A forgotten page from history —Salman Rashid
The thought that Moorcroft was to die broken and bitterly disappointed brings a pang of grief. The mitigating factor however is that it did not take his country long to realise the worth of the man. Today he is acknowledged, and rightly so, as the forebear of Himalayan exploration and discovery, and one of the earliest heroes of the Great Game
In the northeast corner of the first quadrangle of the Shalimar Garden in Lahore, right next to the fountains, there is an unpretentious yellow-washed rectangular room on a high plinth. Entrance to the ground floor is through a door in the east wall, while in the west is a door and staircase leading down to the basement. The remaining arched alcoves all around are closed by masonry filigree.
The west wall bears a plaque commemorating the sojourn in this room of the ‘famous traveller William Moorcroft’ in May 1820. Despite the hundreds of visitors daily, few would have noticed this plaque; even fewer would have known who this person was. But for those who have any interest in the history of the Great Game, that epic struggle between Russia and England for the possession of Central Asia, Moorcroft’s name shines bright.
A veterinary surgeon by training, Moorcroft arrived in India in 1808 as an employee of the East India Company to look after its stud farm near Calcutta. Not long afterwards he and his companions, George Trebeck and George Guthrie, were to become the first Englishmen to penetrate to Ladakh where he went looking for a superior, faster breed of horse for the Company’s cavalry.
The Great Game was just beginning to come into its own and it did not take long for Moorcroft to be caught up in the excitement of the times. Because of his strident proclamations that Russia was soon to encroach upon the east, for many in India and England he was no more than an alarmist.
In his zeal, with no authority and without consultation with his superiors in Calcutta, this London veterinarian would sign a commercial treaty with the ruler of Ladakh. This, he believed, was to pre-empt Russian commercial influence in the backyard, so to say, of British India. The East India Company, however, enjoyed excellent relations with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Punjab and was not yet ready to raise his ire. Since the Maharaja held Kashmir, he looked upon Ladakh as a dependency, and the Company was infringing upon his authority by entering into negotiations independently. Promptly, therefore, they retracted Moorcroft’s treaty and sent an apology to the Maharaja.
That, however, was not all. The Company sent a letter to Ladakh informing Moorcroft of his suspension from the Company’s service. Shortly afterwards a second letter was dispatched ordering him to return home. But even before that letter could reach him, Moorcroft and his companions left Ladakh en route for Bokhara through the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan in their search for the horses. This was in May 1824, exactly four years after he had been put up by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the room in Shalimar Garden that the Maharaja had constructed for his own pleasure.
The year 1824 was not the best of times to be travelling through lawless Afghanistan, especially when the reputation that you were the van of a British invading force preceded you. It was worse still when you were weighed down by merchandise ‘chiefly cottons, broadcloth, and hardware, to the value of between three and four thousand pounds’, because this attracted the eye of the rapacious Afghans. Toward the end of that year, however, the party had safely made it through uncertain Afghanistan to the banks of the Oxus.
In February 1825, ten months after having set out of Ladakh, Moorcroft and his party arrived in the fabled city of Bokhara. Once again disappointment was to be his lot. Unknown to him, the year he had enjoyed Sikh hospitality in the Shalimar Garden, a Russian mission had infiltrated Bokhara. Unlike the East India Company the Russian crown believed the tussle in the east to be as much a commercial enterprise as military adventure and as a result of this mission’s activity; the bazaars of Bokhara were now well stocked with Russian merchandise.
Moorcroft’s disappointment was at its profoundest when he discovered that those fleet-footed horses he had hoped to find there were not to be seen. Surely it would have been a sorely dejected Moorcroft who turned his face eastward to India which he still thought was ‘home’. That was in August 1825.
On the home side of the Oxus, Moorcroft heard of the existence of his dream horses in some remote village. With just two or three of his companions, while the rest of his party waited at Balkh, Moorcroft headed out for the last time. Not long afterwards his decomposed body was brought back to Balkh together with the news that he had died of a fever. Shortly after burying him in a tree-shaded spot outside town, his two companions died within a short time of each other. Subsequently the party’s interpreter too passed away.
When news of these deaths reached India it was rumoured that they had either been poisoned by Russian agents or killed by robbers. The truth will surely never be known. For the sixty-year-old Moorcroft, unceremoniously removed from the service, it can be said that broken in spirit he may have lost the desire to live. The fever may just have been an excuse to pass on.
Unlike those dashing players of the Great Game, those archetypal heroes, Moorcroft who had left a successful veterinarian practice in London to serve in India, seems pitiable. He came at a time when the East India Company, secure in the knowledge of the treaty of friendship between London and St Petersburg, could not believe anything as absurd as Russian designs on Central Asia. And when he called the warning from Ladakh he was ridiculed, for he was far ahead of his time. Sadly in his lifetime he received only censure. Not long after his death Moorcroft’s warnings rang true and what his masters had taken as senseless zeal turned out in reality to have been sound judgement.
The thought that Moorcroft was to die broken and bitterly disappointed brings a pang of grief. The mitigating factor however is that it did not take his country long to realise the worth of the man. Today he is acknowledged, and rightly so, as the forebear of Himalayan exploration and discovery, and one of the earliest heroes of the Great Game. His sense of loyalty to country and commitment to the work at hand, namely the search for better horses, was remarkable. A lesser man, having received a letter of suspension, would have given up the task and set off for home. But not Moorcroft; for him loyalty to the country was foremost.
The plaque on the building in the Shalimar Garden is perhaps a statement of appreciation of Moorcroft’s silent heroism from some long forgotten civil servant of the Raj.
Salman Rashid is a travel writer and knows Pakistan like the back of his hand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org