur Rahman


Though, Kipling’s insight into the Afghans or Pakhtuns and his perception and worldview, has thoroughly been imperialistic, yet one cannot totally repudiate his understanding of the people of India as well as Afghanistan, places, he always considered interesting, to write about. He took up the subject of Anglo-Afghan Wars and the ruthlessness of Amir Abdur Rahman in: The Amir’s Homily, The Ballad of the King’s Jest, Her Majesty Servants, and The Ballad of the King’s Mercy. His other two poems, A Young British Soldier and Ford O, Kabul River, dwelling upon the British Indian Empire and Afghanistan, do carry interesting contemporary relevance too. In addition, one of Kipling’s most famous stories, The Man Who Would Be King (1888), with its setting in Kafiristan, currently Nooristan, provides clues about empire-building. “It is the romantic/unscientific works of Winston S. Churchill and Rudyard Kipling that gave the think-tanks their ideas about what makes the Afghans click.”

Biographical Note

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born on December 30, 1865, in Bombay (now, Mumbai, India), British India, to Alice and Lockwood Kipling. He remained with his family till the age of six. Afterwards, as a tradition among the Anglo-Indians, Kipling too had to proceed to mother country for education, before returning to India in 1882. He worked as a journalist with the Civil and Military Gazette and The Pioneer, till 1887. His most important work, Kim, was published in 1901, focusing on the story of espionage commonly known to history as the Great Game. Kipling is the first Englishman, and the youngest Nobel Laureate (1901), having written volumes of poetry, and many collections of short stories, in addition to a substantial and interesting non-fiction comprising of letters, notes and speeches. His last work, Something For My Friends Known And Unknown (1937), published after his demise on January 18, 1936, is a sombre reflection of a man who had lived a controversial but eventful life. He is considered to be one of the most important writers of the late Victorian Era, fully committed to the British Empire.
For George Orwell, ‘Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting…Kipling is the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language’. The reason of this dichotomy might have been that Kipling raised too many questions for a critic, to holistically respond to, in a single document. In order to celebrate Kipling and his work, a voluntary organization, The Kipling Society, had been founded in 1927 with a comprehensive research library. The society, every quarter, publishes the Kipling’s Journal, focusing on aspects of Kipling as a man and a literary figure.

  • ‘Kabul Town is a Blasted Place’

 Ford o' Kabul River (1879) , a Kipling’s short poem, warns of the dangers awaiting the British soldiers in Afghanistan. This poem is an amazingly relevant work even today, given the presence of British/NATO troops in bloody conflict and unceasing insurgency in Afghanistan. Kipling could foresee the fallout of a British defeat and advises the British soldiers to be vigilant and alert. He forewarns them that Kabul is like hell and not an easy assignment to come out of that inferno with success and glory, which tragically, proved Kipling right, as in the first Anglo-Afghan war, only one British serviceman, the lonely, Dr. Bryden, could make it back to British India. In the new millennium roughly one and a half century later, from the days during which Kipling worked in India as a journalist, the situation has not changed much in Central Asia, particularly, in Afghanistan. The realities on the ground are callously identical and Kipling wishes:

Kabul town's a blasted place --
Blow the bugle, draw the sword --
Keep the crossing-stakes beside you, an' they will surely guide you
'Cross the ford o' Kabul river in the dark.
Kabul town'll go to hell --
Blow the bugle, draw the sword --

Critical reading reveals Kipling’s views on empire and imperialism quite in contrast to those sitting in England, taking important decisions, determining India’s destiny. This ambivalence in Kipling’s work is reflective of his civilizing mission and the humanitarianism and its pitfalls, in case the project is not properly handled. Kipling concludes his song for the British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and directs them in a typical jingoistic tone which he loved so much to play.

  • The King among His Girls

 The Ballad of The King's Mercy (1889) is a poem relating a story of an unknown person charged with murdering a Yousafzai. He is about to be executed when King Abdul Rehman passes by and orders the captain of his guards to punish the accused by butchering him. Since he is ridiculed for his butcher-like ruthlessness, he intends to take revenge even on the King and tries to kill him. However, he fails to do so and is unfortunately, caught by the King himself and tortured to death by stoning, following three days of harsh punishment.

Abdhur Rahman, the Durani Chief, of him is the story told.
His mercy fills the Khyber hills—his grace is manifold;
He has taken toll of the North and the South—his glory reacheth far,
And they tell the tale of his charity from Balkh to Kandahar.

Before the old Peshawar Gate, where Kurd and Kaffir meet,
The Governor of Kabul dealt the Justice of the Street,
And that was strait as running noose and swift as plunging knife,
Tho' he who held the longer purse might hold the longer life.
There was a hound of Hindustan had struck a Euzufzai,
Wherefore they spat upon his face and led him out to die.
It chanced the King went forth that hour when throat was bared to knife;
The Kaffir grovelled under-hoof and clamoured for his life.

Rudyard wrote the rollicking “Ballad of the King’s Mercy” which—to confuse anyone who finds his ‘imperialism’ easy to interpret—is studiously respectful to the brutal workings of royal Afghan justice in the Khyber hills. Still wary of putting his head too far above the parapet, he signed his poem with the pseudonym ‘Yussuf—not that many readers were deceived, given the subject matter.

  • The Mind of a King

 The Ballad of the King's Jest (1890) explores the strong ruling style of the Amir. Written by Kipling under his pen name Yousaf, here he unfolds a gruesome tale, depicting the King. It is the tragic story of a young man who, having heard the rumours of a Russian invasion of Afghanistan, breaks the news to the King’s men, who inform the King. Before Kipling tells us the story, he paints a picture telling of the spring times and of the caravan coming down the Khyber Pass to Peshawar. He creates a setting of grim consequences, telling of war, power and a ‘blood red sky’.

When spring-time flushes the desert grass,
Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass.
Lean are the camels but fat the frails,
Light are the purses but heavy the bales,
As the snowbound trade of the North comes down
To the market-square of Peshawur town.
Four things greater than all things are, --
Women and Horses and Power and War.
Friend of my heart, is it meet or wise
To warn a King of his enemies?

In an unfortunate moment of his wretched life, the man, after hearing the rumour of the ‘grey coat’, [Russians] invading Afghanistan, decides to break the news to Amir Abdur Rahman with a vain wish to get favour. The news stirred the Amir’s Darbar and the King’s face turned ‘dark as death’ and in his royal wrath, took the informer to a tree to watch the Russians coming and alarmed the Afghan forces to be ready for the war.

When the face of the King showed dark as death.
Evil it is in full durbar
To cry to a ruler of gathering war!

The tale takes an ominous turn at the end as the man is kept imprisoned on the tree, fully guarded by the Afghan soldiers lest he escape. For seven long days, as the story enjoins, the damned soul survives till madness takes over, and he skips and jumps like apes and bear. Having become too weak, he hangs onto the peach tree ‘like a bat’ till gets sleepy, and falls, impaled on the waiting points of knives.

4.   The Red Law

The Amir’s Homily (1891) , included in the collection, Life’s Handicap, is a short story about a young man charged with stealing and brought before the Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman. He rebukes the young man for the act and narrates him his own story, there is no justification for such crimes, and that only hard work is acceptable. Accordingly, he is punished with the same detachment typical of the image Kipling has created of the native ruler. The Amir of Kabul is known to history as the Iron Amir, given his strong ruling tactics that ultimately unified the Afghan State. However, Kipling praises the Amir and later on discredits him by branding him as a barbarian who rules by terror. He even designates the whole Afghan nation as thieves and thoroughly rejects their self-righteous notion of honour.
While appreciating the role of Abdur Rehman in the contestation of the Great Game, Kipling notes that he is the trusted ally of the Empress of India, and a gentleman. And in his ruling style is as unaccountable as the gray wolf, which is his blood-brother.
Kipling depicts the Afghan Amir as a heartless person who disregards justice and decides all matters on personal whims. His word is the ultimate law, which understandably might have operated well during the tribal socio-political milieu of Afghanistan at that time.
‘His word is red law; by the gust of his passion falls the leaf of man's life and his favor is terrible. …This is personal government, as it was in the days of Harun al Raschid, of blessed memory, whose times exist still and will exist long after the English have passed away.’

  • The Working of the Empire

 Her Majesty’s Servants (1894) , a short story included in, The Jungle Book (1894), relates  Kipling’s favorite theme i.e. duty, discipline and obedience, all necessary ingredients to successfully build an empire. Here the animals talk to each other and Kipling records the discussion. The writer presumably understands their language and an interesting drama unfolds where the camels, elephants, bulls, horses and mules are engaged in different duties and comments, expressing their views.
It offers a glimpse of what Kipling so beautifully provided us in his Jungle Books (1894-1895), wherein animals vocally air their views and perceptions of the physical world around them as well as of humans who try to control them. While telling the story, Kipling is very particular to record the impact of the order and discipline of the British Army on the Afghan King. The spectacle is so threatening that the Amir seems to be going berserk and, given his ruthlessness, appears to be making ready to put to sword the English men and women. Kipling compares the disciplined and orderly British forces, even the animals employed in their service, with that of the Afghan army and takes pride in the superiority of the former.
It seems appropriate to refer briefly to the organization of Russian Army and try to compare it to what Kipling praises in the British Indian Army during the era of the so-called Great Game, a period of high colonial contestations in Central Asia between the two empires. To begin with, the Tsar’s military might evolved with the passage of time alongside the beginning of the Russian City state. Peter the Great organized the Russian army, taking officers from the aristocracy with Cossacks and serfs as common soldiers. Conscription was practiced very strictly and even children were taken into military service. In this respect the Russian military organization, with infantry, cavalry, and artillery was quite compatible with the times. However it was the fateful Crimean War (1853-1856) against the combined forces of France, Britain and the Ottomans that exposed its internal weaknesses. Resultantly, efforts were made to reform the military apparatus by abolishing children’s conscription and providing for military education to revamp the system.
The tribal military organization of both Central Asian Khanates and that of the Afghan states was no match to the European armies of both Russia and England. A limited number of Russian soldiers routed Armies of Bukhara and Kokand.
The most telling part of the story is when Kipling, praises the discipline of the British forces and even the animals employed in there service, in order to impress the Afghan Amir.
They obey, as the men do. Mule, horse, elephant, or bullock, he obeys his driver, and the driver his sergeant, and the sergeant his lieutenant, and the lieutenant his captain, and the captain his major, and the major his colonel, and the colonel his brigadier commanding three regiments, and the brigadier the general, who obeys the Viceroy, who is the servant of the Empress.
In an interesting analysis, Scott Evan views that Russian military was designed on the Napoleonic model, with strong emphasis on regulations, which though worked well against the Central Asian Khanate , but failed in the Battle of Dargo (1845) in the Caucusus. They were not trained for the new type of adversary which exposed its internal vulnerability. On the contrary, the British were adopting unconventional military tactics, vis-à-vis, asymmetrical warfare, command and control system, and use of technology. Russian military might was too strong for the decaying tribal military order of Central Asia, but compared to British military system, it was too unwieldy, as Bruce Menning notes: “...huge in size, ponderous in movement, unimaginative in leadership, and bound to an outmoded socio-economic system”.

 6. ‘Wounded and Left on Afghanistan’s Plains’

A Young British Soldier (1892) is a short but very relevant work. Kipling, also known to be Bard of the British Empire, loves to sing for its soldiers at war in alien territories. Issuing instructions and informed advice to the combatants in Afghanistan, Kipling warns of cholera in the camp, the tropical sun to avoid heat stroke, and of the infidelity of their wives. He also instructs not to wait for the dead comrades and move on holding on to the arms and the weapons without fear. In the end, when wounded, they should kill themselves with their own rifles before the Afghan women come out to cut them down. It is one of his numerous poems, Kipling wrote about common soldiers, their joys and sorrows, in great sympathy and empathy towards those soldiers of Empire, who become ‘beggar-like’ when no more required. That is why we meet many ‘beggars’ of Empire in Kipling’s works, the soldiers who though respond quickly to the call of the Empire, but are forgotten soon afterwards.
Here, Kipling is referring to the bloody Anglo-Afghan War, which proved disastrous for both the people. Given his notions on Afghans especially their thirst for revenge, ironically one of Kipling’s most important themes in fiction, advises the young British soldiers suggesting how to react to the brutality of the war. Kipling teaches and sings for these soldiers. It is with such works that Kipling has gained, at times, unbelievable relevance. Afghanistan is once again in the middle of big powers rivalry. Keeping in view, the contemporariness of Kipling’s work, the last two of the thirteen stanzas of this particular poem are reproduced.

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
   An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
      Go, go, go like a soldier,
      Go, go, go like a soldier,
      Go, go, go like a soldier,
       So-oldier of the Queen!

7. Empire Building

The Man Who Would Be King (1888) is one of Kipling’s most famous works, a short story, thematically treating the subject, Empire-building. In an attempt to establish their own Kingdom, we find two white men proceeding to Afghan Kafiristan (now Nooristan). Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan undertake the journey from India, hiding weapons in their baggage under the cover of the trading caravan to cross the border. They entered the Afghan territory disguised as Muslim holymen, which facilitated their uninterrupted journey. Though the two daring men fought bravely and overcame all possible hurdles. They brought warring tribes under one banner to provide a unified state, yet failed in realizing their dream of building an empire there. Since the local people considered them gods, the desire of Dravot to get married blew their cover. Resultantly, Dravot gets killed and his Commander-in-Chief, Peachy reaches Lahore, India, carrying in his bag, all the way from Kafiristan, the crowned head of Dravot, to tell his story to the world.
The source of the story has been traced to one of the most interesting adventurers of the 19th Century, having come from America to India and becomes governor of Gujrat at one time. Later on he travels to Afghanistan and gets the Amir’s favour there and establishes his own kingdom at Ghaur.
Macintyre notes, ‘Josiah Harlan, hereditary Prince of Ghor, died without family or fanfare. In this time, he had been Hallah Sahib Bahadur, friend of kings, warrior, alchemist, a poet, player of the Great Game.’ While comparing Harlan, the real life would-be-King with that of Kipling’s Dravot who succeeds in establishing a Kingdom in Nooristan, it is interesting to note that another common factor was that both wanted to follow the foot prints of Alexander the Great. “I’ll make an Empire...I am the son of Alexander by Queen Semiramis.”
Like Harlan, who travelled far and wide in India, and Afghanistan, unbelievably achieving the highest possible status and influential positions at both the places, Kipling’s Dravot and his deputy Peachy race to the highest posts, even establishing an empire of their own, while they were literally pariahs in India. The dying social, political and economic orders at both the places created a vacuum for such fortune-hunters, wanderers and adventurers and even mercenaries to capitalise. The two so-called ‘ragtag’ Anglo-Indians are depicted to be capable to stand at par with viceroys and kings, and even, as they boast, Alexander the Great. The point that Kipling makes here is that with military skill and weapon, one can race to unimaginable heights in the uncivilized world. The only fault that he finds in this whole arrangement is that Dravot, the would-be king, loses the moral authority of being a god to the people.
“I once came near to kinship with what might have been a veritable King, and was promised the reversion of a Kingdom--army, law-courts, revenue, and policy all complete... "
Since the target land is a soft one, and the two friends have sufficient knowledge of the area, supported by the maps which the narrator shares with them, they embark on a very dangerous sojourn, hoodwinking the border patrol between British India and Afghanistan in execution of the contract they had signed in the office of the narrator.
Sitting in Kipling’s office, the two friends, Dravot and Peachy try to locate Kafiristan in the maps provided by him. Giving a down-to-earth roadmap of colonization, Dravot tells that if one knows how to drill and train a nation fighting each other, it is quite easy to rule them as a king. Maybe there is ironical undertone when Kipling mentions the way the two ex-servicemen consider empire-building. Presently, however, the main concern of the two would-be kings is to go there and train them in the art of war. This way they would be conquering one kingdom after another, having faith in their training, of which he proudly says. "See here!" said Dravot, his thumb on the map. "Up to Jagdallak, Peachey and me know the road. We were there with Robert's Army.”
When the two adventurers, Dravot and Peachy, lost their Kingdom whose residents are considered by them to be of European decent, Kipling informs us how effective the role of weapon and soldiering is in the building of an Empire. These two ragtag loafers, the social outcastes of Anglo-India, who call themselves ‘betwixt and between’ fail to sustain the Kingdom despite their successful use of the tool of violence enforcing colonialism in that remote corner of Afghanistan.    
"'I won't make a Nation,' says he. 'I'll make an Empire! These men aren't niggers; they're English! … Two hundred and fifty thousand men, ready to cut in on Russia's right flank when she tries for India!
Kipling tries to explore the weaknesses of the King, the ideal leader and the Hubris of empire-building when the two Englishmen succeed in establishing their own dynasty. Their adventure failed, Kipling warns because of a misplaced pride to be an equal to Queen Victoria before they establish themselves fully in the alien world where natives fought each other over petty matters and had no system to regulate their lives. The two main characters, Dravot and Peachy, succeed in their mission to build themselves a kingdom in the exotic high land but could not succeed to sustain the same as planned.  To quote Edward Said:
‘… a sort of uncontested normative judgment about India and its rulers is Kipling’s way of demonstrating that natives accept colonial rule, so long as it is the right kind of rule. Historically this has always been the way European imperialism made itself more palatable to itself, for what could be better for its self-image than native subjects who express assent to the outsider’s knowledge and power, while implicitly accepting European judgment on the undeveloped, backward or degenerate nature of native society?
This story contains many references to British history and its relevance to Afghanistan with a clear verdict on how empires ought to be built. The two protagonists in this classic short story draw their strength from English history, which is why we find such Eurocentric references like “Robert’s Army”, the army of General Roberts which reduced the Afghan forces and emerged as the hero of Qandahar during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). The heroes of this tale identify themselves with the locals when they note their complexion and consider them to be ‘related to us English”. Similarly there is mention of “the Khaibar”, “Ghorband” and more interestingly “the lost tribes”, which is, one of the theories on the Pakhtun’s origin as an ethnic group. Kipling also refers to the Great Game politics in which, he, like any Englishmen feared the invasion of “Russia’s right flank where she tries for India”. An interesting mention is that of the War of Independence of 1857, called by the English, Rebellion or the Sepoy Mutiny, the character in this story referred to as “our Fifty-Seven”, when they felt threatened by the local people.


Kipling’s views on the Afghan Kingdom is ‘Orientalised’ and his Imperial perspective demands civilizing the non-white, native people and cultures. Rudyard Kipling’s view of Afghanistan and the ruling style of its Amirs, most importantly that of Amir Abdur Rehman, is evidently prejudiced. Considering Afghanistan as a hell for the British forces during the Anglo-Afghan War, Kipling forewarns of the dangers awaiting the imperialist soldiers. He was hopeful that the British Indian soldiers would be gloriously victorious but history bequeathed its verdict otherwise. Kipling’s perception of Afghanistan is as partisan as his perception of the Russians during the 19th century Great Game, and later, of the Germans during World War I, since for him, they all threatened the British Empire. However, one cannot help but reflect on the parallelism in Kipling’s works to today’s turbulent situation in the region, with Afghanistan once again in the thick of things. Kipling, therefore, viewed the whole situation within the colonial paradigm. In, The Man Who Would Be King, particularly, Kipling advocated empire and empire-building, to advance civilizing humanitarian mission forewarning those of the pitfalls awaiting them who follow their whims instead of moral authority to rule.
Pursuing a literary perspective of some of his works relating to Afghanistan, this paper has identified Kipling of holding a racially biased view of the Afghan Emirate. It is irony of history that Kipling appears relevant even in contemporary environment of Afghanistan and Central Asia. To him Afghanistan is exotic and its ruling elite ruthless and corrupt in contrast to the civilized elite of the Raj. That Kabul town (not colony) is a hell when compared with the glory of British India (imperial colony), has been a typical ‘Orientalist misrepresentation.’ Kipling’s view of the Afghan people and its political system, with special reference to the ruling style of Amir Abdul Rehman, is stereotypical. During the Great Game of the nineteenth Century, and with particular reference to the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Kipling’s verdict is politically charged. His issuance of warning to British soldiers in Afghanistan, in the works under discussion seems an expression of genuine worries about their destiny. However his haughty praise for the highly organized and disciplined British Indian army, compared to that of the traditional military organization of Afghanistan smells predisposition too.


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*   Prof. Dr. Sarfraz Khan, currently serves as Director, Area Study Centre (Central Asia), University of Peshawar

** Currently serves as Assistant Professor, Qurtuba University, Hayatabad, Peshawar

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