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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 16, 2013


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (April 16, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307958280
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307958280
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (158 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #231,137 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The British humiliation in the so-called First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42) has long been viewed by historians as a classic example of imperial overreach. Still, it is a saga that makes for marvelous storytelling, filled with heroes, knaves, incompetent fools, and savage, bloodthirsty warriors. It has been told often before but perhaps never so well as by Dalrymple, a historian and travel writer. He places British intervention within the context of the “Great Game” rivalry with the Russian Empire over influence in central Asia. When the British favorite in Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, was driven into exile, British officials in India feared enhanced Russian influence there and decided to reinstall him at the point of a gun. What followed was a mixture of farce, tragedy, and horror. The British army occupying Kabul was surrounded by a hostile and harrying population. When forced to retreat back to India through unforgiving terrain, thousands of soldiers and camp followers died from cold, hunger, or constant attacks by merciless mounted Afghans. Dalrymple doesn’t shrink from drawing the obvious parallel with the current American intervention. That may, or may not, be facile, but this is an absorbing and beautifully written account of a doomed effort to control an apparently uncontrollable population. --Jay Freeman

From Bookforum

By turns epic, thrilling, suspenseful, and utterly appalling, at once deeply researched and beautifully paced,Return Of A King should win every prize for which it's eligible. Yet William Dalrymple has done more than just write a brilliant work of history; in these page he also holds up a distant mirror to the West's more recent, and comparably disastrous, military incursions in Afghanistan. His book describes, among much else, the opening moves of the Great Game—the intelligence battle between colonizing powers for idealogical and territorial supremacy in central Asia. It is, in some ways, a conflict that continues even now. As Kipling's youthful spy hero of Kim says, "When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before." It is difficult to do justice to the evenhandedness, vivid writing, and extensive scholarship supporting every detail of Return Of A King. —Michael Dirda --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Dalrymple did excellent research for this book.
drohan00
Highly recommended for those who want to know the history of Afghanistan or if someone just wants to read a very very good book.
Arshad Altaf
Beautifully researched and written book, very fast and easy reading.
Nagai S. Rajendran

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Raghu Nathan on April 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover
William Dalrymple is the definitive modern historian of the East India company's reign in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. With already two brilliant books - 'The White Mughals' and 'The Last Mughal' - on the subject, he has now written this masterly chronicle on the disastrous British misadventure in Afghanistan during the years 1839-1842. In his words, this first British war in Afghanistan was one of colonial arrogance, hubris, folly and cultural collision. What else can you call a foray where 20000 troops marched into Afghanistan in 1839 and only one returns to Peshawar in 1842?

Dalrymple shows in this book that the 'Great Game', popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his novel 'Kim', was actually the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alexander Burnes, the dashing Scottish intelligence officer, was sent out to Central Asia as a spy to gather information on the threats, which were non-existent then, from Czarist Russia to British interests in India. Burnes did his work and wrote a successful book on the subject which were read by the Russians. As a result, they get suspicious and send Yan Vitkevich, a Polish adventurer and explorer, to Bukhara and then on to Kabul to gather their own intelligence on this question. Thus, the hawkish paranoia in Calcutta and London ended up making a non-existent threat a reality. So, the Great Game begins and still goes on, a full 170 years after it began.

Burnes and his brilliant Indian assistant and intelligence chief, Mohan Lal Kashmiri, give excellent advice to Calcutta and London on the state of affairs in Central Asia and the course to be followed, which was to support Dost Mohammed Khan as the Amir of Afghanistan. But policy was made by George Eden, William Mcnaghten and Claude Wade.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Trond Gram on March 7, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I am a historian myself, although not in this field. But I can tell that this book is the result of a very good historian, both regarding the use of historical sources and empirical material. And he is an excellent writer. A must read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Weir on May 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
An interview with the author on a morning talk show prompted me to order the Kindle version that same day. His thorough research and accessible writing style (almost as readable as David McCullough) made this lengthy book fly by quickly for me. I was frequently stunned by the number of parallels between the experiences of the British, Soviets, and the U.S in this mysterious place. Perhaps most compelling were the carefully explained nuances of Afghan internal politics that appear to have changed very little in their dynamics in the more than 170 years since the events recounted in this book. Author William Dalrymple's own British heritage, combined with a prodigious knowledge of Afghan history and culture enabled him to paint a uniquely informed picture of the futility of invading and suppressing Afghanistan. The failure of the British to adapt their approach to reflect the culture and circumstances contains many lessons no less relevant today.

Among the more interesting story lines was how the British and Russian power structures were willing to ignore or refute what their envoys actually inside Afghanistan were telling them. Time after time, those governments made strategic blunders, allowing bureaucrats or aristocrats who had never set foot in the country to decide on diplomatic or military matters with profound implications for everyone involved. Even readers with strongly cynical or jaded attitudes toward politics may sometimes find it difficult to understand the amount of deceit, deception, and fragile loyalties inherent in Afghan affairs, but it was and may still be, essential to how they hold on to their own identity as a mainly tribal structure constantly under fire from some global power.
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32 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Yug on March 21, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is s very comprehensive detailed historical review of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839.
The British had the choice of two alternative viewpoints and strategies. They chose the wrong one mainly because of wholly inept leadership under Lord Auckland; he in turn entrusted the actual invasion to poor leaders, partly on the basis of class distinctions.
The purpose of the invasion was to re-instate one of the candidates for king; they chose the wrong candidate. As is well known the British forces, again ineptly led, tried to leave the country once it became obvious that their mission had failed. One person was allowed to escape back to India. What is not so well known is that a second British force under a General Pollock returned to Afghanistan with the sole purpose of taking revenge, which he did. Kabul and Jalalabad were destroyed. The King that the British had rejected reclaimed his throne. Hamid Karzai the current Afghan leader is a descendant of Shuja the deposed King.
Whilst well researched the book is far too long. Much of the endless pieces of individuals correspondence could have been included in an appendix. I would have rated a shorter more concise book much more highly
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27 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Ken Nielsen on March 1, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A fascinating story of the First Afghan War, one of the most stupid - in planning and execution - actions in British colonial history.
One wonders at the incompetence of the British - how did they manage to acquire and keep an empire?
Dalrymple has done much original research for this book and has uncovered previously unknown facts.
The book - like all Dalrymple's writings - is exciting, entertaining and informative.
I am not sure that there are lessons for today in this history, but the reader should make up his or her own mind about that.
I read the Kindle version. The pictures and maps do not come out well but otherwise the reading experience was fine.
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