BURNES, Alexander. Montrose 16.5.1805 — Kabul 2.11.1841. Sir. British (Scottish) Colonial Officer (Lieutenant-Colonel) and Traveller in India, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Son of James B. (peovost and a cousin of the poet Robert Burns), brother of —> J. B. After attending the famous college of his home-town he got through his father a cadetship of the E.I.C. and embarked in 31.12.1821 for Bombay. Learnt quickly Urdu, and was employed from 25.12.1822 as Urdu interpreter in Surat, then Persian interpreter at court. Rised quickly in army in Western India. In 1826 he prepared the statistics of Vagar (Cutch), in 1827 explored the mouths of the Indus, in 1830 in Thar, and in 1831 carried government’s gift of horses to Lahore travelling through Sindh (Sindh and Pañjab were still independent!). He observed the course of the Indus and returned through Simla to Delhi. This journey awakened his interest in Alexander’s campaigns, and, supported by Bentinck, he soon planned new travels.
Together with the military physician and Himalayan explorer —> James Gerard and four Indians he left Delhi 2.1.1832. Route: Delhi – Lahore – Attock – Kabul – Bamian – Khulum – Balkh – Bukhara – Meshed (where Gerard turned back to India) – Mazandaran – Astrabad – Ashraf – Esfahan – Shiraz – Abushir (18.12.), and by ship to Bombay, where he arrived on 18.1.1833. In October AB came to London as a celebrated hero, published his journal, and was accepted into the Royal Society. In December 1834 he visited Paris, and on 3.4.1835 left for Egypt and India.
AB was now sent on a diplomatic mission to Afghanistan to promise the British support to the Amir in his war with Persia. His companies were Leech, Lord, and Wood (discoverer of the sources of the Oxus). Came to Sindh on 18.1.1836, continued northward confering with Amirs and trying through letters to negotiate a peace between Sikhs and Afghans. On 5.6. left Dera Ghazi Khan, arrived on 5.8. to Attock, on 20.9. to Kabul. Beside his political work he collected much ethnographic information travelling in Kohistan and elsewhere. On spring 1838 he returned with Masson to Peshawar, where they met Allard and Court, and where also Lord and Wood came from Kunduz. On 17.6. to Lahore, on 20.7. to Simla.
AB supported an alliance with Afghanistan, but his superiors were against it. When Dost Muhammad started negotiations with Russians, the British answer was military expedition, although all specialists of the area criticized. AB was sent to Sindh and Baluchistan to prepare way for the army. The army arrived in Kabul, Shah Shuja was crowned, and AB left there as the British Political Agent in September 1839. He was also promoted lieutenant-colonel and knighted. However, the new government was not accepted by the population, who began a mutiny in autumn 1841. During its course most British in Kabul, including AB and his younger brother Charles B. were killed. Only 20 years later it came out that AB’s reports correctly analyzing the situation were kept secret or distorted in order to go on with the unfortunate Afghan venture.
The three journeys of AB increased considerably the Western knowledge of north-western and Central Asian geography and ethnography. He was nicknamed “Bokhara Burnes”.
Publications: Travel books: Travels into Bochara, being an account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia in the years 1831, 1832 and 1833, and Narrative of a voyage on the Indus. 1-3. 356+473+320 p. L. 1834; Cabool: Being a personal narrative of a journey to, and residence in that City: in the years 1836, 1837, 1938. 410 p. L. 1842.
– “Memoir on the Eastern Branch of the River Indus, giving an Account of the Alterations produced on it by an Earthquake, also a Theory of the formation of the Runn, and some Conjectures on the Route of Alexander the Great; drawn up in the years 1827–1828”, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland III, London 1835, 550–588.
– articles, e.g.: “On the Siah Posh Kafirs, with specimens of their language and costume”, JASB 7, 1838, 325-333, also wrote on Gujarat and the Pañjāb.
Sources: A.J.A[rbuthnot], D.N.B.7, 389-391; Buckland, Dictionary; JRAS 7, 1843, vif.; Eyriès, Nouv. Ann. Voy. 95, 1842, 5–55; *C. Murray, Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game. Edinburgh 2016; Wikipedia with picture.