Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Books

Persia and the Persian Question, volume I

by George N. Curzon

previous chapter chapter 8 start page single page chapter 10 next chapter

Chapter 9


And thou hast trod the sands of Seistan

And seen the River of Helmund, and the Lake

Of Zirrah.

MATTHEW ARNOLD, Sohrab and Rustum.

FROM Zulfikar, upon the Heri Rud, the starting point of the new Russo-Afghan Boundary of 1885-7, and the point accordingly where Russian, Afghan, and Persian territory all converge, the frontier of the last-named Power, running due south almost upon the 61st parallel of longitude for a distance of several hundred miles, is either only in part defined, doubtfully defined, precariously observed, or not defined at all. The entire distance from the Zulfikar Pass to the Indian Ocean at Gwetter is 700 miles in a straight line; along which extent Persia is brought into contact with two neighbours upon the east, with neither of whom is she upon the best of terms, viz., Afghanistan and Beluchistan. Disputes are constantly occurring with both of these Powers as to the boundary-line: and encroachments, sometimes ephemeral, in other cases permanent, are made upon territories claimed by the other. Of the three nations concerned, the most acquisitive, strange to say, appears to be Persia herself. She perhaps thinks to console herself for forcible contraction upon her north-west and north-east borders by a little surreptitious expansion here.

The frontier-line of which I am speaking falls naturally into four divisions, in each of which different degrees of stability and differing political conditions prevail. The first of these divisions is the section running from Zulfikar to the northern confines of Seistan, a total distance of nearly 300 miles. Ever since Herat and its dependencies were severed from Khorasan, a more or less recognised boundary has existed between the two countries in these parts; but it has never been defined, and provides material for recurrent disputes, arising as a rule from the contested command or possession of water-courses, the most valu-

[page 224]

able and in many cases the sole asset of which Nature can here boast. One of these disputes between Afghanistan and Persia had been raging for some time before my visit, concerning a border district named Hashtadan, on the parallel between Kuhsan and Ghurian. The British, who are usually appealed to on these occasions as umpires, and who have more than once undertaken what is apt to be a very thankless task, were invited to arbitrate; and a decision was given which, I dare say, had what MacGregor thought the superlative merit of dissatisfying both parties. I only allude to it as typical of the incidents that must constantly recur upon a boundary so ill-defined, assisted in most parts by no natural features, and peopled by nomad tribes who care very little for posts or pillars.

The second section is the frontier of Seistan, as defined by the Anglo-Perso-Afghan Boundary Commission under Sir F. Goldsmid in 1872, which will form the main subject of this chapter. The length of this section from north to south is about 120 miles; but as the new frontier, fixed by the arbitration, pursues a wide deviation to the south-east until it touches the river Helmund, and then turns again in a south-westerly direction, the length of the two outer sides of the triangle thus described is considerably greater than that of the hypotenuse.

Third in order comes a stretch of boundary from the southern end of the Seistan frontier, fixed in 1872, to the northern end of the Mekran boundary, demarcated in the previous year; or, in other words, from the Kuh-Malek-i-Siah to Jalk, a distance of 200 miles. This section of the border has never been defined at all. No one knows where or what it is. No two maps colour it alike; and the majority compound for ignorance by obvious conjecture, drawing a straight line in a south-easterly direction from the mountains named above to the neighbourhood of Jalk. Beluchistan is here the neighbour of Persia on the east; but the wandering Beluch tribes who camp upon the frontier own very little allegiance to the Khan of Kelat, and are practically independent.

Lastly comes the line from Jalk to the port of Gwetter, on the sea, 130 miles in length, which I call the Mekran boundary, because that part of Beluchistan which it divides between Persia and Kelat is known by that name. It was defined under conditions of peculiar difficulty by Sir F. Goldsmid in

[page 225]

1871, but is not uniformly observed. Both these last sections of frontier — viz. the upper and the lower Perso-Beluch borders — will come under notice in a later chapter dealing with the Eastern provinces. They are mentioned here only in order to place Seistan in its proper focus to surrounding conditions.

I have already, in the preceding chapter, spoken of Seistan as a beluk or sub-division of the Persian province of Kain, ruled by Mir Alam Khan of Birjand, who deputes an official to represent him and to command the garrison at Nasratabad. Here let me describe the circumstances which have led to its being a Persian possession at all, and which necessitated the despatch of the Boundary Commission in 1872; whilst, in order to make this part of the narrative clear, some sketch will be required, both of the province itself and of its earlier history.

The derivation of the name Seistan or Sejestan from Sagastan, the country of the Sagan, or Sacae, has, says Sir H. Rawlinson, never been doubted by any writer of credit, either Arab or Persian;[196] although it is curious that a band of roving nomads, as were these Scythians, who descended hither from the north in the third century A.D., should have bequeathed a permanent designation to a country which they only occupied for a hundred years. Expelled by the Sassanian monarch Varahran II. (A.D. 275-292) they have long vanished from history themselves; but in the name of the district they may claim a monumentum oere perennius.

At different epochs of history territories of very differing sizes have been called Seistan, according as the dominion of their rulers has been extended or curtailed. In its stricter application, however, the name has always been peculiar to the great lacustrine basin that receives the confluent waters of the Helmund and other rivers, whose channels converge at this point upon a depression in the land's surface, with very clearly defined borders, and a length from north to south of nearly 250 miles. It is certain that in olden days this depression was filled by the waters of a great lake; and, were all the artificial canals and irrigation channels, by which the river contents are now reduced and exhausted, to be destroyed, I imagine that it would very soon relapse into its primaeval condition.[197]

[page 226]

The modern Seistan may be said to comprise three main depressions, which, according to the season of the year and the extent of the spring floods, are converted alternately into lakes, swamps, or dry land. The first of these depressions consists of the twofold lagoon formed by the Harut Rud and the Farrah Rud flowing from the north, and by the Helmund and the Khash or Khushk Rud flowing from the south and east respectively. These two lakes or pools are connected by a thick reed-bed called the Naizar, which, according to the amount of water that they contain, is either a marsh or a cane-brake. In flood time. these two lakes, ordinarily distinct, unite their waters, and the conjoint inundation pours over the Naizar into the second great depression, known by the generic title of Hamun or Expanse, which stretches southwards like a vast shallow trough for many miles. When the British Commissioners were here in 1872, the Hamun was quite dry, and they marched to and fro across its bed. But in 1885-6, when some of the members of the later Russo-Afghan Boundary Commission were proceeding this way from Quetta to the confines of Herat, it was found to be an immense lake, extending for miles, with the Kuh-i-Khwajah, a well-known mountain and conspicuous landmark usually regarded as its western limit, standing up like an island in the middle.[198] In times of abnormal flood the Hamun will itself overflow; and on such occasions the water, draining southwards through the Sarshela ravine, inundates the third of the great depressions to which I alluded, and which is known as the Zirreh Marsh. This was said at the time of the Commission not to have occurred within living memory, it being a far more common experience to find all the river-beds exhausted than all the lake-beds full; and the Zirreh as a rule presents the familiar appearance of a salt desert.[199] In 1885,

[page 227]

however, a British officer exploring Western Beluchistan found water two feet deep flowing down the Sarshela or Shela, and forming an extensive Hamun in the northern part of the Zirreh, which was said to be over one hundred miles in circumference.

It will readily be understood from the above description how variable is the face of Seistan, and what a puzzle to writers its comparative geography becomes. For not only do the lakes alternately swell, recede, and disappear — the area of displacement covering an extent, according to Rawlinson, of one hundred miles in length by fifty miles in width — but the rivers also are constantly shifting their beds, sometimes taking a sudden fancy for what has hitherto been an artificial canal, but which they soon succeed in converting into a very good imitation of a natural channel, in order to perplex some geographer of the future. It is not surprising, therefore, that while the country owes to the abundant alluvium thus promiscuously showered upon it its store of wealth and fertility, it also contains more ruined cities and habitations than are perhaps to be found within a similar space of ground anywhere in the world.

Such in brief outline is the physical conformation of Seistan. I will now proceed to its history. From the earliest times there has been something in Seistan that appealed vividly to the Persian imagination. The country was called Nimroz, from a supposed connection with Nimrod, 'the mighty hunter'; it was the residence of Jamshid, and the legendary birthplace of the great Rustam, son of Zal, and fifth in descent from Jamshid. King Arthur does not play as great a part in British legend as does the heroic Rustam in the myths of Iran. For, after all, Arthur was a mortal man (and, if we are to follow Tennyson, almost a nineteenth century gentleman), while Rustam fought

[page 228]

with demons and jins as well as against the pagan hordes of Turan and Afrasiab. Perhaps our Saint George of the Dragon would be a nearer parallel; and just as we stamp the record of his matchless daring upon our coinage, so do the Persians emblazon the great feats of Rustam upon gateway and door and pillar.

Seistan emerges into the clearer light of ascertained history in the time of Alexander the Great, when it was known as Drangiana (identical with the land of the Herodotean Sarangians). He probably passed this way on his march eastwards to India; whilst on his return therefrom, though he pursued a more southerly line himself, through Gedrosia (Mekran) to Carmania (Kerman), he despatched a light column under Craterus through Arachotia and Drangiana.[200] Under the Sassanian monarchs Seistan was a flourishing centre of the Zoroastrian worship, and hither came the last sovereign of that dynasty, Yezdijird, flying from the victorious Arabs on his way to his fate at Merv. It was under the succeeding régime that the province attained the climax of its material prosperity; and to this — the Arab — period are to be attributed the vast ruins of which I have previously spoken.[201] In the ninth century a native dynasty known as the Sufari or Coppersmiths,[202] was founded by one Yakub bin Leith, a potter and a robber, but a soldier and a statesman[203] who won by arms a short-lived empire that stretched from Shiraz to Kabul, but collapsed before the iron onset of Mahmud of Ghuzni in the succeeding century. El Istakhri, visiting Seistan at this epoch, described it

[page 229]

as a country of populous cities, abundant canals, and great wealth;[204] among its natural resources being included a rich gold mine that subsequently disappeared in an earthquake. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Seistan, like most of its neighbours, experienced the two successive visitations of those scourges of mankind, Jenghiz Khan and Timur Beg, being turned from a smiling oasis into a ruinous waste, and suffering a murderous blow from which it has never recovered. The Sefavi dynasty repeopled it under the local rule of the ancient reigning family of Kaiani, who claimed descent from Kai Kobad, the first Achaemenian king. But the march of time brought round the fated cycle of injury and desolation; and at the hands both of the Afghan invaders of 1722, and of Nadir Shah who expelled them, it completed its chronic tale of suffering. Remaining a portion of the mighty empire of the Afshar usurper till his death in 1747, it then passed to the sceptre of Ahmed Shah Abdali, the adventurous captain who, imitating his master's exploits, rode off and founded the Durani empire in Afghanistan. From this epoch dates its appearance on the stage of modern politics, and during the last thirty years upon the chess-board of Anglo-Indian diplomacy.[205]

After the death of Ahmed Shah, Seistan continued to pay tribute to his successor, Timur Shah, till his death in 1793. In the break-up of the Durani dominion that followed, it became alternately attached to the fortunes of Herat and Kandahar, the Persian Government having its hands too full elsewhere to be able to attempt its recovery. From about the year 1851, however, after the death of Yar Mohammed of Herat, Persia, taking advantage of the disorder and disunion that prevailed in Afghanistan, began to revive and to press her claims. She now remembered that Nadir Shah, though a Turkoman usurper, had been king of Persia, and that Seistan had paid to him the tribute which it paid to Persian kings before him. Ali Khan, the local ruler, was persuaded to hoist the Persian flag, and received in return a Persian princess in marriage. This was at about the time of the Persian expedition against Herat in 1857

[page 230]

that brought about war with Great Britain, and resulted in the Treaty of Paris, by which Persia relinquished all claims to the sovereignty of Herat, and all right of interference in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, amid constant protests from the British Government, Ali Khan returned with a Persian military escort to Seistan; and both he and his successor, Taj Mohammed, who applied to Persia for protection when Dost Mohammed appeared in the field against Herat, acknowledged the sovereignty of the Shah. Throughout this period the British Minister was continually protesting against the violation of one clause of the Treaty of Paris, while the Persian Government as continually kept inviting him to take advantage of another, that promised the friendly offices of the British Government in the event of any disagreement with Afghanistan.[206] Shir Ali, too, who had succeeded his father Dost Mohammed as Amir in 1863, was equally anxious that something should be settled. But at that time the ignoble policy of 'masterly inactivity,' of which Lord Lawrence was the recognised champion, was in possession of the field; and the Indian Government was unwilling to recognise the ruler whom it was subsequently obliged to pay. Accordingly, protests and appeals and excuses went on, until at length, in November 1863, Lord Russell, sick to death of the squabble, penned a despatch in which he said that 'Her Majesty's Government decline to interfere in the matter, and must leave it to both parties to make good their pretensions by force of arms;' a frank if not a very courageous subscription to the doctrine that might is right. Taking advantage of this permission, Persia, in 1865-66, marched a force into the country, occupied it, and gradually brought all the Persian inhabitants of the province under her sway, besides tampering with the Afghan allegiance of the Beluchis. The Afghans behaved very quietly for a time; but Shir Ali, who had now established himself firmly upon the throne, and required to be treated with some respect, began

[page 231]

seriously to push his claims. It was at this juncture that, fearing the war to which Lord Russell had lent the imprimatur of his suggestion, Lord Clarendon proposed arbitration. The offer was accepted without much enthusiasm on either side, and in 1870 Sir F. Goldsmid, having received the appointment of Chief British Commissioner, left England to carry out the undertaking. Difficulties and delays having supervened, the next year was occupied in surveying and fixing a boundary between Persia and Beluchistan from the sea to Jalk; and it was not till 1872 that the Commission preceeded to Seistan to examine the rival claims upon the spot.

The story of the Commission and its labours has been told, partly by General Goldsmid himself and his personal assistant, Major (now Colonel) Euan Smith,[207] partly by Dr. Bellew, the well-known Oriental scholar and authority,[208] who accompanied General (afterwards Sir R.) Pollock, the latter being sent from India, for no very well ascertained reason, as representative of the Viceroy (Lord Mayo). The case was a difficult one by reason of its extraordinary simplicity. The Afghan claim to Seistan was very clear and intelligible; it was based upon ancient dominion, dating from the time of Ahmed Shah, the founder of the Afghan empire. The Persian claim was equally clear and intelligible; it was based upon more ancient dominion still, reinforced by the very cogent argument of recent reconquest and actual occupation. Here were all the materials both for hard reasoning and fine casuistry. The difficulty was enhanced by the behaviour of the two Oriental Commissioners. The Persian, Mirza Maasum Khan, was undisguisedly hostile from the start, and threw every possible obstacle in the way. The Afghan was not much more practicable. Finally, having conducted such local surveys and inquiries as were possible, Sir F. Goldsmid, finding it hopeless to do any business on the spot, was obliged to retire to Teheran, where his arbitral decision, after a good deal of hesitation and cavilling, was ratified by the Shah.

Broadly speaking, General Goldsmid found it advisable to distinguish between two Seistans, which he called respectively Seistan Proper and Outer Seistan.[209] The former he defined as

[page 232]

the region between the Naizar on the north and the main lateral canal taken from the Helmund, in order to irrigate Sekuha and the neighbouring villages on the south, and extending from the old and true bed of the Helmund on the east, to the fringe of the Hamun and the Kuh-i-Khwajah on the west. This area he estimated at 950 square miles, and its population at 45,000, 20,000 of whom were Seistanis,[210] 15,000 Persian-speaking settlers, and 10,000 Beluchi nomads. Outer Seistan was the country on the right bank of the Helmund from its lake-mouth on the north to Rudbar on its upper waters on the south. His decision may be summarised thus. He gave Seistan Proper to Persia, and Outer Seistan to Afghanistan. The boundary between the two was drawn as follows: From the Siah Kuh (Black Mountain), which is the eastern boundary of the Persian district of Nehbandan, along the southern fringe of the Naizar to the left bank of the Helmund; thence up the river to a point about a mile above the great bund or dam at Kohak;[211] after which it consists of a line drawn from this point in a south-westerly direction to the range Kuh-Malek-i-Siah, which is the northerly continuation of a line of mountains that bound the Zirreh desert upon the west. Here the district of Seistan terminated, and the award was concluded. South of this point is the indeterminate and unobserved line to Jalk which I have previously mentioned.

Hampered as he was by instructions almost incapable of execution, impeded by systematic obstruction, and owing a definite issue only to the foresight which induced him to complete his local surveys before the Indian members of the mission appeared upon the scene, General Goldsmid may be congratulated upon having been able to formulate a decision at all. To the independent observer it undoubtedly appears that the Persians were the gainers by his award; for they

[page 233]

retained the only really valuable and lucrative portion of the countrya portion to which they could establish the double claim of ancient possession and actual occupation. Had the demarkation taken place ten years earlier, when first they pressed for it, there can be no doubt that in the absence of the second of these claims the award would not have been so favourable to them as it ultimately proved to be. Notwithstanding which facts, they professed themselves extremely dissatisfied with the result, and looked upon the partition as an attempt to enrich an English vassal state, Afghanistan, at their expense. The Afghans, on their side, were annoyed at losing the revenue-paying part of the province, and Shir Ali is said never to have forgiven the British Government in consequence. The award has not been adhered to with absolute precision on the spot; but, even if we concede to it a fair amount of success, it still remains somewhat doubtful whether it is wise policy for the Indian Government to undertake these chivalrous but thankless Commissions, which are apt to be misinterpreted by both parties, and usually leave a legacy of odium behind them.

The chief town of Persian Seistan is Sekuha (the Three Hills), so called from three clay hills around and in part upon which the town is built. At the time of the Commission in 1872, it consisted of about 1,200 mud huts, not more than half of which were then or are now inhabited. The population is entirely engaged in agricultural pursuits, the town being situated in the most productive part of the province. As I have before said, however, the administrative and military head-quarters are at Nasratabad (called Nasirabad by Goldsmid), where lives the Deputy Governor of the Amir of Kain, and where is stationed one of the two infantry regiments, nominally 1,000, but actually less than 800 strong, which are raised in the entire province; as well as a small force of cavalry and a few guns. Service is for life, and is hereditary in the families supplying the soldiers. They are armed with muzzle-loading rifles of Persian manufacture, and are supposed to get a new uniform every second year. Their pay is reported to be 20 krans (12s.) and 7½ mans of wheat yearly, and when on service in Seistan rations also.[212] The capital of Afghan Seistan is Chakhansur or

[page 234]

Chaghansur (called by Conolly Chuknasoor, and by Ferrier Sheikh Nasoor), situated on the Khash or Khushk Rud, the eastern confluent of the Helmund lagoon.

Before the despatch of the English Commission, the number of European travellers who had penetrated to Seistan and had left any record of their explorations was exceedingly small. In 1809 Captains Grant (who was afterwards murdered by robbers on the road between Baghdad and Kermanshah) and Christie (who was killed while gallantly fighting with the Persian army against the Russians at Aslanduz in 1812) and Lieutenant (afterwards Sir Henry) Pottinger were deputed by Sir J. Malcolm, then contemplating his third mission to the Persian Court, to explore Mekran, Beluchistan, and Seistan. The journal of Captain Grant was published twenty years later. Christie's and Pottinger's travels into Beluchistan left the reading public the richer by the admirable book of the elder writer.[213] Leaving Pottinger at Nushki, Christie marched northwards through Seistan to Herat; and an abstract of his journal (which was never separately published) is incorporated as an appendix in Pottinger's work.[214] In 1839 a young English officer, Captain Edward Conolly, accompanied for surveying purposes by Sergeant Cameron, made a tour through the country, and added immensely to the existing store of knowledge.[215] He was followed a few years later by Lieutenant R. Leech, whose less exhaustive but complementary information was published in the same journal.[216] In 1841 Seistan claimed its first European martyr. Dr. F. Forbes, already well known for successful explorations on the north-western frontier of Persia, marched to Meshed, and from there by Turbat-i-Haideri, Birjand, and Tabbas to Seistan, where he was murdered by one Ibrahim Khan, chief of Lash Juwain. A somewhat incoherent account of the incident was given by his personal attendant, and appeared in the 'Journal of the R.G.S.' for 1844.[217] Thirty years later the members of the Boundary Commission, when travelling in Seistan, came across the very murderer, who was then chief of

[page 235]

Chakhansur, and heard a true account of the tragedy. Ibrabim Khan was, it appeared, a savage, semi-lunatic kind of barbarian, much given to charras and bhang (intoxicating drinks), and he had shot Dr. Forbes while hunting wild fowl on the lake, in a freak of sportive inebriation.[218] About the same time another young officer, Lieutenant Pattinson, approaching the Helmund from the Afghan side, explored its course from Zamindawer to the Seistan Lake. He too was killed a year or two later in an outbreak at Kandahar, following upon the Kabul tragedy. A few years laterviz. in 1845the French officer Ferrier was in Seistan, of which he has left a description in his interesting book.[219] Khanikoff, the Russian, whose services to science are not enhanced by his jealous depreciation of the labours of any English predecessor in the same field, was here in 1859,[220] and crossed the Desert of Lut to Kerman. This was the sum total of European travellers who had left any record of Seistan prior to the despatch of General Goldsmid and his colleagues.[221]

I now approach the subject to which I have hitherto been leading up, and whose existence I have indicated by the title which I have given to this chapter. The Seistan Question, however, is not the old question of the boundary, or of the rival claims of Persia and Afghanistan. It is the future question of the part, if any, that Seistan is likely to play or is capable of playing in the politics of Central Asia, and in the diplomatic or military strategy of Russia and Great Britain.[222] Inspection of the map with the aid of a pair of compasses will show that the province of Seistan lies about midway between Meshed and the sea. Its situation, therefore, constitutes it a sort of advanced outpost of Khorasan, as well as a terra media through which any power desirous of moving southwards from Meshed, particularly any power that is covetous of an outlet upon the Indian Ocean, must pass; and through which must equally pass any power desirous of reaching Khorasan and Meshed from a south-

[page 236]

easterly direction. The former aspect of the case indicates its value to Russia; the latter to Great Britain.

Seistan presents to Russia a positive and a negative value, of which it is difficult to say which is the more important. Should she at any time find it politic or necessary to absorb Khorasan, the possession of Seistan would give her the whole and not the northern portion only of that province. It would further establish her in a position of close and almost immediate proximity to the advanced Indian frontier in Beluchistan. At present there intervene between her own and the Indian border 500 miles of Afghan territory, which, though presenting not the slightest physical obstacle to advance, are tenanted by wild tribes much attached to their own independence, even if uninspired by any loyalty to their sovereign. In other words, advance through Afghanistan means hard fighting with Afghans by whomever it is undertaken. Solemn engagements would have to be broken, great forces collected, and daily risk incurred, while such an adventure was in course of execution. On the other hand, should a Russian force, desirousI will not say of invading Hindustan, because we are not at present called upon to discuss any such remote possibility, but of acquiring a position menacing and contiguous to Hindustan, take up its quarters in Seistan, the above-mentioned perils are thereby one and all avoided, no Anglo-Russian compact is violated, no savage Afghans require to be fought. The forward frontier of Russia would be brought over 300 miles nearer to the advanced frontier of India; and the change in position would involve a proportionately greater anxiety, outlay, and peril to the latter. Russia would be unlikely to march even from Seistan against Quetta; but she would have unlimited opportunities from this base of intriguing with trans-frontier tribes, and of nibbling at Beluchistan. How far her position against Afghanistan would be strengthened is also self-evident. Russia in Khorasan means Russia at Herat; and Russia in Seistan would mean Russia at Sebzewar and Farrah as well, the two most important strategical points on the march from Herat to Kandahar.

I do not for the moment lay stress upon the other aspect of the positive value to Russia of Seistanviz. as facilitating her approach to the southern seasbecause I assume that a Russian port upon the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean would no more be tolerated by any English minister or government than would an

[page 237]

English port on the Caspian by any Czar. It is true that Russia turns longing eyes towards a maritime outlet on the south, and that of the two methods by which she can possibly attain thereto, encroachment in a southerly direction from Meshed viâ Seistan is one. This fact is of course an addition to the prospective value of Seistan in Russian eyes, but it postulates a condition of affairs so remote, and I would fain hope so inconceivable, that I will not expend words upon its further examination.

The negative value of Seistan to Russia is the inverse aspect of its positive value to Great Britain. In other words, Russia would like to get hold of Seistan herself, in order to prevent Seistan from being got hold of by Great Britain; and because, in the latter event, not only would the ambitious and far-reaching schemes that I have sketched be frustrated, but England would be in a position very seriously to menace the Asiatic status of her rival. Let me explain. I have already in the previous chapter indicated the acute commercial warfare that is now being waged between Russian and Anglo-Indian merchandise in Khorasan. I have shown that the advantage which she derives, and will continue to derive in increasing degree, from the Transcaspian Railway enables Russia to flood the markets of North-eastern Persia with her manufactures, and to undersell her sole competitor, viz. British India, in the bazaars of Meshed. I have shown that a critical epoch has been reached, and that without some help, in the shape of increased facilities of transport or shorter and cheaper trade routes, Anglo-Indian commerce must in the long run be vanquished. The one means by which the latter could compete on nearly even terms with her rival would be by adopting her rival's tacticsby pushing forward a railway on the south to match the Transcaspian Railway on the north, by conveying the manufactures of Bombay as are conveyed the manufactures of Moscow, not solely on mule-back and camel-back over vast distances at crushing expense, but by the potent auxiliary agency of steam. Such a railway starting from India must point, as its first objective, to Seistan.

The commercial importance of such a line will not, I think, be denied, as bringing India into closer connection with the bazaars of Khorasan. Not less obvious, however, would be the strategical advantage, as enabling England to occupy a flanking position in defence of that Afghan territory which she has undertaken to safeguard, and as preventing those

[page 238]

developments of the Muscovite earth-hunger which I have sketched, and which might be fraught with peril to the harmonious relations between the two empires. Here I will pause; and will not go on to suggest that, if a commanding necessity ever arose, such a position might very effectively be utilised by an Indian army for offence, because I am loth to imagine a situation in which British or Indian soldiers will ever again be required to march in fighting order through Persia, or be forced into a policy of aggressive retaliation. The map, however, will assist the reader to form his own judgment.

There remain, however, two questions of practical importanceviz. the engineering possibility of constructing such a line, and the probable returns that might be expected from the country opened up. If the map be inspected, the physical contour of the region will suggest that the most natural, though by no means the shortest, method of reaching Seistan is by the valley of the Helmund from Girishk or Kandahar. The greater part of this distancenamely, that from Hazarjuft below the confluence of the Argandab to Rudbar, a distance of 160 milesis locally known as the Garmsel, or Hot Region, identical with the Garmsir of Southern Persia. No part of this unhappy neighbourhood has suffered more from the passions of man than the Garmsel. In olden times it was the scene of active cultivation, and the site of busy and populous cities. Brigands, outlaws, and the stormy trail of armies have converted it into a sandy and untenanted desert. But the testimony of those who have explored it, notably of Dr. Bellew, who marched this way from India with General Pollock, is enthusiastic as to the possibilities of recuperation. This is what he says:

The valley everywhere bears the marks of former prosperity and population. Its soil is extremely fertile, and the command of water is unlimited. It only requires a strong and just Government to quickly recover its lost prosperity, and to render it a fruitful garden, crowded with towns and villages in unbroken succession all the way from Sistan to Kandahar. Under a civilised Government there is not a doubt that Garmsel would soon recover its pristine prosperity, and then this part of the Helmund valley would rival in the salubrity of its climate that of the Tigris at Baghdad. When the curse of anarchy and lawlessness is replaced in this region by the blessings of peace and order, then Garmsel will once more become the seat of plenty. The advancing civilisation of the West must some day penetrate to this neglected corner,

[page 239]

and the children's children of its present inhabitants may live to hear the railway whistle echoing over their now desert wastes.[223]

On the other hand, the children's children, who are probably by now beginning to be born, may live and die too without hearing it at all; and for this reason. A railway down the Helmund means a railway in Afghanistan; and as the Amir of that country has not yet been persuaded to allow a yard of rails to be laid in his dominions, and as, were such permission forthcoming, other and more important schemes would probably be first undertaken, the grandchildren in the Garmsel may perhaps after all not hear the whistle in their time.

But there remains another line of advance, shorter because more direct, and free from the above impediment, because it need not run through Afghanistan at all. It must be remembered that the Pishin Railway system of Great Britain has now been pushed forward to a point on the northern face of the Khwajah Amran range, that that range has been pierced by a tunnel, and that the present terminus, Chaman, is on the open plain, less than seventy miles distant from Kandahar. Now a line drawn from this frontier railway, whether at its termination or at some point short of Chaman, to Seistan, will be found to pass through Beluchii.e. allied territory solely, and according to the spot at which it strikes the Helmund valley, so would its transit of the desert be extended or abridged. The point of deviation usually suggested is that of Nushki, from which to the Sind-Pishin Railway at Chaman is less than one hundred miles, at Quetta less than ninety, and at Darwaza less than eighty. Across the desert from Nushki to the Helmund no physical obstacles are encountered. From the engineer's point of view the difficulties to be confronted would not be comparable with those so easily overcome by General Annenkoff.

We can conceive, without anticipating, a condition of affairs under which there need be no rivalry between the Afghan and the Beluchi routes, but which would admit of the best line being followed, through whichever territory it ran; and that would be the free acceptance by Afghanistan of a British protectorate. By some this step has been recommended as the only logical corollary, as assuredly it would be the most

[page 240]

practical conclusion, of the previous phases of Anglo-Afghan relationship. Given such a protectorate, and England would not only before long be free to run her iron rails where and whither she pleased in Afghanistana line to the Persian frontier being obviously one of the first that in such a case would demand considerationbut, with the Afghans acting in concert with the British, and with Russia and Great Britain (as ex hypothesi they would be) coterminous powers, the objections which I have elsewhere so strenuously urged against a junction of the Indian and Russian railway systems in Afghanistan, and which I continue to hold, would be minimised, if they did not disappear. For in such a case, the buffer having vanished, the two empires would stand cheek by jowl in Asia, as do Russia and Germany in Europe; England would be as much committed to defend Balkh or Herat as she is now compelled to defend Portsmouth or Bombay; and the respective railways of the two powers would have a tendency sooner or later to be united. Such a consummation, however, even if realisable, is as yet far distant. It can only arise in the event of an independent Afghanistanwhich is the justification and outcome of our present policyproving to be impossible; and in our inability to venture any prophecy upon data so precarious, our plans must be constructed so as to harmonise with a more immediate future.

When we approach the question of the quality of the country opened up by a Beluchi-Persian railway, presuming it to be constructed under existing political conditions, we advance into a region in which the most conflicting evidence is forthcoming from our authorities. From the strategical point of view there are some who say that such a line would be vulnerable both from the north and west. There are others who find in the deserts on either side of the Helmund, and in the Helmund itself, an ample protection. I am not here concerned to engage in the strategical controversy, because there has probably never been a strategical railway since locomotion by steam was discovered about which the professors have not held diametrically opposite and contradictory opinions. It was so with the Transcaspian Railway, and it would be so with a Nushki-Seistan railway. Nor am I even concerned to discuss the strategical aspect of such a railway at all, because I am not a soldier, and shall probably be told that I am talking of what I know nothing about; although I may, in passing,

[page 241]

confess that to my uninstructed vision the military advantages of such a line would appear to be considerable. I prefer, however, to treat it as a commercial scheme, and to assume that a subscribing public, as well as generals and colonels, wish to be able to form an opinion.

We will suppose, therefore, that our railway has reached Seistan. What will it find, and what will it do when it gets there? There are some who protest that the features of the country are hopelessly unfavourable to commerce or colonisation. They paint lamentable pictures of the physical amenities of Seistan. There is a famous wind called the Bad-i-sad-o-bist-ruz (or wind of 120 days), which blows steadily there from a north-westerly direction in the months between March and August, beginning soon after sunrise, abating at midday, and attaining its maximum strength after sunset. There is also a particularly horrible kind of fly that bites and even kills horses by its bite. At times of the year the climate, owing to the extent of marsh water stagnating under the sun, breeds fevers and ague. The face of the country is apt to be flooded; and communication is only kept up by the precarious method of tutins, a kind of raft made of reeds lashed together and strengthened by tamarisk stakes.[224] These critics even go so far as to include the whole country in the scope of their truculent denunciation, and to ask wherein lies the beauty or the money value of reed-beds, and sand-hills, and swamps.

Less sweeping, because better informed, and worthy of careful examination (by reason of the unequalled position of its author), although unfavourable in character, is the opinion that has been expressed by Sir H. Rawlinson. He has written as follows:

Though possessing great natural advantages, the province of Seistan is, in its present aspect, a wretchedly unhealthy country, only habitable for a few months in the year, and hardly worth the expense of government; while in regard to its strategical value, which is the point of view that has been chiefly regarded in India, great misapprehension prevails. So far from Seistan being, as has been so often stated, a convenient base for aggression upon India from the westward, it is in every respect inferior to Herat for that purpose.[225] To the south and

[page 242]

south-east it is bounded by an impassable desert; while to the east it possesses one single line of communication along the Helmund, contracted and ill-supplied, and exposed to a flank attack from the northward throughout its whole extent from Seistan to Kandahar. Supposing, indeed, the Afghans to be in strength at Herat, Farrah, or Zamin Dawer, it would be quite impossible for a Persian army to march along the Helmund from Seistan to Girishk. The only military value of Seistan consists in its abundant supply of camels for carriage; and these animals are for the most part in the hands of the Beluchis, who are Afghan, and not Persian dependents, and who might thus be available for our own purposes, though hardly for those of our enemies.[226]

It is permissible to point out that, although the author of the above paragraph is fortunately still living, it was written at a time (1875) long anterior to more recent developments, and with a view to conditions which no longer exist. The question discussed by Rawlinson in dealing with the strategical controversy is the chance afforded to Persia of invading Afghanistan from the base of Seistan; and this has no relation whatever to the new problem created by the appearance of Russia within striking distance of Herat. A Persian army is now about as likely to invade Afghanistan as it is to march against St. Petersburg. But what Persians or Afghans would not, or could not do, European armies operating from railway bases may, and since 1885 alone it may be said that any previous military criticism upon Seistan has already become obsolete.

To the jeremiads of those critics who represent Seistan (parodying the phrase in which Persia as a whole was once described[227]) as consisting of two parts, a desert under water and a desert above water, must be opposed the evidence both of history and of existing facts. If their verdict be true, how comes it that this province was once so famous for its magnificent fertility, its dense population, and its splendid cities? What must be said of the square miles of ruins still encumbering the ground? Fertility in Persia is almost solely dependent upon water supply; and here, alone among Persian provinces, is enough water not merely to fill great canals

[page 243]

as large as rivers, and a network of smaller ditches and dykes, but also very frequently to run to waste in superfluous swamps and lagoons. Let us, however, quote the opinion of eye-witnesses upon the actual capacities of the soil. This is what Ferrier said in 1845:

Seistan is a flat country, with here and there some low hills. One third of the surface of the soil is composed of moving sands, and the other two-thirds of a compact sand mixed with a little clay, but very rich in vegetable matter, and covered with woods of the tamarisk, saghes, and tag, and reeds, in the midst of which there is abundant pasture. The detritus and slimy soil which is deposited on the land after the annual inundation of the Helmund fertilises it in a remarkable manner, and this has probably been the case from time immemorial; at any rate, the number of ruins on the banks would lead one to suppose so.[228]

To this let me add the opinion of Sir F. Goldsmid:

The soil is of proved fertility. Wheat or barley is, perhaps, the staple cultivation; but peas, beans, oil-seeds, and cotton are also grown. Melons and water melons, especially the latter, are abundant; grazing and fodder are not wanting. By means of the canals in their ordinary course, and by occasional inundations, a system of profuse irrigation is put in force, which, with an industrious and a contented population, should be productive of most extensive grain cultivation.[229]

Finally, to both may be added the testimony of those who have visited Seistan since the Boundary Commission, and who report that its resources have already been wonderfully augmented, and that its capacities of production under a more scientific system of irrigation are enormous. The future of Seistan depends indeed upon the application of hydraulical skill to the course and overflow of the Helmund. The river now runs northward, and spends itself in superfluous swamps. There is nothing in the lie or in the levels of the land to prevent it from being turned southward, and entirely devoted to cultivation.

Nor should a concluding but most important consideration be forgotten. Though railways will not come in Persia with the headlong rapidity that some imagine, and though it is not desirable in many parts that they should, yet most of us look forward to a time when there will be some more rapid means of communication between the great cities and trade

[page 244]

centres than is provided by dilapidated horses, laborious camels, and sore-backed mules. We contemplate a day when, whatever be the transverse communications from north to south, the main cities in the centre, from Kermanshah in the west to Kerman in the east, shall be united by steam lines, following the direction of the valleys and surface depressions, whose general inclination is almost without exception in a favourable directionviz. from northwest to south-east. From a trunk line so designed, with which must ultimately be connected the Indian system, a Seistan railway would be but a slight and that a natural diversion to the north. At the same time connection with the sea would be established by a line running either viâ Bampur to Chahbar, or viâ Regan and Minab to Gwadur; or, if a more easterly port be required in Beluch, i.e. British protected territory, to the excellent harbours of Pusni or Kalmat. Indeed, if the Sind-Pishin or Bolan Railway to the present Indian frontier be considered, because of its liability to destruction by flood, an insecure basis for a forward line to Seistan, the latter might perhaps start into independent existence as a purely Beluch railroad from the coast, through Panjgur towards the Persian frontier, while some authorities have recommended the connection of such a line with the Indian system by a railway from Kurrachi through Mekran. The Indian Ocean, in correspondence with such a railroad, would then play the part to Eastern and South-Eastern Persia that the Caspian Sea, in correspondence with the Transcaspian Railway, does to the north-east; and the combined powers of steam by sea and land would effect a revolution in a few years that may otherwise be awaited for centuries. Perhaps, to employ Bellew's phrase, neither our children nor our children's children will hear the whistle. But when we are long dead and gone and forgotten, may be some itinerant reader of books may pick our volume from the shilling stand of obsolete literature outside some antiquated shop in a back street of London, and congratulate us, even in our graves, on having anticipated and fondly endeavoured to promote what will then be an achieved consummation.

[page 245]

previous chapter chapter 8 start page single page chapter 10 next chapter
Back to:   Books
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
. .