Llewelyn Morgan’s The Buddhas of Bamiyan is the most recent installment in the Wonders of the World series edited by Mary Beard. The book mines the history and meaning of these colossal figures, which stood for 1,400 years before their destruction by the Taliban in 2001. In the post below, Morgan tells of a visit to the grave of a woman whose life story he came to know during his work on the book.
On a grey and drizzly English day earlier this summer I found myself in a cemetery in Somerset, feeling more emotional than I should have in front of the grave of a stranger. I hadn’t had much to go on: it was somewhere in the village of North Cheriton, and it had a cross. But I had scraped the mud away from the short inscription and there she was:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF JULIA FLORENTIA MULOCK
WIDOW OF COL MULOCK CB BORN IN AFGHANISTAN
JUNE 24 1842 DIED AT NORTH CHERITON APRIL 23 1910
Julia Mulock, née Sturt, had become a minor obsession of mine as I wrote The Buddhas of Bamiyan. Aside from her remarkable early life, Julia came to encapsulate for me Britain’s long and spasmodically intense relationship with Afghanistan, a relationship as easily forgotten as this memorial in an English country graveyard.
Julia Florentia Sturt had been born in captivity in Kabul. Her mother was Alexandrina Sturt, a prisoner of the Afghans; her father, Lieut. John Sturt, was already dead. He had been an officer of Engineers in the British force occupying Kabul during the First Afghan War, a misguided attempted to establish a buffer zone between British India and the Russian Empire encroaching from the north. A series of tactical errors resulted in a chaotic British retreat in midwinter, under ferocious attack from all sides, through the mountain passes between Kabul and Jalalabad, one of the most notorious disasters in British imperial history. A measure of the horror of this massacre is that Sturt was said to have been “the only man of the whole force who received Christian burial.” Very few indeed survived it, but Sturt’s pregnant widow Alexandrina, her mother Lady Sale, and a number of other soldiers and dependents were taken into custody by Akbar Khan, leader of the Afghan resistance, and spent nine months as effective hostages while the First Afghan War lurched towards its messy conclusion.
In those nine months the “Cabul Prisoners” became celebrities, their predicament the object of rapt interest by the British press and public in a way that has been compared to the US hostage crisis in Tehran in 1979-81. The most celebrated of them all was Julia’s grandmother and namesake, Florentia, Lady Sale, a tough, no-nonsense army wife (her husband, Sir Robert Sale, was all this time besieged by Akbar Khan in Jalalabad) whose journals of her experiences later became a publishing sensation. On July 24 1842 (note that Julia’s grave inscription gets the date wrong), Lady Sale dryly recorded the arrival of her granddaughter: “At 2 P.M. Mrs. Sturt presented me with a grand-daughter;—another female captive.”
In the latter stages of their captivity, as a British “Army of Retribution” closed in on Kabul, the prisoners were moved up from Kabul to Bamiyan, high in the Hindu Kush. Conditions were grim, and they faced the awful prospect of being marched north, beyond the mountains, and sold into slavery. But they also had the opportunity to visit what a series of European visitors to Afghanistan over the previous decades had made a famous monument, the cliff face peppered with caves and containing the giant Buddha statues. Lady Sale’s journal was illustrated with “some very pretty and correct sketches” by another captive, Lieut. Vincent Eyre, including three images of the Buddha cliffs.
That old lady in North Cheriton wouldn’t have remembered anything about Bamiyan, or the emotional scene when a force led by Lady Sale’s husband rescued them in September 1842. But she probably did retain some memories of the amazing reception when her family visited Britain in 1844. When they first landed at Lyme Regis (from a ship which the press were delighted to discover was called the True Briton), Lady Sale, her husband, daughter and granddaughter Julia were mobbed by well-wishers: “as soon as their presence became known,” according to The Times, “the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood, and the inhabitants of Lyme, vied with each other in offering their congratulations, while the church bells poured forth their merriest strains of harmony…” There were similar scenes in Londonderry, Liverpool, Southampton, and London. Lady Sale was the heroine of the hour. At Astley’s Amphitheatre a circus performance culminated in “Lady Sale” fighting a double sword combat “with six Afghans, whom she put to flight.” This lionizing of Lady Sale isn’t so hard to analyze, a substitute victory that softened the dismay Britain had felt at the humiliating retreat from Kabul.
We catch a (slightly jaundiced) glimpse of the family group on their return journey to India at the end of 1844, in letters of Sir Henry Hardinge, the Governor General of India: Sir Robert Sale, “one of our military heroes seen to most advantage with a sabre in his hand,” the “very coarse” Lady Sale “coming out with a direct plain oath,” “Mrs [Alexandrina] Sturt pretty but unfeeling, the little daughter born in captivity.” Alexandrina Sturt could be forgiven for being emotionally withdrawn, we might think. As for Julia, incredibly, captivity in Afghanistan wasn’t the greatest trauma that she suffered early in life. On the eve of her fifteenth birthday, her mother Alexandrina was killed alongside her new husband, Major James Garner Holmes, beheaded by rebellious troops during the “Indian Mutiny.”
At 17 Julia married a military man 25 years her senior (they consistently falsify their ages in the census, not making Julia any easier to trace). Julia’s later years were no bed of roses, following her husband on his postings around the Empire. She lost two sons who followed the family tradition into the army. But it was to all appearances a happy marriage. Certainly Julia’s final years at The Old Rectory in leafy North Cheriton (a comfortable house up the hill from the graveyard where she now lies) were as far removed as it is possible to imagine from the place and circumstances of her birth.