A “Primitive” Battle in Afghanistan
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A “Primitive” Battle in Afghanistan

The horrors of these domestic feuds [amongst the Eusofzyes, Kipling’s “Yusufzaies”] are sometimes aggravated by a war with another Oolooss [roughly a “tribe,” p. 211]. Many causes occasion these wars, but the commonest are the seduction of a woman of one Oolooss by a man of another, or a man’s eloping with a girl of his own Oolooss, and seeking protection from another. This protection is never refused, and it sometimes produces long and bloody wars. I shall show their nature, as usual, by the example of the Naikpeekhail.

The wife of a Fakeer of the Naikpeekhail eloped into the lands of the Bauboozyes. The Fakeer followed with some of his relations to kill his wife; and as he was lurking about for this purpose in the night, he was set upon and killed with one of his relations, by the person who had carried off the girl, and some of his new protectors. When the news reached the Naikpeekhail, their Khaun sent a drummer to summon the Mulliks of the six clans, and consulted with them on the propriety of a war. The Mulliks returned to their clans, and conversed with the heads of the Cundies, who took the sense of the people at meetings in the Hoojra; all were eager for revenge, and in three days the whole Oolooss assembled in arms, and marched on the same night to an embankment which turned part of the river of Swaut into the lands of the Bauboozyes. They broke down the embankment, and erected a redoubt to prevent its being rebuilt.

The Bauboozyes, who saw the water cut off from their cultivation, immediately assembled, and marched against the redoubt. The Naikpeekhail were six thousand, and the Bauboozyes much more numerous. Both sides had some horse, and some hundred Jailumees (champions distinguished by a fantastic dress, and bound to conquer or die).

The rest were a mob, some in thick quilted jackets, some in plate armour, some in coats of mail, and others in leathern cuirasses; all armed either with bows or matchlocks, and with swords, shields, long Afghaun knives, and iron spears.

When the armies came in sight, they at first fired on each other; afterwards the Jailumees turned out, and engaged with the sword; at last the main bodies came into close combat. The brave men on each side were mixed together, and fought hand to hand; the cowards, who were by much the greater number, hung back on both sides, but joined in the general clamour; every man shouted and reviled his adversaries with as loud a voice as he could. Even the women of the Fakeers (for those of the Eusofzyes could not appear in public) stood behind the lines, beating drums, and distributing water to refresh the weary. At last both sides were exhausted, and retired to their homes.

Numbers on both sides were killed and wounded. It was, says my informant, a tremendous battle, songs were made on it, and the news went to Peshawer to the King.

It led, however, to no important result, the redoubt remained, the lands of the Bauboozyes were ruined for want of water, the war continued for three years, many other Ooloosses joined each side, and the whole country up to the mountains was embroiled. At last many Khauns of neutral Ooloosses interposed, and mediated a peace.

Few prisoners are taken in these wars; those who are taken, are at the disposal of the captors, who keep them for some time, and make them labour at their fields, but always release them at last without ransom.

Montstuart Elphinstone, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815) pp. 341-343 “Wars Between Ooloosses” (the preface to the book explains his system of spelling Afghan words in Latin letters).

Many ethnologists have described similar battles in the last few hundred years. In some cultures the fighting is less intense and both sides remain at a distance shooting arrows and throwing spears, with the bold showing their courage by approaching the enemy more closely. The fighting often becomes more intense when one of the champions is wounded or killed and his enemies rush in to finish him off or take trophies while his allies hurry to bring him to safety or recover his corpse. Men who surrender are usually killed. On the other hand, those who are not able and willing to fight are usually able to get out of the way before the battle starts.

I agree with Hans van Wees that these descriptions are a good match for most of the fighting in the Iliad, and some societies which fought this way resemble what we know of Greek society between the fall of the palaces and the rise of the poleis. Thucydides and Xenophon hint that hill peoples in Thrace and Anatolia fought in a similar way in classical times. Although some people like to imagine Achaemenid armies fighting in this disorganized way, I don’t know of any evidence for this.

Regardless of the classical parallels, Elphinstone tells a good story; I only wish that he had named his informant and explained what became of the Fakeer’s wife and her new groom. Regardless of these silences, I am still glad that he wrote.

Links: “Mountstuart Elphinstone,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, Rudyard Kipling, “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, Google books edition of An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul.

Edit 2021-12-24: fixed formatting broken when WordPress introduced the new block editor

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