First published in Blackwood’s, October 1840, pp. 546–62 and never reprinted. There is no known manuscript. For the attribution, see W. E. A. Axon, ‘The Canon of De Quincey’s Writings’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom, 32 (1914), pp. 1–46.
The article is De Quincey’s response to the beginnings of what would become known as the First Afghan War (1840–1). A Russian military expedition to Khiva had set out a year previously but owing to poor communications in central Asia this began to be confirmed in Britain only during 1840. The city of Khiva, in present-day Uzbekistan, 600 miles west of Tashkent and a similar distance north of the frontier of Afghanistan, was a city and small independent state ruled by a khan. It was an important market for traders on the central Asian caravan routes. Russia, though co-operating with Britain on European affairs, was thought to have long-term intentions of controlling central Asia and possibly of eventually attacking British India’s northwest frontier through Afghanistan.
The 1839 Russian expedition to Khiva was, as De Quincey suggests, made with the intention of stamping out bandits in the area who interfered with trade; but it was also an early stage in the Russian expansion into central Asia, which would become apparent in the 1860s. The British response, under Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India, was an attempt to turn Afghanistan into a barrier against any future Russian advance on India. Auckland had tried to begin the process of controlling Afghanistan in August 1839 by restoring to the throne as a puppet ruler Shah Shuja (De Quincey’s ‘Shah Sooja’), who had been deposed twenty years earlier, and installing a small body of British troops in the capital, Kabul. The plan misfired, and in November 1841 an Afghan rising against Shuja massacred most of the British at Kabul. A punitive expedition was sent to Kabul the following spring but thereafter the British left Afghanistan alone until 1879.