A layered yet selective history of the West in Afghanistan

01 March 2013

ELIZABETH THOMPSON BUTLER was one of the most celebrated painters of military life and scenes in the late 19th century imperial Britain. She first garnered wide fame for her painting Roll Call (1874), about the aftermath of the chaotic Crimean War. It depicts a sad and disheveled group of soldiers awaiting the morning roll call. It was a starkly un-romantic view of the troops, which sparked a wide-ranging debate on British military practices. Its significance as a cultural artifact was confirmed when Queen Victoria purchased the painting for her own collection. But what sealed Butler’s reputation was The Remnants of an Army, which was unveiled in 1879. This was her portrait of Dr William Brydon, purportedly the last survivor of the 1842 British retreat from Kabul in the aftermath of the first Anglo-Afghan War. Against a distant and barren landscape, the painting foregrounded a hunched figure atop a tired, almost dying, horse, while a rescue party was seen charging from a fort. The painting was unveiled at a time when the Empire was engaged in the second Anglo-Afghan War and the mood was rather boisterous.

Butler framed the war through both text and image—the title “Remnants of an Army” endowed a sense of tragedy to the lone figure, and the landscape against which he was pictured was an unforgiving, endless one. Butler’s decision to portray Brydon as the only surviving member of an imperial army seems to have been a conscious one, and deserves our attention. Appearing at a time when the second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80) was in full swing, Butler’s painting sounded a cautionary note on the imperial project in Afghanistan.

It was well known by 1878, though legends abounded to the contrary, that Dr Brydon was not the sole survivor of the 1842 retreat. Many hundreds of the nearly 17,000 troops and civilians who evacuated Kabul—only 700 or so were British nationals—had survived. Hundreds of the indigenous infantry (sepoys) were captured and sold into slavery by Afghan troops. A number of British officers and their retinues were taken as hostages by the warring princeling Akbar Khan, who led the main force against the British. The memoirs of the British survivors and some of the military testimonies of the sepoys were subsequently published and debated, and were commonly known truths of imperial London. Hence Butler’s decision to project Brydon as a sole survivor was less documentation of fact and more a comment on the high price that this frontier region could extract from the Empire. Butler seemed to want to ensure that the general euphoria about imperial aims in Afghanistan was tempered by a recognition of past setbacks. Her painting of Dr Brydon, who had died in 1873, was not a condemnation of war, but rather a warning, a plea to learn from mistakes.

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    Manan Ahmed Asif  is the author of Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination.

    Keywords: imperialism East India Company William Dalrymple Return of the King Anglo-Afghan Wars Shah Shuja post-Taliban Afghanistan