'Sikunder Burnes, Master of the Great Game' by Craig Murray (Birlinn)

Reviewing some time ago a book called ‘Abbotsford To Zion’ I mentioned that the author, Elspeth Wills, was rescuing from the anonymity of history an extraordinary range of Scottish explorers, travellers, and surveyors. Another 19th-century Scot who merits far greater recognition than he currently receives is the subject of this weighty biography by Craig Murray. Alexander the Great’s mighty empire at one point extended as far into Asia as the Indus river in northern India – where the Greek emperor was known as Sikunder. Alexander Burnes, originally from Montrose, made his name in that same area of India and it is a perfect illustration of the extent of his fame that he became known as Sikunder Burnes.

The biographer himself is a noteworthy figure. Graduating from Dundee University with a first class degree in history, Craig Murray gained an appointment in the Diplomatic Service. In 2001 he became British Ambassador in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, aiming to push that country’s dictatorial president towards a greater degree of democracy and human rights. However, after the 9/11 attack British policy changed, and the former tyrant became our ally in the ‘war on terror’. Committed as he was to the cause of human rights, Murray found this switch in policy impossible to support and as a result soon lost his job.

Having become an author and broadcaster, Murray undertook to write a new biography of Alexander Burnes, whose career had always fascinated him and with whom, as his book makes clear, he felt he had a lot in common. Burnes, who was a grand-nephew of Robert Burns, like so many other ambitious Scots made his career in British India. The ‘great game’ of course was the 19th-century long rivalry over Asia between Britain and Russia, celebrated in books by Kipling, George Macdonald Fraser and other novelists, and focused in particular over control of Afghanistan.

Having gained much sought after employment with the East India Company, Alexander arrived in India with his brother James, in 1821. Becoming proficient in Hindustani and Persian, and proving adept at geographical and geological surveying operations, Alexander in the next five or six years greatly impressed his superiors. This is why he was chosen to become a leading figure in two major exploratory expeditions beyond the northwest frontier of British India.

The first, which began in 1829, aimed to survey routes for possible future British Army movements and establish positions that would improve the defence of the frontier. Information was also collected concerning the political and commercial structures of the adjacent states. Alexander’s frequent detailed reports to his superiors were highly praised (he was only 24) and his status thus enhanced. However, all too typically, there were powerful voices in the administration of British India who were strongly opposed to any expansion in the northwest frontier area, and in the end these voices prevailed. The expedition was abruptly halted, and Burnes recalled.

In no time at all attitudes shifted once again. Members of the government in London, fearful of what they believed was the threat to British India represented by the expansion into Asia of the Russian empire, favoured an expedition in the area of the Indus river to see whether there was a way in which a pro-British Afghanistan could become a block to the Russian threat. In June 1831 Burnes had already drawn up a detailed proposal for exactly such an expedition. All that was needed was a cover story that would justify to a range of local rulers the presence of the British party in their lands.

Burnes suggested the suppression of cross-frontier brigandage, but what was finally agreed upon amounted to one of the oddest cover-ups in the history of the great game: the British were there to deliver, as a token of friendship, the present of a carriage and two English dray horses to the powerful Sikh leader Ranjit Singh. After the usual internal bickering, agreement was finally reached that Burnes – despite the fact that he was still only a lieutenant in the British army – would lead the expedition.

Burnes and his team of disguised Indian surveyors set off in January 1831 on a journey that would last almost two years (until December 1832) and cover many hundreds of miles. Following the Indus north from Karachi, through Hyderabad and towns farther north, then branching off to Lahore and Amritsar, the expedition went through the Khyber Pass to Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan. From Afghanistan it penetrated as far as the Caspian Sea before turning south and crossing through Tehran and Persia down to the Persian Gulf.

Everywhere he went, Burnes met and liaised with local leaders. A true child of the Scottish Enlightenment, he reported on every aspect of the societies he passed through: history, geography, geology, religion, politics, commerce, military capacity – and so provided a comprehensive account of huge areas of India and Asia that had long remained almost unknown to his imperial masters.

This was the trip that made Burnes famous. The British Indian government was hugely impressed by what he had achieved. As a result he was sent back to London to report in person. The governor-general, Lord Bentinck, wrote as follows: ‘the government of India considered the information of Lieutenant Burnes as to the state of the countries betwixt India and Russia of such primary importance, that it should be communicated direct to the home authorities by that gentleman himself.’

Back in London in November 1833, Burnes found himself receiving a hero’s welcome. He wrote to his mother saying ‘ I have been inundated with visits from authors, societies, publishers, and what not.’ The authors included Edward Bulwer Lytton and John Gibson Lockhart, and the societies included the Royal Geographical Society in London and its French counterpart in Paris. The major publisher John Murray quickly agreed to publish the book he was writing based on his travels, and paid him 800 guineas in advance for the publishing rights.

Perhaps more extraordinary still, Burnes found himself in Kensington Palace discussing his travels with the 15 year-old Princess Victoria, and soon afterwards in Brighton he had an extended meeting with King William IV in which, pouring over maps with the king, he described in detail everywhere he had been and answered the king’s many questions. Back home in Montrose he was welcomed as a celebrity indeed.

Back in India, Burnes inevitably entered into the continuing debate over the best way of dealing with the Russian empire’s apparent threat to British India. Burnes was clear about what he saw as the best way forward. Britain, he argued, should ally itself with the current ruler of Afghanistan – Dost Mohammed Khan whom he knew and admired. However there were numerous dissenting voices, including some in London, who argued that Dost was too independent to be relied upon. They wanted to remove Dost and replace him with a former king who would be totally dependant on the British. Burnes was certain that the Afghan people would never be happy with the restoration of such a hated figure, and argued long and cogently for the retention of Dost.

However in the end the imposition of a puppet king became the policy that was acted upon – and rightly or wrongly (Murray wrestles with his hero’s decision) Burnes agreed to participate in the take-over of Afghanistan. At first all went well and local attempts at resistance were quickly suppressed – the first Afghan war seemed to be a success. But in the end Burnes’s early forebodings proved all too accurate. Discontent grew increasingly violent in Kabul and on the very day he was supposed to take over as the head of the British mission in Afghanistan, Sir Sikunder Burnes (he had been knighted in 1838), with one of his brothers, was hacked to death in the garden of their Kabul residence. Burnes was 36 years old. The first Afghan war was to end as one of the greatest disasters in British military history.

This is an important book and Craig Murray deserves to be congratulated on the thoroughness of his researches and the depth of his analysis of his subject. No future discussion of British imperial policy in this period will be able to ignore the account Murray provides here. A fine book then but I have to say not always an easy read. Some readers, I suspect, will find the wealth of detail, particularly in the early chapters, something of a challenge...and the shaping of such a range of diverse kinds of material is not always easy to follow.

Part of the problem I suspect is the relative unfamiliarity of the geographical setting of this life story. Most of us know our way around Europe. We know its rivers and cities and the distances between them. But that is much less true of (say) Lahore, Amritsar, Simla, Peshawar and the Indus river. There are some maps here but they are less clear and helpful than they might have been – I frequently found myself reaching for my atlas to establish where exactly we were.

The hacked pieces of Alexander Burnes’s body were never found. So he rests in no quiet grave. With this new biography, however, Craig Muuray has restored this remarkable young man to his rightful position as a leading figure in Scotland’s contribution to our imperial history.

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