Alexander Burnes

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Sir Alexander Burnes in the Costume of Bokharra

Captain Sir Alexander Burnes, FRS (16 May 1805 – 2 November 1841) was a Scottish traveller and explorer who took part in The Great Game. He was nicknamed Bokhara Burnes for his role in establishing contact with and exploring Bukhara, which made his name.[1]

Early life[edit]

Burnes was born in Montrose, Scotland, to the son of the local provost,[1] who was first cousin to the poet Robert Burns.[2] At the age of sixteen, Alexander joined the army of the East India Company and while serving in India, he learned Hindi and Persian, and obtained an appointment as interpreter at Surat in 1822. Transferred to Kutch in 1826 as assistant to the political agent, he took an interest in the history and geography of north-western India and the adjacent countries, which had not yet been thoroughly explored by the British, then he went to Afghanistan.


As Brittan and Russia stretched and flexed, Afghanistan, one of the most remote and impoverished kingdoms in world found itself sandwiched between the two empires. British control in India led to suspicion in a move north by the British through Afghanistan and toward Russia, likewise, India was the jewel in the crown of the Empire feared sought by Russia. Burns was one of the first to study Afghanistan for British Intelligence. Sensing these two empires would collided in Afghanistan, the British Government was hungry for intelligence and dispatched Burns, who may be known and one of Briton's greatest political officers. Alexander Burns spying mission was both extraordinary and brave. In 1831, traveling in disguise, Burns surveyed the route through Kabul to Bukhara and produced the first detailed accounts of Afghanistan Politics.

His proposal in 1829 to undertake a journey of exploration through the valley of the Indus River was approved and in 1831 his and Henry Pottinger's surveys of the Indus river would prepare the way for a future assault on the Sind to clear a path towards Central Asia.[3] In the same year he arrived in Lahore with a present of horses from King William IV to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The British claimed that the horses would not survive the overland journey, so they were allowed to transport the horses up the Indus and used the opportunity to secretly survey the river. In the following years, in company with Mohan Lal, his travels continued through Afghanistan across the Hindu Kush to Bukhara (in what is modern Uzbekistan) and Persia.

The narrative[4] which he published on his visit to England in 1834 added immensely to contemporary knowledge of these countries, and was one of the most popular books of the time. The first edition earned the author £800, and his services were recognised not only by the Royal Geographical Society of London, but also by that of Paris. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society the same year.[5] London's prestigious Athenaeum Club admitted him without ballot. Soon after his return to India in 1835 he was appointed to the court of Sindh to secure a treaty for the navigation of the Indus and in 1836 he undertook a political mission to Dost Mohammed Khan at Kabul.

First Afghan War[edit]

He advised Lord Auckland to support Dost Mohammed on the throne of Kabul, but the viceroy preferred to follow the opinion of Sir William Hay Macnaghten and reinstated Shah Shuja, thus leading to the disasters of the First Afghan War. On the restoration of Shah Shuja in 1839, Burnes became regular political agent at Kabul,.[6] He was knighted by Queen Victoria on 6 August 1838, while serving in the 21st India Native Infantry on a mission in Afghanistan,[7] and remained there until his assassination in 1841, during the heat of an insurrection in which his younger brother, Charles, was also killed. The calmness with which he continued at his post long after the imminence of his danger was apparent, and the ferocity with which he fought after the killing of his political assistant Major William Broadfoot (killing six assailants in the process),[8] won him a heroic reputation.

It came to light in 1860 that some of Burnes' dispatches from Kabul in 1839 had been altered so as to convey opinions opposite to his, but Lord Palmerston refused after such a lapse of time to grant the inquiry demanded in the House of Commons. A narrative of his later labours was published in 1842 under the title of Cabool.


"Sir Alexander Burnes was duly informed by his Afghan servants, the day previous to his murder, that there was a stir in the city, and that, if he remained in it, his life would be in danger." Burnes, who had grown comfortable with his masterful command of the Persian language, ignored the admonitions. According to contemporary Afghan reports of what happened next, Burnes became an obvious target for reprisal, as he was "one of the most licentious" characters among the resident British – and this was deeply resented by the local population.[dubious ][citation needed]

In the early morning of 2 November, disorder broke out in Kabul. By 03:00, a hostile mob had formed outside Burnes' house and set fire to the gates. Informed that Shah Shujah had sent a military escort, Burnes ran to the rooftop to look for them, but none were coming. Burnes and his escort fired at the mob around the building.

An Afghan swore that if Burnes' party ceased fire, he would lead them safely to a nearby fort occupied by Persian troops in Shah Shuja's service. Burnes disguised himself as Afghan to facilitate the arrangement. But only a few metres from the house, Burnes and his party, including his brother, fifteen sepoys, and several Hindu servants, were attacked by the mob and killed – most cut up by knives. Burnes' Afghan servants and several others in native clothing escaped.[citation needed]


He is commemorated in the name of the Rufous-vented Prinia Prinia burnesii.


Historical fiction featuring Burnes[edit]


  1. ^ a b David (2007), p. 15
  2. ^ Burnes (1851), p. 21, n. 2
  3. ^ Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India:1780-1870 By Christopher Alan Bayly. Cambridge University Press, 1996. p138
  4. ^ Travels into Bokhara; being the account of a journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia; also, Narrative of a voyage on the Indus, from the sea to Lahore, with presents from the king of Great Britain; performed under the orders of the supreme government of India, in the years 1831, 1832, and 1833. (London: John Murray). 1834. Vol.1 and Vol.2 and Vol.3
  5. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 20 December 2010. 
  6. ^ David (2007), p. 33
  7. ^ London Gazette (19643): 6. 8 August 1838. 
  8. ^ David (2007), p. 47


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