Monday, November 10, 2008

Kate Teltscher/THE HIGH ROAD TO CHINA

Kate Teltscher is a British academic, a professor of English literature who specialises in travel writing of the colonial period, particularly in India. Here she has produced a fascinating and highly readable account of the life of George Bogle, a young Scot who went to India in 1770 in the service of the East India Company. His diligence soon recommended him to the Company's powerful governor, Warren Hastings, and a few years later he was selected by Hastings to go on an important mission to Bhutan and Tibet - the first Briton ever to visit those countries.

The hope of the mission was not just to open up these regions to trade with British-ruled Bengal, but - more ambitiously - to establish indirect diplomatic links to Qianlong, the Emperor of China, via the Panchen Lama, then the most active and influential leader in Tibet (although the nominal ruler of the country was the regent of the child Dalai Lama; and, as a client kingdom of China's Qing Empire, the country was closely supervised by a pair of Chinese ambassadors - all three of whom were strongly inimical to the idea of a British interest in the country).

Bogle stayed with the Panchen Lama throughout the winter, and struck up a very cordial relationship with him. Despite the political difficulties it might create for him, the Lama agreed to represent the British requests to the Chinese Emperor (but, alas, his efforts came to naught - and a couple of generations later, the continuing diplomatic impasse on trade issues between the British and Chinese Empires would result in the Opium Wars).

Bogle was a meticulous observer of all that he encountered on his journey, and the story is usually most appealing when Teltscher quotes directly from his notebooks and his letters to his family. Indeed, poor Bogle's observations on his travels were so voluminous that he never managed to fulfill his patron's hope that he would be able to wrangle them into a publishable account (they were not, in fact, edited for publication until a century later).

However, perhaps of more interest than the travelogue is the political background of the period - both the vicious in-fighting within the East India Company which for a while rendered Hastings almost impotent and thwarted the advancement of Bogle's career, and the numerous intrigues, feuds, coups and wars amongst the native potentates of the region.

In Bogle's private correspondence we learn a lot about the warmth of his relationships with family and friends (and how difficult it could be to maintain these links when separated by such great distances). We also realise the enormous pressure he is under to make a success of his career in the colonies in order to redeem his family's fortunes (ruined by a financial scandal, the 'economic meltdown' of its day). And we are reminded of the hardships of life in a strange land at this time: the mortality rate amongst East India Company employees is quite terrifying, with many succumbing to disease within just a few months or years of arriving in Calcutta. Most intriguing of all, though, is what Bogle manages to suppress from his writing: his native mistresses and illegitimate children (a commonplace amongst Company employees) find no mention - and an old family story that he had an affair with a Tibetan woman, perhaps one of the Panchen Lama's sisters, must remain unsubstantiated.

The narrative drags very slightly at times (rather a lot of descriptions of mountain scenery, that I would prefer to have seen in direct quotation from Bogle's writing), but in general it is lively and easy to read. It might perhaps be of limited appeal to the general reader, but for anyone interested in Tibet, British colonial history, or early travel writing, it is to be highly recommended.

1 comment:

moonrat said...

this sounds fascinating... thanks for the in-depth review.