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Making money inAfghanistan – the First Western Entrepreneurs, 1880-1919


This is a preprint of an articlesubmitted for consideration in the Asian Affairs Journal © 2012 Taylor &Francis; Asian Affairs is available online at: www.tandfonline.com; http://www.tandfonline.com/openurl?genre=article&issn=1477-1500&volume=43&issue=2&spage=???


Bijan Omrani, RoyalSociety for Asian Affairs, April 2012


When we think of western travellers to Afghanistan, the first – and frequently the only – names that spring to mind are those of the earlyexplorers in what we might call the “heroic” age. We recall characters such asElphinstone and Burnes, Masson and Sale, who travelled in the first part of the19th century when Afghanistan was little known to the outside world.They travelled to seek out knowledge, spy, or establish links with the localrulers. Otherwise, like Sale, they appeared in the train of war.

Of these travellers I have writtenhere in the past, and described their value and interest to us in throwing alight on Afghan history.[1]However, there is another class of visitor of a later and rather more settledage, the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20thcenturies, who went to Afghanistan not for exploration but rather the sake oftrade. Their journeys have little of the limelight which shines on the earlytravellers. Perhaps they are less regarded on account of their mercantile objectives.Nonetheless, these later visitors were just as much pioneers as theirpredecessors. They resided for long periods isolated in a hostile country,subject to great danger, with the burden not just of discovery but with theneed to get things done. Their writings have as much, if not more, to tell usabout the conditions of Afghanistan than the likes of Burnes and Masson. In thepresent day, when scores of foreigners are in Kabul for the sake of developingthe country and also, in many cases, making profit, the accounts of the firstmercantile visitors cannot but help being of great interest.  I do not intend,in this account, to use these accounts as a guide to doing business in Afghanistan today. However, these works provide us not only with an insight into a crucialperiod of Afghanistan’s history, but also much food for thought on thecountry’s long-term situation.

The three accounts I shalldiscuss in this lecture are Under the Absolute Amir by Frank A. Martin, Leavesfrom an Afghan Scrapbook by Ernest and Annie Thornton, and An AmericanEngineer in Afghanistan edited by Marjorie Jewett Bell, published in 1907,1909 and 1948 respectively.[2]Frank Martin was the Engineer-in-Chief for the Afghan Government from 1899 to1903.Thornton was engaged in the development of bootmaking and tannery worksfor periods between 1893 to 1909. A.C. Jewett, the subject of the third bookwhich is a compilation of his letters, diaries and private papers, also workedas Engineer-in-Chief from 1911 to 1918. Our authors worked under the reigns ofAmir Abdur Rahman (r. 1880-1901) and Habibullah (r. 1901-1919), and it would bewell to begin by describing the circumstances of their reigns, and what, underthem, one might do in the way of business.

Abdur Rahman came to the throneat the end of the Second Afghan war (1878-1880).[3]The country had suffered badly from occupation. The unity of the country whichhad been painstakingly built by the previous ruler, Sher Ali, was in tatters.The outlying districts no longer answered to the centre in Kabul. As for Kabul itself, its great citadel, the Bala Hissar, had been laid waste by the British. Asmall number of workshops which the Afghan government had built within it andnearby to manufacture armaments in an up-to-date fashion were included in thedevastation. Corruption was widespread, and infrastructure of the state wasweak. Little in the way of revenue reached the government coffers. The new AmirAbdur Rahman was short of money to pay an army, and weaponry to arm it. At thestart of his reign, he was in want of everything necessary to rule. For thefirst three years he even lacked a house of his own in which to live. In spiteof this immediate penury, he held that Afghanistan was potentially rich. In thefuture it might thrive not only through its own unexploited natural resources,but also through its historical role as the entrepôt of Central Asia. In hisview, the encouragement of trade and industry would not only bring wealth tothe country, but also independence and military strength.

One might think that such anenvironment would have been perfect for an adventurous entrepreneur: agovernment sitting on a country rich in resources which was also an importanthub for international trade, desperate for development and manufactured goods.Improved stability was also part of the lure. Abdur Rahman was able, with muchbrutality, heavy conscription, and the assistance of a British subsidy, toreunify the country. He also lessened the problem of robbery on the highways bythe expedient of shutting thieves in iron cages by the roadside to starve todeath, and allowing their bones to remain as a deterrent.[4] Butalthough the security situation had improved, his policies were not at allpropitious to the growth of trade. He mulcted every level of a society alreadysqueezed. The general population was suffering badly from a fall inagricultural production. The scanty farmland had been depopulated through hiswars to reunify the country and the imposition of conscription. Starvation, nota surplus to aid consumption, was the order of the day. This was compounded byinflation as he debased the silver coinage. Hindu bankers and rich Afghanmerchants were forced to pay the Amir tens of thousands of rupees as fines fortrumped-up charges or forced donations. Anyone with an income over 1,000 rupeesa year was compelled to pay a five percent charge to the state. The transittrade was stifled by the imposition of tolls and tariffs on a host of goods.Currency controls formally prohibited the removal of silver from the country.For those with smaller businesses – shopkeepers and prosperous artisans –things were little better. Many were obliged to pay a month’s income to theAmir, and a number even found their businesses nationalised by force. In responseto the regime, the mercatorial class voted with its feet. Exile in India or Russian Turkestan was a preferred choice, and others with money would bury itunderground rather let it be known that they possessed any wealth.

Things were little better forthose wanting to start out in business, either from within Afghanistan or without. The Amir made interest-free loans available to those wishing to transactbusiness, but in return he would claim up to two-thirds of the profit from anyenterprise. Even then, breaking into the market became a near impossibility.Abdur Rahman was obsessed with centralisation and control. In some cases, hewas a protectionist. If a commodity, such as salt, was available in Afghanistan, he banned its import. If he perceived the danger of shortage with othercommodities, particularly livestock, grain and ghee, its export was alsoprohibited. Most difficult of all, he established state monopolies in a rangeof areas. Anyone who might have before freely traded or produced anything fromalmonds, lambskins and pistachios, to manufactured goods such as carpets, soapand gunpowder, now found the government involved and taking an exorbitant cut.

Abdur Rahman yearned for Europeanexpertise at manufacturing, especially in the fields of armaments and militarygoods. Yet, under such circumstances it was hardly possible for a westerner tocome to Kabul and establish an enterprise for profit. The monopolistic leaningsof the Amir and the hostility of the people to western outsiders after two Afghanwars made independent ventures out of the question. The only way – at least,the only legitimate way – in which Europeans could hope to make money in Afghanistan during this time was under the employment and protection of the Amir. It is inthis context which we meet our authors.

After a brief dalliance in 1885with a French engineer named M. Jerome, early in 1887 Abdur Rahman permanentlyengaged a British specialist, Salter Pyne, to bring western technologicalinnovation into Afghanistan. Pyne was capable and industrious, and later thatyear he oversaw the construction of the mashin khaneh or complex of Kabul workshops. Starting with military hardware – rifles, artillery and ammunition – thesteam-powered workshops later started to turn out a multitude of goods: boots,soap, carpets, blankets, needles, paper, glass, agricultural gear, and evenmusical instruments for military bands. A mint with the latest machinery in thecomplex assisted the Amir in debasing the coinage, and in spite of his strictadherence to Islam he even gave the order for the production of wine, whiskyand brandy for export to the Indian market.

As the mashin khanehdeveloped, more British and European experts began to reside in Kabul. DuringAbdur Rahman’s time, over a dozen are known to have been present, includingspecialists in mining, the manufacture of munitions, geology, tanning, and evenpiano tuning. They were accompanied by a small number of western medical staff,including a doctor and a nursing assistant. Our first author, Frank Martin, wasamongst this influx. He was the younger brother of the more famous Sir AcquinMartin. Sir Acquin was an engineer and industrialist, originally fromBirmingham. He showed exceptional talent in business, founding the Calcuttafirm Martin & Co. (still quoted today on the Bombay exchange as Martin BurnLtd), which played a huge role in the development of Indian railways, and theconstruction of grand monuments such as the Victoria Memorial. In 1887 he wasengaged by Abdur Rahman as his agent-general, and it was in this capacity thathe sent Salter Pyne to Kabul, with Martin’s firm furnishing much of theequipment. In 1895, Abdur Rahman sent his son Nasrullah on a diplomatic journeyto London, and made Sir Acquin Martin responsible for the trip. Frank Martinwas part of the entourage, and returned with Nasrullah to Kabul later thatyear. He succeeded Pyne as the Amir’s chief engineer in 1899.[5]

A.C. Jewett followed a similarcourse, but slightly later. Originally a railway and electrical specialist inthe United States, he was engaged by the General Electric Company as theirforeign installing engineer. In this capacity, he constructed power plants inBrazil, Mysore and Kashmir. In 1910, he was persuaded to take on what would be hislast appointment, the Amir’s Chief Engineer in Afghanistan. His main assignmentwas to build a hydro-electric dam at Jabal-us-Siraj about 60 miles north ofKabul, along with electricity transmission lines to the capital.[6] When heaccepted, he was under the impression that the role would last for just a yearor two. He was not released until 1918. It was not dissimilar for the Thorntons.They had originated in Leeds, and in a more humble fashion than the othersperhaps, were drawn towards the subcontinent for business, although returningto Britain for a period during the later 1890s.

In order to digest what theseworks can tell us about the world of industry and work in Afghanistan at thisimportant moment in its history – and indeed the country itself – it is perhapshelpful to consider them through the prism of our own experience. Those of usunder the yoke of employment generally commute to work. Our boss and ourcolleagues loom large in the working day. There might be difficulties in theway of office politics. We do assignments and daily tasks, and in general thereis a fruit to our labour. The conditions of our work can pose logisticalchallenges, problems, and risks – let us be bold to say “health and safety” –and when do we not think of remuneration, recreation, or the pleasant idea ofretirement? The western workers in Afghanistan saw their travails in notdissimilar terms, and it is by these headings I propose to survey the writingsof our authors.

First, the commute. In dailyterms, this was short. Our subjects, in general, lived on site, either nearbyto the workshops in Kabul, or otherwise close at hand to the location of anyproject they might be overseeing outside it. The real commute to consider wasthat in and out of the country. The subject may seem light, but it has a lot totell us. Martin, as I mentioned, entered Afghanistan in 1895, accompanyingPrince Nasrullah all the way back from London. The journey was “made pleasant”by stays in Paris, Rome and Naples. The entourage loaded themselves with“finely wrought” European goods which they intended to sell for “great profitat home”. They travelled by boat to Karachi and then rail to Chaman, theterminus at the Afghan frontier for the route to Kabul via Kandahar. There, allthe appurtenances of modern travel ceased. The railway ceased, as did the maderoads suitable for wheeled transport. There was nothing but “a track worn intothe earth by the passing of caravans from time immemorial, and at places on theside of the track were the bones of horses and camels whitening where they hadfallen.” In Afghanistan, everything followed an order of travel which had notchanged for hundreds of years. Martin’s description at the end of the 19thcentury evokes such things as one might see in a Mughal miniature or read in anaccount from many centuries previously. Beside the prince “ran a man with agold embroidered umbrella”. A servant with a drum struck time to his horse’shoof beats to signify the approach of a royal personage. Each village welcomed themby suspending wires over the road from which hung copies of the Quran, whichthe travellers rode under and touched with their right hands. Crowds turned outto see the prince; he had never been more than a short distance out of Kabulsince his childhood. One wonders what he made of the cities he visited. Martinreported Kandahar to be “tumble-down” and not properly rebuilt after the AfghanWars and civil strife. Similarly Ghazni had nothing about it to show “it wasonce the royal city and the home of emperors.”

Distances became indistinct.Lengths were measured in kro (miles) and guz (yards), but no-onecould agree how many guz there were to a kro. Later Martin, inthe course of his work, needed the correct figure to create a calibratedpedometer. As no-one could agree the correct figure, Martin eventually askedthe Amir Abdur for a firman to determine a standard. Yet, the Amirhappened to be ill when the request was made, and no reply was forthcoming. Theambiguity remained to the end of his reign, and eventually Habibullahdetermined that distances should be measured in English yards and miles.

When one moves forward over 20years to 1918 and follows the journey home of Jewett, there was littledifference. He took the shorter route via the Khyber Pass. Some work had beendone to make the road motorable, and a few vehicles were seen carrying ladies,presumably of high rank, as far as Jalalabad. Yet wide river beds crossed theroad at right angles, and heavy rains could sweep away an unfortunate travellerin the wrong place or flood the way with boulders or scree. The great majorityof travel was still by caravan. Jewett himself had to load up a multitude ofponies and pack animals which stumbled through the dark into ditches, andtoiled with difficulty through deep winter snow. Change on the roads was slow.

If the commuting was difficult,the boss also presented his own difficulties. The immediate line manager ofJewett and Martin was no intermediary, but was none other than the Amirhimself. An especial significance of their texts is that they had close and notinfrequent access to the Afghan ruler, and were able to observe him and thecourt at close quarters over a long period of time.

The character and interest of theAmir was vital to the success of any project. It was not only the choice ofproject that was down to him, but even the speed at which things might beachieved. Thanks to the obsession of the rulers with unity and centralisation,micromanagement was the order of the day. The centre controlled not only themoney but even the minutiae of logistics. If one wanted to ensure the deliveryof bricks, material, timber, the transport of a spare part, an audience withthe Amir was the best guarantee that it would be done.

Amir Abdur Rahman’s preoccupationwith building a large army to enforce his vision of a unified Afghanistandictated his choice of manufactures. He was obsessed with anything that mightbe of military use to the near exclusion of anything else. Once, when shown atelescope, he asked if it could be made into a gun. Armaments and military gearcame first. By the same token, despite suggestions from many such as Martinthat the mineral resources of the country be developed, and train lines beintroduced for their easy transportation, the  Abdur Rahman refused on militarygrounds. Despite the commercial benefits of such a policy, it was never to becountenanced, for the opening of commercial mines would make the country atarget for invasion, and railway lines would ease the passage of hostileforces.

Abdur Rahman’s approach to themanagement of a project also smacked of more than military efficiency anddiscipline. When he ordered Thornton to build a new tannery “with all speed”,he wrote out the orders for bricklayers, joiners and materials, tellingThornton to return to him within a week if anything had not arrived. A weekpassed, and not enough timber had been delivered. Thornton therefore informed theAmir. Shortly after, he was rather unsettled to hear that the head carpenterhad been beaten “almost to a jelly and what was left of him cast into gaol”. Thorntonavoided reporting such problems directly to Abdur Rahman after that, but knewthe mere threat of a mention would produce a speedy result.

Abdur Rahman’s successorHabibullah was not averse to such punishments either, but the sense of directurgency his father possessed was somewhat lacking. This could cause problemsfor those at work under him. Abdur Rahman was a workaholic who would be awakereading papers – often the reports submitted by his extensive spy network –until the early hours of the morning. He had few recreations or amusements. Oneof his jokes was to see how many cups of green tea he could compel Thornton,out of politeness, to drink during an audience (the number was 14). Habibullahwas different. He impressed all observers with his personal cultivation. Hecould speak a number of languages, including not unreasonable English, and tooka close interest in the technicalities of the work which his western employeesdid. This, he was capable of understanding well. Yet, such energy andunderstanding as he had was put more into his own enjoyment and cultivationthan the completion of business. His greatest interests were food, photography,horticulture and golf. He would spend many hours in the evening watching amagic lantern he had acquired, sometimes charging others to share the experience.His daily engagements – sitting in court trials, meetings with officials, visits– were arranged so that they might not interfere with his time on the links.State business waited whilst he labelled plants. High officials were requiredto carry round flowerpots in their formal dress – something which they hated asit ruined the English-tailored suits they were now required to wear.Such wasthe difficulty of getting his attention that petitioners – who could freelycontact Abdur Rahman – resorted to placing their petitions in the holes on thegreens, much to his fury. Such an attitude afflicted the western employeesdeeply. Should the Amir have decided to plant some trees – a behaviour which,Jewett observed, was often a signal of marital discord in the harem –they mighthave to wait days or weeks for him to sign the order for spare parts totransported. Such procrastination over the long-term by the Amir delayed thecompletion of projects, such as Jowett’s hydroelectric project atJabal-us-Siraj, for months and years, merely for the want of spare parts or afew girders.

Habibullah’s whims about whichprojects that the engineers should pursueequally distorted the trends ofdevelopment. One of Jewett’s colleagues, a Scottish engineer named Miller, wasprimarily responsible for the woollen mills in Kabul and construction of a damand irrigation system near Ghazni. Yet, given his Scottish background, the Amirwas rather more interested in his golfing potential. The Amir pressed a set ofautographed clubs on him and he had to maintain his game for the sake of theAmir. When he really needed to be overseeing work elsewhere, the Amir orderedhim to Jalalabad to lay out a new course. Similarly Jewett, who would have beenbetter employed finishing off the hydro-electric project at Jabal-us-Siraj, wasalso detained at Jalalabad putting in wiring to illuminate the Amir’s summerresidences.

The presentation to Habibullah of“two handsome motorcars” on his visit to India in 1907 was the spur, accordingto Jewett, to the albeit slow development of the Afghan road system. Such alsoled to another of the Amir’s more entrepreneurial fancies, the “Afghan MotorCompany.” The Amir proposed that a joint stock company be founded to buy modernvehicles to bring freight from India to Kabul and return with Afghan exports,saving huge amounts of money over camel transport and making a fortune for theshareholders. Habibullah’s courtiers faithfully, if perhaps reluctantlyinvested large sums in the venture, and soon “thirty-seater buses and largevans… emblazoned with the legend ‘Afghan Motor Company’ in letters that couldbe seen a mile away” were procured and brought to the capital. Yet, the returnon investment could hardly have been impressive. Rather than hauling freightand exports, the trucks were used exclusively for the transport of the royalharem and servants around the country. The Amir even refused to use one of thetrucks to transport a spare part for Jewett, thus costing him a three-monthdelay, on the grounds that the machinery might possibly scratch the paintwork. Evenup to 1918, spare parts and turbines had to be hauled from Peshawar and aroundAfghanistan by elephant.

The Amirs might be a force forprogress or inertiadepending on their inclinations and moods. The same, in theview of our authors, could hardly be said for the Afghan officials andbureaucracy which surrounded the court. These, it appears, were unswervinglynegative. Corruption amongst the clerical class was irredeemably endemic. It isperhaps understandable, given the pressures of inflation and the low wagesavailable. However, according to Jewett’s reckoning, the goods made in thegovernment workshops cost the government three or four times more than theprice for which they might have been obtained on the open market. The storeswere a perfect opportunity for embezzlement. Officials would seek anover-supply of goods and raw materials, which they then stole and sold onprivately. The presence of outsiders who attempted to stamp out these practicescaused huge resentment and endless attempts at sabotage. Indeed, the presenceof outsiders in itself could cause murderous professional disgruntlement.Martin reported that on one occasion, an aggrieved official who happened to bea member of the Royal family, introduced flints into the gunpowder grindingmills, and then invited him to inspect them alone, whilst rather unsubtlywithdrawing the rest of the Afghan workforce. Thornton complained of an endlesscampaign of intimidation from the Afghan administrators, who found means todamage and anonymously disrupt the work. Lime was thrown into pits whereleather was being tanned. Nails were put in machines, glue and emery powderintroduced into valves instead of oil for lubrication. Valves were screwed downand nuts loosened. Interpreters wilfully mistranslated. At night, windows werebroken and machinery vandalised. The guards who were meant to be on duty hadturned a blind eye. For long stretches, Thornton was compelled to sleep on thesite at vital periods of the process.

When not corrupt, Jewett foundthe class of Afghan officials given to deep indolence – a “hopeless, uneducatedgroup, who disregarded orders and did about as they pleased.” Their mainconcern was to keep a lookout for when he was coming so as to look busy, oravoid him. His response on one occasion was to take the hat from one of themand place it on a stick in the ground to indicate that he considered them to bejust as useful.After he had smashed 20 chillums (smoking pipes), they grewrestive, suggested that Jewett might suffer an accident if he continued to behard on them, and then threatened to leave and never come back. Jewett informedthem that this was his earnest desire.

If grander corruption was aproblem amongst the higher officials, then petty theft was rife amongst thegeneral workforce. Small pieces of leather, metal, or tools were apt to gomissing. All the small knives in the tannery disappeared within six months ofits establishment. Thornton instituted a compulsory turban search for theworkers at the end of every day, where their headgear was taken off and shaken.He was reluctant to report petty thefts to the authorities, partly on thegrounds of the severity of punishments, but also because many of the workerswere half-starved, on low wages with dependent families, and not infrequentlythere under compulsion. According to Jewett, the skilled craftsmen avoidedgovernment work if at all possible, as they could double their wages forprivate work. The poor pay encouraged absenteeism, slackness and theft.“Sometimes when you check a man for slacking toward the latter part of theafternoon, he will ask you if you don’t really think he has done enough forfour or five cents a day. There is food for thought there, especially when youremember he has been doing it maybe for twenty-five years, hasn’t seen hisfamily in the meantime, and wouldn’t know his own children if he saw them.” Martinhanded out extra rations of bread to those who seemed helpless with hunger.Some had to survive on as little as two ounces of bread a day, and even theymight take Martin’s dole to share with their families. In spite of theirsympathy they found it necessary on occasion to resort to punishments that wereredolent of the state. Jewett  averaged a “thrashing a day” for“insubordination”. Others might be put in leg irons. One worker caught byThornton demanding bribes was set backwards on a donkey and paraded round thetannery. Another negligent worker who failed to soak building bricks in waterwas stood in a stream. Two others responsible for theft were whipped in frontof their colleagues, but afterwards given ointment for their backs. Thorntonreported that they thanked him for this treatment, grateful that they were nothanded over to the Amir to be forgotten in one of the stinking jails and latermaimed or executed whilst their families fell destitute. Martin used a subtlermethod of making particular workers responsible for particular items, finingthem if they should be discovered absent.

One of the main problems ourauthors encountered was a lack of education amongst the workforce. At theaccession of Habibullah, it is thought that 98 per cent of the Afghanpopulation was illiterate. The focus of education was the village Maktabdirected by the clergy. Abdur Rahman had attempted to set up technical andmilitary colleges in Kabul, but these ventureswere disorganised and short-lived.Habibullah established the first secondary school – Habibiyah College – in1904, with courses in maths, the sciences, geography, botany, zoology anddrawing –but it received only about 300 students, and even then their loyaltywas split between a European-style technical education and the traditionalreligious subjects. Even the number of students receiving a European styleprimary education did not exceed 700 at any one time.

Despite this lack of formaleducation or training for industrial work, Thornton observed that the Afghan workforcewas exceptionally smart at “picking anything up”. He was confident that theywould be able to master new technology with speed, and ordered up-to-datemachinery for the factories in Kabul. His trust was rewarded during a visit byHabibullah in 1907. The Amir commented that he had seen a pair of bootsmanufactured in 55 minutes during his visit to India, and challenged Thorntonto do so more quickly. Whilst the Amir retired for a prayer and refreshments,the workforce started in earnest, and in 48 minutes, 55 seconds were able topresent the Amir with a freshly made pair of boots, which he praised andordered to be put in a glass case as a testament of the workers’ capabilities. Thorntonwas ingenious in getting round the problems of illiteracy. Parts of machineswere colour co-ordinated to allow the workers to assemble them in the rightorder. Jewett, although he found the process of training strenuous, waspersistent in it. He introduced small bonuses for good performance. Havingtaken on a number of apprentices, with the Amir’s support, he began regularreviews of their work, dismissing or promoting them on the basis of their efforts.The graduate recruits who failed to come up to scratch could be seen marchingup the hills at the hydro-electric plant hauling buckets of rock whilstreciting multiplication tables, so as to get back into Jewett’s good graces.

The treatment of the workforcewas undoubtedly very harsh. However, our authors did have a sense of a duty ofcare to them. We have mentioned how they were generally protected from the mostviolent excesses of state justice and given access to training and someeducation. An important addition to this was healthcare. In general, access tomodern medicine and knowledge of hygiene was scanty. The workforce were in anenvironment where health and safety were hardly at a premium, and beingunaccustomed to the dangers of machinery, did not always approach it withsufficient care. Accidents in the factory included being crushed under heavymachinery as it was moved, trailing sheepskin coats being caught in shafts sothat the wearer was snatched up, whirled around and killed, and hands beingsucked into metal rollers. “They had a way of putting their fingers underthepunches of the cartridge machines,” wrote the Amir’s surgeon Dr John Gray,“forgettingthatthe punch would inevitably come down at itsappointed moment. It took one man inthe palm, Iremember, and I had to amputate his first andsecond finger and histhumb.” Gashes and deep wounds were also common. It was incumbent on theauthors not only to be managers but also doctors as best they could. Whenworking away from Kabul at Jabal-us-Siraj, Jewett was compelled to treat allmanner of injuries, both amongst the workers and the local population. He hadto fight against folk remedies. A carpenter, having gashed his hand, filled thecut up with cement. Cow dung and pigeon droppings were popular as poultices, andpieces of turquoise or Koranic charms were widespread as talismans. “I haveperformed miracles with a little hot water and soap with bichloride as adisinfectant,” remarked Jewett.

The Thorntons also feltthemselves responsible for the entertainment of their workforce. They give anaccount of a tamasha, or entertainment, they held one day in their Kabulgarden. The feast of pilau laid out was typically Afghan, but they incorporatedevery feature of a village fete into the proceedings. A sack race was heldacross an open space – one man who cut holes in the bottom to allow his feet totouch the ground unseen was disqualified; a pillow fight held on top of ahorizontal pole raised several feet above the ground; and a tug of war betweenthe tanners and bootmakers – a game at which the more muscular tannersexcelled, until the bootmakers hit on the trick of secretly tying an extralength of rope to a mulberry tree in the distance.

One might object at the sometimesnegative fashion in which the Afghan workforce is portrayed in these texts.However, our authors are quite impartial in their criticism, and they are muchmore withering about some of the other westerners who came to Afghanistan, orassociated with it, to make money. “The Europeans who have been in this countryhave not been all that could be desired,” observed Jewett.[7] Theirbehaviour, both personally and professionally, was frequently not up to themark.

Jewett does not hold back onstories of personal behaviour. “Of two agents sent to the Amir by a motorcarcompany, the first got drunk with the king’s cook the night before he left,lost himself, and was found at three in the morning in the machine-shopgardens, lying on the ground fast asleep, his horse grazing nearby. He had beensick all over his room, which looked like a pig’s.” The man then had theeffrontery to give an interview to the Bombay Times in which he accusedthe Afghans of being dirty.

Their professional misdemeanourscaused him as much indignation. He descried how agents for foreign companieswould be admitted to his presence, who would then sell him goods which couldnot possibly be used in the circumstances, solely for the motive of a quickprofit. The government warehouses were full of junk from such visits, which haddepleted the treasury significantly. There was steel for use in a steel mill –which the Afghans did not have; barrel-making machinery, although there was nowood to make barrels. He came across smelting machinery, steam operated rockcrushers, and even “an electric light bath.” There were three men he met inKabul who had gathered $100,000 each in commissions (this was in 1914). Hecomplained that the firm which sent him out – which he, or the editor is toonice to name –had paid 100,000 rupees to a Parsee contact of the Amir to secureJewett’s appointment. In the same transaction, the Afghan agent and Peshawarpostmaster profited to the tune of 25,000 rupees. The firm itself made a profitof 66 2/3 percent on the plant material supplied (1.1 million rupees), and evenstill quibbled about replacements when some inadequately packed componentsarrived spoiled. Jewett observed that it was the Amir’s decency which led tosuch situations. He began his reign with the idea that Europeans would dealfairly with him, and he was reluctant to allow a bank or a representative ofthe British Government to investigate companies and prices on his behalf. Hisreticence and fears left him open to all manner of “adventurers and budmashes(rascals)”

Stories of the Europeans’personal behaviour naturally lead one to enquire more about their comportmentoutside of office hours. What was the work-life balance, and what was theirquality of life? Our authors might have been free of the scourge of mobile telephonesand the Blackberry making them available to their employer at all hours, butthis did not mitigate the time-consuming nature of the work. The days werelong, and business frequently continued late into the evening. Their attentionwas occupied with paperwork, plans and analysis of samples. Seven day weekswere not at all uncommon.If their behaviour was less than might on alloccasions be desired, then perhaps this might be forgiven. The tension inherentin their situation was very great. In Afghanistan, they were cut off. Postcould take weeks to get through, and was frequently unreliable, often beingintercepted by the government and stolen. Newspapers and magazines, alwayswelcome to them, arrived sporadically and late. Home comforts, such as coffeeand wine could take three months to obtain by order, and these luxuriesfrequently ran low. Kabul and the surrounding areas provided little in the wayof amusement and recreation for them. They had to make their own fun.[8] Shooting,as one might expect, was one of their chief diversions. Martin describesfrequent expeditions for quail and pigeon, duck and snipe. If airborne targetswere wanting, they would often rig up a target on wheels, which would be drawnalong the ground by an Afghan man at a run. Ice-skating might be an indulgencein cold weather. Cycling became a fad at the turn of the century, and for abrief period a number of Afghan courtiers followed Martin’s lead. Fishing couldbe made to occupy time, and Martin discourses at length about the Afghantechniques of casting into the water with a circular net. Gardeningwas alsosomewhere between a pleasure and a necessity. Growing vegetables – cabbage,cauliflower, cucumbers, melons and celery – supplemented the diet. Livestockand fowls were also kept to add to the table. But all in all, one can imagine aheavy ennui, compounded by the daily danger of their situation. The SecondAfghan War was still in living memory, and many still lived who had lost familyor clan members to the British. On his first journey to Kabul, Martin recallsseeing an old man, half out of his mind, sitting on a grave. It was his son hehad inconsolably mourned for 15 years, and he pitifully swore that he wouldrevenge himself on a British man if the chance ever came his way. Some time into his assignment, such a thing almost happened. An Afghan man stole up behindhim in the workshops and threw a nine pound iron shell at his head. He missedand struck his back, but Martin was laid up injured for many weeks, andEuropeans thenceforth went around under guard. Martin, however, was lucky. AGerman engineer, Fleischer, a contemporary of Martin, was murdered by Afghanson his way out of the country in 1904.

Strange requests after hours bytheir boss, the Amir, although not helping with the work-life balance mightnevertheless help to break up the ennui. Late one evening after a long day’swork, Thornton was summoned urgently by Habibullah. Thinking that there mightbe some crisis he rushed to the court. There, he found the king and hiscourtiers clustered round, and in the midst of them a pianola which none ofthem knew how to play. The king demanded immediate entertainment. Martintherefore set to work, and soon the men of state were rejoicing to the tunes ofGilbert and Sullivan and a selection of marches by Sousa. He tried more “serious”classical music on the assembly, but it was not pleasing… “very good, by oureyes,” they protested, “but it causes our bones to melt.”

On another occasion, Thornton wassummoned to make a leather football for the Amir’s son Inayatullah. Theproduction of a ball led to a desire for him to be coached, and then, shortlyafterwards, for the full paraphernalia of the game to be produced for hisamusement. As Inayatullah learned how to drop-kick and punt, Thornton wasordered to mark out a ground in an army barracks, and direct a carpenter toproduce goalposts and corner flags. Two teams were picked from the prince’sattendants and soldiers, with Inayatullah captaining one side, and a Turkishcolonel the other. Thornton was appointed the referee, and all proceededsmoothly until half-time. At this point, Prince Inayatullah decided that hewanted to win the match for sure, with the result that Thornton was co-opted onto his own team. The immediate development of Afghan football after this matchis unfortunately not recorded.

It seems frequently the case thatthe wives who accompanied the western engineers to Afghanistan had a bettertime there than their husbands. Jewett was unaccompanied, but Thornton andMartin were in Kabul together with their other halves. Martin does not mentionhis wife at all in his narrative, but the Thorntons went so far as to co-authortheir whole memoir of Afghan life. As a woman, Annie Thornton could obtainprivileged access to the Amir’s harem and is able to present an intimate viewof the domestic side of royal Afghan life. She records many surprisingpeculiarities. A particular example was her encounter of one the harem’s chiefshopper. Such a phenomenon, contrary to expectations, is not the preserve ofmodern and moneyed Kensington and Chelsea; Kabul had discovered the idea longbefore. Mrs Thornton describes her as the only woman allowed unveiled in thebazaars, going about dressed in a turban and a well-cut three piece Englishsuit of grey cloth. The demand for unusual luxuries, particularly in the fieldsof gardening and food kept Mrs Thornton well occupied at the court. The Amir Habibullahdrew on her knowledge of gardening to increase his plant collection by way ofthe orders she placed from Britain. She was responsible, it seems, for theintroduction of the daffodil into Kabul in 1908. Thanks to her, the Amirevinced an all-consuming passion for English cuisine. She was enjoined to teachthe Amir’s kitchen the uses of English herbs, the frying of tomatoes, themaking of cherry jelly (to which, she claims, the Amir’s immediate response was“Name of God… that flavour is good”) and the manufacture of jams, red cabbage picklesand chutney. A number of English dinners for the Amir were cooked under herdirection for the Amir, and his particular favourite became treacle pudding(“by the Beard of the Prophet, ‘poodeeng’ is delicious” were his exact wordsaccording to her testimony).[9]Manyhistorians have put down Habibullah’s refusal to attack British India in theFirst World War down to his good sense and political wisdom, but I wonder if itwas actually his fondness for cherry jelly and ‘poodeeng’ which saved theBritish Empire from disaster on a second front.

Despite the tribulations of ourauthors, there were also rewards. One cannot help asking how well they did outof their time in Afghanistan. It might not be surprising, but the writers areof course too delicate to discuss their own compensation, but there is someevidence for the moneys paid to other Europeans in Kabul. Habibullah’s Englishchauffer, for example, Fennell, was paid 1,000 Kabuli rupees per month. He isthought to have been in the Amir’s service for about 11 years with only fourmonths holiday (on the occasion of which he was given a bag of 100 goldsovereigns). One Kabuli rupee was approximately the equivalent of eight oldpence at that time, meaning that his wage would have been in the region of £400per annum.[10]Jewett, it seems, did even better than this. Although he in general does notname sums, he discusses the problem of getting his money out of Afghanistan inthe absence of a credible banking system. On the rare occasions he was able toescape to India on leave, there are endless problems of arranging sacks of goldand silver on the back of mules, and entire days were spent at the bank inPeshawar were spent tediously counting out coins. Jewett mentions gossip ofanother Englishman in Kabul during the time of Abdur Rahman – he does not namenames – who mentioned in a fit of drunkenness that he had accumulated £79,000over his time there. One wonders if he meant Pyne.

There is certainly great interestand entertainment to be had in reading these texts. Yet, they serve two greaterpurposes. As historical source material, they provide an invaluable window intothe formation of modern Afghanistan. The Afghan historian Hasan Kawun Kakarnames Martin as one of the most important sources on the reign of Amir AbdurRahman. There are few others who can provide so direct and vivid a window intothe life of the Afghan court and government, the fearsome measures andpunishments that were meted out to unify Afghanistan, and the wider state ofthe country at that time. But on top of this, there is the question of businessand development. I said earlier that I did not intend to use these writers asto doing business in Afghanistan today. Nonetheless, they remind us that not avery long time ago, Afghanistan, thanks to the chances of history and empire,was suspended in a world where industrial development, basic infrastructure andmodern education were next to unknown, and all notions of the role of the stateand the way of life were radically different. If western intervention, asdisorganised as it has been, has been unable to make Afghanistan into aprosperous land of high employment, wealth and stability by means of the ballotbox and a number of technical advisers, then the knowledge of the low base fromwhich Afghanistan has been compelled to start should bring us at least amodicum of comfort.




[1]“Charles Masson of Afghanistan: Deserter, Scholar,Spy”, Asian Affairs, Volume 39, Issue 2, 2008, Pages 199 – 216 and““Will we make it to Jalalabad?” 19th century travels in Afghanistan”, AsianAffairs, Volume 37, Issue 2, 2006, Pages 161 – 174

[2]There are various other writings in the RSAA library which are also relevant fromother western visitors at that time, including At the Court of the Amirby J.A. Gray (London, 1901), and in the earlier incarnation of the Society’sJournal, the Proceedings of the Central Asian Society, a speech by WalterSaise, a geologist, on a visit to Afghanistan in 1911 (given on 12thApril 1912); his account of the primitive conditions of the working of gemstonemines are startlingly similar to those which prevail today. Some visitors leftaccounts of their residence in other periodicals or newspapers, for example thedoctors Lillas Hamilton and Kate Daly. Unpublished accounts in the India OfficeBritish Library are also illuminating. Business visitors to Afghanistan oftendescribed their experiences to British political agents (see for example IOR/L/PS/11/31,interview with Darby, IOR/L/PS/11/78, interviews with Halliday, Darby, Jewettand Sir A. McRobert). I am indebted to Bill Woodburn for suggesting I read thepersonal diary of Curzon on his trip to Afghanistan in 1894 (Mss Eur F111/56).There is no more vivid picture of the European inhabitants of Kabul during thisperiod than in this place. 

[3]For a full overview of the economic and governmental problems of this period,see p. 115-228, Government and Society in Afghanistan, H.K. Kakar,(University of Texas Press, 1979) and p. 129-205, The Emergence of ModernAfghanistan, V. Gregorian, (Stanford University Press, 1969)

[4]Martin’s account in chapters 9 and 10 of his book describing prisons andtortures under the time of Abdur Rahman and Habibullah are not for the fainthearted; they make the Taliban look like the Howard League for Penal Reform.Martin’s account constitutes one of the main sources for the history ofcriminal justice in Afghanistan at this time. Thornton includes photographs ofthe iron cages in his book.

[5]According to Curzon, the Amir had grown tired of Pyne’s constant drunkenness(Mss Eur F111/56). When Pyne announced to the Amir that he was giving updrinking, the Amir replied that he imagined it meant that Pyne would now becomea fifteen rather than a twenty-bottle-a-day man. Pyne’s deeper knowledge ofengineering was also questioned, and he was also accused of hoodwinking AbdurRahman into asking the British Government to give him a knighthood.

[6]The Mashin Khaneh desperately needed electricity. The machines were upto this time run on steam generated by burning wood, which since the 1880s hadfallen into deep scarcity in the areas around Kabul for many miles. There arerecords of people being crucified for stealing wood from trees owned by thegovernment to cook food. Projects to mine and burn local coal seem to havefoundered. Walter Saise (see note 2) inspected a number of lignite seams northof Kabul during his visit and found them not to be viable, although the Amirwas burning it in his grate. 

[7]Curzon was more forthright, speaking of the “solid maze of backbiting and liesof which the European society here [in Kabul] seems to be made up.” (Mss EurF111/56)

[8]Those with an interest in gossip might enjoy reading Curzon’s description ofthe rumours of adulteries amongst the western community in Kabul. He foundhimself socially on the “edge of a small volcano” according to his diary (MssEur F111/56).

[9]Menus which Mrs Thornton prepared for the Amir included “Tomato soup, roastveal, mash, boiled celery in white sauce, melon charlotte, whipped cream,” and“Cock-a-leekie soup, boiled fowls with tomatoes of two colours and eggs, greenpeas, salsify in white sauce,” finished off with his favourite “treaclepudding”.


[10]A respectable 3-bedroom terraced house in central London might be had foraround £300 at this time.