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Born in 1805 in Montrose, Scotland, Burnes enlisted in the army at the age of 16. Stationed. Burnes was stationed in India for 10 years before he was tasked by King William IV to bring a present to the founder and Maharaja of the Sikh Empire Ranjit Singh. Burnes soon embarked on an expedition to explore Western Asia, including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Persia.
In 1835, Burnes returned to India, which had underwent various political changes. Around this time, he met the English administrator William Sleeman, who was a member of the Templar Order. Burnes was recruited into the order, aiding Sleeman in his research of ancient artifacts, including the staff wielded by Alexander the Great. After the First Anglo-Afghan War, Burnes became an official political agent for the crown and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1838.
In 1841, he became famous for surviving an insurrection that claimed the life of fellow officer William Broadfoot, killing six assailants in the process.