I’ve come to a rain-soaked Boston to meet a world authority on Afghan anthropology and history, Professor Tom Barfield. Among other things, we will discuss the death of Alexander Burnes.

Appropriately, I’m meeting him in the Helmand Restaurant. And I wanted to ask him about some of the many differences between these cultures.

The Death of Alexander Burnes

Tom Barfield “If you go to an Afghan feast, people are very religious, but they’re religious at the end of the meal. You thank God for having eaten a wonderful meal. As one of my Afghan friends said to me, ‘Why do you Americans pray before the meal? You haven’t eaten it. You have no idea whether God deserves the praise or not, or the host’, but the lesson that I took from him is that we foreigners are too keen to praise the fact that the feast is here and the Afghans say, there is one more step. Let’s eat the feast and decide whether it deserves it. So the Afghans tend to look more at the outcome, than at intentions.”

Professor Tom Barfield
Professor Tom Barfield

And that logic appears to apply to how Afghans choose the perfect leader.

Tom Barfield “The ideal ruler says to the Afghans that, without me, these foreigners would invade and occupy our country. Without me and my skill, Afghanistan would not be independent. I am defending a Muslim nation. At the same time, he turned to the foreigners and says, only I can keep control of the Afghans and I can only do that if you send me money and weapons. “

Omar Sharifi
Omar Sharifi

By 1841, Britain’s choice of ruler had proved a disaster. Once Shah Shuja was on the throne, Afghans quickly saw him as weak, as corrupt and worst of all, as a puppet of a foreign non-Muslim government.

Shah Shuja

In a courtyard in Kabul, I asked Afghan academic Omar Sharifi about how Afghans perceived Shah Shuja.

Shah Shuja
Shah Shuja

Omar Sharifi “When Shah Shuja came in, his era as King, the tradition was that you mint a coin with a poem that describes who you are, and what you mean… I am Shah Shuja, the great King, and I am the one ruler from the depths of the sea, all the way to the height of the skies. Afghans saw that in the bazaar, in the market, they’ve changed the poem, and the poem says… This infidel, Shah Shujah, has nothing but the light of the eyes of the Lord’s, which was British.”

If you’re an Afghan seeing a red-coated British soldier in the street, what would your reaction be?

Omar Sharifi “What the Afghans saw was a bunch of people in red coats, muskets on their shoulder, do not look like them, do not talk like them, do not think like them. How can they live when they see the foreigners, the British, walking in the streets and they are not Muslims.”

Afghan Culture

Nobody really knew what was happening in Afghanistan. Optimistic British officers felt that with a bit more time, and a bit more money. They were going to be able to win. And, suddenly, when rumours began to spread through the tea houses and the bazaars. That British officers were interfering with Afghan women, a match had been lit, to spark an insurgency. Suddenly, up and down the country, Afghans began to feel that their culture had been insulted. That the king was only a puppet. And that they needed to fight for Afghanistan and for Islam against foreign military occupation.

Dost Mohammad, the Emir the British had deposed to make way for Shah Shuja, was in exile. But he and his family used the presence of non-Muslim occupiers to mobilise Afghans by calling for jihad. And from many Afghans, this action was the birth of the modern state of Afghanistan, the moment around which they united as a nation.

Burnes Appeal The Death of Alexander Burnes
Burnes Appeal

By November 1841, Muslims in Kabul were ready to join this jihad. But the British were taken completely by surprise. Even Alexander Burnes, our envoy so prized for his local knowledge, completely underestimated how dangerous the situation had become.

Kabul Home

Alexander Burnes loved Kabul and Afghan culture. He was used to walking through streets as though he was at home in Scotland. If you’d asked him he would have said he could have trusted Afghans with his life.

But on that night in November 1841, he walked home to a city that had changed. He looked into eyes that no longer greeted him and as he made his way back through the narrow streets towards his house, he was seeing a hostility that he hadn’t sensed before. By dusk, an armed mob surrounded his house. In one last attempt, he walked out into the balcony of his house and in his most confident manner, in beautiful Persian, appealed to their sense of hospitality, generosity, their treatment of the guest. But he got nothing back and, in the end, he had to send a desperate message to the British garrison asking for help, and, for the first time, retreated back into his house knowing that the only thing that stood between him and death was the gates of his house.

The Death of Alexander Burnes Trap

Burnes’ home, his paradise where he’d entertained for so long, the Kabul that he loved, had become a death trap. Burnes’last glance of a city that he loved and thought the most beautiful in the world was not of gardens, not of poetry, but a last desperate sprint across his neighbour’s roofs hoping that he could find a way out, but the crowd was everywhere. He wrapped a turban around his head, dropped down, praying he wouldn’t be recognised and for a moment he wasn’t. But then the cry went up – “Sikander Burnes”. He was hacked down. And the next morning his head was on a pole in the bazaar.

Rooftop Escape The Death of Alexander Burnes
Rooftop Escape

The day before the death of Alexander Burnes, the British had been congratulating themselves on the peace and tranquillity in Afghanistan. The day after, everything had collapsed. A British trooper came staggering into the fort with five Musket wounds in his body, cuts to his head and shoulders, stark naked, having just escaped from the Afghan insurgents. The food was lost, the ammunition was running down, and within three days of the death of Alexander Burnes, the British generals were talking about a treaty of surrender and a retreat from Kabul.

Related Posts

Professor Akbar Ahmed The Afghan in London
Battle of Maiwand in the war for Afghanistan
Alexander Burnes Political Officer and British Spy
Multiple Sclerosis Blog

the death of alexander burnes pin
The Death of Alexander Burnes as the outcome of jihad