Over the last few weeks I have fallen down the rabbit hole of The Great Game era, that monumental struggle for empire in Central Asia, which has left for us a record of scheming, fighting, adventuring, spying, and personal heroics perhaps without parallel. This gigantic contest, principally between Russia and the British Empire, which I knew precious little about, has sucked me in like a jet engine.
Enter: Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, of the Royal Horse Guards, son of a country parson, writer, hot air balloon adventurer–he was the first to cross the English Channel that way–and strong man. At 6’4, 210, it was said that Burnaby was strong enough to hold a billiard cue between his middle and index fingers, horizontally, “his arm fully extended and the butt end steady.” He was fluent in seven languages including Russian, Turkish, and Arabic, and he had a mind for adventure.
As an officer of the Horse Guards, Burnaby enjoyed nearly half the year on leave, and in his spare time he served as a special correspondent for The Times of London, which afforded him the opportunity to sail up the Nile and interview Gordon in Khartoum, in better times, before Gordon became embroiled in his last desperate fight against the Mahdi and his Dervishes. And it would be on a relief mission to Khartoum, to rescue the besieged General Gordon, some years later, that Burnaby would also meet his end.
But my interest in Burnaby is for the trip that made his famous, an unauthorized trip from St. Petersburg to the Khanate of Khiva, east of the Caspian Sea. At the time of this epic adventure, Mother Russia was closed to British Officers who, it was feared, could only be acting to stir up trouble in the Khanates.
Burnaby went anyway, and in St. Petersburg was somehow granted approval to travel through Russia, so long as he stayed in Russian territory and did not attempt to stray into the tempestuous Khanate. Despite repeated warnings, and the certain knowledge that other Englishmen had been imprisoned, and in some cases executed, for similar escapades in the greater region, he pressed on, traveling by rail and by troika until he reached Orenburg. In Orenburg he hired a Muslim servant and horses, and in the terrible winter of 1876 travelled 600 miles–by sleigh–to the Russian fortress town of Kazala. On this leg of his journey he nearly lost both hands to frostbite after falling asleep ungloved, and was only able to save them with the help of some friendly Cossacks, who massaged his arms with naphtha to restore circulation. It was still 400 miles to Khiva.
From Kazala, and despite numerous warnings about marauding Turcomens and others who would like to gouge out his eyes, Burnaby was able to slip his Russian minders and with the help of his hired guides, and camels, and march two weeks across a frozen desert toward Khiva itself. It was so cold on this leg of the journey that his glasses froze to his face, and cold enough that Cossacks, traveling separately, had frozen to death on the trail.
What follows is a fantastic tale of horse-trading subterfuge, camel markets, the spectre of the Khan’s gallows, and lavish meetings with the Khan himself, where lush fruits were served on trays. Burnaby found himself escorted by guards carrying scimitars and wearing silk coats, and greeted by crowds who lined the streets to see this mysterious man of England, a nation whose wealth, they had been told, surpassed all others.
Eventually the Russians became aware of Burnaby’s escapade, and ordered him out. He was able to ride from Petro-Alexandrovsk for Kazala with a party of Cossacks, “The going was extremely hard, with even the Cossacks complaining, its rigors made a little less unbearable by recourse to the four-gallon cask of vodka they carried.” On this return trip, Burnaby rode a single Cossack horse for over 900 miles, in appalling conditions, without the horse ever going lame.
His eventual return to England, and the book he wrote about this adventure, A Ride to Khiva, made Burnaby famous, and earned him an audience with the heavyweights of his time, including Queen Victoria. But he was not finished. Trouble in eastern Turkey between the Russians and the Ottomans drew him off again, to Turkey, where he completed a second epic adventure and authored another book, On Horseback Through Asia Minor.
Colonel Burnaby was killed at the Battle of Abu Klea, in 1885, while riding with Sir Herbert Stewart, and the Desert Column, in the overland attempt to relieve the garrison at Khartoum. The relief also included a Nile contingent, but lacking information from the cut-off garrison, Stewart’s column was sent overland in a more direct route. In this fight, 1100 Englishmen were ambushed by 12000 Sudanese. In the face of overwhelming opposition and accurate sniper fire, Stewart organized his men into a square. In a fight that lasted only fifteen minutes, the Gardener gun they were using broke down in the desert sand, and Burnaby ordered the camel regiment to wheel out of the square to support it. In a rarity for English tactics, the square broke down and the Dervishes broke through. Men at the rear of the square were forced to about face, and drive the Dervishes out. Ultimately, Burnaby was speared in the throat and succumbed to his wounds.
The Great Game epoch, which informs and foreshadows the horrors of World War I, and serves as a distant mirror for our own country’s current floundering in the central Asian morass, has long slipped past me. No more. The stories of men like Burnaby–not entirely soldier, not entirely poet, but entirely mic-dropping adventurer–is one of thousands now calling my name from the Caspian to the Hindu Kush, and I am all in.