Sent to India aged 16 to make his fortune, Burnes revealed an extraordinary talent for languages which led to a career as an adventurer, diplomat and spy. Sent to explore the political and ethnic realities amongst the Khanates of Afghanistan and Central Asia, his subsequent account of these travels was a best-seller in its day. William Dalrymple tells the story of his participation in ‘the Great Game’ and his dreadful demise
In the Spring of 1831, Sindhi villagers taking a morning walk along the banks of the Indus might have stumbled across a rather unusual sight: five huge dapple-grey Suffolk dray horses being punted peacefully upriver, in the company of a gilt velvet-lined state carriage. Floating past the crumbling remains of the former riverside camps of Alexander the Great, Hindu temples, Sufi shrines and Mughal fortresses, the five Suffolk drays munched their way up the Indus until they reached Lahore, the capital of the Sikh leader Ranjit Singh to whom the horses and carriage were being sent as diplomatic gifts. On the way, ‘the little English elephants’ caused a sensation among the horseobsessed Punjabis who had never seen their like before: ‘ For the first time,’ wrote their minder Alexander Burnes, a young Scottish officer in the service of the East India Company, ‘ a dray horse was expected to gallop, canter and perform all the evolutions of the most agile animal.’
In the days that followed, the Suffolk drays and their minder were given a state reception. A guard of cavalry and a regiment of infantry were sent to meet them. ‘ The coach, which was a handsome vehicle, headed the procession,’ wrote Burnes, ‘ and in the rear of the dray horses we ourselves followed on elephants, with the officers of the maharajah. We passed close under the city walls and entered Lahore by the palace gate. The streets were lined with cavalry, artillery and infantry, all of which saluted as we passed. The concourse of people was immense; they had principally seated themselves on the balconies of houses, and preserved a most respectful silence.’
The British party was led across the courtyard of the old Mughal fort, and into the entrance of the great arcaded marble reception room, the Diwan-i-Khas. ‘ Whilst stooping to remove my shoes,’ Burnes continued, ‘I suddenly found myself in the tight embrace of a diminutive, old-looking man.’ This was none other than Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab himself. Taking Burnes by the hand, he brought him into the court where ‘ all of us were seated on silver chairs, in front of his Highness.’
The journey of Alexander Burnes up the Indus to Lahore, and then on to the then almost completely unknown Muslim emirates of Kabul and Bukhara was one of the celebrated feats of Victorian travel and exploration, and later became the subject of one of the most famous travel books of the era – Burnes’s Travels into Bokhara. It was also one of the defining opening moves of the Great Game. For Burnes was not really travelling as a diplomat, or for pleasure, or even out of scholarly curiosity. He had been sent by the Governor General of India, who himself was acting on orders from Downing Street, as an East India Company spy. Burnes was in fact one the most effective intelligence agents of his generation.
Alexander Burnes was an energetic, ambitious and resourceful young Highland Scot, the son of the Provost of Montrose. He was fluent in Persian, Arabic and Hindustani, and had an enviably clear and lively prose style. Like many others who would play the Great Game after him, it was Burnes’s intelligence and above all his skill in languages that got him his promotion, and despite coming from a relatively modest background in a remote part of Eastern Scotland, he rose faster in the ranks than any of his richer and better-connected contemporaries. A small, broad-faced man, he had a high forehead, deeply inset eyes and a quizzical set to his mouth which hinted at both his enquiring nature and his
For Burnes was not really travelling as a diplomat, or for pleasure, or even out of scholarly curiosity. He had been sent by the Governor General of India... as an East India Company spy
sense of humour, something he shared with his cousin, the poet Robbie Burns.
The ‘Great Game’ begins
His journey was part of a British plan to map the Indus and the passes of the Hindu Kush, and so gather intelligence on an increasingly crucial area of the world. Since seeing off Napoleon in 1812, the Russians had moved their frontier south and eastwards almost as fast as the East India Company had moved theirs north and westwards, and it was becoming increasingly evident that the two empires would at some point come into collision.
British imperial strategists were beginning to fear that the armies of the Russian Empire were primed to march south through Central Asia to capture Afghanistan, before moving in for the checkmate: to wrest India from Britain. Lord Ellenborough, the hawkish President of the Company’s Board of Control, who was also the minister with responsibility for India in the Duke of Wellington’s cabinet, was one of the first to turn this anxiety into policy: ‘ Our policy in Asia must follow one course only,’ he wrote. ‘ To limit the power of Russia.’
By authorising a major new programme of intelligence gathering in Central Asia, Ellenborough effectively gave birth to the Great Game, creating an Anglo-Russian rivalry in the Himalayas where none had existed before. From this point on, a succession of young Indian army officers and political agents would be despatched to the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, sometimes in disguise, sometimes on ‘shooting leave,’ to learn the languages and tribal customs, to map the rivers and passes, and to assess the difficulty of crossing the mountains and deserts.
Burnes was the trailblazer. As the dray horses looked out over the green grass of the Indus floodplains, Burnes and his companions began this process by discreetly taking soundings and bearings, measuring the flow of the river, and preparing detailed maps and flow charts, proving that the river Indus was navigable as far as Lahore. From Afghanistan and Bukhara they again produced maps and detailed notes on the roads threading through the Hindu Kush.
None of this, however, prevented Burnes enjoying himself and writing one of the great accounts of the region in between his official duties. For two months, Ranjit laid on a round of entertainments for Burnes. Dancing girls danced, troops were manoeuvred, deer were hunted, monuments visited and banquets were eaten. Burnes even tried some of Ranjit’s home-made hell-brew, a fiery distillation of raw spirit, crushed pearls, musk, opium, gravy and spices, two glasses of which was normally enough to knock-out the most hardened British drinker, but which Ranjit recommended to Burnes as a cure for his dysentery. Burnes and Ranjit, the Scot and the Sikh, found themselves bonding over a shared taste for firewater.
At their final dinner, Ranjit agreed to show Burnes his most precious possession, the Koh-i-Nur: ‘ Nothing,’ wrote Burnes, ‘ can be imagined more superb than this stone; it is of the finest water, about half the size of an egg. Its weight amounts to 3 ½ rupees, and if such a jewel is to be valued, I am informed it is worth 3 ½ millions of money.’ Ranjit then presented Burnes with two richly caparisoned horses, dressed in costly Kashmiri shawls, with their necks adorned with necklaces of agate, and with herons plumes rising from between their ears. While Burnes thanked Ranjit for the present, one of the dray horses was paraded for a final inspection, now decked in cloth of gold and saddled with an elephant’s howdah.
Burnes clearly had immense charm and the normally watchful and suspicious Ranjit wrote to the Governor General the day of Burnes’ departure to say how much he had enjoyed meeting this ‘nightingale of the garden of eloquence, this bird of the winged words of sweet discourse.’ When Burnes continued his journey into Afghanistan, the Afghans were no less delighted by him: the first chieftain he came across as he set foot on the Afghan bank of the Indus told him that he and his friends could ‘feel as secure as eggs under a hen.’ Burnes duly repaid the affection: ‘I thought Peshawar a delightful place,’ he wrote to his mother in Montrose a month later, ‘ until I came to Kabul: truly this is paradise.... I tell them about steam ships, armies, ships, medicine, and all the wonders of Europe; and, in return, they enlighten me regarding the customs of their country, its history, state factions, trade &c...’
Burnes liked the place, liked its people, enjoyed its poetry and landscapes, and he admired its rulers. He went on to describe
his warm reception by the Emir of Kabul, Dost Mohammad Khan, and described the sparkling intelligence of his conversation, as well as the beauties of the gardens and fruit trees of his palace, the Bala Hisar with its groves of ‘ peaches, plums, apricots, mulberries, pomegranates and vines... There were also nightingales, blackbirds, thrushes and doves... and chattering magpies on almost every tree.’ If Burnes had charmed Dost Mohammad and his Afghans, they, in turn, had charmed him.
Burnes’ book leads to trouble
On his return from Bukhara, Burnes published his Travels into Bokhara, and found himself an overnight celebrity. He was invited to London to meet both Lord Ellenborough, President of the East India Company’s Board of Control, and the King, lionised by society hostesses, and gave standing-room-only lectures to the Royal Geographical Society, which presented him with its Gold Medal. On the publication of the French translation of his book soon afterwards, Voyages Dans Le Bokhara was again a bestseller and Burnes went to Paris to receive further awards and more medals. But the success of the book also set in train a series of events that would lead to Burnes’s violent death and the unravelling of his reputation.
For it was the French translation of Burnes’s work that brought Burnes’s journey to the notice of the Russian authorities. Burnes’s expedition had been intended to spy out and counter Russian activity in Afghanistan and Bukhara at a time when both areas were off the Russian map. Ironically, it was Burnes’s writings that first provoked Russian interest in those regions, not least to head off suspected British intrigues. As so often in international affairs, hawkish paranoia about non-existent threats can create the very monster you fear most.
As the Russian Governor of Orenburg explained it in his memoirs, St Petersburg was becoming as frustrated as London had been with its poor intelligence from Central Asia: ‘ All the information that Russia procured was meagre and obscure,’ he wrote, ‘ and was supplied by Asiatics, who either through ignorance or timidity were not able to furnish useful accounts. We had reliable information that the agents of the East India Company were continually appearing at Bokhara... It was accordingly decided in 1835, in order to watch the English agents and counteract their efforts, to send... sub-Lieutenant Vitkevitch in the capacity as an agent...’
Burnes meets his match
Ivan Viktorovich Vitkevitch was the Russian’s answer to Burnes. A Polish nobleman who had been exiled to the steppe for anti-Russian activity as a student, like Burnes he rose in the ranks due to his linguistic gifts and twice was sent off to Bukhara.
The first time he travelled in disguise with two Kirghiz traders and made the journey in only seventeen days through deep snow and over the frozen Oxus. He stayed a month, but found it much less romantic than the Oriental Wonder House described by Burnes: ‘ I must note that the tales told by Burnes, in his published account of his journey to Bokhara, presented a curious contrast to all that I chanced to see here,’ he wrote back to Orenburg. ‘ He sees everything in some glamorous light, while all I saw was merely disgusting, ugly, pathetic or ridiculous. Either Mr Burnes deliberately exaggerated and embellished the attractions of Bokhara or he was strongly prejudiced in its favour.’
On his second visit, in January 1836, Vitkevitch went openly as a Russian officer, to request the release of several Russian merchants who had been detained by the Emir of Bukhara. On arrival in the caravan city he recorded that he was immediately asked: ‘” Do you know Iskander?” I thought they meant Alexander the Great but they were, in fact, talking of Alexander Burnes.’ This early indication of British influence did not stop Vitkevitch immediately trying to reverse it, and it took him only a couple of weeks to uncover the intelligence network that Burnes had established to send news back to India.
It was on this second visit to Bukhara that Vitkevitch had an extraordinary break. Completely by chance, his visit coincided with that of an Afghan emissary, Mirza Hussein Ali, who had been sent by Dost Mohammad on a mission to the Tsar. Vitkevitch escorted him to St Petersburg, then led the return mission to Kabul, the first by Russia to Afghanistan. His visit happened to coincide exactly with a second expedition by Burnes.
The rivals come face to face
The two rivals had much in common. They were nearly the same age; both came from the distant provinces of their respective Empires, with few connections to the ruling elite, and having arrived in Asia within a few months of each other, had both worked their way up through their own merit and daring, and especially their skill in languages. Now the rivals came face to face in the court of Kabul, and the outcome of the contest would do much to determine the immediate future not only of Afghanistan, but that of Central Asia.
‘We are in a mess here,’ wrote Burnes to a friend in India shortly after he heard about Vitkevitch’s arrival in Afghanistan. ‘ The Emperor of Russia has sent an Envoy to Kabul to offer Dost Mohammad Khan money to fight Ranjit Singh!! I could not believe my eyes or ears, but Captain Vitkevitch arrived here with a blazing letter, three feet long, and sent immediately to pay his respects to myself. I of course received him and asked him to dinner.’
The dinner between the two – the first such meeting in the history of the Great Game – took place on Christmas Day 1837. The two agents-turned-ambassadors got on well. Burnes records that the Pole was ‘ a gentlemanly, agreeable man, about thirty years of age, and spoke French, Persian and Turkish fluently, and wore a uniform of an officer of Cossacks which was a novelty in Kabul. He had been to Bokhara, and we had therefore a common subject to converse upon, without touching on politics. I found him intelligent and well informed on the subject of Northern Asia. He very frankly said it was not the custom of Russia to publish to the world the result of its researches in foreign countries, as was the case in France or England.’ Burnes then added: ‘ I never again saw Mr Vitkevitch, although we exchanged sundry messages of “high consideration,” for I regret to say I found it impossible to follow the dictates of my personal feelings of friendship towards him, as the public service required the strictest watch.’ This was no understatement: Burnes had already begun to intercept his dining companion’s letters back to Tehran and St Petersburg.
Vitkevitch won the first round of the contest, and Burnes, unable to come up with any offer to the Afghans to match that of the Tsar, was forced to retreat to Simla. In response to Vitkevitch’s success, in the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan, in what came to be known as the First Afghan War. Eighteen thousand British and Company troops poured through the passes and re-established on the throne, Dost Mohammad’s great rival, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk.
At this point Burnes allowed ambition to cloud his judgement. Although he had been a guest and a friend of Dost Mohammad, and did not admire Shah Shuja, he allowed himself to be bribed by a knighthood into supporting the expedition, even though he strongly suspected it was the major diplomatic and military mistake that it turned out to be. His duplicity in this matter, and his being willing to betray his host, Dost Mohammad, led to Burnes becoming a hate figure in Afghanistan, and is commemorated as such in the epic poetry of the period.
In the Afghan sources, Burnes is always depicted as a devilishly charming but cunning deceiver, a master of flattery and treachery – an interesting inversion of British stereotypes of the ‘devious Oriental’. Mirza ‘Ata Muhammad in the Naway Ma’arek talks of Burnes’s progress up the Indus ‘to spy out conditions in Sindh and Khurāsān’, which he succeeded in doing thanks to his Plato-like intelligence. Burnes realised that the states of the region were built on very insecure foundations and would need only a gust of wind to blow them down. When the people crowded to stare at him, Burnes emerged from his tent and jokingly remarked to the crowd “Come and see my tail and horns!” Everyone laughed, and someone called out: “Your tail stretches all the way back to England, and your horns will soon be appearing in Khurāsān!”’
The death of Burnes
It was partly because of the hatred the Afghans felt for Burnes that he was the first to be killed when, in November 1841, the people of Kabul finally rose against their British occupiers. ‘ It happened by God’s will,’ wrote Mirza ‘Ata, ‘that a slave-girl of Abdullah Khan Achakzai ran away from his house to the residence of Alexander Burnes. When on enquiry it was found out that that was where she had gone, the Khan, beside himself with fury, sent his attendant to fetch the silly girl back; the Englishman, swollen with pride, cursing and swearing, had the Khan’s attendant severely beaten and thrown out of the house.’
‘The Khan then summoned the other Sardars and said: “Now we are justified in throwing off this English yoke: they stretch the hand of tyranny to dishonour private citizens great and small: fucking a slave-girl isn’t worth the ritual bath that follows it: but we have to put a stop right here and now, otherwise these English will ride the donkey of their desires in the field of stupidity and have us all. I put my trust in God and raise the battle standard of our Prophet, and thus go to fight: if success rewards us, then that is as we wished; and if we die in battle, that is still better than to live with degradation and dishonour!” The other Sardars, his childhood friends, tightened their belts and girt their loins, and prepared for Jihad – holy war.’
Early the following morning, Burnes’s house was surrounded and set on fire; when he ran out into the street, he was hacked to death by the mob. After a twomonth siege, 18,500 cold, hungry and leaderless East India Company troops and their followers retreated through the icy passes in the middle of winter. One by one, they were shot down by Afghan marksmen firing from caves and behind boulders with their long-barrelled jezails – the sniper rifles of the 19th century – as the sepoys trudged snowblind and frostbitten through the mountain snowdrifts.
After eight days on the death march, the last fifty survivors made their final stand at the village of Gandamak. As late as the 1970s, fragments of Victorian weaponry and military equipment could be found lying in the screes above the village. Even today, the hill is still covered with bleached British bones. Out of the 18,500-strong party that left Kabul, only one man, Dr Brydon, made it through to the British garrison in Jellalabad. A handful of British officers and their wives were taken hostage; the rest were shot. Meanwhile, the Indian sepoys who made up the bulk of the army were either sold en masse into slavery, or disarmed, stripped and left to perish in the snow.
The First Afghan War was arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East: an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world routed and destroyed by poorly-equipped tribesmen. In 1843, the army chaplain in Jellalabad, the Rev G H Gleig, wrote a memoir about the expedition. It was, he wrote, ‘ a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.’
Lessons not learnt
We have allowed ourselves to forget the lessons of Burnes and the First Afghan War – to our cost. But the Afghans have not. Last year, I followed much of the route of Burnes’ journey in Afghanistan and the path of the 1841 death march, which leads deep into Taliban territory; the Ghilzai tribe, who massacred the British on their retreat in 1841, now provide the foot soldiers for the modern Taliban resistance. Whatever their tribe, everyone still remembered Burnes’s name. At the village of Jigdallick, not far from the site of the last stand at Gandamak, my hosts casually pointed out the various places in the village where many of the British had been massacred:
‘ It is exactly the same today as 1841,’ said my host, Anwar Khan Jigdallick, whose ancestor had led the resistance. ‘Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests. They say, “we are your friends, we want to help.” But they are lying.’
‘ Whoever comes to Afghanistan, even now, they will face the fate of Burnes and Macnaghten,’ agreed Mohammad Khan, the owner of the orchard where we were sitting. Everyone nodded sagely: the names of the fallen of 1841, long forgotten in their home country, were still common currency here.
‘ Since the British went we’ve had the Russians and now the Americans,’ said one old man. ‘ We are the roof of the world. From here you can control and watch everywhere. But we do not have the strength to control our own destiny. Our fate is determined by our neighbours.’
‘This is the last days of the Americans,’ said the other elder. ‘ Next it will be China.’
It was partly because of the hatred the Afghans felt for Burnes that he was the first to be killed when, in November 1841, the people of Kabul finally rose against their British occupiers
Alexander Burnes by Daniel Maclise (1834) Image courtesy John Murray
Kalyan minaret and Kalan mosque complex, Bukhara
Interior of the palace of Shauh Shujah Ool Moolk, Late King of Cabul. Lithograph taken from plate 3 of ‘Afghaunistan’ by Lieutenant James Rattray (18181854) British Library