Book Review: “The Gilgit Game” by John Keay

(Oxford University Press – 277 pages)

Reviewer – Luke Brown

Posted: 29 September, 2003

During the 19th century the Great Game (see Peter Hopkirk’s excellent book by the same title for more details) was being played between two imperial powers, Russia and Britain, for control of Central Asia. British India was deemed to be under threat from an encroaching Russia. The Gilgit region, which bordered India’s Kashmir region to the south, Afghanistan in the west, Xinjiang in the east and Tashkent in the north, was thus of great strategic importance. As it had practically been unexplored by the British up until this time, the need to do so, plus ensure some control of it, was considered of the upmost importance. Thus the Gilgit Game was born.

While the various power plays and machinations are important and interesting in themselves, John Keay concentrates mainly on the actors involved in the game, without losing sight of the greater picture. Using a biting wit and a nice turn of phrase, he manages to successfully cut through the pomposity of some of the participants in this fascinating story, and get at the heart of what made them go out into the unknown at great personal risk, whether it was personal prestige, an unquenched thirst for adventure, spiritual fulfilment or just plain eccentricity.

One of these characters was the arrogant, opinionated, and rather strange Dr. Leitner, who managed to pack in a lifetime of experiences before he was even twenty-six (when he entered Gilgit). Fluent in several languages, he was a veteran of the Crimean War having joined up at the age of fifteen, starting at the improbable rank of colonel, despite not even being born in Britain (he was born in Hungary). After the war he became a lecturer and eventually moved to Lahore to be a Principal of a college there. His appetite for knowledge led him up to Gilgit, where in a moment of pique (detailed in the book) he entered this unknown territory.

For Francis Younghusband, his journeys were more spiritual in nature, seeing in the mountains that he loved so much a mystical quality that heightened his interest in religion.

For James Kelly, with an up to then unheralded career, the Gilgit Game was to prove the making of his legend, as he led a group of men from Gilgit across hazardous terrain towards Chitral, to try and rescue Sir George Robertson who was under siege from a coalition of those wishing to see the British depart their region.

It is these types of characters that John Keay, critically but with some fondness, details in this tremendous work, that is a must for anyone with the slightest interest in the exploits of a bunch of unique and brave explorers and adventurers.

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