Of all the 19th-century Himalayan travellers, no one left as immense a volume of informative material as William Moorcroft.
Moorcroft, a surgeon, the first Englishman to qualify as a professional veterinarian, and Superintendent of the Hon’ble East India Company’s military stud farm, travelled supposedly in search of breeding stock for the stud. But his interest ranged far and wide beyond horses. He was an economic imperialist who dreamt of opening up the limitless expanses of south and central Asia to British manufactures, hence in even the remotest villages of the Himalaya he was alert to describe the ornaments and tools used by the ‘natives’, with a view to the possible commercial opportunities of supplying similar or better from England. His bent of mind was scientific, and he noticed and commented on the geology, the botany, the climate, the agriculture, the human and physical geography, even the history, of the territories through which he passed. (But not much about the language and religions of the peoples he met; at some point he explicitly disclaims the expertise necessary to comment on those subjects.) He was an indefatigable scribbler, noting down his observations in diaries, and inordinately long reports and letters addressed to a string of correspondents.
The result is an enormous mass of writing, documenting his travels to Lake Mansarowar (1812), and Kumaon, Garhwal, Punjab, Ladakh, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Bokhara (1820–25). He also collected information from a variety of respondents about the neighbouring countries. His final and greatest known journey lasted a full five years. He believed he would find plentiful breeding stock for the Stud in Bokhara; and given the perennially lawless state of Afghanistan, planned to reach that city via Ladakh, Yarkand and Kashgar. After nearly a year of travel (during which he was delayed by being summoned to Lahore to meet Ranjit Singh), he arrived in Leh in September 1820 by the route of the Rohtang, Baralacha and Taglang Passes. There he stayed for close on two years, while negotiating with the authorities for permission to enter Yarkand. Finally admitting defeat on that front, he left Ladakh by the Kashmir route, spending several months in Srinagar arranging his onward journey and documenting Kashmir’s products, especially the shawl industry in which he had a particular interest. On via Peshawar, Khyber and Kabul, he finally arrived in Bokhara in February1825—where he was largely disappointed in his efforts to find good horses. He appears to have died a few months later, of fever, near Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. (But see the sub-folder in this section, titled ‘The Moorcroft Mystery’, which presents the evidence for an alternative scenario of his last days.)
William Moorcroft’s Manuscript Journal Transcripts
Moorcroft directed that his diaries, letters and reports be edited and published by the scholar H. H. Wilson, who by the time he got down to the task had a full-time job as Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford. Faced with this huge inchoate mass of documents—somewhere in the region of 10,000 manuscript pages—Wilson did what he could, but the published Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China are no more than a pale reflection of the original papers, and necessarily omit much of the illuminating detail that add so much value to Moorcroft’s narratives.
The papers that Wilson worked from were deposited in the library of the India Office in London. They were later transferred, along with the rest of the IOL’s contents, to the British Library, where they can be accessed in the APAC (Asia, Pacific and African Collections) Reading Room.
These documents aren’t easy to work from. The binding and cataloguing are unsystematic, though the researcher is helped by the guide in vol. II of the former India Office Library’s Catalogue of Manuscripts in European Languages by Kaye and Johnston. Once accessed, many researchers may have difficulty with the handwriting, which often—as Moorcroft’s thoughts outrun his pen—degenerates into a semi-legible scrawl; and they may not be helped by the 19th-century-style orotundity of his diction.
The transcripts, presented here for the first time, are the result of a project to type up as much of the Moorcroft archive as possible, beginning with his journals. The originals in digitized form (PDF or JPEG), copied with the permission of the British Library, are with the Editor MCADD, and in case a researcher wants access to any of the originals, they may contact him at MCADDeditor@gmail.com and he will be pleased to send a copy to them electronically.
MCADD, however, is of the opinion that Moorcroft’s remarkable writings deserve to be accessible to a wider readership than only those dedicated scholars who may be motivated to master the difficult handwriting, and hence has initiated the transcription project. The Editor will accordingly be happy to hear from anyone interested in joining the project. They will find the available documents listed under the menu-heading Guides to Documents in the British Library listed in the folder William Moorcroft Documents.
The Mystery of Moorcroft’s Death
Did William Moorcroft spend 12 years in Tibet from 1826 to 1838, as reported by two French priests, Huc and Gabet, after their 1846 visit to Lhasa? And if so, what happened to the maps and diaries which reportedly convinced the Tibetan authorities he wasn’t really a Kashmiri sheepherder but rather a British spy in disguise?
Moorcroft’s biographer, Prof. Garry Alder, “Beyond Bokhara–the life of William Moorcroft–Asian Explorer and Pioneer Veterinary Surgeon 1767-1825“, and most historians, report that Moorcroft died of a fever at Andkhoi, Afghanistan in August 1825. But there was always something suspicious about this ‘death’. Later, two French priests, Regis-Evariste Huc and Joseph Gabet “Travels in Tartary Thibet and China 1844-1846“, who arrived in Lhasa in 1846 after travelling across China, reported that Moorcroft spent 12 years in Lhasa. They made this claim on the basis of reports they heard in the Tibetan capital, and their own discussions with Moorcroft’s personal servant Nisan. Both stories cannot be true, and thus we have the Moorcroft Mystery!
Dan Jantzen, in his essay “The Moorcroft Mystery–did William Moorcroft really spend twelve years in Lhasa from 1826 to 1838” argues it is possible Moorcroft faked his own death at Andkhoi so that he might conveniently ‘disappear’ and then proceed in disguise, first to Yarkand and eventually to Lhasa. The visit to Lhasa and residence there is plausible, but there is no evidence in modern times to establish Huc and Gabet’s claim. Preliminary searches for evidence in Lhasa, Beijing and even Taipei have so far yielded nothing definitive. Anyone with interest to pursue this question in Tibetan and Chinese historical sources is asked to contact the MCADDeditor@gmail.com.ocuments
Documents bearing on Moorcroft’s Death and possible stay in Lhasa
William Moorcroft Documents
Apart from the main Moorcroft archive in the British Library, there are also some documents by or relating to Moorcroft in the National Archives of India, New Delhi. These are scattered among the Government files and one must search the usual government file indexes in order to find them.
Some of Moorcroft’s reports were published in contemporary journals, like Asiatic Researches, the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, The Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, and others, and we’ve tried to track down as many of these as possible, presenting them, along with some scholarly writings about Moorcroft, in the folders listed below.