Here are two letters written by the 15 year old Alexander Burnes shortly before he sailed for India, one to his mother and one to his father. They are a biographer’s dream in terms of the information and an incredible amount can be extrapolated from them, about the family, their milieu and the times. But they are also very poignant indeed.
They have never been transcribed or published and I dug them from the archives and transcribed them myself. My publisher will be furious at my giving away research before publication, but I think it is important to get this sort of material online and available to researchers.
The first letter, to Burnes’ mother, contains the text of another letter in the middle, which is slightly confusing.
National Library of Scotland
MS 3813 f112-3
James Burnes Esq
London March 1821
My Dear Mother,
According to a promise given in my last letter I will sit down to write you. I have spent a week in Chingford in Uncle David’s small cot; instead of being only ten miles from London you would rather suppose a hundred, for after we had left the coach at Walthamstow we did not meet a huma soul until we arrived at Uncle David’s house, in the parish of Chingford there is neither schoolmaster, doctor, lawyer, banker, taylor or any other business except farmers and vintners – uncle David performs the office of Mr Rintoul and Aunt Glegg, that of Mr Beattiie, their children’s progress is really astonishing for I heard little Fanny who is only three years old repeat “Pity the sorrows of a poor old man” along with the Lord’s prayer and creeds.
My nature would not allow me to stop in the house, for I explored all the surrounding neighbourhood in which I found a hunting seat of Queen Elizabeth’s near Epping Forest, now inhabited by the forester “O the futility of human affairs”. Another extraordinary thing was Walthamstow Abbey built by Harrold II, the King immediately preceding William I, but except one wing it is so modernised that a person would scarcely believe its antiquity.
My detention and that of James for two months would perhaps astonish you, and more so on account of my sudden departure, but the advice which we have received, and the advantages which will accrue from my attending Dr Gilchrist, I have no doubt will satisfy you.
James introduced me to Dr Gilchrist on Friday, and I am to commence attending his classes on Tuesday first. He informs me that his pupils instead of going back and forth to one another’s house have taken a room in The Strand where they meet on the days which he does not lecture and study the language by themselves, to this society he is to introduce me, and by so doing, in this country I may acquire the principles of the language and in India how to speak it.
James and I dined at Mr Hume’s on Sunday last. What had induced you all to think I had a rough passage up I know not, for there was never a more pleasant passage performed and I would be perfectly satisfied with such weather in our passages out, but that cannot be expected because the fate of poor Paterson’s vessel off the Cape shews what weather we have to expect – the wreck of the Emma is truly distressing and one would really imagine that distress is never far from that family – it will vex his father much.
There is one fortunate thing which I had almost forgot to mention and that is that a vessel is set to sail for Bombay about the middle of May, commanded as Dr Gilchrist told us by a friend of his – and Mr and Mrs Gilchrist will be able to get James appointed surgeon, and as the passage money is moderate, we should perhaps be able to save all now living in London.
On Saturday we received through Mr Hume a letter from Lord Gillies, enclosing one to Governor Elphinstone I here send you a copy of his Lordship’s letter
Edin Mar 21 1821
My Dear Sir,
I have the pleasure of sending you enclosed a letter of introduction in favour of you and your brother from Admiral Fleming to his brother Mr Elphinstone, the Governor of Bombay:- I sincerely hope this letter will be of service to you and your brother have my best wishes for your welfare and prosperity.
I applied to Admiral Fleming in consequence of a letter from your father, asking me whether I had any friends at Bombay to recommend you to them. I have no friends there and have not the honour of knowing Gov. Elphinstone but his brother the Admiral is a friend of mine. This letter I trust will be useful.
Believe me yours very truly,
To James Burnes
Assistant Surgeon in the service of the East India Company
So if we do not get forward it will not be for want of recommendatory letters, but to them I shall trust as little as possible. We will do without Jimmie Leighton’s letter of introduction, tho by the bye his letter would have been the means of introducing us to the officers, but by being introduced to the governor will perhaps suffice, in hopes of soon hearing from you
Your Truly Affectionate Son
PS I hope you make them feed the hawk and crow and also take care of the tulips and other flowers I had
NB William Ross has my Greek dictionary which you can get from him when he’s done with it but not till then for you know well the circumstances of his father.
London April 1st 1821
My Dear Father,
This being your birthday I take up my pen to express James’s wishes and mine for your health and happiness – and as the four of your sons are now separated from you, your health was not here and I suppose not at home omitted – would that my birthday had come for from that day I hope bever to be a burden to anyone.
Fortunately my birthday happens on Wednesday which is account day so I will be entitled to pay the very day I am sixteen. Remember Burns when my birthday comes
“That request permit me here
When yearly ye assemble
One sound I ask it with a tear
To him the son that’s favoured”
I am astonished by your silence for except a few lines from [Shannon?] and a letter from you returning the certificates, I have not received a scrap from father, mother or brother.
Mr Hume has given me a state of James’ expenditure in London which I now transmit you as also the gross amount of our equipment.
James amounts to £84 and mine to £101 odd, but the reason for the disparity is my getting all my accoutrements such as sword, cap and so in London, which James had not. This is really a great sum, but the amount which you intended to send up for James alone makes me suppose you will think this moderate. I cannot yet tell you exactly how much it will cost to land us in India as there may yet be some things required here, but by the statement you sent there appear to be in the hands of Mr Hume about £145 so our equipment will amount to £40 more. £200 will equip us both, after which the expense of our living in London since I arrived (for James paid Mr Scroggie about a week ago all demands) and the passage money (which we do not yet know but will be informed of it as soon as James sees the captain of the Sarah) must be paid – these demands (alth’o comparatively speaking moderate) will perhaps startle you. Should ever the fickle goddess Fortune shine upon me it will also afford me much pleasure to repay you all my expenses.
From a book, called The Cadet’s Guide to India which was presented to me by Mr Shand, it appears that a cadet (which I do not hope to be for long) can live comfortably and yet save £120 per annum, but my desire in going to India never was a lust after money, but to lead a comfortable and happy life in a delightful country from which I hope to return after some years with a competency.
It would give me very much pleasure if it were in your power to assist Mr Christian in getting a situation of the same kind he is now trying for if he is unsuccesful at getting the school at [illegible], for he is a very clever, deserving young man, and I am sure will give satisfaction to whatever situation he is appointed.
On Tuesday I went for the first time to Dr Gilchrist, and from the little insight I have already got into the language it doesn’t appear so difficult as I was at first led to imagine – the only European language it has any analogy to is the Scottish [phrase illegible]
On account of the great distance Mr Scroggie’s is from Dr Gilchrist’s classroom, Dr Gilchrist and Mr Hume have both recommended me to remove to No. 8 Buckingham St, Strand, where Dr Gilchrist’s pupils meet daily and where I am boarded for 25s per week so that all letters you send me thro’ Mr Hume can be directed as above. Are you to send the Montrose newspaper while I am in London or only when I go to India? I should like it in both places. Mr Hume says when you send them to India they should go in parcels.
Expecting soon to hear from you,
Your Truly Affectionate Son,
I will write my mother soon.
Write how Robert likes his situation. I wrote to Adam, but have as yet received no answer.