“Mapping the Great Game” by Riaz Dean

Central Asia c1870, John Arrowsmith (via Wikimedia Commons) Central Asia c1870, John Arrowsmith (via Wikimedia Commons)

The “Great Game” is the name commonly assigned to the 19th-century’s strategic rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for predominance in Central Asia. It was a geopolitical clash between two expansionist empires–the world’s greatest sea power versus its largest land power. Riaz Dean’s Mapping the Great Game is about one aspect of that struggle: the exploration and mapping of the geographical region encompassed by the Indian subcontinent’s northern frontier.

Geography has always been central to international politics, and the geography of this contested region stretched from eastern Persia, Western Turkestan and the Caspian Sea across what is now Afghanistan to Eastern Turkestan, the Himalayas, Tibet and western China. At the beginning of the 19th century, this was a vast, largely uncharted space that included deserts, steppe, mighty rivers, lakes, and the tallest mountains in the world. To contest the Great Game, both sides sent adventurers, explorers, and spies to map the area and collect intelligence. “Map-making,” Dean writes, “was integral to the Age of Imperialism.” This was near the end of what the British geographer Halford Mackinder later called the Columbian epoch, when explorers were closely followed by conquerors and merchants to complete “the outline of the map of the world” and subject the recently chartered regions to “political appropriation”.

The merchants at the beginning of the 19th century included Britain’s East India Company, and Dean notes that several, though not all, of the early British explorers of India’s northern frontier worked for the Company or the Survey of India. Dean’s book is about the explorers, primarily the British ones, and their indispensable Indian assistants known as “Pundits”. He describes their training and use of the latest surveying instruments and techniques to help accurately map the region despite the impediments of  inhospitable topographical terrain and challenging weather conditions. Their achievements were often recognized and publicized by the Royal Geographical Society, one of the important intellectual institutions of British imperialism.


 Mapping the Great Game: Explorers, Spies and Maps in 19th-century Asia, Riaz Dean (Penguin, November 2019, Casemate, December 2019)

Mapping the Great Game: Explorers, Spies and Maps in 19th-century Asia
, Riaz Dean (India Viking, November 2019, Casemate, December 2019)

Dean tells the exciting and frequently daring tales of a succession of British explorers and Pundits, including William Moorcraft, considered the “Father of Modern Exploration of both Central Asia and the Western Himalayas”, who traveled 5000 miles and reached Bokhara and the Afghan desert town of Andkhoi where he died of fever, but whose notes and logbooks survived; Alexander Burnes, an army officer who, along with native surveyor Mohan Lal, sailed and mapped the Indus and Punjab Rivers and reached Lahore, Kabul, and Bokhara; William Lambton and George Everest (whose name crowns the world’s tallest mountain), cartographers who mapped India and its northern environs based on mathematical principles—known as Trigonometrical surveys—and completed the Great Meridional Arc of India; George Montgomerie, who mapped Jammu and Kashmir and the Karakoram Range of the Himalayas, and who, along with Henry Trotter, employed the native explorers (the aforementioned Pundits) Miza Shuja, Hyder Shah, Abdul Subhan, Nain Singh, Kaljan Singh, Kishen Singh, and Jusmal Singh to map the Northwest Frontier, Chinese Turkestan, and Tibet. Dean notes that the Pundits route-surveyed more than 25,000 miles of land and rivers beyond India’s northern frontiers, covering about 1,000,000 square miles. “Much of this region”, Dean notes, “was previously uncharted, and where most European explorers had dared not venture”. He calls the native Indian Pundits the “unsung heroes of the British Raj”.

The British explorers frequently doubled as spies, collecting intelligence about Russian intentions toward, and incursions into, the region. As Russia advanced into Central Asia, British policy focused on protecting India’s frontiers. This led to two Afghan Wars, the Crimean War, crises over Turkey and Constantinople, a near shooting war in the Pamirs (as a result of intelligence provided by British spy Francis Younghusband), and diplomatic competition in Tibet.

The Great Game ended early in the 20th century as Russia suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a rising Japan and Europe gradually edged toward the catastrophe of the First World War—a war in which Britain and Russia were allies. Dean marks its “official” end with the signing of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Others claim the British kept it up into the early Bolshevik period. As the Great Game neared its end, the contributions of the explorers and map-makers were recognized by Britain’s Lord Curzon who noted that “Frontiers are the razor’s edge on which hang suspended the issue of war or peace and the life of nations.”

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.