Sir Alexander Burnes (1805-1841), British traveller and explorer, was born at Montrose, Scotland, in 1805. While serving in India, in the army of the East India Company, which he had joined in his seventeenth year, he made himself acquainted with Hindustani and Persian, and thus obtained an appointment as interpreter at Surat in 1822. Transferred to Cutch in 1826 as assistant to the political agent, he turned his attention more particularly to the history and geography of north-western India and the adjacent countries, at that time very imperfectly known. His proposal in 1829 to undertake a journey of exploration through the valley of the Indus was not carried out owing to political apprehensions; but in 1831 he was sent to Lahore with a present of horses from King William IV. to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and took advantage of the opportunity for extensive investigations. In the following years his travels were extended through Afghanistan across the Hindu Kush to Bokhara and Persia. The narrative which he published on his visit to England in 1834 added immensely to contemporary knowledge of the countries traversed, and was one of the most popular books of the time.
The first edition brought the author the sum of £800, and his services were recognized not only by the Royal Geographical Society of London, but also by that of Paris. Soon after his return to India in 1835 he was appointed to the court of Sind to secure a treaty for the navigation of the Indus; and in 1836 he undertook a political mission to Dost Mahommed at Kabul. He advised Lord Auckland to support Dost Mahommed on the throne of Kabul, but the viceroy preferred to follow the opinion of Sir William Macnaghten and reinstated Shah Shuja, thus leading up to the disasters of the first Afghan War. On the restoration of Shah Shuja in 1839, he became regular political agent at Kabul, and remained there till his assassination in 1841 (on the 2nd of November), during the heat of an insurrection. The calmness with which he continued at his post, long after the imminence of his danger was apparent, gives an heroic colouring to the close of an honourable and devoted life. It came to light in 1861 that some of Burnes' despatches from Kabul in 1839 had been altered, so as to convey opinions opposite to his, but Lord Palmerston refused after such a lapse of time to grant the inquiry demanded in the House of Commons. A narrative of his later labours was published in 1842 under the title of Cabool.
See Sir J.W. Kaye, Lives of Indian Officers (1889).