Burnes: Travels into Bokhara

August 21, 2013

9781906011710Another of Eland‘s nicely-produced re-issues of travel-writing from the past, but I’m not really sure how to take this one. It’s from the 1830s, and Alexander Burnes was basically a British spy at the beginning of what is, I feel, insultingly called ‘the Great Game’ – the rivalry between empires, especially the British and Russian, over the lands in the Middle East. He basically blagged his way up the Indus river, across what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, pretending, lying and deceiving the local inhabitants, whilst secretly mapping and storing information which would later be invaluable in Britain’s empire-building and outwitting the Russians, and for which he was much praised by his colonialist superiors.

And yet, it’s a fascinating account of the places and the people from nearly two centuries ago, with lots of detail, and an extremely good (original) map to help you follow the journey. Burnes took considerable risks, and, because he was a spy in disguise, came into close contact with people and their customs and way of life, through his familiarity with their language.

What offends me really, I suppose, is the tone of superiority that sometimes comes through towards them, confident in the military power of the British. On the other hand, his explorations eventually led to the first British adventure in Afghanistan, which was a disaster, like all subsequent ones, including the present unfinished business there.

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