The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 21, 2002
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Empire’s most emblematic adventure
Manohar Malgonkar

TO try to reach the summit of Mount Everest was thought to be ‘the British Empire’s most emblematic adventure’. True, Mount Everest did not fall within the geographical boundaries of India. It was on the crest of a range that divided Nepal from Tibet, and thus may be said to have belonged, then as now, half to Nepal and half to Tibet. But both Nepal and Tibet were docile allies of the British who could be relied upon not to go against Britain’s interests.

So, while the Raj remained, Everest-climbing also remained a virtual British monopoly, demonstrably by the fact that the first five expeditions taken out to climb the mountain, were all British. The Sahibs could always bring pressure to bear on the Governments of Nepal or Tibet to disallow, or at least, by acts of non-cooperation and bureaucratic delays, to discourage, attempts by nationals of other countries. In the face of such tactics, the fact that an Austrian expedition had actually managed to get permission to climb the Nanga Parbat, in 1939, was something of a slip-up. But that expedition ended in a fiasco. While it was in the Himalayas, it was clear that war between the British and Germans was inevitable. So the members of the Nanga Parvat expedition ditched it all and ran helter-skelter to get out of India before the shooting started. At least two of them were nabbed and sent to the internment camp for Germans established near Dehra Dun. From here, both managed to escape a year or two later and lived in Tibet till the war ended. I met one of them years later and was able to enlist his services for an obscure military purpose.

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But that, as Rudyard Kipling often wrote, is another story. Back-on-track with Everest-climbing, it would seem that a diligent Bengali clerk in the government’s Survey Department, had found that a Himalayan peak marked down on his chart as ‘peak XV’ was at least a hundred feet higher than the others. His superior officials checked and re-checked his calculations and decided that he was right: the baboo had actually identified the highest spot on the face of the earth. In a fit of departmental pride combined with a touching loyalty to an erstwhile chief, Sir George Everest, they decided to change the name ‘Peak XV’ to "Mount Everest’. Not that ‘Peak XV’ was the real name by which the peak was locally known. It is called Chomolungma which means ‘Mother Goddess’ of ‘Lady Cow’.

This happened in 1849 at a time when the East India Company still governed India. It was not till nine years later, that Britain dispossessed the Company and began to rule India directly.

For the best part of the next 100 years, Britain remained the world’s paramount super-power, But in Asia it had a rival for supremacy: Czarist Russia. Russia, too, ruled over vast stretches of the continent, and was known to be keen to gobble up the rest of the continent. It was against Russia that ‘The Jewel in the crown’ had to be guarded. The fear of a Russian invasion dictated the empire’s military strategy. It was still there, that fear, fifty years later, when Rudyard Kipling gave voice to it in his poem: ‘A time of peril.’ "Russia," Kipling wrote, was "The Bear that walks like a man", and went on: "When he veils the hate and cunning of his little swinish eyes, (and seeks quarter) with paws like hands in prayer.... That is the time of peril."

In pursuit of this frontier policy, Britain even went to the length of sending a punitive military expedition into Tibet which had caused them no offence at all, and had a wonderful time killing off whatever rabble troops armed with sticks and stones that the Tibetans could put into the field. The ferocious little man who was put in charge of this aggression was utterly convinced that The Tibetans were not a fit people to be left to themselves between two great Empires."

The peak called ‘Lady Cow’ renamed ‘Everest’ found a place of honour among the Holy Cows of the sahibs: the subjugation of Tibet had, as it were, brought it within the empire’s confines. To go up that peak and plant the Union Jack on top of the highest point in the world became a goal instead of a dream.

Before, however, they could make plans for an Everest expedition, there was talk of a coming war against Germany, and right enough, the First World War broke out in 1914. But they didn’t lose much time after that war gave over. The first British expedition to ‘conquer’ Everest was launched in 1921.

Fortyfive years later, in 1966, one of the members of that expedition, John Morris, then past seventy, was my houseguest for a couple of weeks. By then Morris was a well-known travel writer and something of a heavyweight in literary circles because he had been the Controller of the BBC’s Third Programme’. John’s first hand account of this expedition revealed how schoolboyishly amateurish and classbound that enterprise had been.

Morris’s own credentials were suspect. He was neither a sportsman nor an athlete, and wore thick glasses. Oh, yes, he had "seen the Alps as a boy," and had also served in a military campaign in the high hills of the Afghan border. He himself saw his role as "a general helper and transport officer." Not a climber. The fact is that he loathed discipline, uniforms, military routine, and had been busy pulling string to get himself an extra-curricular posting. Now he had hit the bull’s eye. He was an officer of the Gurkha Brigade, and therefore of the right caste, in the eyes of the man who was to lead the expedition: Brigadier Stanley Bruce, who commanded the Brigade and had now retired. Too old for Military service, at 57, he was too old for Everest-climbing. He of course, spoke Gurkhali ‘Like a Native’, which was his special asset.

The doctor who was to go with them, Tom Longstaff, was familiar with the lower Himalayas but, as he made it clear to the others at the outset: "Even though he had a medical degree, he had never practised medicine in his life."

But then three other members were professional climbers. Colonel E.L. Strutt, Deputy to Bruce, he was a regular Alpine climber, as were two others, George Mallory and — a strange cuckoo in this nest of deep-dyed koi-hais G.I. Finch.

Strutt was 47 and was not expected to participate in the final assault. The other two were. Of them, Mallory, who was a schoolmaster at one of Britain’s famous public schools, qualified as a true-blue sahib. But who was this Finch? He had no Indian background at all, and when it became known that he was a professional scientist, he began to be thought of as a real cad: gentlemen just don’t do that sort of thing! when one morning, Strutt saw a photograph of Finch in the newspaper, showing him repairing his own boots, he pronounced: "There! I always knew the man was a shit!"

And yet this team of oddballs and shits did manage to touch the high points of Everest-climbing in future years. In 1933, George Mallory, then aged 47, lost his life within a few hundred yards of the summit, and no one to this day knows whether he died on the way up, or way down — having reached the peak. And in 1953, 32 years later, one of the members of the expedition did actually climb Mount Everest. In 1921, he was a teenager, recruited in Nepal to act as a personal servant to John Morris. In 1966, before he came to stay with me, Morris had gone to Darjeeling to meet his one-time valet who had since become world-famous Tensing Norkay.


This feature was published on June 23, 2002