By virtue of their stationing across the Empire, British Army officers had many opportunities to purchase items of local manufacture, some of which have made their way into regimental museum collections. Here we examine a decorated wooden box in the collections of the Highlanders Museum that was purchased as a souvenir from Afghanistan in 1880.

At the Highlanders Museum situated in the grounds of Fort George, a working British Army barracks located in Ardersier, Inverness, one can trace the history of the Highland Regiments – including the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and the Seaforth Highlanders – through the museum’s fascinating and broad-ranging collections.

During my research visit to the museum, curator Ann-Marie Peckham and I discovered a decorated wooden box (AS5011), which provenance research suggests was a souvenir from Afghanistan purchased just prior to August 1880, and which shortly after its purchase acquired a unique military significance.

Top view of the box.

Above: Top view of the box.

The box is rectangular in shape, with a base formed of pale wood (pine or ash) and a hinged lid. Our Bronze Age Curator Matthew Knight suggests that the exterior of the box is composed of several different types of metals, including two, possibly three types of copper alloy. While the outer edges show traces of red painted flowers, on the top of the box the copper alloy forms a criss-cross pattern and is interspersed with eight large studs. Each section has been additionally decorated with vibrant green enamel. The pattern continues at the front edge of the box, which has three sections decorated with copper alloy bosses. The central boss has a key lock mechanism.

Detail of one of the front panel copper alloy bosses.

Above: Detail of one of the front panel copper alloy bosses.

The interior of the box is covered with thin paper decorated with scroll-work motifs forming heart-shaped patterns, as well as floral motifs coloured pale pink and red, with pale green and lavender coloured vine leaves on a cream background. The irregular fit of the paper suggests it may have been a later addition. Similarly styled boxes from Afghanistan are said to have been used to store spices, or tea, or even used as money boxes.

A small handwritten note affixed to the underside of the lid reveals the military significance of the box, as well as its souvenir status:

‘This box was bought by Sir Hugh Gough in the Bazaar at Cabul, & was taken on the March to Candahar’

Interior of the box with handwritten inscription.

Above: Interior of the box with handwritten inscription.

Although no further documentation came with the box, personal recollections of 19th-century military campaigns detail opportunities had by members of the British armed forces to purchase local items whilst overseas. Lieutenant-Colonel Duke’s Recollections of the Kabul Campaign, 1879 & 1880, published in 1883, provides a detailed account of the Shor Bazaar in Kabul, which may be the location that Gough purchased this particular object. Duke wrote it was ‘the richest bazaar in the city… where curios can be picked up; and one small street is almost devoted to leather-work and horse-clothing’. He continued:

English as well as Indian made clothes, gloves, socks, and handkerchiefs could also be procured. … Near the centre of the city was a large covered dome; here was to be seen the chief display of haberdashery, silk handkerchiefs of every colour and style, silk of different kinds, trinkets, toys, beads. The handkerchiefs, said to be made of light Bokhara silk, … were of different sizes, and many hundreds were sold to the British. (Recollections, pp. 192-3)

Sir Hugh Henry Gough (1833-1909) was a highly decorated General in the British Army. His war record includes serving as Adjutant and Wing Commandant of Hodson’s Horse during the Indian Uprising of 1857-8 where his actions near Alumbagh and Jellalabad won him the Victoria Cross. During the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), among numerous engagements, he commanded the Cavalry Brigade (including the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, the 3rd Bengal Cavalry, the 3rd Punjab Cavalry and the Central India Horse).

Portrait of General Sir Hugh Henry Gough, V.C., G.C.B, The Navy and Army Illustrated, 11 June 1897, p. 41.

Above: Portrait of General Sir Hugh Henry Gough, V.C., G.C.B, The Navy and Army Illustrated, 11 June 1897, p. 41.

Due to the object’s association with General Gough, it is perhaps understandable why it made its way into the collections of a regimental museum. However, it could be argued that the object’s military significance is heightened as it is said to have accompanied Gough on a military action that made headlines at the imperial metropole – the March from Kabul to Kandahar.

In 1880 General (later Lord) Roberts led 10,000 men, 7,000 camp followers and 18 guns on an arduous march (over 300 miles in 20 days) without any communication to rescue the British garrison at Kandahar, which was besieged by Ghazi Mohammad Ayub Khan, Emir of Afghanistan (1879-1880). The attack – led by Roberts and known as the Battle of Kandahar – resulted in a British victory. Although this difficult terrain had been traversed before by Sir Donald Stewart and his men, who marched from Kandahar to Kabul in April 1880, the latter march generated an extraordinary amount of public attention at the time. The historian Harold E. Raugh suggests this may have been the result of a wish to overshadow the recent British defeat at the Battle of Maiwand in July 1880.

Drummer James Roddick of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, defending Lieutenant Menzies during hand-to-hand fighting at the Battle of Kandahar, 1880, watercolour by William Skeoch Cumming, 1894. NAM. 2008-11-50-1 © National Army Museum.

Above: Drummer James Roddick of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, defending Lieutenant Menzies during hand-to-hand fighting at the Battle of Kandahar, 1880, watercolour by William Skeoch Cumming, 1894. NAM. 2008-11-50-1 © National Army Museum.

Purchasing souvenirs whilst on military campaigns was a common 19th-century practice, and while these particular items were generally gifted to family members and loved ones upon an officer’s return home (and remain in the private collections of their ancestors), some have made their way into regimental museum collections. Although the 72nd Regiment of Foot (1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders) did participate in the March from Kabul to Kandahar, additional research needs to be undertaken to see if a clear connection between the Highland Regiments and General Gough can be uncovered to further understand why this object currently resides in the Highlanders Museum.  

Further reading

  • Violet Brooke-Hunt, Lord Roberts: A Biography (1914)
  • Michael Barthorp, Afghan Wars and the North-West Frontier, 1839-1947 (2002)
  • Brian Robson, The Road to Kabul: The Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880 (2008)
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