It has been all-petition-all-the-time at CM lately. Which is a marked contrast to my usual unflappably complacent demeanor but, if the shit really start to stink, one must light the fire [my grandfather used to say that and it sounds way better in Punjabi. Also, it makes more sense since cow-dung is used as fuel, but I am getting off the topic here…].
Anyhow, it has been a while since I promised some word of William Moorcroft – one of the adventurers in India who went ‘native’ – not in the White Mughal way rather in the White Ibn Batutta way. I came across Moorcroft while reading the memoirs of Alexander Burnes (1805–1841) who famously charted the waters of Indus for the East India Company in 1830. In his travelogue, Burnes describes reaching Qandahar and finding the remaining possessions of the dead and buried William Moorcroft [by then a rather legendary and contentious figure in John Company’s imagination]. Reading over the catalogue of Moorcroft’s possessions – a unique blend of botanical, medicinal, veternarian, and litrary works – I decided to pursue the thread of this amazing life, for just one moment, and in that pursuit came across other indelible characters – like Captain Hyder Young Hearsey.
William Moorcroft (bap. 1767, d. 1825), actually made horseshoes, ran stables, bred horses and taught at the Veterinary College in London. He was the first Englishman with a complete formal veterinary education. His classics, The Horse Medicine Chest (1795) and Methods of Shoeing Horses (1800) made him a good candidate as a manager for East India Company’s stud farm in Bengal. And in 1807, he took their offer and set sail for India.
EIC at the turn of the 19th century needed war horses – cavalry being the troops that would protect the reign of the Company from the Sea to Sutlej. He joined the horse farm at Pusa with the intention of purchasing and breeding horses for the EIC. However, he quickly decided that he was not going to find big, sturdy war horses in Bengal – and so, thought to seek the legendary birthplace of the horses in the Himalayan peaks [He also sought “materials of the finest woolen fabric”]. But, first, he needed a guide.
Captain Hyder Young Hearsey (1782 – 1840) was the son of English Captain Harry Hearsey, serving with the Marathas, and an Indian mother. He was sent to England for his education to return to India at the age of 16. He became a cavalry captain in the army of one of the Maratha leaders, Daulatrao Sindhia, and later an officer under George Thomas, another adventurer with a small kingdom centered around Hansi. By the age of 21, Hearsey had himself carved out a small principality in Mewat; married Zuhur al-Nissa, a princess from Cambay; and settled down with an army of five thousand at his command. At the breaking of the second English-Maratha War in 1803, Hearsey decided to join the King’s army.
Hearsey was already an explorer by the time he met Moorcroft. Along with Captain Webb and Lt. Raper, he had tried to survey the Ganges from Hardwar to Gangotri in 1808. So, when in 1812, Moorcroft decided to travel, under disguise, across the Himalayas and into Western Tibet, he called upon his friend Hearsey to accompany him. Hearsey brought along with him a long-time companion, Ghulam Hyder Khan, and some fifty native coolies and carriers. There were also two pundit surveyors – one of whom, Harkh Dev, is said to have kept pace for the entire trek (“two of his ordinary steps measuring exactly four feet”). Dressed as native pilgrims [Moorcroft’s disguise almost busted when he was found wearing ‘half boots of an English pattern’], they argued, cajoled and gifted their way through Gurkha and Tibetan territories to Lake Manasarovar. It was here that Moorcroft discovered that Russian trading caravans had long visited the region [setting off Moorcroft’s involvement in the Great Game].
After their return, Moorcroft and Hearsey parted ways. Hearsey continued on in his service to the Company – fighting in the Gurkha wars. Moorcroft went back to managing the EIC stable but found the conditions deteriorating. The demands for war-horses continued to escalate while the supplies continued to deteriorate. He kept asking EIC permission to travel to Bukhara to find better horses, trade routes and gather intelligences. He was finally granted that permission, begrudgingly, in 1819. In the meantime, he had married Purree Khanum, and had had two children. Leaving them behind, Moorcroft took a native staff of around fifty, reportedly 8 tons of luggage, and set off on a legendary journey that would take him over 1500 miles – across Afghanistan, Ladakh, Turkistan and Bukhara. He wrote back to the EIC copious volumes filled with observations botanical, political, cultural, religious; suspicions and theories about Russians behind every rock, but rarely anything about horses.
When he finally reached Bukhara in February 1825, the first time any Company traveller had entered that kingdom, he did not find many horses to purchase. By this time, EIC had grown exceedingly weary of his travels, his expenses and his immaculate diagrams of flora and fauna. Declaring that he had failed his mission, they demanded an immediate return. However, Moorcroft only made it back as far as the gates of Balkh, by Amu Darya, where he died of a fever, on 27 August 1825. His caravan and the survivors straggled home, on their own.
Burnes listed the books he found in Moorcroft’s possession. It is a remarkable list, not only for the breadth of topics but also in the snapshot it offers of knowledges necessitated by the imperial enterprise in early 19th century India – knowledge of languages, religions, and sciences are inextricably mixed in the persona of one William Moorcroft gathering intelligence and supplies to keep afloat the colonial machinery of the Company. The manuscripts and books:
Gladwin’s Materia Medica in the Arabic and Persian Languages with English Translations, Gladwin’s Persian Moonshee, Elphinstone’s Cabool, Malcolm’s History of Persia, Berchtold’s Essay for Patriotic Travellers, Hunter’s Hindoostanee Dictionary, an Essay on Vaccination, a Pamphlet on Trade with India and China, Bedingfield on Diseases, Murray’s Chemistry, Saumarez’s Physiology, Nautical Alamanack for 1823, Bell on the Urethra, Fry’s Pautographia, Herau on War, Duncan’s Edinburgh Dispensatory, Marco Polo’s Travels, The New Testament in Toorkee [!], Hey’s Surgery, Reece’s Medical Guide, Maladies Chirurgicales, Hamilton’s East India Gazetteer, Scarpa on the Eye, Saunders on the Eye, Fordyce on Fevers, Hutton’s Mathematics, Histoire des Desconvertes, Cullen’s Practise of Physic, Art of Cookery.
The recent historiography of British in India has done little to highlight the lives of men like Perron, Thomas, Hearsey, and Moorcroft – all Outsiders in the Company’s narrative – even as the following generation of adventurers like Burnes, Outram, and Burton hogged the literary limelight of late nineteenth century England with their memoirs, translations and travelogues.
I don’t want to turn this post into a boring academic discursive on postcolonial scholarship, so I will abruptly stop and ask you to remember this piece of bar trivia: William Moorcroft sent Tibetan sheep to Regent’s Park.