October 17, 2006 at 9:06 pm | Posted in Asia, Globalization, History, India, Literary, United Kingdom | Leave a comment







Early edition cover

Author Rudyard Kipling

Country United Kingdom

Language English

Genre(s) Spy & Picaresque Novel

Publisher McClures’s Magazine (in serial) & MacMillan & Co

(single volume)

Released October 1901

John Masters

John Masters, DSO (19141983) was an English officer in the British

Indian Army and novelist. His works are noted for their treatment of the British Empire in India.


Masters was educated at Wellington and Sandhurst, the son of a Lieutenant-Colonel whose family had a long tradition of service in the Indian Army. He joined the army in 1933, having been seconded to the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI)and decided to opt for the 4th (Prince of Wales’ Own) Gurkha Rifles. He saw service on the North-West Frontier and was rapidly promoted. At the outbreak of World War II

his battalion was sent to North Africa; he served in the desert and in Iran and Iraq in the capacity as its Adjutant. Later in the war Masters was sent to Staff College at Quetta. Here he met the wife of a fellow officer and began an affair. They were later to marry. This caused a small scandal at the time. After Staff College he joined a Chindit battalion and served behind the Japanese lines in Burma.

His brigade (the 111 brigade) was ordered by General Lentaigne to hold a position code-named ‘Blackpool’. The position was attacked with great intensity for seventeen days and eventually the brigade was forced to withdraw. Masters was briefly a brigade commander. These events Masters later wrote about in the second volume of his autobiography, The Road Past Mandalay. He also described how he gave the order administer lethal doses of morphine to 19 of his own men, casualties who had no hope of recovery or rescue.

At the end of the war Masters left the army and moved to the United States, where he attempted to set up a business promoting walking tours in the Himalayas, one of his hobbies. The business was not a success and, to make ends meet, he decided to write of his experiences in the army. When his novels proved popular, he became a full-time writer. His third autobiographical volume was “Pilgrim Son”. The first volume, Bugles and a Tiger, deals with events up to his unit’s move to Iraq in 1941.

In later life, Masters and his wife Barbara moved to Sante Fe, New Mexico, USA. He died in 1983 from complications following heart surgery. His family and friends scattered his ashes from an aeroplane over the mountain trails he loved to hike. The former UN commander in Bosnia, General Sir Michael Rose [1] is a stepson of John Masters. “A regimented life” by John Clay was published by Michael Joseph in 1992.

This biography of John Masters is now out of print.

Works and controversy over them

Treatment of India and the British Raj

Apart from the autobiographical works (mentioned above), Masters is also known for his historical novels set in India. Seven of these portray members of successive generations of the Savage family serving in the British Army in India in an attempt to trace the history of the British in India through the life of one family. These novels are:


(English lad runs away to sea, ends up in India).

The Deceivers (English officer goes undercover

to root out ritual murders of Thuggee).

Nightrunners of Bengal (Sepoy Mutiny of 1857).

The Lotus and the Wind (The Great Game of

British and Russian spies on the Northwest Frontier).

Far, Far the Mountain Peak (The Great War).

Bhowani Junction (Britian’s exodus and the Partition of India).

To the Coral Strand (Ex-officer refuses to go gracefully after Indian independence).

The Deceivers was filmed in 1988 and starred Pierce Brosnan. The best known film is probably Bhowani Junction, which concerns the Partition of India and the Anglo-Indian community. It was made into a film starring Ava Gardner. Four of the novels were adapted for an 18 part serial in BBC Radio 4‘s classic serial slot, being broadcast from October 1984 to January 1985.

Masters’s last Indian novel, The Venus of Konpara, is notable for the fact that its principal characters are Indians. The Savage family play no role in the storyline. It is set in the nineteenth century during the Raj, but explores the history of Indo-Aryan and Dravidian identities in the country.

Unsurprisingly, considering the subject, Masters’ works are not without their critics, many of whom simply reflect their own thinking about British imperialism rather than addressing the literary quality of Masters’ work. Those who are hostile to the Empire criticise his work as revisionist – without specifying what is being “revised” – or as uncritical of the Empire. Typical are the observations of one Ronald Brydon: “For [me],

the saga of the Savages, heroes and conquistadors of the Raj, was a political pornography in which [I] savoured the illicit sensualities of imperialism.”

Others have detected a greater sophistication in Masters’ dealings with the British

Empire. It is interesting to note that one Indian novelist remarked that while Kipling understood India, John Masters understood Indians.

Masters’s The Ravi Lancers, where an Indian regiment is sent to Western Front of the First World War, centers on the conflict developing between the regiment’s British commander (also a relative of the Savage family, though with a different family name) and his Indian second-in-command. The young Indian, originally a naive admirer of the British Empire, increasingly discovers its seamy side and becomes an ardent Indian nationalist; the British commander, originally liberal, becomes more and more of a

tyrannical, paranoid martinet; and the two come to a shattering head-on clash in the very midst of a devastating attack on the German trenches.

In Nightrunners of Bengal, which takes place during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the protagonist – British officer Rodney Savage – at first reacts with blind hatred towards the “murderous” Indians, but in the course of the book this is replaced by considerable empathy and understanding of their motives. His Twentieth Century descendant, also named Rodney Savage (and who is in fact manifestly the same character) goes through the Partition of India in Bhowani Junction with a kind of resigned, cynical detachment; in the sequel, To the Coral Strand, he undergoes a deep personal crisis which ends with his staying on in Indepedent India

rather than return to Britain, and coming to terms with the new reality.

Other themes

Masters’s trilogy of Now God Be Thanked, Heart of War and In The Green Of The Spring may be considered his Magnum Opus, covering the changes to various segments of British society wrought by the upheavals of The Great War.

Another recurrent theme in Masters’ work is Rock climbing. In the fifties and sixties his books sold in large numbers, particularly Bhowani Junction (which was also translated to various other languages).


The Great Game, a term usually attributed to Arthur Conolly, was used to describe the rivalry and strategic conflict between the British Empire and the Tsarist Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The term was later popularized by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his work, Kim. In Russia the same rivalry and strategic conflict was known as the Tournament of Shadows.

The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running from approximately 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 a second, less intensive phase followed.

The Great Game


The Great Game in the 19th century

At the start of the 19th century there were some 2000

miles separating British India and the outlying regions

of Tsarist Russia. Much of the land in between was unmapped. The cities of Bukhara, Khiva, Merv and Tashkent were virtually unknown to outsiders. As Imperial Russian expansion threatened to collide with the increasing British dominance of the occupied lands of the Indian sub-continent, the two great empires played out a subtle game

of exploration, espionage and imperialistic diplomacy throughout Central Asia. The conflict always threatened, but never quite managed to break out into direct warfare between the two sides. The centre of activity was in Afghanistan.

From the British perspective, the Russian expansion threatened to destroy the so-called “jewel in the crown” of India.

As the Tsar’s troops began to subdue one Khanate after another

the British feared that Afghanistan would become a staging

post for a Russian invasion of India. It was with these thoughts in mind, that in 1838 the British launched the First Anglo-Afghan War and attempted to impose a puppet regime under Shuja Shah. The regime was short lived, and unsustainable without British military support. By 1842 mobs were attacking the British on the streets of Kabul and the British garrison agreed to a retreat from Kabul with guaranteed safe passage. Unfortunately for the British, the guarantee proved to be worthless. The retreating British column consisted of approximately 4,500 military personnel and 12,000 camp followers including many women and children.

During a series of ruthless attacks all but a few dozen were killed on the march back to India.

The British curbed their ambitions in Afghanistan following the humiliating retreat from Kabul. After the Indian rebellion of 1857, successive British governments saw Afghanistan as a buffer state. The Russians however, continued to advancesteadily southward toward Afghanistan and by 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed. Samarkandbecame part of the Russian Empire three years later and the independence of Bukhara was virtually stripped away in a peace treaty the same year. Russian control now extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya river.

It was only after the Russians sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878 that tensions were again renewed. Britain demanded that the ruler of Afghanistan (Sher Ali)

accept a British diplomatic mission. The mission was turned back and in retaliation a force of 40,000 men was sent across the border, launching the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The second war was almost as disastrous as the first for the British, and by 1881 they again pulled out of Kabul. They left Abdur Rahman Khan on the throne, and he agreed to let the British maintain Afghanistan’s foreign policy while he consolidated his position on the throne. He managed to suppress internal rebellions with ruthless efficiency and brought much of the country under central control.

Russian expansion brought about another crisis — the Panjdeh Incident — when they seized the oasis of Merv in 1884.

The Russians claimed all of the former ruler’s territory and fought with Afghan troops over the oasis of Panjdeh. On the brink of war between the two great powers, the British decided to accept the Russian possession as a fait accompli. Without any Afghan say in the matter, the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance, but retain Panjdeh. The agreement delineated a permanent northern Afghan frontier at the Amu Darya, with the loss of a large amount of territory, especially around Panjdeh.

In 1907 the Anglo-Russian Convention brought a close to the classic period of the Great Game. The Russians accepted that the politics of Afghanistan were solely under British control as long as the British guaranteed not to change the regime. Russia agreed to conduct all political relations with Afghanistan through the British. The British agreed that they would maintain the current borders and actively discourage any attempt by Afghanistan to encroach on Russian territory.

The Great Game in the 20th century

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 nullified existing treaties and a second phase of the Great Game began. The Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 was precipitated by the assassination of the then ruler Habibullah Khan. His son and successor Amanullah declared full independence and attacked British India’s northern frontier. Although little was gained militarily, the stalemate was resolved with the Rawalpindi Agreement of 1919.

Afghanistan was granted self-determination in foreign affairs. In May 1921, Afghanistan and the Russian Soviet Republic signed a Treaty of Friendship. The Soviets provided Amanullah with aid in the form of cash, technology, and military equipment. British influence in Afghanistan waned, but relations between Afghanistan and the Russians remained equivocal, with many Afghanis desiring to regain control of Merv and Panjdeh. The Soviets, for their part, desired to extract more from the friendship treaty than Amanullah was willing to give.

The United Kingdom imposed minor sanctions and diplomatic slights as a response to the treaty, fearing that Amanullah was slipping out of their sphere of influence, and realising that the policy of the Afghanistan government, was to have control of all of the Pashtun speaking groups on both sides of the Durand Line.

In 1923 Amanullah responded by taking the title padshah — “king”, and by offering refuge for Muslims who fled the Soviet Union, and Indian nationalists in exile from the Raj.

Amanullah’s programme of reform was, however, insufficient to strengthen the army quickly enough — in 1928 he abdicated under pressure, and his brother abdicated three days later. The individual to emerge from the crisis was King Muhammad Nadir, who reigned from 1929 to 1933. Both the Soviets and the British played the circumstances to their advantage: the Soviets getting aid in dealing with Uzbek rebellion in 1930 and 1931, while the British aided Afghanistan in creating a 40,000 man professional army.

With the advent of World War II came the temporary alignment of British and Soviet interests: in 1940 both governments pressured Afghanistan for the removal of a large German non-diplomatic contingent, which was felt by both governments to be engaged in espionage. Initially this was resisted. With this period of cooperation between the USSR and the UK, the Great Game between the two powers came to an end.

The Great Game renewed

With the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, the United States displaced Britain as the global power, asserting its influence in the Middle East in pursuit of oil, containment of the Soviet Union, and access to other resources. This period is sometimes referred to as “The New Great Game” by commentators, and there are references in the military, security and diplomatic communities to “The Great Game” as an analogy or framework for events involving India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and more recently, the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. In 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski published “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives” which advocated a 21st century version of the Great Game. Popular media have referred to the current difficulties international forces have had in fighting Taliban forces in Afghanistan as a continuance of the Great Game.

The Great Game in popular culture

  • Flashman in

    the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser

    (1999) ISBN 0-00-651299-2

  • The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk (1992) ISBN-13:978-1-56836-022-5
  • The Great Game is referenced in the song “Pink India” from musician Stephen Malkmus‘ self-titled album. The song discusses the political legacy of the Game leading up the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The song refers by name to British civil servant Mortimer Durand, who first proposed the border, known as the Durand line, dividing English holdings in India and Pakistan from Russian holdings in Afghanistan.


  • Peter Hopkirk. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, Kodansha International, 1992, ISBN4-7700-1703-0, 565p. The timeline of the Great Game is available online.
  • Karl Meyer. Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia, Shareen Brysac, 2001, ISBN0-349-11366-1
  • Robert Johnson, Spying for Empire: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, 1757-1947′, (London: Greenhill, 2006) ISBN 1-85367-670-5 [1]

See also

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