ALI, Shahamat.

The Sikhs and Afghans,

in Connexion with India and Persia, immediately before and after the Death of Ranjeet Singh: from the Journal of an Expedition to Kabul, through the Punjab and the Khaibar Pass.

London: John Murray, 1846 Stock Code: 139555
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An unbiased eyewitness account of Ranjit Singh's kingdom

First edition of this unusual and uncommon travelogue of the north-west frontier, written by the expedition leader's Indian-born munshi and inscribed by him to the earl of Shaftesbury. A highly desirable copy, unopened, unrestored in the original cloth, and with an appealing association. The title is fairly well represented institutionally, but commercially decidedly uncommon, no copy having been traced at auction.

Shaftesbury's "spiritual fervour reinforced his endeavours for national social and moral improvement. He was concerned to sustain the probity of British policy overseas, being critical of military conduct in Afghanistan, and of the opium trade with China. He opposed the annexation of Sind in 1843" (ODNB).

This work was written by Sir Claude Wade's "Persian Secretary" - an elaboration of the role of munshi - a classmate of Mohan Lal. Shahamat Ali was studying Persian at the Delhi College when Charles Trevelyan added an English class in 1827, to which he and his friend Mohan Lal transferred. Thus they were particularly well equipped to serve the needs of the officers of British India. Ali was invited to join Claude Wade's suite in 1832 when he had been made political officer at Ludhiana, Lal had departed a year earlier to accompany Alexander Burnes on his expedition to Afghanistan and Bokhara. The present work covers the period in which Wade led the subsidiary attack on Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War, converging with the main force via the Punjab and the Khyber Pass, Ali gives us "an eyewitness account of Ranjit Singh's administration, revenue, army and the principal ministers and officers of state. He gives a brief description of the Khalsa army, revenue of the Sikh kingdom, provincial administration, personal habits of the Maharaja and Sikh and European officers. It is an unbiased description" (Chopra, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his times, p. xix).

Where this entirely atypical, and for this reason intriguing, record drew contemporary attention it seems to have been dismissed for exactly those reasons that it holds interest for us today, that its perspective was non- "western". The Spectator bemoaning the fact that "the luckless 'reading public' is being made the victim of the study of English by the natives of Hindostan" (w/e 4 July 1846, p. 1193). The reviewer identifies three grounds on which the book is "not wanted"; that "both the war in Afghanistan and the character and government of Runjeet Singh have been freely treated by competent persons", that "the particulars that Shahamat Ali furnishes, even when they happen to be new, (if any of them are new,) are both small in themselves but not only passed but perished", and in the "third and chiefest place, Shahamat Ali is utterly unfit to write a volume". While no doubt competent to translate official papers, and collect particular information, "he wants the breadth and strength of mind requisite to compose a book", due in the main to "the almost childishness of the Oriental intellect". This manifests in Ali's setting down what seems to us now to be of great interest, having been in the main irretrievably passed over by the master narratives of events; "trivial details of the day's journey, or the business of the political agency - flying reports about this, that, and the other - with observations, uninteresting because devoid of strength or character, for the greater part of the diary. The rest consists of accounts of barbarous clans, without the least interest to the British public, and traditions, which are not always devoid of interest as illustrations of credulity and superstition, but are somewhat out of place, and are quite incapable of redeeming the rest".

In her paper on the role of native Indians in the expansion of geographical knowledge in the nineteenth century 'How Professionals Became Natives: Geography and Trans-Frontier Exploration in Colonial India' (PhD, University of Michigan, 2018) Tapsi Mathur, now assistant professor Nanyang Technological University, makes a detailed study of the cases of Ali and Lal, and concludes that they were among the first to bring a new creative combination of disciplines and perceptions to the service of the colonial enterprise. "It was an English education in the newly-established public institution that was the Delhi College, in combination with their Persian education they would have received at home, that made Mohan Lal and Shahamat Ali such valuable additions to the emerging colonial bureaucracy. To be a successful explorer meant trading in multiple knowledge traditions and languages. Further, while they certainly leveraged their English education for jobs and power, their work was premised on their unrivalled expertise in Persian and several other languages" (p. 97). Ali's detailed account of the complex negotiations and accommodations of the period certainly does offer the opportunity to review events from a fresh viewpoint, within unfamiliar sensibilities.

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Duodecimo. Original green fine combed cloth, title gilt to the spine, elaborate panelling in blind to spine and both boards, cream surface-paper endpapers, unopened.


Just a touch rubbed, spine sunned and crumpled head and tail, corners bumped, front hinge starting, light browning throughout, very good.


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