Untold lives blog

08 February 2013

The first western entrepreneurs in Afghanistan

Today we have a guest blogger, author Bijan Omrani.  Read on to discover the part that treacle pudding has played in Anglo-Afghan relations!

The many western entrepreneurs who, over the last ten years, have been drawn to do business in Afghanistan are by no means pioneers. Records in the British Library describe the first wave of western business travellers who reached Kabul well over a century ago.

Abdor Rahman Khan
Amir Abdur Rahman condemning Hazara prisoners of war to death © UIG/The British Library Board  Images Online

In 1880, after the Second Afghan War, Amir Abdur Rahman – the “Iron Amir” – came to the Afghan throne.  Determined to reunify a fragmented country, he ruthlessly imposed a regime of conscription. He intended to develop a large modern army as an instrument to impose central control throughout Afghanistan.  Realising that this new army needed large amounts of military materiel, he was eager to establish up-to-date factories in Kabul to supply it. Lacking the necessary expertise in Kabul, he turned to Europe for help. In 1887, a British engineer, Salter Pyne, was appointed to construct the Amir’s mashin khaneh, or workshop complex. The steam-powered workshop soon began to turn out rifles, artillery and ammunition, and later boots, soap, carpets, blankets, needles, paper, agricultural gear, and even musical instruments for military bands.

Over the following 20 years, Salter Pyne was followed to Kabul by over a dozen western specialists, many hoping to make their fortunes in Afghanistan. There were experts in mining, munitions, geology, tanning, and even a piano tuner. Many of them vividly describe the difficulties of developing western-style industry in Afghanistan. All of the factories were under the close supervision of the Amir, who retained control of pay and often press-ganged poor Afghans into work. The workforce was chronically underpaid, demotivated, and frequently resorted to corruption and petty theft just to survive. The Amir responded with floggings and executions, and the western managers with punishments not much less harsh. These conditions frequently generated resentment against the European outsiders, exacerbated by memories of the recent Second Afghan War. Sabotage was a regular occurrence. Nails were put in machines, glue substituted for lubricating oil in valves, and even flint mixed into a gunpowder grinding machine – Frank Martin, Pyne’s successor from 1895, realised the danger just in time.

Habibollah Khan
Amir Habibullah © UIG/The British Library Board 

Images Online


Although life in Kabul for these westerners could be tense, there were frequent moments of light relief combined with important cultural diplomacy. Annie Thornton, the wife of Ernest Thornton who ran the state tanneries in Kabul for periods between 1893-1909, organised a tamasha, or entertainment, for their Afghan workforce in their Kabul garden, combining an Afghan pilau with games from an English village fete such as sack racing and pillow fights. Whilst her husband was at the tannery, Annie spent time in the court of the Amir Habibullah, Abdur Rahman’s successor, a passionate gardener and gourmand. The Amir shared his horticultural interests with her; she is credited with introducing the daffodil to Kabul in 1908. She also taught his chefs a number of English recipes, amongst which treacle pudding became his favourite. It is said that Habibullah kept Afghanistan out of the First World War because of his good sense and political wisdom, but I wonder whether it was really his fondness for Annie Thornton’s English cooking which saved the British Empire from fighting on a second front.

Bijan Omrani

Further Reading:
IOR/L/PS/11/31 and 11/38, Interviews of British commercial travellers with political agents
IOPP/Mss Eur F111/56 Lord Curzon’s diary of a trip to Kabul in 1894
“Making Money in Afghanistan: The first Western Entrepreneurs 1880-1919”, Bijan Omrani, Asian Affairs Journal, vol. 43 no 3, November 2012.


The comments to this entry are closed.