He sat in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform outside the old Ajaib-Gher, the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum. Who holds Zam-Zammah, that “fire breathing dragon”, holds the Punjab; for the great green-bronze piece was always first of the conqueror’s loot.

So begins perhaps the best novel about British India, and one of the most gripping stories of espionage, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim published in 1901. 62 years later John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold became the model for all future writers about spying during the Cold War. In the same way Kim became the symbol of the "Great Game", that curious era of shadow boxing between Britain and Russia played out on the North West Frontier, Afghanistan, Persia, and Central Asia. So what was the behind the Great Game?

Left: Zam-Zammah, Lahore. Right: Chitral Fort on the Kunar River. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

The speed of Russian territorial gains in Central Asia during the nineteenth century was spectacular, and a brief look at the map will confirm how close they came to Chitral in the north west of India (now Pakistan). Further to the west the long Baluchistan border seemed almost equally vulnerable. So the threat was very real, but it led to a bitter debate in British India between the advocates of “the Forward Policy” and those of the “Back to the Indus Policy”. The adherents of the latter held that the line of the Indus river formed the most easily defensible border. This would leave the Pathan (nowadays more often called Pashtun) tribes outside British territory and would force any invader like the Russians to cope with both them and the Afghans who had caused the British untold difficulties in the past.

Forward Policy supporters argued that the various passes through the Hindu Kush range such as the Dora into Chitral, the Khyber into Peshawar and the Ishkoman into Gilgit were far more defensible (and by fewer troops) than any river. Rather than leaving the Pathans to plot with the Russians the Forward Policy would require active alliances with the leading tribes and with the Afghans. Furthermore the British could devolve much of the local administration to the Pathan tribes themselves rather than trying to quell them (this is the origin of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas which survive to this day).

As the current borders of Pakistan demonstrate, the Forward Policy won. It is interesting to ponder that Afghanistan would reach right up to the Indus at Attock if the debate had gone the other way. The Forward Policy (which was supported by most of the more adventurous spirits; the explorers and the soldiers) required a good intelligence system. It was essential to know to whom the Russians were speaking and about what. Russian missions, often posing as ethnographical and topographical surveys, travelled discreetly but freely, often causing serious shocks to the government in Calcutta, Delhi or Simla. How to find out what they were up to?

The first British ploy was to use equally bogus survey missions of their own, such as that led by Captain Francis Younghusband to Hunza where he actually met a Russian “survey” team led by Captain Grombtchevsky of the Russian Imperial Guard in 1889. They actually posed for a photograph together! The second ruse was to use genuine mountaineers and explorers. Perhaps the greatest explorer, Ney Elias, reported to the Intelligence Department at Simla. But a third method, although very romantic in principle, was less successful in practice: this was the despatch of British officers in disguise as travelling native horse traders, homeopathic doctors and even religious scholars. Some officers, through extraordinary linguistic aptitude, clever disguise and incredible luck, managed to survive weeks or months but rarely years. It is sad to relate that these jaunts all too often ended up like poor Captain Arthur Conolly, who invented the term “Great Game” in 1835, but suffered appalling torture before being beheaded in Bokhara in 1842. There were too many amateur spies working for the Army, the Police, and the Foreign Department.

The Survey Department based in Dehra Dun, which had the job of mapping the whole sub-continent and especially the more recently acquired and inaccessible areas of NWFP, the Gilgit Agency and Baltistan, also had an intelligence role. In the process of gathering their topographical information (which is often the best information such available to this day found in the old maps and gazetteers still available in Islamabad book shops) they came across masses of political and military intelligence. This too was done by itinerant traders, horse dealers, and preachers recruited from the local population and thus less easily detectable than a British officer in disguise.

And so to return to Kim:

But Kim did not suspect that Mahbub Ali, known as one of the best horse dealers in the Punjab, a wealthy and enterprising trader, whose caravans penetrated far and far into the Back of Beyond, was registered in one of the locked books of the Indian Survey Department as C.25.1B. Twice or thrice yearly C.25 would send in a little story, baldly told but most interesting, and generally - it was checked by the statement of R.17 and M.4 - quite true. It concerned all manner of out-of-the-way mountain principalities, explorers of nationalities other than English, and the gun trade [and] was, in brief, a small portion of that vast mass of “information received” on which the Indian Government acts.

One is reminded of Kim frequently when travelling in northern Pakistan. The huge Mughal and Sikh fortress at Attock where the Kabul River joins the Indus is redolent of the Great Game as is the diminutive fort at Chitral on the Kunar River.

The Mughal and Sikh fortress at Attock where the Kabul River joins the Indus. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Perhaps the most chilling monument to the Great Game is the grave of George Hayward at Gilgit. Hayward was a member of the Royal Geographical Society and an inveterate explorer in the region. Hayward’s final journey was disavowed by the government, but he paid the ultimate price in a way that only a high Victorian poet such as Sir Henry Newbolt could glorify with imperial pathos in “He Fell Among Thieves”:

He drank the breath of the morning cool and sweet,
His murderers round him stood
‘Oh glorious life, who dwellest in earth and sun,
I have lived, I praise and adore thee’
A sword swept
Over the pass the voices one by one
Faded, and the hill slept.

Zam-Zammah is still there outside the Lahore Museum, an impressive piece of artillery, but above all an icon of Kipling and the Great Game.

Further reading

Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game. London: John Murray, 1990.

Johnson, Robert. Spying for Empire. London: Greenhill, 2006.

Keay, John. The Gilgit Game. Oxford: OUP, 1990.

Keay, John. When men and mountains meet. Oxford: OUP, 1994.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. London: MacMillan, 1901.

Willasey-Wilsey, Tim. The return of the Pashtun problem and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. Academia, 2013.

Willasey-Wilsey, Tim. Historical Asides. Britain and Pakistan. Rawalpindi, 1996.

Last modified 29 September 2014