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At 24 years old, Lt. Alexander Burnes set out up the River Indus in charge of a flotilla of large native sailing vessels, ostensibly to escort an improbable present of five huge English dray horses from King George IV to India's most powerful independent ruler, the Maharajah Runjit Singh of Lahore. The 1,000 mile river route led straight through the hostile territory of the Emirs of Scinde, and spying was their real purpose. Burnes had already come to the attention of the British rulers of India by his explorations of the deserts and principalities of British India's North West Frontier. But for the remaining 13 years of his short life Burnes was destined to be the most famous, accomplished, and ultimately tragic figure of the great game of Anglo-Russian rivalry for dominion in Central Asia. His life surpassed any fictional adventure story—whether shipwrecked on a hostile shore, snowblind at 17,000 feet in the Hindu Kush, swimming the mighty Oxus, riding an expiring camel in the vast sand dunes of the Karakum desert, or shooting the murderous rapids of the Kabul river, Burnes had enormous physical reserves. He often traveled in disguise—as an Armenian horse-coper, a Persian secretary, a Hindu mystic or a Bokharan Jew, among others—aided by an amazing ability at languages, in situations where exposure could mean instant death. The climactic set piece of the Great Game is Burnes hosting Christmas dinner in 1837 for the Russian spy Jan Prosper Vitkevitch in Kabul. Burnes was a true product of Enlightenment Scotland, and on his travels he spent as much time on archaeological and geological exploration and a passionate pursuit of literature and poetry of all cultures, as on his official duties. Alexander's love life is legendary, and indeed his seductions of Afghan women have been advanced by many serious historians as a cause of the successful Afghan rebellion against British controlled rule. The truth, however, proves to be much more complex. Burnes died in 1841, a victim of the First Afghan War, which he had tried to prevent, believing the British invasion of Afghanistan a colossal blunder. He had been directly requested by the Governor-General of India to accompany the expedition and felt it was his patriotic duty to assist. He thus foreshadowed the fate of many countrymen who died nobly in useless wars in more recent times. Burnes' great popularity plummeted after his death as he became a convenient scapegoat for a disastrous war. This is the first full biography of Burnes, and the first of any kind researched from original sources. Former Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray brings to bear his own formidable knowledge of the geography and cultures of both Central Asia and of Scotland. Murray argues that Burnes is a most unjustly neglected figure, and much published about him is simply wrong. From the astonishing role of the small town of Montrose in ruling India through to the events of the First Afghan War, Murray challenges us fundamentally to reappraise a half-forgotten heritage.
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Craig Murray is the author of Murder in Samarkand.
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