Home > Uncategorized > Eça de Queiroz: Afghanistan

Eça de Queiroz: Afghanistan

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Eça de Queiroz: The English in Egypt, a case study

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José Maria de Eça de Queiros
From Afghanistan and Ireland (1880)
Translated by Ann Stevens

In their troubled Indian Empire the English are attempting to discover whether there is any truth in the eighteenth-century witticism that ‘History is like an old woman who keeps on repeating herself.’

Fate, or Providence, or whatever Being it is up there that directed the events of the Afghan campaign in 1847, is simply making a slavish copy now, thus apparently showing an exhausted imagination.

In 1847 the English, ‘for a reason of State, a need for scientific frontiers, the security of the Empire, a barrier to the Russian domination of Asia…’ and other vague things that the politicians concerned with India solemnly mutter as they twist their mustaches – invaded Afghanistan, and proceeded to annihilate ancient tribes, destroy towns, lay waste cornfields and vineyards; finally they took possession of the holy city of Kabul: they turned out a terrified old Emir from the seraglio and installed another of a more submissive race, whom they had brought with them ready in their baggage, along with some slave-girls and carpets; and as soon as the newspaper correspondents cabled the victory, the army camped beside the streams and in the gardens of Kabul, undid their belts and smoked the pipe of peace…And that is exactly what is happening in 1880.

At the moment, precisely as in 1847, energetic leaders, native Messiahs, are travelling through this territory and with fine words like Homeland and Religion, are inciting their brethren to a holy war: the tribes are assembling, feudal families hasten to offer their mounted troops, rival princes join forces in their hereditary hatred for the foreigner, and in a short time all will be a-glimmer with the lights of encampments on the hill-tops overlooking the narrow paths which form the route to India….And when the bulk of the English army appears on the approaches to Kabul, with a mass of artillery, and makes its hurried way through narrow passes in the mountains or along the dry river beds, with its long caravans of camels, the savage horde falls upon them and annihilates them.

So it was in 1847 and so it is again in 1880. The disbanded remains of the army then seek refuge in one of the frontier cities, which might be Ghazni or Kandahar; the Afghans rush in pursuit, and set siege to them, a slow siege, an Oriental, leisurely siege: the besieged general, who in these Asiatic wars can always communicate with the outside world, cables to the Viceroy of India, indignantly demanding reinforcements, sugar and tea! (This is literally true: it was General Roberts who made this gluttonous appeal a few days ago; the Englishman without his tea fights only half-heartedly.) Then the Indian government spends millions of pounds like water and hastily sends off enormous parcels of restorative tea and white mountains of sugar and ten or fifteen thousand men. Enormous black war-transports leave England, like great steam-powered Noah’s arks, carrying camping equipment, numerous horses, parks of artillery, a complete, awesome invading force. So it was in 1847, and so it is in 1880.

This host disembarks in Hindustan, joins up with other columns of Indian troops, and is led day and night to the frontier in express trains at a speed of 40 miles an hour; then an exhausting march begins with fifty thousand pack-camels, telegraphists, hydraulic machines, and an eloquent company of newspaper men. One morning Kandahar of Ghazni is sighted; and in a flash the poor Afghan army is wiped out, dispersed in the dust of the plain, with its melodramatic scimitars and its venerable culverins of the same model that fired in former days at Diu. Ghazni is liberated! Kandahar is liberated! Hurrah! Immediately a patriotic song is made of this, and the exploit is popularized all over England by an engraving where the liberating general and the besieged general can be seen passionately shaking hands in the foreground, amid rearing horses and grenadiers as handsome as Apollo who are nobly breathing their last! So it was in 1847, so it must be in 1880.

In the meantime, on hill-tops and narrow paths, thousands of men who either defended their homeland or died for the sake of the scientific frontier, lie there, food for the crows – which is not, in Afghanistan, a respectable rhetorical image: there it is the crows which clean up the streets in the cities, eating the filth, and on the battlefield purify the air by devouring the remains of the defeated.

And what is eventually left after so much blood and agony and mourning? A patriotic song, an idiotic engraving in a few dining rooms, later on a line of prose in a page of some chronicle…

A consoling philosophy of wars!

In the meantime England enjoys the prestige of ‘the great victory of Afghanistan’ for a short while – certain of having to begin once more in ten or fifteen years, because they can neither conquer and annex a vast kingdom, as large as France, nor allow the existence of a few million hostile fanatics at their side. Their policy, therefore, is to weaken them periodically with a devastating invasion: such violence is required of a great Empire. Far better to possess only a little garden with a cow for milk and a couple of lettuces for summer snacks…

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  1. September 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I’ve enjoyed this critical read for its historical content and the relevance it conveys these days…
    The writer’s final statement is really lovely: ” Far better to posess only a little garden with a cow for milk and a couple of lettuces for summer snacks…”

  2. richardrozoff
    September 19, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Thanks for picking up on the piece. You’re the only person to do so.
    I had read it some 25 years ago; it’s excerpted from a longer article called “Afghanistan and Ireland.”
    The sentence you cite is more than a little reminiscent of the end of Candide.
    Was surprised to see that the article was not posted anywhere on the Internet, at least not in its English translation, and typed it in from a copy of Queiroz’s Letters From England resting on my bookshelf.
    The author, one of the most accomplished novelists of the 19th century, the century of the novel, is as incisive in his comments on England in Ireland, and in another article on English imperial heavy-handedness in Egypt, as he is with Afghanistan.
    A true tragedy that his works in general and his political writings in particular are not appreciated in this grim, uncultured epoch.

  3. September 29, 2011 at 1:45 am

    Thanks for the above reflective points about Eça de Queiroz, one of the nineteenth century’s great writers. I admire his work for the wit, insight and timeless amusement.
    Curiously, I also have a copy of “Eça’s English Letters”, edited and translated from the Portuguese by Alison Ayken and Ann Stvens with an Introduction by Jonathan Keates, published to mark the centenary of the author’s death.
    According to a Translator’s Note, “These letters are taken from a variety of sources, in the main drawn from a series of articles written for a Brazilian newspaper of the time,others penned for a Portuguese readership and, in Eça’s capacity as Portuguese consul to England, letters written to his Foreign Minister. What strikes the reader is that problems, both national and individual, remain much the same 125 years on.”
    Remarkable reads!

    • richardrozoff
      September 29, 2011 at 3:50 am

      Thank you again. Am in complete accord with your characterization of Queiroz’s writing, a matter of both style and substance.
      Like his Portuguese-language contemporary, Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, and Spain’s Perez Galdos, he is a (grossly) unfairly neglected writer and personality.
      But as the recent posting of Eugenio Montale bemoans, to be expected in an age of atomic bombs and a Doomsday moral and social milieu.
      One might think humanity would exert at least a minimal effort to save the world from war and devastation if for no other reason than to be able to discover, reclaim and memorialize people like Queiroz.

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