Lady Florentia Sale Diary
Lady Florentia Sale (1790-1853), wife of Major-General Sir Robert Henry Sale, wrote a journal of her experiences during the First Afghan War. In January 1842, in what is usually seen as a humiliating defeat for the British army, 4,500 British and Indian troops with around 12,000 camp followers retreated 116 miles from Kabul back to the British garrison at Jalalabad. Within a month, the majority were dead from exposure due to the appalling winter conditions, starvation or bullet wounds. A few were captured, including Florentia Sale. She was held in captivity for nine months before being rescued by British forces dispatched from India. The British then withdrew from Afghanistan. Florentia Sale wrote her journal during her captivity, probably with the hope that one day she would publish it. In 1843, after her rescue, her journal was published rapidly becoming a bestseller in Britain. A sketch of her was included in the work. Notice that she is wearing a turban in the sketch.
This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.
“We commenced our march at mid-day, the 5th N.I. in front. The troops were in the greatest state of disorganization: the baggage was mixed in with the advanced guard; and the camp followers all pushed ahead in their precipitate flight towards Hindostan . . .The pony Mrs. Stuart rode was wounded in the ear and neck. I had fortunately, only one ball in my arm; three others passed through my poshteen near the shoulder without doing me any injury. The party that fired on us were not above fifty yards from us, and we owed our escape to urging our horses on as fast as they could go over a road where, at any other time, we should have walked our horses very slowly . . .
The ladies were mostly traveling in kajavas, and were mixed up with the baggage and column in the pass: here they were heavily fired on; many camels were killed. On one camel, in one kajava, Mrs. Boyd and her youngest boy Hugh; and in the other Mrs. Mainwaring and her infant, scarcely three months old, and Mrs. Anderson’s eldest child. This camel was shot. Mrs. Boyd got a horse to ride; and her child was put on another behind a man, who shortly after unfortunately killed, the child was carried off by the Affghans. Mrs. Mainwaring, less fortunate, took her own baby in her arms. Mary Anderson was carried off in the confusion. Meeting with a pony laden with treasure, Mrs. M. endeavoured to mount and sit on the boxes but they upset and in the hurry pony and treasure were left behind; and the unfortunate lady pursued her way on foot, until after a time an Affghan asked if she was wounded, and told her to mount behind him. This apparently kind offer she declined, being fearful of treachery; alleging an excuse that she could not sit behind him on account of the difficulty of holding her child when so mounted. This man shortly after snatched her shawl off her shoulders, and left her to her fate. Mrs. M’s sufferings were very great; and she deserves much credit for having preserved her child through these dreadful scenes. She had not only to walk a considerable distance with her child in her arms through the deep snow, but had also to pick her way over the bodies of the dead, dying and wounded, both men and cattle, and certainly to cross the streams of water, wet up to the knees, pushed and shoved about by man and animals, the enemy keeping up a sharp fire, and several persons being killed close to her.”
Sale, Florentia. A Journal of the First Afghan War. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1843; Engraving by Lowes Cato Dickinson, after Sir Vincent Eyre, lithograph, (1842), NPG D5891, National Portrait Gallery in London.