I am still pruning back Sikunder Burnes to reach the publisher’s target of 180,000 words (which to be fair is more generous than modern publishers generally are). It is a difficult process, and it feels like deadwood and weak branches went some time ago, and sap is now flowing with a vengeance.
Had I room I would have added a section on poetry. For those of you who are not Great Game aficionados, the dramatis personae here will be obscure, and make a note to come back to this after you have read the book. But in a tale of adventure, exploration and ruthless conquest in British India, I have been constantly surprised by the connection of almost all the leading characters to poetry, and how closely the poetic was woven into their lives.
Alexander Burnes’ grandfather was of course first cousin to Robert Burns. Alex continually quotes Burns in his correspondence, but not only Burns. He was very fond of and frequently quotes Thomas Moore, and Alex’ correspondence with Moore and meetings with him in London are accounted an influence on his poetry. Alex also frequently quotes Fergusson, Ramsay, Byron, Milton, Shelley and often passages of poetry I cannot place. He also had a real passion for the Persian classical poets, who he regularly quotes in Persian.
The Burnes family were stationed at the cantonment in Bhuj, Cutch for 13 years. Their first chaplain in Bhuj was James Gray, himself a noted poet, editor of Fergusson, Hogg’s brother-in-law and one time teacher of Robert Burns’ children.
The President of the Board of Control, John Cam Hobhouse, had been Byron’s closest friend and companion. The Secretary of the Secret Committee working under him was the poet Thomas Love Peacock. (I digress from poetry to note the Secretary of the Political Committee was John Stuart Mill). Alex’ friend and colleague Darcy Todd was the son of Coleridge’s muse Mary Evans. Henry Torrens, Auckland’s secretary, was a minor poet of some merit and in addition to his original work translated the Thousand and One Nights, on which even the apparently unpoetic William Hay Macnaghten worked (a sadly bowdlerised affair). Surprisingly, Mohan Lal reckoned Charles Masson a “great poet”, very probably in the Persian language, though I have been unable to find his poetry among his papers in the British Library. Lal was himself a poet. Shah Shuja was reputed a fine poet. Mehir Dil Khan of Kandahar, a key participant in Burnes’ Kabul negotiations of 1837, led an important revival in Afghan courtly poetry.
There is much more. I was not in any sense considering poetry as a theme when I started research, but have been struck by the way that poetry was interwoven into daily life, and a poetic sensibility was part of the world view of the administrators of the British imperium in India in the 1820s and 1830s. I did not expect that at all. How their world views were reconciled with imperial aggression, exploitation and even atrocity (and individual reactions were very different) is a major part of the study.