"Mapping the Great Game" | Agitating the chessboard
The Great Game left it’s mark on modern history with its tales of intrigue and exotic travels – the book is an homage to its many players – from famous British adventures to nameless Pundit cartographers as they struggled through an absurd game; elaborates Arnav Jha
The Great Game has an interesting place in history. During its course, its players considered the game to have implications for the larger future of the world but owing to its place in history and how its outcome was far from conclusive, with the events making up the Great Game being prone to get lost in the historical mosh pit that is the nineteenth and twentieth century. As an Indian, what is even more interesting about the Great Game is that even though India was the Crown jewel of the prize that the players fought for, the events itself are not significant to our history. Much of that is because those events coincided with explosive happenings in Indian history that occupied the public imagination at that time such as the revolt of 1857. But a lot of this is because India, quite simply, was in no position to hold any stake in the game, its fate was to remain a prize that is contested by foreign players.
All the same, the Great Game was foundational in many respects to the ways of countries in the modern half of history. Its aftershocks continued into the Cold War and some maintain that they have continued influencing the fate of some of the players even today. But first, before getting into the book and its connection to this real-life game of thrones and spies, a basic background is required to explain the game itself and why it was important to its players.
The Great Game, in short, was the political and diplomatic confrontation that played out between the British Empire and the Russian for control of Central and South Asia. The Russian’s were already key players in the region, having secured a substantial portion of Asia under its empire and the British were relative newcomers, fresh off their success in beating back the threat of a dominant France under Napoleon. The English feared that the Russians would use their access to the continent to add India to its growing empire. The Russians conversely feared that the British would use their foothold in India to access the rest of Asia. Both would require Afghanistan and its surrounding states to act as buffer states between the two great European powers and fought a series of battles, some proxy, others more straightforward, to assert their control. Starting with the conclusion, it was a pointless and comically mistimed series of miscommunications. Many later day historians have concluded that the Russians had neither interest nor capability to add India to its empire, navigating the various barriers in their path. Britain, similarly had no capability or leeway to make advances on Russian interests, though it must be stated that they had all the intent to do so and only followed due to ground realities. While Russia wished to establish Afganisthan as some kind of Neutral zone, the British had plans to establish it as a protectorate in a bid to keep Russian interests from gaining a foothold in the Indian Ocean region. The game would see future continuations in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as part of the larger games of influence played out during the Cold War. It was a tale of excitement and many spy games played out for territories that were scarcely understood by those who hoped to hold it.
It is in this context that this book finds its relevance. Unlike Peter Hopkirk’s well-known recounting of the Great Game, which is replete with accounts of adventure and military conflict, Diaz’s narrative is more centered around the cartographers, the map makers who played part-time adventurers and spies when needed, dull men in a sense who did extraordinary work in not so ordinary times.
While Hopkirk makes use of the story of Captain Arthur Conolly to tell part of his tale, Diaz mentions him in passing. Conolly was important for being the first to use the phrase ‘The Great Game’ and also for being one of the early players who had a short but tragic end to his game when he was executed. Diaz rather focuses his narrative on less adventurous fellows like William Lambton, who made it his job to map the Indian subcontinent. Suitably, the book provides various maps and explanations for cartographical terms and practices. But just because its a book about maps and map makers doesn’t mean its devoid of the explorers and spies that are promised in the title. Those make the bulk of the tales, a substantial appetizer that prepares you to deal with the maps which make the main dish in this figurative meal. The maps I would argue are most fitting here as any story of conquest and exploration starts somewhere down the line with a map and a mapmaker. It’s part of the process and Diaz does a good job of making it approachable and easy enough to read.
To conclude, I would say that while Mapping the Great Game is a book more suitable for those more academically inclined, it has its fair share of thrills and trivia to fill out your daily requirement for fun based self-improvement and can even give you some half baked ideas to discuss with confidence whenever someone brings up colonialism or whatever else constitutes ‘fun’ party conversation topics these days. This one gets a solid three and a half out of five.