An essential precondition to the importance of the siege was
the state of economic exhaustion and political anarchy that prevailed
in Iran in the 1830's. The great empires of the seventeenth century
had collapsed and in the wars that followed, the prosperity of
the area was destroyed. The weakness of the tribal states, Persia
and Afghanistan, that arose out of the ruins was a constant source
of instability that invited both internal revolts and outside
influences. There was a power vacuum and powers on the outside
inevitably became involved in what was going on within.
The immediate motive for the siege was the desire of Persia
to restore its vanished empire. Seen in this regard the campaign
of 1837 was but the latest in a long series of attempts to regain
lost territory in the east. Herat had been the main objective
of these efforts since control over Mashad was established in
1803. Whenever there was peace in the west, and no political crisis
at hand, there was a Persian move to retake Herat.
The opportunity for Persia to achieve this goal was created
when the tension between Sadozai and Mohammedzai finally tore
apart the fragile structure of the Afghan state. Herat was cut
off from the rest of Afghanistan and would appear to have been
easy pickings for any of its numerous enemies if they could make
a serious effort to take it. If these had been the only factors,
the siege of Herat would have had only local importance but there
were two more.
There was the worldwide expansion of the British. The growth
of the British economy fueled this expansion and the British were
constantly searching for new markets and supplies. More importantly
the British were the rulers of a great empire in India and were
concerned for its defense. A keystone of this defense was a buffer
on the Northwest frontier. The state of Ranjit Singh provided
this buffer for a time but when a greater threat was perceived
it was felt that a stronger buffer was needed.
This greater threat was the apparent Russian domination of
Western Asia. After 1828 and more so after 1833, it appeared as
though the Tsar had gained control over Persia and Turkey and
was using them to extend his power. The British were particularly
afraid of the effect a Russian presence on the Indian border would
have on the internal peace of India. The Russian position was
not as pervasive or as sinister as the British imagined, but it
was to some degree real and the Russians were concerned to preserve
Each of the parties involved saw Herat from a different perspective.
To Mohammed Shah of Persia, Herat was an integral part of the
Persian empire. Historically, religiously, ethnically and in all
respects it belonged to Persia even though it was temporarily
detached. The reconquest of Herat was a long- standing goal of
his family and he was committed to it as a matter of personal
honor. There was no question in his eyes as to the rightness of
The Afghan chiefs each had different ideas about the position
of Herat. To Kamran it was the last refuge of the Sadozai dynasty.
For Yar Mohammed it was a place he had seized upon where he could
establish his own power. These two had nowhere else to go. To
Kohendil Khan on the other hand Herat was a mortal enemy that
must be destroyed and if possible added to his own possessions.
There was also a debt to pay for the destruction of Painda and
Feteh Khan. Dost Mohammed also had this blood feud but he was
less concerned with Herat. When the occasion arose however, he
saw that Herat might be a useful bargaining point to accomplish
Herat had long been known as the "Key to India" and
the city retained that image in the eyes of the British. It was
not that they felt they should have it in their own hands but
that it had to be kept out of the hands of strong or unfriendly
powers. Persia qualified as one of these after 1828. The British
did not really fear a direct invasion but whoever held Herat was
in a position to influence Afghanistan and the forward policy
made Afghanistan part of the Indian defense system. The internal
peace of India was always the prime concern of the British and
their interest in Herat varied as threats to this peace came and
To the Tsar and his ministers Herat was probably just another
of the small principalities that dotted Iran and Central Asia.
However they were no doubt aware of its importance to Persia and
its relationship to British India. After the wars of the early
1830s it was apparent that Persia and Britain were at odds
concerning the position of Herat. The Russians were in an excellent
position to exploit this difference to their own advantage and
this is the key to the whole affair.
A tentative explanation for the Russians actions in these
years is that they decided to exploit the British fears for the
security of their Indian empire in order to enhance Russia's own
position in Persia. By encouraging the Persians in their objective
of taking Herat, Russia could provoke a complete break between
Persia and Britain, leaving the field to Russia. The risks to
Russia were minimal, since Persia wanted Herat anyway and seemingly
had the means to take it. The British fell for it completely.
Things began to go wrong, however, when the Shah was not able
to take Herat right away. This gave the British a chance to seize
the initiative and they were quite effective in stalling the Persian
effort. At this point Simonich decided that he had to act to counter
the British moves. He sent agents into Afghanistan to arrange
a coalition against Herat. Possibly he became personally involved
in the siege or did not realize the implications of what he was
doing. He may even have been acting against orders. In any case
his actions and involvement were what touched off the British
Those in control of Russian policy realized what was happening
and ordered the recall of Simonich in April or May of 1838 to
avoid an overreaction by the British. But by the time the word
got to Simonich it was too late, the damage had been done. The
British saw their frontier defenses in shambles and set armies
marching to restore them.
With the departure of the Persian army from Herat the focus
of the crisis was lost but the various moves underway went on
independently to their conclusion. The British army occupied Afghanistan
but could not hold it. The Russians made one attempt to restore
their tarnished prestige but failed. The Persians continued to
occupy the border fortresses until Herat went through the motions
of professing friendship. This cleared the way for a reconciliation
of Britain and Persia. The British sent another army back to Kabul
to exact retribution but withdrew after doing no more than burning
the Kabul bazaar. Only then was it possible to assess what had
In Persia the failure of the siege was followed by a near break-down
of the imperial government. The army had to be disbanded, revolts
broke out in almost all provinces, and the government was completely
bankrupt. There was no improvement during the 1840s. 1 On a broader scale
the siege marks the last attempt of the Persians to restore their
lost empire. Before this there had been almost constant and continuous
campaigns in the east or the west. The few Persian military efforts
during the rest of the nineteenth century were sporadic, half-hearted,
and almost totally unsuccessful. The foreign affairs of Persia
for the remainder of the century consist mainly of dealings between
Russia and Britain.
A more subtle change was also accelerated in Persian society.
Symbolic of this, a Persian history written in 1882 concentrates
on imperial events up to 1838 but after the siege of Herat is
almost exclusively concerned with the affairs of a single province.
2 The decline of
Persia had started quite some time before this, but after 1838
the fall was precipitous. The Kajars had failed to restore the
empire and people seem to have just lost interest.
The changes in Afghanistan were not quite as profound. Dost
Mohammed returned to Kabul after the second British withdrawal.
He worked to consolidate and extend his power and by the time
of his death in 1863 had reunited Kandahar, and Herat with Kabul.
Dost had been impressed with the fact that his power was dependent
on British India and he was very careful not to give offense in
that direction. The British occupation had also brought lessons
in efficient administration which Dost tried to apply as best
Kohendil Khan also returned, to rule Kandahar until his death
in 1851. In 1855 Kandahar became subject to Dost Mohammed at Kabul.
Yar Mohammed Khan continued at Herat and tried to rebuild his
ravaged city. When he died in l853 Herat was briefly occupied
by Persia, but the Persians withdrew under British pressure and
the city retained a precarious independence until becoming subject
to Dost Mohammed in 1863. Dost Mohammeds death in 1863 however
set off another round of anarchy which lasted until the 1880s
before the final shape of Afghanistan was attained.
The most significant result as far as Afghanistan was concerned
was that it was clearly made part of the British imperial system.
Its role was that of a buffer, and it was not ruled directly,
but it was strictly controlled. The British would repeat their
invasion on two subsequent occasions to enforce this connection.
The Afghans derived some small benefit however in that it did
ensure the survival of Afghanistan. Russia had risked almost nothing
in this affair and had lost only a small amount of prestige. But
the Russians had learned some significant things. They had tested
the British and discovered the limits beyond which they would
react. In the 1860's and 1870's Russia brought all Central Asia
and the Uzbeg Khanates under its rule unopposed by Britain but
stopped 100 miles north of Herat. Russia also proved to its satisfaction
that a real or imagined threat to India could be very useful in
dealing with the British. This was the first tine Russia had tried
such a move and it would not be the last.
Finally the British had established the outer limit of their
Indian empire and the line was drawn at Herat. The Russian conquest
of the Uzbegs brought no British response but a threat to Herat
sent armies marching. When Russia marched on Khiva in 1839 the
British briefly considered moving deeper into Central Asia but
as a result of this crisis the limit was pulled back to Herat
and never moved again.
The relations of Britain and Russia in Iran were thus defined between 1837 and 1842. Russia possessed a predominant influence in Persia but the British could not be excluded altogether. Afghanistan was a part of the Indian empire but anything beyond Herat was left to Russia by default. Persia and Afghanistan lost the ability to act independently as they had done in the past. After all the numerous crises during the rest of the nineteenth century, and after all the comings and goings of British and Russian agents in what was called the "Great Game," when the spheres of influence were officially drawn by the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 they corresponded almost exactly with what was established by the events surrounding the Siege of Herat.