Perhaps ironically, the most thorough review of Sikunder Burnes to date has just been published by the CIA, in cataloguing it for the CIA’s own library. I presume that they would not mind me reprinting it:
Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game, by Craig Murray. (Birlinn, Ltd, 2016) 437, endnotes, bibliography, photos, maps, index.
The “Great Game,” a term popularized but not originated by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim, refers to 19th-century intelligence operations between Britain and Russia when the former saw a threat from the latter. Alexander Burnes was a British military intelligence officer, a gifted linguist, and an active participant in the Great Game. Sikunder Burnes tells his story.
Author and former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, learned of Sir Alexander Burnes while studying history at the University of Dundee. A great-nephew of the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns, Sir Alexander had an impressive record of his own: as a 15-year-old cadet, Burnes arrived in India on 31 October 1821 and before his death in Kabul just 20 years later, he would enjoy audiences with British monarch, be knighted for service to the crown, honored by the Royal Geographic Society, and write a best-selling, three-volume account of his travels from India to Bokhara and another book about his service in Kabul during the First Afghan War.
Ambassador Murray acquired the details for his book by visiting long unexplored archives in India, Afghanistan, and London that revealed documents discussing Burnes’s travels on intelligence missions throughout India, Afghanistan, and neighboring regions. He often traveled in disguise while in unknown territory using the name “Sikunder Khan” (“Sikunder” is Persian for Alexander). Facilitated by his gift for linguistics, Burnes met with tribal officials on nominally political matters while collecting military and geographic intelligence. His reports included hand-drawn maps and fortress details that were sent to London and contributed to his growing reputation.
Perhaps the most surprising result of Murray’s research was his discovery of Burnes’s portrait in the Mumbai Asiatic Society archive; the portrait is included in the book. Burnes’s books featured a frontispiece of him in a turban, but this was not his true likeness: he had insisted on a distorted rendition to protect his anonymity. (128–129)
Burnes was not a solitary intelligence officer: Murray introduces the reader to a number of his espionage colleagues, while describing their often contentious relationships, exploits, and awkward communication methods.
Of his many assignments, Burnes’s mission to Kabul as liaison to the Afghan leader Dost Mohammed was the most challenging. He “recruited spies in the Afghan court” (204) to monitor the threatening alliances contemplated and formed with the Persians, Russians, and the region’s many factions. When the Indian government decided to replace Dost, rejecting Burnes’s recommendation to support him, Burnes reluctantly agreed and his friend Dost was replaced by a British surrogate. The result was the first disastrous Afghan war and Burnes’s violent death and that of his younger brother Charles, who had followed him to India, in the courtyard of Burnes’s home. Some historians concluded Burnes was killed because of sexual affairs with native women, but Murray explains that Burnes observed the Afghan rules about such matters and traveled with his own harem. (170)
There are two interesting sub-themes in Sikunder Burnes. In the first, Murray find parallels with his own foreign officer career and, from time to time, points them out in the narrative, which interrupts the flow a bit. Then there are his digressions concerning Alexander and his brother, James—a doctor, also in India for a while—and their connection with the myths that link the Knights Templar and Scottish Freemasonry. Murray ponders whether this connection supports the conspiracy theories of “Da Vinci Code.”
Sikunder Burnes is the first biography of Burnes’s extraordinary life. Whether, as some historians have claimed, there was no genuine Russian threat to India at the time, it is clear the British thought there was. What they did to counter it will confound those who follow events in Afghanistan today; there are many analogous mistakes. A fine and important book that reveals how intelligence was practiced “back in the day,” and, to some extent, how the practice continues.
Sadly the CIA appear not to have learned from the book the folly of occupying Afghanistan. But it would be delightful if they had learned that it would be helpful to send each of the 4,000 extra troops they are sending out with a copy of Sikunder Burnes in their back pocket, to increase their chances of survival.
I continue urgently to need contributions to my defence in the libel action against me by Jake Wallis Simons, Associate Editor of Daily Mail online. You can see the court documents outlining the case here. I am threatened with bankruptcy and the end of this blog (not to mention a terrible effect on my young family). Support is greatly appreciated. An astonishing 4,000 people have now contributed a total of over £75,000. But that is still only halfway towards the £140,000 target. I realise it is astonishing that so much money can be needed, but that is the pernicious effect of England’s draconian libel laws, as explained here.
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