I still spend most of my time working on Sikunder Burnes, Master of the Great Game. I have 172,000 words at the minute, but that includes 800 odd footnotes, some of which are pretty discursive. All is still being refined, worked up and added to. I know that readers of this blog are a remarkably wide-ranging bunch, so from time to time you may be interested in a snippet
That same year, Burnes was given the task of surveying Cutch, with particular attention to the geographical changes caused by the great earthquake of 1819. This had reshaped much of the Indus delta, with much land inundated by the sea, and the Runn of Cutch, a great salt desert, now covered in salt water for much of the year. Burnes found the work very congenial. It allowed him to apply his formidable intellect and scientific mind, and to employ his talents as a draughtsman. It also had a real element of adventure for a 21 year old, as it involved riding alone through territories just taken under British influence and still potentially hostile. He attacked the task with enthusiasm. At the submerged town of Sindri he journeyed by boat for thirty miles along a great salt lake that until 7 years previously had been arable land. At the site of the old fort which had guarded an entrance to the Indus, he stood on the top of the battlements, which still rose to only two inches below the water, and drank in what he described as the “novel sensation” of standing where there was only water; no land was visible to the horizon around all 360 degrees of vision. He found that 2,000 square miles had been inundated, while elsewhere a mound fifty miles long and up to sixteen miles wide had been raised. Burnes also noted the new channels the Indus had cut to the sea since 1819, scouring through this and other newly raised land formations which had diverted it at the time of the earthquake. He carefully charted, measured and drew the geological sections exposed by these new cuts.
Burnes returned in 1828 to complete this survey. His work was so good it was used as the base for UN scientific studies of the next great Cutch earthquake in 2002. Published at Maloclm’s request by the Bombay Asiatic Society, it caught the attention of the great geologist Sir Charles Lyell, one of the founders of the modern science. In his famous work “Principles of Geology” he quotes extensively from Burnes’ study, and uses his maps and illustrations.1
Lyell’s popular work did much to foster a great fashion for geology at the time, but also did much more. It did a great deal to forward the cause of rationalism and to undermine further the hold of improbable religious belief. An understanding of the processes and timescale of geological change was incompatible with the curious dogmatic belief that the earth was but a few thousand years old. Burnes had a great interest not only in geology but also in paleontology, and plainly had a modern understanding of these matters, and this may indeed have related to his own religious scepticism. It is generally accepted that Charles Lyell was important in laying the foundations of scientific thought about natural processes that were built on by Darwinism.
Burnes’ interest did not end with the completion of his survey, and he continued throughout his travels and explorations to pay close attention to the geology of the regions through which he travelled, beyond his obligation to report to the Company on exploitable minerals. Burnes and Lyell were to meet at the Geological Society in London in 1835.2 He and Lyell became regular correspondents and Burnes sent back interesting discoveries and observations, and particularly fossils.3 In the New York edition of the Principles of Geology of 18684, Lyell was to refer to his debt to “my friend the late Sir Alexander Burnes.”
Alexander Burnes was also to become a personal friend of the great paleontologist Hugh Falconer and his associate Proby Cautley as they went about their work classifying eighty per cent of then known species of dinosaurs, discovering a high proportion of those in British India.5 Falconer was to become one of Darwin’s most fervent defenders. He was also the originator of the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium, now scientific orthodoxy. Burnes was able to discuss paleonotology with them on a footing of equality. Lyell and Falconer were, like Burnes, also both from the coastal plain of North East Scotland, Lyell from Kirriemuir and Falconer from Forres. Burnes also became a correspondent of Gideon Mantell, an unfortunate man even more reviled in his time by the religious community than Darwin, but now regarded as a great pioneer.
In his wide-ranging intellectual interest and his cool rationalism, Burnes was very much a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. This attitude combined with his unabashed joie-de vivre and sexual freedom mark him out as the pre-Victorian he was. Had he lived longer, perhaps like his acquaintance and contemporary Charles Trevelyan he would have learned to cloak his past in a heavy enveloping mantel of Victorian hypocrisy. His early death exposed him to the full wrath of censorious Victorian historians in the immediately succeeding generation, and affected history’s attitude towards him until now. Let’s change that, me by writing this and you by reading it.
1Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, Vol.II pp306-11
2K M Lyell, Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, p.454
3K M Lyell, Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, p.470
5Alexander Burnes, Cabool, p.116