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Enter ‘Bokhara’ Burnes

Image ‘Alas, Sind is now gone,’ a holy man was heard to say as he watched Lieutenant Alexander Burnes and his party sail past him up the Indus. ‘The English have seen the river which is the road to our conquest.’ This fear was echoed by a soldier who told Burnes: ‘The evil is done. You have seen our country.’ The real purpose of the expedition, as Sir Charles Metcalfe had warned, fooled no one, and at first the suspicious emirs had objected strongly to the passage across their dominions of the Company’s vessel with its bizarre cargo. Finally, however, threatened with grave consequences if they held up Ranjit Singh’s gifts, and sweetened with gifts themselves, they reluctantly agreed to allow Burnes and his companions to proceed. Apart from the occasional pot-shot taken at them from the river bank, they had no further trouble, although the emirs insisted that they could not be responsible for their safety as they made their way slowly northwards.

Working wherever possible at night to avoid arousing the hostility of the locals, they reached Lahore, Ranjit Singh’s capital, five months after entering the mouth of the Indus. In addition to charting the river, which involved taking discreet soundings of its muddy depths, they had proved by their arrival that the Indus system was navigable up to that point, 700 miles from the coast, though only for flat-bottomed craft like their own. There, provided Ranjit Singh agreed, British goods could be unloaded and carried overland into Afghanistan and across the Oxus to the markets of Turkestan.

The five horses, which had miraculously survived the heat and other discomforts of the long voyage, caused a sensation among the court officials sent to the frontier to welcome them to the Punjab. ‘For the first time,’ Burnes noted, ‘a dray horse was expected to gallop, canter and perform all the evolutions of the most agile animal.’ Further astonishment was to follow when their massive feet were inspected. On it being discovered that just one of their shoes weighed four times that of a local horse, Burnes was asked whether one of these might be sent ahead to Lahore. ‘The curiosity was forthwith dispatched,’ he observed, ‘accompanied by the most minute measure of each of the animals for Ranjit Singh’s special information.’ The coach too, with its lining of blue velvet, drew similar admiration from his officials, and hauled by the five huge horses (‘little elephants’, the locals christened them), this now set out overland for the capital.

A dazzling reception awaited Burnes in Lahore, Ranjit being as anxious to maintain cordial relations with the British as they were to keep on the right side of their powerful Sikh neighbour.. For his highly trained and well-equipped army was thought in Calcutta to be almost a match for the Company’s own forces, although neither side had any wish to put this to the test. The only cause for concern in London and Calcutta was Ranjit’s health, and the inevitable struggle for power which would follow his death. One of Burnes’s tasks was to report on the ruler’s expectation of life, and on the political mood of the kingdom.

‘We passed close under the walls of the city,’ he wrote afterwards, ‘and entered Lahore by the palace gate. The streets were lined with cavalry, artillery and infantry, all of which saluted as we passed. The concourse of people was immense; they had principally seated themselves on the balconies of houses, and preserved a most respectful silence.’ Burnes and his companions were next led across the outer courtyard of the royal palace to the main entrance to the throne room. ‘While stooping to remove my shoes,’ he reported, ‘I suddenly found myself in the arms and tight embrace of a diminutive, old-looking man.’ He realised to his astonishment that it was the mighty Ranjit Singh himself who had come forward to greet his guest, an unprecedented honour. The maharajah now led Burnes by the hand to the interior of the court where he seated him on a silver chair before the throne.

Burnes presented Ranjit Singh with a letter from Lord Ellen-borough. Sealed in an envelope made from cloth of gold, and bearing the British royal coat-of-arms, it conveyed a personal message to the Sikh ruler from William IV. Ranjit ordered it to be read aloud. ‘The King’, Lord Ellenborough had written, ‘has given me his most special command to intimate to your Highness the sincere satisfaction with which his Majesty has witnessed the good understanding which has for so many years subsisted, and which may God ever preserve, between the British Government and your Highness.’ Ranjit Singh was clearly delighted, and even before it was finished gave orders for a thunderous artillery salute – sixty guns, each firing twenty-one times – to be discharged to make his pleasure known to the people of Lahore.

Next, with Burnes at his side, Ranjit was taken to inspect the five dray horses, which were waiting patiently in the heat outside, together with the new state coach. Clearly pleased with this spectacular gift from the English sovereign, he called out excitedly to court officials as one by one the horses were led past him. The following morning Burnes and his party attended a military review, with five regiments of infantry drawn up in line. Burnes was invited by Ranjit to inspect his troops, who were dressed in white with black cross belts, and armed with locally made muskets. The regiments now manoeuvred for Ranjit’s guests, ‘with an exactness and precision’, Burnes noted, ‘fully equal to our Indian troops.’ Ranjit asked him many questions about military matters, and in particular whether British troops could advance against artillery.

In all, Burnes and his companions were to spend nearly two months as Ranjit’s guests. There were endless military parades, banquets and other entertainments, including long sessions spent imbibing with Ranjit a locally distilled ‘hell-brew’ of which the latter was extremely fond. There was also a troupe of Kashmiri dancing girls, forty in number and all dressed as boys, to whom the one-eyed ruler (he had lost the other from smallpox) appeared similarly addicted. ‘This’, he confided to Burnes with a twinkle, ‘is one of my regiments, but they tell me it is the only one I cannot discipline.’ When the girls, all strikingly beautiful, had finished dancing, they were whisked away on elephants – much to the disappointment of the youthful Burnes, who also had a weakness for comely native girls.

There was plenty of time, too, for serious discussion on political and commercial matters, which was the real purpose of their coming. Burnes was profoundly impressed by the wizened old Sikh who, despite his diminutive size and unattractive appearance, had gained the respect and loyalty of this warrior people, every one of whom towered over him in stature, for so long. ‘Nature’, Burnes wrote, ‘has indeed been sparing in her gifts to this personage. He has lost an eye, is pitted by the small-pox, and his stature does not exceed five feet three inches.’ Yet he commanded the instant attention of all around him. ‘Not an individual spoke without a sign,’ Burnes noted, ‘though the throng was more like a bazaar than the Court of the first native prince in these times.’

Like all native rulers, however, he could be ruthless, although he claimed that during his long reign he had never punished anyone by execution. ‘Cunning and conciliation’, Burnes wrote, ‘have been the two great weapons of his diplomacy.’ But how much longer would he remain in power? ‘It is probable’, reported Burnes, ‘that the career of this chief is nearly at an end. His chest is contracted, his back is bent, his limbs withered.’ His nightly drinking bouts, Burnes feared, were more than anyone could take. However, his favourite tipple – ‘more ardent than the strongest brandy’ – appeared to do him no harm. Ranjit Singh was to survive another eight years – greatly to the relief of the Company’s generals, who saw him as a vital link in India’s outer defences, and a formidable ally against a Russian invader.

Finally, in August 1831, laden with gifts and compliments, Burnes and his companions crossed back into British territory, making for Ludhiana, the Company’s most forward garrison town in north-west India. There Burnes met briefly a man whose fate was to be closely bound to his own – Shah Shujah, the exiled Afghan ruler, who dreamed of regaining his lost throne by toppling its present occupant, the redoubtable Dost Mohammed. Burnes was not impressed by this melancholy-looking man who was already turning to fat. ‘From what I learn,’ he noted, ‘I do not believe that the Shah possesses sufficient energy to set himself on the throne of Cabool.’ Nor, Burnes felt, did he appear to have the personal qualities or political acumen to reunite so turbulent a nation as the Afghans.

A week later Burnes reached Simla, the Indian government’s summer capital, where he reported to Lord William Bentinck, the Governor-General, on the results of his mission. He had shown that the Indus was navigable for flat-bottomed craft, whether warships or cargo-boats, as far north as Lahore. As a result of this discovery it was decided to proceed with plans to open up the great waterway to shipping, so that British goods could eventually compete with Russian ones in Turkestan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Bentinck therefore dispatched Henry Pottinger, now a colonel in the political service, to begin negotiations with the emirs of Sind over the passage of goods through their territories. Ranjit Singh, Burnes reported, would present no problems. Apart from being friendly towards the British, he would also benefit from this passing trade. Burnes’s superiors were delighted with the results of his first mission, and no one more so than the Governor-General who, on Sir John Malcolm’s recommendation, had chosen him for it. He was commended by Bentinck for the ‘zeal, diligence and intelligence’ with which he had carried out his delicate task. At the age of 26, Burnes was already on his way to the top.


Having won the Governor-General’s ear and confidence, Burnes now put forward an idea of his own for a second, more ambitious mission. This was to reconnoitre those hitherto unmapped routes to India lying to the north of the ones which Arthur Conolly had explored the previous year. He proposed travelling first to Kabul, where he would seek to establish friendly links with Ranjit Singh’s great rival Dost Mohammed, and at the same time endeavour to gauge the strength and efficiency of his armed forces and the vulnerability of his capital. From Kabul he intended to proceed through the passes of the Hindu Kush and across the Oxus to Bokhara. There he hoped to do much the same as in Kabul, returning to India via the Caspian Sea and Persia with a mass of military and political intelligence for his chiefs. It was a highly ambitious scheme, for most people would have settled for either Kabul or Bokhara, not both.

Burnes expected strong opposition to his proposal, not least because of his junior rank and the extreme sensitivity of the region. It came as a pleasant surprise therefore when in December 1831 he was informed by the Governor-General that approval had been given for him to proceed. Burnes was soon to discover the reason for this. The timing of his suggestion could not have been better. In London the new Whig Cabinet under Grey was beginning to feel as uneasy as the Tories about the growing strength and influence of the Russians, both in Europe and in High Asia. ‘The Home Government’, Burnes wrote to his sister, ‘have got frightened at the designs of Russia, and desired that some intelligent officer should be sent to acquire information in the countries bordering on the Oxus and the Caspian . . . and I, knowing nothing of all this, come forward and volunteer precisely for what they want.’

He immediately set about making plans for the journey and choosing suitable companions – one Englishman and two Indians. The former was a Bengal Army doctor named James Gerard, an officer with a taste for adventure and with previous experience of travel in the Himalayas. One of the Indians was a bright, well-educated Kashmiri named Mohan Lai. He was fluent in several languages, which would come in useful when oriental niceties had to be observed. It would also be one of his tasks to record much of the intelligence gathered by the mission. The other Indian was an experienced Company surveyor named Mohammed Ali who had accompanied Burnes on the Indus survey and had already proved his worth. In addition to these three, Burnes brought his own personal servant who had been with him almost since his arrival in India eleven years earlier.

On March 17, 1832, the party crossed the Indus at Attock, turning their backs on the Punjab, where they had enjoyed Ranjit Singh’s hospitality and protection, and prepared to enter Afghanistan. ‘It now became necessary to divest ourselves of almost everything which belonged to us,’ Burnes was to write, ‘and discontinue many habits and practices which had become a second nature.’ They disposed of their European clothing and adopted Afghan dress, shaving their heads and covering them with turbans. Over their long, flowing robes they wore cummerbunds, from which they hung swords. But they made no attempt to conceal the fact that they were Europeans – returning home to England, they claimed, by the overland route. Their aim was to try to melt into the background, and thus avoid attracting unwelcome attention; ‘I adopted this resolution’, Burnes explained, ‘in an utter hopelessness of supporting the disguise of a native, and from having observed that no European traveller has ever journeyed in such countries without suspicion and seldom without discovery.’

Robbery, he believed, was their greatest danger, and the expedition’s small treasury was divided among its members for concealment on their persons. ‘A letter of credit for five thousand rupees’, Burnes wrote, ‘was fastened to my left arm in the way Asiatics wear amulets.’ His passport and letters of introduction were attached to his other arm, while a bag of gold coins hung from a belt beneath his robes. It was also agreed that Gerard should not dispense free medicines for fear that this might give the impression that they were wealthy. In Afghanistan, where every man carried a weapon and coveted the property of strangers, one could not afford to be off one’s guard for a second.

They had been warned that if they attempted the Khyber Pass they would be unlikely to get through alive, so instead they crossed the mountains by a longer and more tortuous route. After passing safely through Jalalabad, they took the main caravan route westwards towards Kabul. All around them as they rode were snow-capped mountains, while in the far distance could be seen the mighty peaks of the Hindu Kush. Their problems proved fewer than they had feared, and one bitterly cold night they were allowed to sleep in a mosque, although the villagers knew they were infidels. ‘They do not appear to have the smallest prejudice against a Christian,’ Burnes wrote, and nowhere did he or Dr Gerard attempt to conceal their religion. Nonetheless they were cautious, and most careful not to cause offence. ‘When they ask me if I eat pork,’ Burnes was to write, ‘I of course shudder and say it is only outcasts who commit such outrages. God forgive me! For I am very fond of bacon and my mouth waters when I write the word.’

At midnight on April 30 they reached the pass leading down to Kabul, and the following afternoon entered the capital, proceeding first to the customs house. Here, to their alarm, their baggage was searched. This was something they had not anticipated, though fortunately it did not prove to be very thorough. ‘My sextant and books, with the doctor’s few bottles and paraphernalia, were laid out in state for the inspection of the citizens,’ Burnes recounted. ‘They did them no harm, but set us down without doubt as conjurors, after a display of such unintelligible apparatus.’

Six weeks after crossing the River Indus they had reached their first goal. It was here in Dost Mohammed’s stronghold that their mission would really begin. By the time it was over, nine months later, it would have won for Burnes the kind of acclaim that Lawrence’s exploits in Arabia were to attract seventy-five years later.


Although the name of Alexander Burnes will always be associated with Bokhara, it is to Kabul that it really belongs. For it was with the Afghan capital and its ruler that his destiny was to be fatally entwined. On this first visit to it, in the spring of 1832, he was to fall in love with the city, likening it to paradise. Its many gardens, so abundant in fruit-trees and song-birds, reminded him of England. ‘There were peaches, plums, apricots, pears, apples, quinces, cherries, walnuts, mulberries, pomegranates and vines,’ he wrote, ‘all growing in one garden. There were also nightingales, blackbirds, thrushes and doves . . . and chattering magpies on almost every tree.’ So struck was Burnes by the song of the nightingales that an Afghan friend was later to have one delivered to him in India. Christened ‘the nightingale of a thousand tales’, it sang so loudly all night that it had to be removed from earshot so that he could sleep.

Burnes and Dost Mohammed hit it off from the start. The Englishman, who maintained his story that he was on his way home via Kabul and Bokhara, had brought with him valuable letters of introduction to the Afghan potentate, and very soon found himself invited to the royal palace within the Bala Hissar, the great walled citadel overlooking the capital. In contrast to his neighbour and foe Ranjit Singh, Dost Mohammed was a man of surprisingly modest tastes, and he and Burnes sat cross-legged together on a carpet in a room otherwise devoid of furniture.

Like all Afghan princes, Dost Mohammed had been schooled almost from birth in the arts of intrigue and treachery. In addition he had been born with other, more subtle qualities inherited from his Persian mother. All this had enabled him to outmanoeuvre his several older brothers in the struggle for the throne of Kabul which had followed the ousting of Shah Shujah, now in exile at Ludhiana, and by 1826 he had finally won it for himself. Unable to read or write, he had at once set about remedying this and at the same time restoring order and prosperity to his new domains. Burnes and his companions found themselves much impressed by what he had managed to achieve in this turbulent land in those six years.

‘The reputation of Dost Mohammed’, Burnes reported, ‘is made known to the traveller long before he enters the country, and no one better merits the high character he has obtained. The justice of this chief affords a constant theme of praise to all classes. The peasant rejoices at the absence of tyranny, the citizen at the safety of his house and the strict municipal regulations, the merchant at the equity of his decisions and the protection of his property.’ A potentate, Burnes concluded, could enjoy no higher praise than that. But Mohan Lai, the young Kashmiri in the party, was less convinced of the Afghan ruler’s benevolence, observing later that while he was ‘prudent and wise in cabinet, and an able commander in the field’, he was no less able in the arts of ‘treachery, cruelty, murder and falsehood’.

Welcoming Burnes at their first meeting, Dost Mohammed declared that although he was unfamiliar with Englishmen, he had heard others speak well of both them and their nation. In his eagerness for knowledge of the outside world and how it managed its affairs, he showered Burnes with questions. He wanted to know all about Europe, how many kings it had, and how they prevented neighbouring ones from trying to overthrow them. The questions were so numerous and diverse that Burnes soon lost track of them, but they included law, revenue collection, the manner in which European nations raised their armies (he had heard that the Russians used conscription), and even foundling hospitals. He also wanted to know whether the British had any designs on Afghanistan, looking Burnes sharply in the eye as he asked. Aware that Ranjit Singh employed European officers to train and modernise his army, he even offered Burnes, whom he knew to be a Company officer, the command of his. ‘Twelve thousand horse and twenty guns shall be at your disposal,’ he promised, and when Burnes gracefully declined the honour he invited him to recommend a brother officer instead.

Dost Mohammed made no attempt to conceal his dislike of his powerful and arrogant Sikh neighbour, and asked Burnes whether the British would like his help in overthrowing him. It was an embarrassing offer, for the removal of the friendly Ranjit was the very last thing anyone in Calcutta or London wanted. To them it was not the Sikhs who were the worry, but the unruly Afghans. After all, only seventy-five years earlier they had poured down through the Khyber Pass and sacked Delhi, riding home triumphantly with all the treasures they could carry. Thanking Dost Mohammed for his offer, Burnes pointed out that his government had a long-standing treaty with Ranjit and could not afford to be on bad terms with so formidable a neighbour. As a political officer, Burnes knew that what Calcutta really needed on this, its most vulnerable frontier, was not two warring rivals, but two strong and stable allies, both friendly to Britain, to serve as a shield against invasion. However, he had been sent to report on these rulers’ sympathies, not to try to reconcile them. That would come later, as would the crucial question of which of the several rivals for the throne of a united Afghanistan Britain should back. Conolly had argued for Kamran Shah, if only because it was vital to keep Herat out of Persian (and therefore eventually Russian) hands. Burnes had no doubts whatever about his candidate. Dost Mohammed, he believed, should be courted by Britain and kept firmly on his throne, as the only man capable of uniting this warlike nation.

Burnes and his party would happily have stayed much longer, sipping tea and gossiping with Afghan friends in this delightful town, but their journey to Bokhara still lay ahead of them. After one final meeting with Dost Mohammed which continued until long after midnight, they set off northwards towards the passes of the Hindu Kush, beyond which lay Balkh, the Oxus and, ultimately, Bokhara. Once they were clear of Dost Mohammed’s territories they would be embarking on the most dangerous stretch of their journey, and the fate of Moorcroft and his two companions, only seven years earlier, was now never far from their thoughts. When they reached the once-great city of Balkh, by then reduced to ruins, they were determined to track down the men’s lonely graves as an act of personal homage.

The first one they managed to locate, in a village several miles away, was that of George Trebeck, the last of Moorcroft’s party to die. It lay, unmarked, beneath a mulberry tree. ‘After burying his two European fellow-travellers,’ Burnes wrote, ‘he sank, at an early age, after four months’ suffering, in a far distant country, without a friend, without assistance, and without consolation.’ They finally came upon the graves of Moorcroft and Guthrie, buried side by side, beneath a mud wall outside Balkh. Because they were Christians, the locals had insisted that they be buried without a headstone of any kind. It was a clear, moonlit night, and Burnes was much affected, for Moorcroft was a man whom he, like all those who played the Great Game, much revered. ‘It was impossible to view such a scene at dead of night without any melancholy reflections,’ he wrote. ‘A whole party, buried within twelve miles of each other, held out small encouragement to us who were pursuing the same track and were led on by nearly similar motives.’

But they had little time to spare for such morbid considerations. They had reached the Oxus safely, and there were important if discreet enquiries to be made about the great river, up which, it had long been feared, a Russian invasion force might one day sail from the Aral Sea to Balkh. In his published narrative Burnes gives little indication of how they set about this during their five days in the region, describing instead their search for coins and antiquities in the ruins of ancient Balkh. It is only when one reads Burnes’s secret reports to his chiefs, whose faded transcripts are today in the archives of the India Office in London, that one realises how busy they must have been enquiring about the river’s navigability, the availability of food and other supplies in the region, and further strategic considerations. This task completed, they now set out on the final stage of their journey, the gruelling, ten-day desert crossing to Bokhara. For this they attached themselves to a large, well-armed caravan. Although they were now nominally within the domains of the Emir of Bokhara, they knew there was a real risk of being seized by Turcoman slavers and ending up in shackles in the city’s market square. But apart from a mysterious fever which afflicted Burnes and his companions, reminding them uncomfortably of the fate of their three predecessors, the journey passed off without mishap.

As they approached Bokhara, Burnes composed a letter, redolent with oriental flattery, which he sent ahead of them to the Koosh Begee, or Grand Vizier, expressing their wish to see the legendary glories of the holy city. His liberal use of phrases describing the vizier as ‘the Tower of Islam’, and ‘the Gem of the Faith’ clearly pleased the recipient, for a messenger soon returned to say that they would be welcome to visit Bokhara. Still weak from their illness, Burnes and Gerard, together with their native companions, finally rode through the city’s main gateway on the morning of June 27, 1832, just six months after leaving Delhi. Later on that same day Burnes was summoned before the Grand Vizier at the Emir’s palace in Bokhara’s famous Ark, or citadel, some two miles from their lodgings. After changing into local garb, Burnes proceeded there on foot, for it was strictly forbidden for all but Muslims to ride within the holy city. He went alone, Gerard still being too ill to accompany him.

His interview with the Koosh Begee, a wizened old man with small, crafty eyes and a long grey beard, began with an interrogation lasting two hours. The vizier first wanted to know what had brought Burnes and his party to a kingdom so far from their own. Burnes explained as usual that they were returning overland to England, and that they wanted to take back with them word of Bokhara’s splendours, already so renowned throughout the Orient. ‘What’, the vizier next asked him, ‘is your profession?’ Burnes hesitated for a moment before confessing to being an officer in the Indian Army. But he need not have worried, for this did not appear to perturb the Koosh Begee in the least. The Bokharan seemed to be more interested in Burnes’s religious beliefs, asking him first whether he believed in God, and then whether he worshipped idols. Burnes denied the latter emphatically, upon which he was invited to bare his chest to show that he was not wearing a crucifix. When it transpired that Burnes was not, the vizier declared approvingly: ‘You are people of the Book. You are better than the Russians.’ He next asked whether Christians ate pork, a question which Burnes knew he had to answer with caution. Some did, he replied, though mainly the poor. ‘What’, his interrogator next asked, ‘does it taste like?’ But Burnes was ready for that one. ‘I have heard’, he replied, ‘that it is like beef.’

Very soon, however, as he invariably did with Asiatics, Burnes was getting on famously with the vizier, to whom he was evidently a source of tantalising information from the sophisticated outside world. The friendship was to cost him one of his only two compasses, although this gift won for him and his companions the freedom to wander the city at will, and to observe its everyday life. They saw the grim minaret from which criminals were hurled to their deaths, and they visited the square before the Ark where beheadings were conducted with a huge knife. Burnes went to watch the slave-market in action, reporting afterwards: ‘Here these poor wretches are exposed for sale, and occupy thirty or forty stalls where they are examined like cattle.’ That morning there were only six being offered, none of them Russians. ‘The feelings of a European’, he added, ‘revolt at this most odious traffic’, which Bokharans defended on the grounds that the slaves were kindly treated, and were often far better off than in their own land.

Burnes had discreetly let it be known that he wanted to meet one of the Russian slaves, of whom there were 130 or so in Bokhara. Not long afterwards a man of obvious European origin slipped into their house one night and flung himself emotionally at Burnes’s feet. He told them that as a boy of 10 he had been captured by Turcoman slavers while asleep at a Russian outpost. He had been a slave for fifteen years now, and worked for his master as a carpenter. He was well treated, he said, and was allowed to go where he wished. But for reasons of prudence he pretended to have adopted Islam, although secretly (‘and here’, Burnes noted, ‘the poor fellow crossed himself) he was still a Christian. ‘For I live among a people’, he explained, ‘who detest, with the utmost cordiality, every individual of that creed.’ After sharing the Englishmen’s meal with them, he told them before departing: ‘I may appear to be happy, but my heart aches for my native land. Could I but see it once again, I would willingly die.’

They had now been in Bokhara for a month, and their enquiries were complete. Burnes had hoped to press on to Khiva, and return home from there via Persia. However, the Koosh Begee warned him strongly against attempting the journey to Khiva, saying that the surrounding region was unsettled and extremely dangerous. In the end Burnes decided to head directly for Persia, via Merv and Astrabad, and forget Khiva. He managed to obtain from the vizier a firman bearing the Emir’s personal seal and ordering all Bokharan officials to assist the party in every way possible. However, once they were outside the Emir’s domains, he cautioned Burnes, they would be in treacherous country all the way to the Persian frontier, and should trust no one. For reasons he did not explain, the vizier had at no time allowed them to meet the Emir himself, although this may well have been done in their own interest. Newly installed on the Bokharan throne was the man who was to have the next two British officers to arrive there brutally put to death. Finally, as the Koosh Begee, who had been so kind to Burnes, bade them farewell, he asked them to pray for him when they reached home safely, ‘as I am an old man’. And Oh yes! One other thing. If Burnes ever returned to Bokhara would he be kind enough to bring him a good pair of English spectacles?


After a series of adventures and misadventures too numerous to go into here, Burnes and his party reached Bombay by sea from the Persian Gulf on January 18, 1833. There they were to learn that a great deal had taken place elsewhere during their thirteen months away, leading to a further sharp decline in Anglo-Russian relations. On February 20, just as Burnes arrived in Calcutta to report to the Governor-General on the results of his reconnaissance into Central Asia, a large fleet of Russian warships dropped anchor off Constantinople, causing profound dismay in London and in India. This was the final outcome of a chain of events which had begun in 1831, following a revolt in Egypt, then nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, against the Sultan’s rule. At first the revolt had seemed purely a local affair, though very soon it began to represent a serious threat. The man behind it was one of the Sultan’s own vassals, the Albanian-born Mohammed Ali, the ruler of Egypt. Having first seized Damascus and Aleppo with his powerful army, he now advanced into Anatolia, and looked set on marching on Constantinople and relieving the Sultan of his throne. The latter appealed desperately to Britain for help, but Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, hesitated to act alone.

If Britain was slow to respond to the Sultan’s pleas, however, Tsar Nicholas was not, for he had no wish to see the present compliant ruler in Constantinople replaced by an aggressive new dynasty. He at once dispatched Nikolai Muraviev (of Khiva fame, and now a general) to Constantinople to offer the Sultan protection against Mohammed Ali’s advancing army. At first the Sultan hesitated, for he still clung to the hope of receiving British assistance, which he would have much preferred. London continued to do nothing, though, Palmerston being convinced that St Petersburg, officially an ally of Britain’s, would never act unilaterally. But finally, on the urgings of his men on the spot, who viewed the crisis as a threat to Britain’s Near Eastern interests, not to mention those of India, he allowed himself to be persuaded, though even now he preferred mediation to intervention. His decision, needless to say, proved too late. As Mohammed Ali’s troops fought their way through Anatolia towards the capital, driving all before them, the Sultan had no choice but to accept gratefully Nicholas’s offer of immediate help.

As it was, the Russian fleet arrived off Constantinople only just in time, for the invaders were now less than 200 miles away. The Sultan’s throne, however, had been saved. Aware that they could not defeat both the Russians and the Turks, Mohammed Ali’s commanders called a halt, and a settlement was duly arranged. British indecisiveness had enabled St Petersburg to realise at last its age-old dream of landing troops at Constantinople. When news of this latest Russian move reached Calcutta it was at once seen as part of a grand design, with India as its ultimate goal. The pieces seemed to be falling ominously into place. No longer were men like Wilson, Moor-croft, Kinneir and de Lacy Evans viewed as scaremongers. Such then was the mood when Burnes arrived in Calcutta. He could hardly have chosen a better moment to reappear. The Great Game was beginning to intensify.

After Burnes had reported to the Governor-General, Lord William Bentinck, he was ordered to sail at once for London where he was to brief the Cabinet, the Board of Control and other senior officials on the situation in Central Asia and the likelihood of a Russian threat to India. The reception he received was a heady one for a young subaltern, culminating in a private audience with the King, for he, like everyone else, wanted to hear Burnes’s story at first hand. Overnight Burnes became a hero. Professionally, too, he was made. In addition to being promoted to captain, he was awarded the coveted gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his remarkable journey. He was also invited to join the Athenaeum, holy of holies of England’s literary and scientific elite, without first having to stand for election, while society hostesses and would-be mothers-in-law joined in the pursuit of this dashing young officer.

John Murray, the leading publisher of the day, was quick to acquire Burnes’s account of his journey. Entitled Travels into Bokhara, it was rushed through the press so as to steal a march on Arthur Conolly’s book, which appeared a few months later, and Moorcroft’s long-delayed posthumous work, which was not to be published for a further seven years. Burnes’s epic, in three volumes, thus brought to the reader for the first time the romance, mystery and excitement of Central Asia. It was to prove an immediate bestseller, 900 copies being sold on the first day, a huge number for those times. Sadly, Dr Gerard was unable to enjoy any of this acclaim, being far away in India. Indeed, within two years he was dead, his health broken by the illness which had struck him and his companions on the final march to Bokhara.

But amidst all this adulation, Burnes had not lost sight of the real purpose of their journey. In addition to his book, which had mainly been written on the sea voyage home, he produced for his superiors two secret reports – one military and the other political – and two more, less sensitive, on the topography and commercial prospects of the region. In his military report he argued that it would be as dangerous for Kabul to fall into Russian hands as Herat. A hostile army, he reported, could get there from Balkh in a month. The passes of the Hindu Kush, where so many of Alexander’s troops had frozen to death, would prove no obstacle to a well-equipped, modern army. Ferocious and courageous though they were in tribal warfare, the Afghans could not hope to defend Kabul for very long against a determined Russian army. Once in possession of Kabul, an invader would have little difficulty in advancing on India, there being several possible routes open to him.

As for reaching Balkh, this could be achieved by ferrying troops up the Oxus in barges towed by horses – ‘as on a canal’. The river, he and his companions had ascertained, was fully navigable to that point. Its banks were low and firm, and horses plentiful in the region. Artillery could either be carried up the river by barge, or be dragged along the river bank. If the invasion force were to set out from Orenburg, rather than from the eastern shore of the Caspian, it would not even be necessary to occupy Khiva first. Bokhara too could be bypassed, although both oases might serve as valuable sources of food and other supplies if their rulers’ co-operation could first be won. Because of the danger of Kabul thus falling into Russian hands, he argued, Britain should back Dost Mohammed rather than Kamran Shah for the throne of a united Afghanistan. Burnes made a Russian move against Kabul sound all too easy, and he, unlike Wilson, Kinneir or de Lacy Evans, had actually been there.

Eager to return to the region which had brought him such sudden fame, Burnes now lobbied vigorously to be allowed to establish a permanent mission in Kabul. Apart from maintaining close and friendly ties with Dost Mohammed, and keeping an eye on any Russian moves south of the Oxus, its purpose would be to ensure that British goods rather than Russian ones dominated the markets of Afghanistan and Turkestan. If the River Indus route, which he had shown to be navigable, was fully exploited by the Company, then British goods, being cheaper and better, would eventually drive out those of Russia. At first Burnes’s proposal for a British trade mission (albeit with strong political undertones) at Kabul was turned down by his superiors, for they feared that it might, as one put it, ‘degenerate into a political agency.’ However, the newly appointed Governor-General, Lord Auckland, thought otherwise, and on November 26, 1836, Burnes was dispatched once more to Kabul.

Like his earlier visit to Dost Mohammed, and the month he had spent in Bokhara, this did not go unnoticed in St Petersburg. For some time now, and with growing concern, the Russians had been keeping a close watch on the movements of British travellers in Central Asia. Not only were their own goods beginning to suffer from increasing British competition, but political rivalry also appeared to be intensifying. No longer was the Great Game confined to the khanates of Central Asia. Play had spread to the Caucasus, which the Russians had hitherto regarded as theirs. Reports were beginning to reach St Petersburg from Circassia, on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, that British agents were operating among the tribes there, supplying them with arms and inciting them to resist the infidels who had come to seize their lands.

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