In 1874, the colonial tea-planter Robert Shaw was sent on a diplomatic mission from British India to visit the emir Yaqub Beg, a man who had seized Xinjiang, or Eastern Turkestan, from Chinese hands.
On the road between the legendary Silk Road towns of Yarkand and Kashgar, Shaw ran into an Afghan acquaintance by the name of Yar Muhammad, a merchant who regularly plied the caravan trails between India and Xinjiang. Muhammad told Shaw that in a nearby village was an Englishman ‘who had been living for some years in this country as a “dervesh”’ [sic].
His curiosity piqued, Shaw asked for an introduction. A shy man was brought forward. He could communicate in faltering English, and could even read a little, but preferred to speak Persian. Shaw noted his English looks, particularly his pale, thin fingers. His interviewee seemed disturbed, ‘always looking around to right and left, and everywhere except in the face of his interlocutor’.
Then something clicked. Shaw asked the man whether or not a book had ever been written about him.
Indeed it had.
The book was Lost among the Affghans: Being the Adventures of John Campbell (Otherwise Feringhee Bacha) amongst the Wild Tribes of Central Asia, published in 1862 by the reputable firm of Smith, Elder & Co. Compiled by Hubert Oswald Fry, it purported to be the first-person account of an orphan left behind after the British occupying force in Kabul was wiped out at the end of the Anglo-Afghan War in 1842.
According to the book, Afghans from the district of Kunar took the orphan in and raised him, calling him the ‘European Child’ (‘Feringhee Bacha’ in Persian). Feringhee Bacha grew up as an Afghan, though one who was marked as an outsider by his name.
Eventually, we learn, the boy became interested in his origins, and ran away to Persia, where he made contact with British officials who conveyed him to India. Lord John Elphinstone, governor of Bombay, met Feringhee Bacha and christened him ‘John Campbell’.
After two years in a school in India, Feringhee Bacha was sent to England. A Quaker schoolteacher, Caroline Mary Fry, took him in for ten weeks. She did her best to make up for his imperfect upbringing by lecturing him on the gospels. He was, by her account, a welcome addition to the household, but beneath the veneer of civilisation there lurked the repressed native:
He soon became sociable and lively, and of an evening delighted to bring out his books of Persian songs, and to sing or chant them for our amusement. Sometimes he translated the poems into English, relating the legends attached to each song; and now and then he astonished us with an Affghan war-song, which he would shout with a strange, wild energy.
Mrs Fry’s teenage son Hubert Oswald Fry befriended John. It was Fry who took down what he claimed was John’s story in Lost among the Affghans.
The book was presented as a tale of adventure, and even at the time readers were sceptical about its veracity.
I stumbled on Shaw’s account of his visit to Xinjiang while researching in the British Library’s India Office archives.
Bouts of childhood illness had dashed Shaw’s earlier hopes of a military career, and he had been drawn to the Kangra district of north India for its nourishing airs. In 1868 he made his first trip to Xinjiang, seeking out commercial opportunities in Yaqub’s new regime. His accounts of these travels, recorded in the book Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand, and Kashgar, attracted the interest of British intelligence. A few years later, he led an official English mission to Yaqub as a ‘Political Agent on special duty’. He described this mission not in popular book form, but in a series of intelligence reports, to be digested and filed away in the archives of the India Office’s Political and Secret Department.
In one such report, bound into a hefty volume with thick leather covers (call number L/P&S/5/277), I discovered his description of meeting the English ‘dervesh’ – a seeming confirmation that Lost among the Affghans was indeed based on fact.
The 1842 retreat from Kabul went down in British military history as among the empire’s most ignominious defeats.
After seizing Kabul and installing a puppet king in 1839, British officers set about re-creating the life they enjoyed in the clubs and polo fields of India. Some brought their wives and children over from India; others caroused conspicuously with local girls. When an Afghan uprising broke out and cornered the community, the English abandoned their Afghan frontman, Shah Shuja Durrani, and beat a desperate retreat across the Khyber Pass. Thousands died; a lucky few survived as prisoners.
These captives quickly became a cause célèbre, and politicians in London clamoured for revenge. General George Pollock led a column back into Afghanistan, pillaging the country to secure the release of the prisoners. Not all the English made it out, but most of those known to be left behind were low-class women, now married to Afghans, who could be safely ignored. Out of the disaster, the British could construct a triumphant tale of honour restored.
To celebrate the delivery of the captives, the British East India Company struck a new honour – the Pollock Medal. On its reverse they inscribed: ‘Cabul 1842 Treachery avenged – British honour vindicated – Disasters retrieved – British captives delivered.’ Britain now had the victory in Afghanistan it needed to complement its gunboats in China that had just blown open China’s ports to make way for British opium. By December 1842, the satirical magazine Punch could safely run the paean ‘Boil, Britannia’:
Rejoice, great Mistress of the Sea,
The Affghans and Chinese are whack’d.
Published two decades after Pollock’s reprisal attack, Lost among the Affghans was aimed at a popular readership. The story of an English boy turned Afghan was bound to attract interest: John Campbell aka Feringhee Bacha could be expected to enjoy a brief celebrity, and Fry probably imagined himself basking in a literary spotlight of his own.
Yet Campbell’s tale also threatened the myth of redemption that surrounded the First Afghan War.
The captives who had returned from Afghan barbarism to English civilisation in 1842 had been welcomed back with fanfare. Not so John Campbell. In response to Fry’s book, British and Indian authorities unanimously denounced the young man as an impostor.
Neither Campbell nor Fry were in a position to respond. In late 1861, just before the book’s publication, sceptical officials had decided to curtail Campbell’s re-education, and bundled him off to India. By 1862, when Lost among the Affghans hit the shelves in London, Campbell was working as a lowly interpreter at the Karachi telegraph station. The following year, as the reviews of his book were coming in, Fry died of illness.
Circumstance, official bluster and administrative fiat had conspired to render the real John Campbell invisible to the English public. Yet the task of suppressing his story would not have been so easy, were it not for the style in which the story appeared.
Fry’s literary opportunism seems to have got the better of him. In his hands, the tale of Feringhee Bacha is so embellished that it reads like an exotic adventure novel, making it easy to dismiss the book as a hoax.
In the book, though Feringhee Bacha’s stated goal is to find the English, his itinerary takes him far from the British Raj, into the treacherous borderlands of Afghanistan and the remote valleys of the Pamir Mountains. He travels on foot through the principalities of Chitral and Gilgit, then hitches rides with caravans that take him from Badakhshan to China and back – twice! At this point, we sense, the narrator tires of striving for geographic accuracy:
[T]he minute history of what I saw and did would only be a repetition of what many other travellers’ experiences have been; and as the English have already been made familiar by many first class works with what the general life of a traveller in Asia is, I feel that I should be giving no new information by dwelling longer on this passage in my peregrinations.
Instead, the story takes a turn to fast-paced Orientalist fantasy. Feringhee Bacha climbs atop the Buddhas of Bamiyan to win a bet, and survives narrow scrapes with thieves and slave-dealers. In Chapter 9 he finds himself in a magical forest, inhabited by a group of hairy hunchback magicians who try to enchant him with hallucinations of beautiful dancing girls. Later he emerges to a community of Satan worshippers who share with him their festive meal of boiled blood.
In the final third of the book, the teenage hero becomes a soldier of fortune in the struggle for Turkestan. He fights on the side of the khan of Kokand against the advancing Russians, leading a cavalry charge and seizing Russian prisoners. Then he switches to the Russian side and betrays Kokand’s military secrets. He goes on to serve as a mercenary for various Afghan and Persian warlords, before joining the Persian shah’s army on its retreat from Herat. This leads him to the office of the British representative in Persia, Charles Murray.
Initial reviews of Lost among the Affghans were sceptical but restrained. ‘We cannot help but thinking that Mr. Feringhee Bacha has very greatly magnified his own prowess,’ wrote London’s Daily News, ‘and exaggerated both the dangers he encountered, the distances he travelled, and the marvellous escapes he had from his enemies.’ Still, Campbell had been vetted by a number of senior British officials whose authority the paper did not wish to question. The review concluded positively: ‘if even a tenth part of what is told here be true it constitutes a unique memorial of endurance and persistency at a period of life when these qualities seldom show themselves.’
Others were less credulous.
‘The book is a lying book,’ declared the Examiner, ‘although one of the most amusing of the day.’ Soon enough, officials involved with the case labelled the book a fabrication. With Campbell out of the country, the story was consigned to folkloric status. In 1865, the Daily News reviewed a second edition of the book, encouraging its readers to forget about the controversy and enjoy the rollicking yarn:
Now that the adventures of John Campbell, otherwise Feringhee Bacha, are published in a cheap form for young readers, with pictures, and an attractive cover, the question of his claims to English parentage may be considered set at rest. Whether Feringhee Bacha was really picked up as an infant among the British dead in the blood-stained snows of the Khyber Pass – whether he was really taken thence and brought up by the Affghans as one of themselves until he contrived a year or two ago to come to England and tell his story to Mr. Oswald Fry, are questions about which the boy readers to whom the book appeals in its present form will not trouble their heads much. Captain Raverty may rail, and Bombay may be sceptical, and the India-office may cry impostor long enough before they will disturb the day-dreams of Master Tom and Master Harry as they pore over the adventurous tale of John Campbell’s captivity and final discovery of his Anglo-Indian origin.
The Examiner pinned the blame for the book’s obvious embellishments on the narrator himself, Feringhee Bacha. This ‘Asiatic vagabond’, the reviewer argued, must have made up the entire story of his white origins and devotion to Christianity as a way to secure his passage out of Afghan poverty to English luxury. ‘The end to accomplish in this case was to escape … to an orderly life under favour of the British Government.’
This image of Campbell gulling his English foster family with a tall tale of swashbuckling heroics is attractive but unlikely. To my eye, the book is so attuned to the style of the emerging ‘boy’s own’ genre that it was almost certainly the work of Fry, the interviewer, perhaps spun out of a few details that Campbell had provided.
The theme of the white orphan who grew up as a native was a familiar one to English readers. The fringes of the British Empire, whether in Africa, the Americas or Asia, had long spawned captivity narratives, including those of young children left behind in the wake of military disasters. After the 1842 massacre in Kabul, the next such episode was the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which occurred in the year Campbell arrived in Bombay, and gave rise to new angst-ridden stories of abandoned white children.
Meanwhile, the adventurous coming-of-age story we now call ‘boy’s own’ was maturing as a genre. One perceptive reviewer of Lost among the Affghans likened it to the works of novelist and naval officer Frederick Marryat, who wrote a series of children’s books featuring resourceful English boys and girls in various settings, with his last novel entitled The Little Savage. WGH Kingston and RM Ballantyne were just embarking on their prolific careers in boy’s own fiction when Fry’s book came out.
Stories of English-gone-native were potentially confronting, questioning as they did the boundaries that distinguished the white race from lesser, colonised peoples. Fry goes to great lengths to allay this anxiety. Once aware of his English identity, Campbell ‘longed to know more about the English, and seized every opportunity of gaining information about them’. The story of the defeat at Kabul enraged him: ‘I swore in my heart to God that I would one day leave these treacherous wretches who had so mercilessly slaughtered my countrymen.’ He quickly assumes an air of racial superiority towards the men and women he grew up amongst: ‘They are great cheats and liars, as my story will show.’
This figure of the white boy who remains ever conscious of his heritage while blending into native society found its greatest retelling in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, published in 1901. In Kipling’s hands, a story of racial mixing becomes a parable of the essential difference between East and West. Edward Said famously described Kim as a ‘masterwork of imperialism’.
In his 1996 book Quest for Kim, Peter Hopkirk suggests some models for Kimball O’Hara, Kipling’s protagonist. One candidate was a certain Mr Durie, an Anglo-Indian boy who turned up in India in 1812 with a first-hand account of political conditions in Afghanistan. The other example Hopkirk mentions is Tim Doolan, son of an Irish deserter and Tibetan mother, subject of an 1889 newspaper article, and a man who vanished as mysteriously as he emerged. In the book by Fry, Campbell provides an equally good, if not better, prototype for Kim.
Lost among the Affghans describes Campbell as an officer’s son, but in reality he was probably of humbler origins, like Kim. Kipling’s character was the son of a low-ranking Irishman, a fact perhaps intended to make his race-switching more palatable for the novel’s English readers. Had Campbell been an officer’s son, Pollock’s retribution campaign would have rescued him, or at least tried to find him. And he would not have ended up assigned to an office job in Karachi, at the very bottom rung of the Indian bureaucracy’s career ladder. Although there is no indication in his story of mixed birth, reviewers freely referred to him as ‘Anglo-Indian’ or ‘Anglo-Afghan’ rather than English.
Like Fry’s Campbell, Kipling’s Kim remains loyal to his English origins. After a misspent youth, he heeds his calling to become a willing agent of empire. Recruited into imperial service, Kim travels to the hill station of Simla at the foot of the Himalayas for training in the arcane techniques of Great Game spying. Kim’s travelling companion, a Tibetan lama, provides cover for his anti-Russian surveillance work.
Returning to India in 1862, Campbell seemed destined for a similar career. Yet here the parallels with Kim come to an end. Fry presented a fantasy of how an English boy ought to act when confronted by the truth of his racial identity. The real Campbell, however, evidently refused to apply his knowledge of Afghanistan, its peoples and languages to the cause of empire. He left Karachi at some point, heading north. Spurning life as a functionary in the British Raj, he chose to make his way as a dervish, a peripatetic mystic, among the Muslims of Kashgar and Yarkand, where Robert Shaw found him. The real Campbell was, in other words, not a prototype for Kim, but rather the anti-Kim.
In the 1960s, Afghanistan specialist Louis Dupree retraced the route of the British retreat from Kabul, questioning people along the way about local memories of the event. In his investigations, Dupree raised the story of Campbell/Feringhee Bacha, but could find no-one who had heard of a British boy left behind. He registered his own scepticism, noting that ‘many historians question the validity of this fascinating account’.
Shaw had claimed to be the first Englishman to set foot in Xinjiang, but it would seem that Campbell beat him to it. Shaw’s 1874 letter from Kashgar may not prove every element of the story of the British orphan, but it certainly lends it greater credibility. If Bacha had fabricated his English origins, it is hard to imagine him maintaining the fiction years after absconding from Karachi.
If Campbell was, as stated in Lost among the Affghans, about two years old at the fall of Kabul, he would have been in his early thirties by the time of his encounter with Shaw. Shaw interviewed Campbell briefly, and was told much the same story as Fry records. He learned that the boy was brought up in Afghanistan until he was fifteen or sixteen, before he made his way to Tehran, and from there to India and England. Shaw was convinced that he was English, but still had doubts about the authenticity of the story:
[L]osing the thread of his subject, contradicting his previous statements, or returning a vacant look to a question put to him, he seemed to be counterfeiting or to be really under the influence of madness or rather idiocy.
Yet there were indications to the contrary: ‘An occasional shrewd remark or glance seemed to contradict this appearance, however.’ Asked what had made him leave England, John replied wistfully:
They were all too busy to attend to me. Telegraphs were working and railways running in all directions, and no one had time to give to a poor stranger, or to enquire what he wanted.
Shaw offered to take him back to India, but Campbell had seen enough of British civilisation, and declined the offer. The only thing Shaw could do was recommend the Indian authorities assign some money for Campbell’s Afghan companion, who was performing a noble service for an ‘Englishman in distress’.
Does the obscurity of Campbell mean anything today? Commentators on our own Afghan War like to chide politicians for ignoring the lessons of past invasions. Campbell’s story suggests that, if these earlier Afghan wars have been forgotten, there is a reason for it. For the sake of an ‘orderly withdrawal’, defeats must be erased, and the truth about what is left behind suppressed.
More importantly, perhaps, Lost among the Affghans shows that stories that tell of the loss and dislocation of war, or that blur the boundary between friend and foe, can easily be twisted to fit more comforting narratives.
What became of John Campbell? If he stayed in Xinjiang, he would have soon witnessed the fall of Yaqub Beg and the return of the Chinese army. Qing Dynasty officials might have expelled him, as they did many foreign Muslims. More likely, though, shrouded in his dervish cloak, and with his Afghan companion concealing his identity, he would have kept wandering the markets and shrines of Xinjiang, singing the Persian poems and war songs he learnt as an Afghan boy.