Camping on the Indus 52

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?

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52 thoughts on “Camping on the Indus

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  • Clark

    Craig, you’d write wonderful novels. The bit in Murder in Samarkand where the Uzbek authorities are trying to stop you making a speech, the uniformed jobsworth with trestle tables across the road, and the bit where Uzbek secret services tried to ram the ambassadorial car but ended up driving into a wall – it had me in stitches. It could have been very serious, of course, but that whole passage is exciting, funny and serious all at once; wonderful stuff.

    I thought your book flowed much better than the radio adaptation. It had me turning pages like I was reading a novel.

    What’s that quote? Something like “journalists spin lies by being constructive with bits of the truth, whereas a novelist attempts to tell the truth by inventing a bunch of lies”. No libel suits in the world of fiction.

  • Pete

    This kind of details is actually fascinating so long as it’s well written. Most history books do leave it out because they’re focused on the bigger picture, but your book is homing in on one man so detail is appropriate. Otherwise readers just take stuff for granted when they shouldn’t.


    I think it was William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism, Clark.

  • Pete

    One thing that fascinates me about the Empire is the postal system. My great grandad in the 1870s used to write to his wife in Plymouth every week, from as far away as EAstern Siberia. It amazes me how that was possible. Likewise how stuff was paid for, eg how people like Sir George McCartney of Kashgar were able to turn up in Chinese Turkestan and still be able to buy everything they needed.

  • Fedup

    I am sorry for these O/T comments but considering the public sector strikes today, this news could be the precursor of events yet to come;

    Portuguese bank fears hit markets after Banco Espirito Santo shares suspended

    Banco Espirito Santo and its primary shareholder Espirito Santo Financial Group had their shares suspended after tumbling 17 per cent over concerns about accounting irregularities at the lender’s parent group ESI.

    As a result, the Lisbon stock exchange fell more than 4% , Madrid’s IBEX was down 2.7 per cent, while the Paris CAC 40 and Frankfurt’s Dax were both 1.8 per cent lower.

    of note is the following statement from IMF

    “The Portuguese banking system has been able to endure the crisis without significant disruption, aided by substantial public capital support and extraordinary measures from the ECB. However, as the Bank of Portugal acknowledges, pockets of vulnerability remain, warranting corrective measures in some cases and intrusive supervision in others. The IMF does not comment on individual financial institutions.”

    Meanwhile back at the ranch Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    A government adviser charged with ensuring taxpayers get value for money from public investments is embroiled in an alleged tax-avoidance scheme being pursued by HM Revenue and Customs.

    HMRC is pursuing all 1,300 members of the investment plan, past and present, for unpaid tax bills that could run to millions of pounds – demanding the cash up front even when cases are being taken to tribunal. The clawback has been heavily criticised, with City MP Mark Field calling it “wholly wrong” . Other investors include Dame Clara Furse of the Bank of England’s financial policy committee, and Sam Laidlaw, chief executive of Centrica.

  • Phil

    Novels – why not, indeed? You evidently have enough genuine source material.

    But, please stay with the Burnes story (and, perhaps, other similar ones).

    We all seem to appreciate the personal tale, to expand the ‘official’ version of such events.

  • Tony M

    The Curious Case of the Very Obliging Plume.

    Why collect the data, why model the weather and the radioactivity’s path, instead get the cover story fabricated, then fix the data to match.

    This article on Fukushima is a Good Read. Recommended links to other docs within the article include:

    A drill, a simulation event (similar to Visor Consultants on 7/7?) simulating an earthquake and tsunami event in Japan was running when the incident happened.

    Suspected Fukushima related Infant deaths in the US:

    Without doubt there have been zirc(onium) fires withing the spent fuel pools at Fukushima. There are thousands of such storage pools/tanks within the Sellafield complex as well as onsite at each of the UK nuke plants active and shutdown. This would surely preclude any attempt at fracking in NW England, you would think.

    FAO: Clark. Chernobyl and human health, harrowing read. This is all our futures.

  • glenn_uk

    Ben: More to do with country of origin, methinks. I could lay claim to the same, as it happens, particularly since that is where I reside now 😉

  • Jives


    Stop apologising and follow your heart and instinct!

    All the best writers have done so.

    You write beautifully and,in the right hands,detail can be a delightful and unexpectedly rewarding literary element.

  • rcil

    personally it’s details like the tents and how the postal system worked which I would be most interested in – they will add valuable color to the pages on geopolitics

  • Mary

    Tents. Today is UN World Population Day. The population is 7 billion up from 2.5 million in 1950. Think of the present inequalities in the distribution of the planet’s resources and wealth and of the many millions without a roof over their heads having to call a tent their home.

    There will be more tents in use in Gaza now where the death toll is now over 90.

  • KingofWelshNoir

    A very noble ambition, Craig. And since true writers never stop learning their craft I would warmly recommend the passage on ‘Thisness’ in James Wood’s How Fiction Works. It only takes half an hour to read but is very instructive on the way to use language to evoke the sort of palpability evinced by your telegraph poles comparison. As examples of great ‘thisness’, for example, he cites the way New York City refuse collectors refer to maggots as ‘disco rice’. Or the shattering detail in George Orwell’s description of a hanging in Burma, in which one of the condemned men walking to the scaffold steps aside to avoid a puddle.

  • Simon

    Peter Carey ! The more you know about the historical periods in which his books are set, the more you’re amazed. It’s not just that the details are accurate, it’s the way he uses them to underline how different and how singular were a place and a time – the exact opposite endeavour to the wash of “based on a true story” enterprises. And it’s a completely thrilling exercise, reading it or, I imagine, writing it, in fiction or non-fiction.

  • N_

    Novels – go for it! 🙂

    It can be quite fun to see how one scores on the official US psychiatric tests for, say, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, which include

    Shows perfectionism that interferes with task completion (e.g., is unable to complete a project because his or her own overly strict standards are not met).”

    (Important disclaimer: do not read anything I say as supportive of US psychiatry. One of the presidents of the American Psychiatric Association was Ewen Cameron, who was born in Bridge of Allan in Scotland. That Wikipedia article I just linked to is quite ridiculous in suggesting that Cameron’s attitude was anything other than Nazi.)

  • conjunction

    Agree with Clark, you would write good novels, your writing is elegant and rigorous and you follow the story well.

    Regarding the detail, don’t underestimate its importance. t is detail of the kind you mention that brings the period alive, that ‘transports’ us to the place and time in question.

    The historian Alison Weir is a master/mistress of this art. She spends a great deal of time in her biography of Queen Elizabeth for example describing the queen’s dresses, her attitude to social events, her relationship with courtiers. This is not gossip but it shows us how she made her decisions, how she managed people.

  • Mary

    Too many books, many unreadable and not enough hours in the day or months in the year to read them anyway. Stick to what you are doing Craig. Much more worthwhile.

    ‘The number of books being published in the U.S. has exploded. Bowker reports that over one million (1,052,803) books were published in the U.S. in 2009, which is more than triple the number of books published four years earlier (2005) in the U.S. (April 14, 2010 Bowker Report). More than two thirds of these books are self-published books, reprints of public domain works, and other print-on-demand books, which is where most of the growth in recent years has taken place. In addition, hundreds of thousands of English-language books are published each year in other countries.’

  • guano

    “as men of differing castes could not share a tent together or cook their food together”

    And therefore could not conspire together against their colonial masters.

    Funny how the mosques are getting less tolerant of eachother’s nuances of practise. My local made a public display of middle-aged brother who put a foot off the mosque line the other day, whereas in multi-ethnic Birmingham tolerance of minor differences has always been the norm.

    The brother was not doing anything against Islam. The picking on a regular member of a small congregation was definitely against Islam. and a sign of things to come as the Zionist Caliphate picks up steam. In Turkish mosques you can taste the bitter taste of Masonic Attaturk Zionism in the government Imams, like a slight tang of bacon in an otherwise vegetarian sandwich.

    Not sure how the Ummah is going to cope with being asked to eat a full Zionist breakfast Bacon, sausage , Black Pudding, egg and cheese. The weapons come from the US, the officers come from the US, the airpower comes from the US, the intelligence comes from the US and the plan comes from the US.

    No taste of either bread or Islam.

  • Mary

    Not at all KOWN. You took that the wrong way.

    I just think that Craig’s biography of Alexander Burnes will be brilliant. It is very important that his blog with its wide readership, seen and unseen, continues. If he takes up writing fiction, his energies could be dissipated. Where else is there a voice like his?

  • CharlieAngel

    “Wow Mary you seem to have switched allegiances from Palestine to Philistine!”

    Ha!! This really made me smile – thank you! And has to be one of the wittiest ripostes that I’ve seen in a comment box for a while. You’re not channeling the ghost of Dorothy Parker by any chance are you? 🙂

  • KingofWelshNoir

    @Mary Tee hee, I was just kidding 🙂 I’m sure if Craig does take up novel writing, it will still leave him plenty of time for blogging. Trollope said three hours a day was enough writing for one day.

    @CharlieAngel Channeling the ghost of Dorothy Parker? How did you guess 🙂

  • Iain Orr

    Factual books have the advantage over fiction that they can be true even where they are most outrageously implausible. Perhaps Cameron Murray’s grand-daughter will spend hours like Craig researching the true but wildly implausible details of the career of her great-grandfather’s notorious contemporary, Tony Blair, from lawyer to Thatcherite Labour MP, to warmongering PM, to peacemongering plutocrat and finally…..? Of course Robert Harris has already written the first novelette of his life, so much more lifelike than the actual jet-setting, tanned oligarchophile.

    So, Craig, please keep the local colour coming on Burnes, a far worthier subject for a Dundonian historian.


    No, really Glenn. Many of us change in spite of geography/ 🙂

    Why don’t you visit squonk?

  • Mary

    Peer profits from sale of looted goods (a statue that belongs to the Eqyptian people by rights). What a hypocrite.

    Lord Northampton to get £6m from Egyptian Sekhemka sale

    Only 6 wives (did he think he was a reincarnation of ‘Enery VIII) and he already has a large property empire.,_7th_Marquess_of_Northampton

    Rich List 2011
    138 £120m
    The Marquess of Northampton
    The Canonbury Academy
    2010: £90m (+£30m)
    The sale of his 3,200-acre Tandridge and
    Chesham Estates in Surrey for £25m is
    somewhat of a bonus for Northampton,
    who lives quietly these days at Castle Ashby
    in Northamptonshire.
    Other family assets – including
    paintings and medieval manuscripts –
    have been sold off over the years, with the
    money said to have been ploughed back
    into the upkeep of the stately homes.
    In 1985, two years after his divorce from
    wife number three, Rosie, he sold The
    Adoration of the Magi by the 15th century
    artist Andreas Mantegna, for a then world
    record £8.1m, despite protests over its
    export to the Getty Museum in California.
    Northampton’s country estates in
    Warwickshire and Northamptonshire
    cover 18,500 acres.
    He also has at least one London home
    on an exclusive square, as well as property
    in Islington, North London, including a
    conference centre in a mansion which has
    been in the Compton family since 1599.
    With the Tandridge and Chesham
    Estates £25m sale proceeds and rising
    land prices, we value Northampton, 65,
    at £120m.

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