Friday, 1 October 2010

Death on the Frontier - The End of Our Man in Bokhara.

I'm moving on next to contemporary accounts of what became of the British Army of the Indus in the Kabul uprising of 1841, and the events that followed. What with already being dead and everything, our hero, Alexander Burnes, unfortunately, wasn't able to offer us any insights into the forces that the British invasion had unleashed. Or indeed to illuminate the ghastly sequence of events that had led him and so many others to their joint and several demise. So, for succeeding posts, we will have to turn elsewhere.

So, later on, we'll be hearing from two other Murray authors, Lady Florentia Sale and George Gleig, both eyewitnesses, about what happened next, as well as digging a little deeper into the causes of the disaster.

In the meantime, here are Burnes last written words, from his journal on the night of 31st October 1841: "What will this day bring forth? It will make or mar me, I suppose. Before the sun sets I shall know whether I go to Europe or succeed McNaghten. I grow very tired of praise and I suppose I shall get tired of censure in time."

McNaghten, by the way, was his chief, who he hoped to succeed as Envoy of Her Majesty. For the sake of promotion, Burnes had downplayed the danger they were facing...his chief would only leave,(and Burnes succeed him) only if all were Burnes had to make himself believe that all was quiet...

On the morning of 2nd November,Alexander Burnes, traveller, spy and celebrity author, along with his young brother Charles was cut to pieces in the garden of his house in Kabul, within sight of the garrison cantonments. They had been led into the garden by a mysterious Kashmiri who helped them into disguises, but when he had them among the mob, cried out:

"See, friends, here is Sikundar Burnes!"

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

As we passed through the city, some of the people cried out, Take care of Cabool. Do not destroy Cabool!
Alexander Burnes 'Cabool', John Murray, London, 1842

What I'm featuring here is an image of Dost Mohammed, with whom Burnes went to Kabul to negotiate in 1835, and an extract from the Preface to ''Cabool', his second and last book, published by John Murray in 1842. These are the last published words of the author, who wrote a foreward from the Cantonment of the British Army of occupation at Kabul in September of 1841.

Burnes, some of whose exploits and adventures as a British Intelligence Officer we've been looking at, and whose adventures had been published by the Murrays, was a member of the British Expeditionary Force that had occupied Kabul in 1838, indulging in a bit of regime change, ousting Dost Mohammed in favour of the former King, Shah Sootej.

As Burnes himself said, the book itself is an account of his previous mission to "Cabool", when the British had been looking for an alliance with the same Dost Mohammed. Burnes recommended to his chiefs that Dost Mohammed was fully in control of Kabul in a way that no one else could be; that he was intelligent and far sighted and wanted the British as allies, not enemies; and that he was, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, a man with whom we could do business...

(Burnes can't quite suppress the feelings underlying his recommendation in the published book, despite it being frankly opaque when it comes to politcal opinion. The young Scotman on the make had a career to construct, and to disagree with his chiefs in a travel book would not have served his turn. Similarly, his first book, "Travels in Bokhara" which made his name and secured his knighthood, is nothing if not cagey about what he was actually doing there)

Burnes liked Dost Mohammed...he can't stop himself from saying so...It is a continuing tribute to his stature that one of the current leaders of the Taleban has re-named himself "Dost Mohammed" in his honour.

It was Dost Mohammed's very qualities of strength and intelligence that those higher up than Burnes in the hierarchy of British Intelligence were afraid of. The Dost was an enemy of Runjeet Singh, (Sikh ruler of Lahore), and was, understandably, also talking to the Russians...who had their own "Man in Kabul" at the same time as Burnes.

(We will meet the mysterious and unfortunate Ignatieff in a later post)

So the British decided they wanted somebody more pliable to talk to..less independant...they favoured Shah Sootej, a former ruler...who was already conveniently in the pocket of the aforementioned and formibable Runjeet Singh...

So, in 1838, against Burnes advice, the British invaded and deposed Dost Mohammed.

(The image of the Dost in this post was painted in captivity, by another Scottish officer, James Rattray, whose wonderful images we reproduce on gracious permission from the British Library.)

In another uncomfortable echo of the stormy present, it seems that Burnes original intelligence reports were doctored by the time they got to the House of Commons, so as to reach the opposite conclusion. That is, Burnes had said...this man is formidable, so we should talk to him...but the government, paranoid about the Russians encroaching on the frontiers of the In dian Empire, altered that to read : This man is formidable...get rid of him...

By the time this book was published, Burnes was already dead, cut to pieces in his garden in Kabul...and the British Army in Afghanistan had attempted a retreat to Jallalabad...some 12 -16000 of them. (A lot of them were Indian, so no one really had a reliable count)

And it was the Dost's son, Akbar Khan Mohammed, who was raising an army in the mountains to repel the "feringee", and restore his father to the throne...

In any case, his being dead too by the time of publication gives what Burnes has to say in his foreword here a certain poignancy:

"Some time has now passed since the following pages were written. They contain my personal recollections of an interesting country through which I passed, and in which I resided on a mission to Cabool in the years 1836-7 and 1838. Subsequent events have not diminished, as it appears to me, the anxiety of the public for information regarding these regions: on the contrary, the great political events of which they have become the arena have given importance to all that appertains to them. On political subjects, however, it is not, at present, my intention to enlarge. The time is yet distant when an accurate judgement can be passed on the line of policy which we have adopted; but the travellers...have paved the way for the political enquirer if, in the mean while, they can portray something of the tone and spirit of the people among whom circumstances have now placed us".

At the time of writing, Burnes and a British army of 16 000 were in Kabul...with a hellish storm of Holy War about to break over their heads. I trust that my readers are finding this all horribly familiar.

Lithograph above: Dost Mahommed, King of Caubul, and his youngest son taken from plate 2 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray (1818-1854). Used by permission (c) The British Library Board.

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...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

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

"He made me repeat the kualma or creed in Persian and in Arabic to his inexpressible delight. He said that our greatness had risen from a knowledge of mankind and attending to other peoples' customs as well as our own." Alexander Burnes, 'Travels into Bokhara', John Murray, London, 1834

Alexander Burnes, Travel Writer, Diplomat and Spy, was one of those 19th Century Brits who partook of "otherness".First, he was a Scot. Second, he was a gifted linguist, fluent in Persian and Urdu, read enough Arabic to talk about the Koran in Kabul,( impressing the hell out of his host, Dost Mohammed), and spoke enough Punjabi to get by disguised as a merchant, negotiating his way past bandits on the road into the Hindu Kush and in negotiating entrance at all to the city of Bokhara in Central Asia, a sacred city of Islam forbidden to non Muslims, and especially to the "Feringee"...meaning Franks...or Europeans.

(Memories of the atrocities of the 11th century Crusaders die hard out George Bush might be able to tell you.)

By "otherness", I mean transformation. As we know from the story of Lawrence of Arabia, there was, for the likes of TE Lawrence and Richard Burton and Alexander Burnes, all to a degree outsiders in their own cultures, a certain liberation in embracing the East. There are undertones of both the sexual and spiritual to this "Orientalism" as Edward Said famously described it. There are a number of other examples from the John Murray stable.Byron himself found a personal liberation in Ottoman territories. Isabella Bird recovered health and confidence only when hiking up mopuntains in the Americas or China...

One has to read between the lines a little, but both in Burnes' published writings and what I've seen and read of his private correspondence, he was one of those rare birds of the Imperial flock who found the strangeness of foriegn parts stimulating, and that he wanted to remake himself in that other place.

(The illustration above, by the way, is called "Arab companions of Alexander Burnes"...They were not, of course, "Arabs" at all...but that term signifies exactly the "Eastern Other")

Again, it is clear that Burnes delights in associating himself with that earlier "Sekundar"...Alexander the Great...seeking out relics, imagining he has located battlefields. He walks the valleys of the Sind and Sutej with a mental map of conquest, and of another self, already in his mind.

Which makes me think that this man's presence in later fiction extends past his being a character (and model) in the first Flashman book. Daniel Dravitt in Kipling's 'Man who would be King' again comes to imagine himself as 'Alexander Redux' in an unnamed city in Central Asia, till he too is destroyed like Burnes was, by feeling himself more at home than was justified.

But I'm anticipating events I'm going to deal with later. Getting ahead of myself.

One of the disciplines and pleasures of reading archive correspondance is that it takes you to the past in the historic present tense. Someone writing a letter is only thinking of the moment. So let's rejoin Burnes at a moment in Cairo in March1835.

He's on his way back East after scoring spectacular success in a diplomatic mission to the Punjab and Afghanistan, and his onward travels into central Asia and the Persian Empire...had reported his success to his chiefs, and to a public eager for tales of travel and discovery...and is now writing a curiously "constructed" version of himself to the son of his publisher, the future John Murray III...Take a look at them at the top of this entry...and reproduced here.

In the John Murray Archive are two versions of the same letter...facsimilies. It has been copied, presumably by one of Murray's clerks, preserving even the upside down placing of the postscript at the top of the has been treasured then, marked out as special. The physical peculiarity of the letter as object has been highlighted and reproduced as somehow special. This colours the reading and quoting of its text...enriches its voice:

He describes the

"Pyramids of Egypt, which, as my favourite author Gibbon says 'still stand erect and unshaken above the floods of the Nile, after an hundred generations of the leaves of autumn have dropped into the grave'"

He continues: "I cannot believe myself so far distant from the salons of London, but the moment I reach Alexandria the line of demarkation was too apparent, the transition from civilisation to barbarism was instantaneous and we recieved before leaving the steamer the astounding information that 15,000 individuals had died of plague withion the last three months and that 1298 had perished on the previous day..."

He is letting us and the Murrays know that A) It's rough out here, and B) he's right at home.

He knowingly quotes Byron to a Murray...from the poem Childe Harold...exclaiming happily "New shores descried made every bosom gay" He talks, as Byron famously did of the Pillars of Hercules, Lisbon...the Kingdom of the Goths...of the world through the glass of books...

(It is extraordinary how everything I come accross in this archive seems to lead back to Byron by some route or other)

Knowingly, flatteringly, he goes on: "The Quarterly is lying before me and strangely enough I have been perusing the very article which treats of Mohammed Ali in that able essay regarding the encroachments of Russia...Cairo is in sight, the boatmen are singing a song of delight in the music(?) not such however as attended on Cleopatra in her galley nor enough to make charmed into a forgetfulness of all your many attentions to me..."

Both for it's charm and it's intrigue, I have to call this double version of himself en route to his last mission my First Treasure on my voyage of search of Alexander Burnes...

Coming next...another oriental treasure...a letter in Farsi, or Persian - a language of Afghanistan, to Burnes, written by the great Runjeet Singh, to whom Burnes was to deliver some Shire horses (horses of that size being unfamiliar in those parts) while conducting, rather more plausibly, an intelligence mission to secure British alliances with the Sikhs of Lahore, explore possibilities with the new Ruler of Afghanistan.

(or of Kabul one person has EVER succeeded in ruling the whole territory, statehood or not)

the redoubtable Dost Mohammed...before proceeding to explore the Russian presence in their own backyard of Bokhara.

He didn't find any Russians there, not this first time...but that's to get ahead of myself again. I must stop doing that. He'll meet them soon enough.