1944: George Stinney, Jr., age 14 1953: 32 merciful Soviet soldiers

1842: Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, Great Game diplomats

June 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1842,* British diplomats Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly were summarily beheaded by a Central Asian potentate as London’s ill-chosen intervention in Afganistan came to a disastrous conclusion.

The backdrop is “the Great Game”,** the long-running chess match for supremacy in Central Asia between an expanding Russian Empire and Great Britain, with its imperial position in India.

Seeking to pre-empt a Russian move into Afghanistan, Britain invaded in 1839. This was the First Anglo-Afghan War: it would have, for the Brits, an inglorious end.

Our day’s featured principals were among the postscript casualties of that catastrophe, never-avenged losses for an empire that had overreached itself.

Stoddart, an intelligence officer, had been dispatched northward to the ancient silk road city of Bokhara intending enlist the allegiance, or at least the benign neutrality, of its emir, Nasrullah Khan. Today Uzbekistan’s fifth-largest city, Bokhara was then an independent state .

[I]n the nineteenth century, the executions carried out there with genuine cruelty, as well as the tales told by travelers gave the city a reputation of being a forbidden, closed, and hostile place. It was “despotic” Bukhara, and the Europeans projected onto it their own oriental fantasies: with citadel, dungeons, palaces, and city walls bolted shut at night, all helping to set the scene.

(Vibe on some the oriental fantasy in the 1911 volume The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, or this volume on Russian Central Asia, which by then included Bokhara.)


Scenic! Bukhara’s historic citadel, the Ark, where Stoddart (and later Conolly) were imprisoned (and later executed). (cc) image from elif ayse.

Into this scene, our Brit entered clumsily, immediately irritating the ruler he intended to supplicate. Reportedly (though the fact has been disputed), he was on the brink of execution when he acceded to save his life to Nasrullah’s formulaic offer of clemency in exchange for conversion to Islam.

In any event, Stoddart languished for years, alternately imprisoned and in the custody of the (better-received) Russian mission. Though the latter had also been charged by its sovereign to retrieve the ill-favored English emissary as a gesture of Great Powers goodwill (and to deprive England of any rationale for intervention that his captivity might offer), Stoddart seems to have been too stubbornly prideful to get out via St. Petersburg while the getting was good.

Instead, he waited on the arrival of countryman Arthur Conolly, who showed up in late 1841 on a mission to secure Stoddart’s release. But Stoddart’s situation little improved, considering Nasrullah Khan’s wary reaction to this second British interloper.

Word has it that the Bukharan prince was piqued that correspondence to him did not arrive over the signature of the British monarch herself, but merely some subcontinental subaltern — as well as, we might think understandably, suspicious at his guests’ motivations and mission.

The captor’s uncertain attitude towards his prisoners was resolved by Britain’s catastrophic loss of Kabul and the subsequent massacre of an entire 16,000-strong army as it attempted to retreat.

Seriously, the whole army. To a man. Except for one guy.


Remnants of an Army, by Elizabeth Butler, depicts the only British subject on retreat from Kabul to reach Jalalabad, William Brydon.

Battles don’t get much more decisive than that.†

Reasoning‡ that the routed British were now of no conceivable threat, nor his prisoners of any conceivable benefit, Nasrullah Khan now accused them of espionage and abused them with impunity.

The two were cast into an Indiana Jones-esque “bug pit,” an oubliette infested with … well, you know.§

Later, finding illicit writing materials secreted on his captives’ persons, the mercurial Nasrullah disposed of them outright.

their quarters were entered by several men, who stripped them, and carried them off to prison … In stripping Colonel Stoddart a lead pencil was found in the lining of his coat, and some papers in his waist. These were taken to the Ameer, who gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be beaten with heavy sticks until he disclosed who brought the papers, and to whom he wrote. He was most violently beaten, but he revealed nothing; he was beaten repeatedly for two or three days. On Friday, the 8th or 9th (the 7th) of Jemmadee-ool-Eovel (17th of June), the Ameer gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be killed in the presence of Captain Conolly, who was to be offered life if he would become a Mahomedan. In the afternoon they were taken outside the prison into the street, which is a kind of small square. Their hands were tied across in front. Many people assembled to behold the spectacle. Their graves were dug before their eyes. Colonel Stoddart exclaimed aloud at the cruelty and tyranny of the Ameer. His head was then cut off with a knife.

The chief executioner then turned to Captain Conolly, and said — “The Ameer spares your life if you will become a Mussulman.” Captain Conolly answered, “Colonel Stoddart has been a Mussulman for three years, and you have killed him, you killed Yoosoof too; I will not be a Mussulman, and I am ready to die.” Saying which he stretched forth his neck. His head was then cut off.

-London Times, Aug. 22, 1843, reporting the testimony of a dubious local semi-ally

The veracity of this faint bulletin from a distant and inaccessible realm nevertheless remained in some doubt. Friends of the lost men, despairing of obtaining definitive word of their fate, commissioned a strange but courageous missionary named Joseph Wolff to brave his own sojourn to Bokhara to investigate.

Wolff barely escaped with his own life, but seemingly confirmed the sad story and published a Narrative of his travels in 1845 (Part 1, Part 2).

* The initially reported June 17 execution date was subsequently contested by Joseph Pierre Ferrier, who argued that the chronology instead pointed to the next Friday, June 24. The matter appears to me permanently unresolvable.

** Ironically, the sportive phrase “the Great Game” was itself attributed to Arthur Conolly for whom, in the end, events turned out to be quite other than playful.

† Britain recaptured Kabul in reprisal later in 1842, upon which pretext it was able to declare its honor vindicated and depart Kabul (sans massacre), ending the war. Certain latter-day occupations of that “graveyard of empires” might envy their forebear’s talent for declaring victory and leaving.

‡ Correctly. Nasrullah Khan faced no British reprisal for his treatment of Stoddart and Conolly, notwithstanding the attempt by some friends to use their sad fate as some sort of casus belli. This public domain book from 1845 bears a dedication to Queen Victoria in “hope of directing your Majesty’s attention to the cruel sufferings and alleged murder of two British officers … abandoned in an unaccountable manner, by your Majesty’s Government … [in circumstances] degrading to the British nation;” the same man had previously published an “Appeal to the British Nation” in an “endeavour to excite the public sympathy.” Sympathy or no, the two British officers stayed abandoned.

§ Bug tortureenhanced interrogation was actually authorized during the Bush administration for the insect-averse Abu Zubaydah. The gentleman approving that technique, Jay Bybee, is now a federal circuit judge.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Uzbekistan,Wartime Executions

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One thought on “1842: Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, Great Game diplomats”

  1. jon livesey says:

    I think you really don’t ‘get’ this Kabul thing. The last thing the British wanted was to conquer Afghanistan permanently. It had nothing they wanted.

    Their aim was to keep Afghanistan as a buffer state between British India and Russia.

    Their incursions into Afghanistan were not attempted conquests, but punitive expeditions, and withdrawal back to India was always the goal.

    Also, you could tone down the rather inflammatory anti-British language you use. the British were a heck of a lot more successful than the US has been, and for a lot longer time.

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