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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter X - The Cutchee and Beloochistan Frontier: 1876-8


AT this juncture, in addition to the account of Beloochistan and its people, it is expedient to break the narrative of Browne’s personal career by dealing with the case of his double, to which allusion has already been made in Chapter VI. It has been stated that a young English officer retired from the service, intending to lead a life of travel and adventure, and that this officer bore a singular resemblance to Browne. Our narrative will now deal with these travels and adventures until, owing to that resemblance, he came, in a marked manner and with singular results, into Browne’s story.

Our double at first retired from Peshawur into the neighbouring hill tracts, studied hard at Pushtoo, Persian, Arabic, and such other Oriental languages as might be useful, and there fell in with an enterprising Mullah named Abdul Razak; took a strong liking to him, which led by degrees to warm and lasting friendship; and under his guidance got thoroughly initiated into Afghan and Mahomedan ways and habits. They soon agreed to travel together in Oriental lands as merchants; and, as a first step, he crossed the frontier with his friend, disguised as a Mullah, with the assumed name of Ishmael Ali.

Then they joined a kafila (or caravan) travelling by Bokhara, Merv, Persia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople. After a prolonged halt there, where they had added to their position and means by the study and practice of medicine and of mesmerism, they went still farther afield, made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and so became hajees and people of importance, whatever the community into which they might be thrown.

In this prosperous state as hajees, as traders, and as doctors and mesmerists, they first returned to Constantinople, and thence proceeded back to Herat, and Ghuznee, and so on to Cabul—not retracing their steps, but adopting a new route.

At Mecca they had been presented by the Shereef with a special copy of the Koran, and they now decided to present this to the Ameer of Cabul, Shere Ali. In due course, after reaching Cabul, they appeared before the Ameer, presented the Koran, were graciously received, and after an interval went south to Abdul Razak’s family village of Deela, near Mukkur and Lake Abistade, which lie on the east of the road from Ghuznee to Khelat-i-Ghilzie, halfway between them. There, in course of time, he married and settled down.

Ishmael Ali was obviously a man of much shrewdness, spirit, and enterprise; in physique he was very powerful and sturdy, and fond of athletics—and in appearance had grown very like Browne, with the same eyes, face, beard, and figure. While at Deela, he continued to pose as a Mullah and a doctor, acquired a reputation for sanctity, and was much resorted to and noticed. He entered fully into Afghan family life, and became a great favourite in the local circles, his only peculiarity—for which he used to be chaffed—being his making a pet, contrary to all native propriety, of a dog which he always had with him. To the Ameer and others he made no secret of being an Englishman, but in his habits and ways, manner of life and demeanour, acted fully up to his assumed rble of Mahomedan Mullah.

It is not known in what year Ishmael Ali settled down at Deela or Mukkur; but assuming it to have been about 1870—i.e. five years after his start over the Peshawur borders—he would in the course of the next four years—i.e. by 1874-5—have become known to many of the Pathans and Ghilzyes who travelled to the Quetta frontier either by the direct road from Cabul to Candahar, or by the eastern passes to the Derajat and Beloochistan.

Hence it was that Ghilzyes and others who travelled southwards through Mukkur, and then wandered about in Beloochistan, where Browne had begun to survey and work, were struck by his resemblance to the Mullah, and talked to each other of it.

Further, any mysterious idea Šn the point, or on the consequent question of identity, was strengthened by the fact, to which further allusion will be made later on, that the veritable Mullah had now begun to be employed by the Ameer, being sent southwards to Candahar and elsewhere to ascertain and report on the proceedings of the British and others in that quarter—the more so because he, the Ameer, had quarrelled with the Ghilzye clan, who would naturally have been his agents for such inquiries. Hence arose the fact that the travelling Afghan community and the Ghilzyes especially began in 1876 to assert that Browne was the Mullah in disguise. And from this fact, another followed—most important—that he went about amongst all these wild folk and the swarms of fanatics in perfect safety, impervious to the attack of Ghazees and the like.

The task which had been now assigned to Browne was twofold: one the reconnaissance, in view of roads and railroads, between Sukkur and Quetta, including the Cutchee Plain and the passes from it to Pesheen, all lying in Beloochistan; and the other the setting out across that plain of an alignment for a road or railway from Sukkur to Dadur, at the foot of the Bolan Pass.

This apparently involved only the examination, from an engineer’s point of view, of a comparatively small tract of country; but Browne, with his thoughtful mind and broad views, saw that even the engineer part of the question he had to deal with was not really a small, but a very serious and extensive one, stretching far beyond the area designated—and that in addition to this the subject was gravely affected by our relations with the border tribes, and by the outlook from the action and bearings of the Afghanistan and Eastern questions, and was consequently of greatpolitical, as well as engineer, importance.

To take the latter points first, he had not hitherto, either at Sukkur or elsewhere, seen much of the real Beloochees, and he was now surprised and pleased to find them a much heartier and pleasanter people to get on with than the Pathans and than he had expected; but at the same time he realised another fact, that in the more hilly ground between the plains and Pesheen, Afghans and Pathans, and not Beloochees only, were in great numbers—and fanatic Pathans roamed about freely. Further, the Afghanistan and Eastern questions were advancing into a more prominent and acute stage, and, as already touched on, a great change had occurred in the political outlook since the days when Lord Mayo was Governor-General. The Ameer, who was then on the most friendly terms with us, had since become alienated and irritated by the decision in the arbitration regarding the province of Seistan, of which he was now to retain only a portion. And at the same time the persistent advances and absorptions of Russia, and the diplomacy of her agents, especially with the Ameer, were making vigorous and decisive action necessary on the part ol the British Government Browne had begun to watch this matter keenly; and in these circumstances, and one other—the matter of his double—no more fortunate selection than that of Browne could have been made for the task which he had now in hand. To himself it was of great value, because it led to his seeking for and acquiring a still more thorough knowledge of those border tribes and their complications, and of the numerous bearings of the Afghanistan and Eastern questions, and to his soon discriminating between the real people of the country and the aliens.

While Browne was engaged on his initial steps, the Government and the Khan of Khelat were awaiting the receipt from England of the treaty which had been proposed for more intimate relations with the Khan; and now before the year was over, and while Browne was hard at work, the treaty arrived.

The first overt step taken was the dispatch to Beloochistan in early autumn, 1876, of the inevitable Colonel Colley to influence the Khan towards its proper adoption. The phrase “inevitable” is used of set purpose, for from this time forward all the customary official agency for any particular task was set aside, and Colley was substituted for it. The result was, for a time at any rate, a success—and very shortly after Colley appeared in Beloochistan came the Viceroy himself, who in the end made much of the Khan, and invited him to attend the great durbar at Delhi then impending, for the proclamation of the Queen as Empress of India.

Colonel Colley had presented the proposed treaty to the Khan and also the invitation to the impending gathering at Delhi, and on November 8th Lord Lytton carried through the treaty. Its objects were:

1. The maintenance of our commanding influence in Khelat.
2. A strong and settled Government
3. The freedom and security of the Bolan Pass.
4. The pacification of the Cutchee plains.
5. Arrangements for Quetta.

Since then, the Bolan Pass has never been closed; and although the local tribes and people were very warlike and had never been settled heretofore, Browne was surveying away among them, exciting their curiosity with his instruments and proceedings, and carrying his life in his hand. Still, as his manner was, he gradually became known and popular among the people—and no evil ever occurred.

In the south, towards Sukkur and Quetta and Beloochistan generally, much more real activity— not merely these diplomatic proceedings—had been started. There was genuine hard work in hand. The old turmoils have been described, and Sande-man’s difficulties in the management of the Belooch chiefs and clans. Now, however, he had at last begun to acquire personal influence with the Khan of Khelat, the Jons et origo mali—and the more formal negotiations, pressed by Lord Lytton, were also being settled, as it was a matter of grave moment that this territory of Beloochistan, on the southern borders of Afghanistan, should be not only quiet, but friendly, during the impending struggle. Browne, too, as a matter of course, was vigorously engaged on his survey.

Meanwhile, besides the survey, he had the specific duty to carry out of laying down the alignment of the road towards the passes—and this task he performed in the course of his survey work on this wild and new country, where every man’s hand seemed to be against every one else. But his old bonhomie carried him through it all. The people, as usual, took a liking to him; and while he used to hear of barbarities all round, he was never seriously molested. His use of his astronomical and other instruments, and little useful, though almost childish, presents for which he had arranged, interested and pleased the chiefs and people; and he really became a power with them. He pulled thoroughly well with Sandeman and received his hearty support—the more especially that the results of his survey and other work were most useful and valuable to Sandeman’s administrative wants during these early rough days of the beginning of a civilised Beloochistan.

In proceeding with his survey, then, and his alignment, during which he was alone and without escort, he found it at first pleasanter, as has been mentioned, than he had expected, owing to the genial character of the Beloochees; but in the higher ground nearer the northern border the great mixture of races in the inhabitants made the work there harder, though altogether he was enabled in the end to acquire a very correct knowledge of the measures necessary for the utilisation of the passes.

What, however, involved a wider and more serious question was the engineer treatment of the tract in the plain along the foot of the hill country through which the passes ran. In his early charge on the Punjab frontier, his duty had taken him as far south as the Kusmore embankment, and he had been always impressed with its liability to being breached by exceptional floods in the Indus and with the consequences that might ensue. Now, therefore, in dealing with the question of routes for railway and other communications, he held that this point demanded careful consideration, and consequently he continued his reconnaissance of the plain between the Indus and the hills more eastwards up to Kusmore, and learnt by his levels that a breach of the embankment would, to a certainty, permanently interrupt any road communication between Sukkur (with the Indus Valley Railway there) and the hills at Quetta— for this reason, that through the whole length of that Cutchee Plain there ran a hollow depression, which would form a new channel for the waters of the Indus on their escaping through the Kusmore breach.

He had been on this survey all through the winter of 1876-7, and had received direct instructions on particular points from the Viceroy himself, in accordance with Lord Lytton’s exceptional practice; and by March, 1877, he had ascertained all this, besides including the Dadur district within his inquisition— and still more, he had, as already mentioned, located a portion of a line of railway between Sukkur and Sibi, the entrance of the Bolan Pass. Though he had been practically alone on this survey, he had been again brought much into contact with Sir G. Molesworth, under whom he had been engaged on the Sukkur Bridge designs, and a very warm friendship had now sprung up between them; and he had hoped to be allowed to plot his work at Simla and be able to explain matters to the Viceroy—but this was negatived.

He therefore arranged to send his family to England, and then without further delay he went to Mooltan and there drew up his report; in which, besides dealing with the points that had been proposed to him and criticising them fully, he went farther, and boldly suggested and explained the much more extensive operations which the lie of the country and the weak points of the Kusmore embankment made necessary—especially in view of the aspect of affairs in Afghanistan and the possible effects of the insidious advance of Russia.

What he suggested was that to ensure safe communication with Sibi and Quetta a line should be made across the Indus from Mooltan to Dera Ghazee Khan, and should proceed thence parallel to the Indus, entirely beyond the reach of any possible consequences of a breach at Kusmore, along the safe side of the Cutchee Plain on the right bank down to Sibi and the foot of the passes opposite Sukkur.

It was in May, 1877, that he submitted this report It was a remarkable paper, and necessarily excited Lord Lytton’s immediate attention, the more so that the anxiety about Cabul was increasing, and the outlook in the case of the Russians being successful in the war then going on with Turkey, by the capture of Kars or otherwise, might cause very serious complications and difficulties.

The result of this report was that in June Browne was summoned to Simla, where he had hitherto usually felt himself out of touch, but where he now found his brother-in-law Pierson and his old comrade Blair. His report was quickly discussed and approved; and the Viceroy went farther, and, drawing away from railway and turning to frontier and political matters, held discussions with him on them almost daily, Browne living at Government House for a part of the time; which all led to the engineer work, the subject of his report, being assigned to others to deal with, while Browne himself was posted instead to the Foreign Department, as a special officer on Lord Lytton’s own staff, but detached temporarily as a political officer—to watch, and report to him direct on the wild tribes lining the Pesheen border; especially one Pathan clan of primary local importance called the “Kakurs.” He was, in Lord Lytton’s own words, to “keep open the door of the Kakur country.”

While Browne was at Simla, there had been a fanatical episode at Quetta, where much engineer work had been going on. Some Ghazees had rushed through the works, and killed one officer and wounded another.

This Kakur work, though it lay actually in Beloochistan, was so much on its northern frontier that Browne was brought into much closer contact with the Pathans there than with the Beloochees generally.

Meanwhile, it may be observed, although it was in Central Asia that the proceedings of the Russians were causing anxiety and being watched in India, the incidents and possibilities of their war with Turkey were really of primary importance. Lord Salisbury was personally present at Constantinople, and taking part in the Conference there. The comparative gravity of the questions involved may be gathered from the fact that, in the face of all that was going on, the most prominent event that occurred was the Czar’s assurance, on his honour, that he had no desire to acquire Constantinople.

Having described Browne’s own employment and career during the earlier part of his work in Beloochistan at this period, it is necessary, before we proceed farther with it, to refer to the measures and action of the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, the more especially that, as already noted, his rule was a very personal one and affected his officers very seriously, especially those who had been selected for duties in which he took any personal interest.

It will be remembered that he had taken over the viceroyalty and at once proceeded to Simla in April, 1876. His chief work in that year lay in connection with the Afghan question, and in efforts to induce the Ameer to have an English representative at his court—efforts which, it need hardly be said, failed entirely. But they were still going on when he visited Beloochistan before the end of the year, made a treaty with the Khan, and led him and his chiefs to attend at Delhi on the occasion, on the next New Year’s day, of the fete in honour of the proclamation of Her Majesty as Empress of India. During the greater part of 1877 the Afghanistan question was still the all-important political topic; but Lord Lytton, though he apparently thought otherwise, was not making any real way with it, the Ameer never seriously meaning business in the direction desired. Other very grave matters were also occupying him, such as the famine in Madras and Mysore and the dispatch of Indian troops to Malta, on the outbreak of war between Russia and Turkey. There were troubles also on the frontier, and the Jowaki tribes were being coerced.

The only person besides himself whom he was allowing a potential voice in the conduct of affairs was Colonel Colley; and at this Jowaki business he, a novice, proposed to teach the experienced frontier officers the advantages, of which he held them ignorant, in the use of rifles, muskets, and so forth. He was not disabused of the true merits of the case till he proceeded to wander over the position and suddenly found himself face to face with a very large force of the hill men, who had long been quietly watching the British force (as its officers well knew), but hidden in the broken ground and rocks like Roderick Dhu’s warriors.

Lord Lytton had also been devising important, if not crucial, measures—useful, important, and easy enough after the long previous inertness of the Government. One of these was the formation into a new province, and the removal from the Punjab sphere, of all the British trans-Indus territory; and the charge of this was to have been assigned to General (as he was then, but now Field-Marshal Earl) Roberts. He was the Quartermaster-General of the army, and had drawn up a memorandum on frontier questions which had greatly attracted Lord Lytton. But events were then hurrying too fast to enable action to be taken on it, and the specific measure proposed—the formation of a Frontier Province—was postponed till Lord Curzon’s rule. This was a matter in which Browne took the deepest interest, as will be seen from his paper on the subject, written not very long before his death.

Some changes were meanwhile taking place or impending both in the official circles and op the Viceroy’s staff, and the first change, though a very brief one, was Colley’s visit to England. Then the Private Secretary was transferred to the India Office, to which too Sir Henry Norman was shortly posted as a member of the Council. He was a dissentient from most of Lord Lytton’s views.

In addition to the few changes that have been mentioned, it must be noted that there was almost a transformation scene in the Inner Council of the more important and trusted officers of Government—the most serious ones, especially in respect of the frontiers, being the prominent positions assigned to Sir Lewis Pelly and to Cavagnari, the former unknown except as a Bombay political officer, and the latter a very vigorous and energetic Punjab frontier officer with soldierly proclivities of the old Edwardes and Nicholson type. Except these and the few other favourites who enjoyed the viceregal confidence, all others were nowhere.

Lord Lytton was now quite satisfied with the watch over the southern borders of Afghanistan; but the dealings with the northern frontier and the threatening aspect of the political outlook there were what was causing him anxiety. While he had been engaged with Afghanistan—that is, in efforts to come to terms with the Ameer—Russia had been making advances towards the same quarter, but with much greater success, and had also been repeating the old r6le of 1854 towards Turkey and the interests of England in that direction. She had declared war with Turkey, and had evidently been expecting a walk over; but Plevna and the genius of the Turkish generals had been a lion in her path, and the strife was now ending, under Lord Salisbury’s politic iflnuence in the treaty of San Stefano. Still the situation there, t.e. in the neighbourhood of Turkey, was one of great irritation, especially with the court of Russia.

At the same time, as has been already pointed out, the Russian powers or ministers concerned directly with Turkey and those regions were not those that dealt with Afghanistan—viz. the Turkestan representatives of Russia; who, in fact, acted perfectly independently, in accordance with the practice1 Lord Palmerston showed to be habitual with them.

During the period 1876-7, with which we have been dealing, the action of Russia had certainly been mainly in the direction of Turkey, as has been shown. But, though no very prominent or glaring steps had yet been taken on the north of Afghanistan, her movement there had been serious, though not easily recognisable. In fact, in that direction she had latterly been blundering to a certain extent, and leaving too large a gap between her two spheres of operation there, Krasnovodsk on the Caspian, and Khiva to the east. But Kaufmann had not been idle in respect of attention to Afghanistan and of measures to correct the situation—a situation which, in the meanwhile, was of momentous advantage to Lord Lytton in giving him breathing time for the necessary counteraction. For “Masterly Inactivity” would no longer answer. Quiet emissaries had already been beginning to appear at Cabul and pave the way for more overt diplomacy, insinuating that the attention of England was fully occupied in the Mediterranean, and that the Ameer was really free to enter on a specific and independent alliance with Russia, for which alliance, Kaufmann, the Governor-General of Turkestan, was, on his part, ready to take immediate steps. Suggestions were made of a formal alliance to be framed as between two potentates. The Ameer was cajoled in a ludicrous manner, treated as a political and military equal, and encouraged to pose as the representative of Islam and to declare a jehad (religious war) against the English. But specifically hostile correspondence with England did not begin till the end of 1877, though the Ameer had already shown his temper by taking no notice of the Viceroy’s invitation to the Empress Durbar of the previous January. He had become sufficiently arrogant—in contrast with his submissive attitude a few years before—to act as if he were the actual master of the situation, playing oiT Russia against England; though in his heart he realised, and was annoyed at, the weapon against him which the Russians had at their command, in the presence with them of the rival claimant to the throne of Cabul—his brother Abdurrahman.

In October, 1877, Browne started from Simla in his new position in the Foreign Department and on the personal staff of the Viceroy, for the exceptional political duty of watching the Afghan frontier where occupied by the Kakur Pathans. In accordance with the Viceroy’s wishes, his first step was to equip himself thoroughly for the very special diplomacy and varied functions that he would have to carry out—the survey of the district, the watch over the proceedings on the frontier, the acquisition of personal influence with the tribesmen, and the enlisting of their good-will in favour of the British.

To this end he first went to Roorkee, where he provided himself not only with all the astronomical and other instruments and appliances, the serious equipment needed for his surveys, but also with knicknacks, and cheap watches, and the like, turned out at the workshops there for presents to native gentry and others. Thence he turned his face towards the Kakur frontier, joined there about the end of the month, and never left it, except for Afghan territory, till the first part of the Afghan war was ended and he was no longer wanted for it.

For this new and novel task of keeping open the door of the Kakur country no specific orders or instructions were given to Browne, except that he was not to cross the frontier into it. But there was no doubt as to the results aimed at, and the understanding that he was to effect them by his own wits. He was therefore given a free hand.

His object, then, as already explained, was to be the acquisition of such influence with the Kakurs specially, and with the wild and independent tribes generally beyond our frontier in that direction, and the winning of such regard and confidence from them, that in the event of war or troubles with Afghanistan they would be friendly towards us, and at least refrain from siding against us or molesting us. He was to win the personal regard of their chiefs, so as to sway their action in the impending crisis; he was to effect this not only without crossing the frontier, but also without showing any desire to do so or to meddle with them.

These Kakurs were not Beloochees, but Pathans, like the Afreedees and Ghilzyes with whom he had to do in his early days, very passionate and fanatical. From his special aptitude and his command of their language (Pushtoo) he had then won their confidence and acquired exceptional influence. He hoped to do the same now, adopting the same methods and bonhomie, the same frank and fearless heartiness, and making the most of his being the only British officer there who could speak their language. The clan was a very large and powerful one, much larger than the Afreedees —and this they had to be, to hold their own, for the Beloochee tribes in immediate contact with them, such as the Murrees and Bhoogtees, were also very large and powerful, and more brave and warlike.

But his task lay not merely in connection with the Kakurs, but with the frontier and neighbouring districts generally, in getting all the information he could, and in the best ways he could, surveying, exploring, disguising himself if need be, and so forth; and it was for these ends that he had been so careful before starting for the work to collect the needful instruments and articles for presents from Roorkee and elsewhere. Disguises were taken, in compliance with specific orders; but he rarely, if ever, used them, and had no faith in them.

To take up this appointment he travelled from Mooltan by Dera Ghazee Khan and Hurrund and the skirts of the Kakur country up to Dadur; thence through the Bolan Pass to Quetta; and finally returned to Dadur and took a brief run to Khelat, the capital. This gave him that further knowledge of the topography of the district which he felt to be essential for the work that was probably before him, in regard not merely to the Kakurs, but also to his relations with other tribes, and the probability of local disturbances and operations in the event of hostilities with Afghanistan. He had also, he felt, gained such insight as was necessary into local and secret politics and the causes of the outbreaks and feuds to which there seemed to be so great a tendency.

A circumstance that at once pleased him greatly, and led him to hope that there might be plain sailing after all, was the kindly help and support he received from Colonel Sandeman, the G.G.A. (Govemor-General’s Agent). The two seemed to be in entire agreement; and these cordial relations remained unabated throughout their residence in Beloochistan till Sandeman died there in harness in 1892, and, as will be seen, was succeeded by Browne.

To turn now to the management of the Kakurs, the primary object of his mission. His method in dealing with them, as he was forbidden to cross the borders, was in the first place to avoid all obtrusiveness, but in the next to allow them easy and free access to his own camp and tent, to establish such a camaraderie as they would understand, to entertain their chiefs whenever they appeared, and to avoid all outward precautions and signs of distrust So they walked in and out as they pleased, exchanged pinches of snuff, and talked freely with him. Also, when carrying out work at Quetta and elsewhere, he was careful to attract these Kakurs to it, and pay them well; and in general to establish pleasant and influential relations with them. In order to do all this steadily and effectively he had to live in camp on those borders for more than a year, which, needless to say, involved risk, exposure, and privation. There was but little of incident to record, but the result was entire success, as these two facts will indicate.

(1) When war eventually broke out a year afterwards, instead of being the deadly enemies of the English as had been expected, the Kakurs never, throughout the whole campaign, fired a shot against the advancing troops, or annoyed them at all from Sibi to Khwaja Amran.

(2) They, further, deliberately and strongly and of their own motion informed the Ameer that we had treated them so well that not a Kakur would join against us.

Thus was accomplished the special task for which Browne had been deputed to this frontier, and, in addition, as he knew it to be desired, he had acquired such local knowledge, and shown such aptitude for dealing with these tribes and for the duties of a political officer, that Lord Lytton kept him there for employment in that capacity in case of the outbreak of war.

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