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Book Review: Exploration, Espionage, And The Great Game

Ptukh, Wakhan Corridor. Bactrian camels tread pathways that Marco Polo reportedly walked on.
Ptukh, Wakhan Corridor. Bactrian camels tread pathways that Marco Polo reportedly walked on.

As the 'New Great Game' characterizes the competition of foreign powers in Central Asia and China's massive Belt and Road Initiative relates to the Silk Road, historian Alexander Morrison has argued that Central Asia remains in the public imagination the location of powerful but anachronic and historically inadequate clichés. Morrison aptly debunked these myths as imperial inventions that marginalized intermediaries and the territories that lie between to favor the self-promotion of a handful of explorers. As he puts it, the ideas of a Great Game or a Silk Road do not simply stand as gross simplifications but serve modern states’ geopolitical schemes to the detriment of the interests of ordinary people.

In this context of rehabilitation, geographer Hermann Kreutzmann's Wakhan Quadrangle. Exploration And Espionage During And After The Great Game, published this year, sheds light on these historiographical problems in a valley purportedly traversed by famous explorer Marco Polo. Wakhan Quadrangle offers an impressive study of geographical knowledge production at a significant moment when great powers expanded to the remotest places of Central Asia.

Situated at the peripheries of Afghanistan, China, Tsarist Russia, and Great Britain, the Pamir became the locus of a power competition popularised in European explorers' heroic accounts. Their journeys on the fringes of the empires mainly consisted of exploring and mapping the boundaries of their spheres of influences. The celebration in the metropoles of this time of adventure and exploration, however, made a small -- if not insignificant -- case of the important history of migration and refuge that resulted from the powers' occasional confrontations. In response to this absence, the book focuses on so-called indigenous intermediaries or native explorers of 19th-century explorations whose crucial contributions were not only neglected in public discourse but also in scholarly discussions.

Wakhan Quadrangle adds another layer to Kreutzmann’s recent publication, Pamirian Crossroads: Kirghiz And Wakhi Of High Asia, dedicated to the history, topography, and political geography of the Pamir, where the journeys of European explorers were retraced. The style and a great number of maps, photographs, and graphics collected or realized by the author himself -- and already appreciated in his previous work -- pertinently inform on the peculiarities of the place and provide a sense of the region’s extraordinary landscapes. The author's efforts to situate and comment on the report are visible in the minute attention to details, quotes from correspondences among agents, reference to relevant sources, and systematic indexing.

In Wakhan Quadrangle, Kreutzmann retraces and details the report of Munshi Abdul Rahim, an explorer born in British India and sent between 1879 and 1880 to the Wakhan and Badakshan of contemporary Afghanistan. Tellingly, no photographs of Munshi Abdul Rahim were found -- establishing a sharp contrast with the visibility of European explorers. Drawing on his own knowledge of the region accumulated over more than 40 years of research, Kreutzmann historically and geographically contextualizes the writing of the report and underlines the imperial intentions that motivated the definitions of scientific and natural geographical borders. More generally, the book aims to contribute to the discussion of the political function and uses of non-political endeavors where exploration often mingled with espionage.

Munshi Abdul Rahim’s case is illustrative of the determinant role local agents played in the success of foreign powers' endeavors. And these agents were many, "such as geopolitical players and religious pilgrims, subalterns in colonial hierarchies and service providers in imperial endeavours, knowledgeable path-finders and competent translators for individual travellers and missions, gossip-collecting newswriters, clandestine spies and secret missionaries, enterprising merchants and profit-seeking traders, trained intelligence officers and surveying assistants for map-makers, trusted companions and extraordinary sources of inherited knowledge, local historians and storytellers. The list could be prolonged even further...".

As Munshi Abdul Rahim’s account anonymously entered the reporting system of British India, we gain important insights into the way knowledge was generated on the ground. We learn how eclectic the interests of these agents were and what problems mattered most to the imperial gaze such as the role of women, distinctive features of group ascription, and political leadership. The effects of these broad changes and interventions were felt in many ways and most strikingly in the 1883 exodus of a large part of the Wakhan population. The correspondences among local leaders are indicative of the anxieties that accompanied the decision-making. Here the book provides vast materials on the troubles of a time when the Wakhan, firstly an independent principality, was divided into what later became international borders that continue to matter in contemporary configuration. A comparison with other forms of knowledge accumulation at the time reveals striking similarities in methods and interests.

The maps and early drawings of the places, augmented with notes, letters, and references, provide a precise, evolving image of successive attempts made in 1880 by the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission to mark a dividing line on maps and eventually locate a buffer zone between the empires' boundaries in the Wakhan that had dramatic consequences for local communities. The many routes, retraced and sometimes walked by the author, multiply our understanding of circulation in the Pamirian Knot -- made of an extended and shifting network of sparse and thin pathways across the rugged and changing terrain.

Ending with a review of scientific and exploratory works through today, Kreutzmann questions the pervasive distinction between political and non-political information found in Munshi Abdul Rahim’s report. While it is clearly stated that geography of that time is conceived as an instrument of imperialism, one could regret the absence of a reflection on the political implications of contemporary and recent scientific works. Surprisingly, most recent ethnographies are also missing while their interests and approaches differ in many ways from past endeavors. A brief mention of the political tilt in Pakistan fostered by U.S.-financed endeavors might deceive the reader, who would expect more insights from a German geographer involved in scientific activity in the region.

Nevertheless, this should not cover the remarkable and unprecedented enterprise to restore the contribution of “native explorers” and to situate them in their specific historical context. Hermann Kreutzmann's Wakhan Quadrangle surely marks a precedent with a compelling and visually attractive work on a region and time that deserves more attention.

Tobias Marschall is a teaching assistant and PhD student at the Graduate Institute for International Relations and Development Studies in Geneva. His doctoral thesis will retrace the Afghan Pamir's trajectories based on an anthropological study of mobility, pathway and connectivity. The views expressed in this book review do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.