Book Review: ‘Return of a King’ by William Dalrymple

by britishmisk


Reading a book about the first Anglo-Afghan war and the British’s attempt to install a puppet ruler may sound like dense reading, but the gift that William Dalrymple has to offer is that it’s far from it. Although I may be a little biased given my interest in Islamic and South Asian history, Dalrymple’s book is a fascinating insight into western interventionism that unfortunately still lives on today, and he doesn’t hold back any punches in making the similarities between the past and the present clear.

Dalrymple starts his book with explaining the build up to the first Anglo-Afghan war which was a result of the rivalry between the Barakzai and Sadozai clans conflicting claims to the emirate of what is modern-day Afghanistan, and the ‘Great Game’ of Anglo-Russian political rivalry in Central Asia. The book follows a chronological ordering of events and uses material from British, Afghan, Russian and Indian sources to build a comprehensive analysis of the events that took place.

The importance of this time period, and the subject at hand, is made clear by Dalrymple in that he feels that the invasion and subsequent management of Afghanistan after 2001, bear so many similar hallmarks to the first Anglo-Afghan war, that it is amazing that despite what history has taught us, the British have yet again entered into a diplomatic farce of which they can hope for no positive outcome. Aside from pointing out the obvious problems with colonialism and interventionist foreign policy, the book itself is a riveting read for those, such as myself, who have little knowledge of the Anglo-Afghan wars. Given the wide range of sources and the removal of a possible bias you’re presented not only with an impartial historical analysis, but you follow the stories of individuals from all the different sides of the conflict, more so from those who penned their experiences to paper and lived to tell the tale.

As I mentioned before, anyone who has an interest in the topic would do well reading the book. Given its pluralist nature of sources it also paints a vivid picture of what life was like for the many sepoys and military units in India at the time, with some of the experiences quoted quite horrific in their details. It’s nonetheless an easy to read and interesting book, that leaves you wanting you to find out what happens next. It looks like it will tie in well with Dalrymple’s next book on the East India Company, and I’m very keen to follow up on where this book leaves off.