Did you know Burnes Road was named after a British spy-doctor?

Published August 27, 2014
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch
Burnes road is now a heaven of eateries for Karachiites — Photo by Akhtar Balouch

For those of you who're not aware of it, Burnes Road in Karachi is named after James Burnes, a doctor who also worked as a spy for the British Raj in the subcontinent, back in the 18th century.

In Sindh ke Darbar, a book based on the memoirs of James Burnes, the former secretary of Sindhi Literary Board, Aijaz Mangi preludes with the following passage on Burnes:

Dr Burnes was the member of a nation which planned to take over Sindh and systematically make it part of the British Raj. As such, he deemed the native population there to be inferior and despicable. But one must admit that the observations of Dr Burnes are an invaluable and accurate insight into how things were back at that time; very informative and highly interesting.

Following Partition, the road named after Dr Burnes was renamed to 'Muhammad bin Qasim Road', but if you ask around for directions with that name, I doubt a single soul would be able to help you.

Ask for 'Burns Road' and just about anyone will be able to point you to the street of Mazaydar Haleem, biryani, dahi baray, quorma, gola kabab, halwa puri, mithai and what not.

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Burnes has some fascinating things to say about the ruling family of Sindh at that time, the Talpur Mirs. On page 35 of Sindh ke Darbar it says:

It was part of Baloch tradition that before a doctor could administer medicine to his students, he would have to take the medicine himself. [My patient] Mir Murad Ali wasn't ready to take the medicine without me having taken it first. But I had had enough of its bitter doses already.

So eventually, it came down to a poor, ill-fated servant who was forced to take the medicine for a long time, despite having zero need for it. It must have created a really bad impression of British medicines on his mind.

I tried hard but in vain to find out more about the medical qualifications of Dr Burnes and where he'd gotten his education from. His memoirs do detail how Burnes was able to cure Mir Murad Ali:

The simple reason why Mir Murad recovered was that I stopped him from taking any heavy medication. But the Mirs thought it was my extraordinary skills as a physician. Then a series of fortunate coincidences completely established their faith in my healing powers.

So what was that drug which never failed to cure Mir Murad? Burnes explains:

I used 'Konain', something which the people of Sindh are yet to learn about. For the native population, it is the best cure for the seasonal cold. I would even predict the effects of the medicine in advance, to the surprise of many patients.

But once Mir Murad discovered that Konain was the secret behind his health, he took my bottle of Konain without my permission and locked it up in his cupboard. This one time, I fell ill and he wouldn't even return it to me! When it was time for me to go, I asked him for the empty bottle, but he still refused. Mir Murad seemed to think that the bottle was a vital part of this miracle drug.

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The Mirs were just as spoilt as the other rulers of Hindustan. Keeping slave-girls was common and acceptable everywhere, but the treatment these Mirs meted out to kids borne of these girls was horrific. Burnes writes:

Mir Mohammad Khan does not have any children. Keep in mind that in the court of Sindh, it's a custom to kill any children borne by slave-girls...I've learned through credible sources that a certain member of the Mir clan has killed as many as 27 babies.

The Mirs ruled differently than other rulers in Hindustan at the time. At other places, the real power always lay with the person sitting on the throne. His brothers and relatives would not be of any importance, and would often even be killed, if the need arose.

But the Mir brothers weren't like that. All three used to rule together and would never let any one of them be left alone in the capital at any given moment. Burnes says:

The Mirs are one peculiar lot. They don't trust each other one bit. Like I mentioned before, when Mir Murad fell sick, all the brothers confined themselves to the Hyderabad Fort for several months. If they went out to hunt, they'd take care to leave an agent behind so as not to leave affairs unguarded...It wasn't easy to rule in an atmosphere of such uncertainty and lack of trust. Mir Murad Ali had once opened up to me saying: 'Rulers bear an immense burden on their chests; only a ruler can understand that burden.'"

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A study of history reveals that the British conquest of Sindh had little to do with clever stratagems and much more with the mistrust between the ruling Talpur brothers, and their differing views on the native population (many of whom were Hindus). Burnes writes on pages 51-52:

When I set out of Sindh, the Mir brothers handed me two of their watches for repair. At that time, one of their servants said that there was an expert watch-repairer in Bhaj (an area in India). When the Mirs heard that, they refused to hand the watches over to me until I promised that I wouldn't trust an infidel with them.

They also gifted me a very expensive sword, bearing an inscription (by a courtier) that the Mirs were very proud of.

The memoirs of James Burnes are flooded with passages illuminating the Mir rule of Sindh. One has only got to initiate research. I hope the students of history will dig deeper into these resources and increase our knowledge of the past.

Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly mentioned 'Shahrah-e-Liaquat' as the new name for Burnes Road. The error is regretted and has been corrected.


Translated by Talha Ahmed from the original in Urdu.

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