Friday, April 10, 2015


Lady Florentia Sale, A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan 1841 – 42 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1843).

Sale by Richard Thomas Bott, 1844.

This reproduction of the painting of Florentia Sale by Richard Thomas Bott is from Wikipedia, according to which the painting and the reproduction are in the public domain.


Reviewed by Wilda Morris

The first time I read Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick or the Great Whale I was surprised to find mention of a “bloody battle in Afghanistan.” I decided to look into the history of Afghanistan to see what battle Melville might have had in mind. As a result, I learned a bit about the First Anglo-Afghan War, which took place in 1838-42. Reading about the war, I came across the story—and eventually—the diary of Lady Florentia Sale.

The British attacked Afghanistan in 1838, using Indian as well as British forces. Their aim was to add the Afghan tribes to their growing empire (on which, for a time, “the sun never set.”). The majority of troops which contributed to the British victory were soon recalled to India.

Lady Sale had the misfortune to be in Kabul (spelled Cabul in the book) when British occupation forces were under poor leadership. Their supply center was outside the city walls in a virtually indefensible position. Conflict between Afghan tribes and leaders was followed, in time, by an Afghan uprising against the British.

When a senior British officer was murdered in November 1841, the British did not take action. They continued to show weakness and indecisiveness. Part of the problem was that General William Elphinstone, who had served well in the Napoleonic War, was pressured to take command in Kabul against his wishes. He was nearing 60 years of age, and in poor health. It appears that his mental capabilities had also declined. He was weak, indecisive, and evidently subject to changing his mind to agree with the last suggestion he received.

Lady Sales stood on the ramparts of Kabul and watched the army’s supply depot burn on November 9, 1841. By the time the British marched out of Kabul on January 6, the British and Indian troops and civilians were practically starved. They had no feed for their cattle and horses, which had resorted to chewing on the bark of trees. The snow was a foot high and the temperatures were bitterly cold.

In the chaos of the withdrawal and ensuing days, Lady Sale managed to keep a diary. She says others were keeping diaries, too, but it appears that hers was the only one that survived. She was given some special privileges by the British and subsequently by the Afghans, presumably because of her status. As the wife of Sir Robert Henry Sale, she had the title of Lady. Furthermore, her husband was a Brigadier General. The special treatment she received helps explain both her survival and her ability to keep a diary. Here resourcefulness and courage also contributed.

The British officers assured the 4,500 troops and 12,000 civilians (wives, children, and servants of troops; cooks; carpenters; etc.) that they had negotiated with Akbar Khan to ensure safe passage for everyone from Kabul to Jalalabad. Lady Sale seems to have been suspicious of this deal from the start. As it turned out, Akbar Khan seems to have been one of the leaders gathering Afghans to harass the British and the Afghanis leaving Kabul with them as they tried to make it through mountain passes in the worst of winter weather. Virtually all the supplies with which the exodus began were captured or abandoned, so that few people had the luxury of sleeping in tents or under blankets. Food was scarce to non-existent. The trails were increasingly lined with corpses, often naked and mutilated. Lady Sale’s son-in-law as mortally wounded and she was shot in the wrist during the dangerous trek.

Eventually, most of the remaining women and children were taken hostage, handed over by the British officers because it seemed almost certain that they would not otherwise survive. They were force-marched through the mountains from one place to another. It is possible that they would have been kept in one place for most of their time in captivity had it not been for a series of earthquakes which resulted in much destruction. Lady Sale eventually bribed an Afghan officer to help her escape back to India.

This is just a small summary of a horrific experience that would make a good movie. I recommend this journal as required reading for all Western leaders who consider getting their nations involved in the internal affairs of Afghanistan or other nations in that region of the world. I also recommend it to those who are interested in adventure stories, books dealing with history, and women’s history.