(Oxford University Press – 562 pages)
Reviewer – Luke Brown
Posted: 15 September, 2003
Although the phrase “The Great Game” was immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s turn of the century adventure novel, Kim, it originated decades earlier, its source Captain Arthur Conolly, one if its early players. The phrase refers to that period in Central Asian history, mainly in the 19th century, when Russia and Britain were engaged in a power struggle for the region. In the expert hands of Peter Hopkirk, this story and its main characters are brought to life.
Although the game only really began in the first half of the 19th century, Hopkirk begins his story with the Mongol hordes that attacked Russia in the 13th century, the ensuing destruction scarring her enormously. Determined to strengthen herself, she expanded her existing territories (using the natural resources of some of these territories to do so) over the centuries. Eventually an imperial rival, Britain, with territorial conquests of its own, felt that its sphere of influence was under threat, in particular the jewel in the Crown, British India.
So both imperial powers sent forth a series of spies, explorers and political agents to map and research areas considered of vital importance to both Russia and Britain, as well as to form political alliances with the attendant tribesmen and chieftains. From a seemingly safe distance of 2,000 miles between the two of them at the beginning, Russian outposts, in the end, were as close as 20 miles away from India.
The beauty of Hopkirk’s book is his ability to successfully lay out a narrative of the strategic thinking behind the various moves of Russia and Britain (in areas such as Iran, Afghanistan, China, modern-day northern Pakistan, Bokhara, Tashkent, Khiva) and detailing the action being played out, all in broad enough strokes so as not to become bogged down in intricate details, but not vague enough for the story to become incoherent. As with most good stories, it is the existence of a mix of interesting and colourful characters that makes this a gripping read. A panorama of adjectives only begins to describe the cast: colourful, brave, foolhardy, idealistic, ruthless and eccentric.
While one would have to read up autobiographies and biographies of such legendary figures in the Great Game as Henry Pottinger, Arthur Conolly, Francis Younghusband, and Alexander Burns to gain a more complete picture of their personalities and exploits, Hopkirk does a good job of gleaning the relevant aspects of their characters to explain their different drives and motivations, all in his own discerning way. The Great Game is a highly recommended work.