The history of the Great Game, writes Tim Hannigan, offers a fine stock of ripping yarns.
At the start of the 19th century some 2,000 miles of turbulent Central Asian territory – deserts, mountains and unstable Muslim khanates – separated Britain’s Indian territories from the edge of the Russian Empire; a hundred years later these same frontiers were just a few miles apart. The “Great Game” was the cold war of exploration and espionage, fought out in the ever-contracting space between.
Every foreigner who stepped into Central Asia during this period was playing the Great Game, whether he wanted to or not. There was no such thing as an apolitical expedition, and men who went to survey mountains and map passes found that the charts they drew were handled like dynamite by politicians in Calcutta, London and St Petersburg. There was derring-do, endurance, betrayal, triumph and tragedy. This is the stuff that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s tales, Kim and The Man Who Would Be King
The players of the Great Game were a motley crew of spies, soldiers and charlatans, running the gamut from bristling imperial archetypes to unhinged Anglican missionaries, and over the subsequent decades many of their tales have been told in books by authors such as Fitzroy MacLean, John Keay and Peter Hopkirk.
But there was one Great Gamer who always seemed to stand a little apart from the crowd, a gaunt and ill-omened young man by the name of George Hayward.
It had always struck me as odd that no one had bothered to tell Hayward’s strange, sad tale in detail or in full. It seemed to contain all of the requisite Boys’ Own drama. A shadowy young man from modest origins in the Yorkshire city of Leeds, in the late 1860s Hayward made some of the most audacious mountain journeys of all time, crossing the Karakoram in winter without a tent, suffering imprisonment in the desert outposts of Eastern Turkestan, traversing the Indus Gorge at the worst time of year, and wading alone through chest-deep snowdrifts on the fringes of Kashmir. He had been sponsored by the august Royal Geographical Society to map the unexplored Pamir Mountains, the upland knot at the locked heart of Central Asia, but it was his brutal and unexplained murder in the remote Yasin Valley in the spring of 1870 that made him a legend.
It seemed like the perfect story – an adventure with the added aspects of a tantalising murder-mystery.
But when I began to examine the story in detail myself, studying Hayward’s own original letters and journals – after a decade of low-level interest as I explored the region in which he travelled for myself – I found that there was much more to him than that. His character, his actions, and his strange motivations cut instantly through the swamping layers of Victoriana. There was no bristling moustache and stiff upper lip here – the man was a rebel, a renegade, a misfit and an outsider. Many of his contemporary players of the Great Game were as comfortable amongst the brandy glasses and armchairs of club-land as they were on the high passes. George Hayward, however, was the least clubbable Victorian imaginable. To me he resembled the ill-fated American hitchhiker Chris McCandless, immortalised in Jon Krakauer’s book (and the subsequent film) Into the Wild, more than he did his 19th century counterparts.
And it was this fiery intensity and instability which forged the link to the most important and unique aspect of the story. Hayward became emotionally involved in the dirty little wars fought by the troops of the British ally the Maharaja of Kashmir on the western fringes of his realm. Here the Maharaja’s brutal expansionism intersected with the political aims of the British Raj – the rulers of which were eager to gain more control over the mountains of Central Asia before the Russians reached them from the opposite direction. But no Englishman had ever visited the region of the Kashmiri frontier around Gilgit (in what is now northern Pakistan) until Hayward arrived. (Above, author, Tim Hannigan, at George Hayward’s grave in the Pakistani mountain town of Gilgit. Click on image for detail).
When he discovered what the Maharaja’s troops had been doing (indirectly in the name of the British government), of the massacres and mayhem brought down by the occupying forces of the inhabitants of remote mountains valleys, it ignited a furious passion. In publically championing the cause of poor Muslim villagers, deep in the Hindu Kush Mountains, Hayward enraged the Maharaja of Kashmir, infuriated the British authorities, and perhaps caused his own murder. It was all thoroughly un-Victorian behaviour, but it allowed me to bring to the fore the story of the impact that all those Kiplingesque shenanigans by hardy white men with sturdy boots and collapsible camp furniture had on the local people of the mountains – and of how those impacts tumble on domino-like to the present day.
Previous accounts of the Great Game have focussed strictly on the grand narrative and on adventures in the high passes, leaving “the natives” as little more than exotic – and usually threatening – local colour. Hayward’s tale cuts through all of that. His concern for the people of the mountains around Gilgit, his rejection of colonial pragmatism, and his refusal to see that egregious entity, “the bigger picture”, connects his story directly and authentically to the modern traumas of Kashmir, northwest China and northern Pakistan. My decade of travel in the region, and the four months I spent following directly in Hayward’s footsteps through Kashmir, Ladakh, Xinjiang and Pakistan allowed me to bring forward small voices from the region, and to show how a direct line runs between the modern turmoil and the actions and expediencies of the Great Game. This is the Great Game in the context of the modern era, and the modern era in the context of the Great Game.
When a Kashmiri youth, met on a summer’s day, tells me that both India and Pakistan treat his people “like dogs”, when Ladakhis complain that their own political aspirations will never be heard, when a Uighur girl with amber eyes whispers sadly of “my people” and what “they” have done to them in Chinese Xinjiang, and when angry men from Hunza, Yasin and Gilgit tell me that after half-a-century of commitment to Pakistan their patience is wearing thin, George Hayward’s story seems all the more relevant….
Tim Hannigan’s next book, Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, is due out from Monsoon Books in November 2012. For more information see http://rafflesandjava.com.
Meanwhile, read Tim’s account on the dangers of writing traditional biographies.