Friday, 1 October 2010

Our Man in Bokhara - Alexander Burnes and Disaster in Afghanistan 1841 - Part Four

He showed me thirty or forty dancing girls, dressed uniformily as boys. This, said Runjeet Singh, is one of my regiments, but they tell me it is one that I cannot discipline.
Alexander Burnes
from 'Travels into Bokhara', John Murray, London, 1834

If you've been following my recent posts, you'll know that we're travelling right now, with Alexander, or Sekundar, "Bokhara" Burnes...successful author and Central Asian superspy for the British interest on India's North West Frontier...last seen in Cairo, on his way to his mission to Kabul, and his eventual nemesis beneath the knives of the faithful in an Afghan Garden in 1841...

But this is blog entry is a trophy of happier times. It's a letter written to Burnes in Farsi, one of several eastern languages in which he was fluent, that resides in the archive of Burnes' publisher, John Murray of Albemarle Street.

As outlined in Burnes first book, 'Travels into Bokhara' published by Murray in 1834, the first part of his mission had been to conduct a gift of horses to Runjeet Singh, the Sikh ruler of the Punjab, with whom the Brits were keen to establish relations. The two men appear to have got on famously, sharing a passion for horseflesh, and perhaps other kinds of flesh as well. This letter, though looking exotic, and therefore much prized by Burnes' brother, as well as his publisher, is actually pretty boring, being along the lines of "Horses recieved with thanks, Runjeet Singh", but there is another curiosity tucked away in the uniform grey folders they keep in the stacks of the National Library of Scotland...namely a letter to John Murray III from Burnes' surviving brother David in (probably in 1842) that obviously accompanied this document, part of which goes like this:

I have now the pleasure of sending you, in obedience to my brother's orders, Runjeet Singh's last letters to him, which he forwarded along before he left. I had hoped to have done it sooner but have had great difficulty in getting it out of the hand of a lady to whom my brother had given a sight of it, and {through them, I? } have had to show it to one or two other ladies, Runjeet deemed to be a great favourite with the fair,

Believe me to be yours faithfully, David Burnes...Regent Street, Saturday 14th"

In other words, these letters from the East, in their exotic provenance, carried an erotic frisson. The calligraphy itself, in its curves and dots, was sexy and exciting...ladies, in mourning for their hero, clutched these proofs of Kama Sutra to their bosoms...reciept for horses or not. You can see these mysterious and sexy horse reciepts below...

Coming soon...the beginning of the end... and Burnes' last words from the frontiers...

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