Thomas Russell and his nephew Andrew Dalgleish sat on the veranda in rattan chairs at Kashmiri Point, admiring the view across the hill station of Murree. Above, a Himalayan Vulture soared on thermals, watching the preparations for the departing caravan with anticipation. The bird knew there was the possibility that men and beasts would perish along the dangerous path across the Himalayas. It was not unusual for smart vultures to follow caravans.
Behind Murree, the Himalayan mountain range climbed high into the blue spring sky. The snowy peaks glistened, but halfway down, the pristine whiteness gave way to a brown rocky mass – the feet of the great Himalayas.
The veranda faced a ravine, and a forest of tall, straight deodars stood to attention on the other side. Their fresh scent mingled with the smell of horse dung – the pack ponies were corralled below the bungalow in a makeshift log pen. Near the pen, three boys guarded a small flock of sheep; it might be the foothills of the Himalayas, but last winter, a snow leopard was sighted to the east of Kashmiri Point.
‘Men of our station in life don’t often get opportunities like this,’ said Russell in a broad Scottish brogue.
‘Aye,’ replied Dalgleish, his Scottish accent was just as thick. Dalgleish might have been only twenty, but he knew something of British India. ‘If the Central Asian Trading Company is as successful as the East India Company, then 1874 should be a prosperous year for us.’
Russell took his pipe from his mouth, ‘I’ll need you to watch over the load, that’s the finest cotton from Manchester. It cannot get wet and mouldy. It’s your job every day to see the porters load and unload it properly.’
‘I won’t let you down, Uncle,’ said Dalgleish. Indeed, he had just come from inspecting the cargo. ‘What is in the locked iron trunks?’ he asked.
The older man raised his eyebrows, ‘Riffles.’
Dalgleish looked directly at his uncle, ‘But the Himalayas are filled with bandits who will murder for rifles.’
Russell nodded in agreement, ‘Mr Barkley Shaw will carry the keys, and Lieutenant Hopkirk holds the ammunition. Both men are armed. Her Majesties Government promised them to Yakub Beg the Ameer of Chinese Turkistan. That’s the only reason he is allowing the establishment of a trading post.’
Dalgleish looked shocked, and his uncle continued, ‘Remember the Mutiny in 57, don’t mention the rifles to the natives.’
A tall man strode across the garden – Dalgleish recognized him as Muhammad Isa, the caravan Bashi. He was the captain of the caravan, and it was his job to safely navigate the convoy during the month-long journey across the Himalayas into China. Thirty men, twenty cargo-laden ponies, and fifteen sheep to be consumed along the way would make up the caravan.
A shorter man shuffled behind Muhammad Isa, and they both stepped up onto the veranda. The Bashi held a commanding presence. ‘Greetings Sahib Russell, I bring a bearer for your nephew.’
‘His name is Joo, and I can only spare him after he had attended to the animals and his duties in the camp kitchen.’
Russell looked the small man up and down; he was about the same age as Dalgleish, and where his left eye should have been was a raised pink scar of buckled skin. Joo immediately clasped his hands together in a Buddhist greeting and bowed his head. A long plait of black hair swung from the back of his head.
‘It is my most honoured duty to serve you, Sahib Dalgleish,’ Joo said in a voice that was almost a whisper.
Dalgleish smiled, stood up and said, ‘The pleasure is all mine, Joo. I’ve never had a bearer before.’
Muhammad Isa caught Russell’s eye and both the older men thought the same thing; best not get too chummy with your bearer.
To be continued…
Ameer: A nobleman. A ruler.
Bearer: A man’s personal servant in British India. Responsible for clothing and often the running of a household.
Caravan: A group of travellers, often traders on the Silk Road, journeying together
with pack animals such as horses, camels or yaks.
Central Asian Trading Company: Established in 1873 to trade within the domain of Yakub Beg, Ameer of Chinese Turkistan, now the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous
Region of China.
Chummy: Friendly; from Chummery, a British Raj term for a residence housing single male officers of the British India Army.
Bashi: A leader, headman or captain of a caravan. Usually a senior native man with knowledge about the route to be travelled as well as experience organizing and overseeing caravans.
Bungalow: A substantial house erected in British India by Europeans.
East India Company: Also known as Honourable East India Company, East India Trading Company, the English East India Company or the British East India Company, and informally known as John Company, or simply The Company.
A British company, founded with a Royal Charter in 1600, initially to trade with the Mughals of India and the East Indies. It established itself as a powerful trading, political and military force throughout Asia and helped build the British Empire. After the First War of Indian Independence in 1857 (also known as the Mutiny) the British Government nationalized the company, and the Crown took control. The East India Company was eventually dissolved in 1874.
Kashmiri Point: A scenic location in Murree and where Robert Barkley Shaw built a substantial house. The mountains surrounding Kashmir are viewed from the point.
Murree: A mountainous town or hill station in what is now northern Pakistan. It was established in 1851 by the British Raj as a sanatorium for its soldiers stationed on the Afghanistan frontier. From 1873 to 1879 it was the headquarters for the local British India Government.
Mutiny: 1857 to 1857. Also referred to the Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian Mutiny,
the Great Rebellion, the Revolt of 1857, the Indian Insurrection, and the First War of Independence. Indian uprising against the East India Company who ruled British India on behalf of the British Crown. The Mutiny was unsuccessful but paved the way for the Crown to take control of British India and ultimately for Indian Independence in 1947.
Sahib: A term of address or title similar to Mr. It was used in British India by an Indian native when addressing a European Male.
Shaw, Robert Barkley: (1839-1879) A British India explorer, trader and diplomat. He established the Central Asian Trading Company in 1873 to trade with Kashgar and Yarkand in Chinese Turkistan, then ruled by Yakub Beg. Note, I have chosen to use the surname Barley Shaw because of its poetic rhythm.
Yakub Beg: (1820-1877) Also spelt Yaqub Beg, Yakoob Beg, Ya`qūb Beg or Yakub bek. He was born into a humble Muslim family in Uzbekistan but rose through army ranks. During the Dungan Revolt (1862-77) he took control of an area known as Chinese Turkistan which included the citadels of Kashgar and Yarkand. Now, this is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. He appointed himself Ameer or Atalik Ghazi.
Yakub Beg died retreating from the Chinese as they reconquered the region in 1877.