Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 (Hardcover)

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 Cover Image
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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.

About the Author

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE is the author of seven previous 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" and "The New Yorker."

Praise For…

Praise for William Dalrymple’s Return of a King
“More than timely . . . The author’s deep research provides a whole new take on almost every aspect of the story. Mr. Dalrymple is a skilled storyteller and fills important gaps, mining new sources. . . . Mr. Dalrymple’s writing is sly, charming and clever. His histories read like novels. [His] book delights and shocks.”
—Michael Fathers, The Wall Street Journal
“The British humiliation in the so-called First Anglo-Afghan War . . . has been told often before but perhaps never so well as by Dalrymple. . . . An absorbing and beautifully written account of a doomed effort to control an apparently uncontrollably population.”
Booklist (starred review)
“By turns epic, thrilling, and utterly appalling, at once deeply researched and beautifully paced, Return of a King should win every prize for which it’s eligible. Yet William Dalrymple has done more than write a brilliant work of history; in these pages he also holds up a distant mirror to the West’s more recent, and comparably disastrous, military incursions into Afghanistan. . . . A magnificent and shocking story . . . It is difficult to do justice to the evenhandedness, vivid writing, and extensive scholarship supporting every detail of Return of a King.
—Michael Dirda, Bookforum
“[Return of a King] brings new insights and extends earlier ones to a wider public. . . . Dalrymple lets the action play out relentlessly and compellingly, yet has endnotes, glossary, bibliography, and index of a high scholarly standard. . . . The author’s attentiveness to Afghan voices means the local people become real personalities, rather than ciphers. . . . [Dalrymple’s] commitment to the historical project is so clear and his writing so attractive.”
—Elizabeth Gaigent, Times Literary Supplement (London)

“A masterful history . . . And 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. It makes for grim reading. Like the current adventure in Afghanistan, this first one was undone by the unsustainable cost of occupation, waning political and public interest, and the need to divert resources. . . . Mr. Dalrymple’s book is a timely reminder of the way that wars can begin with promise but end in disgrace.”
The Economist
“[The Afghan] saga has been recounted many times, but never that I can recall as well as by Dalrymple. He 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.”
—Max Hastings, The Times (London)
“[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.”
—Jason Burke, The Observer
“Dalrymple, in his sparkling new history of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), draws striking parallels between that 19th century conflict and NATO’s current Afghan imbroglio. . . . More is the pity that Dalrymple’s book—the first serious study of the war for almost 50 years, and the only history in English to use extensive Afghan sources—was not available in 2001. . . . 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.”
—Saul David, The Daily Telegraph
“Magnificent . . . [Return of a King] is a history of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, one of those passages of history the close examination of which requires a strong stomach—and which therefore also require the most thorough investigation. 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. . . . This book would be compulsive reading even if it were not a uniquely valuable history.”
—Diana Athill, The Guardian
“In Dalrymple’s usual happy style of historical narrative, applied to a fascinating, neat and highly suggestive series of events, this long and involved book will be a great success, and bring the famous story to a large new audience.”
—Philip Hensher, The Spectator
“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.”
—Justin Marozzi, The Evening Standard
“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.”
—Rosemary Goring, Sunday Herald
“[A] marvellous book . . . brilliant, exact language . . . There is much in Dalrymple’s superb book that has contemporary resonance.”
—Hugh MacDonald, Sunday Herald
“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 the 567-page book you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all. . . . Return of a King is not just an animated and highly literate retelling of a chapter of early 19th-centruy British military history, but also a determined attempt to reach out and influence the politicians and policy-makers of our modern world. . . . It is [the book’s] mastery of intimate details, as well as the landscape and the grand rivalry between empires, with which Dalrymple wins our trust and keeps our interest.”
—Barnaby Rogerson, The Independent
“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 of it than William Dalrymple in this thrilling, magnificently evocative Return of a King.
—James Delingpole, Mail on Sunday
“Complex and remarkable . . . As taut and richly embroidered as a great novel. . . . This book is a masterpiece of nuanced writing and research, and a thrilling account of a watershed Victorian conflict.”
—Rupert Edis, The Sunday Telegraph
“Sensationally good . . . Dalrymple writes the kind of history that few historians can match. Sure, they can all add a footnote or two about our knowledge of the past, but how many of them actually change the whole way in which we look on it? . . . 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.”
—David Robinson, The Scotsman
“[A] brilliant new book . . . 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.”
—Anatol Lieven, Financial Times
“A fascinating account . . . 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. . . . Dalrymple is a masterful narrator . . . The range of new sources employed adds more depth to an already complex history, yet he navigates deftly between British, Afghan, Indian and Russian sources without losing his thread. . . . A gem of a book and one hell of a story.”
—Edward Burke, Dublin Review of Books
“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.”
—Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler
“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, 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 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.”
—Pavan K Varma, Business Standard
“To call it anything less than a triumph would be an understatement.”
—Saurabh Kumar Shahi, Sunday Indian

Product Details
ISBN: 9780307958280
ISBN-10: 0307958280
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication Date: April 16th, 2013
Pages: 560
Language: English