Thursday, 2 September 2010

Disaster in Afghanistan 1841 - Part One - Our Man in Bokhara - Alexander Burnes

"In the year 1831 I was deputed in a political capacity to the court of Lahore, charged with a letter from the King of England, and a present of fine horses to the ruler of the country." Alexander Burnes 'Travels into Bokhara', published by John Murray, London, 1834.

The very first time I visited the Murray's extraordinary house of business in Albemarle Street, John Murray 7th, with courtesy undimmed by his having given this tour ten thousand times before, showed me the gallery of portraits of Murray authors from the last two hundred and fifty years. There was Byron, of course, and Scott. There was David Livingstone, Disraeli...

Many of these portraits were paintings commissioned by the publishers for their books. The originals now hang in the Murray's drawing rooms. He stopped me at this one.

"Him",he said, "I wish you'd do something about him." It's a couple of years later, sir.But here goes.

"This is Sir Alexander Burnes "in the costume of a native of Bokhara." he said. I looked at it, and I was lucky enough to know a little about who this was.

"Sekundar Burnes" I said. And John Murray's eyes lit up.

I then had to explain, slightly apologetically, that the reason I knew who he was, was that I'm a big fan of the Flashman novels (see previous post) by George MacDonald Fraser...and Burnes is a minor character in the first of them (and one of the best) "Flashman" - which deals with the immediate aftermath of Flashy's rustification from Rugby School, his joining the army, and immediately getting mixed up with skullduggery and wenching on the North West Frontier in 1841 and 2.

From the novel, Burnes, I knew, was an intelligence officer. One of those epic Victorian adventurers...who had gathered intelligence and conducted diplomacy in southern and central Asia. Obsessed with his namesake, Alexander the Great, whose traces in that part of the world he assiduously traced, Burnes was one of the desert loving English...and met his melancholy fate in Kabul as the first prominent British casualty in the great disaster of the First Afghan War.

In the novel, Flashman becomes a hero because he is one of only two survivors of the horrific retreat from Kabul in 1842. This is the event that launches him on his fictional career of poltroonery in every available trouble spot in 19th century military history. In real life, it was only a field surgeon, Doctor James Brydon, out of at least 12,000 military and civilian personnel, who crawled wounded into Jallalabad in January of 1842.

I vaguely knew who Burnes was, then, and promised John Murray I'd try to find out more. And so I have. The following series of posts record some of the things I've found in the John Murray Archive about Burnes, whose books on his "Travels to Bokhara" and "Cabool" Murray published in 1834 and 1841 respectively...

Just as a taster, before we get going on the archive material, here’s a little bit of Kipling...from the Barrack room Ballads, a light hearted ditty called 'The young British Soldier' which illustrates the continuing resonances of the massacre that was to come, and that brought generations of British pilgrims to the gravesites of what a later Murray author, Peter Hopkirk, echoing Kipling (who in turn was echoing Arthur Connolly, another of it's martyr) was to immortalise as 'The Great Game'

"When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains

And the women come out to cut up what remains

Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

And go to your Gawd like a soldier"

Yes, it was a bit like that...