‘I fired… and literally blew them into the air’
Robert Eustace is tickled by the fantastical life of a mysterious adventurer in India
The Tartan Turban by John Keay 352pp, Kashi House, £25
Prince Albert was chronically underemployed and had notoriously bad taste. One of the more regrettable manifestations of both came in 1852, when he had the Koh-i-Noor cut down to its current, more dazzling, but rather lumpen European form, at the loss of 42 per cent of its weight. The sad fate of this extraordinary diamond, “the Mountain of Light”, which merited a clause to itself in the Last Treaty of Lahore, is indicative of the Victorians’ general desire to impose order on the obscure, romantic and rather suspicious world of the late Sikh Empire. In his engrossing new book, The Tartan Turban, John Keay sets out to show that the legacy of the mysterious adventurer Alexander Gardner (1785–1877) has suffered a similar fate at the hands of historians as unsympathetic as those that mutilated the great gem.
The evidence on which the story of Gardner’s life is constructed is sparse and tantalising. His very origins are obscure, but he seems to have been born an American, possibly of Scottish heritage, and, following a brother, found his way into Russia at a young age, seeking employment in the Far East. Even his own family didn’t know what to believe about him. Keay’s narrative opens with Helena, his only recognised daughter by his “favourite wife”, seeking in vain the vast treasure supposedly amassed by her father during his travels in the wilds of the Himalayas and his service in the courts of the dying Sikh Empire.
Gardner had arrived in the snowy Hindu Kush at some date around 1820, his motives obscure, but probably driven by misfortune. Until the 1830s, when he would present himself at the court of the great Maharajah Ranjit Singh at Lahore, the breadth of his travels through territory utterly foreign to any contemporary European make them impossible to relate in detail, and they form the most contentious part of his story. We have little evidence beyond the scraps of notes he kept hidden in an amulet about his person, but Gardner seems to have found temporary occupation as a slaver, a brigand, an unenthusiastic jihadist, a bodyguard for warlords minor and major, and disciple of a holy man in the high passes of Kafiristan. He also claims to have discovered Ozymandian ruins, fought off packs of wolves and served a drug-addled, parricidal Afghan chieftain.
Keay is upfront about the slender evidential frame upon which this tissue is stretched, and the contempt in which historians have held Gardner’s claims. (Two early 20thcentury editors who damned his notes as “fishy” and “humbug” were, Keay writes with forgivable partisanship, guilty of the sort of censure one might “expect from an officious railway clerk”.) Still, it is impossible not to be seduced by Gardner’s descriptions of the blisteringly romantic “high Pamirs”, country unseen by Western eyes since Marco Polo, or – in the case of Kafiristan – since the troops of Alexander the Great: “the region is so lofty and cold that you do not see any birds flying… because of this great cold, fire does not burn so brightly”.
On Gardner’s arrival in Lahore, politics – better documented but no less complex or extraordinary – replace travel. Loosely allied to the court faction of Gulab Singh, who would go on to become British-backed Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir, Gardner managed to survive the orgy of bloodletting that followed the death of Ranjit Singh, “Lion of the Punjab”, in 1839. The subsequent implosion of the Sikh Empire – described by one of Gardner’s editors as “unparalleled save in the darkest period of the downfall of Rome or in the early days of the French Revolution” – baffled even contemporaries in its complexity, but Keay makes the crucial details clear: the deaths by various means of three Maharajas and as many Vizirs in the space of half a decade.
Although George MacDonald Fraser set a character called “Alick Gardner” alongside his hero Harry Flashman at the heart of these dramatic events, where “treachery is so complete and unashamed that it becomes statesmanship”, Gardner’s actual importance in the late Sikh Empire is, again, a matter of doubt. More probably, he exaggerated it in his retirement to entertain the many British who visited him in Kashmir.
In one astonishing moment from his notes, he is behind the guns at the gates of Lahore’s fort as 300 “Akalis [fanatical Sikh ‘immortals’] swept up… and crowded into the gate. They were packed close as fish… rushing on us their swords high in the air… I managed to fire… and literally blew them into the air”. In another, he is within the court of the beautiful regent Maharani Jind Kaur, as the British threatened: “the Rani was shifting her petticoat. I could see she stepped out of it, and then… flung it over the screen… ‘Wear that you cowards! I’ll go in trousers and fight myself!’”
Keay’s fondness for his subject is infectious and it is difficult not to forgive his partisan revisionism. In truth, his enthusiastic research has uncovered little that would sway the stricter breed of academic historian – Gardner is still almost certainly not to be trusted – but Keay is at pains to point out that the true fantasist would not dare to invent a tale of this scope and hope to be believed: perhaps you really couldn’t make it up. Rudyard Kipling, who may well have based The
Man Who Would Be King on Gardner, wrote that “if history were taught in the form of stories it would never be forgotten”. Gardner’s story is as enjoyable as it is memorable.
Alexander Gardner portrayed by George Landseer in Kashmir, late 1860s