An Aspect of the Colonial Encounter in the Frontier

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An Aspect of the Colonial Encounter in the Frontier, Akbar S. Ahmad
Published in Khyber.ORG on Saturday, August 29 2009 (

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An Aspect of the Colonial Encounter in the Frontier

Akbar S. Ahmad

Publishing Date: Saturday, August 29 2009

THE STORY of colonization is not a pretty one. To the Pathans living in the North-west Frontier Province of what is now Pakistan, and particularly in its Tribal Area, it has meant destroyed villages, water-tanks and grain stores and a never ending series of "butcher and bolt" raids: an almost total failure in communication between two systems. Colonization scars the colonized as it dehumanizes the colonizer.[1] To The Pathan in the Tribal Areas it meant a complete rejection of the twentieth century which in his eyes the British represented; for instance in 1947 when the British left there was not a single school, dispensary, electric bulb or government post in, for example (what is now) the Mohmand Agency area. Here was one of the most barren meetings of cultures possible. The lack of synthesis does not indicate an inherent structural flaw or weakness in either culture, it merely reflects on the form of the encounter. Nevertheless, a miasma of romance and mystification enveloped the encounter on the Frontier. I shall examine in this paper the causal factors that created this mystification and the social needs they satisfied.

Let me hasten to add that I speak of larger cultural encounters and Imperial systems that leave little room for the role and character of individuals. On the latter level the Frontier has produced some of the most celebrated figures of Empire. The legendary heroes of Victorian India grew to stature here: Edwardes of Bannu, Abbott of Hazara, and Nicholson; one of the heroes of Delhi. These officers provided the Victorian era with a prototype - dashing, bold and often killed on duty in the prime of their lives like Burnes, Nicholson, Mackeson and Cavagnari. Later years produced Frontier officers like Howell, Cunningham and Caroe; often more Pathan than the Pathans themselves. Their tribute to the Pathans living in the Tribal Areas is summed up in the following statement. It speaks with the voice of sincerity as it is an excerpt from an official report not written for publication and marked "confidential": "I spoke above of political officers as the custodians of civilisation dealing with barbarians. Against this definition, if he were to hear it, I am sure that Mehr Dar, or any other intelligent Mahsud malik, would emphatically protest. Their argument, which is not altogether in a subconscious plane, may be stated thus - "A civilisation has no other end than to produce a fine type of man. Judged by this standard the social system in which the Mahsud has been evolved must be allowed immeasurably to surpass all others. Therefore let us keep our independence and have none of your qanun [law] and your other institutions which have wrought such havoc in British India, but stick to our own riwaj [custom] and be men like our fathers before us." After prolonged and intimate dealings with the Mahsuds I am not at all sure that, with reservations, I do not subscribe to their plea." [2]

Their affection for "their tribes" or "people" ("my people ... my people", the phrase rings like a bell through all that he [Abbott] wrote" [3]) contrasts strangely with the attitude of local administrators after independence: "Men I can lead. Animals like those villagers I must drive." [4]

The North-West Frontier Province remains one of the most fascinating areas and memories of the British Empire. Myth, legend and reality overlap here and one is not sure where one stops and the other begins. The Frontier was where careers, including those of Indian Viceroys and British Prime Ministers, could be made and unmade; where a simple incident could escalate rapidly into an international crisis and where in 1897 in the general uprisings in the Tribal Areas [5] the British faced their greatest crisis in India after 1857. I shall quote a passage to portray the sense of drama and history that permeates the Frontier stage: 

"Both Alexander the Great and Field Marshal Alexander of Tunis served here; and between them a great scroll of names... Tamerlane, Babur, Akbar, and with the coming of the British, Pollock, Napier, Lumsden, Nicholson, Roberts, Robertson, Blood, Churchill, Wavell, Slim, Auchinleck, and even Lawrence of Arabia. Apart from soldiers, the Frontier has involved generations of administrators, politicians, and statesmen; Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Dalhousie, Lawrence, Lytton, Curzon, Gandhi, Nehru, Attlee, Jinnah, and Mountbatten have come to power or fallen through their Frontier policies. The Frontier has not only been the concern of Britain, India and Afghanistan (and recent years Pakistan); the mysterious pressure it generates have involved Russia, China, Persia, Turkey and even France; on two occasions these pressures have brought the world to the brink of war." [6]

The world's greatest conquerors, Alexander, Taimur, and Babar have not succeeded in subjugating the Pathan and have had to come to terms with him to use his passes to the subcontinent. With small populations and severely limited resources he has shattered the armies of the world's mightiest empires at their zenith. Aurangzeb; the last great Mughal Emperor's army was shattered in the Khyber Pass in 1672 (10,000 killed, 20,000 captured). In 1920 an entire British brigade was decimated at Ahnai Tangi in Waziristan, killed 366 (including 43 officers) and wounded 1,683. Pathan tribes in Afghanistan, and before their "assimilation" by Amir Abdur Rahman later in the century, provided British military history with one of its most dramatic and chilling moments with the appearance of the half-dead and half-crazed Dr Brydon on the cold January morning in 1842 at the Jalalabad garrison, a moment visually immortalized by Lady Butler's famous painting in the Tate Gallery, London. The Doctor was the sole survivor of the grand Army of the Indus. The impossible had happened in the Victorian era and at high noon of British military might... an entire British army had been wiped out.

Two types of writers created the myth of the Frontier; people who had lived and served in the area and those who bowdlerized the subject for popular appeal. Of the former let us look at the most celebrated. The romance of the Frontier was to reach its literary apogee with Kipling; troubadour of Empire. His most popular stories feature Pathan characters like Mahboob Ali in Kim [7] and even enter children's stories like The Jungle Books in Sher Khan. Kipling reflects sympathy for the underdog and his ethnic references are not wilfully malicious, but the African native is still "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" and a "big black boundin' beggar", [9] and the Indian prototype; the low-caste "Gunga Din... of all them black-faced crew the finest man I knew". [10] The African and the Asian are "the White Man's burden".

Your new caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child. [11] Contrasting strongly in theme and tone of address is the encounter between the Pathan, in this case an Afridi outlaw, and the Britisher in perhaps the best known of his Imperial poems, "The Ballad of East and West". The theme and literary tone are grand and imperial, they manifestly transcend colour and race. Here is a meeting of two races on equal footing reflecting a mutual admiration and acceptance of each other's ways:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.

At the end of the poem the "two strong men" have come to terms:

They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous names of God. [12]

A certain respect for the rough and wild tribesmen emerges that contrasts with the open and general contempt for natives in the Empire. [13] It is the Pathan in the Pass that forces questions and doubts about the "Arithmetic on the Frontier" where Two thousand pounds of education drops to a ten rupee jezail. [14] Missionaries, [15] doctors, [16] soldiers, [17] administrators [18] and women [19] have contributed over a century to multidimensional and intimate accounts of Pathan social and political life wherein he emerges as an Indian version of the "noble savage". There is a peculiar love-hate relationship inherent in the concept. The two main points that emerge from the sources cited above are divided between the "noble" half of the concept, a "different" type of native, his "likeability", democracy, frankness, sense of humour and the other half of the concept, his "savageness", "treachery" and the dangers of duty on the Frontier. Every Frontier hand had tales of sudden and violent death to tell. None the less and on balance, "everyone liked the Pathan, his courage and his sense of humour. . . although there was always the chance of a bullet and often a great deal of discomfort". [20]

The second category of writing is highly romanticized novels with titles like Lean Brown Men, King of the Khyber Rifles and Khyber Calling. [21] It is not surprising that Flashman begins his adventures in the first Afghan War. [22] These novels were complemented by popular "B" films like the "Brigand of Kandahar" or "North-west Frontier". The worst novels of the genre create names for people, places and situations not even remotely accurate. In such novels the economic, sociological and historical attempts at approximating to reality are thrown to the wind. A good example is the series written by Duncan McNeil and currently popular with titles like Drums Along the Khyber and Sadhu on the Mountain Peak. Their inaccuracies may gratify and conform to images of rebellious tribesmen east of Suez living a life of luxury and sin but little else.

On the Frontier today the romance engendered by the colonial encounter is still preserved. It began from the moment of the Independence of Pakistan in 1947 when Sir George Cunningham, an ex-Governor of the North West Frontier Province, was recalled from Glasgow by Mr Jinnah, the Governor-General of Pakistan, to become the first Governor of the Province. Memories of the colonial encounter remain untouched. The billiards room in the Miramshah, North Waziristan Scouts Mess is still dominated by the portrait of Captain G. Meynell of the Guides Frontier Force, and "killed in action Mohmand operations; 29 September 1935". Lt-Colonel Harman (immortalized by Howell's account of him) [23] stares from a painting in the dining room of the Wana Mess in South Waziristan. A note in T. E. Lawrence's hand thanking the South Waziristan Scouts for their hospitality is enshrined in a glass box in the Wana Mess Library. On the Shabkadar tower that dominates the entire area the plaques commemorating fallen soldiers are still clear. The graveyard, too, is undisturbed and the head-stones tell their tale clearly. Both a testimony to the Mohmand encounters between 1897 and 1915. The new "Gate of Khyber" at Jamrud, the mouth of the Pass, quotes Kipling's lines from "Arithmetic on the Frontier" on a marble slab.

The continuing romance of the Frontier is best captured for me by a story Askar Ali Shah, the editor of The Khyber Mail (Peshawar) recounted of an old retired British officer who had served in the Frontier Scouts and who was recently given permission, obtained with difficulty, to visit Razmak, North Waziristan, with his wife. He requested the commanding officer to be allowed to accompany the local Scouts on a "recce" trip (gasht) and wore his uniform still splendid after all the years. He observed that evening that he would go home and was now ready to die. Perhaps with the death of his generation the romance will also fade and die.

It is important to distinguish that the symbols of the romance of the Frontier are maintained by political and military administration. Perpetuation of tradition is itself part of the romance. No such symbols of Frontier romance or nostalgia are visible among the tribes themselves. It is essential to underline that this is a one-way nostalgia. Pathan tribes saw the encounter as extra-ethnic, extra-religious and in many cases, extra-savage. Because tribesmen were left to themselves in the Tribal Areas by and large and social contact and administrative control were at a minimum, they remained tribal in the most profound sense and in the same sense, un-encapsulated by larger state systems and civilizations. At the same time, colonization on the Frontier was not the total uprooting and destruction of a civilization as in other parts of the world by other European powers. [24]

What caused this halo of romance to float over British endeavour on the Frontier and continue to grow after it was all over? The answers are many and I shall consider them briefly on various levels. Racially, the British found that across the Indus there was a different world, the people were fairer and taller and some, like Afridis, had blue eyes and blond hair which helped create and perpetuate romantic theories of Greek origin. [25] Geographically, the climate and the physical environment reminded the British of home. [26] Psychologically, the British by the turn of the century found themselves with no new worlds to conquer on the subcontinent; India lay passive and quiet. The major military preoccupation was with the unruly North-west Frontier tribes; peripheral crises on the periphery of Empire. Imperial security bred a confidence in one's values and as a consequence of this confidence understanding of those of a remote and tribal people. Socially, the type of civil and military officer after India became a colony of the Crown in 1858 and no longer the business of a commercial company, represented the middle and upper classes of the most powerful nation on earth who were often driven with a zeal to serve, civilize or convert and thereby make a name for themselves. It is this answer to the question that I shall consider now.

The cream of the Indian Civil Service and the military formed the new Indian Political Service Cadre serving mainly on the Frontier. [27] The mystification of the Frontier encounter was bred by changed Imperial circumstances and the type of its personnel. It was not always so. Early contacts with Pathans in the middle of the nineteenth century after the subjugation of more complex, sophisticated and affluent Indian states and people spoke of them as "absolute barbarians. . . avaricious, thievish and predatory to the last degree" (Temple, Secretary to the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab in 1855). [28] Ibbetson thought Pathans "blood-thirsty, cruel and vindictive in the highest degree; he does not know what truth or faith is, in so much that the saying Afghan bay Iman (i.e. an Afghan is without conscience) has passed into a proverb among his neighbours". [29] These attitudes were to be converted to those bordering affection; respect and even admiration two generations later.

Like schoolboys in a state of boredom and security the new breed of officers at the turn of the Frontier century craved some excitement: the Frontier was the French leave, the excitement involving an out-of-bounds adventure, the forbidden drink; the innocently exciting infringement of school laws and social taboos, that the "likeable rogue" at school attempted without being caught. Social reality drew its symbols from public-school life of which it appeared an extension, a confirmation and a parody. The concepts of "sportmanship", "games", "honour", "word", "playing the referee", "gentlemanly" and "winning fairly or losing honourably", the key symbols of idealized British social behaviour found almost exact contrapuntal equivalents in Pathan society "word" (jaba), "honour" (nang) "gentlemanly" (Pukhtun) and "courage" (tora). Certain things were either "done" or "not done". Life was seen and understood through these mutually recognized symbols. There was a particular Frontier Code of its own that evolved as a consequence of the encounter: "It became, therefore, a point of honour with us never to leave a wounded man behind. So if one of our men was wounded we counterattacked in order to get that wounded man back." [30] But above all the Frontier tested the man: "To run away or to show cowardice on a Frontier campaign and come and wine or dine with your brother officers in the evening was a far worse punishment than risking death". [30]

The Pathan was just the sort of person to fit in with concepts of "honour" and the "code" with his own equivalent concepts: "Frontier officers were a rather special breed of the British and they were sometimes almost converted to the Pathan's sense of honour and usually to his sense of humour; it did not often happen the other way round. The same kind of stories recur whenever people talk about the Frontier; they remember, for instance, the Zakka Khel men in 1908 crowding round Roos-Keppel, once their Political Agent, when the expedition against them was successful and the fighting over. 'Did we fight well?' they asked and he replied: 'I wouldn't have shaken hands with you if you hadn't.' " [31]

The Pathan was placed in a different social category to the other natives on the subcontinent: "There was among the Pathans something that called to the Englishman or the Scotsman - partly that the people looked you straight in the eye, that there was no equivocation and that you couldn't browbeat them even if you wished to. When we crossed the bridge at Attock we felt we'd come home." [32]

The colonial encounter was reduced to the nature of a cricket match, it was "our chaps" versus "your chaps". The Pathan-British encounter is seen in straight "game" analogy: "It is a game - a contest with rules in which men kill without compunction and will die in order to win, in which kinship and friendship count less than winning - but in which there is no malice when the whistle blows and the game is over. And the transfer of an important player may be arranged at half-time while the lemons are being sucked." [31]

Life on the Frontier was itself part of the Great Game played on two continents by international players. Even the sordid business of bombing tribesmen was cast in a "sportsman-like" mould and a proper "warning notice" issued before air-raids. Otherwise it simply would not be cricket:

Whereas lashkars [war parties] have collected to attack Gandab [Mohmand] and are to this end concentrated in your villages and lands, you are hereby warned that the area lying between Khapak-Nahakki line and the line Mullah KiIli-Sam Chakai will be bombed on the morning of [date] beginning at 7 a.m. and daily till further notice.

You are hereby warned to remove all persons from all the villages named and from the area lying between them and the Khapak and Nahakki Passes and not to return till further written notice is sent to you. Any person who returns before receiving such further written notice will do so at his own risk.

Signed Griffith-Governor,
 dated 4th September 1933.

Little wonder that a leader in the Statesman disapproved of this stance on the Frontier and warned that "war is not a sentimental business and there will be no end to it so long as there is the least tendency to romanticize it as a gentlemanly and heroic and admirable pastime." [33]

Above all, the Frontier represented a male world and its masculine symbols a system that translated easily into classic British public school life. Women, on both sides, were generally invisible - and when encountered honoured. No stories of rapes, abductions and mistresses are told on either side. In any case almost the entire Tribal Areas was strictly a "no families" area for officials. It was this absence of the "Mem Sahib" that gave life on the Frontier its special public-schoolboy flavour, and their presence in large numbers after the opening of the Suez Canal late last century has been considered as the final ethnic and social barrier between Indians and the British. [34]

The mystification of the Frontier encounter created a mythical tribesman worthy of the honour to play opposite the British in the Frontier Game and popularized a universal image of the Pathan embodying the finest qualities of loyalty, courage and honour that transcend race, colour and creed [35] and one that approximated to the Pathan's own notions of an ideal Path, a behaviour as understood in terms of his code. Contemporary British accounts end on a romantic and emotional note of contact with a people "who looked him in the face" [36] and speak of "an affinity born of a hundred years of conflict, a mutual sense of honour, affection and esteem". [37] This romantic nostalgia is not restricted to British writers alone for most writing on the Frontier in Pakistan is in a similar vein. For instance, articles on the Frontier in magazines and newspapers have titles such a "The Romance of Tribal Customs, Traditions". [38]

This romantic gloss does not change the savagery or determination of the encounter; barbed wires and bombing do not win friends, but for the British it helped create a special ethnic category of people who they could elevate to "noble savages" above the general run of "savages". It was an elevation not based on sophisticated intellectual or cultural criteria but an extension of the public-school analogy: someone not at your school but who could take a beating in the boxing ring or rugger without complaining and give as good as he got. The map of British India was dyed with various colours; red for British India, yellow for the "protected areas" of the Indian States and so on. To these categories was added a special one, an acknowledged "no man's land", of the Tribal Areas. A land beyond the pale.

For purposes of my argument in this paper the British left the tribal structure largely untouched. Whether they could or could not occupy and hold the Tribal Areas is not the point. As a logical result of the traditional romantic attitude to the Frontier in colonial eyes, tribal structures were allowed to function uninterrupted and untouched. Their tribal "purity" was thus ensured. External imperial expansionism worked in two opposing directions within Pukhtun society. External pressure created homogeneity within the tribe which ensured safeguarding and preservation of tribal cultural values. An aspect of this pressure applied as "big-power" strategy had another opposite effect: allowances, estates and titles exacerbated and deepened internal conflict based on agnatic rivalry. External history is seen locally as unending sequences to aggrandize, interfere or encapsulate and mainly explains suspicion regarding official schemes sponsored by larger state systems. [39]

Dr Akbar S. Ahmed joined the Civil Service of Pakistan in 1966 and served mainly in the North-West Frontier Province, his most recent post being that of Political Agent, Orakzai Agency. From 1977 to 1978 he was engaged in post-graduate work in the Department of Anthropology, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Publications include Millennium and Charisma among Pathans (1976), Social and Economic Change in the Tribal Areas (1977) and Pieces of Green (1977).


  1. F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London, 1967).
  2. E. Howell, Mizh: a Monograph on Government Relations with the Mahsud Tribe (Simla, 1931), Preface.
  3. O. Caroe, The Pathans (London, 1965), p. 341.
  4. F. G. Bailey, Stratagems and Spoils (Oxford, 1970), p. 172.
  5. A. S. Ahmed, Millennium and Charisma among Pathans: A Critical Essay in Social Anthropology (London, 1976).
  6. A. Swinson, North-west Frontier (London, 1967), p. II.
  7. R. Kipling, Kim (reprinted London, 1960).
  8. R. Kipling, The Jungle Book (reprinted London, 1964)
  9. R. Kipling, Selected Verses (London, 1977), p. 163.
  10. Ibid., p. 166.
  11. Ibid., p. 128.
  12. Ibid., pp. 99-103.
  13. V. G. Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind (London 1972).
  14. R. Kipling, Selected Verses (London 1977), p. 13.
  15. T. L. Pennell.
  16. H. W. Bellew, H. Holland.
  17. W. S. Churchill; J. G. Elliott; J. Masters; R. E. North; H. G. Raverty; R. T. I. Ridgeway; F. M. Roberts; G. S. Robertson; H. C. Wylly.
  18. A. Burnes; O. Caroe; H. B. Edwardes; M. Elphinstone; W. K. Fraser-Tytler; B. Goodwin; E. Howell; D. C. J. Ibbetson; L. W. King; P. Mason; W. R. H. Merk; A. Stein; R. Warburton.
  19. L. A. Starr.
  20. P. Woodruff, The Men who Ruled India, Vol. 2, The Guardians (London, 1965), p.292.
  21. R. E. North, The Literature of the North-west Frontier of India: A Select Bibliography (Peshawar, 1945).
  22. G. M. Fraser, Flashman (New York, 1969)
  23. O. Caroe, The Pathans (London, 1965), Appendix D.
  24. E. Wolf, 'The Spanish in Mexico and Central America' in Economic Development and Social Change, ed. G. Dalton (New York, 1971), p.231.
  25. H. W. Bellew, A General Report on the Yusufzai (Lahore, 1864). See also A Grammar of the Pukhto or Push to Language (London, 1867) and The Races of Afghanistan (London, 1880) by the same author.
  26. A. S. Ahmed, Mansehra: a Journey (Lahore, 1974) and Pieces of Green: The Sociology of Change in Pakistan (Karachi, 1977), pp. 123-48.
  27. T. C. Coen, The Indian Political Service (London, 1971).
  28. H. C. Wylly, From the Black Mountain to Waziristan (London, 1912), p.5.
  29. D. C. J. Ibbetson, Outlines of Panjab Ethnography, being extracts from the Panjab Census Report of 1881 treating of Religion, Language and Caste (Calcutta, 1883), p.219.
  30. C. Allen, (ed.) Plain Tales from the Raj (London, 1977), p. 207.
  31. P. Mason, A Matter of Honour (London, 1976), pp. 337-38.
  32. C. Allen, (ed.) Plain Talesfrom the Raj (London, 1977), pp. 197-98.
  33. Statesman, Delhi. 13 Sept. 1935.
  34. P. Spear, The Nabobs: A Study of the Social Life of the English in 18th Century India (Oxford, 1963). See also C. Allen, ref. No. 30.
  35. O. Caroe, The Patham (London, 1965), p. 344, and P. Mason, A Matter of Honour (London, 1976), pp. 338-39.
  36. O. Caroe, The Pathans (London, 1965), xiii; and J. G. Elliott, The Frontier 1839-1947: The Story of the North-west Frontier of India (London, 1968), p. 293.
  37. O. Caroe in Preface to J. G. Elliott, Y. See ref. No. 36.
  38. Dawn, Karachi, 10 June 1977.
  39. A. S. Ahmed, Pathan economy and society: traditional structure and economic development. (London).


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An Aspect of the Colonial Encounter in the Frontier, Akbar S. Ahmad
Published in Khyber.ORG on Saturday, August 29 2009 (