Return of a King

Synopsis

In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after little more than two years, the Afghans rose in answer to the call for jihad and Afghanistan exploded into rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain’s greatest imperial disaster of the nineteenth century: an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world ambushed in the snows of the high passes, and there routed and destroyed by simply-equipped Afghan tribesmen.

This first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan has important lessons for the present. Using a wide range of new sources from Afghan, Russian, Indian and Pakistani archives, including a series of previously untranslated Afghan epic poems and biographies, Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the First Anglo-Afghan War, and an important parable of colonial ambition and cultural collision for our times.

[Video] William Dalrymple introduces ‘Return of a King - The Battle for Afghanistan’

[Video] William Dalrymple talks with Fiammetta Rocco of the Economist about ‘Return of a King - The Battle for Afghanistan’

Editions

Return of a King Cover
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 4 February 2013
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1408818305
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Return of a King Cover
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 30 January 2014
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1408831595
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Reviews and Quotes

Alexander McCall Smith, New Statesman Books of the Year
“I have admired William Dalrymple's writing ever since I read his remarkable his remarkable account of the travails of the Christians of the Middle East, From the Holy Mountain. Dalrymple is a writer who can make the most recondite historical issues come alive and with each successive book he becomes a more entertaining and enlightening companion. His latest offering, Return of a King, is a tale of imperial plotting and folly in a region that has suffered from every sort of indignity and tragedy at the hands of local and foreign rulers. It is quite simply brilliant.”
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Fiammetta Rocco, The Economist
“Dalrymple, probably the best known British historian of India, has written eight acclaimed books on a wide variety of subjects, but this is the book he was born to write.”
John Darwin, The New York Times
“Ever since this fiasco, an entire phalanx of writers has denounced the arrogance, folly and incompetence of the British aggressors. The latest and most brilliant in this long line of critics is William Dalrymple and his Return of a King ... Those who have read his White Mughals and The Last Mughal will know what to expect: a readable style, a deep humanity and, above all, an extraordinary skill in evoking the lost worlds of Mughals and Afghans... Return of a King is much the fullest and most powerful description of the West’s first encounter with Afghan society ... Dalrymple is in no doubt about the moral horror of the British invasion. But he is too good a historian to fall back on polemic. The cruelty and treachery with which Afghans treated one another is crisply portrayed ... His pen-portraits are a masterpiece ...”
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David Gilmour, New York Review of Books
“Splendid and absorbing … William Dalrymple tells this tragic story with verve, skill, and—unexpectedly in the circumstances—some humor. Using unknown or underused sources from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, he recounts the tale from both sides, shifting the scenes, using eyewitness accounts, quoting at length heroic epic poems … This fine book."”
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Brian Sewell, Evening Standard Books of the Year
“Wherever this book is read, it will on every page transport the reader to the summer heat and bitter winter snows of Afghanistan, engulfing him in its violence, treachery and cruelty, its poverty and riches, not of today but in the 19th century when the British believed that control of that country would protect their interests in India. At one level it is a compendium of ripping yarns, but at another it is the work of a scrupulous historian telling, as though he were an eyewitness, a tale so pitiless and tragic that it should be read by every politician involved in our policies in Afghanistan now.”
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Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times Books of the Year
“For the Afghans this was their 'Trafalgar, Waterloo and Battle of Britain'. For the British it was a descent into hell with soldiers even reduced to cannabalism in their fevered attempts to stay alive. Dalrymple has produced a gripping new account incorporating little known Afghan souces, as well as lavish descriptive passages and blood curdling set pieces”
Sir Max Hastings, Metro Books of the Year
“This terrific page turner is written with all the elegance and scholarship readers have come to expect from this author. He tells the tale of one of Britain's most disastrous imperial follies with a wealth of Indian and Afghan sources, rather than just relying on the usual Western ones. Only in the conclusion does he draw the powerful parallel with modern times, but most of us are thinking of this from the first page to the last.”
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Patrick Bishop, Standpoint
“The story of the march into Afghanistan in 1839 to oust the supposedly pro-Russian Dost Mohammed Khan and the traumatic exit three years later has been told many times, but never with the verve, wit and dramatic force that Dalrymple brings to bear ... The galloping pace of the narrative will keep you turning the pages eagerly.”
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Justin Marozzi, The Evening Standard
“This is vintage Dalrymple: warp-speed historical narrative, meticulously researched. . . . My only regret reading this wonderful history is that it was not published a decade earlier.”
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Barnaby Rogerson, The Independent
“William Dalrymple is a master storyteller, who breathes such passion, vivacity and animation into the historical characters of the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42 that at the end of this 567-page book you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all: once I had finished I turned straight back to the beginning. Return of a King is not just an animated and highly literate retelling of a chapter of early 19th-century British military history, but also a determined attempt to reach out and influence the politicians and policy-makers of our modern world. The parallels between the disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan in 1839, and the post 9/11 occupation of Afghanistan by the US and some of its NATO allies, are so insistent that they begin to sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy... It is his mastery of the intimate details, as well as the landscape and the grand rivalry between empires, Dalrymple wins our trust and keeps our interest. There is no need for Flashman or Kim to flesh things out, for it is all here.”
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Rupert Edis, Sunday Telegraph
“As well as going deep into dangerous parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to research his book, Dalrymple has recovered some remarkable new Afghan and Indian sources. We see beyond the stereotypes of treacherous Afghan 'fanatics' to the complex and remarkable individuals some of them were. Like Dalrymple's heartbreaking, extraordinary White Mughals, this book is as taut and richly embroidered as a great novel . . . A masterpiece of nuanced writing and research, and a thrilling account of a watershed Victorian conflict.”
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Anatole Lieven, Financial Times
“Brilliant... The greatest new contribution and the single greatest strength of this book is its employment of Afghan and Indian sources to examine to examine the war from the point of view of the Afghans themselves and the Indian soldiers who made up the majority of the 'British' force. The other thing that has marked out Dalrymple's work is his unflinching look at British Imperial attrocities... Even 170 years later, the events described in Return of a King still have the power to shock- and so they should. It is to be hoped that any future British leader contemplating intervention in Afghanistan , or any other part of the Muslim world, will read Dalrymple's book. For while it is first and foremost a valuable contribution to the history of Afghanistan and the British Raj, it is also intended to draw parallels and convey lessons about the latest western involvement in the region.”
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Piers Brendan, The Literary Review
“Definitive... It is Dalrymple's achievement to elucidate this initial episode of the Great Game through a treasure trove of original sources. Many of them he unearthed abroad, mining archives in Kabul, Lahore and Delhi (even finding first-hand material in Moscow) and somehow coping with the languages involved... Dalrymple employs it discriminatingly, providing a rich new dimension to a familiar story... He writes elegantly, appreciating, like all masters of his craft, that history should aspire to the condition of literature. Long though it is, Return of a King, like a great classical tragedy, grips the reader's attention from start to finish... William Dalrymple's Return of a King is not just a riveting account of one imperial disaster on the roof of the world; it teaches unforgettable lessons about the perils of neocolonial adventures everywhere”
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Diana Athill, The Guardian
“Of the books swooped into being by Dalrymple's scholarship this one is the most magnificent.... The seductive artistry of Dalrymple's narrative gift draws the reader into events that are sometimes almost unbearable, but his account is so perceptive and so warmly humane that one is never tempted to break away... No novelist is better at portraits than Dalrymple. He is also a subtle scene-setter... 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.”
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James Dellingpole, Mail on Sunday
“Few writers could go wrong with a story populated with so many villains, rogues, poltroons, swashbucklers, spies, assassins and heroes. But none would make a better job than William Dalrymple in his thrilling, magnificently evocative Return of a King.”
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Saul David, The Daily Telegraph
“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.”
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Max Hastings, Sunday Times
“Dazzling... Dalrymple is a master storyteller, whose special gift lies in the use of indigenous sources, so often neglected by imperial chroniclers... Almost every page of Dalrymple’s splendid ­narrative echoes with latter-day reverberations.”
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Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, New Statesman
“William Dalrymple is a scholar... [and] his book is a major contribution to the historiography of south-west Asia and the British empire. No Afghan field trip, no excursion along the highways and byways of the archives if Britain, Russia, India and Afghanistan has been too much for Dalrymple. Mixing primary and secondary sources and taking the time to acquaint himself with the terrain on which the tragedy was played out, Dalrymple has resurrected an oft-told tale and brought it convincingly back to life. Return of a King will come to be seen as the definitive account of the first and most disastrous western attempt to invade Afghanistan... Dalrymple's afterword should be put on college syllabuses on both sides of the Atlantic.”
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Jason Burke, The Observer
“[Return of a King] shows all the elements we have come to expect from Dalrymple: the clear, fluid prose, the ability to give complex historical events shape, story and meaning, the use of new local sources to allow the voices of the people to be heard alongside the much-better documented accounts of the invaders, the deep knowledge and affection for the magnificently rich culture of the Mughals and their various copiers and a lack of patience with tiresome orientalist visions of the ‘proud Pashtun’ or ‘noble Afghan.’ This is clear-eyed, non-judgmental, sober history, beautifully told.”
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From the print edition, The Economist
“A masterful history . . . As the latest occupying force in Afghanistan negotiates its exit, this chronicle seems all too relevant now. . . . The signal achievement of this work is that it makes a nearly two-century-old war seem disturbingly fresh.”
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Maggie Fergusson, Intelligent Life
“William Dalrymple is a scholar... [and] his book is a major contribution to the historiography of south-west Asia and the British empire. No Afghan field trip, no excursion along the highways and byways of the archives if Britain, Russia, India and Afghanistan has been too much for Dalrymple. Mixing primary and secondary sources and taking the time to acquaint himself with the terrain on which the tragedy was played out, Dalrymple has resurrected an oft-told tale and brought it convincingly back to life. Return of a King will come to be seen as the definitive account of the first and most disastrous western attempt to invade Afghanistan... Dalrymple's afterword should be put on college syllabuses on both sides of the Atlantic.”
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Michael Fathers, The Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Dalrymple's writing is sly, charming and clever. His histories read like novels. … This latest book delights and shocks as he points a finger at both sides for their deceit, treachery and cruelty.”
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Michael Korda, The Daily Beast
“It is a huge tribute to the tact of the distinguished British historian William Dalrymple that it is not until page 435 of his dramatic, richly peopled, and spell-binding history of Shah Shuja and the first British battle for Afghanistan, when he at last draws the inevitable parallel between the British attempt to subdue and control Afghanistan in the mid-19th-century and America’s own disastrous war there over the past decade”
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Michael Dirda, Book Forum
“By turns epic, thrilling, suspenseful, and utterly appalling, at once deeply researched and beautifully paced, Return of a King should win every prize for which it’s eligible.”
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Bron Sibree, The West Australian
“Hailed by the British literary establishment as his best book”
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David Robinson, The Scotsman
“What will be the books that open our imaginations the furthest, that most change our perception of the world, challenge our prejudices or bring the past to the most vivid life? An early contender must surely be William Dalrymple’s The Return of a King, out in February from Bloomsbury. As Salman Rushdie has pointed out, Dalrymple is “that rarity – a scholar of history who can really write”. And in this account of Britain’s first Afghan war, which began in 1839 with the aim of securing the Indian Empire’s north-western frontier against the Russians and ended in 1842 with the annihilation of an entire army, he has found the perfect subject. Drawing on Afghan, Russian, and Indian sources, he tells a truly epic story of imperial ambition and hubris with profound lessons for our own times. Compared to this – Britain’s greatest military defeat in the 19th century – Custer’s Last Stand is an insignificant skirmish. I doubt that I’ll read a better written or more important history book all year.”
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Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler
“This is a monumentally important book.....Exemplary historian that he is, Dalrymple has discovered hitherto unknown sources... This is history as it should be written: revisionist, readable and rollicking.”
Rosemary Goring, Sunday Herald
“A meticulous historian and felicitous writer, Dalrymple is also a deep thinker. This is one history book that matters for making sense of Afghanistan, and Britain, today as well as in the past.”
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S. Prasannarajan, India Today Review
“Afghanistan in mid-nineteenth century was a story of imperial hubris and tribal horror. Today, courtesy imperial intervention, it is a better place, in spite of the return of the Taliban and because of the empty caves of Tora Bora. William Dalrymple tells the back story of the Great Game in a narrative that matches the best of historical fiction.”
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Tom Tivnan, The Bookseller
“In his rollicking look at the First Afghan War, Britain’s military inclusion into the region in 1842, Dalrymple has certainly gone a mile or two further than most historians with his research ... Yet for all its current geopolitical echoes, Return of a King’s strengths are - like Dalrymple’s two other history titles, the bestsellers White Mughals and The Last Mughal - in the characters and its combination of sprightly readability and serious research ... Likely to become the definitive book on this highly topical subject”
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Pavan K Varma, Business Standard
“William Dalrymple combines in himself three remarkable talents. First, he is a researcher par excellence. Second, he has the insight of a historian. And third, as a writer of exceptional dexterity, he is able to make historical research very readable.The story is told in graphic detail (the book is over 500 pages), but it unfolds like a cinematic screenplay through the lives of the principal dramatis personae — their personalities, personal quirks, motivating ambitions and family background are etched out to make them living characters travelling along with the reader’s journey. It is not easy to recount dry historical facts in this manner, but Mr Dalrymple – as he has done with all his historical books – personally travelled to the principal venues, revisited the sites of battles, forts, palaces, towns and ordinary homes, and talked to scores of people to capture the flavour of the times about which he is writing. In addition, he has located crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian from archives in South Asia and used, for the first time in English, nine previously untranslated full-length accounts of the conflict, including the autobiography of the key Afghan king, Shah Shuja.”
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David Robinson, Scotland on Sunday
“The story of Britain’s First Afghan War – our greatest military disaster in the 19th century – has been told before, but never as brilliantly as by William Dalrymple... No Scottish historian writes with as much panache, breaks as much new ground, or brings the past as vividly to life. A superlative achievement.”
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Saurabh Kumar Shahi, Sunday Indian
“To call it anything less than a triumph would be an understatement.”
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Hugh MacDonald, Sunday Herald
“[A] marvellous book . . . brilliant, exact language . . . There is much in Dalrymple’s superb book that has contemporary resonance.”
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Edward Burke, Dublin Review of Books
“The story of the first Anglo-Afghan war and the retreat from Kabul in 1842 has been told many times before. But Dalrymple does it better; he has spent years piecing together archival material in Delhi, Lahore, London and elsewhere. He has wandered the streets of Kabul looking for, and finding, traces of Afghan epic poetry on the conflict. Many of his sources are previously untouched by other Western writers and as with his previous books, his vivid prose is a joy to read”
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Matthew Price, The National
“William Dalrymple's outstanding history of the first Anglo-Afghan War, is a pointed, all-too-relevant chronicle of a distant event that casts long shadows over modern Central Asian entanglements...[and] a brilliant fusion of innovative scholarship and thrilling storytelling... Dalrymple has emerged as a superb historian of the British Raj; he is certainly one of the most entertaining.... He excels at character, scene setting, and shifting between multiple points of view. His use of sources is stunning, particularly the trove of Persian-language material - epic poems, court histories and other accounts - he found in Kabul during a research trip. No other western historian has given such a complete account of the other side. One other reason Dalrymple is such a superb historian is that he avoids self-righteous theatrics about the wrongs of imperialism; he shows, not tells”
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Somnath Batabyal, The Sunday Guardian
“The start of the West's violent and protracted engagement in Afghanistan makes for fascinating, often horrifying reading. Arguably the most important work in Dalrymple's impressive oeuvre, Return of a King elegantly demonstrates that the British might make fine historians, but they learn nothing from history.... As well as producing a work that is germane to our present geo-political crisis in Afghanistan and much of the Middle East, Dalrymple brings to history a breathless sense of intrigue and wonder.... Dalrymple not only has the first-rate novelist's sense of depicting character, his well-known talent as a travel writer serves the book well. The depictions of the mountainous stretches of Afghanistan, the routes of the advance of the Imperial Army and the city of Kabul itself are etched in riveting detail. Though eminently readable, Return is based on rigorous and painstaking research. Dalrymple's use of primary source material is exemplary and his use of contradictory reports adds nuance to characters and incidents... The author has adroitly drawn a picture of imperial folly and refusal to learn from mistakes. If context is important, reading Dalrymple is paramount.”
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Michael Keating, The World Today
“Dalrymple tells a cracking good story, drawing upon new British, Indian, Russian and, above all, ‘elusive’ Afghan sources, including contemporary accounts and epic poems. The result is a captivating picture of one of the most foolhardy exercises in British imperial history, viewed through the eyes not just of British military and East India Company officials and their camp followers but also of the Afghans themselves. It illuminates the mechanics of patronage, the shifting nature of tribal alliances, the Afghans’ deft hedging skills, their sense of humour, their hospitality and compassion as well as capacity for brutality, and above all, their sense of pride – particularly when their independence and sovereignty is challenged.”
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