‘I fired… and lit­er­ally blew them into the air’

Robert Eus­tace is tick­led by the fan­tas­ti­cal life of a mys­te­ri­ous ad­ven­turer in In­dia

The Sunday Telegraph - - BOOKS -

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

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