To Meet the Ameer (4)

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 7 April 1885


Sussex Scrapbooks, 28/1 p. 23. Diary 5 April 1885.
This is the ninth article in the series. [T.P.]

The Article

(From our Special Correspondent) Rawul Pindi, April 5

[. . .] Sunday has been devoted to discussing the chances of war, and since the one invariably entails the other, unlimited abuse of Mr Gladstone and all his works. Besides this there is nothing else to do. The weather, as a matter of interest, has been played out long ago, and we view it now with the calm despair born of quagmire tents and soaked garments. In the Viceroy’s camp there reigns a holy peace, and as with us — melancholy resignation. Things are at a dead stop all round, and if Monday brings us rain once more — as from the appearance of the sky it most certainly will — we shall have to halt this funeral procession for another four and twenty hours at least. Tuesday’s manoeuvres on Khanna plain have been eliminated from the programme, and the parade ground on which the review takes place tomorrow, will permit of very little room for extended movements. By the way, the programme has not yet been officially made public, and a good many people are still in the dark as to what takes place when and where it will be necessary to go. But the blackest ignorance of all reigns among those who ought to know better. Not a soul is posted up on the one absorbing question of the day: — ‘When, o when, shall we get out of this?’ ‘It may be for years and it may be for ever. Love, I know not when or how’ is the burden of our daily song.
‘There is always something in the pleasures of our friends which profoundly disgusts us.’

Every account received from the
Ameer’s part of the station tells us that both Abdur Rahman and his following are having a delightful time, and are not in the least hurry to move on. Of the Ameer, I am unable to speak authoritatively: for the ruler of Afghanistan is as zealously guarded as a pardahneshin (a hindu woman, kept apart in seclusion). A Sabbath day’s journey to his camp, however, has convinced me that his troops at least are in clover. Their tents are pitched about a hundred yards to the right of the Commissioner’s house, looking towards the station on a slight eminence with good drainage. This qualification of a camping ground is exceedingly necessary; for without any aspersion on their valour, I may say that the Ameer’s troops must be about the dullest [sfc: dirtiest?] that ever hammered tent peg into the ground. They are picturesque — immensely so. The Usbeg lancers, in their mustard-hued coats, shaggy caps and strange accoutrements, would make an artist’s fortune. So would some of the interiors of the tents, where rich carpets, quaint Persian aftabas (water-pots), turquoise-studded brow and breast bands, Russian Samovars, orange peel and slices of red raw mutton lie about in picturesque profusion; everything being toned down by dirt and use from its original brightness and purity.
The occupants of these tents are as frank and inquisitive as children; and air their few words of broken Hindustanee, or in rare cases, English, with a pride delightful to witness. What they want they ask for. For instance the apparition of an English visitor in a tent brought round him half a score of Usbegs chattering like daws. His boots seemed to excite the greatest admiration; then the texture of his clothes and finally his cheroot. One lancer watched this last article of attire — indispensable in that camp, and finally suggested that the Sahib should give it to him for a few minutes to smoke. The Sahib’s caste prejudices against mutton fat and grime stood in his way here, whereupon the lancer promptly replied, ‘Have you any more about you’ and lest the questioner should be led into a lie, passed his hand rapidly over and into the sahib’s breast pocket. Another worthy suggested an exchange of foot gear, and was considerably astonished on being refused. In their own country they must be beau ideals of ruffianly caterans (freebooters). On their best behaviour in British territory they are simply amusing boisterous Fridays, and a Robinson Crusoe sort of tour through their tents is a novel and very amusing experience. In their manners towards each other they are loud, not to say impolite. Firewood lies
stacked about the camp in large quantities and a heated argument concludes sometimes with an interchange of small logs and several screams. At least this happened twice in half an hour while I was there. Their horses are much cleaner than themselves, and are mostly short-legged, iron-grey Cabulis of demonstrative habits. The saddles, apparently, are but seldom taken off, and the horses are nobbled as well as heel roped. The officers mix freely with the men, and hold little levees of their own outside their tents; a group of from five to ten men lolling on the ground in front of each officer.

The lancers apparently do ‘stables’ (feeding and watering the horses) in full review order, and whenever the spirit moves them. These things make the mustard-coloured coats dirty and the horses unkempt. The mutton carcases for the day’s consumption are placed, tenderly, on a charpoy. Sometimes the charpoy is occupied by a man, more generally by a dog. One further peculiarity of these interesting savages is worth recording. They blush like girls; the blood showing plainly under the fair skin. Those anxious for a novel sensation, I would recommend to compliment as Usbeg on his martial appearance, and to stand by while the burly giant looks down on the ground; plays with his lance sling and becomes tricked into confusion.