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 travelled 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. He stayed a month in the closed holy city of Bokhara, whilst Moorcroft and Trebeck before him and Stoddart and Connolly after him, met awful deaths trying the same thing. The climactic set piece of the Great Game is Burnes hosting Christmas Dinner, 1837 for the Russian spy Jan Prosper Vitkevitch in Kabul. Burnes was a true product of Enlightenment Scotland and on his travels 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. He was famously charming and charismatic, qualities shared with his uncle Robert Burns. 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 and interesting.
Burnes died in 1841 a victim of the First Afghan War, which he had done everything in his power to prevent. He thought the British invasion of Afghanistan a colossal blunder and perished trying to implement a policy of which he disapproved. He had been directly requested by the Governor-General of India to accompany the expedition and felt it was his patriotic duty to assist.
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, the fruit of thousands of hours of painstaking manuscript research. Craig 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, Craig Murray challenges us fundamentally to reappraise a half-forgotten heritage.