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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  • Ba'al Zevul ( :- ) )

    Looks like an autobiography which needed to be written, and as if you’ve researched him to the limit. Look forward to buying the finished product.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Sounds to me that Burnes got caught up in the disputes between “Radical Jack’ Lord Durham and Lord Chancellor Brougham, explaining why he changed the spelling of his name in the first place, and why he got sent off to India by Durham.

    Then his destruction there, after Auckland – Brougham’s brother-in-law as I recall – persuaded him to stay on, seems to be the fate of them all, given the terrible disputes between Durham and Brougham over the colonies, and the former Chancellor’s war with the Whigs.

  • babushka

    “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.”

    Ho hum this is how the world turns-eternally. The no-bodies who strive to be some-bodies

    and those who would be last

    are first.

  • DtP

    Nice one Craig – by the sounds of it a fair bit of work to do – are we on for a Chrimbo run?

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    When Harriet Wilson, the famous Georgian prostitute threatened to expose all her clients in her memoirs, starting with the famous Duke of Waterloo, Brougham, a client too, responded to her blackmailing efforts by telling her to publish and be damned.

  • Tony M

    As a synopsis, it’s a bit much, more than some might ever read in their entire lives.
    Something seemd to jar around the fifth paragraph, I would guess in language terms today ‘calling on’ has come to mean insisting on someone or something doing something to your advantage, rather than popping in to admire the latest in interior design and wolfing down a spot of tiffin whilst plotting world domination and indulging in some ritual sacrifice with any handily adjacent livestock for amusement as television had yet to be invented. I can hardly reconcile the logical, enlightened, methodical scientist, geographer, spy and all round bad egg, a sort of intelligent and less weird-looking version of William Hague, with his darker frankly lunatic esoteric and mystical side. It was a time where science and the supernatural, religious belief co-existed happily and people seemed to go stark raving mad and also died far earlier in life than they might do today, what with all the lead, mercury and other stuff they were imbibing and the huge demand for arsenic, which second to beer seemed to form a large part of their staple diet. Much rather like Isaac Newton’s interests tending more towards alchemy than physics this really is a transformative age. How we got from there to where-ever we are today seems hard to discern, as if in the big book of everything, two pages had been turned over together accidentally and the numbers after the monarchs names were inexplicably incremented and we had always been at war with Eastasia after all. All history really being biography of sorts, this then too is another in that canon in which the great mass of ordinary people seem to fleet in and out, making beds, scrubbing hearths, or begging or dying entertainingly enough as to come to the notice of someone important enough to remark, but not given a big enough part to even merit a name.

    What sort name is Alexander Burnes for a hero, can’t you change it?

  • John Goss

    An entertaining summary Craig. That the British parliament was justifying war by means of a dodgy dossier then shows that nothing has changed. Is our government aware of the dangers to its ambassadors abroad by foreign policy decisions? Does it care? When I look at the death of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya, who was obviously not given enough protection in a country NATO had just bombed the shit out of and now he’s dead he can take the can for his death. He certainly can’t argue against it.

  • craig Post author


    I have Harriet Wilson’s memoirs on my bookshelf. It was Wellington, not Brougham, who said “Publish and be damned”. And actually he meant the precise opposite of what he has been taken to mean ever since. As his next sentence made clear, he meant if you publish, my libel lawyers will prosecute you to hell.

    Very smart girl, Harriet. She did actually use her memoirs to blackmail pretty well all of London society. Successfully too – which means sadly she took out most of the people who paid. She found a way brilliantly to profit from the change from Georgian to Victorian morality. Sex with prostitutes was absolutely normal pre 1840, not even worth mentioning. Not so much understood today is that women were expected to be virgins at marriage, but married women were permitted a huge amount of sexual license pre-1840 too. But when morals sharply changed, Harriet saw the chance to cash in on those who suddenly had to be respectable.


    “Publish and be damned”

    Craig: I thought ‘publish or perish’ might have been crafted as an answer, but the etymology is unclear. Seems to be fodder for writing Grant requests and the push for tenure in Academia.

    Look forward to a good read.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Consulted the first volume of my Brougham biography, and you are right about Wellington having said it, but Brougham thought it too, as he was a bachelor at the time, and sleeping all around without any fear of her obscene book causing him any trouble since it ultimately prompted the showdown between its publisher Stockdale and the House of Commons over its privileges.

    And what they both said was not backing down at all as Harriet would have lost big in any libel action over her obscene book.

    Still think that Burnes was caught in the troubles caused by Brougham and Durham, resulting in his timely demise.

  • Kelly ben Maimon

    I am deeply moved by this overview. You some how draw the reader in very quickly and capture one’s imagination, in an instance. Not many people can do that. Fascinated by reference to travels and clearly the truth needs to be told, with the view that history needs to be rewritten. To concentrate for 21 hours, shows remarkable commitment. According to my friends, I have difficulty concerntrating for 21 minutes!

    The other day, I was fortunate to be introduced to Sir Martin Gilbert, who unfortunately is not well at all. Not even sure he could understand what I was saying. In any event, there was a kindness on display, when I looked in to his eyes, as I stood by his bedside. (Seemed to me as if he was smiling). Did say, “Now Sir Martin, know you have produced 80 odd books, presumably we can be expecting a few more, as soon as possible please?” Perhaps he was having a lucid day, I will never know but I came away with the memory of contentment, even though he never said a word.

    Your latest work should sit on every shelf, in every school, college and university in the country, if and when it is ever published. You have a rare ability of capturing the imagination. I would be prepared to get a list, as still have contacts, within ‘school governing world’. Nor is it necessary to meet. Quite like the cyber world.

    Incidentally, love Scotland. My partner, from his father’s side can trace ancestory through McDowell clan. One year, was invited to Edingburgh for New Years Eve Hogmanney celebrations. Whereas, in London, lasts a few hours, lasted four days in Scotland! Needed to sleep for months, afterwards to recover! One of the best memories in my life!! And still makes me smile today, when I remember the kindness of strangers.

    Keep on writing. Although we may have opposing views on a number of subjects, it will never prevent me from holding out a hand of friendship, metophorically speaking of course. Although the default position is a preference to ‘fight in the trenches’, for those that are unable to defend themselves.

  • mark golding

    “I am deeply moved by this overview. You some how draw the reader in very quickly and capture one’s imagination, in an instance.”

    I agree Kelly, the condensation is complete and reflects a compassionate, sympathetic and kind disposition.

  • Ed

    Small typo, The Great Game was written by Peter (not Patrick) Hopkirk. Just in case anyone interested in getting the book (and it is a marvellous book) is not confused.

  • Mary

    O/T If anyone is interested. Question Time tonight at 10.35 BBC 1

    Duration: 1 hour

    David Dimbleby presents Question Time from Southampton, with Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps MP,
    Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna MP
    Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams
    UKIP Nigel Farage

    Mods please delete this later on.

  • OldMark

    ‘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.’

    Sir Richard Burton was 16 years younger than Burnes, was also something of a Georgian throwback in his sexual behavior, and was similarly feted for his noted explorations of regions hitherto largely unknown to Europeans. If Burnes had lived longer I’d like to think he would have collaborated with Burton and Arbuthnot in their work for the Kama Shastra Society, and thereby scandalised the much more strait- laced, and hypocritical, mid Victorians.

    All in all, an enticing synopsis for your forthcoming book !

  • Jives

    There’s a deep part of you Craig that really wants to write a bodice-ripper i think…;.)

    Lusty,tantalising synopsis above.

    I look forward to the book.

  • guano

    Well done Craig. What a horrible world of betrayal and dark ignorance you describe. No wonder resentments against the English remain so strong amongst the descendants of those Muslims today.

    Can you include a look at contemporary attitudes of Muslims to your subject at the time?

  • fool

    I have only read para 1 and I am sold on ref to Flashman and the Man Who Would be King.

  • oddie

    fascinating, Craig.

    btw the following is essential listening for u and all who comment here. very occasionally, one of these podcasts stops working, so best to download:

    7 May – Corbett Report – Rick Rozoff Calls Out the NATO Warmongers
    As Ukraine remains on a knife-edge of military tension, the NATO forces continue their Eastern European expansion and military provocations. In this must-listen interview, Rick Rozoff of Stop NATO International breaks down the history of NATO’s global partnership program, its decades-long build-up in Eastern Europe, the people and organizations in whom the fate of the world is increasingly hanging in the balance, and the small glimmer of hope that an informed, galvanized public can derail this headlong rush to war.

  • oddie

    also worth noting:

    7 May – Foreign Policy: The Cable: – Exclusive: US to support ICC War Crimes Prosecution in Syria
    by Colum Lynch
    The United States this week gave the green light to France — which has championed the effort — to distribute the text of a draft Security Council resolution authorizing an ICC investigation into alleged Syrian atrocities to other members of the 15-nation council for more formal negotiations, according to diplomats familiar with the matter.
    The United States indicated that it could support the text after seeking assurances that the ICC prosecutor, based in The Hague, would have no authority to investigate any possible war crimes by Israel, which has occupied the Golan Heights since the Six-Day War in 1967, according to those diplomats. The draft will be shared this week with the U.N.’s five veto-wielding powers, including China and Russia, before being distributed to all members of the 15-nation council as early as next week.
    The resolution’s passage is anything but ensured. The new diplomatic push sets the stage for a big-power confrontation with Syria’s closest ally, Russia…READ ON

  • craig Post author


    Thanks, amended. People who knew Hopkirk in the Foreign Office always referred to him as Paddy. I must say he is a wonderful writer. I have I think all his books. I read The Great Game again for the first time in twenty years, a fortnight ago. Not only is the writing wonderful, but having spent six years of manuscript research on the detail of part of his plot, if you like, I could hardly find a single inaccuracy.

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