Daily Archives: May 8, 2014

Alexander Burnes of Montrose

I wrote for 21 hours yesterday, until 5 am, broken only by a conversation with my literary agent in New York.  I also sent him a new synopsis for the book.  The current draft is 230,000 words long with 1,382 footnotes.

Here is the synopsis:

It was good to catch up.  I attach the latest draft of the life of Sikunder Burnes.  This is not finished yet.  I don’t write consecutively, so there are some lacunae here and there, and there is a lot of editing and polishing to do.  Also there will be more chapter divisions.  But nearly all the material is there.  I had a go at a synopsis:
Alexander Burnes (1805-41) was probably the most famous figure in “The Great Game” and figures prominently in all the extensive literature on that subject, including Karl Meyer’s The Tournament of Shadows and Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game.  He figures extensively in fiction.  Burnes is the main character, apart from Flashman himself, in George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman book.  He is also the hero of Phillip Hensher’s novel The Mulberry Empire.  Though not named, he was undoubtedly the model of Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King
Alexander Burnes features very prominently throughout William Dalrymple’s recent “Return of a King.” Both in his preface and in footnotes William Dalrymple refers to this forthcoming biography of Burnes.
It is peculiar that there is no biography of Burnes. His most famous adventure was in 1831, when he undertook a spying mission for 1,000 miles up the river Indus, through hostile territory, under the peculiar pretext of delivering by boat a present of five huge English carthorses to Maharaja Ranjit Singh.  At the time he was 25 years old.  He then proceeded through Afghanistan, often in disguise, and over the high passes of the Hindu Kush, across the Oxus (Syr Darya) and into the forbidden holy city of Bokhara.  From there he rode through the deserts to the Caspian sea to spy on Russian settlements.
He was feted as a hero on return to Britain, received by King William IV and by Princess Victoria.  His book Travels into Bokhara was a bestseller.  He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and the Legion D’Honneur in France.
Alexander was an active Freemason, like his great-uncle the poet Robert Burns.  He claimed while in Afghanistan to have unearthed archaeological evidence of ancient freemasons, linked to the passage there of Alexander the Great.  [NB this is precisely the plot of The Man Who Would Be King].
He shared this information with his brother James, a military surgeon with him in India.  James undertook a journey calling on senior Freemasons in Europe which included a secret meeting in Paris where he was shown the hidden charters  and documents of the Knights Templar. On return to Edinburgh, James Burnes consulted with aristocratic families including the Sinclairs of Rosslyn and published his History of the Knights Templar.  This is the source of the “history” of the secrets of the Knights Templar being passed into Scottish Freemasonry. [ie the plot line of The Da Vinci Code and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.] James went on to become head of Scottish Freemasonry worldwide and Grand Preceptor of the Knights Templar.
The book tells the undeniably true and thoroughly researched and footnoted story of the Burnes’ brothers’ creation of this legend and its acceptance by Royalty and senior aristocracy, while remaining skeptical of the truth of the “secret history” itself.
On return to India, Burnes was sent to Kabul to negotiate a treaty with the Emir, Dost Mohammed, but behind his back the British authorities had already decided to invade Afghanistan and place a puppet ruler on his throne.  This was to counter Russian expansion into Central Asia.  In Kabul Burnes was jousting with an equally romantic Russian agent, Jan Prosper Witkiewicz.  Both were spies who had spent a career traveling in disguise in Central Asia.  Witkiewicz “won” as Burnes discovered that the British government had no intention of making peace, but on return to St Petersburg, just as the British invaded Afghanistan Witkiewicz inexplicably committed “suicide” in strange circumstances.
To justify the unprovoked invasion of Afghanistan, the British government  presented to parliament a “dodgy dossier” of Burnes’ dispatches from Kabul which were extensively edited to make it appear he supported the war.  Burnes twice offered to resign, but was talked out of it by the Governor-General, Lord Auckland, who appealed to his patriotism and said the army needed him.  Burnes gave in – a Lieutenant Colonelcy age just 33, a Knighthood and a Companionship of the Bath were all given to reinforce his loyalty.
Burnes became miserable and bitter as the invasion went ahead with all the terrible cruelties and injustices of war.  He was given no effective role or control.  On 2 November the Envoy and Minister, Sir William MacNaghten, and the hopeless and doddery general, Sir William Elphinstone, were both due to return to India leaving Burnes in overall charge.  He planned to end the British occupation.  On 1 November Burnes went to say goodbye to them, and that night he had a celebration dinner with his brother Charles and his friend Captain Broadfoot.  In the early hours of the morning the Afghan national uprising began with an attack on Burnes’ house.  With their guard and escort they held out for five hours, but inexplicably no help came from the British army cantonment less than two miles away.  All were massacred.  Within three months, the entire British army at Kabul of 4,500 men, and 8,000 camp followers, was destroyed with perhaps 9,000 dead. It was the most complete catastrophe the British Empire ever suffered.
The biography studies Alexander Burnes’ humble beginnings, the poverty and overcrowding of his home in Montrose, Scotland, his local state education, the family’s relationship to Robert Burns (who changed the spelling of his family surname).  It investigates the patronage that got James and Alexander into the East India Company through Joseph Hume MP, an old school friend of their father.  It follows how Alexander brought each of four sisters in turn out to India and married them to his brother officers.  It also reveals that he left a prostitute a large sum in his will.
Scores of historians have blamed Burnes for the Kabul disaster, right up to this day, on the grounds that his seductions of Afghan women caused resentment.  The book challenges this story, and brings new evidence that Burnes was well aware of these dangers, so he confined his sexual life to a personal harem of girls from Kashmir he brought with him for the purpose.
The book tries to place Burnes’ sexual behavior in context of the behavior of others of his day.  It finds that the British ruling class in India and at home prior to 1840 led extremely active and unrestrained sex lives.  Burnes is too often viewed by history as a Victorian but he was in fact for the majority of his short life a Georgian, and his sexual morals were in fact normal.  The book notes, for example, that Sir Charles Trevelyan, an icon of British respectability and a hate figure in Ireland to this day for his famine administration, as a contemporary and friend of Burnes lived with four Indian “wives” before later becoming “respectable”, yet Trevelyan’s biographies omit this, even those published this century.
Finally the book explores Burnes’ mind and his remarkable interests and achievements in archaeology, geology, paleontology and geography.  It finds that his absence of racism and respect for local culture was out of tune with the new mood of mid nineteenth century Britain, as was his religious skepticism.  Combined with his non-aristocratic background this made him the ideal scapegoat for the Afghan disaster, which is why he has been abused by historians ever since and never had a full biography.  This despite an active campaign for the truth which continued twenty years after his death, and on which Benjamin Disraeli and Karl Marx worked together!
Craig Murray is a former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, and thus worked as an institutional descendant of Alexander Burnes.  He was Rector of the University of Dundee 2007-2010


Read a free sample: Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game – by Craig Murray

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