September 3, 2014

Shooting Leave: Reflections on the Great Game

Central Asia c. 1848

I first learned of the Great Game, indirectly, through the John Huston movie The Man Who Would Be King. That film remains today in my top list, and after a year in India and a trip through Kashmir the setting fascinates me more than ever.

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The second taste of this electric but little-known episode of modern history came through the pulps, in the form of Robert E. Howard’s El Borak stories. Then last year, I found John Ure’s book Shooting Leave. What I love about this book is that it gives some very interesting historical parallels, perhaps even models, for Howard’s El Borak – a Texan gunslinger who’d learned to fit so well into this milieu he was carving for himself a career as an Afghan khan. 

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Shooting Leave chronicles the exploits of sixteen young officers, some British, some Russian, during the 19th century shadow struggle between Britain and Russia for dominance in Central Asia. At the time Tsarist Russia was expanding, having already colonized Siberia and bullied the Qing Dynasty into several Russia-favoring treaties, while Britain was also consolidating its hold on the Indian subcontinent. The British feared – and apparently with reason -- a Russian thrust into India through either Persia or Afghanistan, or even from farther north and east through Kashmir or even Tibet. Caught in between were the turbulent Central Asian tribes and kingdoms. British and Russian forces never clashed on the steppe, nor was either empire really prepared to do so; the Great Game thus consisted of cloak-and-dagger expeditions into the Hindu Kush, Pamirs, and into the high steppe by men on ‘shooting leave.’

Ostensibly entering these forbidden lands on the pretext of hunting, these colorful characters went in to survey, map, gather political information and strive to influence local leaders. ‘Shooting leave’ allowed the imperial governments to send their soldiers on these expeditions with an easy way to deny any accusations of espionage, for the soldiers were technically not on duty, and only a few top brass knew their actual missions. There were some very interesting folk involved here, fine inspirations all for some gaming:

There was Charles Masson, a Briton who deserted from the East India Company army to become a freelance dealer in antiquities, and later became a valuable but problematic spy for the Raj on account of his record;

There was Nikolai Przhevalsky, now chiefly remembered as the discoverer of Przhevalsky’s Horse, whose approach to Central Asian wildlife and people both was covered with a hail of carbine fire;

There was Henry Pottinger, who discovered that the only safe disguise in Baluchistan was that of a travelling mullah, for Baluchi bandits were likely to rob any other kind of traveller; 

And there was Valentine Baker, a rich gentleman sportsman of the classic type, whose idea of a proper shooting expedition was to carry crates of guns, including some of the most expensive custom-made models, and Worcestershire sauce to have with the game.

This is also a milieu that is chillingly close to the events of today, with very similar players on the table: there are greedy empires hiding behind masks of benevelont progressiveness, bitter centuries-old local feuds, and poisonous outbreaks of radical puritanism fueled by colonialism. A pulp adventure game in the Great Game setting won’t just be great potential for fun, it could also be a way of getting some insight into why our world is the way it is today. John Ure’s Shooting Leave and Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game make great sources for it, as do the headlines.

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