Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Ride to Khiva

J. A. Mac Gahan's Map of Khiva showing Russian Operations. Full image here

Today we return to central asia with a map showing the route to Khiva and a few excerpts Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby's "A Ride to Khiva: Travels and Adventures in Central Asia." While perhaps not as famous as other Central Asian adventurers like Fitzroy Maclean or Alexander "Bokhara" Burns (selections of whose adventures can be found in the Royal Asiatic Reader) Burnaby was a 19th century English adventurer of the most over the top sort (see picture). He tolerated Americans, disliked Jews, barely distinguished between Russians, Frenchmen and Tatars, and felt that native camel drivers could best be motivated with a swift kick or bucket of ice water. He was also fascinated by the Tatar admiration for sheep:
As he said these words he looked contemptuously at the guide, who was riding a little in advance of the party, engaged in singing a song descriptive of his love for mutton. The Kirghiz poetry is filled with odes in the honour of sheep, the natives placing this animal on the highest pinnacle of their estimation — after their wives, and, indeed, sometimes before them.
In one of the account's more earnest attempts at humor, pretty much anticipating the entire Borat oeuvre, Burnaby goes on to image how his trusty Tatar companion translated the compliments he paid a young a Khirgiz (meaning, most likely, Kazakh) widow:
As, however, his ideas of poetry were like my late guide's, limited to songs about the beauty of a sheep, and the delights of roast mutton, I fear that when he was desired to tell her that she was the most beautiful of her sex, Nazar translated it as follows: He says "that thou art lovelier than a sheep with a fat tail" — this appendage being a great delicacy amongst the Tartars — "that thy face is the roundest of the flock, and that thy breath is sweeter to him than many pieces of mutton roasted over bright embers."
Indeed, two things Burnaby believed with equal fervor were that Central Asian women were too moon-faced to be beautiful and that the British government was not doing enough to prepare for war with Russia. In fact, Burnaby traveled to Khiva in 1875, as much for reconnaissance purposes as for simple adventure. Russia had just annexed the Khanate of Khiva in a brief war, the contours of which are shown on the map above. Burnaby expected Russia to invade India shortly, and seems satisfied to discover that most of the Russian officers he meets feel the same way:

The officers in the garrison were unanimous in envying the luck of their more fortunate comrades in Kokan, who had been engaged during the recent disturbances, and they bitterly complained of the slowness of promotion and the dreary existence at Kasala. "Anything for a change," remarked one of them, a dashing little fellow with several medals, " we are bored to death here." "Yes," added another, "when we fight you fellows in India, then we shall have some proniotion ; as to fighting with the Kokandians we might as well shoot pheasants ; none of our seniors get killed." "I don't think England will interfere with us about Kashgar," remarked an officer apparently much older than his comrades. " Who knows, and who cares ?" said another ; "if we do fight we will shoot at each other in the morning, and liquor up together when there is a truce. Come along and have a drink," and with these words he led me into an adjoining room where some servants had just brought in what the Russians call Zakuski — caviare, salt-fish, little bits of bread and cheese, slices of highly-flavoured sausage, and spirits of every kind.

But in addition to being an entertaining Great Game period-piece, Burnaby's account is most striking for his pointed critique of European imperialist hypocrisy. Or, to be more precise, Russian imperialist hypocrisy -- Burnaby seems uncannily astute in dissecting it:
There was no reason to believe that the Turkomans would break the truce. However, it would not do for the Tashkent column to return home without a little bloodshed. The glory of the war had been actually confined to the column from Orenburg. The officers from Tashkent had done nothing to merit promotion. General Kauffmann now sent for the elders of the tribe, and declared that a part of the indemnity must be paid by them within a fortnight, and the remainder later on. At the same time the general detained some of the elders as hostages, until such time as the first instalment of the indemnity had been paid in to the Russian treasury. But the Russian Commander-in-Chief was in a hurry; Instead of waiting the appointed time, he sent out a laige detachment under General Golovatcheff to ascertain what chance there was of the payment being made. This general, in order to discover the intentions of the Turkomans, gave an order to his soldiery not to spare either sex or age. Men, women, and children at the breast were slain with ruthless barbarity; houses with bedridden inmates were given up to the fiery element; women — ay, and prattling babes — were burned alive amidst the flames ; hell was let loose in Turkomania. And this, the Russians would have us believe, was done to further Christianity and civilisation. This is the sort of Christianity which some people wish to see established in Constantinople. Would they like this kind of civilisation next our Indian frontier...  
If the Turkomans had been treated differently they would have paid the tribute to the Russian general. But they are barbarous creatures, utterly unacquainted with that European civilisation which characterises Russian troops. They were so foolish as to be exceedingly angry. Indeed it is said that later on these poor ignorant Turkomans became utterly lost to all feelings of honour. They actually dared to attack General Golovatcheff's camp at Illyali ; but they had no chance against the breechloaders of their foes, and were repulsed with great slaughter. The Turkomans now abandoned the district. They were disinclined to listen to any terms of peace which might subsequently be offered them. However, they sent General Golovatcheff the following message : "We know how to respect peace, and shall keep it if you will have peace with us, but if you will not have it we shall fight, and we can fight well..."
Colonel Ivanoff, the Commandant at Petro-Alexandrovsk, has found time to attack some bands of nomad Turkomans. On one occasion he made prisoners of two of these Arabs of the steppes. They had robbed, it was said, some Russian Kirghiz. In consequence of this the captive Turkomans were tried by court-martial and sentenced to death. The sentence was shortly afterwards put into execution. The Turkomans on their side have captured a Russian soldier. They refuse to surrender him until such time as they receive a sum of money, perhaps to go to the widows of their fellow-countrymen. The man has not been tried by court-martial by the Turkomans, probably on account of their ignorance of military law. When they become more civilised they will doubtless follow the example set them by their Christian foe.
Burnaby, appropriately enough, later died at the Battle of Abu Klea as part of the Gordon Relief Expedition, though I hope he will live on in the remarkable meta-hypocrisy of the lines above.