Eça de Queiroz: Afghanistan
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…