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Ure, John 1931– (John Burns Ure)

Ure, John 1931– (John Burns Ure)


Born July 5, 1931, in London, England; son of Tam and Mary Ure; married Caroline Allan, 1972; children: Alasdair Hugo, Arabella. Education: Magdalene College, Cambridge, M.A., 1956; Harvard University, A.M.P., 1969.


Home—Kent, England; fax: 00 44 (0) 1580 754532.


Ernest Benn (publisher), London, England, staff member, 1951-53. Worked for British Foreign Service (later known as Diplomatic Service), 1956-91, third secretary and private secretary to the ambassador in Moscow, USSR, 1957-59, worked at Foreign Office, London, 1960-61, second secretary in Leopoldville, Congo (now Kinshasa, Zaire), 1962-63, worked at Foreign Office, 1964-66, first secretary in Santiago, Chile, 1967-70, assigned to Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, 1971-72, counselor and charge d'affaires in Lisbon, Portugal, 1972-77, head of South America department at Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1977-79, ambassador to Cuba, Havana, 1979-81, assistant undersecretary of state at Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1981-84, ambassador to Brazil, Brasilia, 1984-87, and to Sweden, Stockholm, 1987-91. Expo 92, Seville, Spain, British commissioner general, 1990-92. Director, Thomas Cook Group, 1991-99, Sotheby's Scandinavia, 1991-99, and CSE Aviation, 1992-94. Military service: British Army, Scottish Rifles, 1950-51; served in Malaya; became second lieutenant.


Royal Geographical Society (life fellow; member of council, 1982-84), Anglo-Swedish Society (chair, 1992-96), Beefsteak Club, Pilgrims.


Decorated lieutenant, Royal Victorian Order, 1968; commander, Military Order of Christ, Portugal, 1973; knight, Order of St. Michael and St. George, 1987.


Cucumber Sandwiches in the Andes, Constable (London, England), 1973.

Prince Henry the Navigator, Constable (London, England), 1977.

The Trail of Tamerlane, Constable (London, England), 1980.

The Quest for Captain Morgan, Constable (London, England), 1983.

Trespassers on the Amazon, Constable (London, England), 1986.

A Bird on the Wing: Bonnie Prince Charlie's Flight from Culloden Retraced, Constable (London, England), 1992.

Diplomatic Bag: An Anthology of Diplomatic Incidents and Anecdotes from the Renaissance to the Gulf War, John Murray (London, England), 1994.

The Cossacks, Constable (London, England), 1999, published as The Cossacks: An Illustrated History, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2002.

In Search of Nomads: An Anglo-American Obsession from Hester Stanhope to Bruce Chatwin, Carroll & Graf Publishers (New York, NY), 2003.

Pilgrimage: The Great Adventure of the Middle Ages, Carroll & Graf Publishers (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor of chapters on Central and South America to Royal Geographical Society History of World Exploration, Hamlyn, 1991. Contributor of articles and reviews to Times Literary Supplement, Daily Telegraph, and Sunday Telegraph.


Sir John Ure served as a British diplomat in postings around the world for more than thirty years. Eventually rising to the position of ambassador to Cuba, then Brazil, and later Sweden, Ure was able to satisfy his interest in travel by arranging journeys modeled after those of notable personalities from history. Ure later recounted these expeditions in several books which present historical detail of the region as well as the author's own adventures. The Trail of Tamerlane is the result of Ure's recreation of a Mongol chief's military campaign, Trespassers on the Amazon discusses explorers and visitors to the Amazon region of South America over the centuries, The Quest for Captain Morgan is an account of the British privateer's life in the Caribbean (and includes the author's own journey into the interior of Jamaica), and A Bird on the Wing: Bonnie Prince Charlie's Flight from Culloden Retraced is both a biography of the Scottish prince and a travel book that follows his route of escape after being defeated at the battle of Culloden. The Cossacks explores the history of the Cossacks in Russia, Poland, and Ukraine.

Ure has confessed that "his passion is ‘travelling uncomfortably in remote places and writing about it comfortably afterwards,’" according to Paul Pickering in the London Times. In researching The Trail of Tamerlane the author covered the same territory as Tamerlane (also known as Timur), who conquered large portions of the Middle East, Russia, and India during the late fourteenth century. Ure's trip concentrated on Tamerlane's conquests of 1386 to 1388, taking him and his wife to remote areas of Iran and Turkey. "Beginning on an air-conditioned bus, before long the Ures find themselves in the Valley of the Assassins and traversing the Elburz mountains on foot," David Hunt noted in the Times Literary Supplement. The critic then complimented Ure for his skill at "combining topographical description with accurate historical narration…. The style of the narrative is measured but evocative … solidly buttressed by a personal perspicacity of description and by a constant reference back to earlier authorities."

Ure took into account the strategic significance of the Caribbean islands throughout history—as well as their commercial importance, being fertile with such commodities as coffee, sugar, and spices—during the writing of The Quest for Captain Morgan. "The rulers of one empire after another have argued over these territories and in these waters, either directly or through their representatives. Spanish, British, French, and Dutch vessels lie at the bottom of these seas; American and Soviet weapons find their way there," commented Janet Morgan in the Times Literary Supplement. In telling about the life of Captain Henry Morgan, who was commissioned by the British governor of Jamaica to plunder Spanish ships and towns in the Caribbean during the mid-seventeenth century, Ure recounted his own travels along the same routes as the buccaneer. Janet Morgan observed in the Times Literary Supplement that the author's bearings were accurate, stating: "Ure need not have recruited the wizened Maroon, Obadiah, to pilot him and his wife through the notoriously difficult Cockpit Country in Jamaica's hinterland; the then British High Commissioner was said by awed Jamaicans to know it just as well." The critic summarized The Quest for Captain Morgan as "a delightful, easy book."

In A Bird on the Wing, Ure looks at both the historical and mythical aspects of Prince Charles Edward Stuart—also called Bonnie Prince Charlie—who led a Scottish rebellion against the English in 1745. After several initial victories, the army of Charles Edward was defeated at the battle of Culloden Moor and the Prince was forced into hiding (he eventually escaped to France and lived the rest of his life in exile). Caroline Bingham wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that "strenuous hill-walking and mountainous ascents are behind Ure's authoritative tone when he speaks of the hardships which the Prince endured in the course of his flight." Bingham noted that, by pursuing the same trail as the Prince after Culloden, "Ure also traces the birth of the legend. If Charles Edward had died on his wanderings … the historical and mythical identities would have been seamlessly joined." Instead, the myth was suspended "until the real man lived out his disappointed life, and his death allowed the legend to be born."

Ure reflects on a number of individuals from England and the United States who have explored the Amazon region of South America in Trespassers on the Amazon. This is an apt title, according to John Hemming in the Times Literary Supplement, "because most of his characters made only brief visits and left a minimal impression on the immense brown waters and limitless tangle of vegetation." Among the visitors to the Amazon that Ure writes about are Sir Walter Raleigh and Teddy Roosevelt, who—in the words of Hemming—"asked the Brazilians to organize a safari for him, but ended up on a formidable expedition of pure discovery down a river that now bears his name." Nicholas Wollaston, a reviewer for the Observer, remarked that the author had met up with several present-day visitors in the course of his own journeying, including "a young Englishman studying monkeys, a woman sketching forest flowers, a tall evangelist and a bearded archaeologist." Hemming in the Times Literary Supplement found Trespassers on the Amazon to be "a lively and fast-moving book, easy and highly enjoyable to read." In the Times, Pickering complimented Ure for his "exceedingly funny yarns," delivered "in a direct but elegant way which makes you feel you have been sitting next to [the explorers] at an embassy dinner."

In The Cossacks Ure examines the history of the Cossacks in Russia beginning under the rule of Ivan IV (1530-1584; tsar of Russia, beginning in 1547) and continuing until the present day. Philip Marsden, reviewing the book in Times Literary Supplement, commented, "John Ure's book is full of colourful military lore, compelling yarns and derring-do." Benjamin Yarde-Bullen, writing in the Spectator, reported that the volume was "a fresh, sensual history…. Ure's storytelling has the dash to cope with his subject." A Contemporary Review critic noted that the book explores "how important the Cossacks were at vital points in Russia's history." Ure, wrote the Contemporary Review critic, "writes [about the Cossacks] with ease and obvious affection."

Ure looked at perennial travelers in In Search of Nomads: An Anglo-American Obsession from Hester Stanhope to Bruce Chatwin. He looks at the Bedouin, the Tuareg, the Qashqai, the Bakhtiari, and the Mongol horsemen, all through the eyes of western adventurers—more than three dozen of them—who encountered these cultures over the centuries. He told Christian Amodeo in a Geographical interview that the book enabled him to combine his personal interests in travel and history, and also to reflect upon his own experiences: among the Qashqai of southern Iran, for example, or the Tuareg of the Sahara. In his assessment for Geographical, Nicholas Crane described In Search of Nomads as an "intoxicating mix of anthropology and ripping yarn."

In Pilgrimage: The Great Adventure of the Middle Ages, Ure looks at the concept of pilgrimage, not only as a religious quest fraught with potential danger, but also as an adventure on one hand and a sort of relief from the monotony of medieval life on the other, according to Geographical reviewer Mick Herron. Ure writes of the historical background of pilgrimage, including the perils of encounters with brigands, con artists, disease, and other privations, but he also relates the personal accounts of early travelers, from clergy to lay person, sacred to profane, with all their virtues and flaws. Ure also mentions his own experiences as a traveler and quasi-pilgrim in the Sinai, Spain, and Greece, where his trip to Mount Athos was enlivened by an encounter with a monk who caught a glimpse of the author bathing outdoors and mistook the sight for a holy vision. Herron found the book to be "a lively read" and its author "both an informative guide and an amiable companion."

Ure once told CA: "There is a considerable literary tradition in the British diplomatic service, and I hope I have been able to contribute to this by writing about historical figures who have made memorable journeys, sometimes of exploration and sometimes of military conquest. Wherever possible I have tried to retrace their journeys myself, often using the same methods of travel—camels, horses, canoes—as the original traveler. This both enables one to get a better insight into the experience of one's subject and also provides a welcome contrast to the urban comforts of diplomatic life.

"I am particularly glad that a number of my books have been selected as book club choices and translated into other languages, thus enabling them to reach a wider group of people who might not read more conventional historical biographies."



Contemporary Review, March, 2000, review of The Cossacks, p. 166.

Geographical, November, 2003, Christian Amodeo, interview of John Ure, p. 130; March, 2004, Nicholas Crane, review of In Search of Nomads: An Anglo-American Obsession from Hester Stanhope to Bruce Chatwin, p. 97; May, 2006, Mick Herron, review of Pilgrimage: The Great Adventure of the Middle Ages, p. 79.

Observer, November 30, 1986, Nicholas Wollaston, review of Trespassers on the Amazon, p. 23.

Spectator, November 20, 1999, Benjamin Yarde-Bullen, review of The Cossacks.

Times (London, England), February 12, 1987, Paul Pickering, review of Trespassers on the Amazon.

Times Literary Supplement, July 11, 1980, David Hunt, review of The Trail of Tamerlane, p. 786; December 9, 1983, Janet Morgan, review of The Quest for Captain Morgan, p. 1371; November 21, 1986, John Hemming, review of Trespassers on the Amazon, p. 1304; January 1, 1993, Caroline Bingham, review of A Bird on the Wing: Bonnie Prince Charlie's Flight from Culloden Retraced, p. 8; December 24, 1999, Philip Marsden, "Russia's Samurais," p. 30.

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