SOLDIER OF FORTUNE
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.