Daily Archives: June 27, 2011


Frustration

I am currently reading “Outline of the Operation of the British Troops in Scinde and Afghanistan Betwixt November 1838 and November 1841 with Remarks on the Policy of the War” by George Buist, published by the [Bombay] Times Office, Bombay, 1843. Only 200 copies were printed, but on Google Books you can get a full copy of one in the library of the University of California, without leaving your desk in Ramsgate. The information technology is truly amazing.

But I am taunted once more and wracked with enormous frustration. Buist quotes Burnes on 23 October 1841, ten days before he was killed, as writing in his Journal:

“I have often wondered at the hatred of the officers towards the Affghans… they are blamed because they fight at night, when in fact the poor wretches are at any other time unable to cope with disciplined armies; it was the same as the Scotch highlanders pursued a century since.”

Buist adds this note:

This is copied, nearly verbatim, from an entry, dated 23 October, in a private journal of Sir Alexander Burnes which extends to 1 November, the day before his murder, and which, singularly enough, amidst the wreck of all other things has been preserved entire. It is now in the hands of his friends

This is tantalising. What can have happened to Burnes’ journals? The historian Sir John Kaye had access to them – or at least to those volumes covering Burnes’ younger years, – in the 1860’s. But they seem simply to have vanished; I found a cache of Burnes’ official correspondence in his hometwon of Montrose, but no sign of his diaries.

I have discovered that at one time a cache of Burnes’ papers were in the safekeeping of his agents, Forbes and Co., Burnes placed them there before leaving for Afghanistan specifically as he was furious about government editing and publication of some of his dispatches to falsely portray him as in favour of the Afghan War. I was surprised to find that Forbes and Co still exists and is a thriving shipping company in Bombay. While considering it very unlikely they still had Burnes’ papers, I though their archives might have correspondence relating to their dealings with him. But despite having a website that seems to indicate an interest in their fascinating history, Forbes & Co tersely denied to me having any company archives at all. or knowledge of what had happened to their company archives.

I just tell you this as an insight into the byways a biographer must tread. I have no idea if Burnes’ journals still exist or were destroyed. Are they with a descendant or private collector, or were they burnt or thrown away? Were they destroyed because of sexual or religious revelation, like so many of Burton’s papers? Certainly for a couple of generations Burnes journals were in the hands of people who respected their historical value and used them in that way. How they then came to vanish is still at this stage an infuriating mystery.

View with comments