The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 3/3

Kashgar by Robert Shaw
(Another sketch by Robert Shaw in 1868)
(Read Part 1, Part 2)
The Kashgar Drama
The first man to reach Kashgar was Robert Shaw. Stocked with gifts and firearms, he went to meet Yakub Beg. Beg smiled and received him and exchanged pleasantries in Persian. Shaw explained that he was not part of British Government and just wanted to sell Indian tea in the empire. Beg was impressed with the gifts and dismissed Shaw saying they would talk details three days later.
That night Shaw probably dreamt of his tea business taking off. What could go wrong? The king had no relations with the Chinese or the Russians. The only hope  for Beg was to ally with the British and what better way to grow that relation than to allow a British trader to operate in Kashgar. But soon Shaw’s movements were restricted and he was confined to his quarters.He could have visitors and from them he knew what was going on. But Shaw realized that the third day meeting with Beg was not going to happen.
When Mirza arrived a month after Shaw, he was taken to see the lieutenant or jemadar of Yakub Beg, mainly to see what gifts he had bought. Mirza was pleasantly surprised that jemadar was none other than Nubbi Buksh,  the Sikh gunner. Originally from Sialkot, Buksh left Punjab — and according to some sources based on Mirza’s suggestion — towards Central Asia. Through Ladakh, he reached Kokand and served the Khan for a decade where he came into contact with the young Yakub Beg. When Yakub Beg took over Kashgar, Nubbi Buksh joined him.
Though Mirza was quite happy to see Nubbi Buksh, Buksh behaved with indifference and hostility. First he refused to recognize Mirza. Later when he did recognize him, he was suspicious of Mirza’s cover story as a trader. Buksh then opened Mirza’s luggage and took whatever he fancied. He also put Mirza in a house and entrusted some Afghans to keep an eye on him.
The next day he was taken to meet Yakub Beg. Beg, who was seated on a carpet with three chiefs received him graciously. After asking him a few questions, Beg asked him to have breakfast with other chiefs.In later meetings  Beg asked him about Hindustan, Badakshan and Afghanistan. Mirza made observations on Beg’s army, noted that the route towards Russia was well fortified, and even gathered information on the nearest Russian fort.
Also by then George Hayward arrived and traded house arrest in Yarkand for a house arrest in Kashgar.For three months, Shaw or Hayward never heard from Beg and court officials never gave an explanation for the silence. Beg’s chiefs asked Mirza if he knew the Englishmen and Mirza replied he did not. But soon MIrza realized that he too was under house arrest.
Desperate, Mirza decided to  establish a contact with the Englishmen. He sent a note to Shaw mentioning he had come from India and wanted a watch. He said his watch was broken and needed one to perform astronomical observations. Shaw, who also was under house arrest knew that Hayward had arrived, but was surprised by the letter he received from Mirza. He did not know who in India sent him. Maybe there was no Mirza and it was Yakub Beg’s idea to trap him. To be safe, Shaw replied that he had no watch to spare. Though he refused to entertain this unknown Mirza, Shaw exchanged notes with Hayward.
Beg on his part was worried about the Russians who were right near his border. The Russians, for whom the Crimea war had not gone well, were worried that if provoked Beg would take British help and escalate the situation.  At the same time Russia did not want to formally recognize Yakub Beg; they did not want to offend the Chinese. Just before Mirza, Shaw and Hayward arrived in Kashgar, Beg had sent his nephew as an emissary to Russia to understand their position.
While Beg was waiting for news from Russia, the three captives spent their time not knowing what would happen to them. They probably would have thought about the German explorer Adolf Schlagintweit who visited Kashgar in 1857 with his brother Hermann and Rudolph. While the brothers returned, Adolph stayed back to explore which turned out to be a bad idea; Wali Khan who had taken over Kashgar caught him and had him executed. Wali Khan himself was later arrested and poisoned by Yakub Beg.
Months passed. When Beg realized that Russians would not recognize him he then decided to throw his dice in the Great Game by siding with the British. On April 5th, he summoned Robert Shaw, called him his brother, praised the Queen, and asked for his help with the British. Shaw for his part again mentioned that he was a private citizen and not with the Government, but such minor details did not matter. Beg wanted to send an envoy to India and Shaw agreed to help him with that. By then it was clear that he would be set free, but he did not know what would happen to Mirza  or Hayward. He heard a rumor that Hayward was to be held hostage; he also got a note from Hayward about this.
Shaw told Beg’s officials that it would not look good, if he sent an envoy to India while he held another Englishman a hostage. Shaw just wanted Hayward to be freed and Beg agreed. Shaw left on April 9th and Hayward on the 13th.  When he came to know that both Englishmen had left Mirza thought that he would perish in this Beg eats Khan world. Mirza appealed to Beg directly skipping Nubbi Buksh and Yakub Beg let him go with appropriate gifts.

On June 7, 1869, Mirza left Kashgar and reached Yarkand where he met three hundred people on their way to Mecca. From Yarkand he went over the Karakorum and reached  Leh in August and from there to the GTS HQ in Dehra Dun.

Mirza’s return was a triumph; another bead in the rosary of his life. Using his wits, he had overcome great difficulties, cheated death a few times, and was able to conceal his identity and accomplish the task he had been sent to do. He surveyed 2179 miles among which 1042 miles – from Kabul to Kashgar — which was not surveyed before. He confirmed the path from Kabul to Yarkand which was verified to be accurate. His work put Kashgar and Yarkand in the right locations in the map for the first time and corrected those made by Jesuits and other travelers.
While Shaw, Hayward, and Nubbi Buksh reached Kashgar from Ladakh, Mirza started his trip from Afghanistan.  This was intentional so that Mirza could collect intelligence on the Afghan army and its battles outside Kabul. Mirza was praised for his professional skill and endurance by the RGS and though the work was done clandestinely, the results were published in the journals of the Royal Geographical Society.
Both Shaw and Hayward,  thought to be dead, were received as heroes. They supplied the British with political and commercial intelligence about Kashgar and Yarkand. Since Shaw and Hayward had traveled back and forth from Kashgar, they thought that the Russians could invade Kashgar and then India through Ladakh dragging machinery through 18,000 feet. But the War Office disagreed with this observation, but agreed that the path was vulnerable.
The End
George Hayward, the inveritable travel bunny made new plans; he wanted to explore the Pamirs. The Government tried to dissuade him, but Hayward was quite stubborn. The experiences of the past — because they were experiences of the past — did not guide him. He left in the summer of 1870 with few servants from Srinagar and reached Yasin in the Hindu Kush where he met the chief Mir Wali whom he knew from an earlier visit. But this time he had an argument with the chief and the furniture in his life got rearranged; he was killed by a single stroke of the sword. His body was found three months later by an Indian Sepoy.
In 1872 Montgomerie sent Mirza on another expedition to Bokhara. After passing Herat, he reached Maimana, but on the road from Maimana to Bokhara he was murdered by his guide.
Yakub Beg died in 1877 and various reasons — poisoning, suicide, stroke — have been mentioned as probable causes. After his death Kashgaria was conquered by the Chinese.
The Viceroy — Lord Mayo — thought the better way to deal with Kashgar was to make it an ally or a buffer state and he sent a diplomatic mission to Kashgar. Robert Shaw was only happy to join but never was able to make a market for tea in Central Asia. He died at the age of 39 in 1879 in Burma where he had been appointed a British resident.
Postscript: Kamla Bhatt has an interview with Jules Stewart, the author of Spying For The Raj: The Pundits And The Mapping of the Himalayas

  1. Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain), Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and monthly record of geography (Edward Stanford, 1871).
  2. Robert Johnson, Spying for empire (Greenhill Books, 2006).
  3. Derek J. Waller, The Pundits (University Press of Kentucky, 2004).
  4. Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Vintage, 2002).
  5. Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha International, 1992).
  6. Sir Thomas Edward Gordon, The roof of the world (Edmonston and Douglas, 1876).
  7. Mishi Saran, Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin Global, 2005).
  8. All images from Wikipedia

10 thoughts on “The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 3/3

  1. for a while and still I think TEL ( lawrence) was possibly involve din the great game, though the dates do not match up.. had ordered the peter hopkrick book and am waiting for it to be study the relationship of the great game with the Americans

  2. Really interesting story, unusual although it’s really hard to keep track of all the characters involved. Neverless, really interesting to read.

  3. A nicely told account of an intriguing episode.
    It ought, however, to be pointed out the the Mirza was not really Indian: he was born in Persia of mixed Persian and Trurkish origin, and spent much of his life in Afghanistan. He’s still an intriguing character nonetheless
    If you’re after more you might be interested in my forthcoming book about George Hayward, “Murder in the Hindu Kush”. It’s out in April 2011, published by the History Press (who also published Jules Stewart’s books on the period).
    I obviously go into lots of detail about the time that Shaw, Hayward and the Mirza spent in Kashgar. I’m not particularly sympathetic towards Shaw, and one of my angles is just how much Hayward and the Mirza would have had in common – had they met, or even communicated. Unfortunately, however, Shaw had already rudely dismissed an approach from the Mirza (who he suspected was an imposter). As a consequence the Mirza never even bother trying to contact Hayward…

    1. Tim, yes, I think I mentioned that he was from Persia. I used Indian in the sense that he worked for the British Govt. as an native. Looking forward to reading your book.

  4. jk – that’s one of the intriguing points about the Mirza: what were his motivations for working for the British?
    As a young man he joined the service of Eldred Pottinger in the defense of Herat (against the Persians), and seems to have been in British service during the First Afghan War, but he later spent a decade teaching English to Afghan princes in Kabul. By the time he signed up as a pundit he was already an old man (by the standards of the time)…
    My feeling is that he, like Hayward, was “possessed with an insane desire” – he was simply someone who was compelled to wander…
    Another interesting pundit conection: one of the Pashtun servants who were with Hayward on his final journey, and were killed with him, was an ex trainee pundit. I didn’t manage to find out his name, but he was recruited for work across the NW Frontier during the period when the Mirza was still in Kabul teaching Emglish. He was brought to Dehra Dun for training, but was soon kicked out: he had stolen a gold watch awarded to star pundit Nain Singh by the Royal Geographical Society!
    Walker of the GTS wrote that “the last thing we heard of him was that he had attached himself to the unfortunate Mr. Hayward”, and noted that he was with him to the end…

    1. Tim,
      I could not find any other reason for Mirza’s motivation. Maybe he was motivated by wanderlist.
      BTW, do you have additional information on the relation between Nubbi Buksh and Mirza? Was Mirza responsible for Buksh reaching Central Asia.

  5. I’m afraid I don’t really know any more about Nubbi Buksh than you. I was intrigued by the question of what might have caused the tension between them in Kashgar, but finding the answer might prove tricky. The Mirza’s story was one of many potentially tantalising tangents in Hayward’s tale that I had to restrain myself from journeying too far down.
    Nubbi Buksh does, however, highlight something that I feel would make a very meaty research topic for someone – that of Indians in Eastern Turkestan.
    That he should have been there serving in Yaqub Beg’s army is not surprising – the place seemed to suck in every disreputable mercenary in Asia, and there were plenty of Indians fighting for the Beg. Some of them, Hayward and Shaw and later visitors reported, were probably former rebels from the 1857 uprising who had fled India during the reprisals. Others were likely more recent runaways from either British of princely regiments.
    Once they got into Eastern Turkestan it was very difficult for them to get out. That Hayward, Shaw and the Mirza were kept as hostages was quite in keeping with the norms there. Well before Yaqub Beg arrived it was the tradition that visitors were fed well – and then never allowed to depart. The old story that Taklamakan means “go in and you won’t go out” is untrue. However, Hayward recorded that the whole of Eastern Turkestan was popularly known as “the country from which no one returns”. This tag apparently referred to the human dangers found there and the likelihood of being a hostage for life, rather than geographical challenges.
    As well as soldiers and mercenaries there were also settled Indian trading communities. Yarkand in particular was said to have many Indian residents.
    During Yaqub Beg’s Talibanesque regime the Hindus amongst them suffered discrimination. They were forbidden from wearing turbans and had to wear a belt of black rope to identify themselves as infidels.
    They remained however (they couldn’t really leave!), and were still there after the region went back to the Chinese.
    This would all surely make a great topic for someone with the determination and imagination to hunt down traces of these Indian communities in this part of Central Asia. Particularly tantalising is the idea that there might still be people of Indian origin in Yarkand and Kashgar today. The challenges of investigating this on the ground would, of course, be significant, given the nature of this part of China. When I was last there I did keep an eye out. I have a rather over-active imagination, but wandering the bazaars of Yarkand I did spot a few people who I convinced myself looked Indian!
    An easier place to start the investigation, perhaps, would be Leh. Leh was very closely tied to Yarkand in the 19th and early 20th Century. There are certainly still a few families of Yarkandi origin there, and lots of Ladakhi Muslims have mixed Ladakhi-Turki origins. There would also certainly have been some settled down-country Indian traders based there during the 19th Century, and through them it may be easier to pick up the threads of stories of Indians in Eastern Turkestan…
    There’s a book by Janet Rizvi called “Trans-Himalayan Caravans” that might be a good starting point…
    A final unconnected piece of trivia – there were certainly a few Jews in Yarkand, Kashgar and Hotan in the 19th Century. There is a rumour that somewhere hidden in the northern valleys of the Kun Lun there are still isolated “Jewish” villages today. The Chinese won’t let anyone get anywhere near them though.

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