Afghanistan is a country that seems to be in perpetual turmoil. There have been those that attempted to modernise it, thwarted at every turn, and there was a time when Sheffield was going to play its part.
In March 1928, Sheffield welcomed the King and Queen of Afghanistan. People crowded the streets to welcome King Amanullah and Queen Souriya who had travelled at high speed in Rolls-Royce cars from Derby.
The visit was part of a European tour that began in late 1927, taking in Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain and finally Poland. Amidst the flag waving, it was clearly an attempt by western industries to gain a foothold in a new economy.
Ghazi Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) was the sovereign of Afghanistan from 1919, first as Emir and after 1926 as King. Having wrested control from colonial powers, King Amanullah had set about reforming Afghanistan along Western lines.
The King met the Lord Mayor at Sheffield Town Hall by taking off his hat, shaking hands, and saying “How do you do?” in English.
When King Amanullah entered the Town Hall he noticed Sergeant Harper, an ex-serviceman, in his invalid carriage. He was about to pass when the old soldier held out his autograph album and fountain pen. The King duly obliged by adding his name to the book.
After luncheon, the King and Queen went onto the balcony over the front entrance and waved to the cheering crowds outside.
When the royal party left the Town Hall, Sergeant Harper had hoped to get the Queen’s signature. He held out his autograph book, but she did not see him. However, King Amanullah did, and went over to him, shook his hand again, and placed what was thought to be a £1 note in his hand. Only afterwards did Sergeant Harper realise that it was a £100 note!
Afterwards, the King and Queen visited Vickers-Armstrong’s River Don Works where they witnessed steel production and visited the gun machine shops. They were shown a demonstration of caterpillar armoured cars, guns, and rifles.
Next it was to Hadfields East Hecla works, where the strength of its steel helmets and armour was demonstrated by shooting at the figure of an infantryman. Queen Souriya proved to be an accurate shot, hitting the helmet, and was presented with the bullet as a souvenir. On their departure, the King was presented with a Sheffield knife with golden haft, in a Morocco case. In exchange, the King paid the customary halfpenny, and laughed heartily at a quaint old Sheffield custom.
The next stop was a tour of Mappin and Webb on Queen’s Road, where they witnessed the depositing of gold and silver, and the shaping of nickel silver sheet metal using power presses and drop stamps. Here he was presented with a silver-gilt casket, with his crest enamelled on the cover.
The Royal Party then returned to the Town Hall for tea and was presented with a canteen of cutlery and a case of scissors as gifts from the city. The King accepted this, and through his interpreter said he would always remember the warm welcome they had received in Sheffield.
They left the city for Manchester by royal train, the King and Queen occupying the saloon used by British royalty.
Looking back, it was a day of celebration, and one that might have cemented a special relationship with Afghanistan. However, while the King toured Europe, opposition to his rule had increased back home culminating in a march on the capital where most of the army deserted rather than resist.
There were allegations of corruption, and within ten months of his visit to Sheffield, the King had abdicated and was forced into exile in India before seeking asylum in Italy. Many of the reforms were reversed and Afghanistan remained a troubled state.
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