Sunday, August 22, 2021

Genghis Khan vs. the British Empire

What did you learn about Genghis Khan invading Europe? I remember general horror at hundreds or maybe thousands of people being slaughtered at a time, cities being encircled by "the horde" and starved until they surrendered, only to have their home places pillaged.

We were taught the Mongols were savages, right?

I was thinking of that when when I read a long Twitter thread by Justin Podur, associate professor at York University's Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change in Toronto, about the history of colonialist war in Afghanistan.

The part that made me think of the Mongols was the first few years of the British attack. Here's how Podur described it:

[In 1839] the British brought their own candidate, Shah Shuja, to take over the throne in Kabul. They invaded from India and used mostly Indian troops (who were given lower rations and treated according to strict racist hierarchy).

In the process of imposing Shuja they committed rapes, looting, massacres. They kidnapped women including from families of their allies. They blew Afghans out of cannons (a move they made more famous in 1857 India)....

But the British lost control of Kabul and were driven into retreat. On the retreat they committed even worse atrocities, including against their Indian troops, and massacred their own camp followers. They do a long march to Jalalabad where many of them die.

The king they put on the throne, Shah Shuja, was assassinated in 1842.

Imperialists squeezed a lot of self-victimization propaganda out of this retreat, then and since. It is from this war, in which the British committed horrific atrocities invading and occupying Afghanistan, that the British coined this "Graveyard of Empires" crap.

And it is crap. The idea, repeated over and over, is to portray those being invaded, occupied, massacred, raped, and stolen from as uniquely savage, frightening, implacable, and deadly. So it's not about the crimes the British committed, but about how scary the victims were.

Anyway, the British regrouped and created an "Army of Revenge" to get "revenge" against the Afghans for driving them out (even though they were the massacring, raping, looting invaders).

The British destroy Ghazni. One writer says: “The British army left Ghazni as a heap of ruins as the sun set on the city of the Shah of Shahs, Ghazni was lost in the darkness of the night to be forgotten by history.”

British destroy: "Our way of destroying the country is very simple, merely cutting a ring through the bark of every tree. This ruins the country completely as the trees die directly and the inhabitants live principally on dried fruit and flour made from the dried mulberry.”

The destruction is the point: “‘every house was destroyed, every tree barked or cut down; after which the detachment having collected a considerable spoil of bullocks, sheep, and goats, marched back to camp’”

Neville Chamberlain reports of a village where all males over puberty were bayoneted, the women were raped and their goods plundered: “This is one of the most beautiful valleys in Afghanistan, but we left it a scene of desolation”

Reverend Allen: “One woman was the only live thing in the fort. She was sitting, the picture of despair, with her father, brother, husband and children lying dead around her.”...

They take Kabul and commit another mass atrocity, rape, murder, indiscriminate killing, enslaving and trading of women, burning of wounded people alive. “Many a hiding mother hen and newborn infant died. But such things like these you know must be at every famous victorie.”

More on Kabul: “All day the sack went on, and great booty did the captors get, rich dresses, shawls, carpets, silks, horse trappings, arms, emblazoned Korans, etc”

They leave Jalalabad “a smoking mass of ruins”.

Podur's thread continues with much more that happened after this first wave of British atrocity, leading to Afghanistan today.

I'm not saying that these British acts were much different from how American troops dealt with Indigenous peoples across North America, or how other colonialist powers behaved elsewhere. Podur's description is just one example that is in front of me today.

But remember the story we were told in school about Genghis Khan, the barbarian, with his horde. They were set out as uniquely terrible, for trying to create an empire, like the British.

Who did that story serve?

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