Thursday, 11 November 2010


I must not pass so lightly over so important a part of the population of Cabool as the ladies. Their ghost like figures when they walk abroad make one melancholy; but if all be true of them that is reported, they make ample amends when within doors for all such sombre exhibitions in public.
Alexander Burnes, 'Travels Into Bokhara', John Murray 1835

I couldn't resist fleshing out, as it were, the portrait in these blog posts of my first hero here...Alexander Burnes...a racy individual and spy...and friend of the Murrays, as well as a successful author. The boy from Montrose knew how to have a good time.

The following continues my extracts from the Reverend George Gleig's first hand account of this most pungent of Victorian military disasters. Here he is describing the social scene of the occupying British forces in Kabul in 1841, and Burnes own special role on that scene:

'Not only the houses of such men as the envoy, the commander in chief and Sir Alexander Burnes were thrown open to [the Afghan Chiefs] but the mess of ther 13th recieved its frequent guests, most of whom ate and drank as if there had been no prohibitory clauses in the Koran or elsewhere. Among other means adopted to entertain the aristocracy of central Asia, the British Officers got up a play: a theatre was constructed, scenery painted, dresses prepared; and as the pieces which they chose were chiefly broad comedies, such as 'The Irish Ambassador' and others of the same sort, great amusemewnt was afforded to the audience...while Burnes and others skilled in the dialect of the country, translated the speeches as they were uttered. The Afghans are a merry people, and have a keen relish of the ludicrous and the satirical; and as the interpreter never failed to bring the jokes of the actors home to them, they marked their delight by bursting into frequent peals of laughter.'

cover pageSo far so cosy, and only slightly naughty. The Reverend Gleig, however, goes on to make some observations on sexual license, which, as we'll see, may not be unrelated to the particularly sticky end that overcame Alexander well as being a properly Churchly thing to say in the light of what happened next.

'Though they do not, like other Mohammedan races, universally shut up their women,the Afghans are as open to jealousy as orientals in general...their women...could not but be pleased with the attentions the Feringhees showed them. It is much to be feared that our young countrymen did not always bear in mind that the domestic habits of any people ought to be sacred in the eyes of strangers...whatever errors they may have committed, the great mass of the garrison of Cabul atoned for them terribly; and the survivors...will doubtless more and more become conviced that the gratification of the moment is purchased at too high a price.'

So far so general, but to get ahead of myself for a moment, Lady Sale, the other Murray author who was a first hand witness of the subsequent and horrible events says something curious, perhaps unguarded, certainly disapproving and revealing about Burnes' reputation as a bon viveur, this an entry in her journal from November 1841, when the insurrection has started, and Burnes has gone missing:

'Our only hope of Burnes' saftey rest on the possibility of him having obtained refuge in some harem.'

Now, what immediately occurs to me the image of her ladyship talking to a couple of subalterns, and asking them, "What do you think has become of Mr Burnes?"

And then one of these two chaps saying to Lady Sale..."Don't worry about old Sandy. Knowing him he's probably shacked up in some knocking shop"

I think it is something like this that she has sanitised for her personal journal.
As my colleague David McClay said when I told him this story over a latte from the nice new cafe here at the Library, "it's like 'Carry on Up the Khyber'...but with slaughtering".

Top image: 'Ladies Of Caubul' from plate 24 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray.

Bottom image: 'Kandahar Lady of Rank, Engaged in Smoking' from plate 29 of 'Afghaunistan'