Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Afghanistan in World Literature (II): Dr Watson Sent Packing

Thomas Ruttig 2 min

With part II of this series, we present a few pieces of colonial literature, featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. This part, of course, is clearly not exhausted yet.

An apparent survivor of another Afghan tragedy became famous amongst fans of crime literature: no one less than Dr Watson, assistant of the masterly Sherlock Holmes. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891), Watson discloses his antecedent when, having breakfast with his spouse and his master calls him to the site of another crime by telegram. ‘My experience of camp life in Afghanistan had at least had the effect of making me a prompt and ready traveller. My wants were few and simple’. Watson took his bag and off he went to Paddington Station, for another adventure.

Notable Holmes & Watson researchers assume that Watson, after graduating from medical college, spent some time as a military surgeon in the Anglo-Indian Army and participated in the second British attempts to occupy Afghanistan (1878-80). It is possible that he even reached Kabul when General Sir Frederick Roberts conquered it on 6 October 1879.

That conquest resulted in the Treaty of Gandamak that cancelled Afghanistan’s capability to conduct its own foreign policy, took away all areas east of the Khyber and, finally, also Baluchistan and with it the access to the sea, for good. When the Afghan tribes and troops led by the later Iron Amir Abdurrahman counterattacked, the British withdrew from Kabul without a fight and avoid a repetition of Fontane’s tragedy (see part I). That, perhaps, was the time when Dr Watson turned into a ‘prompt traveller’ and packed his famous bag for the first time.

Here, Kipling’s famous lines from The Young British Soldier about the fate Dr Watson escaped:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

To be continued