Victorian feminism in Afghanistan

I have been reading the diary of Florentia Sale, which because of its meticulous detail is one of the primary historical sources for the disastrous events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Florentia was the wife of Gen. Robert Sale, one of the most famous officers in British colonial history, known for his apparently total lack of fear and his penchant for joining the thick of battle alongside his soldiers. (In the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, Sale slew the Burmese chief in single combat, a deed that would make him eligible for the spolia opima, had it occurred in a different millennium.) 

In 1840, after the British had installed Shah Shuja in Kabul and lodged garrisons around the country, Florentia and her daughter joined Gen. Sale in Kabul where they resided at the cantonments that were constructed to house the British families and much off the military contingent. In September 1841 Gen. Sale was dispatched with his brigade to the east to suppress tribal uprisings along the road to Jalalabad, leaving the capital with a severely diminished garrison. Not long after Sale’s departure uprisings began in Kabul itself, beginning the events witnessed by Lady Sale that culminated with the annihilation of the Kabul garrison as it attempted to flee the country via the Khyber Pass. 

I was particularly struck by her entry on November 23, 1841, not for what it indicates about Afghanistan or the history of the First Afghan War, but what it suggests about the author, Florentia Sale herself. It would seem that she shared many of her husband’s attributes.

November 23 was an important day in which the already weakened garrison sustained heavy casualties in a series of engagements around a hill near the British cantonments. Lady Sale meticulously describes the order of battle, equipment, and formations of the committed forces along with a general narrative of events, thus providing a very thorough debriefing for her reading audience. She also explains how she was able to witness the battle:

I had taken up my post of observation, as usual, on the top of the house, whence I had a fine view of the field of action, and where, by keeping behind the chimneys, I escaped the bullets that continually whizzed past me.

A bit later, she recounts the climax of the morning actions when the Afghans and British collided over the possession of a light artillery piece that the British had brought along to the battle:

It was very like the scenes depicted in the battles of the Crusaders. The enemy rushed on: drove our men before them very like a flock of sheep with a wolf at their heels. They captured our gun. The artillerymen fought like heroes; two were killed at the gun; Sergeant Mulhall received three wounds; poor Laing was shot while waving his sword over the gun and cheering the men. It was an anxious sight, and made our hearts beat: it lasted but for a few minutes.

Shortly after this the British counter attacked, the Afghans retreated, and the fighting died down. Lady Sale thus decided it was time to get on with more important things:

All appearing to be over, I hastened home to get breakfast ready for Sturt, every one supposing that the enemy were routed and that Brigadier Shelton was coming back with the troops.

I want to make this imagery clear for the reader. In the small hours of morning, Lady Sale climbs to the roof of her house so she can watch as the British and Indian troops march out to claim a nearby hill that the enemy had been demonstrating upon in the days prior. Over the next several hours, using her chimney as cover from the occasional stray bullet, she watched hundreds of men die – some of whom were her acquaintances – while vividly recording the flow of the battle and the circumstances of the casualties. When the action begins to die down, she goes downstairs to make breakfast for her son-in-law, who was recovering from a major injury sustained in an assassination attempt.

As it turned out, the battle was not yet decided:

At about half past twelve, just as we had finished our breakfast, the enemy gradually came up the hill; and their fire was so severe that our men in square could scarcely fill up the gaps as their comrades fell, and our whole force, both horse and foot, were driven down the hill, and our gun captured – a regular case of sauve qui peut.

The British were not relieved until Shah Shuja sallied some his own troops out of the Bala Hissar fortress to conduct a diversionary action on the Siah Sung hills, several miles to the west. Some of the Afghans peeled off to attack Shuja’s forces, allowing the wearied British to disengage.

In Lady Sale’s confident estimation:

The misfortunes of the day are mainly attributable to Shelton’s bad generalship in taking up so unfavorable a position, after his first fault in neglecting to surprise the village and occupy it, which was the ostensible object of the force going out.

Who are we to argue with that assessment?

Site of the November 23 battle, located 2 miles southwest of the Kabul airport (which for some reason is not mentioned by Lady Sale in her journal)

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6 thoughts on “Victorian feminism in Afghanistan

  1. Pingback: Just Another Monday Miscellany « The Committee of Public Safety

  2. It’s also worth mentioning that Florentia’s saga concluded when she, her daughter, and the other British captives were personally rescued by General Sale himself (though only after they bribed their way to freedom), at the head of an advanced detachment of cavalry.

    Robert Sale is thus the only English gentleman I’m aware of to actually live that ubiquitous 19th century male fantasy of saving his very own damsel in distress. (male fantasies re:women seem to have degenerated somewhat since then).

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