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BURNES, SIR ALEXANDER

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BURNES, SIR ALEXANDER (1805-1841), British traveller, explorer and writer, was born on 16 May 1805. He joined Bombay infantry in 1821. Upon his arrival in India, he devoted himself to the study of the local languages and was, while still an ensign, selected for the post of regimental interpreter. In 1829, he was transferred to the political department as assistant to the Political Resident in Cutch. In 1831, he was sent on a complimentary mission to Lahore, in charge of English horses, including a team of carthorses, four mares and a stallion, sent by the King of England as presents for Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

The real object of Burnes` mission was to survey the River Indus and assess the power and resources of the Amirs of Sindh, then being threatened by the Maharaja. He submitted to his government a geographical and military memoir on Sindh, which formed the basis of Lord William Bentinck`s Indus navigation scheme, a political device cloaked under commercial garb which ultimately barred the advance of Sikh power towards Shikarpur and Sindh. Burnes records in his writings observations on the Sikh State. He describes Maharaja Ranjit Singh`s habits and government; his passion for horses, his troops and horse artillery, his dancing girls and the Kohinur diamond.

In January 1832, Burnes vis,ited Lahore again to solicit from the Maharaja facilities of travel through the Punjab to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Baikh and Bokhara. "I never quitted," he writes, "the presence of a native of Asia with such impressions as I left this man: without education and without a guide, he conducts the affairs of his kingdom with surprising energy and vigour, and yet wields his power with a moderation quite unprecedented in an eastern prince." In 1837, Burnes was sent on another "commercial" mission to Kabul. His real aim was to wean Amir Dost Muhammad Khan from Russian influence and to offer British mediation in his quarrel with the Sikhs.

Dost Muhammad Khan readily agreed to Burnes` commercial proposals, but he pointed out that conflict with the Sikhs was an impediment to his participation in the Indus navigation scheme and suggested that the British government should assist him in recovering Peshawar from Ranjit Singh. Burnes gave him some vague assurance on behalf of the British, but Lord Auckland, the governor, general, was not much impressed by his suggestion of placating the Amir of Afghanistan at the cost of the Sikhs. Alexander Burnes was recalled from Kabul, but was sent to the Afghan capital again in 1841 to succeed Sir William Macnaghten as British minister and envoy. He was assassinated by the Afghan insurgents on 2 November 1841.

References :

1. Masson, Charles, Narrative of Various Journeys in Baluchistan, Afghanistan and the Punjab. London 1842
2. Shahamat Ali, The Sikhs and Afghans. Patiala, 1970

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