Edward Stirling was one of the most intrepid of Afghan explorers and certainly the most ignored by Great Game historians. The motive for his epic journey in disguise is unknown. On retirement, he built a great house named “Stirling Castle” on the Isle of Wight, and incorporate a major Freemasonic Temple inside it, replete with Masonic and oriental themes. Alexander Burnes claimed, in a speech to St Peter’s Lodge in Montrose, to have discovered relics of “ancient Freemasonry” in Afghanistan and is almost certainly the true model for Kipling’s Danny Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King. Could James Lewis/Charles Masson have been telling something in his adopted surname?
Desertion was an extremely serious offence, and to desert on active service, as Lewis did before Bharatpur, carried the death penalty. It was universally held that it was essential that desertion always bring speedy retribution, lest it become infectious in the ranks1. The actions of British officials in turning a blind eye to Lewis’ status as a deserter are almost unprecedented. Indeed, the only way to pardon a deserter was by a grant direct from the King of England himself, and extraordinarily Masson received this signed in person by William IV, the only pardon for desertion granted by that King2. The explanation usually given is that they wished to make use of Masson to gather information from Central Asia. But they already had native agents reporting regularly, and Masson added little of real value. Furthermore, in the exactly contemporary case of Edward Stirling, his career was destroyed for the infinitely lesser sin of returning from leave three weeks late – his explorations of Afghanistan were not thought to compensate for that misdemeanour. It is highly improbable that Masson’s would compensate for his capital offence.
The future treatment of Masson was even more puzzling. In addition to a substantial government salary arranged for him, Burnes, Pottinger, McNeill and Wade all frequently and repeatedly sent him major sums of money, amounting to thousands of pounds, both from government sources and from their own pockets, and the bulk of these payments related more to his antiquarian researches than to any intelligence work. They continued despite his repeated failure to account for any official monies received. When Masson finally was taken into custody in 1841 as a suspected Russian spy, a charge of which he was, as we shall see, almost certainly guilty, he yet again was let off by the British authorities on a second capital offence. The relevant papers had already disappeared from the Lahore archives by 1929. Plainly the British officials had some powerful motive for protecting Masson – were they supporting him and his work in Afghanistan as a fellow freemason? William IV, the King who received both Alex and James in audience and pardoned Masson, was a fervent mason. Was the motive behind Masson’s antiquarian researches displayed in his choice of pseudonym?
[Sikunder Burnes is being edited down fro 260,000 to 180,000 words. Snippets of material I am editing out which strike me as interesting are being posted here. James and ALexander Burnes played a major role in inventing the myths of ancient Freemasonry and both the Alexandrian and the Knights Templar connection. In investigating what they did, I am not endorsing these myths, quite the opposite.]