From the Age of Discovery until the death of ‘the empire,’ the powers of Europe scrambled for colonial possessions. Britain, whose vast empire on which the sun never set, stretched dangerously thin with possessions circumnavigating the globe; the jewel of which was India. Britain’s great fear was that one of the other European powers would establish influence in the near East, amid crumbling Ottoman rule, challenging its infrastructural lines with India. Originally assumed to be France, Russia emerged as the central antagonist in Asia, as historian J.R. Seeley identified in 1883:
Every movement in Turkey, every new symptom in Egypt, any stirrings in Persia or Transoxiana or Burmah or Afghanistan, we are obliged to watch with vigilance. The reason is that we have possession of India, and a leading interest in the affairs of all those countries which lie upon the route to India. This and only this involves us in the permanent rivalry with Russia, which is for England of the nineteenth century what the competition with France for the New World was to her in the eighteenth century.
As Russia increasingly crept southward into Asia, British anxieties concurrently heightened. In response, successive British governments determined to support unstable Islamic regimes to abate any advance by a European power into the area. This imperial chess match came to be known as the “Great Game.”
The term, first coined by the British Intelligence officer Arthur Conolly, refers both to the intelligence war, and, in the more general sense, the rivalry between the two powers’ over control of territories in Asia. The Great Game materialized from a string of disagreements between Britain and Russia dating back to the late eighteenth century. It resulted in two Afghan wars, an invasion of Tibet, and turmoil in Persia and Egypt. The conflict, however-reminiscent of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Twentieth Century-never degenerated into open belligerence between Britain and Russia. Rudyard Kipling brought attention to the Game’s workings in his novel, Kim, whose main protagonist get caught up in the dealings of a British operative, sent to espionage school, and partakes in the clandestine aspects of the Great Game. Even the great Flashman got himself ensnared in its toils.
In the mid-eighteenth century in Britain, a new genre of literature emerged-beginning with The Reign of King George VI, published in 1763-and playing off the fear of foreign invasion. The “Invasion literature,” or “Future-war” genre reached its apex during the mid-to-late 1800s, catalyzed by George Chesney’s, The Battle of Dorking. This and subsequent works focused on the traditional rivalry between Britain and France, and the growing hostility between Britain and Russia. The domination of continental European and imperial affairs by Britain and France and the Great Game commencing in Asia inherently fueled intense rivalry and derision between the powers, manifesting itself in accounts of faux aggressions by over-demonized intercontinental antagonists. “By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it was a common assumption in Europe that the next great war-the inevitable war-was going to be the final showdown between Britain and Russia.” This assumption materialized itself in the invasion literature, although failing to materialize itself in reality.
Compulsory education and rising literacy rates undoubtedly influenced the genre’s popularity, providing an outlet of mass consumption and an instrument for drumming up fervor and manipulating public opinion playing off of fears generated by the changing political climate and fomented by polemical demagoguery.
Although not exclusively covered in this paper, the espionage aspect played heavily on the fears of British, appearing as a constant theme in the invasion literature. In William Le Queux’s The Great War in England of 1897, the discovery of a secret alliance by a Russian spy forged between Britain and the members of the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) represented the impetus for Russia to declare war against Britain. France, obligated by the terms of an agreement signed with Russia in 1892, consequently joins the fray on the side of Russia. Subterfuge shows up in other works as well, including the Sherlock Holmes mystery, “The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans” by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service by Erskine Childers. These latter two works, however, deal more with Anglo-German relations than those with Russia. The two “Great War” stories, however, interestingly pit France and Russia as central antagonists with Britain. “Down with Russia! Down with France,” shouted a crowd in Trafalgar Square, in Le Queux’s narrative. These fears stem from the traditional enmity between France and Britain-once bitter continental and imperial adversaries-and the engagement of hostilities with Russia in the Crimea and the issue of control over Asia during the Great Game.
Hostilities between Britain and Russia[*] ostensibly began with the Russian seizure of Oczakow in 1788. Oczakow held little importance to Britain, however, it gave Russia control over the road to Constantinople. If Constantinople were to fall into the czar’s hands, Britain feared the balance of power in Europe might tip. If not interrupted by Napoleon’s exploits[†], these hostilities may have come to blows.
Instigated by these fears, British Prime Minister, William Pitt, introduced a call from the King for the enlargement of the Navy. Designed to protect British interests and those concerning the peace of Europe, the Russian Armament, as it became known, failed to materialize as it fell prostrate to Whig objection-along with preparations for war against Russia. The suggestion of hostility at this time was somewhat aberrant. In fact, Britain saw Russia as an ally and viewed its expansion into Asia with the slightest interest. Russia for centuries adventured southward. Even after the acquisition of India by the British East Indian Company, neither power bothered with the territorial ambitions of the other in Asia. British fears perked in the 1820s; however, with the perceived abuses of Russian power and expansion encroaching ever-steadily southward towards India.
Fears in Britain briefly flamed over suspicions of a joint French-Russian force in 1807. These fears instigated the formation of a secret committee of the Court of Directors to the Governor-general-in-Council. This committee saw it their duty to inform the Governor-General to:
“call…early and serious attention to the defense of our Indian territories, not merely with a view to meet and attack from any of the native Powers aided by an inconsiderable body of Europeans, but to withstand the efforts of France in conjunction perhaps with Persia and eve with Russia, and the invasion of Hindostan on its north-western frontier by a numerous and powerful European force.”
The Duke of Wellington, as Prime Minister, first employed the idea of buffering British interests against Russian aggression by propping up a friendly regime in Afghanistan. Representing the Eastern locus of concern for Britain, control over Afghanistan and the Himalayas represented the best strategy for keeping Russian ambitions in check. In the West of Asia, Russian possession of Constantinople, and thus the Dardanelles-which represented passage into the Mediterranean and Black Seas-threatened British reign in that area and their lifeline to India. These fears perpetuated paranoia of Russian intent on India (whether real or imagined) in British politics throughout the nineteenth century.
Ascending into the position of Foreign Secretary in1830, Lord Palmerston took up this cause with unmatched alacrity. Concerned with the vulnerability of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, and possibility of Russia’s exploitation of this weakness, Palmerston feared utmost the risk of Asian turmoil leading to a world war. Coupled with a growing sense of Russophobia in Britain and the view of Russia as an economic opponent in Asia, the Muscovite Empire steadily emerged as the central antagonist to the island nation.[‡]
It is questionable, however, whether Russian ambitions in Asia incorporated stymieing British interests. The reality is, in fact, that historical imperatives wielded greater influence over Russian expansion than any other motive. Imitating the notion of manifest destiny, Russian Imperial Chancellor, Prince Gorhakov revealed Russia’s motivation for expansion, stating, “the Unite States of America, France in Algiers, Holland in her colonies-all have been drawn into a course where ambition plays a smaller role than imperious necessity, and the greatest difficulty is knowing where to stop.” In fact, Gorchkov, as he continues, recognizes the achievement of Britain and Russia’s effort to “enter on a career of conquest and annexation such as gave England her Indian Empire.” The various leaders in Britain failed to recognize this as nonaggression, only as a threat to India. The critical evidence of the benignity of Russian ambitions in Asia (as relational to the interests of Britain) is the fact that neither country met the other in open combat.
The antagonism between the two powers over the decades of the mid-1800s resulted in a myriad of conflicts. The first such conflict occurred in Afghanistan. The Governor-General of British India, Lord Auckland, in concern of the fall of Herat to Persian forces (with Russian backing), produced a manifesto justifying a British backed invasion of Afghanistan led by Shah Shoojah. The Simla manifesto proclaimed that, “Thus in breach of treaties and open violence commenced this ill starred expedition destined to bring a terrible retribution on the rulers who had originated it and on the nation that had permitted it.” The Governor-General’s central objective was to re-establish Shah Shoojah to the Afghan throne, swinging the country into a pro-British state. This incident, however, backfired fantastically on the British. Later known as “Auckland’s Folly,” the combined British and Indian forces that stormed into Afghanistan, deposed Dost Muhammed, and seated Shoojah on the throne; were all but decimated in retreat by 1842. Shoojah ruled only a short while; he was assassinated in April of 1842.
From 1843 to 1880, Afghanistan fell into unrest and instability as Dost Muhammed and his sons fought for control in Afghanistan. This conflict culminated in the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880. This time, however, the dénouement was much more agreeable to the British. Despite not being able to sustain a military presence in Kabul, Britain attained all of their initiatives and withdrew in 1880.
During these years of unrest, external events colored British interest in Afghanistan. The Sepoy Mutiny in India of 1857 shifted military and political priorities; and when Sher Ali, third son of Dost, approached the British for support after having taken control of Kabul in 1868, he found only token interest in the way of arms and financial assistance. He received a similarly apathetic response in 1873 when, in the face of Russian encroachment, Britain refused to give any concrete assurances. When a Russian mission arrived in Afghanistan in 1878, however, and Britain demanded that Ali admit a British mission, Ali’s refusal sparked the second conflagration.
Britain’s primary objective throughout the nineteenth century involved keeping the lifeline between India and the Empire open. As a poke at Russia, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli declared Victoria Empress of her most valued jewel in 1877, and “that the Parliament of England had resolved to uphold the Empire of India.”
Britain proved successful in upholding the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople and the Dardanelles remained free of Russian rule. The Crimean war saw Russia’s stance in Europe weaken and the Congress of Berlin reverse Russian territorial gains, and Russian attempts at securing an alternative path into India were checked by a British seizure of Tibet in the early 1900s. In the case of Persia, however, Britain was less successful. Feeble attempts at persuading Persia of Russia’s enmity yielded little result. As Russia increasing crept into the areas of Khiva, Turkestan, and Transcaspia-with much difficulty-Britain did little in response. This increasingly illustrated that Britain’s interests extended only as far as protecting its interests in India.
The extent of Britain’s resolve in defending their prized possession branched from political and financial sense. This resolve dissipated quickly, however, with the diminishing returns of their Central Asian adventures. Public pressure began to mount, as well, from Liberal factions, over the savagery of the Islamic regimes propped up and supported by their government. This wave of disproval culminated in the overthrow of the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli. In his stead, William Gladstone took over the premiership in 1880. Gladstone dislodged Britain from Constantinople and withdrew Britain’s support of the Ottoman Empire, allowing Germany at least the opportunity to fill the vacuum created by the Islamic regime’s collapse.
Germany’s ascension in the late 1800s brought about a shift in continental politics in Europe. The editor of the Economist, Walter Bagehot, ruminated that, “…the old idea that Russia is already so great a power that Euorpe needs to be afraid of her … belongs to the pre-Germanic age.” The Treaty of Berlin, in 1878, strained relations between Germany and Russia, causing German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck to sure up support with Austria-Hungary in a defensive measure and counter-balance to possible Russian aggression.§] With the ascension of Wilhelm II and the ousting of Bismarck, however Germany adopted an offensive air. This new aggressive policy aimed to expand commercial interests and augment the growth of German economic and political power in the Near East, conceivably at Russia’s expense.
The culmination of the Great Game came amid rising tensions between continental powers. The threat of Russia to British interests, by 1898, had diminished greatly. Following a defeat by Japan and subsequent internal uprisings, Britain perceived Russia as no longer being in any position to threaten India. Given the changing political atmosphere in Europe and the unlikelihood of a friendship with Germany, an alliance between Russia and Britain became increasingly realistic. Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, negotiated an Anglo-Russian agreement in 1907, ostensibly bringing a cessation of play to the Great Game. The agreement ceded influence over Afghanistan to Britain, divided Persia into three spheres of influence (one British, one Russian, one neutral), and neutralized Tibet. In April of 1904, France and Britain signed the Entente Cordiale,formally ending centuries of hostility between the two European powers. The narratives of The Great War in England in 1897 and The Great War of 189_ succinctly portray the fears and positions of Europe’s political players. France and Britain eventually soothed hostilities, expanding into the Triple Entente with Russia in 1907, bringing together the three countries-Britain, France, and Russia-that would go to war as the Allied Powers at the commencement of the First World War.[**]
At the beginning of the Great Game, an expanse of approximately 2,000 miles separated the two powers. At the turn of the century, that distance evaporated to-at some points-20 miles. David Fromkin categorizes the conflict as, “sometimes…a cold war and sometimes…a hot one.” This assessment nicely describes the antagonism between the two powers. The sometimes nebulous nature of the Great Game stems from the disparity in viewpoints of the two countries. Britain, consumed with the fear of Russian intervention in its affairs in India, watched every movement in Asia with trepidation. It invested great amounts of men, money, and resources in creating buffer zones to Russian aggression. Recent scholarship exculpates Russia from many of the terrific ambitions attributed to it in the nineteenth century. For the most part, Russia fought defensively in relation to Britain. George Curzon echoed the sentiment readily accepted by historians today when he said, “To keep England quiet in Europe by keeping her employed in Asia; that, briefly put, is the sum and substance of Russian policy.” Russian adventures in Asia began before British interests in India materialized, and their intent was never to prevent these interests. Whether or not Russian expansion would have been threatening to British interests, devoid of motive or intent, raises a good question. Britain did not ambition to rule over territories in Asia, only to inhibit Russia from doing so.
The hostilities between Russia and Britain, although put aside during the two world wars, carry on into what Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid calls the “New Great Game.” Although the rosters differ slightly and the object of contention is oil, the basic context and playing field remains the same: Western powers battling over influence in Central Asia.
[*] In specific contextual reference of “the Great Game.”
[†] It is interesting to note that Napoleon was not only an interruption to Anglo-Russian hostilities, but and instigator in them: He goaded Czar Paul to move south into Asia to exploit British vulnerabilities. This escapade ultimately failed, with Russian forces retreating after Paul’s death, however, it continued to influence British paranoia into the future. (David Fromkin, “The Great Game in Asia.” Foreign Affairs. 937)
[‡] David Fromkin, in his article, “The Great Game in Asia,” identified nine reason for opposing Russia in Asia: (1) it would upset the balance of power by making Russia much stronger than the other European powers; (2) it would culminate in a Russian invasion of British India; (3) it would encourage India to revolt against Britain; (4) it would cause the Islamic regimes of Asia to collapse, which in turn would lead to the outbreak of a general war between the European powers in order to determine which of them would get what share of the valuable spoils; (5) it would strengthen a country and a regime that were the chief enemies of popular political freedom in the world; (6) it would strengthen a people whom Britons hated; (7) it threatened to disrupt the profitable British trade with Asia; (8) it would strengthen the sort of protectionist, closed economic society which free-trading Britain morally disapproved of; and (9) it would threaten the line of naval communications upon which Britain’s commercial and political position in the world depended. (939)
[§] Germany and Austria-Hungary signed the Dual Alliance in 1879, agreeing to offer support to each other in case of Russian aggression. Russia was upset over Germany’s role in the Treaty of Berlin, which reversed the territorial gains made by Russia in its defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Ottoman War. The Treaty of San Stefano, signed in March of 1878, ceded territories in the Balkan’s to the Russian victor. This was problematic for the Germans, who were allied with Austria-Hungary whose interests conflicted with Russia’s in the Balkans.
[**] Throughout the war, Japan, the United States, Spain, and Italy (who began the war allied with the Central Powers) would join the fight on the side of the Allies.
 Meyer, Karl E. and Shareen Blair Brysac. Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999), xix -taken from J.R. Seeley The Expansion of England (London: MacMillan and Co., 1883), 192.
 Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. (New York: Owl Books, 1989), 27.
 Meyer, xix.
 Kipling, Rudyard. Kim (New York: Doubleday, 1922).
 I. F. Clarke. “Trigger-Happy: An Evolutionary Study of the Origins and Development of Future-War Fiction, 1763-1914,” Journal of Social & Evolutionary Systems, , Vol. 20 Issue 2, 1997. p117-20p; (AN 97121
 Fromkin, “The Great Game in Asia,” 936.
 Brandon Moran. “Britain and the Triple Alliance: A Silent Fourth Partner.” Problems in British History, April 5, 2008. p. 1.
 David Fromkin, “The Great Game in Asia,” Foreign Affairs. 936-937.
 Omond, George W. T. The Lord Advocates of Scotland: From the Close of the Fifteenth Century to the Passing of the Reform Bill. Vol. II (Edinburgh, D. Douglas, 1883.), 128-129.
 David Charles Douglas, et. al.
English Historical Documents (London: Routledge, 1996), 909; taken from the Imperial Record Department, Government of India.
 Fromkin, “The Great Game in Asia,” 937-938.
 Roberts, Jeffery J. The Origins of Conflict in Afghanistan. (London: Praeger, 2003), 13; quoting Prince Alexander Gorchkov.
 Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, 29.
 Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates: Third Series, Commencing with the Accession of William IV. (London: Cornelius Buck, 1863), 794.
 Gladstone, Cary. Afghanistan Revisited. (Nova Publishers, 2003), 99.
 Norris, J. A. The First Afghan War1838-1842. (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), 4-5.; Gladstone, 99-102.
 Vogelsang, Willem. The Afghans, (Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 245-334.
 Gladstone, 101.
 Meyer, xix.
 Fromkin, “The Great Game in Asia,” 938-942.
 Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, 30.
 Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, 31; quoting: Walter Baghot, The Collected Works (London: The Economist, 1974), Vol. 8, p. 306.
 Elie Kedourie, et. al. Modern Egypt: Studies in Politics and Society. (Routledge, 1980), 27.
 The Scotsman, “Attack and Defense.” August, 18. 1898, 4.
 Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, 31.
 Fromkin, “The Great Game in Asia,” 939.
 Ibid, 947-948.