“‘Soldiering’s all very well" - The Death of Sekundar Burnes in Afghanistan

2 November 1841, the explorer and British senior agent in Afghanistan, Sir Alexander Burnes, was killed by an angry mob in the streets of Kabul, marking the beginning of the disastrous end of the First Anglo-Afghan War.
“‘Soldiering’s all very well.’ he [Burnes] told me, ‘but the men who make or break the army in a foreign country are we politicals. We meet the men who count, and get to know ‘em, and sniff the wind; we’re the eyes and ears – aye, and the tongues. Without us the military are blind, deaf, and dumb.’ (George MacDonald Fraser, "Flashman“)

A contemporary picture of “Sekundar Burnes” in native garb.

The Great Game, the struggle for power between the British and the Russian Empires in Central Asia and, finally, in India, had begun early in the 19th century. During the 1830s, influencing of local courts, delivering money and weapons and promises and diplomatic blandishments slowly made room for Imperial armies marching. Nicholas I’s troops moved towards the independent khanates east of the Caspian Sea, while the British East Indian Company watched the development not only at their backdoor in Transoxania like hawks but along their borders with the Punjabi Sikh Empire, Persia and Afghanistan as well. Afghanistan was seen as the centrepiece for the control of the whole north of the subcontinent and the British viceroy Lord Auckland decided in 1838 that something ought to be done to prevent a possible Russo-Afghan alliance. He declared the support of John Company for the pretender Shah Shujah Durrani, living in exile in British India for 19 years and in March 1839, with the support of a company army under Major-General Elphinstone, Kabul was occupied, the former ruler Dost Mohammad Khan dislodged and Shah Shujah enthroned. Much to the dismay of the Afghan tribes.

Sekundar Burnes trying to talk his way out of a rather tight situation

“Sekundar” (or Sikandar, the Pashto version of Alexander) Burnes, the poet Robert’s cousin, was born in Montrose in 1805 and joined the army of the East India Company at the age of 16. He was employed in the Kutch district in the northwest of India as assistant to John Company’s local politicial agent, learned Hindi and Persian, took an interest in local geography and history and managed to survey the River Indus while en route to the court of Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Punjab, at Lahore. His missions led him to Persia and across the Hindu Kush, to Afghanistan, and finally to Bukhara. Burnes laid down his experiences in his three-volume account “Travels into Bokhara. Being an account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia. Also, narrative of a Voyage on the Indus from the Sea to Lahore“ during a visit in England in 1834, adding greatly to the meagre amount of knowledge about the region and promptly getting Burnes elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1834. He returned to Kabul in 1838 as the Company’s political agent, warned Auckland about Shah Shujah’s unpopularity, was ignored and did his best to smooth the “Army of the Indus'” advance through Sind and Baluchistan.

Assassination of Sir Alexander Burnes, (c1880)

Burnes was knighted by the Queen for his efforts, got a brevet rank of lieutenant colonel and was one of the three British officers who guided Shah Shujah to Kabul but was quite disappointed that William Macnaghten became chief envoy at the court, one of the chief architects of Auckland’s plan to install Shah Shujah as pro-British ruler of Afghanistan. Burnes continued to be the lone voice of warning of the vastly growing unrest against the occupation, was ignored, and became as the best known Company agent in the place and thus, at the same time, the target for the hatred of the Afghans. On November 2nd, a mob gathered in front of his house. It might have played a role that Sekundar Burnes allegedly took a few liberties too many with the female population of Kabul, but the crowd set fire to the gates, tried to get in, Burnes and his staff defended valiantly, he slew 6 assailants with pistol and sword, was finally granted safe conduct to the British cantonment, left the house with his brother Charles and his assistant Lt William Broadfoot disguised as Afghans along with the servants, was recognised and literally cut to pieces by the mob in the streets. Elphinstone and Macnaghten chose not to intervene, negotiated with Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammad Khan, what should be done since the situation of Shah Shujah and the occupational army began to deteriorate completely and a withdrawal of the Company’s troops was agreed. The disastrous retreat of Elphinstone’s “Army of the Indus” began on January 1st 1842.

William Barnes Wollen: The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842 (1898)