The Great Game. Author Peter Hopkirk tells the tale in his book of the same name. He's not referring to an organized sport; neither does he mean more cerebral activities like chess, or the hunting of wild animals. The phrase, first applied in a letter by British officer Lieutenant Arthur Conolly in the early 1830s, referred to the British and Russian battle for the hearts and minds of the peoples of Central Asia. Often over their dead bodies. What did that matter when Empire was at stake?

About 200 miles south of the Aral Sea, in today's Uzbekistan, the Muslim kingdom of Khiva had long been eyed by the European powers as a ripe plum, awaiting conquest. The Khan had just been saved from a Russian army sent to dethrone him, by unusually harsh winter conditions in the central Asian steppes. Intending conquest, the Russians had pretended to only seek freedom for slaves held by the Khan - meî while fishing in the Caspian Sea; women taken from the frontier around Orenburg. Meanwhile, the British, seeking greater influence in the area, sought to forestall the Russians by rescuing and returning the slaves. The next move was up to them.

An expedition under Captain James Abbott set out for Khiva, then vanished, their whereabouts unknown. It was decided to send out a second party. Lieutenant Richmond Shakespear (no final "e"), disguised as a native, set out to the north from Herat on May 15th, 1840, with eleven Afghan troopers. Four days out they encountered another slaving party with ten captured children in tow, but fearing to tip their hand, did nothing. Shakespear's native guide was able to follow a trail where none was detectable, across the blowing sands of the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan. Finally, on June 12th, they entered Khiva.

Shakespear and the Khivan leader seem to "hit it off". The officer left no account of the negotiations for the slaves, but it was probably helpful that the Khan was beginning to worry about the possibility that another Russian army might be on the way. Negotiations hit a snag when it became obvious the Khivans were holding out. After much diplomatic prying, the missing slaves, including a young girl meant for the Khan's harem, were finally rounded up. On August 15th the expedition, augmented by a force of Khivan soldiers and escorting 416 slaves, set out on a 500 mile journey to the Russian fortress at Alexandrovsk. Six miles from their goal - another snag. The Khan's soldiers, fearing a trap, refused to continue. Many of the children were too week to walk and the adults had possessions to carry. More negotiations. Finally, with twenty borrowed camels, the slaves were delivered. Tsar Nicholas pretended pleasure when he received the news. But it was a bitter pleasure.The British had outfoxed him.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

Hopkirk, Peter - The Great Game (New York, Kodansha International. 1994)

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte