The Great Game was a geopolitcal conflict centered around India played by three players: Britain, India, and Russia.. The name refers to the metaphor of chess as war played on a map of the world. The Russians called the Great Game the Tournament of Shadows. It has lasted, (with a brief respite during W1) since Russia conquered the Crimea in the late 1700s and today is called the Cold War among other diverse names.
The Tournament of Shadows is the Russian name for the Great Game. Today the Great Game is played on the map of the world in every country but back in 1857 the epicenter of the Great Game or Tournament of Shadows was India.The Crimea opened the way for a second warm water port for Russia and commenced the slow expansion of Russia ever closer toward India which was the jewel in the crown of the Empire.
The Great Game started when Catherine decided she wanted to be ‘Great’ as in ‘Catherine the Great’ as in ‘Peter the Great’. If she could do the same things as Peter the Great then surely she should be ‘Great’ herself. Sound logic for a German princess who remade herself into a Czaress and benevolent autocrat of Russia. She drew up a punch list of to-dos commenced doing: win popularity with old Czaress. Check. Learn how to be Russian. Check. Breed heir and spare despite the fact the husband was impotent. Check. Seduce key family of elite Palace Guards to serve as her private army. Check. Plan coup. Check. Win coup. Check. Kill husband who was an idiot. Check. Crown herself Empress of Russia. Check. Do fashionable soft reforms. Check. Do the one thing Peter failed to do: win a warm water port in the Crimea. Pause in the checking. That was difficult. Orlov and a navy blew away the Turkish Navy. Check. Conquer the Crimea. Pause in the checking. Find a soldier who served in the south and made himself an expert in the Crimea. Potemkin. Check. Seduce him. Check. Commence war with the Ottoman Empire. Check. Seduce Austria to join war. Check. Win war. Pause in the checking. That was the hard part…..especially if Great Britain gets nervy that Russia is moving toward India…..
Potemkin was Catherine’s secret husband and co-ruler and he dedicated his life to winning Catherine her ‘Great’ by specializing in the War to conquer the Crimea to get that second warm water port that Peter failed to achieve. Potemkin genuinely loved Catherine as only a middle aged man can love middle age woman. She was German and precise and he was a Slav and manic-depressive. Somehow they made it work. Potemkin set in motion the expansion of Russia toward India. He insisted Russia just wanted to eat the Ottoman Empire and the British could eat India all they wanted. The British Ambassador was not so sure. Potemkin had a ravenous appetite. Everyone hoped Potemkin, very manic depressive, would self destruct or else die in the Crimea Adventure. Meanwhile Potemkin employed a gem merchant to shop throughout India for the best gems to create the ultimate symbol of his love for Catherine: the Potemkin Necklace.
The Great Game started when Potemkin shocked everyone by actually doing it! The Crimea! Captured! Conquered! Built! Warm water port built! Second Navy installed! Army too! Ready to commence the final battle to drive the Turks out of the Crimea! Perhaps out of Europe! All of the ambassadors and pundits were shocked. So were the Ottomans. The chess game had just become the Great Game. The Tournament of Shadows! The biggest irony today is the cliche ‘Potemkin Village’ implies Potemkin failed to deliver. The trouble really was Potemkin actually did deliver a geopolitical reconfiguration so dramatic nations and empires fell or rose or erupted into panic. Britain’s grip on India was so shaky it was a real possibility that Russia could topple the Ottomans and grab India in one gambit.
The expansion of the EIC, ‘John Company’ to it’s friends, ‘that blood sucking vampire’ to it’s enemies, into India was the result of global trade which for complex reasons Britain did very well. It trumped the Dutch VOC to ‘win’ India as in the largest Western consortium in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. But the EIC clung to the ports by it’s commercial fingertips. In 1757 it was nearly crushed. Only the propaganda based on a military disaster plus another disaster called the Black Hole of Calcutta, all disasters, won it the day. Clive, a shipping clerk, and various other non French businessmen and native non Muslim businessmen all joined to finance a coup. This was done in Britain all of the time. It had never been done in India before. Clive’s iqbad crazy luck and sabit jang pose in battle leading a tiny mercenary army against a large army of a rich nawab shocked everyone — including the winners! It started the Great Game in India.
The Great Game in India starts even before the rich nawabs and rajahs fighiting among themselves to seize the crown of the bankrupt Mughals realized it. Look at that Mughal ruler smelling that flower? He definitely does not realize war has already started! The EIC scurried around the larger armies like a red fox. It allied itself to this nawab or that rajah, or this alliance or that confederation, fought if cornered, barely won, clung by it’s fingertips, and ultimately outlasted the rivals in a century of wars that followed the death of Aurangzeb The Terrible. The EIC was literally the last man standing. And the EIC was barely standing, staggering, reeling, desperate. Every time it won , it won by way of iqbad crazy luck and sabit jang poise in battle. But mostly it won by simply enduring courtesy of global trade, deep pockets, and the financial revolution that gave it financial leverage to endure as wars bankrupted the other nawabs and rajahs of India who did not have the deep pockets. The Mughal Emperor was dazed to see a ‘resident’ politely moved into the Red Fort claiming to be only a guest — who never planned to leave. The irony is the EIC was a business consortium. The tail wagged the British bulldog. Britain had the smallest army of all of the major countries in the world. It never planned to play Alexander or Napoleon. It was simply a tiny army, marines, and a navy trailing after British businessmen making money on global trade all over the world. The EIC never planned to conquer India . That was not it’s mission statement. It was only interested in profit and commerce. But somehow profit and commerce ended up conquering India.
‘Let’s play for India’….. and the Great Game of India commenced. How could a tiny business consortium, a tiny army, marines, a sometime navy, from a tiny island far away, actually attempt to conquer India? The Mughals failed. The Maratha failed. The Rajputs failed. How could the EIC even dare? India was as large as Europe and everyone had much larger armies than the EIC. The idea was absurd. It was inconceivable. And the EIC itself was not planning it. They were improvising , a red fox scampering around elephants to not be squashed. The idea of totally absurd….
The Great Game moves to India as the Crimea War staggered to a messy victory for the British courtesy of the revolutionary Enfield rifles. Azimullah Khan left just before the British guns won the war assuming the Russians were winning. Therefore he never saw the rifles in action. This would prove to be a fatal blunder. He then contacted Russia to facilitate a rebellion in India with cash and military advisors. The Russians played him with promises. Alas, the Russians failed to deliver. The British were more careful to do cross their t’s. The British squeezed the Ottomans who ran the Caliphate to support them and also persuaded the key imams of Mecca to support them. The result was no official Muslim authority blessed a jihad in India. The British also massed gunboats around Persia to persuade Persia to not allow Russia to use the Southern invasion route and threatened Dost of Kabul by reminding him that he still had Herat courtesy solely because of the British. That shut down two routes that Russia could use. So Russia could only invade India through Kashmir which saw British listening posts and spies all over it’s frontier. Even Nicholson was involved in the previous two years in Kashmir setting up listening posts. The British were ‘hunting’ all over Kashmir up to 1857. Why? it was the best invasion route that Russia enjoyed. But the route was seasonal. In winter snow cut it off. That meant if Russia gambled its army through the North Route then Russia might lose that army. No. Gambling was gambling but Russia needed a port to really commit to an invasion. Nevertheless, the Great Game moved from the Crimea to India in earnest in 1857
The players of the Great Game ranged from Czar Alexander to Queen Victoria. Czar Alexander negotiated peace to concentrate on modernizing Russia but his plans for a massive railroad and freeing the serfs plus his abandonment of the Great Game enraged key players of Russia. The Great Game in Russia often featured free lance rogue agents. The Russians encouraged a ‘throw the dice and play and if you win we will give you a metal and if you lose we will deny your existence’ mentality . So intel from diverse sources indicate Russians were rogue players throughout 1857. Sure. they did not produce but they promised. In fact the Great Game in India had been played since the early 1800s as agents like Abbott explored the frontier (and potential invasion routes) in tandem with Indian pundits. As the cover of ‘Royal Geographic’ became tattered they simply moved to newer covers. When in doubt ‘hunt’ .But the British were ‘hunting’ all over the three key invasion routes that Russia could use to snatch India from England. Military Intelligence in Ludhiana always used agents in tandem, British and Indian. Modern books on Victorian spying all confirm that Military Intelligence used British and Indian agents in tandem. That was their modus operandi. Too bad Bollywood considers 1857 to be taboo because the Great Game would actually make great movies. One Hollywood star and one Bollywood star and one dastardly Brit with a Russian accent! Add location sights. Action. Voila! Great Movie! Anyway! The bazaars were filled by spies from both sides, merchants, bazaar bazarian gossips, munshi letter writers for illiterates, hijras, nautch girls, midwives, old men, old women, professional beggars, all run in strings of cells by ‘newswriters’ ie spy masters. Each bazaar was a ‘listening post’. Ambitious soldiers and experienced scouts often moved into MI full time under ‘hunting expeditions’ and even by the time of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson the Great Game was alive and Doctor Watson might easily have done scouting or hunting or spying during his gig in Afghanistan which might explain his later ease in working alongside Sherlock Holmes. But if Watson did a gig in India for MI then he did his gig in tandem with an Indian counterpart.
The Great Game in India moved from the frontier to center stage in 1857 as the British, the Russians, and the Wahhabi plotters danced around each other in a destabilizing exercise of plots and counter plots. ‘Destabilizing’ is still the favorite ploy of spies today and 1857 was a clear case of destabilizing by Russia who played Azimullah Khan. Whether or not Russia planned to invade, it planned to destabilize India as payback for the Crimea. Why did the Wahhabi plotters expect to beat Britain? They counted on Russian promises and Azimullah Khan spoke repeatedly of Russian aid and Persian armies and the Ottoman obligation to support them as part of the world caliphate and Mecca’s blessing. But in the end everyone left the Wahhabi plotters dangling to face the British alone. 1857 was an expensive payback for the Crimea and it cost Britain millions of pounds and countless lives.
The Great Game 1857 ended with a bloody victory for Britain paid in probably a million plus lives black, white, brown, military, civilian, upper caste, lower caste, anyone, everyone, factoring the war and anarchy and war famines as well as casualties on the battlefields by all sides. The Peers of the Realm, the Royal Princes, carefully poised as neutral but actually picked the winner by backing the Loyalist side and refusing the Rebel side. It was not a case of dangling, swinging on the palace swing in the royal digs, sitting on the fence. And it was certainly not a case of being bribed or threatened (but Azimullah Khan did both in his failed negotiations with the Royal Princes). But rather it was a case of the Royals carefully picking the best winner and then letting the British bloody themselves fighting. The Royal Princes picked the future of India in 1857. They picked ‘modernize or die’ over ‘modernize and die’ . Please note how quickly the Royal Principalities modernized after 1857. The guy who said ‘Modern or Die’ in reply to ‘Modernize and die’ was a Prince. Later, the universities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras educated the future leaders of the ‘Quit India’ movement. By and large they picked ‘modernize or die’. India today is secular and modern. Pakistan picked ‘modernize and die’. Pakistan is antiquated, stagnating in religious dementia, and mired in fanatic Islam. The final chapter of 1857 was the bloody birth of Pakistan which was the original goal of both the 1831 jihads and the 1857 jihad. And Jihad’s continuous war with India is mirrored in 1831 Jihad and 1857 Jihad and 1947 Jihad and even today in Pakistan’s never ending Jihad against India. From the moment Islam invaded India it has waged non stop war to dominate and rule and ultimately convert India. India is still ‘unfinished business’ according to fanatic Muslims. Meanwhile Russia and China along with Britain play off India against Pakistan so the Great Game continues….