Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

The Horse Doctor

It rained, rained, rained, and then rained and rained some more. The drops hammered the leaking roof of the verandah, creeping like capillaries into the cracks in the plaster opened by a recent earthquake, forming rivulets in the rafters that had been tunneled by tireless armies of white ants. Pacing on the verandah, figuratively if not literally pulling his hair, was a middle-aged Englishman who in 1808 had left a wife and friends in London, abandoned a lucrative veterinary practice, and sailed halfway around the world--and for what? To suffer the seemingly endless Indian monsoon? To dwell in a half-rotted house whose sinking floors trembled with each step? To live in the dreadful remoteness of Pusa, a riverside village 300 inland miles from Calcutta?

    The nearest big city was Patna, which nowadays is the capital of Bihar, India's most backward and violent state, notorious for its incorrigible corruption and its bandits known as dacoits . Even Bihar's mitigating blessing--the exceptional fertility of its soil--has also been a curse, entrenching a class of oppressive feudal landlords, called zamindars . Add to this extremes of heat and cold and a history of famines, recurrent floods, and frequent earthquakes. "Welcome to hell," was how a newspaper editor in Patna greeted an English visitor in the 1980's.

    Pusa may not have been hell for William Moorcroft, the new Superintendent of the Stud at Pusa, but in the first months after his arrival it seemed a back-country purgatory. There he was, responsible for improving the blood stock of the East India Company's cavalry mounts, which he was supposed to do overnight. But the fine breeding stock he had been promised proved to be utterly unfit nags, many weakened by disease, in part because their forage consisted of decomposing weeds grown in shallow, pestilential marshes. At every point, it seemed, he collided with incompetence, corruption, and outright thievery. The best stallions were stolen for sale at fairs--all of which was the harder to remedy given his ignorance of the customs and language of a watchful staff of 1,200 souls on the Pusa estate.

    Small wonder he restlessly weighed possibilities of a furlough. Yet his employment had been noted in this obscure entry dated March 8, 1807, in the London personnel files of the East India Company. It specified that in consideration of the "excellent proof of his preeminent talents," Moorcroft had been employed at the munificent salary of 30,000 rupees per annum on the understanding that "his whole attention is to be devoted to the line of service to which we have assigned him."

    Seldom in the Company's history was such an undertaking so splendidly and imaginatively flouted.

A horse doctor by training, known for his enthusiasm and quickness of wit, William Moorcroft sprang from England's common grass. He was forty-one years old when he arrived in India to restart his life in 1808 as the Superintendent of the Stud responsible for breeding faster and sturdier cavalry mounts. In his own person, however, Moorcroft had no use for saddles and bridles. On the slimmest authority, he wound up leading a miniature army into Central Asia, parleying with princes and kings, opening the way for a new breed of self-made explorers, and becoming one of the first recruits in a covert army burrowing in the interstices of three empires. That his achievements are finally known owes much to his diligent biographer, Garry Alder, whose Beyond Bokhara (1985) is the essential quarry for all who write about Moorcroft.

    In making his way upward through pluck and determination, Moorcroft mirrored an age of democratic upheaval. He was born in 1767 in the market town of Ormskirk in Lancashire, the natural son of Ann Moorcroft, the daughter of a local farmer. His family had sufficient means to secure his apprenticeship with a Liverpool surgeon, under whose tutelage he acquired skills that were to give him the aura of a demigod in Asia. Young William's career took a fresh turn when an unknown disease decimated cattle herds in Lancashire, and he was recruited to treat stricken animals. So impressed were county landowners by his proficiency that they offered to underwrite his education if he abandoned surgery to attend a veterinary college in Lyons at a time when no such schools existed in Britain. He arrived in France early in the revolutionary year of 1789, excelled in his courses, and became the first Englishman to qualify professionally as a veterinarian. Resettling in London, he established a "Hospital for Horses" on Oxford Street, built a flourishing practice, helped found the first British veterinary college, proposed new surgical methods for curing lameness in horses, and acquired four patents on machines to manufacture horseshoes. His affinity for horses was such that Moorcroft remembered every one he encountered as if the creature were a person, or so his friends said.

    In 1803, Moorcroft's skills came to military notice when a citizen army was mobilized to defend Britain against a threatened Napoleonic invasion. He joined the Westminster Volunteer Cavalry and took part in frequent parades, donning a dazzling dress uniform: a dark-blue greatcoat with scarlet edgings over a blue jacket trimmed with gold, white leather breeches, black boots, white gloves, all crowned with a dragoon's helmet and bearskin crest. Certified as a master horseman and named to the regimental general committee, Moorcroft helped plan brigade exercises and state funerals, including Lord Nelson's in January 1806. He was thus initiated into the bonding rites of the regimental mess, where plebeians informally mingled with patricians. Among his new friends was Edward Parry, a director of the East India Company, who persuaded his colleagues that he had found the long-sought paragon to manage the Company stud in up-country Bengal. To ensure his acceptance, Moorcroft was offered a tax-free salary of 30,000 rupees, then equivalent to £3,000 a year, a compensation exceeded in India only by the Governor-General, the Commander-in-Chief, and a handful of others. Alas for Moorcroft, this became too well known among his envious, and ultimately vengeful, bureaucratic superiors.

    It took six months to sail around Africa and through the Bay of Bengal to Calcutta, the seat of British rule. The city itself was already among the marvels of Asia: a shimmering facsimile of Europe rising above a forest of sailing masts on the banks of the river Hooghly. Known as the City of Palaces, Calcutta reflected the tastes and wealth of nabobs homesick for the London of Wren and Hawksmoor. A Town Hall with doric columns was being built on the Strand Road, near a Church of St. John's, inspired by St. Martin's-in-the-Field on Trafalgar Square. Government House was a copy in brick of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, a compliment that Lord Curzon of Kedleston was pleased to recall when he occupied its premises a century later. Less attractive to arriving Europeans were the drenching monsoon rains, the oppressive heat, the stench of sewage, and the peril of disease. But these discomforts hardly mattered to the excited newcomers, known locally as "griffins," who disembarked at the clamorous Calcutta docks, infused with visions of gain and glory. William Moorcroft, like his fellow passengers, knew for sure he was not in Ormskirk anymore when he was borne from the docks in a palanquin, a boxed chair rushed through the clogged streets of Calcutta by four shouting bearers.

* * *

The India that Moorcroft knew was odder than we imagine; indeed no theme park could capture its peculiarities. What had been a British trading settlement only a century earlier had ballooned by 1808 into a colony whose size and population were already several times greater than Great Britain's. Growth came through conquest and cunning under a procession of audacious commanders, of whom Robert Clive and Richard Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington's older brother, are distantly remembered today. Yet all this happened under the authority of a mercantile enterprise, the Honorable East India Company, known familiarly as John Company, or simply "the Company."

    Chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, the Company was authorized by successive British Governments to make wars, administer justice, issue currency, and exercise--through its Governors in Calcutta, and its Court of Directors in London--virtual sovereignty over India. By chance rather than design, it evolved into a grandiose experiment in privatization. As the Company's powers grew, so did uncertainty about its primary mission. Its directors were obliged to promote British commerce and the interests of its shareholders.

    Yet what did the Company owe to its millions of Indian subjects, or to its princely vassals, whose numerous realms formed an exotic quilt on the map? As difficult to calibrate was the Company's external obligation to British strategic interests during a century of global conflict with France. Eventually, to assure greater accountability, Parliament in 1793 established a Board of Control with the authority to endorse or to dictate the orders issued by the Company. Thereafter it became the practice for the Crown to approve a Governor-General, who invariably was a home-grown aristocrat rather than a Company man. Thus, over the decades, the Company evolved into a baffling hybrid, something less than an independent entity, but far more puissant than any government ministry. The arrangement was, Lord Macaulay famously remarked, "the strangest of all governments, designed for the strangest of all empires."

    On one matter, Company and Government were of a single mind. Immobility impeded security. All-weather roads were virtually unknown in India in 1807. Until the ancient Grand Trunk Road was improved and metaled in the 1850's, the river Ganges was the main artery joining the Company's isolated outposts. It took three months on horseback to get from Calcutta to the frontier. Hence the need for cavalry brigades capable of rapid deployment. Cavalry officers, always European, recruited high-caste Indians to regiments known for their splendid dress uniforms, their mystique, and celebrated names, like Skinner's Horse, the senior regiment, which disported in canary-yellow kirtas , or jackets, the only unit permitted that color. Cohesion and pride of blood set cavalry officers and sowars , the native horsemen, apart, not always to the liking of the infantry officers, and sepoys , the native foot soldiers. Byron Farwell, a chronicler of colonial wars, relates that a fusilier subaltern named his cat "Indian Cavalry," since the creature did little but eat, sleep, play games, and fornicate.

    Even so, by the early 1800's, the Company concluded that it needed far more than eight cavalry regiments, that its mounts were insufficiently sturdy, and that the Army major in charge of its stud was overaged and underqualified. Such were the circumstances that led to Moorcroft's passage eastward.

* * *

Once settled in Pusa, the new Superintendent found himself the nominal overlord of a lushly fertile 5,000-acre estate. He also discovered that his predecessor, the Indian Army major, had gullibly relied on local landowners, the zamindars , to provide him with their best horses. Too often, undersized mares were bred with zamindari stallions, the best colts kept back, and studbooks falsified. Everywhere he looked, he found depressing signs of laxness, neglect, and ignorance.

    Nevertheless, his gloom dispelled and his characteristic optimism restored, Moorcroft instituted necessary reforms, took brisk charge of his staff, and weeded out manifestly deficient horses. Most productive were his experiments with the oat seed he had brought from England. Ignoring the conventional belief that the crop would not grow in tropical soil, Moorcroft became the first to cultivate oats on a large scale in India, and he set aside 3,000 acres at Pusa for the health-giving crop. Yet each reform required streams of letters and reports, as well as extended discussions with suspicious inspectors from Calcutta, always impatient at the slowness and cost of progress. But nobody doubted Moorcroft's dedication and knowledge of horses, so that when he proposed a tour of horse fairs and outstanding Indian studs, his managing board in Calcutta promptly granted approval.

    Moorcroft's first journey, covering 1,500 miles in eight months, began in January 1811 and took him to the limits of the territories under control of the East India Company. But Calcutta's writ still extended unevenly through the northern plains encompassing Benares, Lucknow, and Delhi. This was formerly the heartland of the Mughal Empire, whose disintegration in the eighteenth century opened the way to British dominion. It is worth pausing to consider this interesting empire, whose methods of control anticipated and influenced the British Raj.

    Like the English, the Mughals were foreign invaders, formidable in battle and skilled as administrators. They carried their culture and Islamic faith into India from Central Asia by way of Persia and Afghanistan. Babur, who conquered Delhi in 1526, claimed direct descent from Tamurlane and Genghis Khan. For nearly two centuries, their descendants, known as the Timurids, kept the peace in central and northern India. The Mughals promoted an imperial lingua franca, Urdu--Hindustani in grammar, Persian in script--which served as the medium of the educated, much like Latin in medieval Europe. Mughal public works--palaces, forts, mosques, gardens, and mausoleums like the Taj Mahal--remain unrivaled. But most of the laborers and craftsmen who did the work, like most of the empire's subjects, were Hindu. Rather than convert by the sword, successive rulers evolved a pragmatic modus vivendi. Hindu princes could keep their thrones and titles, and enjoy limited independence, if they collected taxes and raised armies for their Muslim overlords. The earlier emperors named Hindus to great offices of state and did not molest their temples and festivals, though the Mughals expressly favored Islam and forbade construction of new temples. This compromise was unsettled in the eighteenth century, initially by onerous tax increases and then by the zealous Emperor Aurangzeb, a centralizer who strove to affirm the Islamic character of the state. Waves of princely revolts followed against his heirs, bringing the chaotic disorder that gave the arriving British their opening.

    In swift and expeditious strokes, the British harassed and evicted their European rivals, recruited and trained native armies, bribed and corrupted vacillating princes, allied themselves with, or made war against, shifting coalitions of the Maratha Confederacy, whose rulers were Hindus. They simultaneously placated or subdued the emerging Sikh kingdom in the Punjab, the warlike Gurkhas in Hindu Nepal, and the Muslim nawabs in the remnants of the Mughal Empire. The British absorbed not only Mughal territory but Mughal practices. They promoted the use of English, and recruited Indians into the lower and middle administrative ranks. For the most part and with important exceptions, the British did not interfere with India's various religions. Things being equal, the British were content to work through existing rulers of conquered states, permitting a circumscribed autonomy so long as there was no doubt who was really in charge. To ensure compliance, a British official with the title of Resident was posted at each princely court. Until 1857, the British even maintained a Mughal emperor on a stage-set throne in Delhi, the former Mughal capital. So useful was the so-called subsidiary alliance system that in 1947, the year of independence, some 600 so-called native states accounted for half the territory and a fourth of the people in British India.

    The system had its British critics from the beginning, and their dissent, together with the rise of a dedicated civil service, helped mitigate its evils. The evils were succinctly noted by a British observer in the 1850's:

The native Prince, being guaranteed in the possession of his dominions but deprived of so many of the essential attributes of sovereignty, sinks in his own esteem, and loses that stimulus to good government which is supplied by the fear of rebellion and deposition. He becomes a roi fainéant , a sensualist, an extortionist miser or a careless and lax ruler ... Thus, in spite of the Resident's counsels and attempts to secure good government, the back of the State, so to speak, is broken; the spirit of indigenous political life has departed: the native community tends to dissolution; and annexation is eventually the inevitable remedy.

    This passage, by the Oxford scholar Sidney Owen, exactly described Oudh, to whose capital, Lucknow, Moorcroft was proceeding.

* * *

Oudh was reputedly the fleshpot of India, and opulent Lucknow a byword for extravagance, foppery, and corruption. Yet Oudh, which properly rhymes with proud rather than rude, was also something better and brighter. In a final flowering of Mughal culture, Oudh became deservedly famous in India for the dress and sophistication of its people, who excelled at Urdu poetry, the culinary arts, kite- and pigeon-flying, music, theater, and calligraphy. Lucknow's builders inimitably mingled Western and Mughal styles, spawning turban-domed structures that are the unacknowledged models for the bijoued picture palaces on a thousand American Main Streets.

    We have a later pen-portrait of Lucknow by a young British woman, Honoria Lawrence, who was struck by the city's resemblance to Moscow or Constantinople: "Gilded domes, surmounted by the crescent--tall, slender pillars, lofty colonnades, half-grecian looking houses of several stories high with pillars, verandas and windows, iron railings and balustrades" all mixed up with "cages of wild beasts and brilliant birds, gardens, fountains and cypress trees." Honoria, whose husband Sir Henry Lawrence was to be the hero-martyr of the siege of Lucknow in the Great Mutiny, found it a "bewildering mixture of Europe and Asia" that altogether "comes nearer to anything I have seen to realise my early ideas of the Arabian Nights."

    One can imagine Moorcroft's own wonderment as he headed on horseback into this city of gilded spires and minarets, preceded by his sepoy escort and followed by carts laden with telescopes, watches, and other trading goods, to the Muslim Nawab's palace. He was greeted by the Nawab, Sadat Ali Khan, whom the British had installed on the throne in 1798 to replace an unstable and profligate predecessor. Sadat Ali was to be the last of Oudh's rulers with any sense and independence. An exile in Calcutta while the predecessor chosen by his brother reigned, he acquired Western ways and fluency in English. With eloquent dignity, he protested bullying humiliations by successive Governor-Generals, who stripped his kingdom of half its territory. He kept his treasury solvent, curbed the rapacity of landowners, and if faulted by some as penurious, this was only by comparison with his predecessors. The Nawab's army of courtiers, even in hard times, was borne seasonally from palace to palace by 700 elephants, 1,500 horses, and a procession of gilded carriages two stories high. Now near the end of his reign, graying and overweight, Sadat Ali continued to favor European dress, including an admiral's braids, scarlet hunting finery, and wigs of every shape.

    Moorcroft, on being introduced by the British Resident, was guest of honor at a state banquet almost certainly followed by the customary elephant battles, fireworks, and dancing girls. These went prudently unmentioned in Moorcroft's reports to Calcutta, which dealt instead with the good bones and blood of Sadat Ali's horses, and the intelligent enthusiasm on the part of the Nawab himself for such notions as importing a giant steam pump from England to irrigate and cool Lucknow's parks. Yet the Superintendent's first foray anticipated what was to come. Moorcroft somehow failed to acquire the ideal breeding horses that he sought in Lucknow or in a dozen other cities on the same tour. But he was introduced to the courtly life of India, the etiquette of princes, and the distractions awaiting the foreign traveler in India. The obvious need was to look elsewhere for horses.

* * *

Back in Calcutta, Moorcroft gave a fuller accounting of his journey and his conversations with horse dealers, native chieftains, and various British Residents. It was their consensus, he reported, that the desired steeds were to be found in more distant breeding grounds of the Punjab and Rajputana, or possibly in the fabled city known as Bokhara the Noble. Even before his Company superiors gave their approval, Moorcroft was proposing a second journey. He would need an armed escort, a convoy of pack animals (but this time no cumbersome carts), cash, trading goods, and companions. The Company was guardedly agreeable.

    In January 1812, Moorcroft was in nearby Hajipur to select stallions for the Governor-General's bodyguard. Then restlessly he made his way to Benares, probing across the frontiers of British India into what was still Maratha territory. Near Gwalior he met the British Resident, Richard Strachey, an astute "political" who had recently crossed India's great northern desert to Peshawar, where he had served as secretary to the Company's first mission to Afghanistan. Strachey, whose family would serve the Raj for more than a century, observed almost nonchalantly that there was "nothing particularly formidable" about going to Bokhara along old caravan trails. Moving on to Delhi, Moorcroft heard in the bazaar that Bokhara was the place to find "the greatest horse market in the world," and his mind was made up. Through the Delhi Resident, Charles Metcalfe, Moorcroft recruited a Persian named Mir Izzat-Allah to make a covert scouting trip to Bokhara and describe the route, which remarkably, with the help of an allowance from Moorcroft, the Mir did. His journal was eventually published, providing Europeans with one of the earliest firsthand accounts of Central Asia.

    While in Delhi, Moorcroft took full advantage of the slow Indian mails. He informed Calcutta of the mission he had given Mir Izzat-Allah and hoped his superiors would not object, assuredly aware that by the time his letter arrived, the Persian would have departed. His Board's reply, when it finally came, expressed doubts about the whole Bokhara project, adding sharply: "It is of course understood that Mr. Moorcroft will not enter on the journey without a previous communication with Government." The Superintendent of the Stud did not read the message, since he was already a hundred miles away in Hardwar, where he was fascinated to hear that fine breeding horses might also be found in Tibet. While mulling this over, Moorcroft propitiously met another born wanderer, Captain Hyder Young Hearsey.

    Hearsey was typical of the buccaneers turning up in the far corners of the subcontinent. His father was a British officer, his mother an Indian, a "Jat lady," and like Moorcroft, he was illegitimate. Schooled in England at Woolwich but deprived of the usual means of ascent afforded his legitimate siblings, he signed on at sixteen as a soldier with the Nawab of Oudh and within a year was in deputy command at Agra Fort under a French mercenary. He next served an Irish adventurer, and then after forming his own cavalry regiment, joined with the British in the Maratha wars. At thirty-nine, having married a native princess of Cambay, he acquired as dowry an estate near Bareilly, on the frontiers of British India. His land controlled a pass to the Himalayan foothills then ruled by Nepalese Gurkhas. For pocket money, he levied tolls on traders, and for adventure, he joined two British officers in an 1808 expedition surreptitiously seeking the source of the Ganges. His behavior provoked remonstrations from British authorities and clashes with the Gurkhas.


Copyright © 1999 Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. All rights reserved.