Hidden History

Oasis State14 min read

Kashgaria and the British Great Game – Christopher DeCou

The Great Game sounds like the title of popular reality game show, but instead describes the chess-like match of the British, Russian, Ottoman and Qing governments in Central Asia during the mid to late 19th century. One of its more interesting episodes involved Kashgaria, a short-lived independent state, covering much of today’s Xinjiang province in western China. It inspired British explorer and diplomat Robert Shaw to cross treacherous mountain passes to open communication with its leaders, efforts that resulted in an official mission. But by the mid 1870s, even though the British were concerned about their northern borders, the economy defeated expediency and support for “Oriental” leadership. Soon afterward, Kashgaria collapsed and was absorbed back into the Chinese Empire.

Map of Historical Eastern Turkestan (Boulger 1878)

Kashgaria arose from local frustration with the Qing Dynasty’s regional policies. For millennia, Chinese empires dominated the western regions, yet preferred client-patron relationships over true “imperialism.” That policy shifted with the Manchu empire. Originating from nomadic tribes around eastern Siberia, the Manchus inherited competition toward nomadic societies. By the 18th century, their army had defeated clans across the great plains to the Altai Mountains. They called this conquered territory Xinjiang (新疆), the “new frontier.”

Kashgaria was a short-lived independent state, covering much of today’s Xinjiang province in western China

From the 1750s onward, the Qing imposed a new administrative system in Xinjiang. The military government was under a primary military governor, and then three regional authorities. Civil administration combined local and Manchu leaders. The office was under the Lifan Yuan, the Qing office that managed Inner Asian affairs, including Tibet and Mongolia. At the local level, however, the Qing allowed the Turkish beg system of leadership to continue in some ways. The leaders were appointed by the Lifan Yuan office, and they wore Qing robes, but they maintained their Turkish titles. They were responsible for carrying out censuses, taxes, and even some international relations.

Photo from the second mission to Kashgar under Thomas Forsyth, whose team captured many photos of the soldiers, daily life, and customs of Xinjiang at the time

While the Qing did not force the general population to adopt Manchu culture or the Chinese language, a steady influx of immigrants flowed into Xinjiang in the early period. Around 1820, the native population became more resistant to Qing authority, and throughout the mid-19th century popular uprisings against the Qing leadership accelerated. By the 1860s, the Qing Empire was crumbling and facing numerous forms of religious and popular dissent. In eastern China, the empire battled with the Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion, While in the West Chinese Muslims rebelled. These so-called Dungan Muslims influenced Turkish-speaking groups to rebel and tear down Qing leadership. In 1866, the province fell into disarray and the government lost control, making room for a new leader.Contemporaneous to these disruptions, Turkestan – an all-encompassing term to describe the linguistic and political landscape of Turkish-speaking peoples in Central Asia – was undergoing similar ruptures. Further west of China in the Ferghana Valley, opposite the Pamir Mountains, Turkish leaders combatted Russian invasions. Near today’s Tashkent and Bishkek, the Khanate of Kokand had maintained power since the early 18th century. With a somewhat mythical heritage in the Timurid Dynasty, the leaders had resisted British and Russian alliances during the early 19th century. By the 1850s, as the Russians traversed the Siberian steppes into this fertile region, the khanate repulsed the threat, but in 1865, the khanate lost Tashkent and additional territory once the Russians solidified their control around Almaty. They capitulated and accepted vassal status in 1868.

By the 1860s, the Qing Empire was crumbling and facing numerous forms of religious and popular dissent

Shortly before the fall of Tashkent, two commanders ventured to support their allies in the city of Kashgar, one of the last major cities on the mainland route from China to Inner Asia, and to fight against the Russians along this border. They shifted the balance in the region and saw an opportunity to establish their own state. Once they arrived, they secured control of the cities for themselves, while the Chinese engaged the Dungan Muslims.

The two leaders were Buzurg Khan and Yaqub Beg. Buzurg Khan was a descendent of the Afaqi Khojas, religious and political leaders from the 17th century in Western Xinjiang. The family had continued to exercise significant influence among religious groups in the region, but they had been largely removed to other areas in Turkestan with the Qing invasions. During the Dungan revolts the people invited Buzurg Khan to return and help them.

Portrait of Yaqub Beg from Russian book on Eastern Turkestan  (Wikicommons)

However, Buzurg Khan was challenged by his general Yaqub Beg, who had risen to power during military conflicts in today’s Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. He was perhaps from a Persian-speaking background; some stories say that he was a dancing boy called Yaqub Bacha. The term carries sexual connotations and may have been created to discredit him, but he rose through the ranks and become a leader among the different tribes in Central Asia. He developed a reputation for excellent military strategy. Once the two leaders entered Xinjiang from the west, they started to defeat local rebels and claimed their own empire centered on Kashgar. Buzurg Khan at first claimed the titles, but Yaqub Beg swiftly outmaneuvered him. From 1866 to 1867, he reconquered Xinjiang, then defeated and killed Buzurg Khan to establish a new independent state: Kashgaria.

The new state of Kashgaria stretched across much of contemporary Xinjiang, going from the Tian Shan mountains and Kashgar in the west as far as Hami in the east. And in many ways the local population was not liberated. Most of the new administrators came from the east. Beg removed many of the local leaders of the cities with only a few exceptions. Nevertheless, his new military state provided some peace to the region after several years of revolts and violence. But once the Qing were able to recover their losses from the Taiping Rebellion and the ongoing concessions with Western powers, they would regroup and turn against Beg.

The colonial Indian government monitored these events. They faced their own internal troubles with the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857 as well as conflicts in today’s Afghanistan. The British were concerned about Russian encroachment along the northern borders. In response, certain officers and leaders encouraged more alliances with Central Asian rulers.

A staunch supporter for British involvement, Robert Barkley Shaw (1839-1879) sought to expand his personal interests and to combat Russian influence. Born to Robert Grant Shaw and Martha Barkley, Shaw was raised in a middle-class merchant family outside London. His father died when he was young, and his mother moved to the continent for her six children’s education, the likely reasons why Shaw spoke several European languages. Although he desired a military appointment after attending Trinity College Cambridge, he suffered from a rheumatic illness and had to pursue an alternate career. Nevertheless he sought adventure, and in 1859 he moved to India, where he invested in a tea farm. He became a successful tea merchant and got involved in regional politics.

Map of the British World of South and East Asia in 1868. The area above Tibet in modern Xinjiang remained a mystery at the time (S.A. Mitchell Jr.)

By 1868, Shaw heard rumors about the new ruler in Kashgaria, but no British national had yet visited. Most were frightened to venture there, because stories such as the case of Adolf Schlagintweit. He and his brothers were hired by the East India Company to map the northern frontier mountains in 1857. Commissioned to find possible military routes and passes, Herbert and Robert Schlagintweit remained in the Pamirs while Adolf traveled further into the Tibetan highlands. Since he was traveling without permission, he was captured and taken to Kashgar, where he was beheaded. For the next decade, the incident dissuaded others. But Shaw knew through north Indian merchants that Beg had brought order to the region. Shaw believed if he traveled as a merchant and not as an official British representative, he might connect with Beg and establish a new market.

The British were concerned about Russian encroachment along the northern borders

On September 20, 1868, Shaw left the Kashmir state and ascended the high Marsimik La Pass within the Chang Chenmo Mountain Range between India and Tibet. The caravan left late in the year and they experienced severe cold. Shaw later wrote:

The best way of keeping warm on such an occasion is to squat down, kneeling against a bank, and nearly between your knees. Then tuck your overcoat in all round you, over head and all; and if you are lucky, and there is not too much wind, you will make a little atmosphere of your own inside the covering which will be snug in comparison with the outside air. Your feet suffer chiefly, but you learn to tie yourself into a kind of knot, brining as many surfaces of your body together as possible. I have passed whole nights in this kneeling position and slept well; whereas I should not have got a wink had I been stretched at full length with such a scanty covering as a great coat.

After two months of travel, the troupe arrived in Yarkand, a city on the south side of Xinjiang, where they were warmly received. Contrary to their original fears, the local officials were excited to have an Englishman in the region, and relayed the news of his arrival to Yaqub Beg so that Shaw could meet the leader. Each day prompted more gift exchanges and conversations. Finally, in January, they brought Shaw to Kashgar.

According to Shaw’s account, when he entered Beg’s palace, rows of silk-clad soldiers, some with guns, others with swords, bows and arrows, lined the walls of the antechamber. “The numbers, the solemn stillness, and the gorgeous colouring gave a sort of unreality to this assemblage of thousands.” He entered the inner chamber by a side door with elaborate arabesques across the ceilings. When Yaqub Beg offered his hands, Shaw grasped them and greeted him in Persian. “Then ensued a silence of about a minute, each waiting for the other to speak. Finally, he commenced again by a remark about the weather (English-like).”

Afterwards, Shaw negotiated a deal: he would bring a letter from Beg to Queen Victoria, and he would support an official envoy to the Viceroy of Colonial India. Shaw would persuade others to visit in an official capacity. Beg wanted weapons, and he made it clear. After their third meeting, Shaw left Kashgaria and returned to India. He immediately set to work to advocate for a connection with this ruler.

The Great Game reached its apex in the 1870s. Everyone strategized his move in this diplomatic stalemate. By the end of the 19th century, imperial powers would divide Central Asia much as they had in the Scramble for Africa. Numerous treaties between great powers established boundaries and frontiers granting spheres of influence over the region. On the cusp of this transition, the British were unsure how to handle Kashgaria.

When Robert Shaw returned to Colonial India, he found support in Thomas Douglas Forsyth (1827-1886). Like Shaw, Forsyth came from a merchant family and had climbed the ranks of the colonial bureaucracy. He had entered the Indian service in 1847, and by 1869, he was among Shaw’s circle seeking ways to relieve tensions with Russia and switch to a more economic alliance with neighboring states.

In April 1870, upon meeting the envoy from Kashgaria, the viceroy appointed Thomas Forsyth to lead a team to the region. The purpose of the mission was to “[open] up and [give] impulse to the trade with that country… not in any sense a mission and had no political objects.” The mission therefore focused on determining demand for Indian products and what resources could they offer to the British. Forsyth mustered a team of several diplomats, scientists and locals, including Robert Shaw; they left the Himalayan city of Leh for Yarkand on July 7. While they were crossing the mountain passes, several merchants informed them Yaqub Beg was no longer in Kashgar, and no one knew when he would return.

This failure led the British to worry  whether Kashgaria would truly support their rivalry among the great powers. Firstly, Kashgaria was too unstable. Yaqub Beg was missing from his capital in order to put down revolts in other parts of the state. Secondly, they doubted the initial reports about economic advantages. From 1867-1869, the trade in Leh had doubled; yet, whereas Shaw spoke highly of the tea figures in his report, Forsyth was less optimistic:

The truth is that Kashgar, Yarkand, Khoten, and all the cities and towns of Eastern Turkestan being thickly populated and having scarcely any manufactures of their own, are entirely dependent on foreign imports for every thing except food. Cotton is grown to some extent, … But this is a very infinitesimal item of supply to meet the great demand there is for garments of all kinds.

And because Kashgaria remained at war with the Qing, Chinese trade was also at a standstill.

Still, Forsyth did not give up on this potential alliance. He regrouped and returned two years later with even more officials. For the second mission, he brought commanders and scientists, who collected geographic, climate, economic and anthropological data. This mission was more successful in several ways: they crossed the passes, were welcomed by the people, and met with the leader. They arrived to Kashgar in December 1872 and signed a trade agreement with Yaqub Beg. However, the mission reiterated their previous suspicions. Although Beg controlled large areas and had brought some stability, he was beset with numerous conflicts. And while Leh and Yarkand trade did increase, the volume was negligible.

New trade agreements would help some Indian merchants by lowering tariffs and opening more routes, but the British had little interest in getting more involved. They did not want to unsettle their tentative relationships with the Chinese and the Russians.

From this point on, the British largely left Yaqub Beg alone. The Ottomans, interestingly enough, did try to provide guns. At the same time that Beg had toyed with the Russians and the British, he had also sent envoys to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. The Sultan was facing threats from the Russians on multiple fronts and was glad to aid leaders who recognized his religious suzerainty. But apart from that, Beg had little local support.

Soon after the second British mission to Kashgaria, Yaqub Beg died under strange circumstances. According to one source, he was poisoned by a rival leader. Chinese sources state that he killed himself out of frustration and fear as the Qing army encroached. A third source writes of a stroke: witnesses say that he was furious and beating one of his people when he suddenly acted shocked and lost his memory and speech. Within a few hours, he was paralyzed, and then died.

Yaqub Beg died under strange circumstances

For the British, Yaqub Beg’s death became another symbol of the so-called Eastern Question. Demetrius Charles Boulger, another Central Asian enthusiast, who was an important contributor to political journals about the British Empire, published a hagiographic account of Yaqub Beg that explored how this vast land could shape policy among so many actors. He raised Beg into an almost mythic figure, like Genghis Khan from centuries before.

Despite its short-lived independence, Kashgaria had always been a pawn in a larger game. After Beg’s death, rivalries emerged over succession which plunged everything into chaos. Once the Qing regained control over the Chinese Muslims in Gansu Province and reentered Xinjiang, they rapidly conquered the Kashgari forces and solidified their control. In some ways, the people of Xinjiang are still paying the price for Kashgaria’s fall today. ∎

Header image: “Night Interview with the Atalik-Ghazee,” from Robert Shaw’s 1871 book Visits to High Tartary (Wikipedia)