Alexander Burnes

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Sir Alexander Burnes in the Costume of Bokharra

Captain Sir Alexander Burnes Kt FRS (16 May 1805 – 2 November 1841) was a British explorer and diplomat associated with The Great Game. He was nicknamed Bokhara Burnes for his role in establishing contact with and exploring Bukhara, which made his name.[1] His memoir, Travels into Bokhara, was a bestseller when it was first published in 1835.[2]

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.[3] At the age of sixteen, Alexander joined the army of the East India Company and while serving in India, he learned Urdu 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.


Afghanistan, one of the most remote and impoverished kingdoms in the world, found itself sandwiched between the rival British and Russian empires. British control in India made the Russians suspect an intention to move northwards through Afghanistan; conversely, the British feared that India was sought by Russia. Sensing the two empires would collide in Afghanistan, the British Government needed intelligence and dispatched Burnes to get it. In 1831, travelling in disguise, Burnes surveyed the route through Kabul to Bukhara and produced the first detailed accounts of Afghan 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 Sindh to clear a path towards Central Asia.[4] 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[5] 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.[6] It was republished in 2012. 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.[7] 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.[8] He was knighted by Queen Victoria on 6 August 1838, while serving in the 21st India Native Infantry on a mission in Afghanistan,[9][10] and remained there until his assassination in 1841, during an insurrection in which his younger brother, Charles, was also killed. The calmness with which he continued at his post despite the threat to his life, and the ferocity with which he fought after the death of his political assistant Major William Broadfoot (killing six assailants in the process),[11] won him a heroic reputation.

It came to light in 1860 that some of Burnes' dispatches from Kabul in 1839 had been altered to convey opinions that had not been his, but Lord Palmerston refused after so long to grant the inquiry demanded in the House of Commons. An account of his later labours was published in 1842 under the title of Travels into Bokhara, being an Account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia.


Because of Sir Alexander's supposed "womanizing" and the growing discontent of the people of Afghanistan against British occupation, a mob gathered and killed both Sir Alexander and his brother.[12]


He is commemorated in the name of the rufous-vented grass babbler Laticilla burnesii.



  • Craig Murray, Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd., 2016.

Historical fiction featuring Burnes[edit]


  1. ^ a b David (2007), p. 15
  2. ^ Hirst, Christopher. "Travels into Bokhara, by Alexander Burnes". The Independent. Retrieved 12 September 2016.
  3. ^ Burnes (1851), p. 21, n. 2
  4. ^ Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India: 1780–1870 By Christopher Alan Bayly. Cambridge University Press, 1996. p138
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ "Travels into Bokhara". Eland Books. Retrieved 12 September 2016.
  7. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 20 December 2010.[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ David (2007), p. 33
  9. ^ "No. 19643". The London Gazette. 7 August 1838. p. 1756.
  10. ^ Shaw, William Arthur (1906): The Knights of England. Vol. 2, London: Sherratt and Hughes, p. 341
  11. ^ David (2007), p. 47
  12. ^ Alexander Burnes – hacked to death in Afghanistan [1] Archived 24 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine


External links[edit]