1800-1859 | Afghanistan | Burning towns and cities | Civilians slaughtered | Collective punishments | Looting and plunder | Massacres | Punitive operations | Starvation campaigns



A memorial in London to General McCaskill mentions Istalif but not the massacre – Photo by Basher Eyre, CC License.

[29 September 1842 ]

On 29 September 1842, a punitive expedition, under the command of Major General John McCaskill, entered the Afghan town of Istalif, forty miles north of Kabul. It had been one of the first towns to participate in an anti-British insurgency, which had ultimately led to the massacre of the British garrison at Kabul as it retreated from the city in January. The British soon launched a new invasion, reoccupying Kabul in September and almost immediately a force was assembled ‘for the intimidation and punishment of hostile chiefs,’ for ‘their cruel murders, their robberies and multiplied offences which now call for our heaviest retribution.’1

Istalif’s 15,000 citizens, along with many thousands of refugees from Kabul who had taken shelter there, were deemed obvious targets. It was decided that an example should be set that would deter Afghans from ever again contemplating opposition to the British.  Accordingly, the Redcoats, who took the town with only six fatalities, slaughtered every man they found and burned down the houses and even the surrounding orchards, knowing that few of the surviving women and children might be expected to survive the harsh winter.2 McCaskill did not mention the indiscriminate slaughter in his official report, although he acknowledged that he had ‘directed the town to be set on fire in several places, after taking out various supplies which might be useful to our troops,’ adding that, ‘the work of demolition is still proceeding under the direction of Major Sanders of the Engineers.’3

Nor were any gruesome details carried in a report from an officer which appeared in the British press lauding the conquest of Istalif, in ‘the land of the treacherous Gilzies, our savage and inveterate foes.. (and which) is now in our hands and being demolished,’ adding, almost as an afterthought that,  ‘as we proceed further up the valley other towns and villages inhabited by this treacherous race, must undergo a similar fate.’4 Only slowly the full truth emerged. A few weeks later a British officer, while boasting that the conquest was a ‘most dashing affair,’ admitted that the treatment of the town’s civilians was somewhat less honourable, telling The Bombay Times that ‘not a man was spared, whether with or without arms: not a prisoner taken, hunted down like vermin – mercy was never dreamt of.’ He added ‘verily we have been avenged.’ Some of the more unfortunate victims were roasted alive, and while some soldiers devoted themselves to murder, others were directed to looting the town. ‘An immense quantity of plunder was secured,’ the report noted, ‘consisting chiefly of women’s clothes, of ornaments, of wearing apparel, horse clothing, household utensils and arms. In consequence of its bulkiness comparatively little of this could be brought away. The rest was piled in heaps and destroyed by fire.’5


  1. ‘Extract of a letter from an officer, dated Istalif 30 September 1842,’ The Dover Telegraph, 17 December 1842, p. 2.
  2. Margaret Kekewich, Retreat and Retribution in Afghanistan: 1842, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2011, pp. 143-144 and ‘The Slaughter of Istalif,’ The Times cited in The Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 23 January 1843, p. 1.
  3. Cited in Major General McCaskill to Captain Ponsonby, September 30 1842, Parliamentary Papers 1780-1849, Volume 37  p. 414.
  4. ‘Extract of a letter from an officer, dated Istalif 30 September 1842,’ The Dover Telegraph, 17 December 1842, p. 2.
  5. The Bombay Times cited in ‘India and China,’ The Vindicator, 14 January 1843 p. 1 and “India, Afghanistan and China,” The Freeman’s Journal, 11 January 1843, p. 2.

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