Thursday, May 11, 2006

Self indulgent twaddle

Niall Ferguson, who once spent the best years of his life attempting to inculcate academic rigour into my aging collaborator (just getting in my retaliation first for the best man's speech!), is extremely fond of counter-factual history. Many of these are the old-fashioned 'what if Napoleon had won at Waterloo' situations, which require only a little mental stretch, while others are the more abstract 'what if the Roman Empire never fell' ideas, which demand rather more brain bending to accept.

Re-reading Peter Hopkirk's superlative Storm from the East raised some intriguing possibilities. Hopkirk writes predominantly about the shadowy secret service world in Central Asia and India inthe late nineteenth century to the inter-war years. He writes so well that he inspired me to become an academic historian, an ambition that survived until the first round of job-hunting revealed the salaries on offer.

In Storm from the East, which is set in newly Bolshevik Central Asia, amid the fantastically romantic places like the Emirate of Bokhara and Khokand, Hopkirk refers to the widespread belief in Russia at the time that the British Indian army was poised to invade the region, and declare a sort of suzereignty over the whole of Russian Central Asia. Very few at the time doubted that, had the Persian force of General Malleson wanted to, it could have achieved this invasion. Look at what happened to the 200 or so men of 'Dunsterforce' in Baku, where they held off an army of some five thousand virtually on their own. But the British held off.

What does anyone think would have happened if they hadn't, and had instead pursued territorial ambitions in Central Asia? The collapse of the fragile Bolshevik regime? The establishment of a British 'dominion of Central Asia'? Humiliating military collapse that might have led to the end of the Indian Empire? Although I doubt the intellectual value of these games, there is no doubt that they're great fun.

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