Book Ends of Empire

For a long time, I have been a fan of the genre known as “travel literature”, escapist yes, not into fantasy or science fiction, but to real places and often backwards in time.  More recently, I’ve thought of posting a review of some of my favourite travel books, adventures to make the reader feel more content and grateful to sink into an overstuffed armchair on a long winter evening, pulled up close to a crackling campfire somewhere on the Tibetan plateau.  Who knew that Ian Fleming, originator of the James Bond franchise, had an older brother Peter who made an “undeservedly successful” venture across western China from “Peiping” to Srinagar in the 1930’s, and wrote about it vividly and easily, because it was not the product of imagination or research, but experience?
William Moorcroft, Lahore MuseumThen I realised that several of the books I would turn to first, are connected by more than just genre, acquisition, and enjoyment.  As a student of the shawlweaving tradition of Kashmir, I’ve had quoted to me from every book on that subject the observations of William Moorcroft, an early 19th-century British colonialist who made his way into Central Asia, supposedly in search of breeding stock to improve the quality of cavalry horses in subtropical, lowland India.  At the time when the East India Company, based in Calcutta, was extending its control over the sub-continent, Moorcroft paused in Srinagar to study the extensive and already famous shawl industry, in the middle of an epic six-year journey from which he never returned.
So: I was browsing in a bookshop for a then-recently-reviewed book about Afghanistan by Karl Meyer, and came up with an earlier work (“Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia” by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, Abacus/Little, Brown and Company (UK), 2001), a colourful and fast-paced history, of rather the “great man” variety, that opens with… William Moorcroft, and closes 600 pages later in mid-20th-century with another chap I keep bumping into, Nicholas Roerich.
I wanted to know all I could by and about Moorcroft, not only in the hope of discovering some overlooked detail of his reports on shawlweaving that might only be useful to a specialist, but also because he was one of the earliest European documentarians treading an unspoiled path, and it’s a moot question whether he was officially a British spy.  I finally found a reprint of his two-volume “Travels” (“Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab, from 1819 to 1825” by William Moorcroft and George Trebeck, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1979), originally edited from his papers by H. H. Wilson in 1841.  This was in a chaotic little bookshop in Faletti’s Hotel, Lahore, where my initial inquiry was met with a negative, but the elderly proprietor cleared a space and sat me down to his self-prepared tea.  As my eyes wandered, I discovered the books in a stack practically at my elbow – a test of my kismet.
In the early going Moorcroft’s account, always filled with acute observation and lived experience,  seems pedestrian in more ways than one.  Following traditional trails through hitherto unmapped territory he is at pains to record such things as distance travelled, on which bank of the river, and how many tributaries crossed.  But deep in the second volume there are satisfyingly dramatic days as Moorcroft escapes imminent robbery and murder by seeking refuge in the home of a religious elder and appealing for the traditional protection of pashtunwali.  In the end it was a fever that claimed him.
Alberto Manguel once said that anyone who hasn’t already read Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” (many editions) is in for a treat – true for no one more than me.  An adventure novel first published in 1901, its old-fashioned romanticism and over-the-top local colour is easily as much fun as the first, young Harry Potter film (which I first saw on late-night TV one February, huddled under my blanket in a drafty, down-market Paharganj hotel room).  But the connection here is that Kipling must have been familiar with Moorcroft’s “Travels”, if only for the intelligencer’s covert trick of counting paces along the trail to map his route.
The last word on Moorcroft is an in-depth biography (“Beyond Bokhara: The Life of William Moorcroft, Asian Explorer and Pioneer Veterinary Surgeon” by Garry Alder, Century Publishing, London, 1985), long out-of-print.  Moorcroft’s early years were as accomplishful as his later travels: born in 1767, he studied medicine, then trained in France (at the time of the revolution) in veterinary medicine.  Specializing in the treatment of horses, he set up a thriving practice catering to the carriage trade in London in 1792, but eventually accepted a post with the East India Company to manage their horse-breeding program in Bengal in 1808.  Restless and independent-minded, he was an evident patriot but unpopular with his Company superiors, so whether he was on the payroll as a spy, or contributed his intelligence-gathering as a loyal subject, seems a fine point.  During his travels, his medical skills usually made him a welcome guest.  Garry Alder for his part must have been a true admirer, retracing Moorcroft’s explorations, and reconstructing his own manuscript lost along the way.  In my own small but persistent way, I eventually located a copy of “Beyond Bokhara” at the Toronto Reference Library.  As I paged through it to make a complete photocopy, I had the distinct sense that, acquired when it was new 20 years earlier, it had, sadly, never been opened.
Nicholas Roerich from american-buddha.comAt the other end of “Tournament of Shadows”, I’m prompted to recommend Nicholas Roerich not because his book is as rivetting, but because he was as willful and eccentric in his accomplishments and travels.  Russian-born of Scandanavian ancestry, he is best-remembered as a painter and stage-designer, recognized early for collaborating with Diaghilev on ballet productions by Borodin and Stravinsky.  A political moderate and dedicated cultural preservationist, he emigrated from Russia after the revolution, moving to London and New York in the early 1920’s, touring, exhibiting, working on various causes and projects, enjoying celebrity and friendships with notables of the time, nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.  A Theosophist, he embarked between 1925 – 1928 on a trek through Central Asia and western China in search of Shambala, enduring great hardship barred at the frontier from entry into Tibet, and subject to suspicion as a possible spy.  He recorded his experiences in “Altai-Himalaya, A Travel Diary” (Adventures Unlimited Press; Kempton, Illinois, 2001).  His final years were spent at Naggar in the Kulu Valley, northern India, where he died in 1947.  In 1985, my late partner Ellen and I spent several rainy days at a former royal hunting lodge converted to a government tourist guest-house, perched on the side of the valley overlooking Naggar and Roerich’s home, now preserved as a museum.  Some 165 years earlier, William Moorcroft passed by up the valley and noted the hunting lodge, early on the journey to his destiny.


~ by Peter Harris on 02/04/2013.

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