The Explorations of William Watts McNair

04 August 2021

Area Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

Published this week, Central Asia, Persia and Afghanistan, 1834-1922: From Silk Road to Soviet Rule - the latest addition to Adam Matthew Digital’s Archives Direct platform - showcases a wealth of documents from the UK National Archives relating to a vast geographical area, ranging from the Black Sea in the west and the Pamir Mountains in the east. This was the scene of the “Great Game”, a struggle for supremacy between the British and Russian Empires, where diplomats, agents, and military officers representing the two powers competed for political influence, territory, and trade.

However, this collection does not simply provide a detailed record of a tense diplomatic confrontation. Three departments of Britain’s central government (the Foreign, India and War Offices) took a particular interest in the region and regularly shared intelligence, correspondence, and reports on a range of subjects. The files included here consequently provide snapshots of the region’s peoples and cultures – albeit replete with the prejudices of nineteenth century officialdom - along with strategic and political concerns.

One typical volume, FO 65/1248, comprises materials created and/or received by the Foreign Office in August 1885. Along with documents concerning the activities of the former Emir of Afghanistan Ayub Khan, Russian troop concentrations, national borders and military infrastructure, is a confidential report on William Watts McNair’s ‘Explorations in part of Eastern Afghanistan and Kafiristan’, undertaken in 1883.

An employee of the Survey of India, McNair’s journey was taken while on leave - a subterfuge taken to evade orders banning British officers from exploring the region, at least in an official capacity. His 46-page narrative includes a wealth of both qualitative and quantitative detail, including records of dress, cuisine, customs, religious life, healthcare, military organisation and political structures, although it is worth noting that the author was often critical or judgemental, imposing preconceptions typical of a member of the colonial elite onto what he observed. McNair’s report found praise within both the British government and the Royal Geographic Society, and perhaps even inspired some of the works of Rudyard Kipling. McNair’s comments on the Swat district, perhaps best-known today as the home of Malala Yousafzai, provide an example of the exhaustive levels of detail he saw fit to record:

 

TNA FO 65/1248, f.65r. Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
TNA FO 65/1248, f.65r. Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

TNA FO 65/1248, f.66r. Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
TNA FO 65/1248, f.66r. Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Critics have questioned a number of McNair’s claims, casting doubt upon whether he had even visited certain areas. Nevertheless, his report provides us not only with a record of life in a region which few Europeans had then visited, but also what an ambitious geographer thought important to record, and the prism through which he observed it.

Central Asia, Persia and Afghanistan, 1834-1922: From Silk Road to Soviet Rule is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Matt Brand

Matt Brand

I joined Adam Matthew Digital in the autumn of 2016. My main academic interests are British politics and diplomacy during the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in relation to refugees and asylum.