William Moorcroft (explorer)
William Moorcroft (1767 – 27 August 1825), English explorer, was born in Ormskirk, Lancashire, the illegitimate son of Ann Moorcroft, daughter of a local farmer. He was Baptised in 1767 in St Peter & St Paul the Parish Church of Ormskirk where there is a commemorative plaque to his life. While employed by the East India Company Moorcroft travelled extensively throughout the Himalayas, Tibet and Central Asia, eventually reaching Bukhara, in present day Uzbekistan.
Early life and education
Moorcroft's family had sufficient means to secure an apprenticeship with a surgeon in Liverpool but during this time an unknown disease decimated cattle herds in Lancashire and young William was recruited to treat stricken animals. His proficiency so impressed the county landowners they offered to underwrite his education if he would abandon surgery to attend a veterinarian college in Lyon, France. He arrived in France in the revolutionary year of 1789 and became the first Englishman to qualify as a veterinary surgeon. On completing his course he began practice in London, established a "hospital for horses" on Oxford Street, 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. In 1795, Moorcroft published a pamphlet of directions for the medical treatment of horses, with special reference to India, and in 1800 a Cursory Account of the Methods of Shoeing Horses.
Superintendent of stud
In 1803 a citizen army was mobilised to defend Britain against a threatened Napoleonic invasion. Moorcroft joined the Westminster Volunteer Cavalry. His activities with the volunteers brought him to the attention of Edward Parry, a director of the East India Company. Parry recruited Moorcroft to manage the Company stud in Bengal. In 1808 Moorcroft left the comforts of his home and the security of his thriving practice for Calcutta, India, the seat of British rule.
Everywhere the new Superintendent of Stud looked upon his arrival he found depressing signs of laxness, neglect and ignorance. Often undersized mares were bred with local stallions, the best colts were kept back and stud books falsified. Nevertheless under his care the stud rapidly improved. He took brisk charge of his staff and weeded out deficient horses. Moorcroft became the first to cultivate oats on a large scale in India and set aside 3,000 acres (12 km2) at Pusa for its production.
In 1811 Moorcroft travelled extensively among the northern sub-continent in search of better breeding stock. To Lucknow, the capital of Oudh, and to Benares (then still part of Maratha territory), but Moorcorft failed to acquire the ideal breeding horses that he sought. In Benares he learned that Bukhara was rumoured to have "the greatest horse market in the world." Moorcroft recruited a Persian named Mir Izzat-Allah to make a scouting trip to Bukhara and map out the route. He also learned that fine breeding horses might be found in Tibet.
Expedition to Tibet
In company with Captain William Hearsey and disguised as gosains, (Hindu trading pilgrims), and encumbered with a stock of merchandise for the purpose of establishing trade relations between India and Central Asia, Moorcroft travelled the upper Ganges through the foothills of the Himalayans. They left Joshimath, well within the mountains, on 26 May 1812.
Proceeding along the valley of the Dauli, a tributary of the Ganges river. They reached the summit of the frontier pass of Niti on 1 July. Here they were met by Rawats with strict orders from Tibet to repel the foreigners. With his charm, the promise of gain, and proficient use of his medical kit, Moorcroft gained the friendship of two influential Rawats, Deb Singh and his brother Bir Singh. The orders from Tibet were ignored and Amer Singh, the son of Bir Singh was recruited to serve as a guide through the Niti pass and over the Tibetan plateau. Arriving at the town of Daba they awaited permission to proceed to Gartok seat of the Garpon, (Governor of western Tibet). The Garpon agreed to sell them cashmir shawl wool, and granted them permission to travel to the sacred lake of Manasarowar. Moorcroft struck the main upper branch of the Indus near its source, and on 5 August arrived at lake Manasarovar which they explored extensively. Returning by the Sutlej valley he was detained for some time by the Gurkhas in Nepal, but eventually reached Calcutta in November, only to be chastised severely by the Company for his failure to find horses. They were not interested in shawl wool or Tibetan lakes.
Bukhara, the noble city
The journey to Tibet only served to whet Moorcroft's appetite for more extensive travel. But when he broached the idea of a new horse buying expedition to Bukhara in 1816, a searing reply from the Company Board of Managers warned Moorcroft to keep "steady" at his stud duties and not "waste his time" on "wild and romantick (sic) excursions to the banks of the Amoo (Amur) and the plains of Chinese Tartary." What Moorcroft coveted most were the Turkoman horses, with their pale golden coats, narrow chests, long necks and sturdy legs. The "good Turcoman horses" that Marco Polo had described some 500 years earlier could travel a hundred miles a day for weeks on end. Their descendants, the Akhal-Teke are bred to this day in Turkmenistan and Russia. Moorcroft persisted in his quest and his seven-year campaign was finally rewarded in May 1819 when Charles Metcalfe, head of the Company's Political and Secret Department, granted him leave to proceed. Metcalfe's goal was to use his friend as an intelligence scout on his epic journey.
Moorcroft's preparations took nearly a year. His roster of recruits included the Persian, Mir Izzat Khan, who had already made the trip alone some years before and an Afghan, Gulam Hyder Khan from his previous expedition to Tibet. Nineteen year old George Trebeck, a recent arrival to Calcutta was selected as second in command. The total expedition totalled 300 persons, including an escort of 12 Gurkas, sixteen horses and mules, £4,000 of trading goods, and medical supplies and equipment.
Leaving the main caravan at the border to the Punjab on the Sutlej, Moorcroft travelled separately to Lahore to obtain permission from Ranjit Singh to traverse his territory. This was finally granted in mid May 1820. He met up with Trebeck and the rest of his party at Sultanpur in the Kulu valley in August. From there the caravan trekked up the Beas River, crossed the 13,300-foot (4,100 m) Rohtang Pass and descended into the Lahul valley and the city of Leh, capital of the Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh. Leh was reached on 24 September, and here several months were spent in exploring the surrounding country. A commercial treaty was concluded with the government of Ladakh, by which the whole of Central Asia was virtually opened to British trade in exchange for British protection. Unfortunately, this treaty would have required the Ladakhi's to break relations with Ranjit Singh, the Maharajah of the Sikh Empire. The East India Company placed a high value on its alliance with Ranjit Singh. Once again Moorcroft had overstepped his authority. His engagement with Ladakh was repudiated and his salary suspended. In all nearly two years were spent in Ladakh, awaiting permission from the Chinese in Yarkand to proceed.
While exploring Ladakh he had a chance encounter with another European, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös a penniless Hungarian philologist from Transylvania. Csoma was searching for the ancient Asian roots of the Hungarian language in the Tibetan tongue. Moorcroft shared his own Tibetan dictionary with the traveller. Csoma failed to prove his thesis but is now widely seen as the founder of Tibetology. It was Moorcroft who steered Kőrösi towards the compilation of the first Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar book for the East India Company.
At Andkhoy, in Afghan Turkestan, Moorcroft was seized with fever, of which he died on 27 August 1825, with Trebeck surviving him only a few days. But according to the Abbé Huc, Moorcroft reached Lhasa in 1826, and lived there twelve years, being assassinated on his way back to India in 1838, although this story of Moorcroft's "second life" has been explained as unlikely.
In 1841, Moorcroft's papers were obtained by the Asiatic Society, and published, under the editorship of H. H. Wilson, under the title of Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hinduslan and the Punjab, in Ladakh and Kashnair, in Peshawur, Kabul, Kunduz and Bokhara, from 1819 to 1825.
- Myer, Karl E. and Brysac, Shareen Blair (1999). Tournament of shadows : the great game and race for empire in Central Asia. Washington, DC: Counterpoint. ISBN 978-1-58243106-2.
- Chisholm 1911.
- Huc, Evariste (1852). Travels in Tartary, Thibet, and China, 1844–1846. New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-25438-0.
- Recent Research on Ladakh 4 & 5: Proceedings of the Fourth and Fifth International Colloquia on Ladakh – Routledge 1996 ISBN 0728602415
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Moorcroft, William". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.