"one of the locked books of the Indian Survey Department"

Although we have already read of Mahbub’s involvement in ‘some intrigue’, this is the first direction allusion to the Great Game.

The Great Game

The Great Game is the general term used for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia. The classic Great Game period ran approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, while a second, less intensive phase followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The term is believed to have been coined by a British officer fighting in the First Afghan War, and expresses the devil-may-care spirit fashionable at the time.  The founder of the modern British Secret Service, Mansfield George Smith Cumming, was later to famously boast that espionage was “a capital sport!”

Kim as myth maker

Kipling's classic has been called the first modern spy novel, and was instrumental in bringing the Great Game into mainstream consciousness. Historians have since argued that the Great Game was largely a product of fiction, and that Kipling's classic was one of the works to have built up a bank of myths with little evidence in reality. Gerald Morgan’s 1973 article “Myth and Reality in the Great Game” famously refuted the existence of any British intelligence network operating in Central Asia. More recently, Malcolm Yapp – in his 2000 lecture “The Legend of the Great Game” – argued that a Russian invasion was not a primary concern for British authorities in India.

The political cartoon shown above was published in 1878 and depicts the Afghan Emir Sher Ali flanked by his interested "friends" the Russian Bear and British Lion.