Alexander Burnes - British Empire 1815-1914

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Alexander Burnes

The most famous player in the 'Great Game'
Of all the young soldiers and officials who were players in the Great Game perhaps the most famous was Alexander Burnes. He was nicknamed ‘Bokhara Burnes’ for having been the first to explore Bokhara and to be accepted by its leaders but it was in Afghanistan that he was to have the greatest impact and where he died in the days before one of the British Empire’s most catastrophic defeats.

Burnes was born in Montrose, Scotland and like so many of his age and background joined the East India Company’s army at sixteen . Burnes quickly showed himself to be a resourceful, energetic and spirited young man who had a gift for learning languages which earnt him rapid promotion. When someone was needed to lead a mission to the ruler of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh, Burnes, at the age of 25. was chosen. Burnes had recently been moved from his regiment the 1st Bombay Light Infantry to the Indian Political Service. The mission was an odd one of taking five draw horses 500 miles on barges up the Indus river to Singh’s capital at Lahore.

Singh had recently presented to William IV a gift of Kashmiri shawls. This came at a time when the government was becoming increasingly concerned about Russian expansionism in central Asia. The President of the Board of Control of India, Lord Ellenborough, wanted to use trade as a way of projecting influence in the region and as a way of halting the Russian advance. The explorer William Moorcroft was able to persuade Ellenborough to explore the possibility of using the River Indus to carry British trade to the frontiers of Central Asia from where they could be carried by caravan to the bazaars of the former Silk Road. Ellenborough then hit upon the idea of sending the five horses as a present to Singh via the Indus which could at the same time be surveyed for possible use as a trade route by the British.
Ranjit Singh - the founder of the Sikh Empire in the Punjab region
On January 21, 1831 Burnes left Kutch near the mouth of the Indus in Sind with a small escort and the five dray horses  and the coach they would pull aboard a flat bottomed craft.. Travelling mainly by night to avoids any reprisals by local people, Burnes arrived in Lahore five months later. The horses were a spectacular success and contributed to Burnes being given an excellent reception by Singh who was anxious to maintain good relations with Britain.

Burnes and his party remained for two months in Lahore, time for Burnes to get a close look at Singh’s powerful army and for Singh to quiz Burnes about the effectiveness of the Indian army. There were numerous military parades and long discussions between the two men. Burnes could see that Singh was old and not likely to live long, something which the British would have to prepare for. Eventually Burnes returned home via Ludhiana, Britain’s most forward garrison town in British India where he caught sight of the deposed Afghan leader, Shah Shujah.
Shah Shuja was restored to his position on the throne of Kabul
Reaching Simla in late summer, Burnes reported to the Governor General on his mission. He had shown the Indus to be navigable and plans began to be made to use the river for British trade in Turkestan, the area north of Afghanistan. Henry Pottinger was soon despatched to the emirs of Sind to negotiate the use of the Indus for trade.

Having gained the support of the Governor General, Burnes now put his own plan up for consideration. He wanted to explore the area north of where Conolly had got to the previous year, by going to Kabul and from there to through the Hindu Kush and along the Oxus to Bokhara. Despite his youth Burnes was given permission to go for the new Whig government of Grey was as concerned about the Russian threat to India as the previous government.

Accompanied by a small party the Indus was crossed on March 17, 1832 leaving the Punjab behind. The group adopted Afghan dress although they made no attempt to disguise the fact that they were European. Rather than travel through the Khyber Pass the party found a less dangerous route and headed towards Kabul which was reached on 1 May.
A journey into central Asia
Burnes found the city of Kabul fascinating with its beautiful gardens and fruit trees. Burnes met the ruler of Kabul Dost Mohammed soon after his arrival and the two men got on very well together. Mohammed had beaten off his brothers to oust the previous ruler, Shah Shuja who now was in exile in British India. Like previous Afghan rulers Mohammed was schooled in the art of treachery, was cruel and could be deceitful. His people though rejoiced in the prosperity which he had brought to the land. Mohammed in his meetings with Burnes asked about European customs. He made it clear that he thoroughly disliked Ranjit Singh and even asked Burnes if he could help arm, train and modernise his army. Burnes was aware though of the British support for Singh and could not go too far.
Eventually Burnes and his party left Kabul and set off north towards Bokhara. On their journey they passed by Balkh where lay the remains of Moorcroft’s party who had died from illness and been buried near Balkh. Burnes wanted to locate the bodies and ensure they had a safe burial place. This he was to do before coming to the Oxus. Having spent several days asking about the navigability of the river, Burnes moved on across a desert to Bokhara which they entered on June 27, 1832. Burnes was summoned to see the Grand Vizier later that day giving the story that he was returning overland to England. Burnes got on very well with the Vizier and was shown around the city visiting the main square, the minaret from where criminals were thrown to their death and the slave market.

The Burnes party spent a month in Bokhara and when it came to leave he was persuaded not to travel north to Khiva because of the dangers of bandits and being kidnapped, but to travel to Persia. The next two British soldiers to arrive in Bokhara, Stoddart and Conolly were not so fortunate as Burnes for they were taken prisoner and executed. Eventually Burnes arrived back in India in January 1833. He reported to the Governor General, Lord Bentinck and then was ordered to London to brief the Cabinet and the Board of Control.
Where 'The Great Game' was played out
A hero back in England
In England Burnes was feted as a hero. He was promoted to Captain, awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He was also invited to join the Athenaeum without having to stand for election – a rare honour. Burns had written an account of his travels whilst on board ship homebound. The publisher John Murray quickly published hi account and the book became abet seller. In his secret account to the government Burnes made clear that both Herat and Kabul need to be defended against possible Russian incursion. It was possible a Russian army could reach Kabul within a month from Balkh and the pases of the Hindu Kush would not present an insurmountable barrier to the armies of the Tsar. Balkh could be reached by using the waters of the Oxus which were within reach of the Russian fortress of Orenburg.


Afghanistan had been identified by Burnes as crucial in the Great Game of keeping the Russians away from India. The Russians were also aware of the importance Afghanistan and in the mid-1830s sent a delegation to Dost Mohammed. It was in this context that Burnes was sent back to Kabul in 1837 to see his old friend Dost Mohammed. Mohammed aware of the Russian interest in his country was keen to negotiate a treaty with the British. The Governor General of India, Lord Auckland, though was more keen to keep the friendship of Ranjit Singh and to keep the Punjab peaceful. Given the enmity between Singh and Mohammed it was not possible for the British to negotiate friendly treaties with both rules and so Burnes had to accept that for all the personal friendship he had with Mohammed, he was not in a position to offer him anything. o rescue him, Conolly, were executed by the new Emir.
In fact worse than that Burnes had to convey a message to Mohammed from Auckland warning him not to misbehave and should he fail to adher to the warning he would be removed. Mohammed was not going to be brow beaten and on 21 April 1838 he received the Russian delegate , Vitkevich, who made a number of promises to him. Burnes was left with no alternative but to return back to India.

Dost Mohammed removed from his throne by the British and Stoddart and Conolly executed
In October 1838 Auckland took the action that was to lead to the military occupation of Kabul by the British and its eventual forced retreat. Auckland issued a declaration making it clear that Britain was going to forcibly remove Mohammed from his throne and replace him with Shah Shujah. Charles Stoddart was despatched to the Emir of Bokhara to assure him that he was not to feel threatened in any way by the British action in Afghanistan. Stoddart was never to return to India. Instead he and the officer sent trescue him, Conolly, were executed by the new Emir.

An army, called the Amy of the Indus was put together and invaded Afghanistan through the Bolan Pass. Burnes, now Lieutenant-Colonel Burnes was used to placate local opposition to the army as it marched the Bolan Pass and following the taking of Kandahar and Ghazni, approached Kabul which was reached in early July 1839. Dost Mohammed had fled leaing Shah Shujah to enter the city unopposed.

The British remained in Kabul to protect Shah Shujah who was anything but secure. They settled down to the kind of existence they enjoyed all over India. Race meetings, theatre, riding out became part of the everyday life of the British which did not endear them at all to the local people.

Resentment began to build up against the British presence. Prices of foodstuffs had risen because of the numbers of British troops that had to be fed. Taxes had increased to pay for Shujah’s administration and there was anger over the targeting of local women by the British. All this ought to have been reported to the leading British officers by Burnes but he had been side lined by the presence of Sir William Macnaghten. Burnes said his advice was never listened to and so he lived a life of idleness and womanising.

Death in Kabul
The fact that Burnes had been the first Briton to come to Kabul and befriend Dost Mohammed made him a target for local anger.  On November 1 1841 Burnes was warned by a friend that his life was in danger. At the time he was living in a house in the middle of the old part of the city that was not well protected. Next door was the garrison’s treasury which became the target of a mob that was building up near by. Soon the mob approached Burne’s house and started to become violent. The stables were set on fire and a shot was fired which killed Major Booadfoot. Burnes tried to reason with the mob from a balcony and then came down to the garden to prevent entry. Despite defending himself as well as he could against overwhelming odds Burnes was cut down and killed. The mob went on to loot the treasury, all this happening without any action taken to help him by the British garrison of 4,500 troops stationed just outside the city. Macnaghten and Elphinstone, in charge of the troops, could not come to a decision about what to do. The only troops that attempted to help Burnes were those of Shujah and they were destroyed in the streets of Kabul.
The death of Alexander of Burnes in Kabul
The deaths of Burnes and his companions gave the opposition to the British presence encouragement but instead of trying to gain control of the city Elphinstone pulled the British forces back to their cantonment outside the city and prepared for a siege. The result would lead to one of he greatest of disaster to befall a British force on the c19th.

Peter Crowhurst, August 2019

Further reading:
The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, 1990

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