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Significant Scots
Sir Alexander Burnes


BURNES, SIR ALEXANDER.—This distinguished officer, whose varied talents were so available to the administration of the British government in India, and whose premature and violent death was so deeply deplored, was born in the town of Montrose, on the 16th of May, l805. His father, a magistrate of Forfarshire, was highly esteemed in that county, and had held the chief official situations of the borough of Montrose, while his grandfather was brother to William Burnes, the parent of our illustrious national poet. It is well known to the readers of the life of Robert Burns, that the family name had always been spelled Burnes, and that his father was the first who dropped the letter e in its signature. Alexander was educated at Montrose Academy, and there his proficiency gave full promise of his future excellence. Having obtained a cadetship when he left school at the age of sixteen, he set sail for India, and arrived at Bombay on October 31, 1821. So earnest and successful had been his studies for his new sphere of active duty, that at the close of the year after that of his arrival in India, Alexander Burnes was appointed interpreter in Hindostanee to the first extra battalion at Surat. His proficiency in the Persian tongue had also been so rapid as to secure the confidence of the judges of the Sudder Adawiut, so that he was appointed translator of the Persian documents of that court, without any solicitation of his own. His talents for civil occupation were soon so conspicuous as to secure him rapid promotion in that Indo-British government, whose very existence depends upon the superiority of intellect alone, and where the encouragement of merit, independently of birth or fortune, is a matter of absolute necessity. Accordingly, Alexander Burnes, after having filled the offices of ensign and quarter-master of brigade, was confirmed in the office of deputy-assistant quarter-master general at the age of twenty-one, at which period, also, he drew up an elaborate report on the statistics of Wagur, a paper for which he received the thanks of the governor and members of the council of Bombay. In 1828, he was honoured by a similar testimony for a memoir on the eastern mouth of the Indus; and in September, 1829, he was appointed assistant to the political agent in Cutch, for the purpose of effecting a survey of the north-west border of that province. Burnes, who had been there four years previous, as ensign of the 21st Bombay Native Infantry, during the disturbances of that quarter, returned in his new capacity, and discharged his task with his wonted ability and success. His account of this survey is contained in the "Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society for 1834."

The talents of Burnes as an oriental linguist and statist having thus been tested, instead of being allowed to rest, were summoned to higher exertion. In the growth of our Indo-British empire, it was necessary that the Indus, whose approaches had hitherto been so carefully shut up to British mercantile enterprise, should be thrown open to our ships, but, at the same time, without exciting the jealousy of those wild tribes who regarded the river as the pledge of their national freedom. To disarm suspicion, therefore, it was resolved that this object should be covertly accomplished, by means of a political mission ostensibly directed to a different purpose. A present of five large and splendid horses, accompanied by a letter from the sovereign of Great Britain, were to be consigned to Runjeet Singh, the celebrated Maharajah of the Punjaub; and on the way to Lahore for that purpose, Lieutenant Burnes, by whom the mission was to be conducted, was to travel by the circuitous route of Scinde. He was provided with letters addressed to the chieftains of the province, and to conceal the real purpose of his journey, and facilitate his progress, he enlisted in his service a guard of wild Beeloochees, instead of taking with him a troop of British soldiers, whose appearance would have awakened the jealousy of the natives. Thus provided, Burnes commenced his journey, and reached the mouth of the Indus on the 28th of January, 1831. He had now a difficult diplomatic task to perform, for the Ameers of Scinde had taken the alarm, and every delay which they could devise was thrown in the way of his further progress. This, however, was nothing more than what he wished; for, during the delay occasioned by their feigned negotiations, he had made a complete survey of the mouths of the river, and constructed a map of the lower part of its course; he also obtained their full permission to continue his journey on the Indus, instead of travelling by land, and their assent that thenceforth it should be left open to the transit of British merchandise. Proceeding along the river by water, and visiting every place of interest upon his way, he at length reached Lahore on the 18th of July. As the real and most important part of his journey was already accomplished, all that remained was little more than a mere political visit of ceremony, graced with all the showy forms of an oriental embassy, and an amusing account of which he has given us in the third volume of his "Travels in Bokhara." Splendid retinues, with abundance of trumpeting and cannonading, welcomed him into the capital of the modern Timour; and on entering the palace, and putting off his shoes on the threshold, according to the Asiatic rule of etiquette, Burnes suddenly found himself locked in the embrace of a diminutive old man, who was no other than Runjeet Singh himself, eager to do him honour, and who had come out thus far to welcome him. After sojourning till the middle of August at the court of Runjeet Singh, by whom he was treated with the utmost kindness, Burnes left Lahore, and having crossed the Sutledge, he proceeded to Loodiana, where he became acquainted with Shah Zeman and Shah Soojah, who had formerly been kings of Cabool, but were now discrowned, and living under British protection. He then continued his journey, and arrived at Simla, where he met Lord William Bentinck, the governor-general, who forthwith proceeded to avail himself of Burnes’ mission, by negotiations for opening the navigation of the Indus.

After this successful expedition, Burnes proposed to Lord Bentinck to undertake an exploratory journey into Central Asia, to which the latter eagerly acceded. The Indian government having sanctioned his Lordship’s permission, Burnes commenced this new and adventurous journey in January, 1832. As yet, much of the interior of our vast Indian empire was but little known, and even the charts of many districts that had been penetrated by British travellers were still incorrect or defective. One important advantage of this journey of Burnes was an addition to the map of Arrowsmith, the most valuable of our Indian charts, to which he supplied some of its best improvements. As it was necessary to pass through Scinde in his route, he had previously sought and obtained permission to that effect from his powerful friend, the Maharajah. He therefore once more entered Lahore, at which he arrived on the 17th of January, and was cordially welcomed by Runjeet Singh; and after a stay there till the 11th of February, he crossed the Ravee, and having halted one night in a house beside the monument of Jehangur, he prepared for the dangerous part of his journey. It was necessary for this purpose that he should be completely disguised, and therefore he assumed the dress and habits, and as much as possible the appearance, of an Afghan. He had for the companion of his journey, Mr. James Gerard, surgeon of the Bengal army, who clothed himself with a similar costume; and, after leaving behind them every article of their luggage that might indicate their country or purpose, the travellers commenced their pilgrimage of peril, escorted by a body of troops provided by the Maharajah. They were thus accompanied to the frontier of Runjeet’s dominions, a short distance on the further side of the Attock, where they met the Afghans, by whom they were escorted to Acora. They afterwards successively reached Peshawur, Jellalabad, and Cabool; scaled the lofty passes of Oonna and Hageegak, on the latter of which, 12,400 feet in height at its highest point, the frost was so intense that the snow bore the weight of their horses, and the thermometer fell to 4 degrees of Fahrenheit. On attempting subsequently to surmount the pass of Kalao, which is a thousand feet higher, they found it so blocked up with snow as to be impassable, and were compelled to choose another route, by which they reached Ghoolgoola, that city, or rather valley of ruins, famed for its two colossal statues, the largest of which is 120 feet in height, and for the hills that enclose the valley, which are absolutely honey-combed with excavations. They then crossed the pass of Acrobat; and descending from the mountains of the Indian Caucasus, they entered the vast plains of Tartary. At Khooloom, the frontier town of Morad Beg, chief of Khoondooz, the bold travellers were met by a startling message from that potentate, requiring Burnes to wait upon him at Kaumabad, a village about fifty miles off. Obedience was unavoidable; and therefore, leaving Mr. Gerard at Khooloom, Burnes repaired to Kaumabad, and presented himself before the chief in tattered and threadbare garments, under the character of a poor Armenian watchmaker travelling from Lucknow to Bokhara. A moment’s timidity on his part, or suspicion on that of the Asiatic lord, might have cost the traveller his life; but, fortunately, his statement was believed, so that he received a safe conduct to continue his journey, and he left Kaumabad in the company of a small caravan of nine or ten tea-merchants.

This danger being thus happily got over, Barnes rejoined Mr. Gerard at Khooloom. Their route was continued, and they arrived at Balkh, that wondrous city of history and romance, with which our childhood and youth were made so familiar. Now a heap of ruins in the midst of a glory that has passed away, but still covering an extent of twenty miles with its fragments, it is a fitting monument of the many empires to which it has belonged; for here the Greek, Persian, Arabian, Tartar, and Afghan, have successively ruled. Strange, therefore, have been the changes it has witnessed since the time that it was the Bactra of Alexander the Great! After halting for three days in this interesting compend of ancient and modern history, Burnes and Gerard entered the desert on the 14th of June, and, two days after, they reached the banks of the Oxus, that most important of Asiatic rivers, which bounded the conquests of Cyrus, and all but terminated those of Alexander. At that part which our travellers crossed, the river was about 800 yards wide, and twenty feet deep, where the transit was made in boats neither impelled by sail nor oar, but drawn by a couple of stout horses that swam across. Continuing their course, they reached on the 27th of June the city of Bokhara, the capital of the country of that name, a city whose remaining colleges still justify its ancient renown for learning and civilization, and the high encomiums which eastern poets heaped upon it. After waiting in the neighbourhood of the city of Kara-kool till the 16th of August, Burnes and Gerard resumed their journey in the company of a caravan consisting of 150 persons and 80 camels, the former travelling in very simple fashion, some on horses, some on asses, and several in panniers slung across the backs of camels. With this escort our travellers passed the great desert by Merve, and on the 17th of September reached the strong fortress of Koochan, where they parted, Gerard intending to proceed to Herat and Candahar, and afterwards return to Cabool. Burnes continued his journey in the company of 300 persons, chiefly Khoords, Persians, and Turcomans—three of the eleven races with which the province of Bokhara is peopled—until he had passed Boojnoord, when he continued his journey alone to the town of Astrabad. He then crossed an arm of the Caspian, and proceeded to Teheran, the modern capital of Persia, where he had the honour of being presented to the Shah. Such is a brief outline of one of the perilous and laborious journeys in which a chivalrous love of science enables the modern traveller to dare and endure the utmost that knight-errantry has recorded of its ancient votaries.

The object of this expedition having been successfully attained, Burnes was eager to return by the shortest and safest route to head-quarters, and report his proceedings. He therefore embarked at Bushire for Bombay, which he reached on the 18th of January, after a year’s absence. The information he had gathered during this adventurous journey, and which he hastened to lay before the government, was so valuable in the statistical and geographical history of these countries with which India is so closely connected, that he received the especial thanks of the governor-general, and was honoured besides with the commission of carrying his own despatches to England. He accordingly set sail for London, where his services were so highly appreciated, that he not only met with the most flattering reception at the India House, but was honoured with the especial thanks of his sovereign. Fresh distinctions crowded upon him as soon as the results of his labours were known to the public. The narrative of his journey was immediately translated into French and German; he was elected a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, and of the Royal Geographical Society; and presented with the gold medal, and royal premium of fifty guineas, for "The Navigation of the Indus, and a Journey by Balkh and Bokhara across Central Asia." Nor were these acknowledgments of his services in behalf of science, literature, and humanity, confined to his own country; for, on paying a short visit to Paris, he was welcomed with general enthusiasm as one of the most talented and adventurous of modern travellers, and presented with the silver medal of the French Geographical Society.

The stay of Burnes at home after so long a residence in India, and so much travel, was comparatively brief, extending to only eighteen months, after which he left England on April 5, 1885, and proceeding by the south of France, Egypt, and the Red Sea, he reached Bombay on the 1st of June, and joined Colonel Pottinger, the British Resident at Cutch, as his assistant. Only a few months after, he was sent upon a mission to Hyderabad, to prevent the necessity of a war with Scinde, in which he was successful. While thus occupied in that country, a more important duty was intrusted to him; this was, to negotiate a commercial treaty with Dost Mohammed, sovereign of Afghanistan, and also with the Indian chiefs of the western provinces. He reached Cabool on the 20th of September, 1837. Here, however, he found that his mission was useless, from the danger that menaced our Indian empire through the movements and intrigues of Persia and Russia, and the likelihood of their uniting with the Afghans, while Dost Mohammed, instigated by the Russian agent at his court, gave Burnes an order of dismissal. On his return to head-quarters, it was resolved by the Indian government to replace their pensionary, Shah Soojah, upon the throne of Cabool, as a more peaceable or compliant ally than Dost Mohammed; and Burnes was sent to the army to make arrangements in the commissariat department, preparatory to the invasion of Afghanistan. While thus occupied, he was gratified to learn that his valuable services had not been forgotten at home, for at Shikarpoor he received a copy of the "London Gazette," announcing his promotion to the honour of knighthood and the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Before the commencement of military operations, Sir Alexander Burnes was sent on a political mission from Scinde to Beeloochistan, that failed, upon which he regained the British invading army, that had already advanced, through many difficulties, as far as the fertile valley of Quettah. Here he saw hard military service in the shape of a toilsome march, accompanied with danger and privation of every kind, as well as in the storming of Ghuznee, which was only wrested from the Afghans after a close and desperate hand-to-hand fight of three hours. After this important city was won, Hyder Khan, its governor, one of the sons of Dost Mohammed, who had surrendered himself to the British, was placed under the care of Sir Alexander Burnes. Soon after, Dost Mohammed fled from the kingdom, Shah Soojah was replaced in the sovereignty, and such was the appearance of submission on the part of the Afghans, that Sir William M’Naughten was left as British envoy at the court of Cabool, with Sir Alexander Burnes for his assistant. But, unfortunately, this season of calm was soon overcast. The impatient Afghans resumed their insurrectionary spirit, and on several occasions broke forth into revolts that were suppressed with difficulty. Still, however, neither M’Naughten nor Burnes seem to have anticipated any immediate danger, notwithstanding the warnings of Major Pottinger, for 14,000 British soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan, independent of the troops of the new Shah. But, on the 2nd November, 1841, the storm suddenly burst out. At nine o’clock in the morning, the house of Burnes in Cabool was attacked and set on fire by the insurgent multitude, and himself, his brother Lieutenant Charles Burnes, Lieutenant Broadfoot, and every man, woman, and child in the building were murdered. It was the commencement of a fearful tragedy, of which a disastrous retreat, and the destruction of twenty-six thousand individuals by exhaustion and the sabres of the pursuing Afghans were the mournful termination.

Our immortal national poet Burns, half-despondingly half-playfully, has sometimes expressed his regret, more especially when the pressure of poverty was at the worst, that he had not repaired in his youth to India, as so many of his countrymen had done, and become a thriving merchant, instead of a penniless bard. But little did he think of the destiny that awaited two of his nephews there—and last of all his grandson! Sir Alexander was never married, and was survived by his parents and three brothers. Besides his "Travels into Bokhara," and several papers in the "Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London," he was author of a work, entitled, "Cabool; being a Narrative of a Journey to, and Residence in that City, in the Years 1836-7-8," which was published after his death.


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