For three years, I had a job that was both extremely interesting, and extremely difficult to explain in a sentence. It’s a long story.
In the autumn of 2017, I’d just returned from an accident-prone trip to South America, and I was at a bit of a loose end. Then I received an email from someone I knew, asking if I’d be interested in some freelance work for Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury.
The project was about a Victorian artist called William Simpson, and a dangerous adventure he had in northern Afghanistan. This involves some obscure nineteenth-century history, which at the time I knew nothing about.
The Afghan Boundary Commission
In 1884, Russia finished conquering the last independent corners of Central Asia, reaching all the way to the northern edge of Afghanistan. At the time, Afghanistan was a British protectorate. This meant that for the first time, the British and Russian spheres of influence had a land border – which both sides recognised was a potentially dangerous situation.
It was made much more dangerous by the fact that the British hadn’t actually bothered to work out where exactly this border was. This hadn’t been a problem while there was a buffer of Central Asian states between Afghanistan and Russia, but now it meant that there was no clear line between what was definitely Russian and what was definitely Afghan. The British were worried that Russia would quietly gobble up a chunk of Afghanistan, just as they had gobbled up the entirety of Central Asia. This would be very awkward for the Brits, who were obligated to defend Afghanistan from invasion, and they were worried that it would also enable the Russians to threaten the British Empire’s prize possession: India. The British government scrambled to sort out this problem, and they got the Russians to agree to a joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission which would sort out the Afghan border once and for all.
William Simpson managed to get invited along for the ride. Simpson was in his sixties, at the tail end of a remarkable career around the world, and this was his last big adventure. He’d grown up in poverty in Glasgow, and his autobiography reads like the life-story of some fictional protagonist of a historical novel series. For thirty years, wherever there was something of great significance going on in the world, Simpson was there, drawing it. He spent years travelling around in India, he was on friendly terms with multiple royal families, and he got caught up in several wars. It’s clear that he had a special talent for making friends with absolutely everyone, and everyone he met (including Queen Victoria) seemed to think that he was a thoroughly nice man.
Simpson travelled from London with the newly-appointed head of the Afghan Boundary Commission. They got to Afghanistan via Tehran, and all along the route he illustrated what they saw. But when they reached Afghanistan in November 1884, they ran into a serious problem. The main British contingent of the Boundary Commission had marched there from India and was waiting for them – but instead of the Russian mapmakers, there was a Russian army, which was starting to gobble up Afghan territory in exactly the way the British government had been trying to avoid. It was as though the Russians wanted to claim as much of Afghanistan as they could before the mapmakers put a stop to it.
It was a tense and complicated situation. The Afghans were angry with the Russian advances, but the British were trying to persuade them not to give the Russians an excuse to start a battle. The Russians couldn’t agree to any compromises, because that would look weak in front of the Central Asians they’d just conquered. And the Afghan Boundary Commission was in the middle of all this: thirty Brits and several hundred Indians, far from safety, and with unclear and contradictory instructions from the government.
After a stalemate through the winter, Simpson headed home in early 1885 with a full sketchbook. While he was travelling homeward, though, it all kicked off in Afghanistan. The Russians attacked an Afghan army, killing several hundred of them, and the battle was witnessed by some members of the Afghan Boundary Commission. The British government was outraged; diplomatic relations across Europe were thrown into confusion; newspapers feverishly covered the story for day after day; war between Britain and Russia seemed certain. The Afghan Boundary Commission found itself on the front line, with a Russian army on one side, and a furious population of Afghans on the other. The Afghans thought the Boundary Commission’s promises to stop the Russians had turned out to be lies. The Commission was at the epicentre of what almost became a really important turning point in history. One wrong move might set off a world war, and it might also lead to the massacre of the entire expedition.
Simpson arrived back in London in May 1885, at the height of the crisis. As the first man from the Afghan Boundary Commission to have returned from the disputed territory, he was seized upon as the man of the hour. The Foreign Secretary and the Royal Family both sent him invitations, to hear his story and to see his sketchbook.
The crisis helped to bring down the government, and Lord Salisbury (the great-great-grandfather of the my employer) became the new Prime Minister. Prime Minister Salisbury compelled the Russians to agree to a deal whereby they kept the territory they had taken, but no more. The Afghan Boundary Commission was told to continue its work, and they did eventually come up with a line that’s still the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. World War One was averted for another three decades.
Fast forward a hundred years. In the 1980s, the present Lord Salisbury bought Simpson’s Afghanistan sketchbook at Christie’s Auction House. Eventually he hit on the idea of writing a book about it. The plan was to tell the story that I’ve just told, and illustrate it with Simpson’s own pictures. But to do this, he was going to need the services of a researcher.
As I leafed through Simpson’s sketchbook, I realised what a phenomenal picture collection it was – especially as an eyewitness view of Central Asian history. Simpson’s beautiful and striking watercolours were mixed with dozens of doodles and practice drawings, depicting his journey through Persia, Afghanistan and the shores of the Black Sea.
My first task was to immerse myself in the world of the Afghan Boundary Commission. I thought the job would take four or five months. In the end it lasted for three years.
The Roxburghe Club
Lord Salisbury is a member of the Roxburghe Club, a society of about forty bibliophiles. Each member is expected to write a book and submit it to their fellow members. Normally their subject is an unpublished manuscript of some sort: something obscure from the private archives of the members. The expectation had been that Lord Salisbury would cobble something together from the Hatfield House Archive, but instead he’d gone slightly rogue by choosing Simpson’s sketchbook. A lot of Roxburghe Club books are not much more than facsimiles with introductions written by that member of the club, but Lord Salisbury had something much more ambitious in mind.
The Roxburghe books are beautiful objects: leather-bound and impressive, they are books as works of art. This means that they are very expensive to print. And treating a Roxburghe project as a commercial enterprise is frowned upon. As such, Lord Salisbury’s plan was always to have a very small private print run. In the end he settled on printing a hundred and fifty copies.
William Simpson and the Crisis in Central Asia
The history of the Afghan Boundary Commission and the crisis with Russia was hugely important at the time, but these days it’s badly neglected. I tracked down contemporary newspaper articles and out-of-print memoirs, sifting through mounds of information in search of clues. The more I discovered about the expedition and its heroic members, the more fascinated I became. I tracked down three of William Simpson’s great-grandchildren, who were helpful in many ways.
Then Lord Salisbury and I got together and made a chapter plan that pulled the whole thing into shape. I compiled a document more than 100,000 words long, in which all my notes were sorted into these chapter headings. Lord Salisbury then used this document as the backbone of his manuscript.
When the draft was written, I changed hats from researcher to editor, writing appendices and overseeing endless tiny corrections to the manuscript. We got ourselves a book designer, a mapmaker and an indexer, and I coordinated with them to bring it all together.
The book is called William Simpson and the Crisis in Central Asia, 1884-5. The day I first laid my hands on it was a memorable day (partly because it was the day that London entered Tier 4 and Christmas was cancelled). It’s a beautiful object, and Simpson’s pictures interact with Lord Salisbury’s text in just the way we’d hoped. Admittedly I can’t bear to read the thing in case there’s a typo I missed, but I know every sentence by now, and the images are restored to their full, crisp glory.
There are now copies of William Simpson and the Crisis in Central Asia in several academic libraries (ISBN 978-1-5272-7047-3). Call me biased, but I think it’s a cracking story and a significant work of research in a confusing historical field. I waded through a tangled web of place-names and sudden Russian advances, painstakingly sifting through to figure out the exact significance of the Zulfikar Pass and the bridge at Pul-i-Khisti, and I hope our text and our maps make it vastly more understandable for future researchers. It’s been a labour of love. I hope people like it.