Hero of Chitral: Sir George Scott Robertson

Hero of Chitral: Sir George Scott Robertson

Sir George Scott Robertson (seated) and officers of the defence of Chitral

Army surgeon, explorer, administrator, author and member of parliament, Sir George Scott Robertson was viewed as a true hero during the late Victorian era. He had extensively travelled through rugged Kafiristan (modern day Nuristan Province in Afghanistan), took part in the military expedition against Hunza–Nagar, and commanded the difficult yet successful defence of Chitral during the final years of the so-called ‘Great Game’. He wrote books about his experiences and went on to be elected Liberal MP for Central Bradford. But despite his accomplishments, few today remember this hero of empire. So just exactly who was he?

Early Life

Born in Southwark, London on 22 October 1852, Robertson was the second son of Thomas James Robertson, a pawnbroker from Orkney, and his wife Robina Corston, the daughter of Robert Scott of Kirkwall. Following an education at Westminster Hospital Medical School (today known as the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital), Robertson would enter service with the Indian Army Medical Service in 1878,just in time to join the Kabul Field Force during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80).After the war, he remained in India as a surgeon in the India Army and married Catherine Edith in 1882, the couple having a daughter who they named Gwendoline. Sadly, Catherine died in 1886, aged only 23.

Mission to Northern Kashmir

Several years after the death of his wife, Robertson took up a post with the Indian Foreign Office in 1888. It was here that he was chosen by Lieutenant-Colonel Algernon Durand to join him in a mission to northern Kashmir and Dardistan. Officially the two men were investigating hostilities that had broken out between Kashmir and Hunza-Nagar, but their true objective was to obtain information on perceived growing Russian influence in the region.

Colonel Algernon Durand

The mission would last for four months, with Robertson and Durand meeting numerous tribes who often welcomed them with great hospitality. Both men would get along extremely well. Following their return, Durand would be appointed political agent to the Gilgit Agency while Robertson, now a surgeon-major, became the resident medical officer.

Travels to Kafiristan

While at Gilgit, Robertson developed an interest in exploring Kafiristan. He was granted permission to carryout a preliminary visit in 1889, after which Robertson was permitted to spend almost a year living amongst the Kafirs between October 1890 and September 1891. His time in Kafiristan was a challenging one, for he found himself largely restricted to residing at one village, not to mention regularly subjected to insults, threats and even theft at the hands of local people.

Nevertheless, he was able to study the culture and habits of the Kafirs, who gradually began to accept him living amongst them. Indeed, when he finally left Kafiristan a small number of Kafirs accompanied him as guests on a special visit to India. Although his initial report to the Indian authorities was confidential, he was later allowed to publish The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush in 1896.

Victorian Period Map of Kafiristan

Expedition to Hunza-Nagar

While Robertson was away, trouble had been brewing in Hunza-Nagar. A local inheritance dispute was threatening to turn into violence, and so Durand organised a military expedition in order to prevent bloodshed. The two little states of Hunza and Nagar were also too welcoming of Russian and Chinese influence, which almost certainly had an impact on the lieutenant-colonel’s thinking. When Robertson finally arrived back at Gilgit, he found preparations for the expedition in their advance stages, and was thus just in time to join.

Unfortunately for Durand, he would be severely wounded during an unsuccessful attack on a fortress in Nagar. Robertson was, therefore, left with little choice but to assume the role of chief political officer. He continued the campaign, which eventually ended with the capture of Hunza-Nagar, for which Durand would praise Robertson for his personal strength and the inspiration he gave to the other officers.

Chilas Campaign

Although safely back at Gilgit, Durand would take a long time to recover from his wounds. During this time Robertson remained in command, and he was forced to mount a small punitive military campaign in Chilas following an attack by local tribesmen. Crossing the Indus River, Robertson’s small force destroyed the fortress at Chilas but then became besieged by his enemy. Despite this, and with only 80 men at his disposal, he counter-attacked and drove his besiegers away. Upon his return to Gilgit, it was decided that Robertson should permanently replace Durand as political officer due to the latter’s continued ill health.

Siege of Chitral

Chitral Fort

At the beginning of 1895, the mehtar of Chitral, Nizam ul-Mulk, was murdered by his half-brother, Azim ul-Mulk, who then proclaimed himself mehtar. This set-in motion a chain of events that would lead to Robertson becoming besieged at the fort in Chitral, a minor campaign that would prove to be the pinnacle of his career in Indian service.

Umra Khan, the so-called ‘Napoleon of the Pathans’, sensing an opportunity to seize control and territory at the expense of the Chitralis, lost no time in becoming involved. As did Sher Afzal, a Chitrali claimant to the mehtarship who had been previously exiled to Afghanistan. Fearing serious unrest and violence, Robertson was instructed to make for Chitral with a small force to ascertain what was happening. He arrived on 31 January.

Umra Khan decided to support Sher Afzal, thus joined the Chitralis who were opposed to Azim. Robertson, attempting to diffuse the situation, announced that Azim should be replaced as mehtar by his younger brother, Shuja ul-Mulk. Unsurprisingly, neither Sher Afzal nor Umra Khan thought such a suggestion acceptable and continued with their bid to take power in Chitral. Although Sher Afzal was technically the leader of the movement against Azim, it was in fact Umra Khan who was firmly pulling the strings.

Sher Afzal (seated centre)

Under pressure from the combined Chitrali and Pathan armies of Sher Afzal and Umra Khan, Robertson was forced to withdraw to Chitral Fort. Here he and his men became besieged on 4 March. Within the fort were around 500 people, including over 100 non-combatants. The surgeon-major could only hope to hold out long enough for help arrived. There would be two separate relief forces despatched to Chitral Fort; a small expedition from Gilgit under the command of Colonel James Kelly, and a much larger one from the south under Sir Robert Cunliffe Low. However, both would take weeks to organise and fight their way through stubborn Chitrali-Pathan resistance.

As chief political officer, Robertson would technically be in overall command of the garrison at Chitral, although military command fell to Captain Charles Vere Ferrers Townsend. Initially, military command had rested with Captain Colin Powys Campbell, but he had been severely wounded during the retreat to the fort on 3 March. During the siege, the garrison would be subjected to repeated attacks from their besiegers, including an attempt to dig and blow-up a mine under the fort itself. As the days and weeks passed, conditions in the fort deteriorated, daily food rations had to be reduced, and the limited ammunition was expended at an alarming rate.

Thankfully for Robertson and his men, relief finally arrived on 20 April and the siege came to an end. News of the relief quickly reached Britain, and Robertson instantly became a hero in the eyes of the British public. He would go on to publish Chitral: The Story of a Minor Siege in 1898, which can still be found in print today. Robertson would also be made a Knight Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India (KCSI).

The Siege of Chitral Fort

Return Home

Robertson travelled home to Britain after the Chitral campaign, never to return to India. He had remarried in 1894, to Mary Gertrude Bird, and he now sought to pursue new interests. While on a visit in 1897, he was given an honorary degree from Trinity University in Toronto, Canada.

In 1900, Robertson stood for election to parliament in Stirlingshire, but was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, he stood again in 1906, this time in Central Bradford, and was elected. As an MP, he was an advocate of female suffrage and called for more working-class men in the House of Commons. With the outbreak of the First World War, he travelled to France in 1914 on a special mission relating to Indian soldiers.

On 2 January 1916, following a long period of ill health that had begun several years earlier, Robertson died in London. He is buried in Golders Green Cemetery.

Further Reading

Chitral 1895: An Episode of the Great Game by Mark Simner
Chitral 1895: An Episode of the Great Game by Mark Simner