Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Return of the native: Historian John Keay on his biography of Alexander Gardner

In Kashmir, he became a local celebrity and Commissioner Cooper was the first to get Gardner’s story, but he was older and may have forgotten many of them,” reflects the author.

Written by Parul | Chandigarh |
January 29, 2017 6:08:06 am
Historian John Keay, Joh Keay author, Alexander Gardner, Alexander Gardner biography, Alexander Gardner life story, books  Historian John Keay

“I encountered Alexander Gardner 40 years ago, and his is a story that was too good to ignore,” says world-renowned historian, author and journalist John Keay, here on the invitation of the British Library to talk about his latest book, ‘The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner’, the first-ever biography of Scottish-American traveler Alexander Gardner. Gardner first featured in Keay’s ‘The Explorers of the Western Himalaya’. The term ‘maverick’, reflects Keay, talking about the book, is perfect for Gardener, a “white man gone native”, whose energy of character, mysterious adventures and extraordinary life have fascinated many across the world.

The tall Highlander, who claimed he was American, born to a half-Aztec, half-Spanish mother, lived life king-size, with his travels and adventures spanning from Afghanistan to Kashmir, with Gardner also finding his way to the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 19th century. “His precise nativity was a mystery. His explorations were handicapped by adventure, as he made no preparations, not even a compass, for his travels in the Himalayas,” explains the historian, pointing to the photo of Gardner taken in Kashmir, in his tartan suit and turban that first generated a lot of interest in Europe.

Extensive research, looking at thousands of records and materials related to British India in the London British Library, Indian National Archives, papers, accounts and photographs of Gardner helped Keay tell the larger-than-life story of the remarkable 19th century American mercenary fighting his way across Asia’s mountain passes.

“You can never cover all the bases for a book on travel’s greatest enigma,” says Keay, adding how Gardner traveled through Afghanistan and became a part of the army of prince Habibullah. Here, his wife and child were killed in a battle, after which Gardner fled to Asia and became a colonel of artillery at Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court. “The first part of the book is lighter, with a more quizzical approach. Then there is a sense of progression, as I got to know Gardner better. He had 15 wounds on his body and a hole in his neck and he had many stories to tell, battles he had fought, people he knew, amazing places he visited, but these stories are bereft of dates, names and a specific time period, so are hard to believe.

In Kashmir, he became a local celebrity and Commissioner Cooper was the first to get Gardner’s story, but he was older and may have forgotten many of them,” reflects the author. Gardner had many wives and children, and he owned villages and a lot of wealth. “His daughter Helen tried to come to India to trace her father’s wealth, but could never trace it. It remains a big mystery,” says Keay.

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