Sir Alexander Burnes (1805-1841), an Indian political officer, was the fourth son of James Burnes, writer of the signet and provost of Montrose. He belonged to the same family as Robert Burns, the poet, his great-grandfather and the poet's father having been brothers. Through the influence of Joseph Hume, he was appointed, at the age of sixteen, to an Indian cadetship, and joined the Bombay native infantry in 1821. Devoting himself, immediately after his arrival in India, to the study of the native languages, he was selected, while still an ensign, for the post of regimental interpreter, and shortly afterwards for that of adjutant. His subsequent advancement was rapid.
In 1825 he was appointed to the quartermaster-general's department, and four years later was transferred to the political department as assistant to the political resident in Cutch. In 1830 he was despatched on a complimentary mission to Lahore, in charge of a present, consisting of a batch of English horses, which had been sent by the king of England to Ranjít Singh. In combination with this duty, he was instructed to explore the countries on the lower Indus, and to this end was entrusted with presents for the amírs of Sind.
The journey was not accomplished without some difficulties, for the amírs distrusted its object; but the obstacles offered to Burnes's progress through Sind were gradually surmounted, and in the Punjáb he met with a cordial welcome from the maharájá. In 1832 he was sent on another mission to explore the countries bordering upon the Oxus and the Caspian. An interesting account of his travels, which included the Punjáb, Afghanistan, Bokhára, the Turkoman country, the Caspian, and Persia, was published in 1834.
Returning to England in 1833, Burnes was well received in London, whither his fame as an adventurous traveller had preceded him. He received the gold medal of the Geographical Society of England, and the silver medal of the Geographical Society of Paris, and the Athenaeum Club admitted him as a member without ballot. According to his biographer Kaye, 'the magnates of the land were contending for the privilege of a little conversation with Bokhára Burnes. Lord Holland was eager to catch him for Holland House. Lord Lansdowne was bent upon carrying him off to Bowood. Charles Grant, the president of the board of control, sent him to the prime minister, Lord Grey, who had long confidential conferences with him; and, to crown all, the king, William IV, commanded the presence of the Bombay lieutenant at the Brighton Pavilion, and listened to the story of his travels and the exposition of his views for nearly an hour and a half.'
Burnes returned to India in 1835, rejoining for a time his appointment as assistant to the resident in Cutch. In November 1836 he was sent by Lord Auckland on a commercial mission to Cabul, where he was received by Dost Mahomed, the de facto amír, whose acquaintance he had made on the occasion of his previous visit in 1832. Burnes's commercial mission was speedily converted into a political one. Writing to a private friend shortly after his arrival at Cabul, he observed: 'I came to look after commerce, to superintend surveys, and examine passes of mountains, and likewise certainly to see into affairs, and judge of what was to be done hereafter; but the hereafter has already arrived.'
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He had discovered that Russia was intriguing, through the agency of the Persian government, with the Afghans, and this discovery was soon followed by the arrival of a Russian agent at Cabul. At this time the amír was eager for an alliance with England, and was quite prepared with the slightest encouragement to reject the overtures of Russia. Burnes urged upon the government of India that Dost Mahomed's wishes should be gratified; but Lord Auckland and his advisers held different views. The amír's requests, which included the restoration of Pesháwar, formerly an Afghan province, but lately conquered by the Sikhs, were pronounced to be unreasonable, and it was decided, instead of supporting and strengthening Dost Mahomed, to replace the deposed amír, Shah Sujah, on the throne of Cabul.
Burnes, having failed to obtain sanction for his recommendations, and finding that the amír, in despair of obtaining British support, was throwing in his lot with Russia, returned to Simla, and was shortly afterwards sent to Sind and Beluchistán, to smooth the way with the amírs of Sind and with the khán of Khelát for the passage through their territories of a British army which was about to be despatched to Afghanistan to aid in the restoration of Shah Sujah. Burnes accompanied the army to Cabul as the second political officer, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, who, as secretary to the government of India, with the governor-general, had had a large share in shaping Lord Auckland's policy, being the first.
Burnes was knighted, and received the brevet rank of lieutenant-colonel. From the latter part of 1839 until his death in November 1841 he remained at Cabul, with but little to do, and with no power or responsibility, offering advice which was seldom acted on, and thoroughly dissatisfied with the state of affairs. In the meantime Macnaghten was appointed governor of Bombay, and Burnes had every expectation of taking his place at the head of the British mission, when, in November 1841, the outbreak, which had for some time been threatening, occurred, and Burnes, who with his younger brother and his assistant, Lieutenant William Broadfoot, occupied a house in the city, was one of the first victims. He had been warned of the approaching danger, and urged to take refuge in the cantonments; but, believing that he could quell the tumult, he declined to move, and on 2 Nov. 1841 he was killed by the Afghán mob, at the early age of thirty-six, his brother and Broadfoot perishing at the same time.
The career of Burnes, short as it was, was a very remarkable one. Even in India it is not often that a young military officer has achieved the position which Burnes occupied at the time of his death. His energy and talents were undoubted. His judgment with reference to Central Asian affairs has often been called in question, and it may be that he attached undue importance to the efforts then being made by Russia, and steadily pursued ever since, to acquire influence in Afghanistan, and to the value of a forward policy on the part of the government of India; but there can be no doubt that the advice given by him in favour of an alliance with Dost Mahomed was far sounder than that upon which Lord Auckland acted, and it is not to his discredit that, when his advice was overruled, he zealously exerted himself to give effect to the policy adopted by his official superiors.
For a time much injustice was done to him, and also to Dost Mahomed, by the mutilated form in which the official correspondence regarding the first Afghan war was in the first instance presented to parliament, passages being omitted which showed that Dost Mahomed's conduct was by no means so unreasonable or unfriendly to the British as it was made to appear, and that Burnes had advocated an alliance with Dost Mahomed. Sir Henry Durand, in an article in the 'Calcutta Review,' describes Burnes as 'a man hated as the treacherous cause of the invasion and occupation of the country.' It is not improbable that this was the Afghan feeling, but it does not appear that it was shared by Dost Mahomed; nor was there anything in the facts of the case to support a charge of treachery against Burnes.
Travels into Bokhara. Being an account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia. Also, narrative of a Voyage on the Indus from the Sea to Lahore (London: John Murray). 1834. 3 Vols. Republished by Eland in 2012, edited by Kathleen Hopkirk and with an introduction by William Dalrymple.
"On the Commerce of Shikarpur and Upper Scinde". Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society. Vol. II. 1836-8. (Bombay: American Mission Press). Reprinted 1844. 315-19.
Cabool. Being a Personal Narrative of a Journey to, and Residence in that City in the years 1836, 7, and 8 (London: John Murray). 1842. (Posthumous).
[Kaye's Lives of Indian Officers, 1869; Burnes's Travels into Bokhára, &c., 2nd edition, 1839; Marshman's History of India, vol. iii. 1867; Kaye's History of the War in Afghanistan, 3rd edition, 1874; Calcutta Review, vol. ii.]
Alexander John Arbuthnot, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 07. pgs. 389-391.