February 8, 2012

Might-Have-Beens of the Great Game

The Great Game was a ‘cold war’ between Britain and Tsarist Russia, played out over the vast expanse of Central Asia from the borders of Iran in the west to the borders of China in the east, from 1813 to about 1907.  At stake was the British dominion of India, influence over Persia and China, and mastery over the peoples of the ancient Silk Road.

This region and period have exercised a great hold on my imagination ever since I first started reading about it, and maybe earlier.  I remember watching The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936 version) as a kid, followed shortly after by my discovery of Robert E. Howard’s El Borak, and later the movie The Man Who Would Be King, based on Kipling’s novel.  Add to that the fact that I stayed in Delhi for a year and was totally bowled over by the history and culture of the place, and I’ve been totally fascinated ever since.

The Great Game offers enormous potential as a backdrop for pulp-style adventure.  There’s a powerful built-in conflict, exotic locations to explore, and interesting, volatile cultures to interact with.  Aside from the Russian-British imperial rivalry, there’s a lot going on; here are some of the historical events and might-have-beens that you can easily tie into an adventure:

  • The Dungan Rebellion in Xinjiang: Chinese Muslims rebel against the Qing Dynasty; the unrest that broke out throughout western China would have provided many opportunities for foreign adventurers to make their mark here.

  • The Secession of Kashgar: following the Dungan Rebellion, Yaqub Beg of Kokand enters Kashgar and makes himself its Amir.  Historically Yaqub Beg died in 1877, supposedly poisoned by hakim of Yarkand in collusion with the Qing: What if he hadn’t? What if someone had stopped the assassin?

  • The Russian invasions of the Central Asian khanates: from 1865 to 1868, Tashkent, Khodjend, Djizak and Samarkand fell to Russian troops; Khiva and Bukhara were forced to submit and become protectorates.  Could the Russians have been stopped?  What really happened to the riches of these khanates, hoarded since the days of Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame?

  • The Indian Rebellion of 1857: widely known as the Sepoy Mutiny, this was an uprising of Indian colonial troops of the British East India Company, accompanied by the rebellion of several of the princely states.  What might Russian agents have done during this turbulent time?  Which of the rebel rajahs secretly received Russian aid, and how?

  • The 1857 Rebellion also saw an attempt to reinstitute the Mughal Empire, as the mutineers tried to unite themselves under the titular leadership of Bahadur Shah II, last of the Mughal Emperors. After the rebellion was crushed, Bahadur Shah was exiled to Rangoon; several of his sons were also executed. 

    What’s interesting here is the possiblity that the Indian states would have supported a renewal of the Mughal Empire … What if there were a conspiracy to try raising the Mughal Empire once again? Russian agents might try to do it, to split British India apart …

  • The Anglo-Afghan Wars: a direct result of British efforts to take control of the Afghan government, to block Russian expansion in Central Asia, the First Afghan War ended in disaster for the British Raj.  It would be very interesting to set an adventure on the eve of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, before 1878;

  • The Crimean War, 1853-1856: Britain and France aid Ottoman Turkey against the expanding Russian Empire; though technically a victory for the allies, Russian expansion did not stop for long.  What’s interesting here is how the secret action might have gone in Central Asia, where Britain, Russia and Turkey would have strong interests.  What if Ottoman agents could stir the Turkic tribes into jihad against Russia while Russia’s strength was committed to the Black Sea front?

  • End of the American Civil War, 1865: Veterans of the war from both sides go seeking adventure and respite from their inner devils in the far corners of the world.  Who knows who might’ve made their way to the wilds of the Taklamakan, or the crags of the Hindu Kush?  There’s no shortage of opportunities here for someone skilled with saber and revolver …

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