Halt of prisoners from Bassaule, with escort 45th Rattray's Sikhs, on the Khurd Khyber.
Photographer: Burke, John
Medium: Photographic print
Photograph of a group of Afghan prisoners with a Sikh escort, taken by John Burke in 1878. Burke accompanied the Peshawar Valley Field Force, one of three British Anglo-Indian army columns deployed in the Second Afghan War (1878-80), despite being rejected for the role of official photographer. He financed his trip by advance sales of his photographs 'illustrating the advance from Attock to Jellalabad'. Coming to India as apothecary with the Royal Engineers, Burke turned professional photographer, assisting William Baker. Travelling widely in India, they were the main rivals to the better-known Bourne and Shepherd. Burke's two-year Afghan expedition produced an important visual document of the region where strategies of the Great Game were played out.
The Anglo-Russian rivalry (called the Great Game) precipitated the Second Afghan War. Afghanistan was of strategic importance to the British in the defence of their Indian Empire, and the prevention of the spreading influence of Russia. They favoured a Forward Policy of extending India's frontiers to the Hindu Kush and gaining control over Afghanistan. An opportunity presented itself when the Amir Sher Ali turned away a British mission while a Russian mission was visiting his court at Kabul. The British had demanded a permanent mission at Kabul which Sher Ali, trying to keep a balance between the Russians and British, would not permit.
British suspicions of the Amir's perceived susceptibility to the Russians led them to invade Afghanistan.
The three Afghan prisoners captured in the advance through the Khurd Khyber are sitting in the centre of the photograph, surrounded by Sikh guards. The 45th Sikh Regiment was raised in 1856 by Captain Thomas Rattray, and was popularly known as Rattray's Sikhs. It had earlier earned glory with its courage and loyalty to the British at the relief of Lucknow during the Indian Uprising of 1857. The Regiment served in the Fourth Infantry Brigade, part of the Peshawar Valley Field Force, during the Second Afghan War. The prisoners were lucky to have survived because in the harsh conditions and terrain of the Afghan Wars no quarter was given and prisoners taken, on both sides.