, , , ,

‘Sikunder Burnes: Master of The Great Game’ by Craig Murray (2016), Birlinn, Edinburgh


Craig Murray tells the story of Alexander Burnes, a lad from Montrose who secured a commission with the British India Company at the age of 16 and played a prominent role in The Great Game, the struggle between the British and Russian empires for domination of Central Asia.

Burnes won fame with his published account of the commercial mission he led to Bhukara in what is now Uzbekistan in 1832, as a cover for the gathering of intelligence on the region.  In 1837, against the background of mounting concern that a Russian-backed Persian army threatened Herat, the Governor General of India, Lord Aukland, put Burnes in charge of a second mission into Afghanistan.  He was cordially welcomed at Kabul by Dost Mohamed Khan, the reigning Emir, and treated with him with a view to securing his alliance with the British.  However, Burnes’ efforts were fatally undermined when the Governor General back in Simla concluded that removing Dost Mohammed and restoring Shah Shuja ul-Mulk to the throne in Kabul would suit British interests better.  Against his better judgement, Burnes accompanied the British Army of the Indus which invaded Afghanistan for this purpose in 1839.  He was murdered by a mob in Kabul shortly before the disastrous British retreat from the city in January 1842.

Murray shines a brutal light on the haughty incompetence of those in charge of British Imperial policy at the time.  Lord Palmerson, Aukland, and his adviser, Sir William McNaghten, fare particularly badly under his withering scrutiny.  Understandably, given his experiences as British Ambassador in Uzbekistan, Murray is tempted into comparisons with events in our own time.  Chapter headings include ‘Regime Change’ and ‘The Dodgy Dossier’.

There are a few typographical errors which could have been eliminated by more careful proof reading.  For example, Lieutenant Robert Leech, one of Burnes’ close colleagues and companions on his later missions, disconcertingly intrudes himself on his first trip up the Indus in 1831 (p.71), presumably standing in for Ensign John Leckie.