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Sensing that two great empires would collide in Afghanistan, the British government was hungry for intelligence on this blank space. A spy was dispatched. Alexander Burnes, a man I believe to be one of our greatest ever political officers.

This is not a man actually in fancy dress. He’s in disguise. One of the dozens of British officers who made their reputations during journeys that were almost suicidal. Burnes was one of the very first to study Afghanistan for British intelligence. His spying mission was both extraordinary and brave.

In 1831, travelling undercover in disguise, he surveyed the route all the way from India through Kabul to Bukhara. And produced the first detailed accounts of Afghan politics. He set off with no protection into one of the most dangerous and unknown parts of Asia. A place where his predecessors had been killed. Where he was having to run the gauntlet of slave traders,. And where he was a Christian moving through some regions which were fanatically Muslim. Areas which were famous for killing infidels.

Trying to rely all the way, not on his sword but, as he says in a letter to his mother – on his languages, on his charm, on his politeness. Along with the suicidal danger of what Burnes did was the incredible reward because, when he returned back to London having completed this journey, this nearly 12-month journey through a largely unknown country, he was a massive celebrity.

Alexander Burnes Political Officer

He returned, 28 years old, had an audience with the King, was made a member of the Athenian Club, got a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society. And the book Burnes wrote, ‘Travels to Bukhara’, became an overnight bestseller.

Alexander Burnes
Alexander Burnes

But, although it gave Britain a unique insight into this largely unknown land, according to historian William Dalrymple, his visit also terrified the Russians and had an unanticipated, counter-productive effect.

William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple “There were British agents in Central Asia long before the Russians had taken any interest in cities like Bukhara and Khiva. And it’s only when Burnes’ travel book Journeys into Bukhara is translated into French and becomes widely read in Moscow, that the Russians think they should send an agent in to make sure the British are not manoeuvring and making plots in their backyard.”

Shortly after Burnes was sent back to Kabul in 1836, he spotted this Russian agent, Jan Vitkevich, and the Russian’s arrival terrified the British. They became, in turn, very suspicious of Russia’s ambitions in the country. And this mutual paranoia led to more and more foreign intelligence operations around Afghanistan, with rival officers like Vitkevich and Burnes sending back countless reports on each other’s activities. The Russians called it the Tournament of Shadows.

Russian Presence
Russian Presence

The British now remember it, thanks to Rudyard Kipling’s later writing, as The Great Game.

A British Spy

One of my favourite books is Kipling’s Kim, which describes The Great Game through the eyes of this young English boy, who is working on the North-West Frontier as a spy. It’s incredibly dangerous work, his intrigues with the Russians. He is a secret agent, he’s deniable, he’s at arm’s length from the British government.

Russian Emblem
Russian Emblem

But, of course, this was a game that had two teams and on the other side, the Russians, men like Vitkevich, travelling into Kabul, developing relationships with the Afghan king, returning with his own documents and maps, the beginning of a whole tradition, whereby whenever the British saw a Russian painter turn up in the city, a Russian hunter turn up on the frontier, they would immediately assume that this was a double game of espionage.

Alexander Burnes was born in Scotland in 1805. He was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and joined the East India Company as an ensign in 1825. He served with the Bengal Artillery and saw action during the First Anglo-Afghan War. In 1837, he was appointed political officer to the British mission in Kabul. He was killed by a mob during the 1841 uprising in Kabul.

Alexander Burnes was killed during the Battle of Maiwand, one of the most disastrous defeats for the British in Afghanistan. He was hit by a bullet while leading a charge against the Afghan forces. His death was a major blow to the British army and contributed to their eventual defeat in the battle.

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Alexander Burnes Political Officer and British Spy