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Two gaunt, ragged men kneeled beside the graves they had just dug in the square before Bukhara's Ark Fortress. Their hands were bound behind their backs, and their hair and beards crawled with lice. In front of a small crowd, the Emir of Bukhara, Nasrullah Khan, gave the signal. A sword flashed in the sun, severing the head of Colonel Charles Stoddart of the British East India Company (BEI). The sword fell a second time, decapitating Stoddart's would-be rescuer, Captain Arthur Conolly of the BEI's Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry.
With these two strokes, Nasrullah Khan ended Stoddart and Conolly's roles in "The Great Game," a term that Conolly himself coined to describe the competition between Britain and Russia for influence in Central Asia. But the Emir could not have known that his actions in 1842 would help shape the fate of his entire region well into the twentieth century.
Charles Stoddart and the Emir
Colonel Charles Stoddart arrived in Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) on December 17, 1838, sent to try to arrange an alliance between Nasrullah Khan and the British East India Company against the Russian Empire, which was expanding its influence south. Russia had its eye on the khanates of Khiva, Bukhara, and Khokand, all important cities along the ancient Silk Road. From there, Russia could threaten Britain's hold on its crown jewel - British India.
Unfortunately for the BEI and especially for Colonel Stoddart, he offended Nasrullah Khan constantly from the moment he arrived. In Bukhara, it was customary for visiting dignitaries to dismount, lead their horses into the square or leave them with servants outside, and bow before the Emir. Stoddart instead followed British military protocol, which called for him to remain seated on his horse and salute the Emir from the saddle. Nasrullah Khan reportedly stared pointedly at Stoddart for some time after this salute and then stalked off without a word.
The Bug Pit
Ever the supremely self-confident representative of imperial Britain, Colonel Stoddart continued to commit gaffe after gaffe during his audiences with the Emir. Finally, Nasrullah Khan could bear the affronts to his dignity no more and had Stoddart thrown into the "Bug Pit" - a vermin-infested dungeon under the Ark Fortress.
Months and months went by, and despite the desperate notes that Stoddart's accomplices smuggled out of the pit for him, notes that made their way to Stoddart's colleagues in India as well as his family in England, no sign of a rescue appeared. Finally, one day the city's official executioner climbed down into the pit with orders to behead Stoddart on the spot unless he converted to Islam. In desperation, Stoddart agreed. Pleasantly surprised by this concession, the Emir had Stoddart brought out of the pit and placed into a much more comfortable house arrest in the chief of police's home.
During this period, Stoddart met with the Emir on several occasions, and Nasrullah Khan began to consider allying himself with the British against the Russians.
Arthur Conolly to the Rescue
Busy propping up an unpopular puppet ruler in Afghanistan, the British East India Company had neither the troops nor the will to launch a military force into Bukhara and rescue Colonel Stoddart. The Home Government in London also had no attention to spare a lone imprisoned emissary, since it was embroiled in the First Opium War against Qing China.
The rescue mission, which arrived in November of 1841, ended up being just one man - Captain Arthur Conolly of the cavalry. Conolly was an evangelical Protestant from Dublin, whose stated goals were to unite Central Asia under British rule, Christianize the region, and abolish the slave trade.
A year earlier, he had set out for Khiva on a mission to convince the Khan to stop trading slaves; trade in Russian captives gave St. Petersburg a potential excuse for conquering the khanate, which would disadvantage the British. The Khan received Conolly politely but was not interested in his message. Conolly moved on to Khokand, with the same result. While there, he received a letter from Stoddart, who was just under house arrest at that particular time, stating that the Emir of Bukhara was interested in Conolly's message. Neither Briton knew that Nasrullah Khan was really using Stoddart to lay a trap for Conolly. Despite a warning from the Khan of Khokand about his treacherous neighbor, Conolly set out to try to free Stoddart.
The Emir of Bukhara initially treated Conolly well, although the BEI captain was shocked at the emaciated and haggard appearance of his fellow countryman, Colonel Stoddart. When Nasrullah Khan realized, however, that Conolly did not bring a reply from Queen Victoria to his own earlier letter, he grew enraged.
The Britons' situation grew even more dire after January 5, 1842, when Afghan militants massacred the BEI's Kabul garrison during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Just one British doctor escaped death or capture, returning to India to tell the story. Nasrullah immediately lost all interest in aligning Bukhara with the British. He tossed Stoddart and Conolly into prison - a regular cell this time, though, rather than the pit.
Execution of Stoddart and Conolly
On June 17, 1842, Nasrullah Khan ordered Stoddart and Conolly brought to the square in front of the Ark Fortress. The crowd stood quietly while the two men dug their own graves. Then their hands were tied behind them, and the executioner forced them to kneel. Colonel Stoddart called out that the Emir was a tyrant. The executioner sliced off his head.
The executioner offered Conolly the chance to convert to Islam in order to save his own life, but the evangelical Conolly refused. He too was beheaded. Stoddart was 36 years old; Conolly was 34.
When word of Stoddart and Conolly's fate reached the British press, it rushed to lionize the men. The papers praised Stoddart for his sense of honor and duty, as well as his fiery temper (hardly a recommendation for diplomatic work), and emphasized Conolly's deeply-held Christian faith. Outraged that the ruler of an obscure Central Asian city-state would dare execute these sons of the British Empire, the public called for a punitive mission against Bukhara, but the military and political authorities had no interest in such a move. The two officers' deaths went unavenged.
In the longer term, the British lack of interest in pushing their line of control into what is now Uzbekistan had a profound effect on the history of Central Asia. Over the next forty years, Russia subdued the entire area that is now Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Central Asia would remain under Russian control until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Lee, Jonathan. The "Ancient Supremacy": Bukhara, Afghanistan, and the Battle for Balkh, 1731-1901, Leiden: BRILL, 1996.
Van Gorder, Christian. Muslim-Christian Relations in Central Asia, New York: Taylor & Francis US, 2008.
Wolff, Joseph. Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara: In the Years 1843-1845, Volume I, London: J.W. Parker, 1845.