16th May 1805

Explorer and diplomat Alexander Burnes is born

Alexander Burnes was born in Montrose, joined the army in his teens and travelled to India. From there he ventured out into neighbouring territories including modern-day Iran and Uzbekistan and, eventually, Afghanistan. Afghanistan was being squeezed, politically, from the north by Russia and from the south by Britain in India. It was a useful buffer zone for each of these countries, and a point of potential conflict.

Britain’s representative in Kabul

Following the First Anglo-Afghan War, Burnes was appointed to a political role in Kabul as Britain’s representative within Afghanistan. The war had been a success for Britain, which had successfully installed its preferred man as emir in the country, but British forces suffered a humiliating defeat three years later when, in 1842, they were all but wiped out in their retreat from the capital. By that point, Burnes was already dead, having been assassinated the previous year.

Britain’s influence in Afghanistan immediately after the war had been significant, with many British soldiers taking up residence and bringing their customs with them. This made Britain – and, in consequence, Burnes as its representative – unpopular among parts of the local population.

Burnes killed

Burnes was warned that his life was in danger, but he refused to leave Kabul and, when a mob congregated outside his house, he addressed them from his balcony. They were in no mood to listen, and eventually broke into the house itself.

Accounts of the deaths of Burnes and his brother, who was also in the house, vary considerably. Some claim that they were hacked to death and that the brothers’ heads were displayed on spikes in the marketplace, but The London Evening Standard, which announced the killings on 7 February 1842, reported that Alexander Burnes had been shot while mounting his horse. However, getting reliable information out of Kabul and back to Britain was difficult, and speculation continued until spring that Burnes had, in fact, survived.

Account of the raid

However, The Times had printed what seems to be the definitive early account of what had happened on 7 April 1842: “as far as we can gather from the disjointed accounts which have reached us (for the communication between Cabul and India is still cut off) the first manifestation of popular anger consisted in a murderous assault on the party of our officers, who were then leaving the Durbar. Sir A Burnes, his brother, Lieutenant C Burnes, and Lieutenant Broadfoot, of the European Regiment, were massacred; and another officer, Lieutenant Stort, of the Engineers, cut down, in the very presence of the Shah Soojah himself.”



Other events that occured in May

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