Return of a King: Book summary and reviews of Return of a King by William Dalrymple

Return of a King

The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

by William Dalrymple

Return of a King

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Book Summary

From William Dalrymple - award-winning historian, journalist and travel writer - a masterly retelling of what was perhaps the West's greatest imperial disaster in the East, and an important parable of neocolonial ambition, folly and hubris that has striking relevance to our own time.

With access to newly discovered primary sources from archives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and India - including a series of previously untranslated Afghan epic poems and biographies - the author gives us the most immediate and comprehensive account yet of the spectacular first battle for Afghanistan: the British invasion of the remote kingdom in 1839. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed helmets, and facing little resistance, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the mountain passes from India into Afghanistan in order to reestablish Shah Shuja ul-Mulk on the throne, and as their puppet. But after little more than two years, the Afghans rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into rebellion. This First Anglo-Afghan War ended with an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world ambushed and destroyed in snowbound mountain passes by simply equipped Afghan tribesmen. Only one British man made it through.

But Dalrymple takes us beyond the bare outline of this infamous battle, and with penetrating, balanced insight illuminates the uncanny similarities between the West's first disastrous entanglement with Afghanistan and the situation today. He delineates the straightforward facts: Shah Shuja and President Hamid Karzai share the same tribal heritage; the Shah's principal opponents were the Ghilzai tribe, who today make up the bulk of the Taliban's foot soldiers; the same cities garrisoned by the British are today garrisoned by foreign troops, attacked from the same rings of hills and high passes from which the British faced attack. Dalryrmple also makes clear the byzantine complexity of Afghanistan's age-old tribal rivalries, the stranglehold they have on the politics of the nation and the ways in which they ensnared both the British in the nineteenth century and NATO forces in the twenty-first.

Informed by the author's decades-long firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan, and superbly shaped by his hallmark gifts as a narrative historian and his singular eye for the evocation of place and culture, The Return of a King is both the definitive analysis of the First Anglo-Afghan War and a work of stunning topicality.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"For perspective, it pays to go back to the first Afghan War, a great imperial debacle for the British, and Dalrymple - winner of two major history prizes in Britain, the Wolfson and the Duff Cooper, and a best-selling author as well - obliges us with this chronicle." - Library Journal

"This book would be compulsive reading even if it were not a uniquely valuable history; which it is, because Dalrymple has uncovered sources never used before. To the rich material in British archives and private collections, and in Russian, Urdu and Persian archives, he has been able to add nine previously untranslated full-length contemporary Afghan accounts of the conflict, including the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself. It is this that gives his book its depth and resonance." - The Guardian

"Dalrymple has written some marvellous books on the British in Asia but this, I think, is his best. Extensively researched (with much new material) and beautifully written, it covers the story from the perspective of both invaders and invaded, and is by far the most comprehensive history of the conflict yet written. It also says important things about war and why it's waged; whether anyone who needs to will listen is another matter." - The Telegraph

"There is no need for Flashman or Kim to flesh things out, for it is all here: be it Burnes dancing a reel on his dining-room table in Kabul, the Christmas meeting between two master spies on either side of the Russian and British Great Game, the gruesome rituals of Afridi vengeance on the bodies of their foes, or the lethal-sounding cocktail that Ranjit Singh, masterful one-eyed emperor of the Sikhs, shared with his guests while firing off a thousand intelligent, highly pertinent questions. He and Dalrymple would have got on famously." - The Independent

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Author Information

William Dalrymple Author Biography

Photo © 2010 Koroki Lewis

William Dalrymple is the author of six previous acclaimed works of history and travel, including City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the best-selling From the Holy Mountain; White Mughals, which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson; and The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Guardian.

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