Author Craig Murray is a former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan and prominent independence campaigner. His new book is the first biography of the remarkable Alexander "Sikunder" Burnes. Born in Montrose in 1805, Burnes was a surveyor, diplomat and spy, whose reports from British India and travels in Afghanistan brought him international celebrity. He was a key player in the struggle between imperial powers for influence and trade in Central Asia. This extract narrates Burnes’ encounter with the Sikh Imperial Court at Peshawar (in modern Pakistan) and casts an interesting light on the behaviour of British officers.

ON 12 August 1837 Burnes and his companions arrived at Peshawar. Burnes’s previous stay had been idyllic, before the Sikh conquest. He was now a guest of the new Governor, Avitabile, the most extraordinary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s European officers. Burnes had met him in Lahore and was pleased to see a friendly face.

Avitabile was a 45-year-old Neapolitan who had been a Sergeant Major in the Napoleonic artillery and eventually entered Sikh service via Turkey and Persia. He had been appointed by the Shah to govern turbulent Persian provinces, where he had succeeded through utmost brutality. In Ranjit Singh’s service since 1826, he had become Governor of Wazirabad in 1829, where he greatly increased revenues by similar tactics, and became Governor in April 1835 of Peshawar, newly conquered and unreconciled.

His words were not empty bragging: “When I marched into Peshawar I sent on in advance a number of wooden posts, which my men erected around the walls of the city. The men ... laughed at the madness of the Feringhi, and louder still when my men came in and laid coils of rope at the foot of the posts. Guns and swords, they said, were the arms to rule the city, and not sticks and ropes. However, when my preparations were completed, they found one fine morning dangling from these posts fifty of the worst characters in Peshawar, and I repeated the exhibition every day till I had made a scarcity of brigands and murderers.

“Then I had to deal with the liars and tale-bearers. My method with them was to cut out their tongues ... and then a surgeon appeared and professed to be able to restore their speech. I sent for him, and cut out his tongue also.”

For variation, Avitabile liked to hang people in rows, alternately by the neck and the feet. He introduced skinning alive on a large scale; it took two hours for the victim to die. He was a psychotic sadist. Dr Honigberger recorded: “He was afflicted with a frequent contraction of the muscles of his face ... this disease I attributed to his immoderate consumption of champagne ... The pleasure which he took in seeing people hung in dozens must be attributed to the affection of his brain ... Living in his house for three years, I had the opportunity of knowing him well.”

Avitabile also had an ill-controlled sexuality. Masson in Lahore, Wolff in Wazirabad and Barr in Peshawar all refer to pornographic paintings in Avitabile’s bedrooms. He insisted on taking visitors to see them. He was “unscrupulous in gratifying his lust”, and British Indian historians in 1929 could only say that: “Avitabile’s moral delinquencies and fiendish cruelties are even now remembered in the districts he once governed, by legends or grim stories, some of which we dare not publish.”

These unpublishable moral delinquencies included paedophilia. Several British officers noted the children around Avitabile. Lieutenant William Barr was entertained to a nautch in 1839: “Amongst the number were a few children, varying from seven to ten years of age, who ... are gradually being initiated into the mysteries of a craft most derogatory in its nature, as carried on in the East ... Behind the governor stood two of his servants, a pair of diminutive Afghan boys ... one of whom ... would have made a remarkably pretty girl; he, however, looked quite out of place in attendance upon a masculine individual like Avitabile, and would have been better suited for the occupation of a lady’s page.”

SURGEON-GENERAL Atkinson noted of Avitabile the same year: “He lives in good style, and is distinguished for his hospitality, which has been amply experienced and acknowledged by the British officers... On every occasion, his table has been crowded with guests, and, according to oriental custom, the sumptuous entertainments always concluded with a grand nautch, his figurante-company of Cashmeer women consisting of about thirty, singers and dancers from the age of twelve to twenty-five.”

By 1840, Avitabile was entertaining so many British officers that he obtained a monthly allowance of Rs1000 towards the expense. Here we have one of those rare glimpses behind the curtain that reveals the truth about the “nautches” which were such a frequent feature of the lives of British officials: “At the same time the Government of India, who had heard of the disgraceful orgies which attended some of the entertainments, directed that none but the most senior officers were to be entertained by him, and gave the political officer an allowance of 500Rs a month, on behalf of the younger ones.”

So the senior officers got the disgraceful orgies, and the junior officers got dinner with Mackeson.

Yet Burnes is more reticent than other British sources about Avitabile. He states in his travelogue Cabool (published posthumously by John Murray in 1842) that the hospitality was “princely” but gives no detail; and of the mutilated corpses displayed in scores all around the city, Burnes makes no mention, beyond noting the existence of gallows and that “the General did not pretend to be guided by European ideas”, and “his measures appeared to us to be somewhat oppressive”.

Burnes stayed 19 days in Peshawar, living with his mission in the beautiful gardens of the Wazir Bagh and regularly entertained by Avitabile. One explanation of Burnes’s discretion is that the epicurean food – Avitabile kept eight excellent chefs – unlimited champagne and ‘disgraceful orgies’ were much to his taste. It was not diplomatic reticence: the heir to the Sikh throne, Khurruck Singh, was also in Peshawar, and Burnes had no hesitation in publishing that "His imbecility is such that he can scarcely return an answer to the most simple question."

Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game by Craig Murray is published by Birlinn, priced £25