Empires' diplomacy

Published : Jan 27, 2012 00:00 IST

On the territorial claims of Russia and Britain in Central Asia.

IN its formative stage in the 19th century, boundary-making and clashes of territorial claims in Central Asia infringed on the attempts by the Raj to persuade China to agree to define the boundary in northern and eastern Kashmir, which includes the Aksai Chin in Ladakh. China refused; partly under Russian pressure. G. J. Alder's magisterial book British India's Northern Frontier 1865-95: A Study in Imperial Policy appeared in 1963 and shed light on the diplomacy of Britain and Russia during this period.

Martin Ewans, who served in the British High Commission in New Delhi, is a diplomat with a scholarly bent. His book, based on thorough research, is a welcome addition to the literature on the subject.

The aim of this book is to describe and analyse the relationship between Britain and Russia in Central Asia during the years 1865 to 1895, with a particular focus on the efforts that were made to establish a firm and sustainable dividing line between their respective spheres of influence. These efforts were ultimately successful in producing a frontier which has lasted to the present day.

The three decades in question were significant because they were bounded by two decisive events; in 1865 by General [M.G.] Chemiaev's high-profile storming of Tashkent, which overturned Russia's stationary' policy; and, at the conclusion, by the Pamir Agreement of 1895, in which the two powers put the finishing touches to their frontier negotiations. Central Asia was significant because it was the sole region in the world where Russia, with her preponderant military strength, could bring effective pressure to bear on British territory.

Elsewhere, British naval power gave her a decisive invulnerability, and her Indian empire was immune to attack from the sea. From the direction of Central Asia, however, there was a perceived threat, if not of actual invasion, then at least of an advance sufficient to generate unrest or open up opportunities for subversion, in this jewel of the British Crown'.

Since the Crimean War (1854 56) checked Russia's expansion in Europe, Russia entered Central Asia. The Kazakh Steppe was annexed in 1864; Tashkent was conquered in 1865; Samarkand and the Fergana valley in 1868; Khiva, the last of Khanates, in 1873, Kokand in 1870, and Turkmenistan in 1881. Russia pressed forward to reach the Afghan frontier.

British and Russian empires collided in Central Asia and nearly went to war in 1885. Their vital interests, however, were easily susceptible to adjustment provided that neither occupied Afghanistan, and Russian expansion did not reach India's northern frontier. Thus was born the Wakhan Corridor, which, one of India's most cerebral Foreign Secretaries, Sir Olaf Caroe, called the Afghan Tongue.

In 1873, the northern limits of Afghanistan were defined by the Granville-Gortchakov Agreement with a laxity explicable only by the poverty of knowledge of the territories. The crucial eastern part, the Roof of the World', was left undefined. Before long, protracted negotiations began. Sir Mortimer Durand, the Foreign Secretary, went to Kabul in September 1893 to tell the Amir that Russian Government insisted on the literal fulfilment of the Agreement of 1873. +This involved the withdrawal of the Afghans from trans-Oxus Roshan and Shignan but included the acquisition by the Amir of Cis-Oxus Darwaz, then in the possession of Bokhara. He was also urged to retain Eastern Wakhan though it was militarily indefensible.

Ewans traces the background to Russia's march and narrates in documented detail the internal debate on the policies to adopt. Among the useful appendices of pertinent documents is a Memorandum by Russia's Foreign Minister, Prince Gorchakov, dated November 21, 1864, in which he described the fate of every country which has found itself in a similar position. The United States of America, France in Algeria, Holland in her Colonies. England in India all have been irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, into this onward march, where the greatest difficulty is to know when to stop.

Neither side was fully satisfied with the Pamir Agreement. But it proved durable. This is the essence of a boundary agreement it should displease both. No serious student of boundary-making can afford to ignore this very instructive work.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment