A Survey of Burnes 46

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

4Vol.II p.461

5Alexander Burnes, Cabool, p.116


46 thoughts on “A Survey of Burnes

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  • Mary

    Thanks Craig. ‘I am however willing to say that I believe more people have actually read “Murder in Samarkand” than “A Journey”.’

    That applies to me.

    Best wishes.

  • Mary

    John Universities are purely commercial enterprises now. Surrey Univ have applied for permission to build 2,700 houses on green belt land below the Hog’s Back.

    Many universities have funding from the industrial military complex.

    And UCL have this hideous outfit with the Orwellian name which Bliar launched.
    UCL Institute for Security & Resilience Studies

    Reid is in it and Boyce, Chertoff and the Marquess of Salisbury!! are on the board. Nice little paradigm?


    Until last year the chair of NHS England, Sir Malcolm Grant, was the President and Provost of UCL. See how it’s done.

  • Mary

    A suicide bomber killed 9 people in Kabul yesterday. There is a wave of violence.

    Taliban gunmen kill nine civilians in attack at Kabul’s Serena hotel
    Four foreigners among victims in attack on luxury hotel as wave of violence sweeps Afghanistan ahead of presidential elections

    I heard that there is an election for president in two weeks’ time. Karzai cannot stand again.

  • fool

    I have always preferred history to historical fiction, but James Clavell was a rare master of the genre, who proved it could be done. He wove fact, fiction, plot and umpteen equally interesting sub plots in way few others ever manage, triggering the imagination and leaving one compelled to start exploring the history. He was also fond of ensuring that he always had enough of what he called “drop dead money” to ensure that he could publish what and when he liked. He seems to have known a few interesting facts, but he had freedom from the facts and freedom from the publishers.

    BTW I see from Amazon that Orangemen of Togo is sold out. Why not self publish Burnes

  • craig Post author


    En route to his famous negotiations in Kabul in 1837/8, he and Hugh Falconer, who was with him, identified the Kohat tectonic depression and its potential for hydrocarbons. Here’s another bit from the book you might like:

    The great paleontologist Dr Hugh Falconer was again with the mission. Their exploratory work continued, and from Peshawar Falconer and Percival Lord set out for Kohat on a geological investigation of the great tectonic depression there. However they met threats from the local population, and were forced to abandon their research and ride for their lives with shots ringing out behind them.

  • craig Post author

    When I say he identified the tectonic depression, I should make plain he said that the same process which had thrown up the Himalayas had caused the depression, I don’t want to claim he invented plate theory! He did notice the presence of marine fossils in the cliffs, thousands of miles from any sea, and he did know these processes took millions of years.

  • Fule

    Hydrocarbons 1837? Great Game? Sounds like the makings of a Clavell story. Murder & Orangemen were interesting reads, but I was wondering about this one. Maybe I am beginning to see the makings of a hook.

  • Mary

    Major Streatfield comes out with all this now but he bowed his head and saluted when accepting his MBE.

    British snipers killed Afghans in pointless ‘turkey shoot’ and boosted support for the Taliban, says major who revealed how troops died due to lack of equipment
    Major Streatfeild commanded a company of riflemen fighting the Taliban
    Says many shot and killed as a result posed no risk to British forces
    Streatfeild condemns ‘turkey shoot’ tactics that led to ‘repetitive slaughter’
    Says British soldiers pointlessly killed hundreds of armed villagers

    By Mark Nichol
    22 March 2014


    He was in Helmand Province 2009-10 and left the Army in 2012.

    Do you remember all the propaganda for the war -the coffins arriving at Brize Norton and the processions of hearses through ROYAL Wooton Bassett, the Military Wives Choir with their twerp conductor Malone, the National Arboretum Memorial and Brown’s Elizabeth Medal? Sickening. They even used dear old Harry Patch’s funeral. I have not mentioned the audio visual media and the press.

  • Chris Schmidgall

    Thanks for the excerpt. Fascinating reading. Interesting how we generally think of geography as semi-permanent and shaped millennia in the past. What a privilege to be able to study such massive changes as they happen, albeit with the human tragedy of the accompanying destruction and loss.
    I work at Powell’s in Oregon and have been a fan and booster of your work since Murder in Samarkand (Dirty Diplomacy here). I look forward to the hardcover of your new book.

  • ToivoS

    I am looking forward to your book. As one who has studied the history of the idea of “punctuated equilibrium” going back to the 1920s I am interested in learning more about Falconer.

  • ToivoS

    PS. One suggestion. Charles Lyell certainly deserves his reputation. But please do not ignore Hutton, he was the creative source. Poor guy could not explain his ideas in English in a way than more than a few could understand. Lyell was one of those few and translated Hutton’s work into prose that was understood by many.

  • Ba'al Zevul (I'd Like to Teach the World to Snig (sic))

    Hutton even anticipated Darwin –

    ‘If an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.’

    In a lighter mood, he remarked, “Lord pity the arse that’s clagged to a head that will hunt stones,”

    I think I can understand that.

  • Mary

    For a minute Ba’al I thought you were referring to Hutton of Hutton Inquiry and the Bloody Sunday inquiry infamy until I realized which thread I was on!

    I suppose that Hutton is tucked away somewhere on a nice fat pension.

    I did not know of his role in letting Pinochet escape justice.


    Meanwhile, Dr Kelly lies in his neglected grave as a friend who visited it described it.


  • DavidH

    I love the way this guy can range across various disciplines of science, philosophy, humanities etc. At that time, I guess it was all just rational thought in the service of enlightenment. In today’s more specialized age that breadth of thinking seems sadly much less valued. Or maybe impossible?

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