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Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game in Central Asia - An Adventure in History Book Form

Updated on May 13, 2020

Perhaps a little bit of the Russian side of the Great Game leaked into Tournament of Shadows, and explains why it is the best part of 600 pages long. Maybe that too explains why it has such a vast panoply of characters, over the course of nearly two centuries from when Moorcraft first traveled to the cities of Central Asia in the search of better horse stock, to the American programs for arming Tibetan guerrillas to fight against Chinese communists in the 1950s and 1960s. At heart, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game in Central Asia by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac is an epic, incredible in its sweep, depth, complexity, and which brings the Central Asian world of spies, intrigue, espionage, imperial rivalries, science, exploration, and war to life. A true tour de force which is exhilarating to read and breathtaking in its subject, Tournament of Shadows is an excellent volume for anybody interested in learning about Central Asia and its long centuries of rivalry, conflict, and exploration.

Afghanistan portrayed from the perspective of British India.
Afghanistan portrayed from the perspective of British India.

The introduction to the book, interestingly enough, mostly focuses on the Middle East as another incarnation of the Great Game, as well as reflecting on the decline of the British Empire. After this the introduction lays out the nature of the Great Game, the author's personal relationship with it, the players involved, and the nations which partook.

Following this the book begins in earnest with the first chapter, "The Horse Doctor" about William Moorcraft, sent to India to improve the quality of the horse stock of the East India Company but who rapidly instead began an explorer in India, travelling to the Tibetan Plateau and becoming the first Englishman to reach there, and being imprisoned by the Gurkhas of Bhutan on his return, but ultimately escaping.

His luck did not hold though, as "A River Too Far", relates his voyage to Bokhara - present Bukhara - in present day Uzbekistan, which took him three years of dangerous and fraying voyage from India through Afghanistan and the lands of Central Asia, until he arrived and successfully purchased the high quality horses he was ostensibly pursuing - but then died on his return to India.

The British would continue to walk into traps, as begins in Chapter 3, "The Road to Kabul", where overly optimistic reports by their forward agents and a desire for grandeur and glory following the ascension of Queen Victoria, the British planned to invade Afghanistan - this despite major internal problems like famines, and the fact that the original reason to invade, the Russian-backed siege of Herat, was abandoned by the Persians, in part due to the help of British advisor Major Eldred Pottinger.

"Here Comes the Messenger," Chapter 4, would see the British successfully take Kabul, seating their preferred ruler on the Afghan throne, but then thrown out of the country following increasing Afghan opposition to their rule, with an entire army destroyed under the command of the hesitating and aged General Elphinstone - from then on, the British would refrain from direct control of the country.

Chapter 5, "The Russians are Coming" covers the expansion of the Russians in Central Asia, as Russian forces advanced inexorably forward across Central Asia,to check the slave trade - which the British attempted to repress to forestall this - and in search of military glory. Defeat in the Crimean War only encouraged greater Russian expansionism to make up for loss elsewhere.

The British faced a similar humbling in the near-catastrophic Indian Mutiny, shown in Chapter 6, "The Raj Imperiled" where the British due to their policies had driven much of India's opinion against them, facing a massive revolt of soldiers and various native princes. They survived and defeated it, but this led to India passing directly under the control of the British crown rather than the East India Company. This too pressed them to a "forward" policy to strike back against the seeming threat of Russian advances, exemplified by daring cavalry commanders like MIkhail Skobelev.

Part 2 begins with Chapter 7, "Bloomsbury's War." This concerns the second British invasion of Afghanistan, another war of a spit of Anglo-Russian jealousy over Afghanistan, and sparking British misgivings at home over their imperial conduct in foreign countries and the atrocities they committed there - and costing the life of the British Resident Cavagnari, killed by a crowd of angry Afghans, with British executions and massacres in response.

Most of Britain's work on the ground was carried out by Indian auxiliaries, expanded on in Chapter 8, "Her Majesty's Indian Secret Service," showing the important work of map making and Indian surveyors, the "pundits," whose most famous member was Sarat Chandra Das, inspiration for "Babu" or R17 in Kim. These pundits roamed all of the frontiers of India, including to Tibet, closed to foreigners but the subject of much infiltration.

"'A Carbine in One Hand, a Whip in the Other'", Chapter 9, takes a glance at the famous Russian explorer Nikolai Mikhailovich Przevalsky, a great and ruthless explorer, who explored, charted, and examined Central Asia for Russia, encouraging further Russian expansionism.

Madame Blatavsky does look like quite the oculist
Madame Blatavsky does look like quite the oculist

This expansionism was not only territorial, for the Russians also dabbled in spiritualism and religious connections as part of their drive to the East, inspire in part by the mysticism and extreme interest for Asia of Tsar Nicholas II. Europe as a whole was increasingly fascinated in Eastern mysticism, which is the subject of Chapter 10, "Mystical Imperialism," with Madame Blavatsky and Colon Olcott who promoted odd new syncretic religions such as Theosophy. The Indian prince Dalip Singh, accused of treason by the British and who proposed a Russian liberation of India, also receives its place here.

Another Asian is Agvan Dorzhiev who was a Buddhist lama and Russian subject who sought to encourage Tibetan-Russian ties to ensure Tibetan independence, as the Russian Tsar was already the protector of Buddhists in Russia, such as the Buriats at Lake Baikal. Chapter 11, "Emissary to the White Tsar," follows Nicholas II's Asian obsession and Dorzhiev's trials and tribulations in his works.

Chapter 12, "Curzon's Hour" is about the peak of British imperialism in India, with the flamboyant Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, who pursued an aggressive anti-Russian strategy, and who promoted the invasion of Tibet to open up the country under commander Younghusband. Successful as the invasion was in military terms - at several points it was a massacre of matchlock musket-armed Tibetan troops by British Gatling guns - it was also the last imperial invasion of its type, and it ran afoul of British rapprochement with Russia.

Chapter 13, "The Desert Wanderer" looks at a unique figure in the Great Game - the Swede Sven Hedin, struck by wanderlust and who traveled across vast swathes of Central Asia, through its deserts, mountains, always searching the next white spot on the map - which led to a rivalry with the Britisher Thomas Holdich, followed by Hedin's shabby treatment in England over his cartography and surveying, and his turn to Imperial Germany for patronship and the object of his admiration.

"The Spils of Serindia" as is known Chapter 14 begins the focus on archaeology, focusing on the British Aurel Stein, who voyaged to the cities and ruins of Central Asia in archaeological expeditions and either preserved - or looted - vast amounts of Central Asian artifacts from the Silk Road era, depending on how charitable one wants to be.

This reached its apogee for Stein in Chapter 15, "The Last of the 'Foreign Devils'" about his expedition to the "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" near Dunhuang in China, where he took thousands upon thousands of manuscripts and artifacts, albeit his lack of knowledge of Chinese meant that he took them in disorder. It would be in part this which would lead to increasing Chinese opposition to foreign archaeological expeditions which plundered their cultural heritage, be it British, or Russian as the Russians under Pyotr Kozlov trawled through the Silk Road for ancient artifacts. Stein's fourth expedition to China would be stymied by determined Chinese resistance around 1930.

William Rockhill
William Rockhill | Source

Part 3 shifts the focus to Tibet, starting with Chapter 16, "First Encounters of an American Kind," about the American adventurer and diplomat William Rockhill, an eccentric fellow who was obsessed with travelling to Tibet, a proposition that he would have better chances in fulfilling than most thanks to his knowledge of Tibetan, and his ultimate success would lead to him being responsible for the mission of the Dalai Lama to Beijing, along with important scholarly contributions.

"On the Playing Fields of Lhasa," Chapter 17, looks at power politics in Tibet, with the British, spearheaded by their political officer Major Bailey, grappled with the problem of both bolstering Tibetan autonomy while keeping it part of China, extending their influence, and dealing with American involvement, as other Americans like William McGovern began to infiltrate Tibet and reveal British highhandedness and machinations.

It was not only the British who schemed in Tibet, for the Russians too had their own designs, as shown in Chapter 18, "The 'Shambhala Project.'" This was a program of the previously mentioned lama Dorzhiev who proposed that the Tsar would unify Russian, Mongolian, and Tibetan buddhists into a great Buddhist confederacy. Russia's cultural connection was prominently displayed by Nicholas Roerich, a mystic and fascinated by Tibet and the leader of a vast number of expeditions across Central Asia, China, and Mongolia. After the Revolution in Russia, the Soviets too attempted to extend their influence into Tibet, with initial tolerance for Buddhism.

"The Guru," Chapter 19, is about the political scandal of Tibet when connected to American politician Henry Wallace, showing the connection between him and Roerich, and continuing on with his support for an expedition of Roerich to Mongolia, ostensibly to collect new hardy grass types, but which quickly grew into a confused affair and nearly a diplomatic incident.

"The Cousins discover Tibet", Chapter 20, is about Theodore Roosevelt's sons Kermit and Theodore who travelled to Tibet, accompanied by Suydam Cutting. Cutting was deeply involved in serving as effectively the American political link to Tibet and the Dalai Lama and a voice in favor of Tibet. Their voyages to Lhasa gave them a look into a passing world, into a place largely untouched by modernity.

Nazi racial science was deeply interested in Tibet, as is explored in Chapter 21, "Swastikas to Lhasa", where Sven Hedin and the German Ernst Schäfer collaborated on another expedition to Tibet, despite initial British opposition of entrance to their chase gardée, and delighting in ethnological examinations and trying to form contact with the Tibetans - part of an ever wavering and uncertain German strategy of seeking allies and friends around the borders of the British Empire to surround it in case of war.

"High Mischief" as is known Chapter 22, is about the CIA project to fund and support Tibetan guerrilla fighters after WW2, followed by looking back at the initial contacts established with Tibet by the Americans Llia Tolstoy - grandson of the famous novelist - and Brooke Dolan, who travelled to Tibet in the 1930s and who began American intelligence operations in the land.

The final chapter, "The Owl of Minerva", reflects upon the ultimate futility of the Great Game - that as one of its last masterminds, H.V. Hodson noted, that in the end the Russians took Afghanistan in 1979, and it brought them nothing but grief - that it truly was a game, with scores and records and flash and grandeur, but very little in the way of actual rewards. Succeeding nations like India attempted to keep up the British legacy of forward deployment, and this too brought them grief, and time and time again political analysts and researchers have drawn excessive conclusions about inevitability from things such as a Russian advance through Central Asia, failing to see the obstacles preventing its conclusion.


Like the British before them, the Indian obsession with a few square kilometres of snow brought them nothing but headaches.
Like the British before them, the Indian obsession with a few square kilometres of snow brought them nothing but headaches.

If one takes one thing away from Tournament of Shadows, it is the vivid clarity and passion which is embedded in the writing. Despite the careful attention and plentiful detail which the book treats its subject, its most indelible aspect is the descriptive detail and fire which is spelled out across its pages. Sandstorms, starvation, parched explorers, the beauty of Lhasa, portraits of people, danger, excitement, peril, ambition - history at heart is about telling a story. Too many books forget this and take out the grandeur and excitement from history. Tournament of Shadows doesn't, it embraces it and glories in the thrall of the game itself, in all of its grandeur and excess. It transports one to the deserts of Central Asia, to prayer flags flapping in front of monasteries, to archaeological digs in the ancient repositories of the Silk Road, to disguised pilgrims sneaking through the closed borders of Tibet, to the freezing cold and burning heat and hunger and thirst that dogged explorers as they made their way through the mountains and raging rivers of the borderlands.

Furthermore, Meyer and Brysac should be congratulated for managing to avoid a strictly eurocentric, or Anglocentric, perspective. While naturally most of the actors involved in the Great Game were European, the book does pay attention to local "pundits", the Indian explorers who did valuable work on the Indian frontier, native rulers such as the Dalai Lamas, and has a genuine sympathy for the local peoples and their fate - it doesn't stoop to merely parachuting in for a brief look at a European explorer as he transited a country, but instead tells about what the long term impacts of their mission were for the native people. Although less egregious than eurocentrism in contemporary eyes perhaps, the balance which is struck between the Russians and British is also welcome - the Great Game is spoke of as a rivalry between the British and Russians, but overwhelmingly the only actors portrayed are British ones, and it becomes an affair of noble British heroes against shadowy Russian agents, without Russian agency involved. Tournament of Shadows avoids this and places spotlight on the Russians too, such as the Russian explorer Przhevalsky or the Buddhist lama and Russian subject Agvan Dorzhiev.

The breadth of subjects covered is truly impressive, both in nature of the span of years, and also in geography and science or history. Starting out principally with the tales of explorers and individual travelers, the book seamlessly transitions to cultural expeditions and historical research by archaeologists, ethnologists, religious figures, and political agents. It stretches back to the capitals of London or Saint Petersburg with the orientalist cultural themes and religious ideals that flowed from Buddhism or the scientific discussions, royal societies and geographic expositions that were drawn from Central Asia.

This also can be said in particular about Tibet, which receives particular focus in the second half of the book. Tibet it seems is the specialization of the authors, and the nature of British relations with Tibet - and Tibetan relations with China - as well as the huge hosts of foreign travellers attempting to reach Tibet, and the spiritual significance of Tibetan Buddhism in the fin-de-siecle, receive loving attention and plentiful detail.

An excellent accompaniment of pictures of explorers and characters mentioned throughout the book is also welcome, as are the maps which are decent and show the region, Afghanistan, the Silk Road, Tibet, etc. These people are all excellently well displayed and fleshed out: one gets a true sense and feeling for the numerous characters and individuals that the book shines its light upon throughout the centuries of the Great Game. It is impossible in this brief review to truly give any feeling of the excellent portrait painting which goes on in this book.

For anyone interested in the Great Game, be it in terms of the knowledgeable or the un-initiated, Tournament of Shadows is a rousing and edifying work, exciting to read, detailed and expansive, reflective upon the broader context of the Great Game, with an ironic ending chapter about its ultimate futility and limited actual import for the powers involved, and encyclopedic in its study of characters, it is absolutely fascinating read and a great general history book of the people involved. A great book, for the great game.

5 stars for Tournament of Shadows

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