Tales from the graveyard

October 31, 2021

George Hayward is buried in a deserted cemetery deep in the heart of Gigit. But there are other graves there and some reveal compelling stories...

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Georage Hayward's only portrait.

“Until the day breaks, and the shadows flee away”

George Hayward was a mysterious 19th Century British explorer and a spy who played an important role in the classic Great Game. At the height of this Cold War, his battlefields were the uncharted mountains between the advancing frontiers of British Raj and Russian Empire. It was in Hindu Kush that he finally met his death. Though he was a victim of intrigue, a few years prior to his death, he had a premonition: an “insane desire to feel cold steel” slicing through his throat.

The terms dard and dardistan were loosely used in the Victorian age for people of Gilgit-Baltistan, though no such tribe existed in that area. Col John Biddulph, the British agent in Gilgit in 1881, humorously noted in his book Tribes of Hindoo Koosh that it was the nickname given by the Kashmiris to the wild tribes of these savage parts, implying that they were darendas or beasts. Hayward was a friend of the dards and reported to the Raj in Delhi about the atrocities committed under the Dogra rule on the behest of the Maharaja of Kashmir. But in the wider context of the Great Game, the British were following a policy of appeasement vis-à-vis the Maharaja. Resultantly, Hayward ended up on the wrong side of both the Raj and the Maharaja. His revelations about atrocities irked the wrath of the Maharaja of Kashmir. Hence, it was alleged, a conspiracy was hatched and Mir Wali of Darkot encouraged to treacherously overpower Hayward in Yasin valley while he was moving towards Baroghil pass for onward journey to Pamirs. On a July morning in 1870, he was hacked to death. His personal belongings were looted by the murderers. The news of the murder reached India by the end of August and was suppressed by the government. Later, Frederick Drew, a geologist in the employ of the Maharaja, retrieved Hayward’s body and reburied the battered remains “in a corner of someone’s orchard near Gilgit Fort”.

The boundry wall of the cemetery that I tried to jump over in 1994. The lock on the door has been replaced since then.

In 1994 when I went looking for George Hayward’s grave in Gilgit, surprisingly nobody at the helm of affairs had any clue to it. The local administration had completely forgotten Hayward which was not something unusual. Much earlier, soon after his treacherous murder in 1870 at Darkot in the remote Yasin valley, the colonial government in Delhi had almost abandoned him. Consequently no inquiry was held to ascertain the facts about this tragedy and the “white man’s death” was never avenged, a departure from the Victorian era norms.

The only clue I had was that Hayward was reburied near the fort. After a formal meeting at the then chief secretary’s office, an experienced tehsildar was entrusted to the probationary DMG officer to help him in his quest. The tehsildar did his best. He took me to the Frontier Corp Fort; a modern edifice constructed more than a century after Hayward’s murder. Losing hope in officialdom it was good to drift aimlessly in the old city. Walking up the inclining road from polo ground towards the chief secretary’s office, I stopped at a cobbler’s shop and inquired about that gora’s grave. The old man pointed to the wall opposite his shop, adjacent to which was the Public Works Department rest house where I had stayed a year ago. The door was locked so I peeped over the wall. It was a small compound with mulberry trees, the branches of which were touching the ground. The remaining portion had thick undergrowth. Anything underneath them was almost obscured by this green shroud. It was a fascinating sight which impelled me to jump over the wall and while I was in the process of attempting the same, an old man deftly intercepted my maneuver. He had observed my effort from his shop, crossed the road and unlocked the rusted lock; the lock itself looked more ancient than the old man who unlocked it. He and his father were appointed the official keepers of this cemetery in 1941, however their pay was stopped by some babu in mid-’60s. Since then the matter had been in litigation in the court, with the possession of the cemetery still with them.

George Hayward was reburried here after he was murdered in Yasin valley.

The cemetery had a few tombstones still standing but it took some time looking through the thick undergrowth to find where George Hayward was buried. The tombstone was put up by Royal Geographic Society (RGS) to honour their gold medalist (given posthumously) who was on his way “to explore the Pamir Steppe” but was “murdered cruelly at Darkot” on July 18, 1870. From Hayward’s perspective, the word ‘cruelly’ was used cruelly by RGS – it should have been replaced by the word ‘treacherously’, an expression signifying the betrayal of the Raj.

On returning to the Civil Services Academy on the Mall in Lahore, I submitted my written report about ‘discovering’ George Hayward’s grave. This was much appreciated by the director general. A year later my friend Salman Rashid, the most famous travel writer of our times, followed my footsteps and visited this cemetery. He wrote a piece in a newspaper which suddenly brought Hayward’s grave, once completely forgotten, into limelight. Between 2010 and 20013 while I was posted on deputation in WAPDA as the general manager looking after the Diamer-Bhasha dam project, I frequently visited this cemetery which was very nicely kept, a sharp contrast to my first discovery visit to Hayward’s grave. A fine wooden kiosk had been put up near the entrance of the cemetery and a wooden board on it declared that local administration in conjunction with ‘World Ministries-UK restored the old British Graveyard’ in 2002. Volunteers at the kiosk offered me some pamphlets with details about the renovation work and a brief history of George Hayward, but nothing more about other graves in the cemetery.

Though he was a victim of intrigue, a few years prior to his death, George Hayward had a premonition: an “insane desire to feel cold steel” slicing through his throat.

Dead men tell no tales, though some of the tombstones reveal interesting facts about them. Capt Shaw Johnson of the 33rd Madras Infantry was out shooting on the morning of March 27, 1900, when he slipped off the cliff near Raikot nullah and died. The tombstone was erected by his loving mother and his brother officers in Gilgit Agency. Another grave is that of Capt Claye Ross Ross of the 14th Sikhs who, aged 33, died on March 10, 1895, along with 45 brave Sikhs killed at the same time. He was the son of Gen Sir CCG Ross. One more stone was put up “in loving memory of Richard Glen Ackerley” aged 25 years, who fell from the mountain and died near Gilgit on July 19, 1899. He was born in New Zealand and was “the loved son of Trixie and Bob, and was the brother of Sharon and Kevin”. A stone is put up in the memory of five members of the Batura-Muztagh expedition of 1955 who were lost on the 25,540 feet Batura Peak. One of the latest graves is that of Samuel Nelson Martin, a schoolteacher from Huntingdon, England. He was just 25 years old in 1988 when he slipped from a mountain at Sost, near the Chinese border.

The tombstones particularly aroused my curiosity, leading me to my own small library. Raleigh Trevelyan was ‘born in the East’ in 1923 and had spent childhood years in Gilgit where his father, Capt Walter Trevelyan of Kashmir State Infantry, was posted as military advisor in 1929. The details about the two graves were found in the pages of the book The Golden Oriole, an autobiography of Raleigh Trevelyan. Both graves were dug because the unfortunate occupants took mighty Indus too lightly.

The other stone simply read: “Remember Ian and Mary Galbraith”. Ian Galbraith was a political agent at Gilgit who got transferred out in 1939. On leaving Gilgit he had insisted on going down the Indus with his wife in a rubber dinghy. His wife, not comfortable with the idea, had sent the children ahead through the land route via Astore and the dreaded Burzil pass. Within fifteen minutes the dinghy got overturned and both were drowned in the icy turbulent waters of the Lion River.

Captain Harold Eldred’s grave who drowned near Bunji. Tombstone was put up by his mother in April 1930.

“Until the day breaks; and the shadows flee away” were the last lines of the second tombstone that caught my attention. The story of the flamboyant Capt Eldred seemed like a fragmented dream. Raleigh Trevelyan noted in his memoirs that “Bunji was the real oasis for the travellers, with green millet fields and poplar trees. The two British liaison officers stationed there, Captains Cooper and Eldred, had a pub sign outside their bungalow, ‘Ye Oldie Pigge and Whistle’, and there were other jokes such as ‘Park your car here’ and a signpost showing how many miles to London and Peking. Below the bungalow was Indus, looking deceptively placid.”

Bunji is a place, about 35 miles from Gilgit, where the Indus River takes a perfect ninety degree turn and starts flowing due south. The sign ‘Ye Oldie Pigge and Whistle’ was put up when Lord Curzon crossed Bunji in 1895 and stayed in a flea-haunted bedroom later describing the experience as “the night of horror”. “At night there was a chorus of pie dogs. Some would even come into the tents, darting under beds, and snarling at one another.” Trevelyan’s nanny, Ms Spencer, noted in her diary: “Capt Eldred had brought a small motorboat from the plains. The natives do not like it, and have asked Mr Todd, the political agent at Gilgit, to have it removed, as the fairies of the mountains will be annoyed, and it will bring harm to them.” The native superstition was ignored.

On December 1, 1929, Cap Eldred and his partner Capt Cooper were on their way to Gor for a shoot on Eldred’s motorboat when it struck a rock and they were thrown into the water. They got on the rock and then decided to swim to the shore. Eldred drowned but Cooper managed to get ashore. Six weeks later Eldred’s body washed up on a bank far down the river and was brought back to Gilgit by coolies on a bed. Capt Harold S Eldred of Sikh Pioneers, Kashmir Infantry, was thus buried in this cemetery. The fairies of meadows had the last laugh.

When the weather improved in April, his mother made a journey across the mountains to see her son’s grave. Trevelyan noted in his memoirs that she had a tragic face. The opening line of the tombstone thus reads: “In the loving memory of our only son Eldred…” Captain Eldred was only 33 years old and was the only son of his parents. His mother, compelled by motherly instinct, braved the toughest journey of her life; across snow clad high mountain passes, only to find some solace at her son’s grave.

This year on July 18, exactly 151 years after the murder of George Hayward and 27 years after I rediscovered his grave, I, along with my wife and Manal, the young bird watcher of the family, paid a visit to this Christian cemetery in Gilgit. The scene was not much different from when I first visited it in 1994. The place was as unkempt as it was three decades ago. We found the kiosk locked, the place deserted, thick undergrowth shrouded the tombstones and water seeping through the graves. The only thing unchanged was the key to the lock on the door of the cemetery – well, it is still with the shoemaker whose shop is across the road.


The writer is a retired civil servant, a conservationist and an animal rights activist. He can be reached at dr.rahealgmail.com



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