The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia by Peter Hopkirk

The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia by Peter Hopkirk

Author:Peter Hopkirk
Language: eng
Format: mobi, epub
Tags: Non-fiction, Travel, #genre, Politics, War, History
ISBN: 9780719564475
Publisher: John Murray
Published: 2006-01-02T00:00:00+00:00

But even now the Central Asian tragedy was not quite over for the British. Throughout that year the unfolding story had dominated the headlines both in India and at home. Deep anxiety had been felt over the fate of the hostages, particularly the women and children, and news of their release unharmed sent a wave of relief and rejoicing through the nation. Then, just as the celebrations ordered by Lord Ellenborough in India were getting under way, chilling news reached the British Mission in Teheran. It was brought by a young Persian, once employed by Arthur Conolly, who had just returned from Bokhara. Conolly and Stoddart, whose plight had been all but forgotten in the wake of the Kabul catastrophe, were, he reported, both dead. It had happened, he said, back in June, when Britain’s reputation as a power to be feared in Central Asia was at rock bottom. Furious at receiving no reply to his personal letter to Queen Victoria, and no longer worried by any fear of retribution, the Emir of Bokhara had ordered the two Englishmen, then enjoying a brief spell of freedom, to be seized and thrown back into prison. A few days later they had been taken from there, with their hands bound, and led into the great square before the Ark, or citadel, where stood the Emir’s palace. What followed next, the Persian swore, he had learned from the executioner’s own lips.

First, while a silent crowd looked on, the two British officers were made to dig their own graves. Then they were ordered to kneel down and prepare for death. Colonel Stoddart, after loudly denouncing the tyranny of the Emir, was the first to be beheaded. Next the executioner turned to Conolly and informed him that the Emir had offered to spare his life if he would renounce Christianity and embrace Islam. Aware that Stoddart’s forcible conversion had not saved him from imprisonment and death, Conolly, a devout Christian, replied: ‘Colonel Stoddart has been a Mussulman for three years and you have killed him. I will not become one, and I am ready to die.’ He then stretched out his neck for the executioner, and a moment later his head rolled in the dust beside that of his friend.

News of their brutal murder sent a wave of horror through the nation, but short of sending another expedition across Afghanistan to deal with this petty tyrant, there was precious little that could be done about it. Even at the risk of losing further face in Central Asia, the Cabinet decided that it would be better if the whole unfortunate affair were quietly forgotten. However, angry friends of the dead men, who blamed their deaths on the government’s abandonment of them, were determined not to let this happen. Some even believed that the Persian might have been lying, and that the two officers might, after all, still be alive. A subscription was raised, and a brave but highly eccentric clergyman, the Reverend Joseph Wolff from Richmond, Surrey, volunteered to travel to Bokhara to ascertain the truth.


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