The Great Game.

Roller-skating in the Hindu Kush.

(Background research for The Empress Emerald)

‘Horrible looking hills loomed nearer and nearer and then you saw some sort of crack going up through the hills – and this was the Khyber Pass; great slabs of rock towering up on either side of you.’  (Ed Brown, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1930s)

‘I set the defaulters to work with pick axes and chisels to level a large area of virgin rock to a perfect level over which was spread a coating of fine cement. The contractor was then told to produce all the roller-skates in India, fairy lights were slung up over this area and all through the cold weather the British troops roller-skated and roller-skated.’ (George Wood, Brigade Major on the Khyber Pass during 1930s) (1)

It sounds amusing, somewhat absurd: a Brigade Major orders an area of rock to be flattened and chiselled smooth – for a roller-skating rink. But the intention was well-meant, and not without purpose; separated from all they knew, without wives and family, George Wood was providing a harmless entertainment for his off-duty troops at a Frontier ‘hardship station’. Such postings were known colloquially as being ‘on the grim’. Regiments were posted high up in the most inhospitable of regions in India as part of The Great Game. A game that was neither harmless nor entertaining: it was a game of strategy and watchfulness, and by the time this Brigade Major ordered the roller-skating rink to be created, it had already been in play for well over a hundred years.According to David Fromkin in The Great Game in Asia ‘. . . as czarist armies overran Central Asia, attention shifted to Persia, to Afghanistan and to the mountain passes of the Himalayas. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it was a common assumption in Europe that the next great war – the inevitable war – was going to be the final showdown between Britain and Russia.’ India was a prime target for Russian expansionism because it provided essential raw materials and, perhaps even more importantly in this line of thought, warm water harbours.

Since about 1850, the gap between the British and Russian Empires had physically narrowed to not much over 1,000 miles (it had been about 4,000 miles in the early 18th century).  With every passing year the British and Russians became more and more interested in the territory that separated them – the buffer states running in a crescent around northern India, what is now Pakistan, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan and Tibet.  British and Indian troops were posted in these frontier regions because was Britain was determined to halt Russia before India was threatened. This confrontation, the rivalry for geographical power and India’s resources became known as ‘The Great Game’ in the British Press. What the press reported, however, was only the exterior of the affair; there was a lot, lot more going on undercover. The name of the game had, perhaps, been conjured as a reference to chess: south-central Asia being the chess board. Another explanation, however, reads like the sort of politically incorrect fiction one would hesitate to write these days:

Supposedly it was a British officer who first called it the Great Game. He played it exuberantly, and lost it in the terrifying way in which one lost in Central Asia: an Uzbek emir cast him for two months into a well filled with vermin and reptiles, and then what remained of him was brought up and beheaded. The phrase “the Great Game” was found in his papers and quoted by a historian of the First Afghan War. Rudyard Kipling made it famous in Kim, and visualized it in terms of an Anglo-Indian boy and his Afghan mentor foiling Russian intrigues along the highways to Hindustan. These activities of the rival intelligence services are what some writers mean by the Great Game; others use the phrase in the broader sense (…) to describe the whole of the Anglo-Russian quarrel about the fate of Asia. (2)

MountainsKipling’s novel Kim is set against the geography and politics of this political conflict after the Second Afghan War (1881). Kim’s adventures take the reader into ‘the hills’ spying on Russian agents who are supposedly mapping territory for their government. A government that is sending agents and arms to a mysterious mountain country called Tibet. If you want to get a feel for this epoch in India read Kipling’s short stories, they offer fascinating, detailed portraits of people from very disparate backgrounds and cultures, and bring to life what the bazaars and the teeming cities and roads must have been like.

Plain TalesReading Kim influenced my writing because it concerned two of my particular interests: the ambivalences and contradictions in old colonial India, and shifting notions of identity. Writing over a hundred years after Kipling, though, my perspective is quite different: The Empress Emerald shows the hero’s need to distance himself from the Raj; his developing sense of an Indian identitKimy and the rightness of Home Rule. Much has been said in the last few decades about Kipling’s right-wing politics, but many people become more conservative with age, and Kim was written when Kipling was still relatively young. First published as a serial in McClure’s Magazine from December 1900 to October 1901, Kim was then printed as a book by Macmillan in October 1901.

The espionage and counter-espionage that went on along the Indian frontiers is wonderful material for historical fiction and it is easy to see how chess became an analogy. India was a vital piece in this game; the British valued India more highly than any of their other imperial possessions, largely for its lucrative trade and investment opportunities, but also for the troops India provided and the commanding position in southern Asia. Losing India meant losing Britain’s reputation for invincibility on which British imperial rule depended.

When looking at sources or fiction written before Indian Independence, though, one has to remember that the colonial social-psyche was heavily informed by memories of the Mutiny (1857). Ultimately, the rights and wrongs of that event faded, what the British in India retained was the image of massacres – of innocent women and children being killed. Fear of another, more widespread mutiny became aligned with a related fear of a Russian attack because it would ‘encourage Indians to rise up and expel the British’ (Fromkin).

In 1900, Britain had granted permission for the establishment of a Russian consulate in Bombay. Russia and India had well-established, long-term trade links: Russia imported tea and exported vast quantities of kerosene for Indian kitchens. For this reason alone, Russia had been harrying Britain for permission to set up trade missions on Indian soil for over forty years, but viceroys such as Lord Curzon had held out, insisting that Britain needed to protect her source of raw materials, her jewel in the crown, from potential thieves. The period leading up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution was particularly busy for India-watchers. Apart from trade links, they also kept a close eye on intellectuals and politicians. Cultural exchanges between Delhi and Moscow could easily have lead to insurrection. The Tsar was weak; there had been bad harvests; Russian peasants, said to be organized by student agitators, were ready to revolt. The Raj feared that if the peasant class in Russia did revolt, India might follow suit. Hence ever more diligent watching and reporting: knowledge was power. Fear of another form of Mutiny was still very strong. This fuelled even greater vigilance. India ‘with its population of nearly 300 million and area as large as Europe, could not be held by force alone’ (3) so British officials employed many different types of people in their effort to watch what was going on.

Monitoring trade from a political perspective, as far as India House in London and the Indian Civil and Political Services in the country itself were concerned, meant no Russian and no Russian goods metaphorically passed through Bombay’s ‘Gateway to India’ without them knowing about it. This required constant vigilance, which during the British Raj was standard practice. From what I have read, everybody watched everybody – all the time. Rajahs and parliamentarians, nabobs and businessmen, they all maintained a string of informants. Indians in the professions, especially the politically inclined, and lawyers; begums and maharanis; over-exuberant memsahibs and ordinary box-wallahs; itinerant ministers of religion; peripatetic princes . . . they were all subject to scrutiny, and they all gossiped about one another incessantly.

In the so-called autonomous princely states, eccentric rajas had kept British sub-secretaries scribbling away for generations. Dowdy clerks from Clerkenwell and Tunbridge Wells spent their dull lives minuting oriental peccadilloes. Some of the more startling extravagances that now read like fabrications, such as stealing Hill State virgins for dubious religious ceremonies, might on the surface seem frivolous, nothing more than titillating nonsense, but there was a serious aspect at the time: if a Hill State tribal leader had become an aggrieved father or suffered a loss of dignity, retribution would have been sought. That might have led to inter-state trouble, which in turn would have upset the delicate balance of the Raj. The troops stationed up ‘on the grim’ were also there to prevent internecine skirmishes and revenge raids from getting out of hand. It put the troops in a dangerous situation because they often became a target themselves. ‘Sniping – “the odd bang, bang at night and the whang of a bullet” – was a constant and trying feature of life on the Frontie, according to John Dring, a political agent in South Waziristan (4). Curiously, it was considered cowardly for troops to fire back at snipers in the Indian Army. Men were supposed to locate the sniper, ‘but it was a sign of steadiness not to fire back’. One has the sense that little has changed in this respect, but it does show the very real danger individual soldiers were in.

Another aspect of life on the Frontier was the administration of the tribal areas, which supposedly was to ensure tribes did not ‘commit nuisances’ either in India or Afghanistan. These nuisances came in various forms; ‘some as manifestations of the “blood feud” which accounted for three hundred murders a year in the Peshawar district alone . . .’ (5)

The Great Game involved fear and danger from within and without. The more research I did about life in colonial India prior to Independence, the more I came to realise how easy it is to criticise or be prejudiced with little information. Whatever the politics, the rights and the wrongs, individual men and women, Indian and British, were basically trying to get on with their lives as best they could and doing what they believed was best under circumstances influenced by politicians in offices very far away. One goes from the general to the particular and back again: from international expansionism to the plight of the private soldier, or that of his wife left down in the baking plains to cope as best she could with only an urban English upbringing to help her. As someone who has lived in different countries – where I have had to do the family shopping, organize health-care, make sure my children were safe at play outside school hours – I empathise and sympathise. It must have been very difficult for the wife of any soldier, whatever his rank, while her husband was posted at the top of nowhere in a mountain range; knowing he was in danger and might never return; wondering how she would cope if he didn’t. One can understand these women being angry and worried, and how that anger turned itself against local people. In the end of course, India rightly claimed Home Rule, which was best for all.


  1. Quoted in Plain Tales from the Raj edited by Charles Allen (Futura, 1975) pp 202 & 203.
  2. See: (Accessed 25th March, 2014)
  3. David Fromkin ‘Foreign Affairs’ (accessed 26th March, 2014)
  4. Plain Tales from the Raj p205
  5. Plain Tales from the Raj p198

(First published by the Historical Writers’ Association magazine ‘Galleria’: April 2014)


Author: J.G. Harlond

Secret agents, skulduggery, crime with a touch of humour and romance. Award-winning author J.G. Harlond (Jane) writes page-turning historical crime fiction and fantasy. 'The Chosen Man Trilogy' features wily rogue Ludo da Portovenere, one-time pirate and occasional secret agent, who becomes involved in royal and political intrigues in 17th century Europe and beyond. Each story is based on real events. 'Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries' feature dumpy, grumpy, DS Bob Robbins, brought out of retirement during the Second World War. Cosy crime with a sinister twist set in Devon and Cornwall. Each story includes real events. After travelling widely, Jane is now settled in Málaga, southern Spain. She has a large family living in various parts of Europe, North America and Scandinavia. Jane has visted or lived in most of the places featured in her books.

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