Saturday, 25 September 2010

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

"Runjeet Singh enquired whether wine was best before or after food; and laughed heartily after an answer from myself when I recommended both"
Alexander Burnes, 'Travels into Bokhara', published by John Murray, London, 1834

So who was this Alexander Burnes? The first thing I read was that he was Scottish, which is always agreeable. He came from Montrose, one of four sons of the Provost, from a family that claimed a connection with the poet. The added "e" in "Burnes" bespeaks a certain gentrification, as indeed does the fact that two of his brothers were doctors... both the one who died with him, cut to pieces in a garden in Kabul in November of 1841, and his surviving brother, who corresponded with the Murrays after his death.

One of the features (and indeed organising principles) of this blog is that the letter and business archives of the Murray's publishing house should act as a kind of lens into history, so I thought I'd best start there...and I'd have to say (with some relief given the scale of the story of which they form a tiny but significant part) that the collection's holdings from Burnes are quite modest. Modest...but oddly potent. After all, he died young with only one proper book under his belt, "Travels to Bokhara", written on the long voyage home in 1833. It was this book that made him famous and got him knighted.

As he wrote to his mother in 1834:
'I have been inundated by visits from authors, publishers, societies and whatnot…I am a perfect wild beast.'

One of the publishers was, of course, John Murray. He confided further in a another letter home that King William himself had said to him in Brighton:

"Really, sir, you are a wonderful man. I heard you were an able man, but now I know you are most able. I trust in God your life may be spared, that our Eastern Empire may benefit by the talents and abilities which you possess"

His second book, "Cabool" is both politically cagey and fragmentary by comparison.

(I should just add for my far more assiduous library colleagues that the reason I don't cite the exact dates for these letters is that I don't know what they are. They are quoted from "Kabul Catastrope" by the otherwise redoubtable military historian Patrick Macrory...and he doesn't either)

Burnes was our first "Man in Bokhara" and elsewhere...but he was hardly the last. And hardly the last to die in the service of political gamesmanship in that part of the world. To attempt to understand his story might illuminate our own concerns.

Here are a couple of highlights from the archive for me, that have led me into particular lines of speculation about character and politics...which are, after all, the twin concerns of the playwright as well as the reader in me. First a letter written from his brother's house in London on January 25th, 1834, on his return from his first great foray into spying and negotiating for the Empire on the North West Frontier. Burnes is writing to Murray about the publication of his first book "Travels into Bokhara" which deals with a diplomatic mission to Runjeet Singh, the Sikh ruler of the Punjab, and his further explorations of culture and river systems...all the way to the Holy Muslim City of Bokhara in central Asia (via a bit of exploration of the new regime of Dost Mohammed in Kabul).

The first thing I noticed was that his signature is rather fabulous. And the second thing I noticed is his concern for his own image and the robust health of his ego. He writes that he's:

"accepting the sum of 800 guineas, the amount fixed on by you. I might. I am aware, have received a larger sum of money for my work but I feel much obliged to you for your liberal offer...You are of course fully aware from my personal communications with you that I have to submit a proof sheet to the authorities as the work goes on and that they have it in their power to strike out any political observations that are likely to give offence. I am sure that their pruning will much improve the work and I pledge myself that the arrangements will not cause delay...

With reference to your request that my picture should form the frontispiece of the book, I am ready to comply with it on these terms that the likeness be given in costume with these words under it "The costume of Bokhara" It will be well known that it is a portrait and will save me from the appearance of vanity..."

In both ego and appetite for danger, he seems to anticipate Lawrence of Arabia. Here he is writing about the portrait again on June 13th 1834:

'I see the advertisement in the quarterly states my book to be accompanied by a "portrait of the author". You would oblige me very much by altering this in the subsequent advertisements for the portrait is engraved as the "Costume of Bokhara". It was intended to have the knowing ones to find it out, Believe me, most truly yours, Alexander Burnes.'

He only wants the best people to know that this is his picture...a reputation is a thing to be managed in the interests of a career. He's not wrong about that.

On the 28th of December, now en-route back to the East for his next mission, he is writing to Murray in a jolly mood from Paris...there is a definite change in tone which indicates both that the two were now friendly, (through Burnes and Murray's son, John Murray lll, were of an age) and that Burnes knew how to have himself a good time. It's the rather naughty letter of a younger man who knows he'll be indulged his peccadilloes...

"what with dances and dinners time flies faster in this capital than ever I have found it - I have been living FAST in every sense of the word and for a stake of five francs in the lottery have my fellow traveller and myself...2700 francs which we hold FAST but like a good Christian, I shall render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and scatter it in Paris..."

Then follows Burnes' approbation of the 2nd edition proofs...which is the one I've seen...he admires the book's production, and he's's quite gorgeous. He also likes the size of it, which will make the book like Lyell's 'Principles of Geology' (1833), but he talks about engravings again and says:

"I would like however if you could make some alteration in my visage in the "Costume of Bokhara" for it is said to be so arch and cunning that I shall be handed down to posterity as a real Tartar!!... I am enjoying Paris very much and think that your son's prediction of my never getting beyond it will prove true...with my best wishes to him and your family, believe me, yours ever sincerely..."

I think we can infer from these letters that Sandy is a bit of a man for the ladies, a man concerned with and aware of, his own attractiveness. Maybe George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman books, took more than Burnes' ability with languages, and propensity to travel through barbaric regions in disguise, as a model for his roguish hero...

Next time, an image conscious communication from Egypt, and my first treasure from this story of derring do along the frontiers of the Empire...