Reviewed by Salman Rashid
Five years before he rose to be the viceroy of India in 1899, George Nathaniel Curzon undertook a daring and perhaps even perilous journey through the Karakoram-Hindu Kush region. At that time he was a member of parliament and clearly on his way to the highest office in India.
The purpose of his journey of late 1894, he informs the reader, (pompously, it must be noted), was to see firsthand the Indian borderland between the Karakoram Range and Chitral, bordering on Badakhshan. This was the land through which many conquerors over the ages had entered the subcontinent, he writes. While this may not have been exactly true for the past, in Curzon’s time Czarist Russia was vying with Victorian Britain in the Great Game of imperial ascendancy. The region of Curzon’s concern was a flashpoint with plenty of cloak and dagger activity afoot. With his eye on the viceregal office, Curzon looked upon this dramatic journey as the foundation on which he would base his frontier policies in the future.
Even as Curzon was working on the draft of On the Indian Frontier, the British government proscribed the publication of the book. The grounds given were somewhat flimsy, that a person could not write about a territory he was on his way to govern. And so, the manuscript remained cloistered in the archives, accessible only to serious researchers — and that too, after the author’s death.
The book begins rather lightly with the first two chapters reading almost like a tourist guide as Curzon makes his way up through Kashmir to Gilgit. From there he proceeds to the Pamir region and the narrative takes on a more sombre, serious tone. Here is the future maker of frontier policies travelling across a country that will feature highly in the scheme of things. Curzon manages to glean that first-hand knowledge he had set out for.
From behind the screen of pomposity, there peeks a man of sharp observation and a keen sense of wonder. Curzon comments on everything, from modes of dress and living to castles, polo, the demeanour of the locals and, of course, the landscape. Where he is enthralled by the sight of high snowy peaks like Rakaposhi, he funks at the horrifying rope bridges that exist to this day across foaming rivers. Just four years before his visit to Hunza, the British Indian army had ousted Mir Safdar Ali, the king of that mountain state, and brought an end to the plundering raids that originated under his patronage. Curzon’s indignation at that mischief goes into overdrive as he waxes eloquent on the effectiveness of the surgical strike executed by the army.
The brevity of the narrative leaves one with the impression that Curzon may have wanted to expand further on the contents of the diaries he kept during the journey. But his disappointment at the freeze placed on the publication of the book and the subsequent passage of time developed a distance he could not overcome when he finally finished the manuscript. Indeed, as the pages slip by, one wishes that Curzon could have delved deeper into certain subjects.
The various episodes of the Great Game in the Pamirs and the hide and seek between Francis Younghusband and his Russian counterparts Grombchevski and Yonoff having occurred barely a decade before his time, receive detailed notice by Curzon. In the spirit of the true servant of the government, he maintains that Britain had no designs on any territory north of the Hindu Kush watershed. But 30 years before he undertook his journey, the Indian government was as interested in territories north of the Great Asiatic Divide as they could ever have been. Their agents were busily endangering — and sometimes losing — their lives in Bokhara, Kashgar and Yarkand in their attempts to wean local chieftains away from Russian influence.
Since Curzon was an observer of much of the final tussles of the Great Game, he does give away a good deal. It was perhaps these little secrets tucked away in the pages of this book that gave the British government jitters about their policies becoming public knowledge in the event of publication. Curzon was explicit about the British fear (what of the stiff upper lip?) of the Russians using Wakhan as a launching pad. Meanwhile, the Russians were equally terrified of the British Indian army galloping down the slopes of the Broghal and Khora Bhort passes into Wakhan. It was this mutual distrust that led to the Russo-British agreement on Wakhan in 1895, turning this mountainous strip into a sort of no man’s land in Afghanistan’s hands.
Having said that Curzon did not expand on his diaries when he finalised the manuscript, it has to be conceded that the chapters “The Pamir Question” and “Chitral” were clearly added later. The former relates to important events that shaped the borders of the country — events that occurred immediately before and after his visit. The latter concerns events that began two months after Curzon’s visit. This was when Nizamul Mulk, the chief of Chitral, was shot and killed by a brother and the Pathans marched in from the south to besiege a small British force in the fort of Chitral.
Surely, there must have been some noticeable undercurrents so shortly before such a major upheaval. But Curzon, despite his acumen, clearly missed them. It makes one wonder if the man was incapable of fathoming Indian emotions. One thing that is clear, however, is that Curzon’s journey came so late in the chronology of the Great Game that before his first hand knowledge of the region could help him make crucial influences, the Game died on the world.
In 1898, when publication was forbidden, On the Indian Frontier would have had a great tale to tell. But more than a hundred years later it is a re-read of the history of the Great Game. Nevertheless, it gives an interesting insight into the personality that said, “My name is George Nathaniel Curzon; I am a most extraordinary person”. It is also a revisit of the British government’s frontier policy as it evolved in the late 19th century.
There is one nit to be picked in the end, though, about the book’s editing. The editor gets certain names wrong. Grombchevski becomes Grombcherski; Lawrence is Laurence; Darkot (where George Hayward was murdered) turns into Daskot and Ishkashim into unpronounceable Tshkashim. These, to name only a few, are important persons and places in Curzon’s narrative.
The reviewer is a travel writer. His latest book is Apricot Road to Yarkand
By Lord Curzon of Kedleston
Edited by Dhara Anjaria
Oxford University Press, Karachi