The players of the Great Game were shadowy; lonely figures with unkempt beards, lean, hard bodies and outlandish costumes. They were men possessed of indomitable will and mostly driven by some death-defying desire. Some passed into old age acclaimed as heroes, others were lost in remote regions of high Asia.

Of the many that met sorry ends without friend or loved one by their sides, the names of the veterinary doctor William Moorcroft of the East India Company and freelance explorer George Whitaker Hayward shine the brightest.

Both men had one thing in common: an uncanny sense of commitment to the task in hand. The one went searching for the best horses for his employer, the East India Company, and the other, Hayward, set out to explore the High Pamirs as entrusted by the Royal Geographical Society.

Hayward was murdered outside the village of Darkot (north of Yasin in Gilgit-Baltistan) on 18 July, 1870. From that remote corner of the world there emerged a deluge of rumours about the event. There were stories that belonged in the realm of 20th century Hollywood, cover-ups and outright fabrications.

From the muddy waters that churn the rumour mill, Tim Hannigan crafts a brilliant investigation of that killing a 140 years after it occurred. Murder in the Hindu Kush: George Hayward and the Great Game is a masterful piece of research, sleuthing and story-telling that makes Hayward’s lonely figure come alive. He is the heroic fool “driven by a death wish … [or] a man possessed, so consumed by his urge to reach his destination — the High Pamirs — that he became oblivious to the dangers”. Hayward is what most others, this writer included, see him as: “a remarkably dedicated professional explorer who died in the line of duty, always seeking to further geographical knowledge.”

Much has been written about the brutal murder, beginning immediately after it occurred. But it is Hannigan who puts the entire story together. From the unhappy childhood with the early death of both parents, through his brief military career in India, his giving up the commission to become a freelance explorer, Hannigan adds flesh to Hayward’s bones that rest under trees in a Gilgit cemetery. We see a man devoted to discovering the direct road from Peshawar to Yarkand which, in his estimation, lay through Chitral.

Hayward was every bit a superman who crossed, on foot, the world’s highest passes in record time.

In one marathon of 36 hours he covered 55 miles in arctic conditions. To top it, he was carrying out scientific work with sextant and compass. This survey north of the Karakoram watershed done in the winter of 1868-69 in the most ghastly weather conditions is the basis of our geographical knowledge of the region. It was this monumental twenty-day trek that revealed that the Karakoram and Kun Lun were two distinct ranges as opposed to one mass as hitherto believed.

The Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang) of Hayward’s age was a land of turmoil. Despot followed paranoid despot and when Hayward fetched up in Kashgar en route to the Pamirs, he was placed under house arrest. Earlier explorers in this very town were known to have come to grisly ends and if Hayward fretted going the same way, he did not leave behind any evidence. But he was denied onward journey to the Pamirs and was fortunate to be turned back for India the way he had come — by the ancient route to Ladakh.

Hannigan time and again points out that Hayward was a man possessed by an “insane desire” — the mapping of the Pamir region. And so we find him in the middle of yet another winter marathon. This time (1869-70) travelling from Srinagar to Skardu and thence by the Indus gorge to Gilgit. Having heard in Srinagar that the direct route from Gilgit to the Pamirs was by Yasin, Darkot and the pass of the latter name, Hayward headed that way.

Outside Yasin, around the ruined walls of the fort of Mudoori, Hayward was led by his host Mir Wali, the ruler of Yasin, to hundreds of human skeletons bleaching in the harsh high-altitude sun. This massacre of innocent Yasinis, women and children included, had been committed six years previously by an invading force of Dogras from Kashmir.

Hayward who had till then come across as a cold, detached individual suddenly appeared very human in his horror. He counted a 147 skulls and, grieving, returned to Kashmir to wait for the Darkot Pass to open. Here he wrote letters both to his patrons at the Royal Geographical Society in London and to the largely-read Calcutta newspaper, Pioneer.

The letter to the paper minced no words in castigating the maharaja of Kashmir. Within weeks of the publication of this correspondence, Hayward was uncannily heading back to Yasin to continue his journey across the now open pass. Seeing the mood of the Dogra soldiery in Gilgit, a lesser man would have panicked and given up his goal.

But, as Hannigan reminds us again, this was a man driven by that insane desire to “try the effects of cold steel across [his] throat.”

In Yasin, a new and strange wind now blew. And on the morning of 18 July, 1870, as he nodded off with fatigue after a long and lonely overnight vigil, Hayward’s murderers rushed into his tent to overpower him. Shortly afterwards, as the sun was topping the eastern crags, George Whitaker Hayward was beheaded.

Hannigan says that though there were other explorers “more dramatic, more distinct and more endearing than George Hayward… somehow none of them matched [his] sizzling intensity.” It is an astute and vivid portrait that Hannigan paints from masses of information in this long overdue biography.

A clever piece of investigation across the centuries, skilfully told, Murder in the Hindu Kush is a page-turner that even brings a tear or two to the eye. It brings Hayward back to life and endears him to the reader. And for the first time we know, almost definitely, who the killers may have been.

The reviewer is the author of the recently published travelogue, The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Murder in the Hindu Kush: George Hayward and the Great Game (TRAVEL/HISTORY) By Tim Hannigan The History Press, UK ISBN 978-0-7524-5886-1 254pp. £18.99

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