At the end of the 18th century the main threat to British possession of India seemed to come from France. In Egypt in 1798, Bonaparte studied the campaigns of Alexander the Great. He had corresponded with Tippoo Sahib, the Sultan of Mysore, and talked of leading the French expeditionary force on to conquer the British possessions in India. In 1800, the Russian Empire's frontier was still a long way from that of British India and the two were separated by a (not particularly sanitary) cordon: thousands of miles of mountains and deserts populated by fiercely independent khans and tribal warriors. From 1825, however, the empires began to close in on one another. Russia completed the occupation of Kazakhstan in 1854. Protectorates were established over the Khanates of Bokhara and Khiva in 1868 and 1873 respectively. By 1868, the Russian advance had reached the edge of China and by 1873 it had established a common frontier with Afghanistan and Persia. The Khanate of Khokand was annexed in 1873, to be followed by the Turkoman (1885) and Tajik lands (1895). Meanwhile, the British conquest of Sind and the Sikh kingdom of Punjab had brought them up to what most British policy-makers thought should be the Raj's natural frontiers.
LRB 21 June 2001 | PDF Download