The Truth about the British and the Bala Hissar
and the Second Anglo Afghan War
by Garen Ewing

The Sha-Said Gate of the Bala Hissar at Kabul in 1879

The fort is in ruins, destroyed by British troops in 1879 in retaliation for the murder of the British envoy.
- Christina Lamb, The Sunday Times, Feb 4th 2007

A comment that I have read on more than one occasion is the fact that, during the Second Anglo Afghan War, the British destroyed the great Bala Hissar - the ancient fort that had stood for centuries as a sentinel over Kabul. Despite my reading several volumes of material on Roberts at Kabul - I couldn't actually recall this being the case, and felt doubtful about the veracity of the story. I decided to gather enough information, evidence, if you will, in order to set the record straight - whatever the record actually revealed.

But first I wanted to know where this story came from. On several occasions, correspondents who have contacted me from Afghanistan have quoted a well-respected book, 'An Historical Guide to Kabul' (1972) by the experienced Afghanistan historian Nancy Hatch Dupree. I looked this book up and found the following passage:

"Kabul's Bala Hissar, rising 150 feet above the plain, witnessed most of the exciting events of Afghanistan's history up until the spring of 1880. Babur, founder of the Moghul Empire of India, lived here early in the 16th century. He loved it well, did much to embellish it, and wrote poetry extolling its commanding view. Succeeding kings alternately ruled from it or languished in its dungeons. Then, on that fateful day in September 1879, a British Representative, Sir Louis Cavagnari, and his escort, were cut down in one of its palaces on the southern side. This vivid protest against British interference in Afghan affairs brought a British army to occupy the Bala Hissar, hang rebellious chieftains from gallows erected in its courtyards, and to close its story the following spring when they demolished it as "a lasting memorial of our ability to avenge our countrymen." (General Roberts)"
- Nancy Hatch-Dupree, An Historical Guide to Kabul, 1972

Although the individual facts supplied are correct, the obvious interpretation left to the reader is not. It is sadly true that Afghans were hanged in the Bala Hissar, and I believe this to be one of the most shameful acts perpetrated by the British during the campaign (an action which was intelligently criticised by Frederic Harrison in 'The Fortnightly Review' in 1879). The quote from General Roberts is a correct quote (from his autobiography 'Forty-One Years in India') - but is not connected with the Spring 1880 demolition work. In fact, an avenging demolition never happened.

Let us go back to the fateful 3rd September 1879, when Cavagnari and his embassy perished at the hands of mutinying Afghan soldiers from Herat (if it ended up as a 'vivid protest against British interference in Afghan affairs', it didn't start as one - the dispute was over a lack of pay). The residency building was burnt, gutted, looted and destroyed by the attackers (though we cannot know for certain the fire was started by the mob - it is possible some of the defenders started the fire to cover their retreat to the bath house).

Roberts entered Kabul with his 'avenging army' in October 1879, and they had their first view of the Bala Hissar. Joshua Duke, observing the fortress from afar, says "more than two-thirds of this great work now lies in ruins", while Hensman, walking through it the following day, writes:

"The masonry is crumbling to decay, but there are still signs of great stability in it, and the natural features of the ground have been so utilized that a precipitous face of 30 or 40 feet is presented to any enemy... The road rises some 10 or 12 feet to the gate itself, which must have once been of enormous strength, as solid masonry 20 feet thick still remains. Here again there is evidence of ruin, the inner supports having crumbled away... The place looks filthy and uncared for, and the doorways leading to the courts of the tumble-down houses give a view of squalor and diliapidation, suggestive of worse to follow"
- Howard Hensman, Kabul, 11 October 1879

The following day Roberts issued a proclamation, translated by the local Kazi (judge) into Persian and Pashtu - "indifferently" according to Macgregor, who also criticised it as "badly worded and not dignified":

"The force under my command has now reached Kabul and occupied the Bala Hissar; but the advance has been pertinaciously opposed [referring to the battle of Charasia], and the inhabitants of the city have taken a conspicuous part in the opposition offered. They have, therefore, become rebels against the Amir... it would be but a just and fitting reward, for such misconduct, if the city of Kabul were now totally destroyed and its name blotted out. But the great British Government ever desires to temper justice with mercy... the city will be spared... Nevertheless, it is necessary that they should not escape all penalty, and further that the punishment inflicted should be such as will be felt and remembered. Therefore, such portions of the city buildings as now interfere with proper military occupation of the Bala Hissar, and the safety and comfort of the British troops to be quartered in it, will be at once levelled to the ground..."
- Frederick Roberts, Kabul, 12 October 1879

Note that Roberts is not saying he will level the Bala Hissar, but various buildings that would otherwise hinder its military occupation - after all, you can't destroy what you intend to occupy. As far as I can find, he didn't get to make any modifications to, or around, the Bala Hissar at that time anyway, as just four days later there was an enormous gunpowder explosion in the fort's armoury, killing several men, and forcing the British to move out permanently - though a couple of days later when the fires had died down somewhat, the main armoury was strengthened by British engineers.

The ammunition store in the Bala Hissar explodes

There is this interesting passage from Hensman concerning the explosion:

"The panic in the city was very great, the shops being shut and the streets deserted. Several of the inhabitants are reported to have been wounded by falling bullets, and this has given rise in their minds to the idea that we have destroyed the Arsenal purposely."
- Howard Hensman, 16 October 1879

The British had their own suspicions about the explosions in the arsenal too. Hensman wrote later that "It has now been decided that the Bala Hissar shall be destroyed", later adding in a footnote, "This intention was, unfortunately, never carried out owing to the outbreak in December" (meaning Mohammed Jan's attack). The British did, however, strip a fair amount of woodwork to prevent further fire.

Roberts certainly seemed in favour of destroying the Bala Hissar. In a telegram to him on 23 Oct 1879, the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, stated "I emphatically approve complete and immediate destruction of Bala Hissar. So does Commander-in-Chief...". And Lytton wrote again to Roberts on 2 Nov, "The sooner it is completed the better...". But as Brian Robson notes in 'Roberts in India' "...the idea was quietly abandoned".

Late in December 1879, the British were besieged in the Sherpur cantonment, and Mohammed Jan and his immense force occupied Kabul and the surrounding heights. Part of this occupation included wanton destruction within Kabul itself, including the hospital set up by Dr Owen for the benefit of Kabuli men, women and children. Houses were looted, doors, windows and walls destroyed, floors dug up, and bazaars and shops gutted. Jan's men caused damage to the Bala Hissar as well, and took away most of the remaining gunpowder. The British were informed that the fort had been mined, so no soldiers were garrisoned there until engineers had declared it safe (it was almost certainly a false rumour).

Dr Joshua Duke, after describing the mounds of rubbish and filth in the narrow lanes up to the Peshawar Gate of the Bala Hissar, gives further revealing information:

"During the spring and summer of 1880 more than one half of the citadel was dismantled, and the filth of all ages satisfactorily buried. The chief bazaar and all the smaller surrounding houses were pulled down, the ground obtained being used as a parade. A fine road was cut straight through the citadel, demolishing the smaller bazaars, and traversing the two gardens to the Lahore gate. Nearly all the places whose walls were sound were left untouched, so that from outside little change was discernible. The citadel was divided by a loop-holed wall into two squares. The walls and the defences all around were put into good repair by our engineers. The upper slopes of the magazine were terraced and manned by heavy guns, which completely swept the city, and the fortress was thus rendered as nearly as possible impregnable to any Afghan force attacking it from below.

The English occupation in 1880 had converted a useless tumble-down fort into a position of much strength; and although in doing so we have left our indelible mark at Kabul, yet at a future time, should Russia or our enemies obtain Kabul, by fair means or foul, we may find our own improvements have been made to our cost."

- Joshua Duke, Recollections of the Kabul Campaign

In August the British left Kabul - Roberts south to relieve Kandahar, and Stewart east to Peshawar. The Bala Hissar was handed over to the Amir's General, Gholam Hyder Khan, with one regiment of infantry and about a hundred cavalry, ensuring its use into the reign of Abdurrahman.

So now we can say that, yes, parts of the Bala Hissar were indeed demolished in the spring of 1880 - but chiefly only parts that were ruined and choked up with rubbish. In other respects the Bala Hissar was repaired and strengthened - revenge, by this point, was not the motive. Roberts did indeed have designs on destroying the Bala Hissar, fuelled at least partially by the murder of his friend Cavagnari, but for all he wrote in favour of that, the deed was never actually carried out, and any destruction carried out in 1879 was more by Afghan hand than Anglo.

I do not write this article to extoll the virtues of the British in Afghanistan c.1880, a campaign with a distasteful motive against a people that had committed no purposeful act to incite it. Nor to criticise experienced journalists who can not be expected to know every detail of a long-distant campaign. It is purely to present the facts behind a statement ("the fort is in ruins, destroyed by British troops in 1879 in retaliation for the murder of the British envoy") that is not true to history. The British did level forts and towers as a punishment to tribesmen during the two year war - but not the great old fort at Kabul, a structure that was already described as partially ruined by British visitors in 1879.

The story of the Bala Hissar is not closed, its walls still stand today... just about!

After writing and posting this article I was contacted by Brigadier C. W. Woodburn who has authored an excellent monograph on the Bala Hissar. If you want to know more about the fort then I can highly recommend The Bala Hissar of Kabul, a publication full of detailed research as well as wonderful photographs and drawings. It can be purchased from the Institution of Royal Engineers.

Bala Hissar Photos thank you very much to the photographers who have contributed photos (as credited)
Photo: John Burke 1879
Photo: Bob McIntosh 2006 (visit Bob's Afghan gallery)
Photo: Bjoern Clausen 2006
Photo: Bob McIntosh 2006 (visit Bob's Afghan gallery)
Photo: Gary J. Klein 2007
Photo: Gary J. Klein 2007

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