By Devasis Chattopadhyay
“Final British troops leave Afghanistan to end 20-year campaign” – screaming headline during the last weekend of August 2021 in The Guardian, UK.
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said in the story that now was a time to reflect on the UK’s mission in Afghanistan. “Twenty years ago, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the first British soldier set foot on Afghan soil aiming to create a brighter future for the country and all its people,” he added. “The departure of the last British soldiers from the country is a moment to reflect on everything we have sacrificed and everything we have achieved in the last two decades”.
Well, is that so? I say, history repeats itself. Especially for the British.
They had a similar drubbing during the first Afghan war, known as Earl Auckland’s Folly, and consequently retreated from Kabul in 1842, some 180 years ago. And, to console themselves, and in the memory of the fallen, they had erected a church in Mumbai and a memorial in Kolkata in British India. Well, I say, the saving grace.
The Church of St John the Evangelist, popularly known as the ‘Afghan Church’, is still located in Navy Nagar in the Colaba Cantonment area, at the southernmost tip of Mumbai, overlooking the Arabian sea. It was built between 1847 and 1858 to commemorate the deaths of the First Afghan War and the disastrous 1842 retreat from Kabul – that the British lost miserably. Later on, memorials at the rear of the nave also recorded casualties from the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878 to 1880) – a part of the ‘Great Game’ between the British and the Russian empires. The Afghan church was designed by Henry Conybeare; architect was William Butterfield and the famous stained-glass windows, which still exist today, were courtesy William Wailes. This is today considered a Grade I heritage structure in India.
Then, we have the ‘Afghan Memorial column’ at Dum Dum in Kolkata, nearer to the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose international airport, earlier known as the Dum Dum airport. It is located close to the entrance of the Dum Dum Ordnance Factory, dedicated to the fallen of the Afghan War too. Constructed in 1842, it predates the ordnance factory by about four years. Incidentally, the British East India Company (EIC) took the decision of setting up the Dum Dum ordnance factory, the first in India, following their defeat in the 1st Afghan War.
Possibly apocryphal, but the local saying goes that the ‘Dham Dham’ sound emanating from the testing of the guns and the ammunition tend to be the reason for the area to be known as Dum Dum.
Even for the Sherlock Holmes lovers there is an interesting anecdote related to the Afghan war – it is in the earlier Afghan campaign that we got Dr Watson involved, mortally injuring himself with a Jezail bullet. He stayed at the Base Hospital in Peshawar recuperating for months. Thereafter he made his way back to England and got introduced to Sherlock Holmes. Remember?
Of course, when the first Afghan War happened Earl Auckland was Governor General (1836 – 1842), and the in-charge of the Indian subcontinent, in whose name David Wilson dedicated his hotel in 1840, the oldest existing hotel in Asia. We know this hotel as The Great Eastern Hotel of Kolkata. When it was inaugurated on 19 November 1840 it was known as the Auckland Hotel, dedicated to the then Governor General. As he lost the Afghan War, in the East India Company circle the war became known as Earl Auckland’s folly and he was called back to England.
Earl Auckland’s name was George Eden. The famous Eden Gardens cricket ground in Kolkata is named after his sisters. The stadium was established in 1864. However, it took its name from the Eden Gardens – one of the oldest parks in Kolkata, adjacent to the stadium designed in 1841, and named after his sisters.
The Afghan wars were the focal point of the ‘Great Game’ started during the month of January 1830. It was the political and diplomatic confrontation that existed for most of the 19th as well as the 20th centuries between the British and the Russian, over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and South Asia. It also had direct consequences over Iran and the Indian subcontinent.
The game is still on. (IPA Service)