Review | ‘Sikunder Burnes’ by Craig Murray

Photograph: 'Sir Alexander Burnes (1805–1841), Scottish traveller and explorer, in the Costume of Bokharra. Originally published in Cabool: Being a Personal Narrative of a Journey To, and Residence in That City, 1836-38 by Alexander Burnes.' / Published by John Murray (London), 1842.

When Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss modernised ‘Sherlock’ the opening episode required little adaptation from its 1887 source material.

The reason is unfortunate. Like on the first page of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’,  Dr Watson once more returns from a British war in Afghanistan.

Craig Murray’s career and latest work likewise bookend two different, but all-too-familiar, periods of British involvement in Central Asia.

‘Sikunder Burnes’ charts the life of Captain Sir Alexander Burnes, the Scottish traveller, explorer, diplomat, archaeologist and agent of the British Empire in the First Afghan War. Like T.E Lawrence, Burnes has become synonymous with arrogant imperialism, adventure and folly. Both men are figures lost in pastiche: Lawrence on film and Burnes as a fictional character, most notably in George MacDonald Fraser’s first ‘Flashman’ novel.

And why not. Burnes was an inspiration for Fraser as he was for Kipling’s acclaimed ‘The Man Who Would Be King’. He was a cad, if not a bounder, whose fluency in foreign dialects, penchant for foreign dress and demise at the hands of an angry Afghan mob made him an ideal subject for exaggerated British legend.

His behaviour, in picaresque cliche, was to be blamed for the First Anglo-Afghan War because he seduced local Afghan women and stirred resentment among the local populace. Although actually warning against a conflict, the British government nevertheless presented to Parliament a compilation of Burnes’ dispatches from Kabul which were extensively edited to make it appear he supported the war. History has largely remembered the latter over the former and Burnes as a heroic disgrace.

The parallels between Burnes and Murray’s own life are not difficult to deduce. As British ambassador to Uzbekistan (2002-04), Murray dared to expose the moral ambivalence at the heart of the Blair government and its collusion with the Karimov regime in the so-called War on Terror.

Both men found themselves as Scotsmen in amongst British machinations in Central Asia and both, ultimately, were accused of compromising their diplomatic position with their personal behaviour. That both Burnes and Murray had honestly reported on abuses and human rights violations is a disturbing indication that the UK Government hasn’t changed all that much.

Murray evidently understands his subject, but any empathy he has is presented through solid research. There is an antipathy towards the lazy reductionist history that boxes the likes of Lawrence and Burnes in, but there is no seething resentment.

Does he vent, passive aggressively, about a subject not dissimilar to himself? No, but even in the expose which made his name, ‘Murder in Samarkand’, there was never frothing bile save for an honest representation of the facts.  To the contrary, Murray’s prose is self-aware enough to do justice beyond hagiography and he never lets any slight against him prejudice his assessment, both critical and admiring, of his subject.

Indeed, Murray’s produced a better book because of his experience and penned a thoroughly enjoyable read. One part MacDonald Fraser, one part ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, there is an undeniable feeling that this is a story told to combat the ‘historical amnesia’ most Britons have about the British Empire.

Burnes finds an honest defender in Murray, but one who elects to bring the polymath to life with an understanding of the context of his times. It’s not enough to praise or condemn the opulence, ingenuity and impudence of the imperial class without understanding the moral standards of the day, and Murray does much to burst the bubble of imperial legend.

This is where Murray succeeds. He has the forthrightness and candour to critically evaluate a man for whom he evidently emphasises, all while despising hegemonic empire. His style possesses a wit and flair for condemning and lauding in equal measure without ever being proselytising. There’s a camaraderie and iconoclasm between author and muse which is never fawning or overly forgiving and the book is all the better for it.

If there’s a drawback to the text it’s that the subject is context specific. At nearly 500 pages, Murray should be given twice that length to expound and continue the enthralling biopic he’s woven together with rich detail and reference. Burnes might seem worlds away, but Murray makes the case for knowing why imperial hubris and flashpoint tensions are crucial to understanding the modern world. Indeed, although Burnes has found his way into the pantheon of British heroes for whom the empire is a backdrop and the natives are a background cast, his death, and the reasons for it, are some of the reasons why two centuries of Anglo-Afghan acrimony continues.

In recent years, there have been a burgeoning number of titles available on the Scottish imperial enterprise, most notably from Tom Devine and Michael Fry. Murray’s title should be celebrated because it is the first on the subject to be written on a Scottish imperial figure for whom the author has comparable experience and understanding. The author invites you into a half-remembered dream: Afghanistan and the British Empire are living history, and Murray is the right man to make sense of Scotland in the modern world.

While ‘Murder in Samarkand’ remains the seminal first-hand account of what realpolitik really looks, ‘Sikunder Burnes’ is the reinvigoration of the Scottish historical biography. Burnes was certainly hubristic, even arrogant, but he was a remarkable man to whom history has done a disservice. Burnes is a seminal figure in so far as he was at once quintessential and exceptional. A product of his time, he had a zest for exploration and embraced the alien and the unknown. It is a curious thing to wonder what would have become of Burnes had he not been cut down in his prime, and Murray’s biography leaves the question hanging.

The modern diplomat might be more heavily bureaucratised than their 19th-century precursors, but their role in the world remains critical. While Burnes and Murray part ways with how their diplomatic careers ended, Murray’s empathy throughout makes for a fascinating book, but also a supreme character study.

Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game’ available from Birlinn


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Alastair Stewart 13 Articles

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and mentor. In 2013, Alastair founded DARROW, Scotland’s only dedicated forum for more than 200 up and coming writers. The magazine works predominantly with 16-35-year-olds to give them the tools they need to share their ideas, hone their craft and thrive as writers, journalists, and storytellers. He regularly writes about politics, history, and culture for magazines across Europe.