Alexander Burnes of Montrose 49

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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49 thoughts on “Alexander Burnes of Montrose

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  • YouKnowMyName

    I’m just watching the May parade of defence forces in Red Square, this year this important national story has several new threads

    – the formation of a new dedicated ‘space warfare troop’ and the important rumours about Putins successor

    – one name cropping up is the supremely intellectual Minister of Defence Forces Sergey Shoygu.

    If the west/NATO can’t get along with the current incumbent in the Kremlin then they’ll have much bigger problems with Sergey – who bodes to rule Russia/Greater Russia with inherently less democracy than VladVladPu!

  • Ba'al Zevul (Elämä on hyvä!)

    Not wishing to hijack the thread, but seeing as we’re all in lit-crit mode, allow me to recommend

    Gaffer: If You Cross Me, I Swear I Will Rip You Apart With My Bare Hands.
    (John “Gaffer” Rollinson: John Blake Publishing)

    Much more fun than Brougham… and it’s good to know the author was able to counsel Tony Blair at a time of great stress for the latter:

    “I think [Blair] will win the next election,” he told us. “He has the support of the underworld.”

  • oddie

    for anyone looking for something great to watch. Boyce has messages for Edward Snowden at the end. this was broadcast on Australia’s SBS TV in February, & is the only interview granted by Boyce since he was released from jail in 2003:

    28 mins: Youtube: The Second Life Of A CIA Double Agent
    In this explosive interview, meet Christopher Boyce, who was jailed in the 1970s for selling classified US information to the KGB in the Soviet Union.
    “I just wanted to gouge CIA and do the most damaging thing to them that I could”. And Chris Boyce did just that. Boyce recounts his time working for a CIA subsidiary, and makes claims that during the time of Gough Whitlam’s troubled government, the CIA was interfering in Australian politics, and its trade unions. Now living in virtual anonymity with this wife, Boyce finds solace in flying his pet falcon, no matter how pessimistic his outlook remains.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Wonder when and how Burnes was made a baronet. and when did he become Rector at Dundee?

    Must have been in 1834 when Lord Chancellor Brougham was behaving as if he were King, at least of Scotland. Wonder if Burnes was in attendance when Brougham made his grand tour in June 1834 – what poor Lord Grey tried to patch up with Durham with that dinner in Edinburgh?

    Then there is how Burnes became a member of the Royal Society, and the role his interest in the Templars and Masons played?

    Burnes then reminds me of what happened to Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Durham’s sacked secretary when he was trying to work out how to deal with the warring parties in Canada, though he was not killed. Only led to Durham’s resignation when the Whigs did not protect him from the drug addict.

    Wonder if there is any communication between Burnes and Brougham in his Papers, apparently in the British Museum?

  • Ba'al Zevul (Elämä on hyvä!)

    Wonder when and how Burnes was made a baronet.

    Buy the book.

    and when did he become Rector at Dundee?

    He didn’t. Dundee U. was an outlying college (founded 1881) of St Andrews U until the 1960’s.

    Craig did.

    Brougham didn’t.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Just the expected rubbish I have come to expect from you.

    Craig, former Rector of Dundee, said he was an institutional successor of Burnes, so I thought understandably he had been one.

    Thought what I said might be helpful in writing the biography, as Brougham, as Lord Chancellor, was very important in who got honors and appointments, and he certainly led the assault on the Whigs in the colonies = what helped cause the massacre in India.

  • Ba'al Zevul (For All The Wrong Reasons)

    Just the expected rubbish verifiable facts I have come to expect from you.

    Charmed. And fixed.

  • J Quigley

    Looks excellent. One question:

    “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.”

    Is “The book” that remains skeptical “your” forthcoming book or James Burnes’ book ?

  • Jives


    Please do run along now there’s a good chap hmmm?

    You’re so fulla shit innit yeah boss?

  • Pete

    Combined with your writing skills as evidenced by “The Catholic Orangemen of Togo”, and your contemporary knowledge of the Foreign Office and the culture of central Asia, this will definately be a fascinating read and potentially a bestseller in its field. I do hope the publisher won’t cut out too much, it sounds like you’d need a big thick book to cover all that ground. The masonic/templar legend bit sounds especially interesting.

    I presume you’ve looked at Lomas and Knight’s writings on Masonic history? They write as insiders but with a very different “take” to that of Grand Lodge. They have a lot to say about how British Freemasonry sold out to the establishment during the 18th century, having previously been a radical freethinking anticlerical movement.

    PLease make sure that as well as a good index, the book has detailed maps and a timeline, and a family tree. So many good books could be so much easier to navigate for those things being included! Oh, and some pics of Nadira too, if possible. 😉

  • lwtc247

    Could you please elaborate on this:
    “On return to Edinburgh, James Burnes consulted with aristocratic families including the Sinclairs of Rosslyn and published his History of the Knights Templar. ” – Consulted them about what???

  • lwtc247

    Craig. Please could please fulfil my request above.
    I would be most grateful.

  • Farrukh Husain

    Dear Craig,
    James Lunt wrote a biography on Burnes which remains available to purchase. As for Burnes’ lustful antics with Afghan women, it was this combined with deportation orders for leading Afghans to India that culminated in Burnes being hoist by his own petard, which is the point i make in my book that I am writing entitled Afghanistan end game of the great game. Mohan Lal, Burnes Kashmiri side kick stated that Burnes had Kashmiri women so had no need for others, but the evidence of Durand in ‘Causes of the first Afghan war’ and Charles Masson suggests otherwise. Like Burnes Mohan Lal himself was a ‘lady killer’ who did not restrict to his concubines/wives only but as late as 1857 was forcing himself upon a Delhi Muslim teenager whose male relatives were not in a position to protest since they had been executed by the Brits on the basis of false assertions by Lal that these men had been involved in the 1857 Indian uprising. Burnes and Lal both were men of the same ilk who subscribed to the idea that variety was the spice of life and it is hard to believe that Craig is seriously putting forth the view that was asserted by people like Mohan lal that Burnes did not drop his kilt for the pussy of Kabul.

  • craig Post author

    Sorry, I hadn’t looked at this thread for a time. Lwtc247 consulted with them about Masonic history and the Knights Templar. J Quigley it is I who am skeptical. Farrukh, yes it surprised me too. But Masson and Durand are only one source – Durand notes in his journal that it was Masson who told him about Burnes and women in Kabul. It was Masson’s story, Durand published it and all subsequent historians have followed Durand. But only one source: Masson.

    There is a great deal of material identifying British officers with named women, but nothing about Burnes. He very definitely was a serial shagger, there is lots of evidence of that, but not in Kabul. I judge it is true that, understanding the dangers, he took his own zenana with him from Kashmir.

    Mohan Lal there is evidence was shagging in Kabul – Shuja complained about it to Macnaghten. But Shuja didn’t mention Burnes, and as both Shuja and Macnaghten disliked Burnes, he would have been included if there was anything to include.

    Lunt’s book, incidentally, on page 1 gets wrong which school Burnes went to, and almost all the rest is just from his travel writing or from Kaye. It is a very slim work, and seems to be based on bugger -all research.

  • craig Post author


    Oh another thing. The quote you mentioned to me about Burnes saying the Afghans are like children, again it turns out that Masson is the only source. For very good reasons which are explained in the book, I don’t believe Masson about pretty well anything. The quote jars completely with the tone and content of all Burnes’ own writing.

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