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The Northwest Frontier

Three Great Game Rarities
Travels along the Silk Routes Shapero Rare Books

They say that good things come in threes and for booksellers it doesn’t get much better than buying three 19th-century Calcutta-printed books on the Northwest Frontier.

Travels along the Silk Routes Shapero Rare Books

The phrase ‘The Northwest Frontier’ sounds so bland, but it belies its strategic importance in the Great Game played out between Great Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia and ultimately India. It describes the border region between Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan, dominated by the vast peaks of the Hindu Kush and ruled by powerful tribes who even now bow to no government.  It was seen as the gateway to India; to be defended by the British whatever the cost.

William Hough, a Major in the Bengal Infantry, in A Narrative of the March and Operations of the Army of the Indus, Calcutta (1840), describes the successful British campaign in the First Afghan War to restore Shah Shujah to the throne of Afghanistan. This move was in response to the perceived threat, supposedly backed by Russia, of Zaman Shah invading India via the Northwest Frontier and kicking the British out of India. A scarce book, with Library Hub giving BL and Oxford only, the present copy is further distinguished by the author’s presentation inscription to Colonel Sir Claude Martine Wade, the go-between for Britain and Shah Shujah. 

In 1877, Major John Biddulph was appointed political resident at Gilgit. Gilgit was seen as central to the British defence of India from Russian interests. Whilst there Biddulph forged an alliance with the Dogra tribe and later with Aman Ul-Huk in Chitral, thus providing an effective buffer against incursions into India from the West. During his stay he gathered material for his book, Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh, Calcutta (1880). This is the standard reference work on the tribes of the area at the end of the nineteenth century and includes genealogical tables. This Calcutta edition is rare, and our copy is additionally desirable being in the original cloth and with an inscription from the author.

Saving the best to last, Colonel Sir William Lockhart’s The Gilgit Mission, 1885-86, published in 1889, a ‘Strictly Confidential’ report, never available for purchase, must be not only one of the rarest books on the region (only 2 copies located world-wide), but also one of the most important. A sizeable book of over 450 pages, with more than 100 mainly photographic plates, it had two purposes. One was to act as a straightforward exploration expedition, penetrating areas previously unknown to Europeans, but more importantly to develop relations with Aman Ul-Huk and other notables to shore up Britain’s defences along the Northwest Frontier. 

It is a wonderful work in every respect and even though this copy has lost one of its folding maps, it still provides a rare opportunity to acquire a cornerstone book, and one that we might not see again for a long time. Amongst the previous owners this copy is Lieutenant-Colonel Yate, himself an author of two classic works on Central Asia; a nice touch.

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Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

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