Frustration 22

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.

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22 thoughts on “Frustration

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Good luck in your search, Craig. Perhaps, if you are lucky, a mysterious woman in a cape will arrive one day at the harbour and then depart again, leaving only a note, penned a century ago and indicating the beginning of a series of clues which will lead you, ultimately, to the ruined palace of the Kingdom of the Maqpon…

    You may need to trace Burnes’s descendants.

  • kathy

    According to the book “Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia” by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, his journals were presented to his family.

  • craig Post author


    Yes, but it was after that that Sir John Kaye accessed them. Burnes elder brother and at least one sister were stationed in Bhuj; papers were brought back to his father by Mohan Lal, but these have vanished unless they are the correspondence I found in Montrose Museum. But I believe that Sir John Kaye, would have had access to his hournals in India, not in England/Scotland.

  • Kathy

    Craig, My guess would be that they are with one of his descendents somewhere as families tend to hang onto that sort of relic.

  • John K


    Did you email them? In which case you may have reached the wrong place at Forbes or expressed yourself in an way that didn’t gell with them. In my experience Indian companies can be very touchy about protocol and approaching the right person; they are much more hierarchical and formal than western ones.

    Perhaps a snail-mail letter on nice thick papaer addressed in person to the head of the company stressing your background might yield different results?

  • craig Post author

    John K,

    Yes, good plan.

    Kathy, yes I am sure you are right. But the family gets a bit difficult to trace. His elder brother James had many adult children, all the males of whom served in India and mostly died there. The family has been quite extensively researched as they are the family of Robert Burns, but the only branch from Alexander’s parents that has been traced down into the twentieth century seems to be Alex’s brother Adam. but that line emigrated in toto to Melbourne then seemed to disappear.

    His elder brother James was really a very considerable person in himself, and had stepped up a notch or two in social class, as had his children. I am not quite sure why the genealogies show that extensive branch as petering out.

    Another mystery – James was a very big wig indeed in the Freemasons. It was his History of the Knights Templars which first claimed the lineal connection between the Templars and Scottish Freemasonry, and he became Head of all the Scottish lodges in India, and very senior indeed in Masonic ranks in Scotland, as well as the number 2 in the UK in the “Illustrious and Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem”. Yet the masonic organisations in Edinburgh claim to have no record of him. I know not why, but he was presented with some stupendous artefacts by the Masons, including two “massive pillars of wrought silver”. What happened to all that?

    It’s nice to think Burnes’ journals may be in a Melbourne attic, but I think that’s hopeful!

  • craig Post author


    You inspired me to some more internet searching. here is a complete genealogy. The problem is, with the lines being so fractured and no direct descent from Alexander, where would papers go? Presuming the information (which I got from a Californian genealogist) that the most direct branch is in Melbourne, would they have taken the papers of a pretty distant relative with them?

    Sorry if I sound grumpy!! It’s a frustrating task.

  • craig Post author

    Alex was close to James and they travelled to India together. I would bet a lot of money that his papers went to his father, then to James, then to James eldest son (which would put them back in India for Sir John Kaye at the right time). But given that the genealogy shows none of James’ eight children having children, where did they go then? Or was it rather that James did have grandchildren, but as they were all born in India – which is most probable – the genealogists couldn’t find records?

  • Frazer

    Have you tried putting out feelers on websites used by private collectors..maybe someone has them as part of thier collection ? Just a thought..

  • Suhayl Saadi

    You see, this is the difficulty. Someone like Wm Dalrymple has the resources to have researchers working for him, pursuing leads, digging-up this stuff from musty libraries and archives in India and the UK. I agree with John K, you need to find an honorable Indian contact based in the same city who can meet with the key person at Forbes and Co, and deliver unto them a high-class, ex-Ambassadorial letter from your (‘Excellent’) self to the right person at Forbes and Co. It’s very much the gradual, old-fashioned style of interaction. There’s a place in London where all records of the ‘Raj’ are kept – what’s it called? ‘The India Office’, I think. You should be able to trace British people who lived in India at that time. Who does the research for that TV programme, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ They’d cost the earth, no doubt. If you’d like, I could put you in touch with Vikram Sampath, who is in India and who researches a lot about old figures – he wrote the book on the first recording star of India, the part-Armenian, part-English, part-Indian, Gauhar Jaan, and he’s done research in Germany re. such figures. He might have some ideas about how to go about researching such stuff in India. I’ll be in contact, Craig, once I’ve checked with him. Might lead nowhere, but who knows…

    India Office link (usual prefixes):

    Good luck!

    On the other hand, how about a seance?

  • Nick

    Craig – you mention Sir John Kaye had access to Alexander Burnes’s journals in the 1860s. I assume this was for the purpose of writing Lives of the Indian Officers (1867)? who was the publisher of that work? and, indeed, who was the publisher of Alexander Burnes’s works? if it was John Murray, then those archives were acquired by the national Library of Scotland a few years ago. just some food for thought.

  • YugoStiglitz

    [Mod/Jon: deleted as disruptive and aggressive. Yugo/Larry, you occasionally make some good points, but I will keep deleting you for as long as you keep up the unnecessarily confrontational approach. You are banned here anyway, as you know.]

  • Frazer

    Craig is probably the most ethically minded man I know. He does not judge anyone by thier creed,colour or religeon, so to call him a Jew hater merely reflects your own pathetic ignorance to everyone else who reads this blog.
    I have no idea where you got the 80% from, clearly another delusion on your behalf.
    As for the 911 conspiracy theorists, we went through all that here months ago. There are plenty of websites out there for you to post your deranged ravings,so how about you take another Prozac and try your luck there.

  • craig Post author


    Yes on all points. There is correspondence between Burnes and John Murray in the NLS, which I am using – including about the use of the picture you are using on your comment ID!! Burnes didn’t think it very flattering.

  • John E

    Off topic

    Christopher Shale, the tory who died at Glastonbury.
    The last I heard was that there was going to be a post mortem – yet there’s been nothing on the news or TV about the result of this.


  • Enoch Powell

    “I just tell you this as an insight into the byways a biographer must tread.”

    No, no no. You have no mates and need to feel important, rather than impotent.

  • Jaded.

    I did a good job on updating ‘In the Navy’ by the Village People with alternative lyrics, while replacing the word ‘navy’ with ‘masons’, a few months back. I feel tempted to regurgitate it now, after seeing Craig’s masonic references, but will resist the temptation.

  • Brenda

    I just ran across your website today. Lovely site. I’d like to hang out from time to time if that’s ok. I think I’m politically in tune with you


    of course, what that means is I’m out of tune with most of the rest of the country


    oh well…

    Craig, just wanted to give you some encouragement and thanks for working on the historical archive. I’ve started reading history as an antidote to the craziness going on in the present. Turns out people were even more boneheaded and bloodthirsty in the past! I find this to be perversely calming. So thank you for adding your energy to elucidating the historical record. It’s appreciated more than what you might realize.

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