England, Russia, and India

As a handy compendium, full of reliable and accurate information relating to the Anglo-Russian dispute, Mr. Charles Marvin’s The Russians at the Gates of Herat1 is by far the best book of its kind out of many that have been offered to the reading public. As a polemic the volume will be perused with a certain amount of caution. That its author came specially qualified to his task must be admitted at the outset. Mr. Marvin is a zealous patriot, and possesses the rare impartiality, as he reminds us himself, of being “ both a Russophile and a Russophobe.” He has long been convinced of the blindness of English statesmen to the real objects of the Russian advance in Central Asia, and has for years devoted himself, in a field which a unanimous if tacit consent has wholly surrendered to him, to what he calls “ the sacred task of safeguarding India from the menace from the north.”

At one time Mr. Marvin was little more than a voice crying in the wilderness. The English public not only declined to share his apprehensions, but even doubted their sincerity. That ungrateful period of his agitation Mr. Marvin has outlived. Thanks to the spasmodic rapidity of recent Russian expansion in Central Asia, he has obtained a hearing in the Tory press and on the Tory platform, while his followers are now numerous enough to constitute a political party of themselves, were they not already members of the Tory organization. It is, in fact, impossible to overlook the circumstance that the influence Mr. Marvin has come to wield by his books and his speeches is distinct from that felt when a great orator rallies his countrymen to common resistance in some hour of national danger.

It is true that Mr. Marvin has done a certain amount of positive good. His pamphlets and writings have thrown a greater flood of light on the geography and politics of Central Asia than many wars could have contributed. He has quickened the languid parliamentary interest in “our Indian empire.” Beyond this his agitation has been harmful. It has tended to create a chronic distrust of each other on the part of two great powers. While in the eyes of Europe it has unduly magnified the resources of the Czar, in the eyes of Russia it has unduly dwarfed the military capacity of Great Britain. The policy, advocated by Mr. Marvin, of haggling over particular lines and swearing by frontiers hard and fast has been a virtual confession — and must have been regarded as such by the Russians — that once the approaches are in the hands of the northern power, once an advantage has been gained by that power in the delimitation of the frontier, India is irretrievably lost to the English. The idleness of supposing that the mere possession of a favorable boundary line by Russia places India at the mercy of “the northern menace ” is obvious ; yet it is upon this supposition that the alarmists found their case. Hitherto they have but poorly sustained the thesis that Russia desires the possession of India. That the Czar needs India, which is the real point, has not even been asserted.

To fairly judge of her aims in Central Asia, Russia’s movements must be viewed as a whole, and with a due regard to the larger aspects of racial and national development. It must first be remembered that Russian expansion is no modern phenomenon, but a secular process belonging to the whole period of the life of the empire. Originally it seemed a mere recoil from the fiscal oppressions of the central authority; in modern times it has worn the guise of a military advance. Yet that it has been a true movement of the people must be apparent to those who have noticed the rapidity with which not only Siberia, but all parts of Russia’s Asian territories are being colonized from her possessions in Europe. Unprecedented in history, owing as much to the extent of the field open to it as to the remarkable virility of the forces at work, presenting itself at one time as conquest and at another as peaceful absorption, Russian development has been as altruistic in some of its results as most of its aims have been constructively self-seeking. Thus in opening up vast tracts of land to the agricultural or commercial enterprise of her people, Russia has sheltered many an oasis of human vegetation from the shifting sands of barbaric anarchy and power. Descending with a gentle and irresistible gravitation into the Central Asian desert, her civilization has connected stagnant pool and poisoned lagoon with the healthy saline flood of human progress. A high civilization like that of the English, the Tatar races could scarcely have assimilated: Russian culture, with its Asiatic foundations, had an appropriate and natural mission among the dwellers of the steppe. That the Tatar should first modify the Russian and ultimately come to be taught by him is one of those natural adaptations of ends to great purposes that of itself seems to justify the manner in which the problem of ethnological elevation is being carried towards solution in Central Asia.

But Russian capacity for elevating semi-barbarous tribes in no sense implies Russian fitness for completing the work of civilization in India. Hence the danger of the natives welcoming the Czar with open arms is by no means great. Mr. Marvin lays emphasis on “ the disaffected elements,” and hints at the ease with which a collapse of the English rule might be brought about. Does Mr. Marvin seriously believe that the thoughtful and highly intelligent Hindus are prepared to hand over the privileges they now enjoy under British tutelage in exchange for the spy system, the passport regulations, the press censure, the secret tribunals, the “ administrative processes ” of the “ White Czar ” ? It Russia, as in one place Mr. Marvin admits, apparently to save himself from an untenable position, has no intention of holding and occupying India, and the fact is as notorious as he represents it to be, what probability is there of a rising to welcome an invader who has no intention of remaining in the country ? And if Russia has no intention of holding and occupying India, why does Mr. Marvin declare it (page 125) to be the express aim of Russia “ to drive us [the English] out of India ” by means of a large force of troops previously concentrated in trans-Caspian territory ?

The possibility of an invasion of India, no one need doubt. That there are officers in the Russian army who would willingly take part in such an enterprise is indisputable. The “military tradition ” of English leader-writers’ commonplace, that the cost of absorbing the Khanates is to be recouped in the spoils of Delhi and Lahore, may not yet be forgotten in the wild songs of the Cossack camp-fire along the Central Asian plain. But these things do not create a fixed policy of invasion cherished for whole centuries. If the Russians are warlike, they are the most realistic nation in Europe. In this question of India they have had plenty of time in which to count the cost, and there is no doubt that they have counted it. The idea of a serious attack upon India without the intention of carrying a possible success to its logical and military conclusion is not to be entertained.

The belief that Russia could the easier attain the possession of Constantinople by a series of blows dealt across the Afghan territory is much more plausible. But to administer India as a Russian possession — that is to say, as part of a centralized system of government now strained to its uttermost — would be a task even more formidable than its acquirement by force of arms. To possess it at all would immensely add to the vulnerability of the Russian empire, without furnishing the seaboard of which that empire stands so urgently in need.

The secular aspects of a great historical development are, after all, wider than its immediate and accidental aspects ; nor is the political interpretation of them to be compared with the scientific. The Russian menace to India, assuming that there is a real menace, indicates a counterplot, if it indicates anything. Russia may some day — will some day — strike at Constantinople ; for her to be able to divide England’s attention between care for India and solicitude for the integrity of the Turkish empire is an advantage worth bidding for. Apart from this, the future course of events in Central Asia is clear. In the end, soon or late, the Russian and the English boundaries must coincide. This is the real, as it should be the final, settlement of the Anglo-Russian dispute,” since it ought to be no more difficult for two great powers to live next door to each other in Asia, than it has been found to be in Europe. And the true policy of each of those powers is, as it seems to us, to look forward to such a junction, to estimate all minor issues at their real worth, and to arrange any preliminary disputes that may arise with calmness and dignity.

From Mr. Marvin’s book we pass to Mr. George Makepeace Towle’s volume,2 which is a model of all that a compilation of the kind should not be. It is not too much to say that it is one of the most inaccurate books ever written, and therefore worse than useless to the public. Mr. Towle blunders over the commonest facts. He starts off by ignoring 40,000,000 of people in his statement of the population of India, and makes the area of the empire 900,000 instead of 1,500,000 square miles. A few lines further on Mr. Towle gives 1612 instead of 1615 as the date of what he calls the attack of a Portuguese fleet “on the English factory at Surat.” The attack was not on the factory, but on the East India Company’s fleet off the port of Surat, at the mouth of the river Tapti. We read next that the company built Fort St. George, Madras, in 1640. This event took place in 1639. Mr. Towle adds that Bombay fell into the company’s hands in 1662, the fact being that the delivery of the place did not occur until 1665. The next blunder fixes the number of persons thrust into the “Black Hole” at 150, instead of at 146. On page 17, there is a confused and erroneous account of the circumstances under which the provinces of Bengal, Orissa, and Bahar were handed over to the English. In the same page, Mr. Towle states that Clive returned to England in 1766. He did not leave India until 1767. Warren Hastings assumed office as governorgeneral in 1772, not in 1773 as Mr. Towle assures us. Further on we are told that the Hastings trial “ dragged its slow length along for nearly five years.” Its “ slow length ” was at least two years longer than Mr. Towle ventures to make it. The administration of the Marquis of Dalhousie lasted eight years, not seven. The queen was proclaimed “ Empress of India ” two years earlier than Mr. Towle thinks it prudent to admit. At page 31, and again on page 33, Mr. Towle falls into a ludicrous confusion of absolute power with despotic rule. Failing to appreciate the distinction between a paternal and a constitutional government, he gravely describes the office of viceroy as that of “ an absolute despot.” Three blunders occur in Mr. Towle’s account of the machinery of Indian government. His statement of the artillery possessed by the Hindu states is short of the truth by a thousand guns. The sentence, on page 50, alleging that “ Peter was the most ambitious, the ablest, and the most civilized Czar who ever sat on the Muscovite throne ” is a perplexing study to say the least. Who “ Timour Tamerlane” was, Mr. Towle leaves his readers to guess—if they can. On page 71, he gives us an inaccurate version of the taking of Khiva, tripping lightly forward to sketch the Khirgiz, whose “ physiognomies,” he says, “are a curious mixture of Turk and Mongolian.” All we need observe here is that if the mixture is at all so curious as Mr. Towle’s mixture of substantives, the “ Khirgizes,” as he spells the word, must be a very strange people, indeed. On page 93, Mr. Towle says the Cossacks have never been subject to serfdom. The Cossacks were for many years recruited from the serfs. There are several blunders in Mr. Towle’s account of the Russian navy at page 96. In page 100, Mr. Towle makes Dost Mohammed go on fighting for several years after he is chronologically dead. A few lines further on he speaks of one man out of 26,000 escaping the wholesale slaughter in the Khyber Pass. The slaughter took place in the Khurd, Kabul, and Jagdalak defiles, and those who perished numbered 16,000 not 26,000. Herat (page 104) is 388 miles from Askabad, not 400 ; and 369 from Candahar, not 300. The story at page 105, of an English force being kept at bay before Herat, in 1857, is purely without foundation. Mr. Towle talks twice of “ Marquis Wellesley,” whoever that personage may be. Fully a dozen other blunders occur in various parts of the book, but we have not enough space left in which to notice them. We have dwelt upon the volume at this length simply with a purpose of warning and example that may, it is to be hoped, protect the public from further inflictions of the kind in the future.

Brigadier General Rodenbough’s3 book is an interesting but not always accurate contribution to the literature of the subject. Written mainly from a soldier’s point of view, it deals chiefly with the military aspects of the situation. The engravings are good. But some of the plurals are not to be recommended. Voltaire used to think that all Greek nouns had their plural in oi, and so the idea seems to prevail among writers of war manuals that you have only to put ee at the end of a substantive to make it a Central Asian plural. Mr. Towle is the most conspicuous offender in this respect, for he writes “ Khokandi general,” “ of the Turkistanee,” and “ Turkistanee woman,” thus using the ee sound as a masculine adjective ending, as a feminine adjective terminal, and as the ending for the genitive plural. Tatar grammar is somewhat flexible, but not nearly so flexible as Mr. Towle would make it. Mr. Rodenbough, too, talks of “ Tashkendees,” using an ending which, like the rest, is neither English nor Asian. The correct, forms are, of course, Tashkendian, Khokandian, Turkistan, etc. At page 12, Mr. Rodenbough remarks that “ the thorough way in which Russia seeks to bind her Asian subjects is shown in the fact that, in 1884, at the request of the Khan of Khiva, a Russian tutor was selected to instruct his children.” Does the author mean that the tutor entered the Khan’s family as a diplomatic agent ? Save on this supposition the alleged connection of statement with illustration is not at all proved. The habit of learning Russian in Central Asia is as common as is that of acquiring French at St. Petersburg.

It ought to be added, in conclusion, that none of the three writers named know anything personally, that is to say at first hand, of the disputed territory.

In this respect Mr. Marvin, who has never been nearer Afghanistan than Baku, is no better off than Mr. Towle. It is mainly a knowledge of the Russian language that has rendered Mr. Marvin an authority in this matter, just as it is a want of that knowledge which makes so many of the books written on the subject practically valueless.

  1. The Russians at the Gates of Herat. By CHARLES MARVIN. With Maps and Portraits. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1885.
  2. England and Russia in Asia. By GEORGE MAKEPEACE TOWLE. Timely Topics Series. With Maps. Boston : James R. Osgood & Co. 1885.
  3. Afghanistan and the Anglo-Russian Dispute. An Account of Russia’s Advance towards India. With Three Maps and other Illustrations. By THRO. F. RODENBOUGH, Bvt. Brigadier-General, U. S. A. New York and London : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. The Knickerbocker Press. 1885.