Kabul sacked in an orgy of fire, looting and ‘wholesale butchery’

Major General Sir George Pollock – British Library via artuk.org: Sacking of the Great Bazar –  © NAM  1020005

[ 10 October 1842 ]

On 10 October 1842, British troops used explosives and fire to destroy much of the Afghan capital of Kabul, including the Great Bazar and an adjacent mosque. They also burned down an unknown number of domestic dwellings, slaughtering their owners. Only two neighbourhoods, deemed ‘friendly’, were left untouched and the fires could still be clearly seen from a distant mountain pass, as the British Army retreated to the Indian frontier.1

The orders to initiate the sacking were given by Major General Sir George Pollock, who had been instructed by India’s Governor General, Lord Ellenborough, to leave ‘some lasting mark of the just retribution of an outraged nation.’2 That was after the previous British garrison of occupation had been massacred during its retreat from Kabul a few months earlier. Preparations for the destruction began on 7 October, and on 9 October Pollock ordered Colonel Richmond to proceed to the city centre ‘with a party of sappers and miners, five companies of her Majesty’s 31st and parties of the 33rd and 26th Native Infantry, the First Bengal Light Cavalry and 3rd Irregular Horse.’3 At first the troops dedicated themselves primarily to looting, although the Reverend Isaac Allen noted in his diary that ‘every kind of disgraceful outrage was suffered to go on in the town,’ and that the ‘plunder was displayed and offered for sale in the lines of both (British) camps.’4

By the 10 October, the more arduous task of blowing up and burning down the Grand Bazar began. The Bombay Times described how it had ‘contained nearly 2,000 shops,’ and was ‘the pride and mart of Central Asia… the wonder of travellers and the boast of Afghanistan… two stories high, plastered over and ornamented with fresco paintings along the roof.’ It added that ‘it does not appear that any particular share was ever taken by the shopkeepers in any part in the (earlier) insurrection.’5

The flattening of the Great Bazar and surrounding neighbourhoods was merely the overture to an orgy of destruction and murder that followed. The Birmingham Journal cited ‘private letters’ from soldiers describing how, after ‘on or two shots were fired,’ British soldiers committed ‘outrages of a less excusable character… falling on the people of the town,’ and inflicting ‘a general and indiscriminate slaughter of the criminal and innocent alike.’6 Similarly, the Leicestershire Mercury, reported how a local soldier confessed in a letter that the army had left Kabul ‘in ruins and all in flames on the 12th,’ adding that ‘such a scene of dead bodies I never before witnessed; it was heart-breaking.’7

Some sections of the British press were temporarily taken aback by the scale of the atrocities. Lloyds Weekly described it as ‘a systematic refinement of barbarity which is difficult to qualify’ and the Birmingham Journal condemned the killings as ‘wholesale butchery… an act unprecedented in any modern warfare, that of (Tsarist) Russia excepted.’8 Unfortunately, such misgivings failed to have much of a sobering impact in parliament. In the House of Lords, Lord Wellington proposed a motion of thanks to Lord Ellenborough, the architect of the carnage. This met with general approval and was fully endorsed by the exuberant Prime Minister, Robert Peel, who also joined in the praise for the commanding officers for ‘their indefatigable zeal and exertions throughout the late campaign.’9

FOOTNOTES

  1. The Bombay Times cited in ‘Disgraceful Destruction at Caubul,’ The Western Times, 14 January 1843, p. 4 and in ‘Desctruction of Caubul,’ The Leeds Times, 14 January 1843, p. 7. Regarding the visibility of the fires from the Koord Cabul pass see Lieutenant Greenwood, Narrative of the Late Victorious Campaign in Afghanistan, Henry Colburn, London, 1844 p. 243. ‘The conflagration lasted the whole time we remained encamped in the vicinity; and we still saw it when entering the Koord Cabul pass, on our return.’
  2. Lord Ellenborough cited in Saul David, Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire, Penguin Books, London, 2007, p. 71.
  3. The Bombay Times, op. cit..
  4. The Reverend Isaac Allen cited in Margaret Kekewich, Retreat and Retribution in Afghanistan 1842: Two Journals of the First Afghan War, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, p. 146.
  5. The Bombay Times, op. cit..
  6. Untitled article, The Birmingham Journal, 14 January 1843, p. 4.
  7. ‘Afghanistan,’ The Leicestershire Mercury, 21 January 1843, p. 4.
  8. ‘London Newspaper,’ Lloyds Weekly, 15 January 1843, p. 4. and The Birmingham Journal, op. cit..
  9. ‘Parliamentary Analysis: House of Lords,’ The Naval and Military Gazette, 25 February 1843, p.11, ‘Military Operations in Afghanistan,’ The Preston Chronicle, 25 February 1843, p. 2 and The Kendal Mercury, 25 February 1843, p. 3.

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© 2019 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved

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