In the course of reading about nineteenth century travellers in Central Asia, I came across Alexander Burnes.
His story is well known, and I won’t repeat it here but the thing that piqued my interest is that he originally came from Montrose in Scotland.
My family also come from Montrose, so I decided to check out his family tree to see if I recognised the name as any of my antecedents. I didn’t, so I’m probably not related, at least in a formal sort of way.
I’m saying formal, as according to William Dalrymple, Burnes is described in one of the Persian epics describing the Afghan War as the fornicator Burnes, which at first sight could just be routine invective except for an unexplained bequest in his will and some evidence in his correspondence.
So, let’s just say he seems to have taken after his uncle Rabbie as afar as the ladies were concerned.
However that’s not my point. The interesting thing is that looking at his family tree, the number of his relations that were also in India, and consequently how India must have offered unrivalled opportunity to a lad o’ pairts like Burnes, due to the need of people working for the East India company to have raw ability with languages to be able to engage with the local populace.
I’ve written before about how you see the most unusual conjunctions in the history of the British Empire, but this is something that had not previously occurred to me – the needs of commerce allowed men of ability to step outside the straitjacket of aristocratic preferment and succeed on their own merits.
Visting Sri Lanka, I was struck at the number of Scottish names – Cargill’s groceries and Mackay’s wholesalers to name but two – that were still attached to businesses – and that this must have had a significant impact on nineteenth century Scotland …
I’ll research and write more on this.
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