Until the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1839, young adventurers were used as agents of the East India Company to reconnoitre India’s northern frontier. The rugged, mountainous frontier regions of India were regarded with suspicion and potentially hostile to British interests. This particularly included the Panjab, Sind, Afghanistan and Persia.[1]

Alexander Burnes was a political agent, who found success surveying and exploring these frontier regions for British interests between 1829 and 1833. His efforts were an interesting mix of scientific endeavour, collaboration, military surveillance and ambitious exploration. He rose to fame in London as a result of the popularity of his journal published with John Murray Travels into Bokhara (1834). On his return to Europe in 1834, he gave a collection of his surveys and observations to John Arrowsmith, a cartographer and founder of the Royal Geographic Society.[2] Arrowsmith’s map (Figure 1) was considerably more detailed than previous European maps of this area.  The route taken by Burnes is highlighted in dark red, from East to West, and feature the map’s most detailed areas.  The map featured in Arrowsmith’s much acclaimed Atlas of 1838.[3]

Figure 1 – John Arrowsmith, ‘Central Asia’, from The London Atlas of Universal Geography, Exhibiting the Physical & Political Divisions of the Various Countries of the World, (London: J. Arrowsmith, 1838)

(a proper high definition version can be found by clicking here)


A mixture of Burnes’ personal ambitions, political conditions, and great deal of success, led to his unlikely contribution to the cartography of Central Asia. His story reveals how it was possible for individuals in the East India Company to rise through the ranks and create opportunities for themselves.

Burnes was the third son of a Scots provost, and also first cousin to the celebrated Scottish poet Robert Burnes. As a third son, he would not inherit property and like many in his situation he sought his fortune in India, and joined the army of the East India Company at sixteen.[4] After devoting much attention to the study of Hindi and Persian, Alexander Burnes became an interpreter. On campaign in 1825 he surveyed an unknown track which earned him recognition from his superiors. In letters he yearned for travel and to explore the lands of his famous namesake, Alexander the great.

Eventually he was selected by his superiors for a joint political and cartographic mission: to survey and explore the Indus up to Lahore, under the guise of delivering gifts of English horses and a reception with Ranjit Singh.[5] He wrote about the experience with a level of passion and respect for this country, and on his return he convinced the Governor-General that he should survey further unmapped routes to the north.[6] He spent nearly four years travelling this region, across the Indus, Cabool, Bokhara and Persia. This he did with five travel companions, who were specially selected by Burnes.

It is best to consider his mission a matter of political intrigue rather than scientific endeavour. Essentially, it was the governments unease surrounding the perceived designs of Russia that enabled Burnes’ undertaking. This period is often known by historians as the beginning of the ‘great game;’ a period of rivalry and political confrontation between Russia and Britain in central Asia. Burnes was a central agent in this struggle.

Burnes’ undertaking was also a form of private enterprise. They may have been state endorsed, but he was expected to make the necessary preparations himself and was largely unsupported.[11] There were authoritative constraints for this kind of travel. Another agent called Moorcroft found this out in 1820; he negotiated a treaty for ‘British merchants’ without any authority, was suspended, and later died in suspicious circumstances.[12]

It was politics in London, and a Whig cabinet under Grey that felt uneasy about the intentions of Russia in Europe and high Asia.[7] Letters and rumours had previously circulated had circulated about Russia’s potential moves on high Asia.[8] Burnes wrote in his letters that the home government had gotten frightened of the designs of Russia, and that they ‘desired some intelligent officer’ to acquire information on the bordering countries.’[9] Dalrymple has explained the use of political agents as the preference of the Governor General Ellenborough to obtain intelligence by his own men.[10]

The information that Burnes supplied, and was asked to supply, was varied and much more than cartographical. In his narrative he included his geographical reports of certain places. Included are details of the weather, people, agriculture, climate, major rivers, prices, coins and any information that may be useful to the British government in India.[13] Burnes’ letters and reports reveal the detail and the secrecy of his surveys. The reports sent to the government on military and political details were kept away from publication.[14] His letters were commonly addressed to ‘secret committees,’ that include advice on ruler’s intentions and sometimes copies of foreign correspondence.[15]

Much of the information he obtained was sensitive and had to be obtained covertly to not arouse suspicion from local populations. Arthur Conolly, another British intelligence officer, tested the feasibility of reaching British India on foot via Moscow just a year prior to Burnes.[16] Conolly only narrowly survived his ordeal. (Volume I of his account can be found here.)

Burnes’ narrative illustrates dangers that he faced on his travels, through various encounters, rumours, and dealings with people which add to his narrative. He intended to disguise his political intentions and hide European habits, customs and dress by adopting a fitting persona of a merchant or other professional.[17] He also took measures to only work at night and never to write in the day or in public.[18]

Below is an extract from Burnes narrative, where he describes the moment his party rejected their European habits and disposed of their baggage. (Pages 40-41, the rest of Volume I of the journal can be found here.)


His disguise affected his cartographic observations, which were based mostly on the use of a sextant to measure the position of stars. The positions gave an indication of latitude, and he used a chronometer to make multiple readings at intervals over time for reading longitude. Through the movement of the stars it was possible to establish curvature and understand position based upon trigonometry.[19] To make his positions more reliable, he calculated the distance travelled each day, by a rough calculation of speed multiplied by time. These were estimations based on terrain and means of transport.[20] This arrangement was useful as he could make observations at night, and so arouse little suspicion from the population. For this reason he did not use the position of the sun in his calculations, which was a common way of using a sextant.

Writers have largely neglected the contributions of Burnes’ travel companions. They are only occasionally mentioned in Burnes journal. The exploration however, should be understood, as a collaboration between the capability and skills of these men, and not the primary achievements of Burnes himself. His companions included; a Scots surgeon experienced in travelling the Himalayas, a ‘native surveyor’ presumably to help with cartographic observations, a public servant, an Indian servant, and a hindu lad to help with translation.[21] Each evidently had a set of useful skills to bring to the party. Their complexion and age were noted to be beneficial to their disguise.

Figure 2 – John Arrowsmith, ‘Central Asia’, (1838)


Kapil Raj (2007) has sought to draw attention to the collaborative processes behind survey operations in India, and how in the Himalayas particularly, the British had to rely on indigenous staff.[22] It is important to consider that Burnes observations were largely based upon collaboration with the local population. The map shows journey times between various places that Burnes himself did not visit. (Figure 2) This information was most likely found through communication with the merchants and travellers he sought to associate himself with.

It is also important though to consider the power relations and politics within map-making that is so apparent with Burnes’ surveys. These power dynamics were always present during this collaboration as communication often had to be done with caution. On one occasion Burnes presented his map to a well-acquainted Uzbek host. While the host obliged to answer his questions on the revenues and resources of Bokhara, he begged him to never do such a thing again, ‘since there were innumerable spies about the king, and it might be productive of very serious consequences.’[23]

The power dynamics are also useful to understand with regards to the presentation of Burnes’ Travels into Bokhara (1834). These kinds of narratives create a conceptual space that can be seen as partially separate from the real world.[24] Withers and Keighren have asserted that we should be aware of the hand of a publisher such as John Murray, who often made requests and adjustments to the material.[25] Upon his return to England in 1834, his book was received with critical acclaim as ‘manly, graphic, eloquent & highly interesting viva voce narrative.’[26] It sold 900 copies on its first day.[27] He rose to fame and even had a reception with the king.[28] He returned to Cabool as a diplomatic officer in 1835.[29]

The information that Burnes provided, coupled with his fame, had a considerable affect on the broader power politics. It was after his journal was translated into French and became widely read, that Moscow sent their agents into Afghanistan.[30] The level of escalating tensions and paranoia can be seen in letters sent to Burnes. Russian agents were purported to be writing and making maps, with suspicious intentions.[31] Burnes returned copies of foreign correspondence and information on potential treaties.[32] Coupled with his survey work, Burnes’ information was used to make the case for intervention as letters from Lord Auckland indicate.[33] Dost Mohammad was to be ousted from power and replaced with Shah Shujah Durrani and the Anglo-Afghan war begun. According to William Dalrymple based on “doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat.”[34] His map was also used by Conolly, to convince envoys that the British regarded Herat as an Afghan city, rather than a Persian city.[35]

The map produced by Burnes, helped to transform an ambiguous and dangerous region into one that was visible and possible to influence by means of an army. This was also importantly based on other military and political information he supplied. Although his advice to leave Afghanistan alone was ignored. To Morison it was his success, and lack of solid principles that spoiled Burnes.[36] This culminated in 1841 with the murder of Burnes in a Cabool marketplace, by a mob that had grown suspicious of political agents. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) is in many ways a romantic memory of this period of secrecy, gallantry, and cunning in high Asia by such political agents as Burnes.

How Burnes produced his map is an interesting case study of the duality between cartography and politics. The power structures and politics behind the survey of this region, give a complex picture foreign and frontier policy in this period. It is necessary to look much deeper into the region and the production of a map such as Arrowsmith and Burnes’. The use of maps such as this can be limited, unless there is sufficient supporting material on its production. Although as Burnes’ surveys shows, a map can be an informative base of analysis. The collaboration between Burnes’ party, and local actors is an interesting dynamic. It also dispels the notion that knowledge creation was a Euro-centric, West to East movement. The aspect of gallantry, secrecy and covert exploration no doubt excited readers of Burnes’ much-acclaimed narrative. The use of disguise and language is interesting to understand the politics of identity, and how it could be used for political aims in this period. The case of Burnes also shows how important information was on these ambiguous frontier regions, and how such information can how powerful ramifications.


[1] J. L. Morison, ‘From Alexander Burnes to Frederick Roberts, A Survey of Imperial Frontier Policy, The Raleigh Lecture on History,’ Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume XXII (London: Humphrey Milford Amen House E. C., 1936) pp.1-5

[2] It is unclear the totality of the materials he gave to Mr Arrowsmith. It is likely that the military and political reports, which were kept from publication were not given to Mr Arrowsmith, nor other sensitive information given in letters in confidence to the government in India.

[3]Arrowsmith was commended by the Royal Geographical Society on many occasions. Including the RGS Patrons medal in 1863, also an acknowledgement in Annual General meeting May 21st 1838. Geographical Society, ‘Gold Medal Recipients’ (2017) and The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Volume the eighth, (London: John Murray, 1838) p.iv

[4] A Provost was the ceremonial head of a local authority in Scotland. As a third son, he was not to inherit his father’s estate. Alexander was also first cousin to the poet Robert Burns. in James James, Notes on His Name and Family, vol ii, (Edinburgh: Printed for private circulation, 1851) p. 21.

[5] John William Kaye, Lives of Indian Officers, Illustrative of the History of the Civil and Military Services of India, In Two Volumes, Vol. II (London: A. Strahan and Co, 1867) pp.6-20

[6] Lieut. Alex Burnes, F.R.S., Travels into Bokhara;…etc. Volume I, (London: John Murray, 1834)

[7] Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game; On Secret Service in High Asia, (London: John Murray, 1990) p.140

[8] ‘Extract of a letter from St. Petersburgh’, The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany, For British India and its Dependencies, Volume 19, January-June 1825, (London: Kingsbury, Parbury and Allen, 1825) pp.443-444

[9] John William Kaye, Lives of Indian Officers, Vol ii, p.229

[10] Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game; On Secret Service in High Asia, p.119

[11] Lieut. Alex Burnes, F.R.S., Travels into Bokhara; Vol I

[12] The conventional account is that he annoyed Ranjit Singh by making a treaty with his enemy, and thus disturbed the EIC’s sensitive border relations. Ranjit Singh’s men likely ambushed and killed him. Burnes found his grave on his travels. For more on Moorcroft, see William Moorcroft and George Trebeck, Travels in the Himalayan provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab;…etc. Vol.1 and Vol. 2, (London: John Murray, 1841). see also Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game; On Secret Service in High Asia, pp.105-108

[13] Lieut. Alex Burnes, F.R.S., Travels into Bokhara;…etc. Volume II, (London: John Murray, 1834) pp.145-473

[14] Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game; On Secret Service in High Asia, p.151

[15] John Hobhouse, Indian Papers: Correspondence relating to Affghanistan, Issue 6, (Leadenhall: India Board, 1839)

[16] William Dalrymple, Return of a King; The Battle for Afghanistan, (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) p.54

[17] See Appendix A and Appendix D. also Lieut. Alex Burnes, F.R.S., Travels into Bokhara; Vol I, p.40

[18] Lieut. Alex, Burnes F.R.S., Travels into Bokhara; Vol I, pp.90-91 see also Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game; On Secret Service in High Asia, p.135

[19] Burnes, Lieutenant Alex., ‘On the Construction of the Map of the Indus, Communicated by Lieutenant Alex. Burnes, E.I.C.S.,’ Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Volume 3. Jan 1 1833. pp.287-290

[20] See Appendix C. Lieut. Alex Burnes, F.R.S., Travels into Bokhara; Vol I Pp.147-151

[21] Like Burnes he was originally from East Scotland, and was a surgeon in the Bengal army named Dr James Gerard. in Lieut. Alex Burnes, F.R.S., Travels into Bokhara; Vol I, Ix-xvi, also Craig Murray, Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game, (Edinburgh: Berlinn Ltd, 2016) p.111

[22] Kapil Raj, Relocation Modern Science; Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) pp.65-72

[23]Lieut. Alex Burnes, F.R.S., Travels into Bokhara; Vol I, p.298

[24] Richard Phillips, Mapping Men and Empire: A geography of adventure, (London: Routledge, 1997) p.164

[25] The example used in Burnes’ work is the inclusion of a portrait at Mr Murray’s request. Burnes opted to include a portrait in the ‘costume of Bokhara’ in order to appear more authentic and to avoid any appearance of vanity. in Charles W. J. Withers, and Innes M. Keighren, ‘Travels into print: authoring, editing and narratives of travel and exploration, c.1815–c.1857,’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (London: Royal Geographical Society, 2011) pp.567-568

[26] From The Literary Gazette (1834). in Charles W. J. Withers, and Innes M. Keighren, ‘Travels into print: authoring, editing and narratives of travel and exploration, c.1815–c.1857,’  p.567

[27] Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game; On Secret Service in High Asia, p. 151

[28] John William Kaye, Lives of Indian Officers, Vol II, pp.26-28

[29] John William Kaye, Lives of Indian Officers, Vol II, p31

[30] William Dalrymple, Return of a King; The Battle for Afghanistan,

[31] ‘No. 19. Dr. Lord to Captain Burnes. 11th April 1838’ in John Hobhouse, Indian Papers, Nos IV. V. VI. VII, Correspondence Relating to Affghanistan and the Occupation of Karrak, (Presented by Her Majesty’s Command), (Leadenhall: India Board, 1839) p.15,

[32] ‘Captain Alexander Burnes letter to W. H. Macnaghten Esq, 15th November, 1837’. in in John Hobhouse, Indian Papers, p.4  also see Mohan Lal, Life of the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan of Kabul:. p.316

[33] ‘Lord Auckland to the Secret Committee, 22d May 1838’ in John Hobhouse, Indian Papers,

[34] William Dalrymple, Return of a King; The Battle for Afghanistan, p.490

[35] John William Kaye, Lives of Indian Officers p.91, for the situation on Herat lives of pp.161-167

[36] J. L., Morison, ‘From Alexander Burnes to Frederick Roberts, A Survey of Imperial Frontier Policy, The Raleigh Lecture on History,’ Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume XXII (London: Humphrey Milford Amen House E. C., 1936)