British anxiety regarding Russian threats to the British position in India became a running theme in British discussions about imperial defence, at home and in India, as early as the late 1820s. The term ‘Great Game,’ used to refer to volatile British-Russian jockeying for position in Central and South Asia, surfaced in 1840. And the first significant formal British evaluation of this strategic problem dated from 1855. But this strategic problem entered a new phase in the 1860s, driven by changes in both British and Russian policy and agendas. This phase was defined by a celebrated Russian state paper, the Gorchakov Memorandum, spelling out, in 1864, Russian intentions regarding territorial expansion in Central Asia. Gorchakov identified a set of underlying assumptions shared by many British decision makers, and indeed outlined what might have become a viable basis for managing British-Russian strategic rivalry in this large region. Those assumptions were qualitative and geopolitical, focusing on the litmus test of ‘empty space,’ a post-facto term. Instead they became talking points, thrown back and forth, in a protracted British argument over grand strategy—running into the twentieth century, and involving stakeholders in London, Calcutta, and on the spot. The more common approach to this argument was to explore debates between exponents of the ‘forward’ strategy and those supporting ‘close borders.’ But this problem of ‘empty space’ both ran across such divisions and was the real focal point of what became the first sustained British argument over the grand strategy of imperial defence. This paper suggests how the problem of ‘empty space’ was understood, why it became central to this ‘Great Game,’ and how it eventually played out.
Brian P. Farrell is Professor of Military History and Head of the Department of History, National University of Singapore, where he has been teaching since 1993. His principal research interests are the military history of the British Empire and the military experience of Western Great Powers in Asia, in the 19th and 20th centuries. He is the author of The Defence and Fall of Singapore 1940-1942, and co-author of Malaya 1942, among other works. He is currently finalizing a two volume project for Bloomsbury Press, as Series Editor and volume co-editor, titled Empire in Asia: A New Global History. This presentation on ‘the Grand Strategy of Empty Space’ emanates from that research, particularly a closer study of imperial frontiers in Asia in the 19th century.