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


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46 thoughts on “A Survey of Burnes

1 2
  • Herbie

    You’ve reminded me of this:

    “Yet, I would argue, histories gain part of their explanatory effect by their success in making stories out of mere chronicles; and stories in turn are made out of chronicles by an operation which I have elsewhere called “emplotment.” And by emplotment I mean simply the encodation of the facts contained in the chronicle as components of specific kinds of plot structures, in precisely the way that Frye has suggested is the case with “fictions” in general.”


  • BrianFujisan

    fascinating Craig..

    i’m interested in paleontology…And Anthropology too.

    Especially how humans could be in, and colonize, Australia 23 thousand years ago…and even 60 thousand yearsago, Since at no time since Hominids arose, Has Australia Not been an island…

    The problem being, there is no evidence that humans could even speak 60 thousand years ago…let alone engage in the co-operative efforts needed to build ocean going crafts.

    Anyhoo…keep up the good work on that Cheers.

  • mark golding

    The Power of the MSM – Letter from Darwin to Lyell [extract] March 15, 1863

    ..Hooker admits that in science people do not like to be told too plainly that they must believe, though in religion they wish to have it laid down for them. Yet he may be wrong, for if the `Times’ were to write for the next fortnight against the Southern States, and against the Poles, nine-tenths of good society would whirl round, and the middle class which would stand firm would be able to do so partly because they read cheaper papers which are not interested in following the lead of the `Times.

    I am refreshed by Charles Lyell compassion here as he concludes:

    I hope my long letter will not task you too much; when I sit down to write to you, I can never stop. Hooker, not having heard from you, is growing anxious, and hopes it is because you are corresponding with me and not because of serious ill-health.

    Ever affectionately yours, | Charles Lyell.

    Interesting – Thank-you Craig for your thoughts and intention.

  • craig Post author


    Yes – I am conscious absolutely all the time of the struggle between not fitting the facts to an artificial narrative, and the need to make an interesting book. Lives are messy and random, but “here is a random and messy life” is not very appetizing. I think I come down on the side of honesty rather too much for a publisher’s comfort.

    Mark Golding, fascinating by Lyell on the MSM!!

  • Richard

    Interesting and informative piece; I’m not sure they make ’em like him anymore.

  • mark golding

    The Echo of Tragedy Persists in the 21st C. Trowbridge (Iraq: Libya: Ukraine and more)-

    English Parliamentarians on the eve of disaster admitted that Ireland was not governed like a kingdom, but instead was only occupied by colonial soldiers that protected English businesses to extract Ireland’s natural resources. There was little governing of the people, especially outside of the Dublin Pale. In reality, the majority of Irish families, supposedly benefiting from the wealth of Great Britain’s economy, were solely dependent on the harvest of one crop: the potato.

    The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy – Tim Pat Coogan

  • craig Post author


    Yes -as I am sure you know, he’s referenced in The Fields of Athenry (sung it in bars many times, don’t know how you spell it!)

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Well, I didn’t much like Coogan’s making out that Lord Brougham was a Tory since he never was, only eager to improve Peel’s and Graham’s ways, especially when it came to O’Connell’s monster meetings, particularly the one at Clontarf, and the repeal of the Corn Laws.

    Brougham persuaded the Lords, despite Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst’s efforts, to go along with the Whig Law Lords in quashing O’Connell’s conviction for the meetings, and made London aware of Ireland’s plight by serving as The Times Commissioner there in 1845, though in doing so he made it clear that The Liberator was no better in dealing with his estate than the absentee landlords in London.

    Trevelyan, though, does appear a nasty piece of work when dealing with Ireland’s problems.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Coogan even quoted this from Brougham which showed that he had been the famous, unmentioned Commissioner, and his thoughts about academics and politicians:

    “At a lunch I attended in Boston, a prominent academic quoted a description of ‘a monster’ which he claimed had been given by an English cabinet minister, who was at the time dealing with Irish affairs – a tree! Neither the Englishman or the American academic had ever visited the barren areas of Mayo and would not have known that there were no trees and a people who normally never moved much beyond 6 or 7 kilometers from their birthplace would have found a tree a very disturbing site indeed – particularly if it was dusk and they were starving.” (Quoted from p. 91.)

  • Abe Rene

    Good stuff. It should be a very interesting book when you’ve finished it, the sort that gets into good libraries and lists of references for academic courses.

  • Resident Dissident

    What I find interesting is how it used to be a lot more common for people to have a much wider range of interests than they do now – even though access to resources for learning and studying was much more restricted than is now the case. The passion for self education has certainly declined in recent years – the WEA still exists but is a shadow of its former self and most northern towns used to Literary and Scientific Societies many of which could trace their roots back to the radical/dissenting movements. I’m sure it would be to everyone’s good if the old thirst for knowledge could be rekindled.

    As a footnote I should add that a couple of years back I found quite by chance just by doing a search on Google books that my 2* Great Grandfather who was a house painter had also written a number of papers for a northern Geological Society and regularly took groups of up to 50 on geological surveys on Sundays. It at least explained why I had the British Geological Survey maps on my wall as a teenager – and I can still get the various geological ages in their correct order.

  • Jives

    Fascinating excerpt Craig,thanks for posting.

    I always wonder what drives men such as Burnes?

    Intellectual curiosity? Or-given the colonial context-a desire for courtly and public recognition?

    Probably a bit of everything.

    I look forward to the book.

  • mark golding

    Yes Joseph Hooker Mary. I completely overlooked that Joseph was assistant to surgeon Robert McCormick of Beagle fame on HMS Erebus while researching the demise of the crew of HMS Terror, a Navy ship that accompanied HMS Erebus to the Antarctic, followed by the Arctic where both ships got stuck in ice and their crews abandoned; all of whom subsequently died of exposure.

    Attempts to locate either ship in Lancaster Sound have failed. Their likely location and further evidence of the demise of the ships crew is recorded in the link, while some artifacts which I regard as basic survival kits can be seen at the Naval museum at Greenwich.

    Sadly without the necessary resources the puzzle cannot be solved – I would very much like to try…


  • John Goss

    It is going to be some tome when it’s finished if it currently stands at 172,000 words. I hope it is not being published by an academic publisher with a price of around £80, or I might not be able to afford it. I’m sure, judging from the extracts, it will be a worthy read. Do you have a publisher? I believe writers should get a good living in an ideal society.

    I once came runner-up in a writing competition run by the Independent and got £1,000 for 150 words, which worked out at about £6.66 per word. I thought this was quite good in the early nineties and wondered if that was what they were paying their hacks. At that rate you would get £1,146,667 for the 172,000 words of “Sikunder Burnes, Master of the Great Game”. Not bad if you can get it.

    For my book, which I have been working on for some 15 years, and when finished will be somewhere in the region of 30,000 words, I would only get £200,000 at a rate of £6.66 per word. These words will, however, be very good words, even if many of them are the same words, and worth every penny. But £200,000 is hardly enough to retire on. So I’ll have to write another. Must get back to it. It’s driving me mad.

  • craig Post author


    I had an advance of 5,000 but my publisher, Mainstream, has gone belly-up. It is going to be difficult to find another one who won’t want me to shorten and popularize. Realistically I shan’t make more than 30,000 I expect. I hope the hardback will be about 30 and the paperback and electronic about 15, but remains to be seen.

  • A Node

    Once upon a time my girlfriend and I would spend a couple of months of every winter in India. We would search out embroidery and textiles to make into jackets. Textile dealers from all over India would send their wares to Pushkar market in Rajasthan and we would spend a happy few weeks trading from the Pushkar Palace hotel. Eventually we noticed that the best embroidery was coming from Bhuj in Gujarat, so we decided to check it at source.

    We skirted the edge of the Rann of Kutch on our way to Bhuj and resolved to stop a few days there on the way back. Bhuj turned out to be the embroidery heaven we were hoping for, but we learned that to find the best we would have to visit the villages where it was made. Easy, hire a moped and away you go. Trouble was there was just too much to see and we spent far longer than we intended. When we finally came out of our textile trance and checked the calendar, we had only a week or so before our flight home.

    Well …. Gujarat is a ‘dry’ state, and we’d been ‘working’ hard for weeks. A couple of hundred km south was the tiny district of Diu which, due to some historic wheeler-dealing with Portugal, was now a tourist haven with liberal licensing laws.

    …. north, the Rann of Kutch …. south, Diu ….
    …. north, salt desert …. south, beaches ….
    …. north, dry state …. south, parties, bars, cold beer ….
    …. north, wildlife …. south, parties, bars, cold beer ….
    …. north, unique ecosystem ….. south, parties, bars, cold beer ….

    We never did visit the Rann of Kutch, and that’s just one of the reasons why nobody will ever be writing a book about me.

  • guano

    In 1812, the great industries of publishing, papermaking, printing, leather-making, and bookbinding were all done laboriously by hand, retaining the quality of materials that had existed for the previous 200 years. By 1835, linen bleaching by sun had been replaced by chlorine bleaching and wood pulp. Oak-bark tanning of calf and goatskin replaced by sulphuric acid tanning of sheepskin. Printing was mechanical, and binding was industrialised.

    Against this background it is interesting to see how your subject, Sikunder Burnes is thoroughly grounded in historical quality, aka the fine draughtsmanship of William Blake, for example. But age of Victorian hypocrisy was also an age of deceit in the whole area of craft and manufacture.

    We have witnessed a similar turning point in our own lifetimes, witnessed daily on this blog by the competition between our ruling elite to deceive us and the public’s abandon of caution in rolling back their lies with conspiracy theories.

    1835 was not a time for cottage industry or crofts, and 2014 is not a time for sticking by the Building Regulations or the Geneva Convention. Indeed it is starting to smack of hypocrisy that those old, established values should be called for in a new, ruthless age of power politics.

    We live in an age where Muslim Al Qaida is doing the dirty work for a super-refined, media-effete, urban-equal-opportunised society. We should be prepared to understand our own hypocrisy in the light of Victorian hypocrisy. The core values of socialism, international law, even Christianity no longer apply after the Thatcher watershed.

  • Tony M

    “Against this background it is interesting to see how your subject, Sikunder Burnes is thoroughly grounded in historical quality, aka the fine draughtsmanship of William Blake, for example. But age of Victorian hypocrisy was also an age of deceit in the whole area of craft and manufacture.”

    This sort of chimes, so much of earlier industry for household objects and decorative gew-gaws sought to replicate more cheaply existing highly decorative forms when functional equivalents for everything from from plates and chinaware, tankards to combs, to picture frames and fire irons could have been made far more cheaply and with far less trouble and have been sold to a far greater number of buyers -if they had not been created, targetted for sale to an aspirant proto-middle-class typically looking to have perfect facsimilies, but much cheaper, of the typical ornate clutter found in the houses of the great and the good. So much of early industrial endeavour was not engines and pumps, but inessential junk serving the whimsical demands of vanity, fashion and envy.

    I’d never hold religion ever to be a core value, more like a sore affliction, did you miss in Craig’s extract: “It did a great deal to forward the cause of rationalism and to undermine further the hold of improbable religious belief.” This Burnes chap had a long head start on Milk Snatcher, if she delivered the coup de grace to it, it might well be the only good she ever done, though quite unwittingly I’m sure.

  • John Goss

    Craig, I think those prices are about right, cheap in fact for an academic book. Not sure about the electronic being the same price as paperback. Electronic versions are usually cheaper. I’m a bit of a dinosaur though. For one thing I have an affinity with paper and much prefer to have a book in my hand. The advantage of electronic is speed and ease of delivery. Perhaps more of an advantage is it makes searching so much easier.

    Good luck with finding another publisher. More and more writers are self-publishing which gives them a better margin. The trouble is, unless the writer is well-known, which I know you are, distribution and publicity are the all important ingredient to sales. Let me know when it’s finished.

  • KingofWelshNoir

    John Goss

    £6.66 per word? That’s the mark of the Beast!

    More seriously, that would amount to riches beyond the dreams of Croesus for an average novel of 80,000 words. These days you’d be doing well to get 50p a word, as I’m sure you must know. The landscape has changed beyond recognition in publishing in the last ten years and really it is no longer possible to make a living out of it if you are not in the top echelon. A few novelists have been noting this in the Guardian recently and getting a good kicking from the commenters who seem to labour under the misapprehension that writers all live rock star lifestyles, when, of course, not even rock stars do these days. I accept that we writers don’t have an automatic right to a living but half of those abusive commenters must presumably be pen-pushers doing jobs paid for out of the public purse. People who would be appalled at the suggestion that they should do the job for love. If we can give civil servants a regular salary to write stuff all day that no one wants to read, wouldn’t it be nice if we could give writers a regular salary too? Not a big one, just a regular one. As for eBooks, well Amazon are selling my novels on Kindle for a couple of quid these days. Less than the price of a cappuccino. They have essentially made books into worthless items.

    Heigh ho. End of threnody.

  • Mary

    Whereas if Craig was a war criminal, he would sell 92,000 copies post publication.


    Difficult to find out what the total sales have been. You can get it for 1p used!! on Amazon or £6.99 paperback. A copy of said book has never soiled my hands.

    The funniest thing was to hear that saboteurs were putting copies into the travel and fiction sections of bookshops when it was launched.

    The Bliars planned to have a huge launch party at the Tate Modern (probably pally with Serota) but it had to be cancelled for fear of a riot.


  • Ba'al Zevul (I Don't Know if I can Keep This Up)

    That Northeast Scotland connection…another one was Hugh Miller (Cromarty) whose contribution to palaeontology (via Agassiz) is often overlooked. Having read a couple of his books, and at some of the localities he knew well, I can only agree with the conclusions of this article –


    And he was a Free Kirker, who believed in divine creation….

  • craig Post author


    A huge number of the 93,000 copies of A Journey were of course bought by institutions and many never read.

    I am happy to say that Murder in Samarkand sold about 35,000 in the UK and about 20,000 internationally and most copies have been read several times. It had outsold Straw, Blunkett and all those other books by politicians who got ten times the money for them that I did – it’s an interesting source of corruption, when you consider Murdoch owned the publshers in several of those cases. Almost no copies of Muder in Samarkand were bought by institutions. Dundee University even refused to have it in the library while I was Rector of the University! I am however willing to say that I believe more people have actually read “Murder in Samarkand” than “A Journey”.

  • nevermind

    My copy of Murder in Samarkand has been read by four others, it is currently with the fifth reader. Hopefully this will help with your new book on Burnes.

  • Ba'al Zevul (I Don't Know if I can Keep This Up)

    A little more Hugh Miller –

    In 1842 he declared that the country ‘had not yet been able rightly to appreciate the disasters of Afghanistan,’ because it was humiliating to conceive of the war there in its true character of ‘an unprincipled conspiracy of the civilised, horribly anvenged by infuriated savages’ (a British force had been massacred in the Kyber Pass).

    At the close of 1848, the year of revolutions, he marvelled at how the world had changed from a year before, when ‘history seemed to want incident.’ ‘Our leading statesmen’ were deluded in thinking they could deal with the crisis by the old ‘petty style of diplomatic manoeuvre,’ for the beast of Atheistic Liberalism was out for revenge on ‘the Babylonish beast’ of the ancient despotisms, and the two would destroy each other by their atrocities.

    After the Crimean War, Miller feared that trust between nations would never be restored; the country with the largest ready-made apparatus of war in the most perfect state’ would now always be master, and war the trade of a body of men ‘with an interest in bringing it about.’


  • geomannie

    Hi Craig

    While knowing of Burnes as an adventurer, explorer and diplomat, I had never considered him as a geologist. As a geologist myself, and one who who works on the geology of remote areas, I am fascinated by discovering that Burnes was knowledgeable of geological processes and understood the importance of documenting the aftermath of an earthquake. This makes him even more remarkable, at least to me. I am also intrigued that he communicated with the likes of Lyell himself.

    Burnes geological interests are not something I have ever seen documented in other accounts of his life. You have a confirmed purchase from (put me down for a hard-back). If you can get as many geology references in as possible, I think I could sell more copies to my geological colleagues, many of whom are besotted by the minute details of the history of their science. Once published, I will see if I can get a review into a geological journal.



  • John Goss

    I have read “Murder in Samarkand”, though not “A Journey” and it concerned me at the time that “Murder in Samarkand” was not available in many university libraries and still isn’t. Do the political tentacles stretch to university library purchasing departments? They obviously do. It only needs a lecturer to have “Murder in Samarkand” on his/her reading list and curriculum and there would be a library copy. But anything contentious is probably a deterrent to career advancement.

    An academic, who is politically active herself, made a comment last week on a Facebook page that academics today are politically complacent. They are only interested in their salaries and selling their own books and therefore avoid many worthwhile publications. That is my opinion too.

    KOWN, for the best part of ten years I made a reasonable living writing, editing and updating computer manuals. This is the best money for staff writers, much better than journalism. The problem is the boredom of updating existing manuals, which is tedious. I wrote a full suite of manuals from scratch and that was the best part of the job. But your books are witty and recommendable. You’ll never get anybody to say that about computer manuals, though I tried my best.

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