Burnes was to live a great deal of his life camped in tents, and it is important to have an idea of what these camps looked like. British officers generally had large, individual tents. These would normally be taken on by bearers and pitched a day’s march ahead, ready for the officers’ arrival in the evening. Their escort and servants would have numerous tents around them. The camp would be very diffuse, as men of differing castes could not share a tent together or cook their food together. The campfires were therefore numerous and small. Horses and baggage animals would be pegged or coralled just on the margin of the camp.
The kind of tent which Burnes slept in would have been large and complex. It would have had both an inner and an outer tent; valets and bodyguards were sometimes allowed to sleep in the space between. At the entrance and ventilation points would be hung additional cloth screens called tatties, which were kept soaked in hot weather to provide cooling through evaporation. In very hot weather the British normally sunk a pit under the tent. The floor was covered with rich carpet.
Burnes has not left a description of any of his tents, but a contemporary traveller in India, Charles Hugel, had a tent with poles 25 feet high – the size of a British telegraph pole. The outer roof alone of Hugel’s tent weighed 600 lbs, and the fabric needed 6 horses to carry it.1
Hugel was not an army officer, but military tents appear also to have been very large. William Hough wrote that when a Regiment’s tents were brought down by a storm, sleeping officers were in danger of being killed by falling tent poles – which indicates that, like Hugel’s, these were very substantial. There are numerous references throughout this period to the marches of armies being delayed by heavy rain, because when wet the tents were simply too heavy to be lifted by the draught animals.
I give this detail because my own mental picture of Burnes in his tent and camp had been quite wrong.
One reason my book on BUrnes still is not finished is that I am absolutely fascinated by the detail. The above is riveting compared to some of the sections I have written on how Burnes had to account for his expenses. But I love to learn the process. I fear that the number of people who are as interested as me by this, or by how precisely a letter got from Montrose to Dera Ghazi Khan in 1837 and how the revenue was split, is very small. Actually I struggle to explain why this degree of authenticity is so important to me. It is not that I have not written screeds on the broad sweep of imperial expansion and its drivers. I have. I just have a constant urge to recreate a realistic sense of how it was to live in the world I am describing.
Maybe I need to do novels?