Akbar’s Trap: The Khyber Pass Massacre


In the mid-19th century, the Great Game was played out between the Russian and British Empires, primarily for control of Asia. The two powers sought their own spheres of influence. The British, having control of India already, hoped to maintain control over the nearby Afghanistan.

In 1839, the Afghan king was Dost Mohammad Khan, long friendly with to the British and the influential East India Company. British agents got wind of Russian agents who may have met with Dost, and feared that he may soon side with Russia. A plan was developed to depose Dost and elevate the formerly deposed Emir Shah Shujah Durrani.

A large British garrison was stationed in Jalalabad just 90 miles east of the capital of Kabul, but the only route was through a high and narrow mountain pass. Thus, the large British army gathered to take Kabul and guide the transition took a long way South around the mountains and had an easy time of placing Shah Durrani on the throne.

Once the mission was completed, a modest garrison of about 5,000 soldiers stayed. The occupation was, at first, easy and peaceful with no sense of danger or unrest, especially as the outlying tribes received direct continuous bribes for their cooperation. Many family members were brought down, and comforts of home such as salmon were brought, and lively cricket matches organized.

The British garrison camp just outside Kabul, notice the rolling hills surrounding the camp.
The British garrison camp just outside Kabul, notice the rolling hills surrounding the camp.

This easy living along with the casual overthrow of their beloved ruler Dost irritated the native Afghanis and resentment began to grow. A young, charismatic leader Akbar Khan, son of the deposed Dost, began to urge rebellion.

He was helped greatly by the treatment of the Kabul citizens by the British, who looked down on them and were notorious for seeking sexual pleasures from the Afghani women. The outlying warlike tribes got the push they needed when the British decided to drastically cut the bribes paid for holding the peace.

Prince Akbar was in his early twenties when leading the rebel forces.
Prince Akbar was in his early twenties when leading the rebel forces.

In November of 1841 Afghan rebels stormed the house of Alexander Burnes, an officer who actually disagreed with many of the political actions of the British, but did have a reputation for stealing married Afghani women. Burnes and his guards were stabbed to death, and the house set aflame. The smoke could be seen from the British camp outside the city, but the newly appointed commander, Lord Elphinstone, was so indecisive that he did absolutely nothing until nightfall. The rebels grew much bolder after suffering no repercussions and more troops rallied to the cause and began to surround the British camp.

Because the earlier occupation seemed to be such an easy assignment, the British camp was one of convenience, not defense. It was just outside of the city on lowland with hills around that provided easy sniper fire into the camp. Almost all of the food stores were located in buildings outside of the camp walls and these were quickly seized. An attempt to break out of the camp by the British was met with cannon and musket fire from the hills and forced the British back into their camp seeking the best cover they could find.

The British diplomat to the Afghanis, William Macnaghten, sought a meeting with Akbar Khan to negotiate. Macnaghten and his officers were immediately seized when they came to Akbar’s camp. Macnaghten was well known to be a supporter of the deposition of Akbar’s father and also sought secret meetings at the same time with other tribes presumably to overthrow the rebellion.

Akbar was quick to send a message by personally executing Macnaghten, leaving the sole leadership of the British in the hands of the aging, sick and indecisive Lord Elphinstone.

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