To Kabul and Back

Mr O’Meara’s Experiences

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 27 October 1887


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/4, pp. 6-?

A rare instance of Kipling’s conducting an interview. It may
have furnished some hints for “The Ballad of the King’s Mercy”.
The Mr Pyne mentioned in the article had joined the Amir’s service in 1885; in 1893 he served as the Amir’s ambassador to the Viceroy of India, and was knighted.


The Article

A great many people have seen His Highness Abdur Rahman,
Amir of Afghanistan, ally of the British Government, and very
strong ruler, at close quarters. But few men have been permitted to see him as he appears in the midst of his own people, in the full swing of his daily and royal office-work and the government of such turbulent territories as those of Afghanistan.

A chance which, since times are troublous and the lives of monarchs in the East uncertain, may never occur again, has fallen in the way of Dr A. O’Meara, the well-known Dental Surgeon of Upper India, and that gentleman has much to tell about it.
Some few months ago, it will be remembered, the Amir demanded the services of a dentist, for reasons which we may presume appealed to him strongly at the time. In response to that demand Dr O’Meara, taking the word of the Amir for a sufficient guarantee for the safety of his life, went to Cabul on August 15th. As the telegram has already informed us, he returned to British territory a few days ago, and is now staying in Lahore.

Some portions of the story of his travels and impressions, as told by himself in the course of conversations, are likely to be of interest to our readers. It must be premised that Dr O’Meara went into the country, as he himself says, strictly for business- purposes; to get to Cabul, to see the Amir and to return as soon as might be. It was not his intention to concern himself with the tangled web of political intrigue in the country in any way whatever.

‘I went into Afghanistan,’ said Dr O’Meara quietly,
‘under the impression that I was not at all likely to return. I fancied that this would be my last and longest holiday.’

And so far as the journey from Peshawar to Cabul was concerned, he had some justification for his belief. Six of the Amir’s men took possession of him on the Border, and escorted him to Cabul with all speed. They took the worthy doctor up-hill and down-dale, across country, and, in a manner, smuggled him through. ‘I think some of the Shinwaris had burnt a caravan somewhere and my escort did not want to meet them. They kept off the regular road altogether, took me up the beds of rivers and passes and over hills, and goodness knows where.’ This in itself was not cheering, but the most trying episode of the march came last. Perplexed by fear of the Shinwaris, or desiring to introduce their charge as swiftly as might be into the presence of the Amir, Dr O’Meara’s sturdy caterans (brigands) took him over the last three marches in one day. He was thirteen hours in the saddle under a blazing sun, and his feelings towards his guides was that of unmixed hatred; for a ride from Jugdullack to Butkhak, ten miles from Cabul, in August, is not soothing.

At Butkhak he was met by an Englishman, Mr Pyne, Engineer of Afghanistan generally, and Superintendent of the Amir’s workshops in particular. He had ridden from Peshawar to Cabul by pagdundies <8>(paths) in eleven days; and the fame of his coming had preceded him. The populace of Cabul understood that an Englishman one hundred years old had come in to attend to their ruler, and were somewhat astonished to find Dr O’Meara below their estimate. However, they said that he was sixty years old, and from that day forward to the hour of his departure seem to have taken no interest in him whatever. ‘The people don’t take the faintest notice of you. You might be a fly, for any sign they make,’said Dr O’Meara thankfully. Cabul was reached on the 26th day of August, the Amir being then at Paghman, his summer residence, eighteen miles beyond and at a much higher elevation than the city, which is a remarkably evil-smelling place worse than any Indian city. To Paghman accordingly Dr O’Meara went to pay the Amir a first visit. He was a good deal knocked up by his ride, and rather doubtful as to the possibilities of return.‘I was wondering how in the world I should get back again, or whether I should be allowed to get back at all.’ It will be conceded that this feeling was, considering the nature of [the] good folk of Afghanistan, perfectly justifiable.

The first interview with the Amir took place, as did all the others, in daily durbar.

‘He was at work in the Paghman gardens, with some of his officials round him. He was working when I first saw him, and he is always at work.’ ‘My opinion is,’ said Dr O’Meara, ‘that he is overworking himself. He holds a durbar wherever he happens to be, and he shifts his quarters a good deal from Paghman to the Baber gardens, about half a mile from the city, and back again. Of course all my conversation with him had to be through an interpreter, so I could only see what was going on. As often as not, the durbar was in the open air — anywhere; or sometimes at Paghman it was held in huge durbar buildings — sheds you may call them, supported by wooden pillars with white roofs. But wherever he went the work always seemed the same. He received letters all day long, from all parts of the country, wrote his remarks at the bottom of the paper, and passed the letter on to the official who recorded it. His courtiers formed a rough sort of semicircle near him, and any living man in the kingdom, so far as I could see or learn, could make his way to the Durbar, get within about three or four yards of the Amir, hand in his petition, or speak to him personally. The manner of the petitioners was cringing — abjectly fawning; but they could all speak to him, and he listened to them.’
‘Could you guess what was going forward?’ ‘Not I — nor could anyone I think. There was nothing in the Amir’s face to show what he was feeling, either when he read the letters or spoke to the men. He is a very quiet man. I have seen men taken away somewhere, outside gardens; and I suppose . . . but I could tell nothing from the Amir’s face. Justice isn’t executed in his presence, you know. There was no visible emotion on the faces of the men round him. If he said anything directly to them, they said that it was good and right; but you could never judge of anything by looking at the Durbar.’

‘Yes, but when you got the Amir in private — ’ ‘I saw him always when he was at work.’‘Then do you mean to say he — ’ ‘I mean to say that I did whatever I had to do to him in Durbar, on the spot. When I first saw him he was in a little low chair, and did not seenr anxious to be treated at once. I explained that I only wanted to look at his mouth first, and I looked and gave him my opinion. He said through the interpreter: — “Yes! I think myself that is what is wanted” and from that time he put himself entirely in my hands.’ ‘and he is feared. I don’t suppose rulers with his powers can be popular, but he is feared. They said in Cabul that he knows everything that is going on. I know myself that every thing I did, and every walk and ride I took, were reported to him. And the same system seems to exist all over the country. I suppose he is feared as much as any man in the world, within his own jurisdiction. But here is another side of the picture. When I was at Paghman — Paghman was my headquarters till the 16th of September, and then the Baber Gardens — I rode into Cabul one morning an hour or so behind the Amir; thinking I had given him and all the cavalry with him ample time to get on. There were about three thousand horses of sorts with him and presently I caught up to the cavalcade. The Amir was riding a little way ahead, and, now and again, he would stop to take a petition from some ragged ruffian on the roadside. In one instance a dirty old woman delayed the march. The Amir stopped, read her petition, on a little scrap of paper, said something and passed on. This sort of thing was happening along the entire route to Cabul, and seemed to be part of the regular routine.

The Amir is not in the habit of laughing. He may be a humourous man, but he seemed weighed down with work; for he trusts nothing to underlings. My opinion, so far as I could form one, was that the Amir really does work for his people. I don’t say he does it in a kind or a civilized way, for the country does not admit of civilized government, but none the less all his thoughts are for his people. It seems to me, from what I saw of him, that he is a man a good deal in advance of his age, and that his people don’t understand it. Sooner or later, if he lives, he will have a railway running from Cabul to Paghman. Perhaps it will be only a royal freak to save himself. At least, though he showed me all hospitability, there was no show of magnificence in his surroundings. He said the other day in Durbar, apropos of the difficulty of getting in his revenues: — “One quarter of the money that is mine rightly I get; one quarter I get by fighting for; one quarter I do not get at all; and those who should pay the fourth quarter do not know in whose hands to place it.” ’
‘Did you see the gun-factories by any chance?’ ‘Well, I took up an English Martini-Henri carbine, and when I was in Cabul was shown and offered, for one-third of my weapon’s price, a Cabul-made article which, to look at, seemed just as good as mine. Of course, it had been hand-rifled, and I don’t think it could have shot absolutely true, but still it was surprisingly well made for a thing made by hand. If they can get English machinery into the workshops, I should think that they could make really first-class rifles. The Cabuli workmen are
very clever and very quick to take a hint. I had a man out of the Amir’s workships put under me in order that I might give him some rough knowledge of my profession; and he was very quick at picking up things.

‘I fancy he will do his best too. When I was in Cabul the Amir seemed to think that I had better stay and “make teeth” as they called it, for all the people in the country. However, I had his promise that I was to go back; but I made teeth for some of the ministers, and there should be a demand for my pupil’s services. Sufi Haq Khan is an Afghan about forty-five years old. I left him “making teeth” for the Governor of Cabul, who has almost as much power as the Amir in matters of life and death. Sufi Haq Khan is not likely to bungle his work.’

Again Dr O’Meara laughed, and the laugh suggested an enquiry. ‘Did you see anything startling in or about Cabul?’

‘Never mind what I saw beyond what I am telling you. You cannot govern Afghanistan like India. I went up, as I have told you, anything but hopeful about coming back and I have returned rather in love with the place. Cabul is a nice spot to spend a holiday in. The climate, when I was there, up to the 11th of October, was delightful — like Simla — and I enjoyed myself thoroughly as soon as I had picked up my health. There was little or no rain at Cabul, and only three showers fell at Paghman, and life under canvas — for I was in tents the whole time, in order to follow the Amir better — was exceeding pleasant. The Amir wants me to come again, and I should like to go. Mr Pyne and I rode wherever we liked, not only in the main streets but up the allies of Cabul city, and there was not the slightest attempt made to interfere with us. As I have said, the people took no notice whatever of us. There were a couple of Usbegs behind us ; but on one occasion we got rid of them and went all round the city; and nothing happened.’

A little later Dr O’Meara showed the Medal of Honour with which he been invested. This was a heavy gold medaillon about twice the size of a spade-guinea, and thrice as thick stamped on the face with the sun in its splendour, enclosing a conventional wreath, within which was an inscription in Persian, which translated read: — ‘For Honour’. The back of the medal was blank, and the whole was suspended by a clasp from a narrow loop of green silk, worked with a curious pattern in purple.
‘It is a pretty memento of a very interesting visit,’ said Dr O’Meara.
‘Mr Pyne and I came away together. Mr Pyne is going home, by the way, for a time. He has been some months in the Amir’s service, and he seems popular. They say in Cabul, that if he will only bring back an English memsahib, they will lay down a mall, a pukka (proper) English mall, three miles long, for the couple to drive up and down. That sounds like progress doesn’t it? Well, Mr Pyne and I left together, but we had to wait first for ten days in hourly, not daily, expectation of the Amir’s permission to go. This time I had the satisfaction of travelling on the regular road, and we had a mounted escort twenty-five strong. As soon as permission came, we did not wish to wait on the road; and I think we did fully half our journey at a canter. The Amir might have wanted me to come back, or the Governor of Cabul might have discovered that Sufi Haq Khan’s “Made teeth” were deficient in some way. We did not care to give him the chance of stopping us; so we came through from Cabul to Peshawur in ten days, doing the nine miles from Jumrud to Peshawur at the end of the march in under the hour. All the same,’ said Dr O’Meara reflectively, ‘though I was in a hurry to come out, I should like to go again — or better still, to Kandahar. So far as I am concerned I found the Amir ex-tremely pleasant.’

‘But, one minute, Doctor, what will happen to Sufi Haq Kahn, if —
‘Aha! You had better ask the Governor of Cabul. You want to know too much.’

And here Dr O’Meara declared the interview at an end.