In 1801, from his capital in St Petersburg, Tsar Paul I sent Napoleon Bonaparte a secret proposition: a joint invasion of India to drive out the English and their East India Company once and for all, before dividing the rich spoils. The tsar believed a Cossack force of 35,000 together with a similar-sized French army would be ample for victory – perhaps with some help from the fierce Turcoman tribes who may be induced to join their expedition along the way. They would meet the French south of the Caspian Sea, and then cross through Persia and Afghanistan, to be at the gates of India in an ambitious time frame of four months.
The young Napoleon was understandably reluctant. He had just been defeated and forced to withdraw from Egypt by Britain and its allies, and was less than convinced of the soundness of the tsar’s plan or its promise of success.
Not to be discouraged, the tsar decided Russia could succeed without French support, and take a more direct route to get there, in even less time. he ordered his loyal Cossacks to launch the invasion; even though his army was much depleted, having been able to muster only 22,000 troops, he was not deterred. That this was an ill-conceived undertaking was obvious not only to Bonaparte; it must have further convinced the Russian nobility their manic-depressive tsar was losing his sanity as well.
The Cossack cavalry, renowned for their hardiness and ruthlessness, started out from the frontier town of Orenburg and headed south for Khiva, some 900 miles away across the Kazak Steppe, in the dead of winter. Supported by small amounts of artillery, they each took a spare horse and whatever food they could carry. Even for these tough troops, the conditions would have been bitterly cold and cruel, both for the men and their animals.
Only a month out and less than halfway to Khiva, relief came in an unexpected way: Tsar Paul was dead and the mission recalled, averting certain disaster for the Cossacks and sparing Russia an embarrassing humiliation.
In fact, his own court officials had assassinated the old tsar; after trying unsuccessfully to force his abdication, they finally strangled him. his son and heir, Alexander, promptly gave the order to abort the mission, ending the Russian Empire’s first attempted invasion of India. It wasn’t until later that the British learnt of this threat that had fizzled out—but this would not be Russia’s last attempt.
Around this time events were also starting to stir in Persia, which would soon become embroiled in a three-way struggle between France, Britain and Russia for the riches of the East. Sitting on the overland route from Europe, and as the land bridge to the subcontinent, Persia’s strategic importance to India was unquestionable. Napoleon’s agents were rumoured to be courting the shah of this ancient kingdom, Fath Ali.
In 1800, the British governor-general of India had sent a large and impressive diplomatic mission to Tehran with the key objective of securing a treaty forbidding French troops from entering the country. Additionally, this defensive alliance sought an assurance from the Persians stating they would go to war with their old adversary, the Afghans, should the latter also decide to move against India, as they had done through their infamous raiding for centuries.
What Britain promised in return was to come to their aid if either France or Afghanistan were to attack them. Such a treaty would allow it to conveniently fight a French force bound for India on Persian soil and in Persian waters.
A deal was struck but not formally ratified, as it was thought unnecessary following Napoleon’s defeat and evacuation from Egypt the following year. In British eyes this oversight meant the treaty was technically not binding. This suited them well as they had extracted the desired commitments from the shah without giving up much in return, except the few lavish gifts they had taken along. Fath Ali and his court liked what they saw laid out before them, but soon discovered just how hollow the treaty accompanying the gifts was.
The following year Russia annexed the small, independent kingdom of Georgia, inflaming the Persians, who regarded it as lying in their own sphere of influence. When, in 1804, Russia continued advancing south and laid siege to the city of Erivan (today the capital of Armenia), which the shah considered his possession, the move brought the two sides to all-out war. However, when he pleaded for Britain’s help, in keeping with its end of the bargain, Fath Ali was sorely disappointed.
The treaty made no mention of Russia, only France and Afghanistan; hence Britain would not respond to his call, especially since it now needed the tsar as an ally against Bonaparte, who had recently crowned himself emperor. he was threatening Europe again, which meant Britain was not about to alienate Russia. Although they had wriggled out of a tight diplomatic spot, the British lost face with the shah, who felt betrayed and bitter.
That same year, Napoleon approached Fath Ali for safe passage through Persia to invade India.
Initially, the shah held out, hoping to maintain ties with his old ally, in spite of his recent experience. But when the assistance he sought to fend off Russia was again not forthcoming, he signed a binding treaty with France in 1807 to wage war against Britain.
As Napoleon’s Grande Armée advanced through Europe, it defeated the Russians decisively at the Battle of Friedland, the defenders suffering horrific casualties. In the ensuing peace talks with Tsar Alexander I, the French emperor discussed his grand design of combining their forces to conquer and divide the world between them – the West going to France and the East to Russia.
After defeating Turkey, they would march through it, before crossing Persia, whose support was now assured, into India. The tsar was receptive and overheard to say: “I hate the English as much as you do and am ready to assist you in any undertaking against them.”
Napoleon Bonaparte had dreams of emulating Alexander the Great, believing he could overrun the subcontinent with an army of 50,000 troops. London managed to learn of the secret pact between the countries, by having a spy listen in on the meeting as the two leaders conversed. One report suggested this informant may have been a disaffected Russian nobleman, who hid himself under the river barge on which the leaders met, his legs dangling in the water.
Once the shah was informed of this backroom deal, realising the French would not help him against the Russians, he made a U-turn and fell back into the arms of his old ally. Fath Ali was known to possess one of the finest diamond collections in the world; so, amongst the other lavish gifts sent by the British monarch, there was an enormous diamond valued at 11,000 rupees that perhaps persuaded him to forget past transgressions.
Under the new treaty, he would not allow a foreign army passage across his country bound for India. Britain, in return, would go to his assistance with arms and troops should Persia be attacked, even if the invaders were at peace with the British. This additional clause ensured any future territorial threats from Russia would be covered, should history repeat itself. Other than being more careful about the treaty’s wording, the shah demanded, and received, a large annual payment from Britain, together with the services of its officers to help modernise his army.
Excerpted with permission from Mapping The Great Game: Explorers, Spies & Maps in Nineteenth-century Asia, Riaz Dean, Penguin Viking.