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The bridge of boats and fort from Khairabad.

The bridge of boats and fort from Khairabad.

Photographer: Burke, John

Medium: Photographic print

Date: 1878

Shelfmark: Photo 487/(5)

Item number: 5

Length: 20.4

Width: 31.7

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Photograph

Photograph showing the bridge of boats across the Indus and the Attock fort, seen from Khairabad, now in Pakistan, taken by John Burke in 1878. John 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.

With the spread of Russia's sphere of influence in Central Asia, British foreign policy in the 19th century was motivated by fears of their Indian Empire being vulnerable to Russian moves southwards. The Anglo-Russian rivalry in Asia, termed the Great Game, precipitated the Second Afghan War. The British were trying to establish a permanent mission at Kabul which the Amir Sher Ali, trying to keep a balance between the Russians and British, would not permit. The arrival of a Russian diplomatic mission in Kabul in 1878 increased British suspicions of Russian influence and ultimately led to them invading Afghanistan.

Attock is strategically located on the eastern bank of the Indus at the point where the river crosses the route through the Khyber Pass, the traditional gateway overland into the Indian sub-continent, and is protected by a fort built in 1581 by the Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled 1542-1605). The impressive fort was held by the Sikhs in the 19th century, they had taken it from the Afghans in 1813. The Sikhs yielded it to the British in 1849. On the opposite bank is the village of Khairabad. Legend relates that Akbar, finding the Indus impassable, named his fort Atak ‘the obstacle’ and that when he did build an effective crossing he founded Khairabad ‘the abode of safety’ on the western bank of the river. The bridge of boats was constructed by the British as a vital artery to aid their campaigns in the region, only being supplanted in 1883 when they built an iron bridge. Today the Attock Fort is a Pakistani military site.

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