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Born in Montrose, he enlisted in the army at the age of sixteen and served in India for about ten years before bringing a present from King William IV to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, founder and leader of the Sikh Empire. He then continued his explorations through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Persia, and wrote "Travels into Bokhara," a book that saw him recognized by the Royal Geographical Society and made him a Fellow in its ranks.
When he returned to India, it was with political charges. He met with Sir Henry Sleeman, who recruited him into the Templar Order, making him an efficient tool in the active research of ancient artifacts, including the legendary Staff of Alexander the Great, rumored to be located around Afghanistan. After the first Afghan war, Burnes became an official political agent for the crown and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1838.
He became famous for surviving an insurrection that claimed the life of fellow officer William Broadfoot, killing six assailants in the process.