The tale of Alexan­der Gard­ner, the plaid clad mer­ce­nary


On a sum­mer’s day in 1864 in the Kash­mir cap­i­tal of Srinagar two Bri­tish of­fi­cials awaited their un­known guest. A wal­nut side ta­ble had been spread with tea cups and scones were be­ing baked in the kitchen. The house was that of Fred­er­ick Cooper, the com­mis­sioner re­spon­si­ble for the good be­hav­iour of for­eign­ers hol­i­day­ing in Kash­mir, and his com­pan­ion was one of those hol­i­day­mak­ers, a Cap­tain Se­grave. Whether their mys­te­ri­ous vis­i­tor also qual­i­fied as one of Com­mis­sioner Cooper’s charges re­mained to be seen.

‘I can per­fectly rec­ol­lect my first in­ter­view with him,’ re­called Se­grave. ‘He walked into Cooper’s re­cep­tion room one morn­ing, a most pe­cu­liar and strik­ing ap­pari­tion, clothed from head to foot in the 79th tar­tan but fash­ioned by a na­tive tai­lor. Even his pa­gri [tur­ban] was of tar­tan, and it was adorned with an egret’s plume, only al­lowed to per­sons of high rank.’

Se­grave un­der­stood the vis­i­tor ‘lived en­tirely in na­tive fash­ion’; as colonel in charge of Kash­mir’s ar­tillery, he ‘ was wealthy and owned

‘He walked into Cooper’s re­cep­tion room one morn­ing, a most pe­cu­liar and strik­ing ap­pari­tion’

many vil­lages’. Cooper, while also ad­mir­ing the tar­tan, guessed the colonel’s height at six feet and his age at nearly eighty. Numer­ous wounds tes­ti­fied to a per­ilous past, in­clud­ing a hole in his neck which obliged him to clamp his throat with steel for­ceps when­ever he ate. But his gait was as sturdy as a fifty-year-old’s, and what struck Cooper as even more re­mark­able was ‘the vi­vac­ity of ex­pres­sion, the hu­mour of the mouth, and the en­ergy of char­ac­ter por­trayed by the whole as­pect of the man as he de­scribed the ar­du­ous and ter­ri­ble in­ci­dents of a long life of ro­mance and vi­cis­si­tude’.

Cooper sensed a sen­sa­tion in the mak­ing. In a se­ries of sub­se­quent in­ter­views he, and then a host of other in­quis­i­tive vis­i­tors, en­cour­aged the colonel to flesh out his scant travel notes with a nar­ra­tion of what one called ‘the most ex­tra­or­di­nary ad­ven­tures that ever fell to the lot of one man’. The only prob­lem was how to clas­sify th­ese ad­ven­tures. What ex­actly had the colonel been do­ing on his trav­els? Was he an ex­plorer or just a sol­dier of for­tune? And was the tar­tan a state­ment of iden­tity or just a sar­to­rial af­fec­ta­tion?

In any ex­plor­ers’ hall of fame Scots would fea­ture promi­nently. James Bruce, Mungo Park and David Liv­ing­stone beat the bounds in Africa, John Ross and James Clerk Ross as­sailed the po­lar ice-caps, Macken­zie crossed Amer­ica and McDouall Stu­art tack­led Aus­tralia. But what of the howl­ing wastes at the heart of the world’s largest con­ti­nent?

Un­til the man in the tar­tan three-piece strode into Cooper’s com­pound in Srinagar no Scot was known to have pen­e­trated any part of in­ner Asia. In fact, the only Euro­pean ac­count of cross­ing the deserts of Xin­jiang and scal­ing the world’s high­est passes was still Marco Polo’s of six hun­dred years ear­lier. That feat was no longer unique. If be­ing the first and go­ing the far­thest was what made a great ex­plorer, Polo had a ri­val in Colonel Alexan­der Haughton Camp­bell Gard­ner.

Or did he? The old colonel, it tran­spired, had been born in Wis­con­sin and ed­u­cated at a mis­sion school in Ari­zona. He was prop­erly, there­fore, an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen. But his fa­ther had been a Scot­tish physi­cian in the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment’s em­ploy, his mother had been half-Span­ish and he him­self had for­saken the New World as soon as op­por­tu­nity of­fered. As he told Cooper, ‘from this early pe­riod the no­tion of be­ing a trav­eller and ad­ven­turer, and of some­how and some­where carv­ing out a name for my­self, was the mag­got of my brain.’

In search of paid sol­dier­ing he had headed via Ire­land to Egypt, then Tsarist Rus­sia where an el­der brother was a min­ing en­gi­neer. In 1819 the brother died. The thirty-some­thing

‘If be­ing the first and go­ing the far­thest was what made a great ex­plorer, Polo had a ri­val in Colonel Gard­ner’

Alexan­der turned his back on Rus­sia and rode east into the sands of Cen­tral Asia.

Fiercely Is­lamic and in­fested with slave-raiders, the in­de­pen­dent emi­rates strung along the an­cient Silk Road were best avoided by pale skins and Chris­tian con­sciences. Two Bri­tish civil­ians who set out from In­dia in the same year as Gard­ner were never seen again; and the two of­fi­cers who fol­lowed them to Bukhara were mur­dered there. Gard­ner’s sur­vival was down to a will­ing­ness to con­form. As he criss-crossed what are now Turk­menistan, Uzbek­istan and Kaza­khstan he wore what­ever was de rigeur. He claimed to be an Arab sheikh and had prob­a­bly made the Mus­lim con­fes­sion of faith. He also plun­dered when­ever needs must, gunned down ad­ver­saries and sold into slav­ery any­one in­tent on his own en­slave­ment.

He was no saint, and his ac­cent struck Cooper as more Ir­ish than Scot­tish. Equally ques­tion­able were his cre­den­tials as an ex­plorer. Ex­plor­ers usu­ally aimed to get some­where; Gard­ner’s aim had usu­ally been to get away from some­where. In 1824 he crossed the Oxus River into Afghanistan while on the run from the au­thor­i­ties in Sa­markand. Two years later he re-crossed the Oxus flee­ing ret­ri­bu­tion from the emir of Kabul.

As a hired gun he had pros­pered in Afghanistan. He had mar­ried an Afghan princess, set up home in a fortress and fa­thered a child. But by the time he fled the scene, his wife and son had been slain, his fortress fired and he him­self was badly wounded. With other fugi­tives he sought safety in the high Hindu Kush. Des­ti­tute, poorly clad, with a price on his head and not even a com­pass in his sad­dle­bag, he edged his horse along the snow­line. It is hard to imag­ine a less pro­pi­tious start to what would prove to be his great­est odyssey.

Over the next three years he cov­ered some 1,500 miles of un­charted ter­ri­tory while per­form­ing a com­plete cir­cuit of the great­est moun­tain com­plex on the planet. In the Hindu Kush he was the first to dis­cover the elu­sive Kafirs, a fair-skinned peo­ple who had de­fied the ad­vance of Is­lam. He was the first for­eigner since Marco Polo to cross the tree­less Pamirs, the first to re­port on the Alai moun­tains in what are now Ta­jik­istan and Kyr­gyzs­tan, the first to reach the for­bid­den city of Yarkand in Chi­nese Xin­jiang and the first to cross the Hi­malayan spine by the 19,000-foot Karako­ram Pass.

His re­ward was re­cruit­ment by the last of In­dia’s great na­tive em­pires. In­stalled as a com­man­dant of ar­tillery, Gard­ner served the Sikh rulers of the Pun­jab for four­teen years. He par­tic­i­pated in the blood­bath that ac­com­pa­nied the fall of the Sikh dy­nasty, sur­vived the Bri­tish con­quest and an­nex­a­tion of the king­dom, and then trans­ferred to Kash­mir for a long and dis­tin­guished re­tire­ment.

Ad­mir­ers like Cooper and Se­grave had no doubt that the man in the tar­tan tur­ban was ‘one of the finest spec­i­mens ever known of the sol­dier of for­tune’. As an ex­plorer he was prone to ex­ag­ger­ate, in­deed was ‘hand­i­capped by ad­ven­ture’. But it was all a long time ago. As D’Is­raeli would write of one of his fic­tional cre­ations: ‘Like all great trav­ellers, he had seen more than he re­mem­bered and re­mem­bered more than he had seen’.

Above: Alexan­der Gard­ner, in­spect­ing a sword with Do­gra troops in Kash­mir, 1864, al­ways wore the lo­cal garb. Right: A pas­tel on pa­per draw­ing of Alexan­der Gard­ner in a tar­tan tur­ban, by Ge­orge Land­seer, c 1865–69.

Above: ‘Ap­proach to Yarkand’ litho­graph pub­lished in Vis­its to High Tar­tary, Yarkand and

Kash­gar (John Mur­ray, 1871), after a sketch made by Robert Shaw in 1868.

Cen­tre: An al­bu­men print of Gard­ner by Sa­muel Bourne, taken in Srinagar in 1864. Top right: A map show­ing the trav­els of Gard­ner.

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