The man who left life as a barrister to become British envoy to Afghanistan

William Macnaghten could have been a renowned in the legal profession in his native Ulster

‘Remnants of an Army’ by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as one of the only survivors of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January, 1842. Photograph: Wikicommons

‘Remnants of an Army’ by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as one of the only survivors of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January, 1842. Photograph: Wikicommons

 

In a high, narrow valley at the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains lies the city of Kabul. It is more than 3,500 years old and sits at the crossroads of Asia. The capital of Afghanistan since 1776, it was home to the nominal ruler of the nation and remains the country’s most profitable region. In the mid-19th century it found itself squeezed between two rival expansionist powers, the Russian Empire of Tsar Nicholas I and the British East India Company, which then controlled a large portion of the Indian sub-continent.

Both entities were suspicious of each other’s motives and their long standing attempts to gain regional hegemony over their competitors became known as “the Great Game” in Britain and “the Tournament of Shadows” in Russia. Those at the Russian court believed the empire had the right to continual expansion into central and eastern Asia, a concept they referred to as their “special mission to the east”.

However, The British East India Company was determined to protect its commercial interests and trade monopolies in the region and sought to create a series of subservient buffer states or “protectorates” in central Asia that would keep the Russians at a safe distance. This included Afghanistan.

The company was the most powerful corporate entity in history. By 1803 it boasted a private army of 260,000 men, a monopoly on the export of tea and numerous other goods from the continent, the right to collect its own taxes and even to declare war. It was effectively an “empire within an empire” run by a board of directors and administered by an ever growing number of ambitious bureaucrats, many of whom were Irish. One individual who played a prominent role in what would become known as the first Anglo-Afghan War was William Hay Mcnaghten, the second son of an Antrim barrister who had served as a senior judge in Madras (modern Chennai) and Calcutta (Kolkata).

He was born in 1793. Mcnaghten completed his private education in Great Britain by 1809 and then enlisted as a cadet in the company’s private army. He was stationed with the 4th Cavalry at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad from 1811-12 and developed a proficiency in a number of the local languages including Hindustani, Persian, Telegu, Kanarese and Marathi. He ended his military career in 1814 and instead secured an appointment in the Bengal Civil Service. Much like his father he proved himself a capable lawyer and rose quickly through the ranks of the legal profession. His linguistic abilities also allowed him to translate and record the religious laws then in effect in locally.

Watercolour of Sir William Hay MacNaghten, the year of his death by James Atkinson. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery
Watercolour of Sir William Hay MacNaghten, the year of his death by James Atkinson. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

His Principles and Precedents of Moohummudan (Islamic) law (1825) and Principles and Precedents of Hindu law (1829) were widely acclaimed by his contemporaries and used as standard reference documents by the colonial courts for decades. He even translated and published a four volume translation of One Thousand and One Nights.

He had been appointed secretary to Lord William Bentinck by 1830, then governor general of India, and was made chief secretary of the secret and political department in 1833. Four years later he had become one of the closest advisers of Lord Bentwick’s successor, the Earl of Aberdeen. He continually advocated for an invasion of Afghanistan to depose the reigning Emir Dost Mohammad Khan, who had been courting Russian support and to replace him with Shah Shujah, a former Afghan ruler who had been overthrown in 1809 and was willing to act as a British puppet. Lord Aberdeen listened to his hawkish advisers, and after Emir Khan refused an ultimatum demanding he never welcome Russian delegates to the Afghan court without British consent, the East India Company declared war.

An invasion force, dubbed the “Grand Army of the Indus”, was assembled and entered Afghan territory in December 1838. It was made up of more than 22,000 British and Indian troops, and a further 38,000 camp followers. The invasion force was incredibly slow moving – there were no modern roads in Afghanistan at the time and the terrain was unforgiving. Furthermore, many of the officers brought their entire household along, one junior officer reputedly brought 40 servants with him.

They didn’t meet much opposition from the hastily assembled levied armies of the Emir and by August Shah Shujah had been enthroned and Mcnaghten was appointed Britain’s chief representative in Kabul and made a baronet a few months later. Far more than a diplomat, he was dubbed “the envoy” and was thought to be controlling the newly restored emir. He moved into a palace in the capital, employed hundreds of servants from India and even imported a collection of fine French wines. His ally Shujah quickly lost the support of the local tribal chiefs and the only thing keeping him in power was the 8,000 strong British garrison stationed outside of Kabul. Relationships between British soldiers and Afghan women further angered the chieftains as did attempts to create a national army that would deprive them of their status as military leaders. Open rebellion broke out in Kabul and the disaffected leaders rallied around Akbar Khan, son of the exiled emir. The commander of the British army, Gen Elphinstone, proved reluctant to intervene and Mcnaghten was left to negotiate with the rebels.

He offered to make Akbar Khan vizier (chief minister) of Afghanistan while simultaneously trying to have him assassinated. His double dealing was exposed and he was captured and killed by the rebels, and his remains were displayed in the central market. The British army attempted to withdraw but of the 16,500 people who tried to return to India, less than 10 made it. Though a relief force would be sent to rescue the captured prisoners, the British soon withdrew from Afghanistan and Dost Mohammad Khan was restored to his throne.

Dost Mohammad Khan, Emir of Afghanistan. Photograph: The Illustrated History of the British Empire in India and the East
Dost Mohammad Khan, Emir of Afghanistan. Photograph: The Illustrated History of the British Empire in India and the East

William Macnaghten could have become a renowned barrister and author in his native Ulster, but instead opted for a career as a colonial administrator. His belief in and support for imperialism allowed him to briefly gain control of an entire nation. but ultimately led to his downfall and death in a largely pointless conflict. As his contemporary GR Gleig wrote, it was:

“a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Nathan Mannion, senior curator of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.

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