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This is an electronic version of an article published inAsian Affairs, Volume 39, Issue 2, 2008, Pages 199 – 216. The article is onlineat the AsianAffairs website.
In March 2001, when the Taliban attacked the Buddhas of Bamiyan, they did notjust destroy the statues. The cliffs of Bamiyan, are honeycombed by an extraordinarynetwork of caves, hollowed out in the centuries before the advent of Islam, andused by Buddhist monks and pilgrims as places for retreat and devotional exercises.As in many similar sites along the Silk Road, these were covered from floor toceiling in a multitude of vivid Buddhist paintings, reflecting artistic influencesgarnered from all countries, east and west. The Taliban set about defacing thesepaintings, trying to blacken them with smoke, or cover them in extremist graffiti.
However, the Taliban were not the first people to deface these caves. In 1930,an expedition sent by the Delegation Archeologique Francais en Afghanistan (DAFA)to survey the caves of Bamiyan and record details of the paintings were astonishedto find, in one of the furthest caves, the following piece of graffiti, not inArabic or Persian, but in English,
If any fool should this high samooch [cave] explore,
Know that Charles Masson has been here before.
It was an extraordinary and unexpected testament to the achievements of anextraordinary man. In the time of his travels – from 1827 up to 1840 and theonset of the First Afghan War – there were few places in the then terra incognitaof the Indian Frontier – Sind, the Punjab and Afghanistan – that Charles Massonhad not “been before”. According to Sir Thomas Holdich, the distinguished geographerand Surveyor-General of India at the end of the 19th Century, Masson left behindhim a record of these regions which was “unsurpassed… for the width of its scopeof inquiry into matters political, social, economic and scientific, and the generalaccuracy of his conclusions.” Firstly, Masson was an adventurer and traveller. Hewas able to survey and acquaint himself with every aspect of Afghanistan, and thelife of its people at every level. But he was also a pioneering archaeologist,numismatist and epigraphist. His work was the basis on which later scholars unravelledthe history of Buddhism in Afghanistan. He unearthed evidence to prove the existenceof Greek Kingdoms in the Hindu Kush in the first centuries of our era – legaciesof Alexander the Great. He also provided a wealth of material for his successorsto start understanding the complex history of the Silk Road.
What makes his achievements all the more astonishing is that he accomplished themas an outsider in a country wracked by instability, civil war and murderousinternecine strife. And not only was he an outsider; he was also an outcast. Adeserter and fugitive from the Bengal army, he lived for many years with the threatof detection. Later, discovered and compelled to act by the British as an intelligenceofficer in Kabul in return for a pardon, he added espionage to his work as anarchaeologist. He bathed himself in the intricacies of Afghan political intrigue,watched warlords, usurpers and holy warriors at battle, and became one of the mostcogent and informed critics of British involvement in Afghanistan up to the catastrophesof the First Afghan War.
Masson’s experiences were extraordinary even by the standards of the time, yet heis relatively little known. Even the authoritative historians of the Great Gamepay him little regard. Hopkirk, in The Great Game: Secret Service in High Asia,devotes only a couple of pages to him. Meyer and Brysac are similarly lapidary intheir equally-well regarded book, Tournament of Shadows. Masson’s contemporaries,by contrast, for example the slick Sir Alexander Burnes, the official envoy fromthe British Indian Government to Kabul who reached the Central Asian City of Bokharain 1833, generally merit at least a chapter. Over the course of this article, Iwill consider the reasons for Masson’s relative obscurity, but from the outset wemust bear in mind one fact, which has also been an unending headache for hisbiographers. For many years, Masson, a deserter from the Bengal army was on therun. He had to cover his tracks. From the start of his travels, he concealed hisidentity, his history, his intentions, his whereabouts. If intelligence of him hadreached the British authorities, it could have resulted in his death. However,when the threat was finally lifted, the habit remained. In his accounts of histravels, he tells us nothing of who he was, his background, his intentions intravelling. He appears in medias res. He just happens, without explanation orcomment, to be travelling into one of the least known and least stable places inthe world of his time. Dates are omitted or wilfully vague and on nearly everyoccasion he gives no indication of his feelings and personal reactions to histravels. Worse, most of the primary evidence for his life story, most of the paperevidence, beyond official army records and correspondence, seems to bewanting – perhaps by intention.
The problems start at his very birth. His real name was James Lewis, not CharlesMasson, a name he adopted when he deserted. Until very recently all that was knownof the first twenty-one years of his life could be contained in a bare paragraph. Hewas a Londoner, born on 16th February 1800. His father was George Lewis, theproprietor of George Lewis & Co., Oil, Colour, Hop and Seedsman and a member ofthe Worshipful Company of Needlemakers. His mother was Mary Hopcraft, born of aline of prosperous yeoman farmers of Croughton, Northamptonshire. On 5th October1821, Masson (I shall restrict myself to his preferred name for the sake of clarity)enlisted in the armed forces of the Honourable East India Company, and on the17th January 1822 he sailed for Bengal on the Duchess of Atholl.
Until recently, little was known of his education, his early life, or his reasonsfor enlisting. As for education, he clearly knew Latin and Greek, and hadsufficient knowledge of French and Italian to pass as both on his travels. Indeed,thanks to the plausibly Gallic pseudonym of Charles Masson, the French DictionnaireBiographique for many years claimed him for France. As for his enlistment, therewas much speculation. Gordon Whitteridge, sometime member of this Society, whowrote a short biography of Masson, tentatively suggested that he might have beentempted, like other men of good education, by the “relatively good pay andexcellent prospects of promotion to clerical appointments”. The late ProfessorGavin Hambly, who wrote a preface for the 1974 reprint, was tempted to put forwarda more imaginative thesis. For him, Masson was the equivalent of one of Kipling’sGentlemen Rankers – one who enlisted in the East India Company’s regiments, oftenunder a pseudonym, as an escape from crime, debt or family misfortune. Hamblysuggests he was probably “a desperate young man who enlisted… in the company’sartillery, with the prospect of a lifetime of brutal soldiering in the East aheadof him.” Yet, recently, rather more light was shed on the subject by the discovery,in an original 1842 copy of Masson’s memoirs, of a letter from a contemporaryofficial of the East India Company, W.J. Eastwick, who claims that Masson waseducated in Walthamstow, and went on to work as a clerk in the London officesof Durant & Co., a silk and insurance broker. A dispute with his father ledhim to enlist with the East India Company.
Masson served in the 3rd troop of the 1st Brigade of the Bengal Europeanartillery from 6th July 1822 for almost exactly five years. His service wasvaried. On the one hand, he fought in the bitter siege of Bharatpur from 1825-26.On the other, he spent a great deal of his quieter time assisting one of themost senior officers, Major-General Thomas Hardwicke, an obsessive naturalhistorian, in arranging and sketching Indian zoological specimens. It was anearly indication of his abilities as a draughtsman. But he was not to be keptin harness. On 4th July 1827, in the company of a fellow-soldier, Richard Potter,he deserted his regiment at Agra, and struck out westwards towards the Kingdomsof the Indus and Central Asia.
At the time of his desertion, the power of the East India Company had by nomeans reached its furthest extent. It controlled next to nothing in the modern-dayterritory of Pakistan, where the strongest power was that of the Sikh Empire.With its capital in Lahore, it controlled much of the Punjab. Its leader, MaharajaRunjit Singh, although in person given to fathomless debauchery – his favouritecocktail, for example, was a mixture of raw spirit, crushed pearls, musk, opium,gravy and spices – was a brilliant and ruthless general. He would never spurnthe latest in military technology or thinking, and was always on the lookout forEuropean officers to train his forces according to the latest western fashion.Although on good terms with the British, he had high ambitions of expanding hisrealm, and looked eagerly on the neighbouring regions of Afghanistan and Sindh, whichwas nominally a vassal of Afghanistan, but was in fact a patchwork of fragmentedprincipalities, not unprosperous but constantly at war, and answering to no-one. Asfor Afghanistan, in the middle of the 18th century it had been a great empire,controlling not only its modern-day territories, but also holding Sindh, the Punjab,and even Kashmir. However, by Masson’s time it had utterly collapsed. The outerterritories, including those east of Peshawar and north of the Hindu Kush, hadbeen sheared off. Herat was an independent entity, the last outpost of theoriginal royal family. The remainder – Peshawar, Kabul, Ghazni and Kandahar – werebroken up amongst the leading members of the Afghan Barakzai clan, an extendednetwork of half-brothers, all at daggers drawn, all engaged in labyrinthineconspiracies to gain control of all the cities. Worse, in the nomadic andsemi-settled lands outside the cities, no-one, aside from the petty chiefs andheadmen, had any sort of de facto writ. There was no possibility for any sortof strong central authority. I hardly need labour the parallels with today. Thiswas the nascent period of the Great Game. The Russian and British empires weresweeping briskly towards each other across the map of Asia, and thinking men werelooking into the little-known and little-understood regions in between – Afghanistan,Bokhara, The Pamirs – and asking where and how the two would eventually meet. Itwas into this vacuum, about which the governments of British India and Russiawished desperately to know more, that Charles Masson began to make his way.
Typically, Masson does not tell us the reason for his desertion, or indeed thathe was a deserter. Speculation is unavoidable. We know that desertion from theIndian Army was not uncommon. On occasion, officers would leave their posts andtravel to Lahore, hoping to find a position under Maharaja Runjit Singh. Theywere lured away by stories, often quite true, of boundless wealth, palaces, andharems. This was likely the motivation for Masson’s travelling companion, RichardPotter. But none of this, it seems, was of interest to Masson himself. He stressesthat he did not wish for any sort of appointment under a native ruler. He alsopresents himself as having been quite impervious to the blandishments of wealth,and all the temptations of the flesh. In general, it appears that he eschewedstrong drink, and when offered the pleasures of close female companion-one occasionwith the husband’s connivance- he declined. It seems rather more likely that hewas driven by pure curiosity to see such unknown regions. From his classical education,he knew well the progress of Alexander the Great in Asia. He owns that his imaginationwas fired by reports in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal of strangegargantuan statues at Bamiyan. He also seems to have read, before travelling, theaccount of the first substantial British explorer in the region, MountstuartElphinstone, who led a diplomatic mission to the Afghan King in Peshawar in 1809;Masson uses Elphinstone’s description of the region as a guide in the earlier partof his journeys. He notes anything that might be of antiquarian interest, buildings,mosques, shrines, a possible course for Alexander’s conquests. Yet, it doesn’t seemthat Masson had any concrete plans for exploration or archaeological research.Certainly in the early days, his deepest instinct seems to have been not to becometied to any spot or engagement, but rather to keep on moving. Perhaps it was this,a truly nomadic wanderlust, which more than anything drove him to desert the ranks.
The initial stages of Masson’s journey contained a huge variety of experience, asort of apprenticeship in travelling, preparatory to the rigours he would laterface in Afghanistan. He went with his companion Potter (unmentioned, of course,in Masson’s own narrative) on foot across the deserts of Rajasthan, through themore fertile regions of the Punjab, in a roundabout way north to the city ofPeshawar. He learned how to travel in a variety of modes, whether alone, with acaravan of merchants, as a hanger-on in a column of soldiers going to demand tributefrom a neighbouring town, or as a poor faqir in a train of mendicants. He becameaccustomed to hardship like hunger, fever or blistered feet. He also exhibited agift of getting on well with a huge range of people. He rubbed shoulders with everylevel of society, from nomadic tribesmen sharing with him the last of their bread,to the local nobility and court officials in the towns along his way. Like manywho would study Masson in the future, they too would often find him a bafflingand enigmatic figure. As a European, although apparently poor, he was usuallywell-received by those in authority; but after taking him in, they never knewwhat to make of him. For example, Masson noted of one of his hosts, Khan Mahomedof Bahawalpur: “He was very anxious to know my business, and could hardly believeI had none, or that I had not brought some message… I had frequently before beensuspected to be an… ambassador, and it was in vain I appealed to the negativeevidences of my poverty, and my trudging alone, on foot…”
As Masson trudged, sometimes alone, but certainly on foot, he began to build upa fiercely detailed knowledge of the regions through which he travelled. His eyehad a sharply inquisitive, scientific edge. His record burgeons with details ofsoil and cultivation, the variation between villages in the growth of wheat, sugarcane, indigo, the husbanding of cows, horned cattle, buffaloes, poultry, geese,camels, the presence of tiger tracks and elephants. He discourses on the dispositionof towns, their size, population, monuments, mosques, temples, shrines, bazaars,caravanserais, the quality of their commerce, their income and history. It is thisoverwhelming volume of detailed information, delivered almost in the form of agazetteer, that can make parts of Masson’s work so unpalatable for a modern reader.It is when he drops his perpetual guard, and allows this tide of information tobe leavened with a modicum of personal reaction, that the narrative truly comesalive and evokes the regions through which he is travelling. Here is his descriptionof the first appearance of the plains just south of Peshawar:
On gaining the ascent of the last hill… the plains of Marwat and Bannu burst uponthe sight. The numerous villages, marked by their several groups of trees, theyellow tints of the ripe corn-fields, and the fantastic forms of the surroundingmountains, presented, in their union and contrast, a splendid scene. In frontand to the west, the distant ranges exhibited a glorious spectacle, from theirpure whiteness, diversified by streaks of azure, red and pearly grey. These beautifuland commanding features of the landscape were enhanced by the charm of anunclouded sky. I was lost in wonder and rapture on contemplating this serene yetgorgeous display of nature, and awoke from my reverie but to lament that thevillany of man should make a hell where the Creator had designed a paradise,? atrain of thought forced upon my mind when I thought of the lawless tribes whodwell in, or wander over these delightful scenes…
This brief glimpse of his anger at the behaviour of some of the nomads he cameacross on his way – more of which we will see when he reaches Afghanistan – isperhaps Masson at his most self-revelatory. Yet the amount he concealed aboutthis part of his travels has been thrown into sharp relief by another recentdiscovery. Fort another western adventurer, rather more eccentric and with granderdesigns than Masson, was in the same area at the same time. His name was JosiahHarlan. He was an American citizen who had served the British for a time as asurgeon, but had then quit their service, and was marching, like Masson, towardsthe unknown. He moved with a small force of armed retainers recruited along theway, carrying aloft the Stars and Stripes. He went in search of pleasant serviceunder Runjit Singh, or else to build some fantastical kingdom for himself in theheights of the Hindu Kush. Although Masson is silent on the matter, it was alwaysknown that Harlan had encountered Masson. However, the details were not knownuntil the recent rediscovery of Harlan’s memoirs (excellently brought to life byBen Macintyre in Josiah the Great: The True Story of the Man who would be King).These not only fill in a vital blank in the story, but also give a rarethird-person glimpse into the travels of Masson, whom Harlan met at the city ofAhmedpur.
Masson unfailingly portrays himself as a man who took risks lightly, cool andcalm in the midst of pressure or danger. There is always a particular serenedignity about him. Harlan’s memoirs somewhat undermine this picture. He describeshow, on reaching Ahmedpur, he heard that there were two other Europeans in thevicinity. Two days later, Masson presented himself at the door of Harlan’s tent,“in the dress,” says Harlan, “of a native with his head shorn in the Indo-Muhammadanstyle… The light and straggling hair upon the upper lip in conjunction with theblue eyes at once revealed the true nativity of his caste. I addressed him withouthesitation as a European deserter from the Horse Artillery… of whom I had alreadyread a description at Loodiana.” Masson attempted some sort of bluff, claiming thathe was an officer of the Bombay Army, proceeding, for amusement, back home overland. This was, however, to little avail. Masson was visibly horrified, thinkingthat Harlan was on the verge of arresting him on behalf of the East India Company.Harlan quickly put Masson out of his misery: “…Perceiving his extremely uncomfortableposition by the tremor of his voice and personal demonstrations of alarm, I quietedhis terror with the assurance that I was not an Englishman and had no connectionwith the British Government, and neither interest or duty could induce me to betrayhim…” On this assurance, Masson dropped the pretence. He admitted his status, toldHarlan about his travelling companion, Richard Potter, and both agreed to marchwith his private army to Kabul in return for medicines and sustenance.
Masson marched with Harlan for a number of weeks, and owed him for much, from hisclemency, to medicines, food, and conversation about antiquities. It was travellingwith Harlan that gave Masson the idea to represent himself also as an Americancitizen. He listened carefully to everything that Harlan said about the UnitedStates, using every scrap of information to corroborate the story he would laterspin that he had come to Afghanistan from Kentucky. Yet, for all this, he alsodeserted Harlan’s little army, leaving behind his original travelling companion Potter.,.
Masson reached Peshawar in June 1827, and there engaged with a poor faqir to travelonwards to the Afghan capital. Of the three routes available, the Abkhana, theKarapa, and the Khyber Pass, they chose to follow the Khyber: “…decidedly thepreferable, from its level character and directness, but the most dangerous, owingto the lawless disposition of the predatory tribes inhabiting it,” says Masson.It was only traversed by large bodies of troops, or by those with nothing tolose. So they dressed in pauper’s apparel, taking nothing but a handful of coppercoins hidden at the bottom of an earthenware water bottle, and two or three cakesof bread. Masson’s companion also took a small knife, tied in the band of histrousers. It was not needed. Two Pathan tribes inhabited the Khyber at thattime: the Afridis to the east, and the Shinwaris to the west. The Afridis hadthe more formidable reputation, living primarily by depredation and robbery. Yet,Masson found the Afridis some of the best people that he came across. He firstmet a group of them by Ali Masjid at the head of the Khyber, a group of aroundtwenty elderly men sitting in the shade of the rocks. They invited him to jointhem, and when they realised that he was a Farangi (or westerner), their curiositywas immediately piqued. The fact that he was of a different religion was of noconcern to them. Earlier in his journey, a Pathan tribesman who had found thatMasson was a Christian embraced him with a broad smile saying it was an honourto receive him, for after all, he asked, was not the prophet Jesus a good Pathanas well?
The one thing which drew the Afridis to him beyond anything else was the beliefthat any Farangi must also be a doctor. The rumours of his presence spread wildly,and as he went along the sick were brought out to him, people with sword wounds,fevers, even a case of suspected venereal disease. On most occasions Masson, whoknew nothing of medicine, recommended cleanliness, which was likely to be efficacious,given that wounds were often treated with a mixture of mud or dung and salt. Forhis advice, he was handsomely received, and everywhere he went he was entertainedwith gifts of bread, buttermilk, comfortable couches to sleep on, and the ubiquitoustobacco pipe. “Such was the attention I received from these savages;” he says “andI am pleased to record it, as affording an opportunity of doing justice tohospitality and kindness, and as it opposes an agreeable contrast to the treatmentI have received amongst other barbarous tribes.”
Having passed through the lands of the Shinwaris at the western end of theKhyber – it was amongst these supposedly more docile tribesmen that he was firstrobbed – he came into the territory that would form modern-day Afghanistan. Hehurried on through Jalalabad towards Kabul, keeping close to the route which waslater to be made infamous by the ill-fated retreat from Kabul in the First AfghanWar. But names such as Jagdalak and Gandamack, subsequently so notorious, had nobitter resonance for Masson. Indeed, he seemed at his most light-hearted. He joyedin the fruits and the plants; he claimed the mulberries incomparable to anywhereelse in the world. He was amused at the succession of characters he came acrossin his way – an eccentric Muslim cleric travelling with a Brahmin priest, whoclaimed to know the secrets of alchemy; a man with ten wives, who appealed to Masson“to communicate, from [his] Feringhi knowledge, some specific to strengthen him.”He rejoiced in the change, which can be felt quite specifically on the route,from the hot climate of the Indian sub-continent to the cooler climate of CentralAsia. He also was enraptured his surroundings. “Few countries,” he said, “canpossess such attractive scenery, or can exhibit so many grand features in itssurrounding landscape. In every direction the eye wanders on huge mountain ranges.”He also paused at the village of Bassowal to investigate the mysterious blonde-hairednon-Muslim tribes, the Kafirs, who dwelt in the isolated valleys to north, andwere then reputed by scholars to be descendants of the men of Alexander the Great.
On reaching Kabul, Masson only remained a few days. An outbreak of cholera wasraging, and moreover Kabul’s ruler, Dost Mohammed Khan, had just marched an armysouthwards to confront his half-brothers, the rulers of Kandahar, outside thesouthern city of Ghazni. Masson was curious to see such a spectacle, as well asthe city of Ghazni itself. He hurried there, yet saw no battle. Shortly after hearrived, a beating of drums and a flourish of martial music announced that a peacehad been agreed; the two armies which were station a few miles apart, each severalthousand strong, began to strike camp. Nonetheless, Masson took the opportunityto be introduced to Kabul’s ruler, and was impressed at his character: “He isbeloved by all classes of his subjects, and the Hindu fearlessly approaches himin his rides, and addresses him with the certainty of being attended to. Headministers justice with impartiality, and proves that the lawless habits of theAfghan are to be controlled… He is very attentive to his military; and conscioushow much depends upon the efficiency of his troops, is very particular as totheir composition… [He] has distinguished himself… by acts of personal intrepidity,and has proved himself an able commander, yet he is equally well skilled instratagem and polity, and only employs the sword when other means fail. He isremarkably plain in attire… His white linen raiment afforded a strange contrastto the gaudy exhibition of some of his chiefs.” It is worth dwelling on Masson’sdescription. Dost Mohammed Khan, by the middle of the 1830s, would be the paramountruler in what was left of Afghanistan. , Even though the British knew he was themost capable of the chiefs, the First Afghan War was designed to unseat him andreplace him with a weak puppet ruler.
Masson also took the opportunity to visitGhazni itself. This once had been a great city. In the 11th century, it became theseat of a renowned conqueror, Sultan Mahmud the Great, and the opulent capital ofhis empire which stretched from Delhi to the Caspian Sea. It was a poor shadowof its former self: “We look in vain over the city for any traces of the splendourwhich once marked the capital of the Great Sultan Mahmud, and almost question thepossibility that we are wandering about its representative…” Masson went to thesuburb of Rozah to visit the complex of Sultan Mahmud’s tomb. Not only did he findthe place a sorry ruin, with “broken figures of marble lions and other fragmentsalone [attesting] to the former beauty of its courts and fountains”. The cholerahad also reached Ghazni, and within the mausoleum buildings, he found a terriblesight: “Crowds of poor wretches had crawled into them, anxious, possibly, to resigntheir mortal breath in the sacred spot – the dying were confounded with thedead – and almost all were in a state of nudity… Ghazni has numerous ziarats, orshrines, and all of them were now so many charnel houses…”
It was the next part of his journey, from Ghazni through to Kandahar and then backover the modern-day Afghan border towards Quetta, which was the most severelytrying. Its beginning was not auspicious. The first evening after leaving Ghazni,he stayed at a Pashtun encampment. When he arrived, he found the company engagedin a variety of war-dance, arranged in a large circle and brandishing long swords.After they had finished, one of them asked Masson who he was. A Feringhi, hereplied. Why had he travelled there, asked the tribesman. In his typically enigmaticfashion, Masson replied “sel” – for amusement. The tribesman grew furious. Whatpossible amusement could there be in a barren country such as his, he asked. “Larlar!”, he shouted, “be off with you”. He picked up a large stone, another grabbedMasson by the throat. Masson fought back and wrestled one of his adversaries tothe ground, but had not one of the other tribesmen with a better opinion of theregion intervened, Masson would certainly have been stoned. Things went downhillfrom there. Masson’s Pathan travelling companion, with whom he eventually partedcompany at Kandahar, grew ever more eccentric, and resorted to a series ofextraordinary deceptions to secure the goodwill and hospitality of the unfriendlyGhilzhe tribesmen. Sometimes he represented himself and Masson as wandering Sayyids,or descendants of the prophet. On another, he claimed that Masson was a destituteprince of the old royal family – flimsy disguises, especially given Masson’sunwillingness to dissemble by praying in the Islamic fashion, which nearly led tofurther violence.
Beyond Kandahar, where Masson stayed for a short while, taking the chance to beintroduced to the rulers of the city, Dost Mohammed’s half-brothers, things gotmuch worse. It was now the beginning of winter. The barren landscape had turnedeven more hostile. Nonetheless, Masson was determined to press on. Again takingonly a few copper coins and some trinkets, he set out alone on the road to thesouth-east, hoping that he could overtake a trade caravan that had set out forQuetta a couple of days earlier. However, he lost the way. His Pashto being atthis stage poor, he found it difficult to ask the few passers-by which directionto follow; they could not understand what he said, and reviled him for his inabilityto speak their language. He called in at the black tents of nomad encampments,seeking food and shelter, showing himself willing to pay for it. Each time hemight be given bread, but invariably at every stage he was robbed. Here, somecoins were stolen from him; there, his cup. At one tent, having eaten their bread,a man beat him, and wrenched off his outer coat. The next morning, the same mankicked Masson awake and reviled him for not saying his prayers; Masson then watchedspeechless the man used his stolen garment as a prayer mat. Others took him in,but merely plotted to sell him into slavery, before a sympathetic mullah intervened.Eventually, Masson was reduced to nothing but rags. He staggered round, followingany camel trail he could find in the hope that they might lead to the elusivecaravan. Freezing, he slept in ruined caravanserais or mills by the wayside, hissleep often disturbed by the hooting of nesting owls.
“Still, I did not despair,” says Masson, for he held that, in every case ofdanger, Divine Providence would come to his rescue. It did not fail him in thisextremity. Masson was eventually rescued by a party of Hajis, who were themselvesheading after the same caravan. Before long, they reached it, and Masson was takenin by one of its poorest members, a man named Mahomed Ali, responsible for leadingfour camels laden with pomegranates. Masson was sat in front of a fire, a hugeposteen, or sheep-fur mantle, was placed on his back, and he was left to work outthe stiffness that the cold had left in his limbs. Eventually, when he was ableto move, and his mind had turned to food, he was handed a “formidable long pole”,and told to go with some of Mahomed Ali’s friends. A little nonplussed, he followedthem to some of the more prosperous-looking tents in the caravan. Outside these,they started to shout “Allah, Allah”; the poles were used to keep at bay thecaravan’s ferocious guard dogs which rushed towards them when they came, andthus securing their safety, they begged their bread. It was in this manner thatMasson made his way to Quetta.
It was 1828, and Masson was not to return to the region of Afghanistan for anotherfour years. In the meantime, he rambled his way through Lahore and Multan, andeventually came to Karachi, where he took ship and sailed to Bushire, near themouth of the Persian Gulf. There, successfully masquerading under his assumedidentity as an American traveller from Kentucky, he made the acquaintance of theBritish consul, Major David Wilson. Wilson was immediately impressed by Masson,recognising his unique knowledge of a region that was becoming of great strategicinterest. Masson wrote for Wilson a paper summarising his travels to date, whichwas sent, along with a letter of introduction, to the British Mission at Tabriz.There, aside from what was likely to have been permanent anxiety over having tomaintain his false identity, he passed an exceedingly pleasant time in the companyof the British diplomats. He spent time discussing antiquities and history, usedthe Mission library to brush up his Greek, and made such an impression on theMinister, Sir John Campbell, that he decided to send Masson an occasional subsidyto support his work. Campbell’s support was to make a huge difference to Masson.He now had funds enough to mitigate the rigours of travel and, on reaching Afghanistan,to raise his attention above his daily sustenance and devote it to the matter ofhistorical research.
Masson returned to Kabul in 1832. “The day of my arrival was distinguished,” hesays, “by the presence in the bazaar of cherries, the first-fruits of the season”.It was a lyrical note that reflected his feelings about the city that was to behis main residence for the next six years. Whilst he did not much care for thenarrow and noisome streets of the city itself, he was captivated by the widerbeauty of the setting, the pleasant climate, the endless supply of fruits whichcame in from the environs. He leaves us an extensive picture of the city at thattime, from the cries of the hawkers in the bazaar, which he likens to those ofLondon, to the architecture of the citadel, or Bala Hissar, and the dilapidatedstate of the Emperor Babur’s famous tomb and pleasure gardens. There were thingsMasson loved about the city more than anything else. The first was its hospitality.In contrast to the treatment he had earlier received in the south, of Kabul Massonwrote that there were few places “where the stranger so soon feels at home”.Scarcely had he arrived in the city when he found himself besieged with invitationsto social gatherings, or parties in one of the city’s gardens, and within a monthhe had lost count with the number of new acquaintances he had made. The secondthing he admired was the tolerance and good feeling that existed between the city’sMuslims and Armenian Christian communities – something which according to Massonmarked it out from many other places in the Islamic world. “The Christian”, saysMasson, “is respectfully called a kitabi, or ‘one of the book’”. Muslims wouldattend the parties, weddings and funerals of Christians, and vice versa. Thecommunities would intermarry, exchange gifts on No Ruz or Christmas. When a Christianmentioned to an Afghan chief that someone had called him a kafir, or infidel, thechief replied “he that calls you a kafr is a kafr himself.”
Although Kabul was to be Masson’s permanent base, he would frequently travel farbeyond the city to pursue his researches. One of the first things he did in 1832was to join the entourage of a chief, Haji Khan, in a military tax-collectingexpedition to the Hazara territory in Central Afghanistan. Masson’s object was tovisit and inspect the Buddhas of Bamiyan. On route, he was also able to take inthe Fort of Zohhak, and the citadel of Gholgholeh, settlements both destroyed bythe armies of Ghenghis Khan. More than anything he saw in Afghanistan, it was thedesolate ruins of Gholgholeh with its empty streets, dilapidated mosques and tombs,and its view over the Buddhas of Bamiyan, that Masson found the most evocative andhaunting: “The traveller surveying from the height of Ghulghuleh, the vast andmysterious idols, and the multitude of caves around him, will scarcely fail to beabsorbed in deep reflection and wonder… The desolate spot itself has a peculiarsolemnity, not merely from its lonely and startling evidences of past grandeur, butbecause nature appears to have invested it with a character of mystery and awe. Thevery winds, as they whistle through its devoted pinnacles and towers, impart tonesso shrill and lugubrious as to impress with emotions of surprise the most indifferentbeing.” These noises of the winds howling in the ruins, which local legend held werethe ghostly lamentations of the population despatched by the Mongol armies, leftMasson transfixed. He describes how the sound of them would rivet his attention,and he would stop to gaze at the sight enwrapped in contemplation.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan Masson found equally enigmatic. His time there was brief,but he visited the caves, took notes of any inscriptions he found, and also, as wehave seen, left one of his own. It may seem surprising to us, but Masson was reluctantto qualify the monuments as Buddhist. We have to remember, of course, that knowledgeof the religion and its artefacts was at that time slim, and although he admittedthat they were possibly Buddhist, he thought that they were much more closely relatedto ancient Persia. He found coins which resembled the cave paintings, and conjecturedthat the Buddhas were in fact effigies of past kings, and that the whole sitewas in fact a dynastic burial place. He drew a comparison with the royal burialsin the sides of rock cliffs, for example near Persepolis, and, pointing to someof the unreachable cliff caves at Bamiyan which he conjectured might be tombs,suggested that it was something of the same order.
It is unfortunate for Masson that although he as a pioneer in unearthing much ofthe evidence for Buddhism in Afghanistan, he failed to recognise it as such. Itwas similarly the case for another variety of monument which Masson extensivelyexcavated: the stupas, also known to Masson as topes. These were tumuli, sometimesof great size and often ornamented with carved stone or stucco facings, whosefunction was to hold relics of the Buddha, or else to mark places of significancein his life. Examples of them were scattered liberally throughout the region ofKabul and into the Punjab. Masson had seen many of them on his travels, and, in1833 when he had returned from Bamiyan, he was eager to open one. He selected oneon a nobleman’s estate near Koh-i Takht-i Shah, a little south of Kabul, and withoutasking the owner’s permission, began to dig. Fortunately, the owner was sympathetic,and his sons even came out to help Masson in his work. In the course of a week, hefound within the stupa a number of arched recesses, supported by slender pillars.In these, he was to find a variety of artefacts: birch bark manuscripts in Nagari,an ancient Indian script; recumbent earthen figures entirely covered in gold leafwhich crumbled on exposure to the air; clay figurines of animals “precisely suchas the Hindus make at the present day and in no better taste”; and also two headsof the Buddha. These, he and all of his companions mistook for the heads of somebeautiful female deity. Not only they made the mistake. Masson took the heads toMahomed Akbar Khan, the son of the Ruler of Kabul, who was to be responsible forthe massacre of the 16,000 British and Indian troops on the retreat from Kabul in1842. Showing another side of his character, he was enraptured with the heads,bitterly lamenting that the beauties of art could not be realised in nature. Fromthis meeting, Masson won Mahomed Akbar Khan’s friendship and protection, whichwas of great assistance in pursuing this aspect of his research.
Over the next few years, Masson was to open around 40 stupas in the region ofKabul and Jalalabad. He was by no means the first person to excavate these structures:Dr Martine Honingberger, Maharaja Runjit Singh’s personal physician had made aninitial investigation of some of them a little before Masson, and in the Punjab,one of the largest, the Great Stupa of Manikyala had been opened by the Maharaja’sEuropean commanders, Ventura and Court. However, none were as thorough or ascapable as Masson. The records he left of his work, including extensive drawingsand illustrations, are without equal at the time. He developed an unparalleledtechnique for excavation and determining where within the giant mass of stone andearth hidden relics would lie. The antiquities he was able to unearth were legion,from the spectacular Bimaran Reliquary, now in the British Museum – a masterpieceof Buddhist art, a golden casket inset with garnets, embellished with figures ofthe Buddha and other deities – to coins of unknown Afghan kings from the KushanSilk Road Dynasty (1st-5th Century AD), Byzantine coins, seals, statues, funeraryurns, and fragments of birch bark manuscripts. He was also the first person toidentify the importance of Hadda, which would later be understood as one of themost sacred Buddhist sites in the region. Nonetheless, as with Bamiyan, Massonfailed to identify the stupas as being Buddhist monuments. He could not believethat such elaborate and occasionally massive structures could have been purely thepreserve of a religious foundation, and held that the wealth that must have goneinto constructing them must pointed to a connection with royalty. His conjecture,as with Bamiyan, was that the stupas were repositories for the ashes of kings andgreat magnates.
There were other areas where Masson’s speculations were rather closer to the mark.One of these was the search for traces of Alexander the Great. In 1833, asidefrom embarking on excavations of stupas, his curiosity was fired on learning thatinnumerable ancient coins, seals and trinkets were to be found, even lying on thesurface, of the plain of Bagram near Charikar, north of Kabul. With the onset ofspring, Masson made an expedition in that direction, not with the intention of makingexcavations, but rather surveying the general prospects for investigation. Hesuspected the region might have been the location for a city founded by Alexanderin 330 BC, Alexandria ad Caucasum, where his troops wintered before crossing theHindu Kush and confronting the remaining Persian and Scythian opposition beyond Balkhand the River Oxus. As Masson made his way through the villages along the route,many of which had been country resorts for the population of Kabul since the timeof the Emperor Babur, he began to hear more stories of how the ground teemed withrelics. The nomadic peoples, he heard, would collect ancient coins, almost as aharvest, and sell them to the Hindu money traders, who would duly see them melteddown and re-minted as new money. Masson began to make inquiries amongst the moneytraders and the local population, but at first they were not forthcoming. His merepresence had caused rumours to swill around the region that he had come to raisean army, or conscript forced labour into excavating the plain for him. Nonetheless,he persevered, and relying on his natural ability to gain the trust of the Afghans,he eventually won over the headmen of one of the villages. This man’s son, namedBaloch Khan, became one of Masson’s closest aides, and began to persuade the localpeople to cooperate with Masson’s researches. Their efforts were rewarded when anold man came to Masson to sell him a single defaced antique copper coin. With this,the floodgates opened, and the money traders allowed Masson to trawl their sacksof coin for anything that might interest him. Masson’s method was to pick out aselection of antique coin types, find out who had brought them, and from wherethey had come. By these means, Masson was both able to go directly to the originalpeople who had found the coins, and also know where himself to look. In this way,he was able to accumulate an enormous collection which grew at an almost exponentialrate. By the end of 1833, he had over 1,800 coins in his collection; by 1838,after many further visits, this had grown to around 80,000.
Masson’s collection, much of which is now in the British Museum and the FitzwilliamMuseum Cambridge, has been for scholars an invaluable window into the earlyhistory of Afghanistan. It is an extraordinary record not only of the innumerablekingdoms and peoples which inhabited this ‘roundabout of empires’, but also ofthe web of ancient international trade, of which Afghanistan was a pivotal part.The coins are of bronze, silver and gold, and depict the kings and gods of Byzantium,India, and Parthia; of the Kushan Empire, centred in the Kabul region, and alsothe nomadic White Huns, who overthrew them in the 5th century AD. Most importantlyof all, there were coins in Greek. With portrait heads of rulers astonishing intheir realism, they depicted rulers with Greek names – Diodotus, Demetrius,Menander –taking as their patrons both Greek and Indian gods – Heracles, Zeus andKrishna. They were the first recorded coins of the Greek Kingdoms of Afghanistanthat had succeeded the conquests of Alexander the Great. Masson had not onlymanaged to prove the truth of the ancient historians who had asserted the existenceof these kingdoms. He also managed to add the names of unknown kings to the historicalrecord, to help scholars to elaborate on the formerly opaque political history ofthe region, and also to prove the importance of the site of Bagram. Whilst it hasnot yet been proved beyond doubt as the site of an Alexandrian foundation – a properchance to do so will have to wait until it ceases to be an airbase– archaeologistswho followed Masson’s work there with further excavations in the 1950s showed itto be a vital centre of the Silk Road, unearthing astonishing treasures includinggold, Indian ivories, Greek statues and Roman glassware.
As much in Masson’s time as in the time of the Silk Road, Afghanistan was a meetingzone and point of conflict between different civilisations and kingdoms. And, whilstMasson took pleasure in speculating about the historical antecedents of the GreatGame – Alexander and the nomads, the ancient Indian empires and the Greek Kingdomsof the Hindu Kush – he began to find himself an unwilling player in the contemporaryincarnation of the perennial conflict. The wheels of the British intelligence-gatheringmachine in India ground slowly but surely. As Masson began to dispatch noticesof his research into Afghan antiquities, the British Political Officer in theforward station of Ludhiana, Captain Claude Wade, helped by a tip-off from JosiahHarlan, was able to unmask him as a deserter. Wade’s reaction, however, was notto find some way of gathering him in and bringing him to justice. Rather, he hadread Masson’s earlier accounts of his Afghan travels which had been passed to himby the Mission in Tabriz, and likewise he was impressed. He realised that he hadon his hands a person of unique expertise in an otherwise unknown land which waslikely to be the arena of future conflict with an expansionist Russia. He understoodthat Masson had a wealth of contacts, a fund of knowledge about Afghanistan’sgeography, culture, economy, and a deep and essential understanding of the people,based on his experience of communing with every level of Afghan society,. Despitethe fact that Masson had committed a capital offence, Wade wasn’t going to let suchan opportunity for intelligence gathering pass. In 1834, Wade, with the approvalof his superiors, began a tentative correspondence with Masson, who admitted hisstatus as a deserter and described his desire for re-admittance to the respectablestation in society that his desertion had cost him. Wade hinted that such a thingmight be possible, and Masson, in order to curry favour, began to compose occasionalreports about the political and economic state of Afghanistan. This was pleasingto Wade, but such was his desire for a continuous stream of new intelligence, thatit was not enough. In February 1835, he was able to present Masson with a faitaccompli – a full pardon had been obtained, lifting the threat of a death sentence,but in return he was to be appointed as the British agent in Kabul, charged withremitting regular intelligence dispatches on the situation there. His salary wasto be 250 rupees per month.
Although the threat which had hung over him for several years was now lifted,Masson did not find the task was congenial. He had hoped that he might receive apardon in return for writing occasional dispatches and reports. A regular postwould both erode the time available to him for archaeology and scholarship, andalso harm the relationships he had built with many Afghan friends. It was also notthe safest of times to be in the intelligence-gathering business. The city ofPeshawar had fallen to the Sikhs, and Dost Mohammed had seen his authority diminishin a clumsy attempt to regain it. His half-brothers, who still controlled Kandahar,were now agitating as never before to unseat him, and nameless plots were beinghatched by the supporters of the old deposed King, Shah Shuja, who now resided asa guest of the British. The atmosphere in Kabul grew foetid with rumour, conspiracyand counter-conspiracy, and armed men and veiled assassins passed in the streets.Some of them even, for reasons not fully clear, had Masson in their sights, butthanks to his vigilance, and remaining friends in high places, Masson was able toelude them.
Masson carried out his duties conscientiously, but became increasingly cantankerousand embittered. Perhaps in the trend of his behaviour – a permanent revolt againstfigures of authority upon whom he found himself unwillingly dependent, there isan echo of the relationship with his father, a perpetual instinct to rebel and runaway. Whatever its source, this unattractive side of his personality has meant thatmany later historians have not treated him with the weight that he deserves. Latein 1835, he tried to escape his obligations, resigning in fury when Wade was dilatorywith his wages, and attempted to prevent Masson corresponding with anybody, exceptthrough him. When the Government of India decided to send Alexander Burnes toconduct a mission to open the Indus to trade, and establish a commercial treatywith Kabul, Masson was full of disdain. When, he asked, was the Indus ever closedto trade? When were goods ever restricted from passing through Afghanistan toCentral Asia.. He feared that the real purpose of the mission was to needlesslyextend the sphere of British influence against a Russian threat he held to be achimera. When Burnes arrived, Masson became even more personal. He mocked hisobsequious and subservient attitude in Dost Mohammed’s durbar, reporting that hesaid “Gharib Nawaz”, “your humble petitioner” so often, that this became hisnickname. When a purported Russian agent, Vektavich, turned up in Kabul, attemptingto lure Dost Mohammed into an alliance with Russia, Masson poured scorn both onthe Indian government for not providing any incentives to secure Kabul’s supportagainst this threat, and on Burnes, for going beyond his brief and promising themmoney and political promises they could not deliver. Most damagingly of all, Massonclaimed that Burnes had filled his house in Kabul with “dark-eyed damsels” andoffended the morals of the city.
Masson was compelled to leave Kabul at the end of April 1838, after the Russianagent Vektavich gained the upper hand, and Burnes was refused admittance to DostMohammed’s court. The pair of them with the rest of the British mission left Kabulin such a hurry that Masson, unable to pack most of his effects, ended up distributingthem amongst his neighbours. No further official appointment came Masson’s way,and despite his desire to return to Kabul as a private citizen, he never did so,as a result of the political instability in the wake of the First Afghan War.
The way back to London for Masson was not smooth. At Balochistan’s capital, Kalat,taken under de facto British control in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan,Masson paused to assist the Political Officer, Lieutenant Loveday, who was dealingwith an uprising and siege. The story is an extraordinary one, too long to relatehere, save to say that the rebellion appears to have been sparked by Loveday’s habitof feeding to his pet bulldogs any local who might have displeased him. Massonstayed to help his deranged fellow countryman, using his original skills as anartilleryman to direct the defence against overwhelming odds, and then sharing hisfate as a maltreated prisoner in the hands of the rebels. However, when he was sentby them as a messenger to negotiate with the British at Quetta, the British tootook him prisoner, accusing him of collaborating with the enemy. He was held incustody for several months, often in disgraceful conditions of semi-starvation, andupon his eventual release in January 1841, he was neither compensated for hiswrongful imprisonment, nor the losses he incurred in the course of assisting inthe defence of Kalat. It is impossible not to conjecture that this shabby treatmentresulted from the lingering stigma which attached to him as a former deserter, andthe Indian Government’s resentment at his temerity in criticising the senior proponentsof the invasion..
1842 saw Masson’s final return to London and the publication of his travel memoirs,A Narrative of various journeys in Baluchistan, Afghanistan and the Punjab includinga residence in those countries from 1826 to 1838, by the publisher Richard Bentley.The more prestigious John Murray refused him on account of his attacks on the IndianGovernment, and perhaps also because of his accusations against Alexander Burnes,who was himself one of Murray’s authors. Besides his memoirs, he contributedsubstantially to a volume on the archaeology of Afghanistan, Ariana Antiqua, byProfessor H.H. Wilson, including an entire illustrated section on his excavationsof stupas. But beyond this, he did little more that was genuinely useful. By thetime of his return to London, Masson’s father had died. He was reunited with hismother, who lived with him until her death. He also married a woman 26 years hisjunior, one Mary Anne Kilby, and by her fathered two children. This period of hislife was spent moving from house to house in the London suburbs which Masson musthave known from his youth – Stoke Newington, Kentish Town – and his frequent changeof lodging might suggest that in his retirement he was unable to shake off thenomadic restlessness which had originally led him to Afghanistan. During this timehe did lecture once to the Royal Asiatic Society and also produce a compilation ofAfghan legends, but it seems he was primarily occupied with spinning out his observationsof Afghanistan into more far-fetched theories about anthropology and the great racemovements of antiquity. Attempting to reconcile biblical history with his practicalresearches, he suggested that Afghanistan and Central Asia were peopled with thelost ten tribes of Israel rather than migrants from the distant north-east, andadduced proof for this by pointing to the occurrence of “Kabul” as a place-namein the Book of Kings. Perhaps fortunately for his future reputation, his attemptsto organise further expeditions to Afghanistan in the late 1840s in order toinvestigate this further came to nothing.
Charles Masson died on 5th November 1853 in Lower Edmonton at the early age of53 and his voluminous collection of papers, drafts, correspondence and drawingsnow reside in the Oriental and India Office Collection of the British Library.
One might ask why in this century we should read Masson. His memoirs in many placesare heavy, overwhelming in their level of detail and frequently difficult to follow.However, Masson stands as undoubtedly the greatest observer of Afghan politicsand society in the run-up to the First Afghan War. More than any other writer, hegives us an understanding of how the country operates, and of the inescapablegeo-political stresses which constantly weigh upon it. His observations containparallels and echoes of the present situation which it is impossible to ignore.Anyone who chooses to immerse themselves in his work as a way to illuminate thecomplexities of Afghanistan’s current travails will find themselves amply rewarded.Politics aside, his work there as a pioneering archaeologist and researcher,labouring under an almost an intolerable strain and threat of danger to unravelsome of the most wondrous mysteries of the Silk Road, is a story that is asglamorous as anything achieved by Heinrich Schliemann at Troy, or Howard Carterin Egypt; it deserves to be better known. Beyond this, it is Masson’s near-uniqueexperience as a traveller which compels our attention.
It is hard to better the verdict of Sir Thomas Holdich, “Masson assumed the roleof Afghan travellers, living with the people, partaking of their hospitality,studying their ways, discussing their politics, and placing themselves on termsof familiarity, if not of intimacy with their hosts which has never been imitatedsince… No-one ever now assumes the dress of the Afghan and lives with him. No onejoins a caravan and sits over the nightly fire discussing bazaar prices or thecharacter of a chief. A hurried rush to Kabul, a few brief and badly conductedinterviews with the Amir, and the official foreign policy representative… returnsas an Afghan oracle, but with no more real knowledge of the real inwardness ofAfghan political aspiration.”
To Holdich’s masterly commentary, there is little more that I can add.