James Najarian, “Alexander Burnes’s Travels into Bokhara (1834)”


Alexander Burnes’s Travels into Bokhara (1834) is a foundational text of the British fascination with Central Asia, both in a geopolitical sense—the “Great Game” of the rivalry between Britain and Russia in Asia—and in a literary one. It is the most prominent of many travelogues of Afghanistan and Central Asia that relate experiences from the late 1820s to late 1830s, preceding the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). Burnes’s Travels sold well and were immediately translated into French. For a time “Bokhara Burnes” was a literary celebrity. Yet the sensation of his Travels led him to another, less successful appointment in Kabul and finally to his third and final appointment there, as British envoy during the war. Not only was Burnes Britain’s leading Afghan expert; he also became the Afghans’ leading target. His murder sparked the course of the British rout. With a turn to his Persian secretary Mohan Lal Kashmiri’s account of the same travels in his Travels in the Panjab, this paper examines Burnes, his career, and his Travels in order to understand the events and his text’s role in them.

Sir Alexander Burnes (1805-1841), in Bukharan dress.

The Afghan rebellion against the British occupation of map iconKabul began with the murder of Sir Alexander Burnes, as well as of his brother and entourage, on the morning of 2 November 1841. The rebellion quickly turned the costly British victory of the first half of the Anglo-Afghan war into a much costlier defeat. The events of the war can be found in a BRANCH article by Antoinette Burton, as well as in many histories. The British invaded map iconAfghanistan in a badly planned, thought-out, and operated attempt to achieve regime change, and they replaced the Emir Dost Mohammed Khan with a plaint monarch, Shah Shuja Durrani, who had lost his throne in 1809. However, the first person the Afghan fighters chose to rid themselves of was Burnes, and they waited for an opportunity to provoke an attack. That morning he was hacked to death on the roof of his house. The young (36-year-old) “Bokhara Burnes,” had been the hero of the 1832 British expedition to Kabul and map iconBukhara. Only a few years earlier he had been feted in London and map iconParis. His account of that expedition, Travels into Bokhara, being the Account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary, and Persia, published in early 1834, had been a best seller.[1]

Burnes was the first of a long chain of men who fancied themselves Afghan “experts.” He was certainly a pointed choice to be the first British officer to be killed in the rebellion. Unlike other officers, he lived in the city of Kabul, not in the (still vulnerable) British cantonment, and as envoy in Kabul, he advised or rather intimidated Shah Shuja, who was a puppet ruler.[2] However, as William Dalrymple points out, Burnes was not only a military and political but a symbolic target: they saw him “as the source of the British occupation” (269). The Afghans hated Burnes then, and still hate him “to this day” (260). Though there are shelves of military histories of the War, starting with Sir John William Kaye’s magisterial History of the War in Afghanistan (1851, republished in 1858 and 1874), Dalrymple’s recent Return of a King was the first to access Persian-language sources, both in poetry and prose. In these, he writes, Burnes is always depicted as a “devilishly charming deceiver, the master of flattery and treachery, who corrupted the nobles of Kabul” (447). The Afghan patriots in Maulana Kashmiri’s Akbarnama concentrate their anger on Burnes as the physical embodiment of the British occupation:

Dying by the sword on the battlefield
Is better than living in the prisons of Firang (foreigners)

Like the very devil, all evil is the work of Burnes
Concealed, he goes about whispering to every soul. (qtd. in Dalrymple 250)

Certainly the version of Burnes we get from these sources differs from the somehow heroic participant in the “Great Game” that still is extant. It is understandable that James Lunt’s 1969 biography of Burnes, written by an Anglo-Indian Major-General, sees some imperial sheen on his name. But even the recent biography, Sikunder Burnes, Master of the Great Game (2016), which investigates Burnes’s letters and dispatches in order to save him from the reputation for sexual acquisition that has enveloped him since the last century, also retains some of the heroics.[3] “The Great Game,” too, ought to be a problematic phrase, popularized by Rudyard Kipling and examined in its late Victorian framing as an “extended prank” by Edward Said (Culture and Imperialism 127). Why should a century of European great-power conflicts over Central Asia that caused so many Afghan, Indian, British, and Russian deaths still get such a ludic name?[4] Even the phrase’s purported inventor, Captain Arthur Conolly, was beheaded in the public square of Bukhara on the orders of its King Nasrullah Khan—and this was early on in the “game,” in 1842.

It is the intention of this paper to examine Burnes’s Travels as one of the founding texts of British fascination with Afghanistan. As Martin Bayly writes,

Throughout the nineteenth century, building on the initial works of European travelers, the British developed, refined, and acted upon an amorphous and contested “idea” of Afghanistan, one that was more than simply the function of great power geopolitics. The sources informing this imagined entity were cultural, intellectual, moral, political, and social-scientific, as much as they were emotional. It was an idea, or collection of ideas, that would evolve and become trammeled by events and ultimately leave a legacy that persists to this day. (Bayly, Taming 1-2)

It is my contention that looking at a primary document of Burnes, the book that garnered him so much fame, promotion, and influence, will help see that imaginative geography at the times of its earliest and most potent construction.

Burnes was born in 1805 in map iconMontrose, map iconScotland, the son of the local provost, or mayor. He was a great-nephew of the poet Robert Burns. Sent to map iconIndia with his brother at 16, he spent most of his adult life on the subcontinent, first in the East India Company’s army, and then, after his talent for languages became apparent, in the political department, where he was appointed assistant to the political agent at map iconKutch. He was selected to lead a strange mission, invented by Lord Ellenborough, that was at once ceremony and espionage. Under the cover of presenting a gift of six large dray horses and a letter from King William to the powerful Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Sikh Empire of the map iconPunjab, Burnes was assigned to chart and examine the map iconIndus for potential navigation and opening to trade. At that time the amirs of map iconSindh controlled the mouth of the Indus. The adventure was not supported by everyone; Charles Metcalfe, who would be acting governor-general from 1835-1836, argued that the ruse was a provocation to war (Waller 11-12). The official British story maintained that the journey had to be made by water because the horses would not survive overland travel. The ostensible purpose of the grand gift fooled nobody, particularly the amirs, who recognized its strategic purpose and tried to delay and frustrate Burnes’s travels. The delays actually helped Burnes to get more complete information on “all the mouths of the Indus” (3: 29, his emphasis).

The Maharaja received Burnes with great ceremony in map iconLahore. Burnes made careful notes about the economic, financial, and military conditions of the places he went through. After his journey to Lahore was successfully completed, Burnes was asked to pursue another mission, this time to Central Asia, to Kabul and Bukhara, in order to sense Russian influence. The Russians had recently taken a swath of the map iconCaucasus from map iconPersia in the Treaty of map icon Turkmenchai (1828). Dr. James Gilbert Gerard, who was ill for most of the journey and died shortly afterward, accompanied him.[5] Burnes was greeted with friendliness from the various rulers of the cities he visited on the way and exchanged expensive gifts with them. He was feted by most influential of the rulers, Dost Mohammed Khan of Kabul, and made his way to Bukhara. Originally, he also intended to visit the Khanate of Khiva, but he was warned about its Khan’s reputation for cruelty and instead went on through Persia to return to India. Burnes would make a second, less successful, trip to Kabul in 1837-8; during his visit the Khan received a letter from Lord Auckland telling him that the British would not support his efforts to recover map iconKandahar, once part of the Afghan domain but paying tribute to Ranjit Singh. At the same time the Russian envoy Ivan Vitkevich arrived, eager for an alliance with the Emir.[6] Dost Mohammed had to receive him warmly, given the turn of events. Finding himself diplomatically isolated, Burnes withdrew. These two journeys made Burnes the Afghan expert. While he turned down a posting to Persia, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and knighted in 1838 in preparation for the British invasion of Afghanistan. He was made British envoy in Kabul, serving under his rival Sir William Hay Macnaghten, a long-time supporter of intervention, when the British invaded and replaced Dost Mohammed with Shah Shuja.

Burnes’s narrative, which recounts his trip up the Indus and his first trip to Kabul and return through Persia, is a concatenation of narratives and genres. The trip through Afghanistan to Bukhara is presented in the first volume and continues through the second: then there is an interrupting gazetteer of the countries he passed through, with lists of financial and military information. Only in the third volume does Burnes get to what is actually the first part of his journey: the voyage up the Indus to Lahore, the capital of the Sikh Empire, and his presentation of the five (one died on the voyage) great dray horses. In addition, an appendix is appended to the third volume, consisting of engravings of the coins Burnes acquired on his travels with commentary by a prominent numismatist. This arrangement bothered many reviewers, who often took on the narrative chronologically, with the third volume first. A map, intended for the first printing, was not completed in time, but is advertised in the first volume as available separately. Burnes’s second 1835 edition took these complaints into account and re-arranged the travelogues to make more sense. The publication of the Travels made a great effect in London and indeed in Europe: on its strength Burnes was elected a fellow of both the Royal and the French geographical societies, met King William and Princess Victoria, and later King Louis Philippe. As Dalrymple notes, the French translation of the account, Voyages dans le Bokhara, actually made the Russian government take notice of Burnes and of British machinations and set into motion map iconRussia’s alliance with Persia and its own Central Asian intrigues (77).

There are not many investigations, as opposed to summaries, of Burnes’s chronicle. The three joint authors of Travels into Print examine Burnes from the standpoint of the history of geography and of publication with the firm of John Murray. Charles Withers, writing from the perspective of historical geography, notes that Central Asia in particular was seen as an “intermediary” space, both as a space between Persia and India, but “between marginality and geographical enquiry on the ground” (Withers, “Enlightenment’s Margins” 17). Afghanistan had at the time no firm boundaries or central authority. For Bayly, this idea of Afghanistan as an intermediary space—a country that did not fit into British notions of stability of what a country was, was ruled, and that was only party known—was a particularly complex backdrop against which to interpret British and Imperial identity (Bayly, “Imperial Ontological” 823). For David Ludden, in borderlands, “the ‘language of power’ can be multiple, creolized, and available only in translation or indirectly; archives are typically polyglot, dispersed, obscure, and contradictory” (136).

Bayly has also remarked that these explorers formed an elite group of experts whose information was problematic: “Their knowledge remained patchy at best” (“Imperial Ontological” 826).[7] Often they relied on what Bayly terms, following Said, “Imaginative Geographies” (Said, Orientalism 49-73). Bayly’s examination of Burnes’s book in his Taming the Imperial Imagination is the fullest extant account, and it approaches the text from a geopolitical perspective. Bayly sees the text as a mixture of a commercial survey with a “sentimental aspect.” As Frederic Regard notes in discussing examples of British explorers’ accounts, “all reports—log entries, journals, retrospective narratives, fictional re-elaborations—were narratives, complex fabrics of lexicon, viewpoint, trope, quotation, elision, temporality, plot. Exploration accounts, as well as ethnographic descriptions or anthropological studies, were, and still are, literary artifacts” (10). “Sentimentality” is not merely as an excrescence but a vital part of the text and its attraction. Burnes is at once a geographer, a spy, and a raconteur. Regard notes that the construction of British identity is “an intersubjective linguistic event occurring on a specific terrain” (6). The drama Burnes records can only take place in a borderland, a hazily defined or “empty space,” where the spectacle of being Alexander Burnes must happen. An enthusiastic reviewer in the Athenaeum admires—or is taken in by—that performance, getting precisely the effect Burnes wants him to have: “Lieut. Burnes seems to have been predestined to the task of exploring Central Asia” (Athenaeum 481).

Though Burnes was a primary actor in the conflict that came to be known as the First Anglo-Afghan War, that plan was as yet un-dreamt of when he made his journey. (The usurpation of the amirs of Sindh was indeed in the works, and he argues for it.) He was certainly not initially in favor of it as policy—that blame has to be assigned to the Governor-General Lord Auckland and to Sir William Macnaghten. His narrative praises Dost Mohammed for his attention to government and fostering of trade.[8] Burnes counted himself a personal friend of Dost Mohammed (as is evidenced in this account) and contrasted Dost Mohammed’s competence with Shah Shuja’s personal weakness.[9] What made him decide to support the poorly conceived invasion and enthronement of Shuja has mostly been traced to his overweening personal ambition, though I will argue that his own pleasure at his success at disguise, linguistic fluency, and knowledge of the country helped do him in, and that evidence of all of this can come out in a literary reading of his narrative.

Travels into Bokhara is actually one of a crowd of descriptions of Afghanistan written in the early nineteenth century.[10] In particular, Mohan Lal Kashmiri’s Travels in the Panjab, Afghanistan and Turkistan, to Balk, Bokhara and Herat; and a visit to Great Britain and Germany (1846) is a neglected source for analyzing Burnes.[11] Lal was Burnes’s Persian secretary or munshi, and he travelled with Burnes on the Central Asian leg of his trip, during his second visit to the city, and later during the occupation of Kabul. Lal, from a poor but well-born Kashmiri family, was one of the first young Indian men trained at the map iconEnglish College in map iconDelhi. His father had served as the munshi for Mountstuart Elphinstone on his journey decades before. Lal was selected by Burnes but employed by the East India Company. The central Asian portion of Lal’s book recounts the same overland journey as Burnes’s. It is not an adventure narrative but a revision of his diary entries; he saves his memories of the Afghan War, which he survived, for his Life of the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, published the same year. Lal is, or should be, the real hero of the First Anglo-Afghan War; he had a web of informants and succeeded in negotiating the release of the hostages after its end. Reading Lal alongside Burnes—Lal is altogether more circumspect than his mentor—serves as a useful comparison and context for of Burnes’s composition.[12]

Lal’s book presents a plainer account and a personal travelogue: it narrates a young man’s journey around the world, including to England and the continent. It takes part in his unsuccessful efforts to get reimbursed for his expenses in saving the British hostages by the East India company. Unlike Burnes, who places himself forward as an adventurer, Lal places himself repeatedly behind, as a secondary figure. (No gazetteer is included to make him an authority.) The text itself is secondary: Lal published a journal of the Central Asian travels in India in 1834, which sold out.[13] It was not available in England. Lal made cuts and added more material from later travels, and credits Sir Charles Trevelyan for help with the revisions. The text deploys other texts in order to deploy a kind of effacement; certainly some of this has to do with Lal’s role as an Indian who needs to display support for and from his British audience. But, as Lal writes, it also seems to be part of a more complex strategy: “I have mentioned the names of some gentlemen, and ladies, and quoted their letters, and I have expressed the sentiments of heartfelt gratitude which I owe them. This I have done with the view that the people of Asia might read them, and thereby be assured of receiving kindness in this civilized and hospitable country” (vi).

The account is introduced by paratexts that not only vouch for the author’s respectability but also interact with one another in the course of their praise. The dedication to C.E. Trevelyan both thanks and quotes the dedicatee:

This volume is inscribed as a proof of my heartfelt gratitude, respect, and affection to a friend to whom I am indebted for all enjoy in the world: who, besides educating me in youth, early associated me with himself; taught me to think and to act as a man, when most of my companions were still engaged in their education in the class established by him, and who afterwards expressed his satisfaction towards me in the following words: ‘I feel now that the favourable opinion which I formed of you when a boy, and which subsequently led me to select you to accompany Sir Alexander Burnes on his journey, has been fully justified by the result, and it is satisfactory to me to think that I have been the means of enabling you to commence an useful and honourable career.’ (iii)

The dedication indicates that Lal has an important person’s esteem and places Lal’s name under and next to Burnes and Trevelyan himself. Trevelyan praises Lal in his “Memoir” (a reprinting of Trevelyan’s Memoir prefacing the 1834 volume), in terms of the success of the English College at map iconDelhi: “Mohan Lal is among the first-fruits of the new system, and he has done it no small credit” (xi). Lal is presented as the model student whose success in the English College and after justifies the occupation of the country: “In the person of Mohan Lal we proved to the Mohammedan nations beyond the Indus our qualification for the great mission with which we have been intrusted, of regenerating India” (xiv). That model Indian is created not so much by academic discipline but by the English language, which Trevelyan writes, is “the simple cause of Mohan Lal’s elevation of character” (xx).

Lal often defers to others. He announces that he forgoes opportunities for description (of the politics of the Sikh Empire, for example) when the material has been already covered by Burnes (17). The text is also full of letters and notes quoted entirely that stress Lal’s work as an assistant to prominent people: notes from Trevelyan and from Burnes, for example, or what comes across as almost a non sequitur: a letter from the Chevalier Ventura asking Lal to send a graduate of the English College who knows English and Persian (365).[14] When Lal receives a miniature of King Frederick William IV from the hands of the Prussian Minister, he carefully quotes the inscription: “AN MOHAN LAL MIRZA, AUS DEM STAMME DER FÜRSTEN VON KASCHMIR” (To Mohan Lal Mirza, of the Tribe of the Princes of Kashmir) (526).

Lal is more interested in ethnography than geography, though he does record economic information when his superiors send him on particular assignments. At each stop Lal notes the religion of the inhabitants and their attitudes toward other religions, their cleanliness, and their crops. He seeks out and describes each religious shrine and recounts at some length the legendary history of the map iconBamiyan Buddhas. While Burnes is the central character of his own tale, Lal lives in relation to other people. He clearly enjoys depictions of people and long conversations with others of any rank; the text is full of characters, from Heera Singh, “a beautiful and delicate boy” (12) who is a favorite of Ranjit Singh, to the unconventional missionary Wolff, who says that during a personal conversation with Jesus, Christ informed him that the pleasant map iconvalley of Kashmir will be the New Jerusalem after a few years (72). Lal’s skill in cultivating friendships saved him from Burnes’s fate, as at the moment that Burnes’s house was attacked Lal was rescued by his friend Mohammed Zaman Khan, a first cousin of Dost Mohammed. Afterwards Qazilbashi friends protected him in their walled quarter. Lal shows emotion when parting from friends, including Burnes. Long footnotes defend the reputations of the dead Macnaughten and Burnes against the accusations of license and cruelty that Charles Masson (pseudonym of James Lewis) made in his 1842 Narrative of Various Journeys (333-35).

Burnes’s narrative, on the other hand, is thoroughly heroic: as a Scotsman rather than a Kashmiri, he needs no intertexts. From the very start, Burnes’s narrative exhibits a combination of surveillance and adventure, of note-taking and storytelling. At times Burnes does not actually seem to be traveling in the physical realm of Central Asia in the 1830s. From the very start, he seems far more interested in the landscape of millennia before. He puts forward his journey as a tracing of the conquests of Alexander the Great. (Burnes’s reviewers all noticed his interest in Alexander; some were delighted by and some skeptical of it).[15] While his readers note that nobody in modern times had made the particular journey up the Indus that Burnes successfully attempted, Burnes seldom approaches his journey from its mere innovation. Rather, he seems almost obsessed with finding evidence or descendants of the conqueror: that is, physical or biological remnants. Even at the start of his account, the motivation for his journey does not seem to be the stated delivery of the present of English horses as a diplomatic present for Ranjit Singh but to satisfy this earlier, inborn urge: “My success in this undertaking, which was attended with many difficulties, and the sight of so many tribes hitherto little known, gave fresh strength to a desire that I had always felt to see new countries, and visit the conquests of Alexander” (1: ix). The desire to visit the conquests of Alexander and to repeat them seems to be more important than the ostensible purpose of the diplomatic gifts or the real purpose of surveying the Indus to judge its possibilities for trade and later to ferret out evidence of Russian influence. As Amar Acheraïou notes, colonialism becomes a kind of grafting onto the earlier conqueror (Rethinking 32). Nigel Leask has remarked that Alexander provides a model for a “civilizing mission” (93). Often Burnes stumbles between contemporary names for rivers and cities and classical ones: he attempts to locate places mentioned in Arrian or other historians with what he actually sees, and he insists on referring to geographical places by their Hellenistic names. It can become difficult to follow this travelogue with Burnes’s eyes not set on a contemporary map, however inaccurate it might be, but on an imagination that orbits Alexander. Burnes certainly identified with Alexander, and not just because of the coincidence of their first names. As a traveler, he went by the name of “Sikunder” or “Iskunder,” Pashto and Persian variants of the name, and he enjoyed being recognized as such. He brags that the local people call him a “second Alexander,” the “Sikunder sanee” for having achieved “so dangerous a voyage as the Indus” (3: 137). He speculates several times on peoples possibly descended from Alexander’s forces, including the Tajiks, the “Kaffirs,” and several tribes near map iconLissar (modern Lisar, in map iconGilan Province, map iconIran). And he breaks open several topes, or mounds, in order to find Greek artifacts or coins and is disappointed when they are largely Cufic.

Burnes and his men never find any evidence of Alexander and very little of later Hellenism. Burnes congratulates himself on finding a single Bactrian coin, the only Greek artifact he encounters. (He does not uncover this himself; Lal implies he buys most of his coins from villagers.) He even has to discount the suggestion of the noted geographer James Rennell (1742-1830) that the altars of Alexander might be found near his route. The native informants are neither helpful nor interested: “The modern inhabitants of the Indus have no traditions of the conquest of the Macedonians to assist the enquirer in a subject that excites among civilizes nations such intense curiosity” (3: 80). One wonders why he thinks the natives would be as interested in a conqueror who came their way two thousand years before, merely one of many successive waves of occupiers. Their indifference seems to justify Burnes’s investigations; if the people on the ground are not interested, he has to be interested for them. But even Burnes admits: “we may not be more successful in elucidating some of the passages of the historians of Alexander” (349). Whatever his success as a traveler and as an agent of British capitalism, his role as an historian or archaeologist is negligible: the connection with Alexander must be imagined because it is simply not there. All the more curious, then, is the conclusion to these overland travels, located near the middle of the second volume:

I saw every thing, both ancient and modern, to excite the interest and inflame the imagination,—Bactria, Transoxiana, Scythia, and Parthia, Kharasm, map iconKhorasan, and Iran. We had now visited all these countries; we had retraced the greater part of the route of the Macedonians; trodden the kingdoms of Porus and Taxiles; sailed on the map iconHydaspes; crossed the Indian Caucasus, and resided in the celebrated city of map iconBalkh, from which Greek monarchs, far removed from the academies of map iconCorinth and map iconAthens, had once disseminated among mankind a knowledge of the arts and sciences, of their own history, and the world. (2: 141)

Even at the very end of his overland journey, he frames it as a repetition, or at least a visit, to the sights of Alexander the Great, when he actually found no trace of the conqueror. The journey becomes an extended adventure in role-play, in taking on the identity of Alexander.

Like many accounts of travel in the subcontinent, Burnes is particularly disarming when he describes the lavishness of his receptions by native khans and princes. These lush passages—which are not nearly as impressive in other, more geographical accounts—were certainly calculated for his book-buying audience. His publisher, John Murray, who had a keen eye for what attracted the reader, may have encouraged them. They certainly did get the attention of Burnes’s reviewers. The reviews in the Literary Gazette and the Imperial Magazine quote these descriptions at some length. They are even noticed and summarized by the sober Journal of the Royal Geographic Society (290-91). “Delight” or “delightful” comes up several times in these assessments. As Mary Louise Pratt also notes of Mungo Park, Burnes’s journey is both horizontal through a landscape and vertical through class (73). While most of the time the group travels as obscurely as possible, they reveal themselves as foreigners and agents of empire when with important people. Often the journey seems like a journey from Khan to Khan, each of whom receives Burnes with gifts, entertainments, and lavish meals. The most elaborate reception is the most powerful and richest of the monarchs he meets, Ranjit Singh:

About a mile distant we were welcomed by a Rajah and camp, his train, who met us on elephants, and conducted us to the camp, pitched close on the banks of the river. The scene, as we approached, was magnificent. A large pavilion of red cloth, surrounded by extensive walls of the same materials, marked the encampment of Runjeet, while his troops and chiefs were cantoned in picturesque groups around. The suite of tents which had been pitched for our accommodation was most elegant. They were made of scarlet and yellow cloth, and the ground was covered with the carpets of Cashmeer, and pieces of French satin. It was with some reluctance that I set foot upon such valuable materials. In each tent was a camp bed, with curtains of yellow silk, and coverlets of the same description. Such costly splendour was ill suited to men who had so little prospect even of comfort; but I must say that it was exhilarating at the moment. (3: 19-20)

It is important to notice not only the details of the reception that the Maharaja arranges for Burnes and his company (which will be quoted in almost every review) but also how Burnes frames it against his own purported lack of splendor. There are several moments of such magnificence: it is unclear the extent to which Burnes understands that these are performances meant to impress just so Burnes will write them down and forward them to England. Burnes transcribes the Maharaja’s expensive and elaborate outfits in some detail. The entire time they are in the Punjab they get a roster of such presentations, including, for their farewell banquet, a brigade of dancing girls who are given alcohol so they can quarrel and the men can watch them fight. Burnes admires their “gay and festive scenes” (3: 31); Lal was offended. He wrote that the show: “ill-becomes a monarch, and is improper in the opinion of the wise” (16).

The point is not simply to record Oriental display but to survey it, and by survey, I mean both assess its value and mark its distance. Burnes, for example, always counts the money he is given by Ranjit Singh and other rulers as presents, and judges whether it was wise to accept it or not. Lal, on the other hand, merely records that the party is repeatedly given “a bag of money” (9, 12). For Burnes, it is important to tally the gifts—and his descriptions, with their lists of colors and cloths, are a kind of enumeration too, no less than the precise nature of prices of imported Russian and English goods at the bazaars that he lists further into his journey. Lal sees the displays with a far more jaundiced eye. He recalls the “showy and rich court of Ranjit Singh” (358). At the same time, it is important for Burnes to frame the luxury’s distance from the Western narrator. Soon after their departure from Lahore and the spring festival of Busunt (“Nothing can be imagined more grand” (1: 27)), Burnes has the party divest itself of many of its possessions: to pass as natives and as poor natives at that: “It now became necessary to divest ourselves almost of every thing which belonged to us, and discontinue many habits and practices which had become a second nature” (1: 40). They throw away European clothing, furniture, and tents. Burnes gets rid of what he calls the “useless paraphrenalia of civilization” (1: 41), which includes wines, spirits, and their cutlery, as they are to eat with their fingers. (The sight of the British abandoning European dining manners astonished Lal.) Not only are objects part of this tally, so too are people. The natives can “detach themselves from our retinue” to make them look poorer (1: xiii). This is not simply a British person enjoying a great rise in class on coming to the subcontinent. In Burnes’s imagination, he can perform wealth or poverty at will—though, as he is careful to note, they are hardly indigent. By the end, the Maharaja had sent them no less than 24,000 rupees in cash, though Burnes declines a 700-rupee daily allowance.

The oscillation among Burnes the British officer and noble friend of princes, Burnes the second Alexander, and Sikunder the poor traveler enables many linguistic, corporeal, and sartorial enactments. Burnes deploys various combinations of disguise to fit in, partly fit in, or to be noticed. In a strange way, as he is constantly taking the temperature of the atmosphere, he is also constantly taking stock of his own disguises. At times, Burnes needs to look like a European in order to get the reception that he feels he deserves: he generally reveals his Europeanness around those of high rank, though also he might choose to deploy the customs, language, or dress of those around him. As he writes in his preface, “I determined to look like a European, accommodating myself in dress, habits, and customs, to those with whom I should mingle. . . . From long intercourse with Asiatics, I had acquired some insight into their character, and possessed at the same time a fair colloquial knowledge of the Persian language” (1: xiii). One of the reasons Lal has been hired is for his knowledge of classical Persian, which is necessary in correspondence and in formal situations.

Early on in his travels overland Burnes describes the complicated sensations of being taken for a native when he meets Afghan and Hindu pilgrims on the road:

The sight of these people from beyond the Indus gave rise to many curious sensations. We wore their dress, and they knew us not; we received their salutations as countrymen, and could not participate in their feelings. Some of them would ask, as we passed, whether we were going to Cabool or Candahar; and from their looks and questions, I found many a secret and doubtful thrill pass across me. This I found to arise from the novelty of our situation, for it soon wore off after we mingled familiarly with the people; and, in course of time, I gave and returned the usual salutations with the indifference of a practised traveller. (1: 69)

Burnes receives a thrill when “we”—meaning his group, consisting of both Europeans and Indians—is taken for an Afghan one. Though he writes that the “thrill” soon wears off, his narrative proves otherwise. Burnes deliberately deploys disguise not only to travel more safely and more secretly, but also to achieve and record that “thrill.” It is clear that he delights in being mistaken for what he is not, a delight that increases during the course of the narrative. As he moves forward into Afghan territory he comes not only to adapt to his pretended nationality but also to experience pleasure in it: “The people were now quite changed; they were Afghans, and spoke Pooshtoo. I was struck with their manly mien, and sat down with delight on a felt, with an Afghan, who civilly invited me to converse with him. I did not regret to exchange the cringing servility of the Indians for the more free and independent manners of Cabool” (1: 74). The pleasure is all his: being taken for a nationality whose manners are more masculine (“manly”) and whose independence (though he will come to interfere with it) is its primary attraction. Presumably, one reason that the Indians are “cringing” (or feminized) is because they are either under the yoke or the threat of the yoke of the East India Company for whom he works.

Lal, traveling with Burnes, is more circumspect. In his eyes disguise is a more difficult and nuanced project. When the party does succeed in their disguise, he notes it but does not revel in it: “A beautiful Sikh boy, fourteen years of age, came to me, and, holding the bridle of my horse, prevailed upon me to shew him Messrs. Burnes and Gerard (or the Sahib-log). I pointed them out to him; he then told me that he could not distinguish the gentlemen from me, as we had all Afghan dresses” (36). Note that Lal does not attempt to let the Europeans “pass” but identifies them. Often, in his view, the disguises just as often do not work:“we put on the Afghan dress, and pretended to be Duranis; but this imposition would not bear close inspection” (32). Lal feels that disguise is inherently dangerous. In map iconPeshawar he is accused of being an Englishman: “. . . a multitude of shopkeepers and other people looked at me, and at my dress, which was not very good. They cried out with loud voices that I was an Englishman, not a Kashmerian, though my clothes were not like an European’s” (46). At map iconMashad, he visits a bath, open only to Muslims, and he feels the jeopardy he is putting himself in: “I nearly risked my character” (166). Luckily, he is taken for a Persian Muslim:‘They could not recognize me in my Persian attire” (166).

Burnes may be remembered for his role in the “Great Game,” but the effort of disguise is his own personal amusement, and it is complex. Sometimes he needs to be taken for a European (as in his trip on the Indus), sometimes an Afghan, others a Persian, sometimes for a European in native dress, depending on his audience. The narrative is full of his costume changes. As he writes on leaving Peshawar, on his way to Kabul, he writes: “The outer garment which I wore cost me a rupee and a half, ready-made, in the bazaar. We also resolved to conceal our character as Europeans from the common people, though we should frankly avow to every chief, and indeed every individual with whom we might come into contact, our true character” (1: 97). In Kabul, Burnes reports that Dost Mohammed approves of their approach. Over and over again Burnes records how his true nationality is not suspected. Sunni Afghans take them for Sunni Afghans; the Hazaras take the party for Persians and thus fellow-Shiites.

While at Kabul he is invited by the members of the small colony of Armenians, whose once-large community has dwindled in numbers since prospering under the old Durrani monarchy. Dost Mohammed’s decrees against alcohol finished them off, as they and the Jews made their money distilling it what Conolly calls “vile arrack” (2: 17). Burnes calls the Armenians “handsome” and also “a harmless inoffensive people, but fond of money” (1: 150). On leaving Kabul the party is advised to pretend to be poor Armenians: “I was now resolved on personating the character of an Armenian, and believed that despatch would avail me and allay suspicion” (1: 209). As Burnes makes clear, this impersonation is less sartorial than it is bodily and religious: “The Armenians have adopted all the customs and manners of Mahommedans, and take off both shoes and turbans on entering their churches” (1:150). That is, they do not dress much differently from the Muslims and they have accommodated themselves to many of their household customs. Burnes spins his new identity into an elaborate tale:

It was prudent, however, that when questioned, we should all tell the same story, and in a quiet hour, before going to sleep, I gave out my character as follows. That I was an Armenian from map iconLucknow, Sikunder Alaverdi, by profession a watchmaker, and that, on reaching Cabool, I had procured intelligence from Bokhara regarding my relatives in that country, which led me to take a journey to it, and that I was the more induced to do so from the protection I should receive from the Nazir, to whose brother in Cabool I was, in some manner, a servant. . . .

. . . All our party agreed, that it would be most advisable to take the name of an Armenian, and entirely discard that of European; but the Cafila bashee [the leader of the caravan] wished to know how far it was proper to deal in such wholesale lies, which had excited his merriment. I replied in the words of Sady, ‘Durogh i musluhut amez Bih uz rastee bu fitna ungcz.’ ,‘An untruth that preserves peace is better than truth that stirs up troubles.’ He shook his head in approbation of the moralist’s wisdom, and I afterwards found him the most forward in the party to enlarge on my pretended narrative and circumstances. (1: 218-19)

map iconAlaverdi is a town in the Caucasus ceded by Persia to Russia in the 1813 treaty of map iconGulistan, now in map iconLori province in the Republic of map iconArmenia on the border with map iconGeorgia. (Burnes adopts the more euphonious Sikunder rather than one of the Armenian words for Alexander, Agheksanter, or Agheksandros.) Burnes seems to delight in inventing not only a mask but a yarn. He even suggests that the natives also enjoy adding to the story. The disguise, however necessary, as a “poor Armenian” is doing something more than helping them hide their origins or their cash. It is giving him pleasure. The unnecessary quotation of the poet Saadi in transliteration is part of the act, as it parades Burnes’s Persian literacy both before his traveling party and his readers, even as his readers English readers will have trouble even mouthing the words. The risk involved too, the fact that the story might be unraveled by a mere glimpse of the wrong portion of his body, also adds to the glee: “I rehearsed my tale, and drew on a pair of boots as well as for the uniformity as to hide my provokingly white ankles. My face had long been burned into an Asiatic hue and from it I feared no detection” (1: 54). Interestingly, Lal does not record this elaborate fiction or even the guise of being Armenian. He certainly takes no pleasure in it; he simply records that they passed as “poor foreigners” (102). But Burnes expands on the impersonation, and those who are taken in by it, at length.

When a Hindu customs official, who reports to the fearsomely reputationed Murad Bek, Khan of map iconKunduz, Burnes inflates a little comedy of manners:

Then came the Hindoo of the Custom-house with my tale. ‘Your slave,’ said he, ‘has examined the baggage of the two Armenians, and found them to be poor travelers. It is in every person’s mouth that they are Europeans (Firingees), and it would have placed me under your displeasure had I let them depart; I have, therefore, brought one of them to know your orders.’ The moment was critical; and the chief gave me a look, and said in Turkish,—‘Are you certain he is an Armenian?’ A second assurance carried conviction, and he issued an order for our safe conduct beyond the frontier. (1: 225)

Burnes brags about how he pulls his impersonation off, but one might also see that he does so just barely. Perhaps even the customs-house manager and his chief understand that this is a ruse, but they elect not to pursue it. It is the kind of adventure Burnes needs to advertise in order to create his larger-than-life figure.

This camouflage is used until the gates of Bukhara, where they make another costume change:

Our first care on entering Bokhara was to change our garb and conform to the usages prescribed by the laws of the country. The measure was in consonance from our own principle, and we did not delay a moment in adopting it. Our turbans were exchanged for shabby sheep-skin caps, with the fur inside; and our ‘kummurbunds’ (girdles) were thrown aside for a rude piece of rope or tape. The outer garment of the country was discontinued, as well as our stockings; since these are the emblems of distinction in the holy city of Bokhara between an infidel and true believer. (1: 267)

Though it is not as easy to parse out in Burnes as it is in Lal, who describes the difference more readily, they do not adopt Bukharan native dress but rather the special attire that non-Muslims are required to wear. Burnes must appear as a European in order to get the reception he needs—this time with the Vizier, who meets them several times. (They never do meet the King, but only view him from afar.) This costume comes up in a particular illustration in the book that I will return to later.

On the return trip through Persia Burnes has many opportunities to “pass” and never gives up a chance to tell his readers about his accelerating abilities. The merchants in the caravan they join out of Bukhara try to identify them and once again they gain a new designation:

There were several questions put regarding us, and the principal merchants spoke with earnestness and kindness. We had never instructed them, but they now chose to denominate us Hindoos from Cabool, who were proceeding on a pilgrimage to the flames of map iconBakoo, on the map iconCaspian. We had been successively Englishmen, Afghans, Uzbeks, Armenians, and Jews, and they now denominated us Hindoos. These people are very simple; nor do they even interrogate closely. (2: 31)

Burnes credits some of his success to his own impersonation and some to the “very simple” character of the travelers: a mix of peoples, all of whom seem to be easily fooled. On a visit to a Turkmen household, “they took me for a native of Cabool, from the loongee which I wore as a turban, not did I undeceive them” (2: 61). When they reach the camp of the Persian Crown Prince Abbas Meerza near map iconKuchan (in whose service are a number of Europeans) they even failed to be recognized by their own: “so complete was our disguise, that we had to make ourselves known, though we were expected” (2: 89).

At Khorasan, Dr. Gerard and Lal make their own way back to India via Kabul. Burnes has even more opportunities to perform as he travels through Persia, as he is on his own. He joins a caravan led by Humza Khan. He says he has to reassure Humza Khan that he is indeed the foreigner put in his care by Prince Mirza: “My costume led to many mistakes among the party” (2: 100). Burnes shows he has more and more abilities to dissimulate. One Turkmen asks him in Persian for news of Bukhara, and will not believe he is a foreigner:

It was in vain that I continued to convince him of my real character. ‘Soonee, or Shiah, which are you?’ said he. ‘Be it so,’ replied I, ‘since you are determined to have me a Mohammedan;’ and I repeated the names of the first four Caliphs, the watchword of the Soonee and Toorkmuns, who are all of that persuasion. ‘Bravo!’ cried my new acquaintance; ‘I knew I was right;’ and we journeyed together with great delight, I personating a character which had been forced upon me: nor was it sufficient that my creed was settled; the Toorkmun also fixed my country, which was Cabool. I did not allow the opportunity to pass which thus presented itself of improving my knowledge of the Tookrmun, whose lands we were once more to enter. (2: 105)

Here Burnes frames his shifting ethnicity as beyond the scope of his intentions; his talents have their own power. A Kurd from whom he purchases a mule takes him for “a native of Khorasan, and it was therefore useless to tell him I was an European” (2: 130). Earlier, when he adopts his Armenian tale, Burnes is able to recognize that there is some level of deceit, however necessary, in his disguise. But on the return trip through Persia, Burnes seems to be happily at the mercy of his languages and his adopted dress. These identities are “forced on” him, as if his magical powers lead him to shapeshift involuntarily through populations. In fact, this is something of a delusion, a story he wants to tell about himself, that he is something more than a European, and often it is hard to tell to what extent he feels himself above or without ethnicity. He is not “going native,” which implies permanence. Rather, he displays a unique ability to deploy various sorts of ethnicities at will, or even as necessary to the situation, beyond his own plans or schemes.

Often these impostures overdo their stated purpose, even as I suggested the elaborate story behind his disguise as an Armenian was too much. On his trip to the Indus he quotes a letter thanking Mir Rustum Khan of map icon Khairpur, the Emir of Sindh most friendly to the British, “which will serve as a specimen of the epistolary style used by the people of this country, which I imitated as closely as possible” (3:61):

It forms a source of congratulation to me that I have arrived in your dominions, and brought along with me in safely the presents which have been graciously bestowed on Maha Raja Runjeet Singh by his Majesty the King of England, might in rank, terrible as the planet Mars, a monarch great and magnificent, of the rank of Jemshid, of the dignity of Alexander, unequalled by Darius, just as Nousherwan, great as Fureedoon, admired as Cyrus, famed as the Sun. . . (3: 61-2)

He quotes the letter, which goes on at some length, in full. This letter acts far less as a specimen of polite classical Persian for his reader’s sake (and later on he will quote a long letter of Ranjit Singh to King William IV, so it is hardly necessary) but to show off his classical Persian fluency, the language of the princely aristocracy, just as he can pass for Afghan, Turkmen, Armenian, or Hindu. It is a linguistic performance instead of a sartorial one.

Another conundrum is the well-known portrait of Burnes in Bukharan dress, reproduced in the first edition of Travels into Bokhara and reprinted in every volume about the Afghan War. As the authors of Travels into Print note, Burnes’s publisher John Murray had requested that Burnes sit for a painted portrait in Bukharan dress (Keighren et al. 146-148). Burnes complied but wanted the caption under the reproduction of the painting to read merely “The Costume of Bokhara.” (Burnes also had a portrait painted as a British gentleman at about the same time.) But Murray advertised the volume as containing a portrait captioned it “Sir Alexander Burnes, CB, in the Costume of Bokhara.” According to the authors, this “exasperated” Burnes (145). The engraving was published in the 1834 version, simply with the “Costume of Bokhara” as the caption:  “Burnes felt . . . the reader would be bound to recognize the portrait as illustrative of various episodes in the text that recounted the disguise that the author has used to ensure his invisibility in the field” (145). Burnes asked that the portrait, which he thought a poor likeness, be “touched up” by the Engraver Edward Finden, and indeed it was, but John Murray left it out of the 1835 edition, replacing it with an engraving of a miniature of Maharaja Runjit Singh that Burnes himself had recommended. Craig Murray argues that the portrait is not of Burnes at all, since Finden the engraver did touch it up (126). But the painting, still extant, certainly was of Burnes, and the touched-up engraving was not reproduced in John Murray’s volumes. At any rate is it not at all clear that the engraving was touched up in order to disguise Burnes but to improve the likeness and the expression. Murray would use the first engraving, with the caption Burnes disliked, as a frontispiece to the posthumously published Cabool.

But there is a greater problem with the portrait, far larger than the notion of “likeness,” that is betrayed by the interplay between the portrait, Murray’s captions, and the possibility that readers would take the portrait as one of Burnes’s masquerades. Though Burnes does briefly mention that he was not permitted to wear Muslim garb in his account of Bukhara, Lal makes it clearer: “Like other infidels, we were obliged to submit to be distinguished by a peculiar dress: this is a black cap, and a rope around the waist. Captain Burnes and Mr. Gerard suffered the same restraints as others, which to them must have proved very troublesome” (143). This, of course, is not the elaborate, layered, attractive, clearly Oriental dress of the portrait. Burnes is decked out in a costume he never actually wore.

As I have suggested, elements of Burnes’s narrative can stand attention, especially the intertwining roles of disguise, fluency, foreign expertise, and pleasure. With this examination of Burnes’s reputation-making travels behind us, it might be useful to return to the scene of Burnes’s death. Burnes himself, often sidelined by his rival and superior Macnaghten, called himself a “highly paid idler” in Kabul (Hopkirk 237). Most historians depict him living a sybaritic existence, giving dinner parties and displaying imported European delicacies, especially wine. Craig Murray notes that his salary was the extraordinary 4,000 pounds a year (351). Burnes was warned multiple times by Lal and Afghan aristocrats that a rebellion was brewing and his life was in danger, but, confident in his own abilities, he waved these warnings off.[16] All sources agree that he was chopped to pieces on the roof of his house on that November morning of 1841.

The stories only come together at a few points. The Afghans who attacked Burnes waited for a pretext to strike; they got it when a woman in Abdullah Khan Achakzai’s retinue, possibly a slave, ran for safety to Burnes’s house and he refused to return her. From there on there are at least four or five different accounts.[17] The Persian-language Afghan sources emphasize Burnes’s sexual appetite; in one, he is seized when he is with a woman in his bath. In another, he is scheming to steal the wife of an Afghan soldier and that soldier’s relatives kill him. In describing his very end, the narratives of even the Europeans and their allies both collude and differ. Kaye, probably using Bowe Singh as his source, writes that Burnes was betrayed by a Kashmiri who purported to lead him to safety but instead exposed him to the daggers. Lal contributed what has become the most heroic narrative (Dalrymple calls his ‘the most credible” (270)). While Lal admits he did not witness Burnes’s execution himself (he did witness Burnes’s brother’s) he related that, according to the guards of Nawab Mohammed Zawan Khan, Lal’s protector, Burnes tied his neckcloth around his eyes so as not to see his murderers, and walked into their assault (Lal, Dost Mohammed II: 409). A Russian tradition differs; instead Burnes tries to disguise himself in women’s dress (Murray 371). (It does seem right that Burnes’s last act on this earth would be a costume change, either into a blindfold or a burqa.) Of course, these narratives cannot all be true; possibly no one is. And it certainly is impossible to find out the “truth” of the claims of sexual misconduct, or at least unwisdom, that surround him.

Lal defends Burnes personally from accusations of sexual crimes but notes that on a number of occasions Burnes unwisely interposed himself among disputes between British and Afghans over women and always took the British side (Dost Mohammed 2: 391-8). Lal does point out that not all these women were concubines; one man went to extraordinary (and unsuccessful) lengths to recover his wife. Lal’s simple explanation for Burnes and his entourage not having dealings with Afghan women is curious, however. They already “had Kashmerian females in their service” (2: 399). That is, they would not traffic in Afghan women because they were already trafficking in Kashmiri women. Though the author of Sikunder Burnes makes much of Lal’s account, it is not particularly convincing and seems to be mostly an intricate attempt to clear Burnes’s name.[18] After all, in the years after Burnes’s death, Lal visited Scotland and gave his family Burnes’s remaining papers; he could hardly criticize his mentor in print. I am not particularly interested in finding out Burnes’s precise sexual behavior but only to note it as a facet of his life in Afghanistan that can relate to aspects of his early narrative. Aside from a few asides about pretty Afghan girls, his Travels are not particularly sexual (and Lal makes these same asides, as well as ones about beautiful boys). But what is curious is his confidence in his abilities to negotiate identity—to become European when he needs and Afghan when he needs and whatever else he needs when he needs. He even attempted to influence the mob in his excellent Persian (Schofield 72). Whichever story you believe, Burnes weaves together a selection of European and Afghan mores; it does not matter how fluent one’s Afghan languages are if one ignores basic Afghan values. Most discussion of Homi Bhabha’s “hybridity” has not taken up individual historical personages. But Burnes’s performances can certainly be seen as what Acheraïou calls “strategic hybridity. . . . a tool of domination” (Acheraïou, Questioning 38). And perhaps Burnes is dominated by it, too.

Burnes’s place as an “expert”—which affects his role as real and symbolic imperialist—springs directly out of his abilities, which I would argue lunge out of his control. What we can only call his imperial arrogance is fostered by his expertise. In the Travels he writes,

The Afghans are a nation of children; in their quarrels they fight, and become friends without any ceremony. They cannot conceal their feelings from one another, and a person with any discrimination may at all time pierce their designs. If they themselves are to be believed, their ruling vice is envy, which besets even the nearest and dearest relations. No people are more incapable of managing an intrigue. (1:138-9)

In retrospect, how wrong he was. But the Travels can make us see how he got so wide of the mark. Burnes was indeed a master of the “Great Game.” But he was mastered by his mastery of it.

published July 2019

James Najarian is Associate Professor of English at Boston College, where he edits the journal Religion and the Arts. He is the author of Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).


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[1]Matthew Arnold used Burnes’s Travels as a source for his poem Sohrab and Rustum.

[2]As Dalrymple points out, British historians have emphasized Shuja’s personal vanity and his large entourage in order to divert blame from the British themselves (243).

[3]Most histories of the war mention Burnes’s sexual activities as a contributing factor to Afghan dissatisfaction. See Macrory 122; Waller 158-9; Dalrymple 260.

[4]The Russians had their own Central Asian debacle about the same time as the British did: the disastrous campaign against the Khanate of Khiva in 1839-40.

[5]While Gerard did publish notices about the journey in Indian papers, he never wrote a sustained narrative of it.

[6]Ivan Viktorovich Vitkevich, born Jan Prosper Witkiewicz. In 1839, soon after his return journey and his rejection by Count Nesselrode, he shot himself in his hotel room.

[7]Masson worked under Burnes until 1838. Lal and Burnes met Wolff on their travels in Central Asia; Burnes expelled Harlan, an officer of Dost Mohammed’s, out of Kabul on arriving for the occupation.

[8]“. . . he is unremitting in his attention to business, and attends daily at the Court-house . . . One in forty, ie 2 1/2 per cent, is the only duty levied in this country; and the merchant may travel without guard or protection from one frontier to another” (Burnes, Travels 1: 330-331).

[9]Lal, who was more aware of Dost Mohammed’s violent history, was far warier of him: “he is not a character in whom one places the confidence either of permanent friendship or of political alliance” (Dost Mohammed 72).

[10]Among these are Mountstaurt Elphinstone’s Account of the Kingdom of Cabul and its Dependencies in Persia and India, which recounted his 1808 journey to make an Afghan alliance with the then-reigning Shah Shuja. (The alliance came to nothing as Shah Shuja lost his throne only weeks after Elphinstone left.) The title is also misrepresentative. Elphinstone never quite made it to Kabul but stopped at Kandahar; he relied on informants for the rest of his material. Other narratives coming before and after Burnes include Arthur Conolly’s Journey to the North of India, Overland from England, Through Russia, Persia, and Affghaunistaun (1834), the clerical eccentric Joseph Wolff’s Researches and Missionary Labours among the Jews, Mohammedans, and Other Sects (1835), Godfrey Vigne’s A Personal Narrative of a Visit to Ghuzni, Kabul, and Afghanistan (1840), John Wood’s A Personal Narrative of Journey to the Source of the River Oxus by the Route of the Indus (1841), the American Josiah Harlan’s A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun (1842), and Charles Masson’s Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, and the Panjab (1842) well as Baron Meiendorf’s 1826 account (originally published in French) that was translated by William Monteith in 1840. Burnes’s chronicle of his second trip to Kabul was published posthumously as Cabool, a Personal Narrative in 1843. All of these authors made their journeys before the First-Anglo-Afghan War and its later “punitive expedition” put a stop to most travel.

[11]Burnes, “with notes by Mohan Lal,” was still bring used for geographical information as late as 1875. See “Epitome of correspondence relating to Merv, with historical and geographical accounts of the place and itineraries.”

[12]Lal would be badly treated by the East India Company for all his efforts. After the war, it never re-hired him or paid for his legitimate expenses. He died in poverty and obscurity.

[13]Journal of a tour through the Panjáb, Afghánistán, Túrkístán, Khorásán, and part of Persia, in company with Lieut. Burnes and Dr. Gerard: By Munshí Mohan Lál. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1834. The earlier text is largely a transcription of Lal’s diaries.

[14]Jean-Baptiste (Giovanni Battista) Ventura, born Rubino ben Torah (1794-1858), one of the European generals serving under Ranjit Singh.

[15]See, for example, the reviewer in the Edinburgh Review (identified as William Desborough Cooley), who is skeptical about his excavations of topes and his identifications of peoples. However, the reviewer in John Murray’s own Quarterly Review, identified as Sir John Barrow, praises (or advertises) just this aspect of the book: “We can conceive few sources of higher gratification than such a comparison, made by an enterprising officer who had not forgotten the classical studies of his earlier days” (370).

[16]See Lady Sale’s Journal, 21 and Lal, Dost Mohammed 2:399.

[17]Dalrymple collates the versions on 268-73.

[18]However, Lal was much franker about British sexual license as a cause of the war, both in his Life of Dost Mohammed and privately. One reviewer of the Life notes that Lal was the first to break the silence on this point, a subject that goes unmentioned by the earlier accounts by Lady Sale and Vincent Eyre: “The detail of some of the alleged cause of conspiracy and revolt of the Affghan chiefs, which, though long whispered about in Indian circles, are only now first laid before the British public” (“Travels of Mohan Lal” 598). Lal wrote a strongly worded memo to his superiors: “We did not prevent our troops or camp-followers from drinking wine in the public streets, which excited the religious hatred of the people against us. We offended the people of all characters by not preventing our men to cause the elopement of the female sex, who were received so publicly that every Mahomedan was incensed and instigated to stand against us” (Panjab Records, 41C / 161 para 141). Quoted in Gupta, 153.