The Long 18th Century : rise and fall of the Great Game

When John Mearshimer wrote his book, the Tragedy of Great Power politics, he used the term tragedy for a reason. The ‘tragedy’ of great power politics is summed up by the phrase – uncertainly of intentions. Because one actor does not know what his opponent will do – one must assume he will do the wort. Therefore, every actor on the international stage must prepare for the worst.

Because, as Paul Kennedy also reminds us, the rise of a great power is always coterminous with the fall of another. If you want to persist, you have to prevent.

So, this is going to be a key dynamic that we will see in the great game. The structure of this essay is largely going to be built around telling a narrative history of the rise by activating the geopolitical web of power and the clash of perceptions due to uncertainty, of these two Empires. And, many smaller polities caught in between.

Since we mentioned tragedy let us begin with death. The death of Peter the Great, the first Tsar of Russia.

In January 1725 the winter in Russia was even gloomier than usual, the Empire was in mourning for its first emperor. Peter has been sole Tsar of Russia since 1696, for a few years before that he had ruled jointly with his step brother. In 1721, he had become Russia’s first Emperor.

The Russia that Peter has inherited had been a kingdom set in the middle of the west Eurasian plain. Since the era of the Scythians, numerous kingdoms have risen and fallen and have become quaint artefacts of history in this west Eurasian plain : the Huns, the Kumans, the Avars, the Khazars, even the grand Lithuanian Empire. Russia could have easily become one of these instead of the behemoth that it is.

If you know something of Peter you’d know he was known as a reformer. What he was was an institution builder. I’m not going to talk about his cultural reformation : but in terms of the web of power, from 1698, Peter focused on streamlining and organising scattered Russian industries – as Russia was plunged into war, he streamlined those industries for war production, making canon foundries, powder mills, musket factories, leatherworks, textile mills, and mining operations – in fact within Peter’s lifetime Russia’s pig iron production which is making the greatest measures of industrialisation had equalled that of England’s, and soon surpassed that of his other regional rival Sweden.

It was in war with Sweden that Russia emerged as a great power. In the 17th century it was Sweden which one would have expected to become the great European power. Sweden wasn’t just restricted to the peninsula but controlled significant territories in Northern Europe. It had a powerful army and navy. The Swedish army was so strong that it was regularly knocking out opponents even if they had a 3:1 advantage.

The history of the Great Northern War which raged for 21 years is complex, but broadly speaking, there were two alliances pitted against each other. For most of the war Russia along with Denmark and some minor allies was fighting against Sweden, who was supported on and off in a minor way by the Ottoman Empire and England. Russia’s goal was to gain access to the Baltic so Peter would have a porthead to access the oceans of the world. While Sweden led by the warrior King Charles ‘Carolus Rex’ was occupied in Northern Europe, Peter quickly gained territories he desired and even before the war was over began to build his dream city of St. Petersburg in conquered territories.

The war was still raging. Charles knocked out a few opponents, moved into Russia, and dealt a sever blow to Russia’s army, almost annihilating it. Here, St. Petersburg and everything Peter has dreamt of could have been destroyed. So, having a vision is not enough. Peter has done his homework.

The institutional reforms he had set into motion had been geared towards making a war machine that quickly allowed him to recover – build a new army. And the war went on and on. Peter has created so many positive feedback loops in his geopolitical web of power – his industry supporting his military, and his economic reforms supporting his industry, that after 21 years, he defeated Sweden, and became Russia’s first Emperor.

Now where had Peter gained the inspiration for these reforms? Most of it was his own unique nature – but just after becoming sole Tsar, he had gone on a grand tour of the west, especially spending time in Holland, and then, crossing the seas to visit a man whom he considered something of an idol, William the Third, also known as, William of Orange, once ruled of Holland, now joint ruled of Holland and England.

In January 1698, a young Peter who had been travelling incognito around Europe, was approaching London by the sea. He saw a sight that enamoured him. Now, Peter was enamoured by ships but what he saw before him was a sight to behold – docked in the harbour was a forest of masts of hundreds of ships. It was said on any given day 2000 ships were docked at London, a fraction of the merchant fleet that sailed the waters of the earth. In 1698, 10 years after the so called Glorious Revolution in which William had deposed the previous king of England, James, England has been transformed from a medieval island kingdom into a global mercantile power. Peter saw this in the dockyards, in the reforms carried out in the monetary system by none other than Isaac Newton and John Locke, in the factories and warehouses. As Peter returned home and began implementing the new ideas he had seen, adapting them to Russia’s needs.

Some of the ships Peter saw in London probably belonged to the East India Company. The EIC has been trading in Indian for almost a hundred years. But for most of it history, it was a fledgling, as even individual merchants in India had more ships than the entire EIC.

But things were about to change. In the beginning of the 18th century, as the sea power of England and the land power of Russia was in the nascent stages of creating two world empires, another empire on the southern end on the Eurasian rimland was on the verge of collapse.

The Emperor Aurangzeb the last great emperor of the Mughal Empire has died in 1707. He had extended his empire to its furthest extent but it came at a cost. In his final years he had been campaigning to put down an uprising of the Marathas of central India, even as he died, and his successor was barely secure on the throne, a rebellion by the Sikhs broke out in Punjab. The north and the west of the empire were in flames. It took two decades and three emperors to put down the rebellion of the Sikhs, but disorder in the north had opened the route for a new threat, the new emperor of Persia, Nader Shah. Nader Shah dealt a killing blow to the Mughal Empire occupying the capital, Delhi, this allowed the remaining regional vassals of the Mughals to break free. But almost immediately they began fighting among themselves, opening opportunities for the British, and the French to make some gains in coastal enclaves.

The East India Company had briefly tried to use its naval power to conquer some enclaves in 1690 when Aurangzeb was still at the peak of his power. Aurangzeb has ultimately trounced the EIC by besieging it’s factories and forts, but the brief war gave the English in Indian some important lessons. First, sea power was not going to be enough to make gains in India. They would have to develop land power too. Second, they needed allies in this foreign theatre. The other geopolitical lesson is that the Mughal Empire which had failed to build a navy showed that an empire which does not invest in adopting new technologies to adapt to new terrains – in this case oceanic space – is bound to fall as a great power.

Returning to the EIC – through bribery and diplomacy over the next few decades this is what the EIC manoeuvred themselves into positions that would have made Sun Tzu and Machiavelli proud. This came to fruit in the so called Carnatic Wars of the 1740s as the English and their allies trounced the French, taking some coastal enclaves, and then in 1757, as using their networked connections among banking houses and merchants in India, the EIC through intrigue and combined land and sea operations managed to install a puppet ruler in the province of Bengal. In the defining battle of Plassey, the EIC working with two merchant houses of Bengal, got a commander leading a bulk of the opponent forces to switch sides, made him the new nawab, in subsequent years, getting its two allies killed, getting the puppet nawab deposed for an even more puppetted nawab.

Bengal gave the EIC both a bridgehead and a winning strategy. In the next four decades, using their twin doctrines of land power and sea power with diplomacy and intrigue. – by quickly deploying locally raised armies across theatres in western and eastern India, they managed to steamroll local land powers in India. Not just geostrategy but ruthless geoeconomics came into play. Every territory that the EIC captured was sucked dry of resources to raise new armies. So, it’s important to note that the nexus isn’t always benign.

By the beginning of the 19th century the EIC had defeated all its Indian rivals. The only Indian territories which remained were north of Delhi, the dominions of the Sikhs who had once been disunited but were being consolidated into an Empire by the great Emperor, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab. After 40 years of relentless conquest, for 50 years the EIC’s northern borders would remain fixed at a mutually decided boundary between the Empire of Punjab and the East India Company.

The board had been set. A second round of the great game was about to begin.

What was going on in Russia?

In the decades after Peter’s death, he was succeeded by some minor Tsars interspersed between three great Tsaristas – his wife Catherine the First, his daughter Elizabeth, and finally, Catherine the great. The strong Empresses had built on his legacy. Catherine the Great has extended Russian rule permanently into the Caucuses by annexing territories from Persia, which had been fought for on and off since Peter’s last days, also claiming some territories from the Ottoman Empire, and extending Russian rule into Central Asia.

Russia’s great land army was almost unstoppable even in the European theatre. Catherine had claimed – I shall not die until I have ejected the Turks from Europe, suppressed the pride of China and established trade with India. Of course, she did a lot, but she died before fulfilling either of her promises to herself.

Now even as the grand chessboard of geopolitics was being set up in Asia, a major player who threatened to turn everything on his head was entering the stage in Europe. In the decade of the 1790's Napoleon Bonaparte had risen to power. After consolidating his rule in France, after his campaigns in Italy, he crossed the pond of the Mediterranean and invaded Egypt. Napoleon like most men who aim at being world conquerors styled himself after Alexander the Great. And no one can seriously emulate Alexander unless you conquer India – ignoring for the moment the fact that Alexander never did.

There was some indication that Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was a stepping stone towards an invasion of India – he had maintained some diplomatic contact with the warrior king Tipu Sultan of Mysore – if Napoleon did attack the British in India, he would have to strike out across the Arabian Sea. For this he would either have to build a new fleet or transport a fleet overland. But that option was taken out of the equation as a British naval campaign by Horacio Nelson destroyed Napoleon’s Mediterranean fleet.

So, Napoleon chose the second option – he made a secret alliance with Emperor Paul, the new Tsar of Russia who had succeeded Catherine – the plan was to strike at India overland through the heart of Eurasia.

This was the beginning of the classic great game.

Now, the question one might ask is why India – remember the geoeconomics and geostrategy nexus. Indian with its commanding position at the head of the Indian Ocean commanded the trade to the east and the west. Trade and power went hand in hand in the new global economy. And we see more and more of this as the modern world begins go form.

Now, things didn’t work out from Napoleon’s side but Paul, in 1801, sent out an army of 20,000 Cossacks to march through Central Asia, through the Khanates of Khiva and Bukhara and strike at the British in India. Now, Peter had actually sent an expedition into Khiva too, in 1716. His intention was to get to the river Amu Darya, map it ans fortify key locations. Initially the expedition was moderately successful, they reached the river, began mapping it and began construction of two forts on either side in strategic locations to allow for crossing.

Peter was adept at using rivers for internal transport in continental Eurasia – he has used rivers remarkably in his Crimean campaigns against the Ottoman Empire, using them to supply his troops who matched along them, and he even built a few proto-gunboats to use in battles. Till the arrival of railways, rivers were the highways of continental transport.

Now, Peter’s attempt to hold the Amy Darya had failed after a counterattack by the Khan of Khiva. Paul’s expedition with no knowledge of the terrain, no way to supply the army, send backup sources was foolish to begun with.

Thankfully he died even as his army was setting off, and the new Emperor Alexander called off the invasion. The relations between France and Russia broke, and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, his defeat by a coalition is a long story that is also well known.

But for the British in India, there has been two threats – which took the principle of uncertainty that Mearshimer mentioned to red alert. Now uncertainty can only be countered through control. So, for the next few years, the British strategy in India was to create an architecture of control, in a system of allied or puppet frontier states, which would act as a buffer against any invasion.

In 1808, the Governor General of British India sent three embassies. One to the kingdom of Punjab, an immediate northern neighbour. The second, to Persia, a more distant neighbour which occupied a key position on the bridge land of Eurasia. And the third, to the more mysterious kingdom of Kabul, which was the Afghan Empire of Ahmad Shah Durrani, which had once extended from the Amu Darya to Delhi, and was now centred on the twin cities of Kabul and Peshawar, the summer and winter capital respectively.

Over the next decades, the Kingdom of Kabul, or as it came to be known, Afghanistan became the key theatre in the great game. Especially because it was constantly contested by Persia in the west, and the Sikh Empire in the east. In the decades following the embassy, the Sikh empire gobbled up huge chunks of what remained of the Durrani empire. This included the region of Kashmir, and most importantly the Peshawar Valley. This hurt the Afghans. Peshawar was not only the summer capital of the empire the valley of Peshawar was geographically rich and was also the original homeland of the Afghans. The Afghan King Dost Muhammad, after failing to retake Peshawar many times, offered an alliance to the British. If they could help him recover Peshawar, he would become a permanent ally of the British. The British refused. The Sikhs were a much more powerful state, and immediate neighbour, and a possible threat if they counter allied with the Russians or the French. Instead, a new game was in play. There was at the time an ex Afghan King wandering in India. Shah Shuja has been the king of Afghanistan when the first British embassy had reached him in 1808. He had been deposed the next year, and the king who now reigned was Dost Muhammad, a distant cousin. Shah Shuja had been pleading with the a British for a while to help him recover this throne. When miffed by the refusal of the British to help him recover Peshawar, Dost Muhammad turned to the Russians, the British decided to act. They struck an alliance with the Sikhs, and sent an army to Afghanistan, deposed Dost Muhammad, and installed Shah Shuja. Afghanistan became a puppet state. The king was protected by a British garrison. In only a few months, however, with rising unrest there was a new civil war, and not only was Shah Shuja deposed, he was killed as was the entire British garrison.

The buffer system was in tatters. But in five years a new opportunity arose to build that architecture of control. The old king of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, died. There was a new revolutionary fervour in Punjab as the army threatened to depose the ruling dynasty and set up a military republic. Now, the European experience of the French Revolution foretold what such a state would portend – so at the slightest invitation from the Regent Queen of Punjab, the British invaded, to defeat the army and support the dynasty. Revolution and discontent raged on in Punjab for five years, till a new war broke out.

The EIC deployed almost all its regiments in Punjab. Using Punjab’s rivers to supply troops, and even bringing in a gunship up the Indus River to aid in the siege of the strong Fort of Multan, the British outfought and more importantly outsupplied the Sikhs – showing the might of their war machine.

In 1850, Punjab was annexed. The frontier moved north. In the meantime, Russia had begun to move south. In the next two decades, the Russian Empire annexed all the remaining Khanates of Central Asia, and all that remained between the two empires, was Afghanistan.

There was a new geotechnological dynamic at play in Russia’s expansion into Central Asia : railways. In the 1870's the famous Trans-Caspian Railways was becoming from an idea into a reality. There was geoeconomic logic behind Russian expansion into Central Asia – in the 18th century Russia’s desire to expand into Central Asia was motivated by the search for rumoured gold in its rivers. Now, the land of Central Asia became the prize. The vast fields of Central Asia were said to be the most conducive for growing cotton – a prize commodity in world trade. So here geoeconomic calculations were driving geostrategy too.

Russian expansion into Central Asia promoted another British war with Afghanistan. By now, Britain too was backed by railways, and the vast manpower and strategic geographical positions in Punjab. The war was over before it even begun. Afghanistan was forced cede key strategic locations along the Hindu Kush mountains, railway lines were laid, fortified Cantonment towns built.

Since the beginning of the 18th century, the British Empire in India had moved its borders almost 1000 kilometres northwest. After the second Anglo Afghan War, Afghanistan had become a nominal British puppet state which it remained till the Third War in the year xxxx, which Afghanistan still com states as their independence war. So, if you add Afghanistan, that is another 500 kilometres. We tend to think of Russia as having expanded exponentially in the 19th century, but the British Indian Empire was only a few hundred kilometres short, and in terms of population subjugated by imperialism, many magnitudes larger.

While there are still some final rounds to go – let us stop to ask, what was this great game? Of course there was a sense of uncertainty and fear of an enemy striking out from unknown region son the map, what geographer like to call cartographic anxiety – so mapping these regions, collecting intelligence about them, was a big part of the game, popularised by Rudyard Kipling in Kim. But remember in the end a game is played between two players in what is technically called ludic space, but which we might call a gameworld. Players can enter thus game world, play against each other, and exit when they want. In the end, while in the gameworld they are opponents, in the real world they are actually collaborating, by playing along with the rules of the game.

Was this happening in the great game? Exactly as the closing rounds show. Now, Russia was at British India’s door. What had been prophecied for ages – that Russia was a threat. But what happened – Russia and Britain agreed to send a joint commission, to collaborate in creatunh Afghanistan’s borders, to close the game. There was one final scare – as a British survey team was mapping Russia’s northern boundaries near Merv, the local Russian commander on his own initiative attacked an Afghan position in a place known as the Pandjeh Oasis and slaughtered dozens of Afghhans in their sleep. Now, remember Afghanistan was supposed to be under British protection. There was an armed contingent with the British survey team. What did they do – they walked away. The incident was hushed up. The Afghan King was forced give up Pandjeh. And not just Pandjeh, as the boundary was drawn, any lands which had been nominally Afghan since the Durrani Empire were severed.

In the end all that remained to separate the two empires was Afghanistan which at its narrowest was a 15 mile corridor known as the Wakhan Corridor where Afghanistan also shares its borders with China. The two called it a game, and as in the word of Lord Curzon, thought that the frontier problem had been solved finally scientifically – and the two empires could now rule in peace for ages to come.

But that is not what happened is it ? A few years after the closing of the borders a series of rebellions broke out – both on the British and the Russian side. And a decade later, the First World War. By the end of the World War, Tsarist Russia had ceased to exist, and Britain was beginning to draw an exit plan from India, it was all but certain they would have to leave.

Now, what is the lesson for the art of geopolitics here – I have mentioned various insights throughout the narrative, about land power, sea power, the interactions between geostrategy, geoeconomics and geotechnology – but no matter what doctrines are formed or what grand strategies are created, the most important lesson of geopolitics is to not ignore the politics in the geo. If a nation cannot ensure basic needs of politics – which is a sense of justice in who gets what where when and how – no matter what edifice you build, it will be hollow from below. Russia’s expansion to great power status came with a dark underbelly of millions of exploited serfs, Britain’s colonial exploitation had impoverished India to an unimaginable degree.

If that is the game you play, history tells us, you are bound lose.

Focus : History, Philosophy, Storytelling