Was Burnes Right? 58

History is full of interesting “what ifs”. The letters in my last posting from Ranjit Singh to Alexander Burnes relate to one of them.

In 1837-9 Burnes saw more clearly than other British officials in India that Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire was very much a personal one and would not survive his imminent death. Burnes also deplored the religous violence and hatred flowing from the Sikh conquest of Muslim lands.

Burnes submitted a policy recommendation that, on the death of Ranjit Singh, his most recently conquered Muslim lands including Peshawar and Kashmir should be returned to the sovereignty of the Emir of Kabul, Dost Mohammed Khan. Burnes favoured what we might call a “Greater Afghanistan” which would have in essence included modern Pakistan plus Kashmir. He argued this would bring stability to the region and provide an effective buffer against Russian expansion from the North. This would have been in fact a return to the status quo twenty years earlier.

Burnes as Envoy to Kabul negotiated with both Ranjit Singh and Dost Mohammed an agreement in principle that Kashmir and Peshawar would be held by Dost Mohammed immediately, but with payment of tribute to Ranjit Singh. This would, he calculated, leave them to fall into Dost Mohammed’s lap at Ranjit Singh’s death.

Burnes’ ideas were rejected in favour of a policy which presumed that the Sikh Empire would continue to be the most important non-British military power in India. Britain therefore, to Burnes’ disgust, invaded Afghanistan in alliance with the Sikhs to depose Dost Mohammed. Humiliating military defeat followed, and Burnes was killed.

The Sikh Empire did indeed disintegrate and both it and Sind were annexed by Britain within a decade. That was not a cunning master plan at the time of the Afghan invasion. It was a reaction to a power vacuum as things fell apart.

What if? is a rather pointless game, but I am struck by the wisdom of Burnes’ proposals. If the Muslim populated areas had been returned to Muslim rule within a generation of their non-Muslim conquest, how much future bloodhsed would have been avoided, continuing to this day especially in Kashmir?

I have never believed that because something did happen, it was inevitable that it would. Burnes’ plan was not a pipe-dream. His negotiations in Kabul were repudiated by the Governor-General, but in fact were warmly approved by the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London, so much so that Burnes was knighted for them and promoted to Lt-Col. (Historians seem to have not noticed why he was knighted, wrongly portraying it as some kind of preparation for command lines in the Afghan invasion).

Unfortunately it took a year for Burnes’ reports to reach London and for London’s approval (and his knighthood) to come back, and in the meantime the Governor-General (who was subservient to the Court of Directors) had repudiated Burnes and launched an invasion.

This was not inevitable either. It was against the great bulk of official opinion in India. The Governor-General needed the authority of his Supreme Council at Calcutta. But the constitutional arrangements had not caught up with the new practice of the Governor-General living in Simla in the summer. An emergency provision existed for the Governor-General to act autocratically when physically separated from his Council, and this is what Auckland abused to launch the war – which senior Council members were known to oppose.

So the Burnes plan was not pie in the sky. How different history might have been. And what an interesting book I am writing. You really must buy it!!

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58 thoughts on “Was Burnes Right?

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  • Cide Hamete Benengeli

    You are assuming that a Muslim Punjabi from (say) Peshawar would always identify with a Muslim non-Punjabi like Dost Mohammed and never with a Punjabi non-Muslim like Ranjit Singh.

    What do people from Peshawar say?

  • craig Post author


    I know pretty well definitely that a Muslim Punjabi from Peshawar (which in 1839 was 95% of the population of Peshawar)would in 1839 have indentified with Dost Mohammed rather than Ranjit Singh, from research. If the Burnes proposal had been adopted at that time, there is no doubt it would have had popular support.

    I am not extrapolating from that to say that today the identification would be the same, or that the Burnes proposal would be a good solution today. But in 1839 it made sense.

  • craig Post author


    The Sikhs under Ranjit Singh absolutely did not practice religious toleration with the Muslim subjects they conquered.

  • Póló

    Glad to see you make the point about non-inevitability.

    In following up my local and family history I have to remind myself that none of what happened was inevitable and it could have been all different. In fact some of what happened was so unlikely as to border on the miraculous.

    I tend to take my environment as a given. I suppose many of us do growing up. This gets in the way of good analysis and denies a lot of people the credit they are due (and the blame also).

  • Steve

    I’ll definitely be up for a copy as I’ve been fazcinated by theis period for thwe last 10 years. Starting with ‘Kim’ I read through the excellent Peter Hopkirk series starting with the ‘Great Game’. I also got a lot out of the Flashman series. Hopkirk brilliantly portrays Burnes and a host of other pioneers of the region. My question to you is why did you choose Burnes over Younghusband or Josiah Harlan? Also, can you recommend any other reading of the genre? It’s absoultely fascinating.

  • Paul Johnston

    “That was not a cunning master plan at the time of the Afghan invasion. It was a reaction to a power vacuum as things fell apart.”
    Sorry Craig I think a fair percentage of your reader think everything is the result of a cunning plan!
    Seriously not doubting your thesis but as Cide points out the Ummah Wahida is not always as strong as people would have you believe.

  • Tom Welsh

    “He argued this would bring stability to the region and provide an effective buffer against Russian expansion from the North”.

    Wow, the buffer state to end all buffer states. Armies go in, desperate hunted starving ragged survivors straggle out (if they’re very lucky).

  • Suhayl Saadi

    A fascinating thesis, as I’ve said before. Of course, there are so many ‘what ifs’ in history. For instance, what if the talented, relatively tolerant Dara Shikoh had succeeded Shah Jehan as Moghul Emperor in the mid-C17th? India would’ve been spared the fanatical religiosity and soldiery of Aurangzeb. Dara Shikoh was the rightful heir.
    That was a deeply significant historical event which still today plays out across South Asia. Dara Shikoh would have been likely to have been another Akbar, i.e. promoting coexistence b/w peoples. The divisvness of Aurangzeb’s long reign paved the way for the entry of the British and also overstretched the Mughal Empire and over-committed it militarily. Aurangzeb was followed by one decently efficient emperor, his son, who reigned for only a few years, and then by he was followed largely by a bunch of sots. It is the story of the decline of old-style land empires.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    What if… Napoleon had won?
    What if Germany’s Revolution had succeeded after WW1?
    What if Lenin had not been shot? What if the imperial powers had not invaded in new USSR?
    What if the imperial powers had not invaded Revolutionary France?
    And so on…

  • Chris Naden

    Sekundar Burnes (and his younger brother, who is less often discussed) really knew the subcontinent, the people, and the meanings of what they were observing happening around them. Elphinstone manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory several different times during the period.

    But. Burnes, for all of his knowledge and engagement as head political in theatre with the internal politics and the espionage of the Great Game, was also an arrogant and heavily opinionated man. He could quite possibly have carried Elphy Bey and the general’s staff with him, had he been prepared to work around them rather than trying to ride over them.

    And even he doesn’t seem to have adequately understood the implications of the alliances between Goolab Singh and the various members of the Lahori durbar that were working with him to take control of the Punjab away from the Khalsa. Mind you, Burnes had been hacked apart in Kabul long before Ranjit actually died.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    …what if the British soldier who did not shoot the wounded Hitler dead in the trenches of WW1 because he felt compasion towards a wounded man had shot Hitler dead?

    and so it goes.

  • Sam

    Worried that your newer posts are disappearing. Has the host censored the pic of Nadira for being too eerily sexy?

  • John Goss

    You’re right, Sam. Wasn’t it the one that referred to a review in the Spectator? Where’s it gone?

  • glenn

    If the latest post (“Sleeping with an Eerie sexiness”) disappeared due to error, I have it cached – will send a copy if required.

  • Paul Johnston

    Bloody hell that was a quick response as regards “a cunning master plan” eh 😉

  • Paul

    This is entirely off topic but might be of interest to Craig, or anyone else interested in news about Scotland. I came by accident across what I take to be an ‘alternative’ Scottish news website. I’ve only read a couple of articles but have already picked up on some news that seems to have bypassed the BBC. The content seems quite in depth.


    Here one example of a very interesting article (actually about Iceland). I’ve not heard any of this in the MSM.


  • Jon

    Sorry John and Paul, you both got caught up in the link detector widget! At a guess, if you want something posting immediately, post one link/email-address at a time – that might get things through immediately. This thing has a mind of its own 🙂

  • Paul Johnston

    Yes to’other Paul but any article which starts “this little-known member of the European Union fell back into oblivion.” refering to Iceland has to be more than a little suspect!!
    FFS a lttle research would help 😉

  • anno

    History is rubbish unless you ask the question why Allah caused such and such a thing to happen. For example why Islam is currently under the shoes of the whole of the rest of the world.
    The answer is that the Muslim intelligentsia have been diverted into the sandbanks of politics. Millions of hours of Muslim political garbage flow out of Zionist sponsored free TV channels.
    Craig doesn’t ask the interesting question: why at that period of history that he is interested in, when Islam had been perverted by the Zionists into idiotic Sufism, did Allah choose to place power in the hands of the sons of the Protestant movement in England. The integrity of their religious belief, that we are responsible individually for our souls, not through some mumbo jumbo priesthood or self-flagellation. Why is it that God showed us that lack of integrity ends in total failure?
    The whole world TV soap and political soapbox machine is designed to teach us the lie that people of no integrity succeed, and that political deception is part of the road to power.
    I am not interested in the trivialities Craig is delving into.
    We are trying to find a straight path in a propaganda world.
    Jihadists from Afghanistan are shipped by the CIA to fight against Gaddafi in Libya and the US lets Sarkozy wreck the country by proxy. At all, at all no good will ever come from a group of people who answer to the Taghoot ( liars, satanists, oppressors ) like the CIA or from the French who are 100% bereft of the slightest trace of marital morality.
    Allah has put His help entirely at the disposal of people of integrity, whoever they may be. If there is change in the world caused by gangsters and atheists, you will see it unravel. Guaranteed.

    Because the world is not, praise be to Almighty God, TV.

  • Jon

    Alright Anno, calm down. I’m only a moderator, I didn’t write the anti-spam widget! I have no idea how it works.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Mr Murray
    Please make us aware of when your new book is published. I am pretty sure that I and many others will enjoy reading it enriching our views on important issues of the past. If I am not mistaken the first German Chancellor Bismarck believed that knowing issues of the past helps one to choose the best course of actions when it comes to the politics and foreign policy in particular. Unfortunately most of the policy makers do not follow this simple but very logical true.
    It would have been different world if British Empire was not so much interested in robbing colonies in India but in settling there for better. At least Soviets left to their former colonies 99% of literate population with most of the families housed appropriately and paid enough in order to maintain decent lifestyle. Whereas British Empire left over 600 million of illiterate men and women in absolute poverty and over 3 million killed in partition of India.

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