I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The British Empire, at the height of its world dominance, got into struggle with the Russian Empire over influence and control in Central Asia. It was called The Great Game, but it was more than a game, it was a deadly serious contest, with the emphasis on “deadly.”
The Great Game
What propels men, and it’s almost always men, to embark on geopolitical adventures that cost their countries dearly in blood and treasure? Is it an excess of testosterone? Are they overcompensating for pathetically fragile egos? Can we turn to Freud’s belief that babies who struggle to retain their feces are expressing some sort of angst against their parents? We can only speculate.
The chest-thumping started in 1830s with Britain becoming fearful that Russia coveted India, and Russia being concerned that Britain was making trading and military advances into Central Asia. Wars and enormous piles of dead bodies followed.
Historians now conclude that the British misread Russia’s intentions and engaged in conflict for no purpose.
The Emirate of Bukhara
One of the pawns in The Great Game was the Central Asian nation of Bukhara. It was an Islamic state governed by emirs and existed from 1785 to 1920. It is now part of Kazakhstan whose capital is the city of Bukhara.
In December 1838, Colonel Charles Stoddart arrived in Bukhara on a mission from the British East India Company. His task, as part of The Great Game, was to persuade the Emir, Nasrullah Khan, to throw his lot in with the British.
Unfortunately, the colonel seems to have been poorly gifted in the art of diplomacy. On arrival, he broke with local custom by riding his horse up to the emir and saluting from the saddle. Bukharian protocol dictated that visiting dignitaries were to dismount and approach the monarch on foot.
Nasrullah Khan, deeply insulted by Stoddart’s behaviour, stomped off in a huff. He was also miffed that the representative of Her Britannic Majesty had not arrived bearing gifts.
The colonel continued to commit a series of diplomatic blunders until the emir could no longer tolerate the insults to his dignity. He had Colonel Charles Stoddart thrown into the Bug Pit.
Bukhara’s Bug Pit
As its name suggests, the Bug Pit was not on anybody’s top 100 places to visit. It was a dungeon in the Zindan Prison that was crawling with vermin.
Stoddart languished for months among the rodents and insects until Nasrullah Khan sent his official executioner on a visit with a bargain: “Convert to Islam or I’ll chop your head off.” The colonel did the sensible thing and joined Allah, “praise be upon him.”
Pleased with capturing another soul for Islam, the emir hauled Stoddart out of the Bug Pit and put him in the home of the chief of police.
A Clergyman to the Rescue
The British government was continuing its belligerent ways through the First Opium War with China and had no personnel available to launch a rescue mission. So, an evangelical Protestant, Captain Arthur Conolly, late of the 6th Bengal Light Cavalry, took it upon himself to pull Stoddart out of Bukhara.
Conolly had an agenda completely at odds with that of the Emir of Bukhara. He was firmly of the belief that it was best for the folk of Central Asia to be united under the benevolent protection of the British Crown and the Christian god.
Apparently, the emir was expecting a letter from Queen Victoria, but Conolly carried no such missive. Aggrieved at what he considered another snub, the potentate put Conolly and the emaciated Stoddart into the Bug Pit, although one account says they were put into a regular cell.
Apparently, it was the habit of guards to occasionally toss buckets of horse manure into the pit, along with rodents, scorpions, and biting insects.
Conolly secretly kept a diary in the margins of a prayer book he had. An entry on March 11, 1842 notes that the two men prayed together and then said “… let him [the Emir of Bukhara] do as he likes. He is a demon, but God is stronger than the devil himself, and can certainly release us from the hands of this fiend whose heart he has perhaps hardened to work out great ends by it. And we have risen again from our knees with hearts comforted as if an angel had spoken to them, resolved, please God, to wear our English honesty and dignity to the last within all the misery and filth that this monster may try to degrade us with.”
The End for Stoddart and Conolly
There was to be no release. By June 1842, the Emir of Bukhara had run out of patience with his two British guests or, perhaps, a previously unnoticed bout of clemency overtook him.
The two men were brought from their cell to a public square and ordered to dig their own graves. Stoddard was the first to feel the executioner’s blade as he denounced the emir as a tyrant.
When Conolly’s turn came he was offered an escape through conversion to Islam. But, he was a man of firmer convictions than his companion, declined the offer, and quickly lost his head.
A Second Rescue Mission
At this point, we encounter the Reverend Joseph Wolff, a man obsessed with finding the lost tribes of Israel. He started life the son of a Bavarian rabbi, attended a Lutheran school, then became a Roman Catholic, and finally ended up in the embrace of the Anglican Church of England. He seemed to covet the complete religious experience.
In 1843, he decided it was his duty to find Stoddart and Conolly from whom nothing had been heard for several months, largely on account of their being dead. Wolff turned up in the emir’s throne room dressed in his full priestly kit, complete with his academic bonnet indicating his MA from Cambridge University.
Apparently, the emir hooted with laughter at the bizarre apparition before him and packed him off back to London with his head still attached to his neck. Back in the safety of England, Rev. Wolff wrote a book about his experiences and condemned Nasrullah Khan as a “cruel miscreant.” He added that the execution of the British officers was a “foul atrocity.”
- Captain Arthur Conolly is credited with creating the phrase “The Great Game.”
- Nasrullah Khan came from a family with blood on its hands. His father made his way to the throne by murdering five of his brothers; an activity that earned him the title “Emir the Butcher.” Nasrullah took his father’s management methods to heart and bumped off numerous rivals. He died in his bed in 1860.
The Ark Fortress, Home of the Emir
- “The Execution of Stoddart and Conolly in Bukhara.” Kalie Szczepanski, Thought Company, July 3, 2019.
- “ ‘The Bug Pit’ at Zindon Prison.” Atlas Obscura, undated.
- “What Was the Great Game?” Kalie Szczepanski, Thought Company, July 31, 2019.
- “Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara, in the Years 1843-1845, to Ascertain the Fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly.” Joseph Wolff, Harper and Brothers, 1845.
- “A Field Guide to the English Clergy.” Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie, Oneworld Publications, 2018.
- “Victims of Downing Street: Popular Pressure and the Press in the Stoddart and Conolly Affair, 1838-1845.” Sarah E. Kendrick, College of Wooster Libraries, 2016.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor