Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Stoddart & Conolly

When Colonel Charles Stoddart rode into Bukhara one week before the Christmas 1838, on a mission to reassure the emir over British    movements on his southern border, little did he know that he was to be kept in the foulest pit in Asia for over three years, tortured and tormented by a     sadistic, paranoid madman, finally to be publicly beheaded in the central market square of the holy city, abandoned by the very country which had sent him there.

Things had not gone well from the start. Totally unsuited for the tasks ahead and unschooled in the essential subtleties of Eastern diplomacy, Stoddart rode up to the Ark when he should have dismounted, floored an attendant instead of offering the customary sign of submission and was equipped with neither gifts nor letters from the Queen. Earlier that day he had saluted the emir on horseback in the Registan and the offended emir had not responded, except to    glare demonically at Stoddart for just a moment too long for the Englishman's good. Now his reponse was more emphatic. Stoddart was thrown into a six-metre deep vermin-infested hole, salubriously named the Bug Pit, a victim of his own ignorance and arrogance.

For the next three years the sadistic Nasrullah played with Stoddart like a cat with a mouse. His treatment yo-yoed with the rise and fall of the British Empire. He was eventually moved from the Bug Pit into the marginally less revolting Black Hole. When the British took Kabul in July 1839 he even lived for a time in the house of the Chief of Police. In the meantime the vermin    were fed raw offal to tide them over until Stoddart's return. Only once, when an executioner climbed down a rope into the pit with orders to execute him on the spot, did Stoddart's nerve understandably crack. He became a Muslim and was rewarded with house arrest.

Then, in September 1840, a would-be saviour rode into town in the shape of  Captain Arthur Conolly, of the sixth Bengal Light Cavalry. A quintessential Great     Game player, Conolly had even invented the phrase. His mission impossible to unite the perpetually warring khanates of Central Asia against Russia and to open up the Oxus to the dual benefits of God and British-made goods. Yet other factors motivated this complex one-man rescue mission. His zealotry hardened on a long sea passage to India with the Bishop of Calcutta, and his heart broken by a jilting lover, Conolly had nothing to lose. Within weeks however, events had conspired against the two men and both were back in jail, their fate finally sealed by an unsolicited letter from the treacherous vizier of Herat, Yar Mohammed, describing Conolly (Khan Ali) as a spy, and a second missive from the Governor General of India, disowning him coldly as a 'private traveller'. The long-awaited reply to the emir's personal letter to Queen Victoria never even arrived. The emir's most paranoid suspicions were confirmed. When reports came of the British defeat in Kabul and their subsequent massacre in the Khyber Pass, Nasrullah knew he had no retribution to fear.

The death penalty in Bukhara. Source: Fedorov, GP My office in Turkestan. (1870-1910 year) / / Historical Bulletin. № 11, 1913. On 24 June 1842, the two men limped into a packed Registan, dug their own graves and knelt silently before them, their arms tied behind their backs. Eyewitness accounts state that Stoddart was the first to be beheaded (though it is more likely that he had his throat cut) and that Conolly was soon to follow (although some say that as an infidel until his death, he would have suffered a different fate than his converted compatriot). Their bodies were buried where they fell, forgotten and abandoned.

But not quite. Three years later the eccentric Bavarian clergymen Joseph Wolff arrived in Bukhara direct from Richmond, Surrey, his journey funded by a Conolly and Stoddart Society whip-round. Armed with little more than three dozen copies of Robinson Crusoe in Arabic and an array of cheap watches, Wolff had come to reason with the most brutal and unpredictable ruler in Asia. He had, at least, learned from Stoddart's mistakes. Dressed in full red canonicals, he prostrated himself before the emir, crying "Allah Akhbar" a full 30 times instead of the proscribed three. For, as Fitzroy Maclean wryly notes, Wolff may not have been prepared to become a Muslim, but he was prepared to go to considerable lengths to avoid being thrown in the Bug Pit. In the end the brave eccentric's demands were refused and he was soon sent packing as the band played God Save the Queen over the emir's hysterical laughter. Later, in his bedchamber, he was forced to fight off the advances of an unveiled beauty sent to tempt him in the night. As he slept he clasped a package of opium to numb the potential pain of sudden execution. Eventually however, Wolff was freed to leave Bukhara, his life saved by his own ludicrousness, and the last page was turned on the Conolly and Stoddart legend.

But not quite. Incredibly, twenty years later, Conolly's prayer book arrived through the post at his sister's house in London. The verses which had given him such relief in his darkest hours had become his final testament, the last of his diary entries ending abruptly in mid-..............


On 24 June 1842 Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly were marched out from a dungeon cell before a huge crowd in front of the Ark, the emir’s fortified citadel, made to dig their own graves and, to the sound of drums and reed pipes from atop the fortress walls, were beheaded.

Colonel Stoddart had arrived three years earlier on a mission to reassure Emir Nasrullah Khan about Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan. But his superiors, underestimating the emir’s vanity and megalomania, had sent him with no gifts, and with a letter not from Queen Victoria (whom Nasrullah regarded as an equal sovereign), but from the governor-general of India. To compound matters Stoddart violated local protocol by riding, rather than walking, up to the Ark. The piqued Nasrullah had him thrown into jail, where he was to spend much of his time at the bottom of the so-called ‘bug pit’, in the company of assorted rodents and scaly creatures.

Captain Conolly arrived in 1841 to try to secure Stoddart’s release. But the emir, believing him to be part of a British plot with the khans of Khiva and Kokand, tossed Conolly in jail too.

After the disastrous British retreat from Kabul, the emir, convinced that Britain was a second-rate power and having received no reply to an earlier letter to Queen Victoria, had both men executed.

Despite public outrage back in England, the British government chose to let the matter drop.

Furious friends and relatives raised enough money to send their own emissary, an oddball clergyman named Joseph Wolff, to Bukhara to verify the news. According to Peter Hopkirk in The Great Game, Wolff himself only escaped death because the emir thought him hilarious, dressed up in his full clerical regalia.