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The fantastic adventures of the tartan-turbaned colonel

Once dismissed as an exotic fraud, Alexander Gardner was indeed the dare-devil Himalayan explorer he claimed to be

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner John Keay

Kashi House, pp.324, £25

In the 1860s, when British visitors first began to explore the high altitude pleasures of Kashmir, it was not just the beauties of the valley and the cool, pellucid waters of the Dal Lake which took their breath away. Living there was a legendary relic of an earlier age, who quickly became an object of pilgrimage for the curious sahibs puffing away at their cheroots on the sundecks of the houseboats.

Alexander Gardner was, in the words of his latest biographer, John Keay, ‘a beturbaned colonel of uncertain nationality with a chequered past and a hole in the throat’. This throat wound was a dramatic souvenir of his days as the last of the western freelancers and renegades who had fought for the Indian princes in the days before the Raj seized south Asia, and regulated colonialism replaced the anarchy of the disintegrating Mughal empire.


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Gardner certainly looked the part. One observer described him as sporting a ‘fine white beard’ and wearing a ‘turban, a wonderful Byronic shirt and brown dressing gown with brass buttons and a great red sash’. More usually, however, his sartorial choices paid homage to his Scottish ancestry, though he claimed also to have Spanish and even Aztec blood. One visitor commented on his ‘most peculiar and striking appearance…’ clothed from head to foot in the 79th tartan, but fashioned by a native tailor in a garment of his own invention.

Even his pagri [turban] was of tartan, and it was adorned with the egret’s plume, only allowed to persons of high rank. He lived entirely in the native fashion, was said to be wealthy, and the owner of many villages.

In the celebrated 1860 photograph of him by Samuel Bourne, Gardner wears a sort of tartan trapping-jacket-cum-shalwar-kameez, a garment in which the sartorial habits of Wisconsin or Inverness crossed with those of Peshawar or Kabul. It was perhaps the only possible garb for a man who claimed to have been born on the shores of Lake Superior, and who said he spent his teenage years between Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland; but who lived out his adulthood fighting first in Afghanistan, then for Ranjit Singh’s Sikhs in the valleys of Kashmir and Peshawar and the plains of the Punjab.


Once dismissed as an exotic fraud, Alexander Gardner was indeed the dare-devil Himalayan explorer he claimed to beIf much remained mysterious about Gardner, this was at least partly due to the difficulty in communicating with him. This visitors attributed

variously to his lack of teeth, his liking for alcohol, his considerable age or the sing-song lilt of his rusty English; it could equally have been caused by the gash in his throat which was the most obvious of his many wounds and which obliged him to clamp a pair of forceps to his neck whenever he ate or drank.

But once what Keay calls his ‘incomprehensible utterances’ were decoded, Gardner’s stories proved even more remarkable than his dress sense. In a three decade-long career of ‘high plains drifting and Himalayan scrabbling’ between what is now Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Xinjiang and Tibet, he had ‘survived arrest in Khiva, fled retribution in Samarkhand, repeatedly forded the Oxus River and… married an Afghan princess’, before being ‘quickly widowed…. Twice he penetrated the explorer’s Holy Grail of remotest Kafirstan and twice re-emerged to tell of it.’ No other Himalayan explorer at that point had seen even a fraction of what Gardner appeared to have done.

But it was not just that he had travelled widely. He made no bones about the fact that at low points in his travels he had spent many months in and out of jails, and to survive had become an outlaw and a mercenary, taking ‘unseemly pride in parading around sundry decapitated heads’. He also briefly became a slave-trader, robbing his enemies and selling them into captivity in the terrible Uzbek slave marts. One observer described the ‘diabolical contrivance’ by which these Uzbeks literally sewed their captives to their saddles:

To oblige the prisoner to keep up, a strand of horsehair is passed by means of a long crooked needle, under and around the collar bone; with the hair a loop is formed to which they attach a rope that may be fastened to the saddle. The captive is constrained to keep near the retreating horseman, and with his hands tied behind his person, is altogether helpless.

Like some damaged, psychotic drifter from a Cormac McCarthy novel, Gardner was certainly no angel.

And this was only the first half of his career. At that point in life when most men begin to look for the ease of retirement, Gardner took service as a colonel of artillery in the last of the great Indian empires, that of the Sikh maharajah, Ranjit Singh. Here he fought against the Afghan emir Dost Mohammad and went on to play an often pivotal role in the Sikh civil war which followed Ranjit’s death. As the Sikh empire disintegrated into what Keay calls ‘a vortex of recrimination and chaos… three maharajahs were assassinated in quick succession and three viziers murdered just as rapidly’. Gardner was often a witness to, and usually a participant in, much of this violence.

In his final Kashmiri retirement, he became an object of veneration for a younger generation of explorers, who sought his guidance before heading off on their own expeditions into the Himalayas. But there were always a few who remained sceptical. Gardner’s notes of his youthful journeys were brief, cryptic and often written up many years after the events they described. Keay writes that ‘connected stories were as alien to the colonel as pithy prose’; and that his travel diaries were notable for their

erratic punctuation, parenthetic embellishments and an extraordinary way with adjectives. Some sentences run into one another, others expire mid-utterance. Sparks of eloquence and embers of the colonel’s schooling may be detected, but they lie smothered in verbiage.

Gardner’s fondness for self-mythologising did not lend credibility either.

But a few found more serious problems with his accounts. So erratic were Gardner’s notes of his crossing of the Pamirs that the great 19th-century authority on Marco Polo, Sir Henry Yule, concluded that ‘geography, like Divinity, has its Apocrypha’ and felt obliged to ‘include under this head the diary of Colonel Gardner’. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, and some 20 years after the death of the colonel, two historians went further. After finding a reference in the archives of Ranjit Singh where Gardner, seeking employment with the Sikh maharajah, claimed to be a deserter from a British warship, Charles Grey and Herbert Garrett, Keepers of Records for the Punjab, declared Gardner to be a fake, an Irish deserter from the forces of the East India Company who had made up his nationality, his background and most of his travels. Gardner, they concluded, was nothing more than ‘a prize liar who passed off other men’s adventures as his own’.

So extensive and devastating was the critique of Garrett and Grey that Gardner has ever since been dismissed as an exotic fraud. Despite his claims to have been the first western explorer of much of the western Himalayas, he was, for example, completely ignored in the 1991 Royal Geographical Society’s History of World Exploration. The editor of that volume was none other than John Keay, and The Tartan Turban is in many ways an act of contrition for the omission.

For subsequent research has brought out of the archives many more of Gardner’s travel diaries and other documents which completely vindicate claims once considered too extraordinary to be credible. There are certainly passages in the diaries as erratic as anything else Gardner produced; but there are others which prove beyond all reasonable doubt the authenticity of many of his claims: the place names and routes he followed were completely unknown at the time and, as one subsequent traveller has pointed out, ‘had Gardner not travelled over a great part of the ground he professes to describe… he could not have known even the names of the places and tribes’. Though far from the Victorian ideal of the detached scholar-explorer who took scientific readings throughout his travels, Gardner is now shown to be a crucial, if erratic and sometimes criminal, pioneer of Himalayan exploration.

Keay has been writing about Himalayan history for almost as long as Gardner spent on his adventures, but The Tartan Turban is one of the most enjoyable of all his many marvellous books on south and central Asia. Mysteries remain: Keay admits he is still uncertain where Gardner was born, or how he really made his way to Central Asia. But The Tartan Turban nonetheless brings back from the dead and largely vindicates the reputation of one of the most extraordinary, eccentric and remarkable figures in the history of travel and exploration. Minutely researched, wittily written and beautifully produced, it is one of John Keay’s most memorable achievements.

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