I fear I am pretty rubbish at giving my writing commercial appeal. Not only have I just completed a biography of somebody most people have never heard of, but I find myself writing about aspects of his life which are as non-commercial as imaginable. In a story of spies, disguises, sex, assassinations, battles, heroism, Knights Templar(!), exploration and more sex, I often find myself writing about minute details of the most mundane things.
I find I want to recreate for readers the world that Alexander Burnes encountered in his everyday existence, the stuff of his normal life, what he actually did all day apart from the adventure and spying. So I also write about accounts, and tents, and maps and packing lists. I fear that I must tax the patience of my poor publisher. Here are a couple of extracts from the final manuscript. I will never be able to write as well as William Dalrymple, but he won’t tell you the dimensions of a tent pole or how receipts were processed.
The book should be out in August.
If Burnes performed well it might open up permanent appointment to the Political Branch. The reports he submitted are therefore painstaking. In the first, marked ‘Camp at Keerawow, 14th December 1829’,1 he apologised for reporting in such detail. He noted he was the first European ever to visit other than on a punitive raid, and added he was motivated by a ‘great anxiety to shew myself worthy of the honour and trust which the Government have conferred upon me’.
He lived a great deal of his life in tents, and it is important to form a picture of these camps. British officers had large, individual tents. These would be taken ahead by bearers and pitched, ready for the officers’ arrival in the evening. Their escort and servants would inhabit numerous tents around them. The camp would be very diffuse, as men of differing castes could not share a tent or cook their food together. Camp-fires were therefore numerous and small. Horses and baggage animals would be pegged or corralled on the margin of the camp.
The kind of tent in which Burnes slept would have had both an inner and an outer; valets and bodyguards were sometimes allowed to sleep in the space between. At the entrance and ventilation points would be hung additional screens called tatties, kept soaked to provide cooling through evaporation. In very hot weather the British sank a pit under the tent. The floor was covered with rich carpet. The official issue tent for a subaltern, the most junior officer, was a substantial twelve feet square, but many officers used larger, private tents.2
A contemporary traveller in India, Charles Hugel, had a tent with poles twenty-five feet high – like a modern British telegraph pole. The outer roof alone of Hugel’s tent weighed 600lb, and the fabric needed six horses to carry it. 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. There are numerous references to marches delayed by heavy rain, because the wet tents were too heavy to be lifted.
Mundane worries intruded. There is always an irresoluble conflict between the exigencies of spying and the needs of public accountancy. Payments for information, informal messengers, gifts, payments for supplies of provisions from locals who may be illiterate – all had somehow to be accounted for. A significant proportion of the manuscripts indexed under ‘Alexander Burnes’ in the National Archives of India consist of detailed querying of his accounts.
To give but one example, in the midst of his vital negotiations with Dost, on 4 December 1837, Burnes sat down to submit his mission accounts for the period when his mission had been living largely on boats and travelling from Karachi to Sukkur. Burnes made no attempt to provide receipts, and instead wrote:
4th December 1837
I have the honour to forward statements of my actual receipts and disbursements for the months of January, February and March 1837, which I declare upon honour to be correct and according to the best of my knowledge.
I have etc
On a Mission to Cabool
To The Accountant General
On 10 October 1838 this was forwarded from Accountant General Charles Morley to the Secretary in Bombay, with a sniffy note:
The Civil Authority having returned the accounts (noted in the margin) of the receipts and charges connected to Captain Burnes’ Mission to Cabool – unaudited, from the circumstance of their not having been approved [. . .] I have the honor to forward them for the orders of His Honor the President in Council, together with a copy of a letter from Captain Burnes to my address [. . .] which accompanied them.
It will be observed that the charges exhibited in the accounts are unsupported by original receipts, or any other document than the declaration furnished in the conclusion of Captain Burnes’ communication before adverted to, and that the funds have been raised by Bills upon Presentation under the Bombay Presidency.2
Bombay batted them straight back to Calcutta advising that they would need to be considered by Auckland himself:
I have been directed [. . .] to [. . .] point out that the accounts having been rendered by Captain Burnes without vouchers it will be necessary if the Governor-General considers the charges to be moderate and warranted that His Lordship should authorize their being passed to Captain Burnes in account leaving receipts to be adjusted and checked by comparison with the accounts of the Treasury on which his bills were drawn.3
It is not a small point. Empires live on their accounting – some of the oldest documents in the world are surviving accounts of Mesopotamian empires, indelibly inscribed on clay tablets. The commercial origins of the EIC made accounting even more central to its culture. The pressure on Burnes over accounts was a major worry; if the government repudiated his bills he could be ruined.
Moorcroft and Gerard both died penniless for this very reason. Burnes had already lost money redeeming Gerard’s bills. Mohan Lal’s life was devastated by government refusing to refund payments made in the last days of the Kabul garrison. Edward Stirling’s expenses were turned down entirely. Stoddart’s Herat accounts were repudiated and many of Arthur Conolly’s bills remained unhonoured at his death. The entire story of the Great Game on the British side has this strange undercurrent.