The Wakhan Quadrangle. Exploration and espionage during and after the Great Game
The Wakhan Quadrangle became an arena of colonial competition and international interest when four powers – Afghanistan, China, Great Britain, and Russia – struggled for dominance in a remote mountain region where only scattered communities were dwelling in a challenging environment. At the end of the ‘Great Game’ international boundaries were agreed-upon and were laid down on the ground. Prior to this half a century of exploration and reconnaissance would augment and enhance the ethnographical, geographical, and linguistic knowledge about the people living there by sending a varied group of international travellers to record routes, military and strategic information for respective parties in the contest. Among the diverse group of explorers were so-called indigenous intermediaries who were trained in measuring geodetic parameters and who noted down their observations about customs, culture and economy of the people. They were supposed to be knowledgeable in terms of linguistic skills and cultural practices; they tried to be less suspicious than their colonial masters. Munshi Abdul Rahim was an explorer who was sent by the first British Political Gent in Gilgit, John Biddulph, to Wakhan and Badakhshan in 1879-1880. His hidden and neglected report is the centrepiece of this book and is reprinted in facsimile. The authentic and informative report from a crucial period for Wakhan which resulted in the imperial division of the formerly independent principality into two parts and the flight and migration of a big share of its inhabitants to neighbouring countries is preceded by an introduction to the Great Game and its implications for the Central Asian interface, an elaboration of the context in which exploration and reconnaissance took place, a presentation of the actors from the perspective of ‘native explorers’. Munshi Abdul Rahim’s narrative is a case in point to discuss the function of providers of ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ information, i.e. the distinction between exploration and espionage from colonial times to the present day. The comments and interpretations are embedded in archival research and fieldwork in the region; the author has retraced all steps of Munshi Abdul Rahim within a span of 40 years.