The tenure of British India, and consequently the integrity of the British empire, is at this moment sustained by a single hair, and that so tensely drawn that the slightest adverse movement will certainly snap asunder the retaining power. The thousand native princes of India are regarding with intense anxiety and ardent hopes the movements of the British army before the Khyber pass, and the fate of General Sale at Djillalabad. Every able-bodied man, whose numbers are not less than five millions, covetous and exasperated enemies, is standing with "the foot in the stirrup and hand on the spear," gloating on the hope of plunder which the traditions of old age have placed in fascinating visions before them. The sentinels are in the watch-towers and their runners are in the way,—and the earliest promulgation of the last reverses of the British in Avghanistaun will signalize the destruction of every Englishman throughout the whole of India. If the Avghans slaughter the remnant of British troops under General Sale at Djillalabad, and defeat the British army in its projected attempt to force the Khyber defile, the British power in India expires instantly, without a doubt, as it will without a struggle—except the death-throes of their officers, as the native army strangle them in their beds. The Indians can more readily perform than the Avghans could conceive. Simultaneous movement, whether the effect of design or fortuitous occurrence, or the consequence of circumstance, will eventuate in the same conclusion. So far in this massacre of the British army nothing has been effected to disturb the Anglo-Indian government. But the clouds that have gathered in the Indian Caucasus, and scathed with their lightning the British army, have not ceased to thunder on the invading host. Should they rain destruction on the beleaguered forces at Djillalabad, an electric shock will rapidly pass through the chain of connexion that unites the Indo-British empire throughout, and important consequences must ensue beyond the control of England, which will seriously derange the supremacy of that race in India. The Avghans can submit to be defeated daily during the next six months; news will reach us of the repeated decisive victories of the British forces; but we, who are acquainted with the value of an English bulletin, know that the repetition of a decisive battle implies the continual necessity for defensive operations— and the Avghans will conduct a guerilla warfare, which exhausts by the pertinacity of incessant assault. The English admit that their position cannot be maintained against artillery. Should Djillalabad be a defensible position against native aggression, which certainly is not the case, even in English hands, where the disparity of the antagonists is measured by thousands against hundreds in favour of the assailants, a deficiency of provisions will oblige these brave men to yield, not to their enemies, but to the dismal alternative of—death. Sir Robert Sale and the English troops under his command, when no other choice remains but the stipulation of death or dishonour will unhesitatingly prefer the grave of honour in place of honour's grave. [20-21]That's telling us!
This is nearly two decades before 1857; but I don't doubt Harlan was right. It makes me wonder how the century would have shaken out if the British had been broken in India at the beginning of the 40s, as they could very easily have been. (Part of the cultural logic of 'Empire' is the way it retrospectively casts in marble what was, at the time, a much more friable, precarious edifice). A whole alt-historical story starts to spool itself out.