The controversial former British ambassador to Uzbekistan has warned that Russia and the West keep rehearsing the same parts they’ve played for the past 200 years; and that a famous portrait of a legendary British secret agent in Afghanistan isn’t of Alexander Burnes after all.
Craig Murray was speaking at a launch of his new biography of Burnes at the Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Centre, London, on 26 November. The Victorian explorer, spy and latterly British envoy to Afghanistan, who became embittered when his doubts about the 1839 invasion were suppressed and ignored, was hacked to death by a Kabul crowd in 1841. His name was pronounced locally as Sikunder.
Mr Murray began by raising the spectre of anti-Russian sentiment both in the media and in policymaking, which has haunted so much of politics from the Great Game era of the 18th and 19th centuries, through the Cold War, and up to modern times.
He said: “We are entering a period of more extreme Russophobia in the western media. One of the things that I found frequently in researching and writing this book is how old and how recurrent these themes are in British society.”
In 1834, David Urquhart, First Secretary at the British Embassy in Constantinople, travelled to both Dagestan and Chechnya and founded a committee of mujahideen, which the government then supplied weapons to. One of these smuggled shipments was discovered by the Russians aboard a boat named the Vixen, hidden beneath a cargo of salt.
The Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, denied all knowledge of the arms, and of any such instruction given to Mr Urquhart. The incident didn’t stop the diplomat being promoted to the post of Consul the following year, however.
Mr Murray said: “This shows that in the past 200 years, very little has changed in global affairs. The fact is that there was never any Russian plan to invade British India. Russia, first of all, wanted to take as much Persian territory as possible, or, secondly, to make Persia a client state.
“There were definitely some Russian diplomats and soldiers who liked the idea that this might cause difficulties in British India. Their thinking was that this might cause Muslim subjects to to rebel, to revolt against British rule, and this is the mirror image of what the British were doing in Dagestan and Chechnya.”
Mr Murray referred to a policy of Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India 1836-1842, of promoting violence between Sikhs and Afghans, to preoccupy Sikh armies from focusing on British interests. Similarly, the Russians would promote conflict between Persia and Afghanistan, to draw forces away from Persia’s border with Russia.
Mr Murray said: “The mirror image policies see each of them doing the same thing, but accusing the other one of being evil and trustworthy. That imperial hypocrisy comes out elsewhere in the book as well, in Alexander Burnes famous mission up the Indus river.”
He described how during the early 1830s, by boat, Burnes had accompanied a gift of horses and a carriage to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh empire, ostensibly a gift to the ruler, but in reality a thinly-veiled excuse to ascertain if the territory could resist conquest, and whether or not the river could be navigated to transport troops. The rulers of Sindh were not amused.
Mr Murray said that correspondence amongst the British at the time reveal incredulity at the effrontery of the natives to accuse them of espionage.
Palmerston’s government also heavily edited Burnes’s reports from Kabul, to make them demonstrate to Parliament that there was a case for invading Afghanistan despite the envoy’s thinking being quite different. There were three Parliamentary debates on the falsification of this evidence, before Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister at the time, declassified the documents 20 years after Burnes’s death – taking even longer than Chilcott, Mr Murray added.
He said: “Governments lie to justify wars – the book is of things that happened long ago, but they are still very relevant today.”
Mr Murray said that a difficulty in the eight years he spent researching the biography was that there is no single collection of Burnes’s letters or journals, many of which he suggests were burned by Sir John Kaye in an effort to preserve the notorious womaniser diplomat’s reputation from further scandal. An individual can letter fetch $10,000, according to recent sales in Canada, but with both sellers and purchasers remaining anonymous.
The hunt for original source material took him all over the country, eventually discovering a volume of early, official reports bound in a volume in the Montrose Museum and Art Gallery, in Burnes’s Scottish hometown.
Mr Murray also ventured abroad, including to the Mumbai Asiatic Society, where, stored in a basement he discovered a dusty, forgotten portrait of Burnes, shown on the biography’s front cover.
It is the sister painting, by the same artist, of one held by the Royal Geographical Society; ever the master of disguise, Burnes is without a moustache and out of uniform in this one:
This is almost certainly pure coincidence, but I couldn’t help noticing a resemblance between the recently-discovered portrait of Burnes and that of the Dr Wellington Yueh character in the 1984 film of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune – another ill-fated spy.
Mr Murray said that he has found correspondence which indicates that the classic portrait of Burnes, which is faithfully reproduced in all histories of the Great Game, on the front cover of modern editions of his famous account Travels Into Bokhara, and all over the internet, turns out not to be of Burnes at all:
A sketch had been made of him in costume, but Mr Murray said that Burnes later wrote to the artist to request the painting be altered, so that it no longer featured the paradoxically celebrated secret agent, and that a subsequent reply confirms that this had been done.
Among several questions, an audience member asked if, in regard to fears of a border-crossing Russia, the people of Estonia and eastern Ukraine might take comfort from the fact that history will, or won’t, repeat itself. Mr Murray replied that the British have, historically, failed to see Russia as an empire, because empires are places to be sailed to overseas, not simply walked to. He said that though the collapse of the Soviet Union had been a decolonisation, some Muslim lands remained Russian colonies.
Another questioner, possibly an Afghan, asked if the world powers of Britain, Russia and America suffered from ‘battered wife syndrome’, in returning to defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan; that they arrive, depart, and ‘when they leave they leave everything to us, that is how we survive.’
Mr Murray replied that there is indeed evidence of a repetition, in that the British empire installed a puppet leader, Shah Shuja, from the same part of the same tribe as Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan who came to power following the 2001 invasion by coalition forces, thus forging the same alliances, and disaffections.
He said: “Politicians and governments are not terribly deep-thinking people, they tend to think in terms of short term advantage.”
As an ambassador, with 20 years of diplomatic service, Mr Murray spoke out about human rights abuses by the Uzbekistan government, which post 9/11 was an ally in the war on terror for Washington and London; he was removed from office.
After the launch, I read in the preface: ‘Burnes and I made opposite decisions in the same dilemma. Burnes is criticised for not sticking to his principles against his government; I am criticised for deserting my government for my principles. You can’t win.’
The launch of Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game was part of the Open Eurasian Literature Festival and Book Forum