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James Atkinson

(1786 - 1852)

Dr. James Atkinson, surgeon, Orientalist, soldier, artist,  set out from Ferozepore
in 1838 to as  Superintending Surgeon of the Army of the Indus as it marched into Afghanistan.  The entire British force of some 16,000 souls was slaughtered,  a catastrophe which the historian Sir John Kaye described as Ďsomething terrible to contemplateí, in the wake of which Ďthere had ceased to be a British Armyí.  But
Atkinson had returned to Bengal in 1841 and, luckily for us, he was spared the fate awaiting the army of occupation.

Atkinson retired in 1847 after forty-two years of service. His experiences in Afghanistan left us with a personal narrative that provides an extraordinary first-hand description of the events and leading players of Britainís first disaster in Afghanistan.  The book was supplemented by his Sketches in Affghanistan, containing a series of lithographed drawings that complete the picture of what was then an unexplored country. Atkinsonís collection of twenty-five drawings depicts the march of the Army of the Indus from Sindh to Kabul in Afghanistan via Quetta and Kandahar in 1839 and 1840. He also had a talent for portraiture and several of his works, including a self-portrait, are in the National Portrait Gallery.

Atkinson was famed in his day for his immense knowledge of Persian literature. He was as an accomplished Persian scholar and served as Deputy Professor of Persian at Fort William College.   He was also an gifted poet who published his first verse at the age of 21, a romance called Rodolpho.

Atkinsonís death of apoplexy in 1852 deprived the world of a scholar, artist and intellect in the true mould of the Renaissance Man.


Afghan Expedition

James Atkinson

ISBN 1590482808






Ask for a definition of Afghanistan and you will certainly be told of a blood-soaked national history featuring turbulent tribesmen defying invaders through the ages. Few recall that the country which seldom hosted the mirage of peace was also the inspiration for a literary and artistic masterpiece embracing great grief and glory.

This occurred when a remarkable man named James Atkinson travelled to Afghanistan in 1838. A superb artist and famous scholar who had translated Persiaís national epic, this Renaissance man had been designated the Superintending Surgeon of a massive British invasion force resolved to place a sympathetic ruler on the Afghan throne. The ill-fated British force fought its way through the Bolan Pass, swept through Kandahar and conquered Kabul. Soon afterwards Atkinson was released from duty, thereby escaping the catastrophe which awaited his comrades. During the subsequent rebellion the British political agent was beheaded and an estimated 16,000 British soldiers and their dependents were slaughtered in a week by the vengeful Afghans.

After the English captured Kabul, Atkinsonís eyewitness account of these turbulent events was rushed into print while British interest was at its peak. The astonishing true chronicle of events was a best-seller. Yet though the surgeonís observations remain important, his forgotten artistic depictions are priceless.

During the campaign the talented doctor created twenty-five exquisite drawings. Replete with immense detail, nothing escaped his observant eye, including blazing deserts, skulking assassins, elephants on the march, the newly crowned king and a timeless cast of natives encountered en route from India to Kabul. All were faithfully depicted in minute detail. Sadly these inspired treasures were published separately and did not appear until after the disastrous annihilation of the British army, by which time the publicís interest in Afghanistan had dramatically diminished. Thus only a few rare copies of Atkinsonís artistic masterpiece exist in libraries today, and before the release of this new edition, his two Afghan works never appeared together as one complete book.

Once again the ravages of war are taking a toll as a new generation of British soldiers struggles against formidable Afghan warriors in that notoriously difficult country. In an ironic literary twist a serving British cavalry officer currently stationed in Afghanistan, 2nd Lt. Merlin Hanbury-Tenison, provides a moving Introduction to Atkinsonís tale, explaining how his forefather fought alongside the author in the conflict of 1838.

With a special Foreword by the noted historian and author, Jules Stewart, this beautifully illustrated edition of Atkinsonís inclusive work is released in the hope that its timely appearance will help bring about a deeper understanding between England and Afghanistan. 

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