How a Kashmiri ‘merchant and spy’ finally got out-of prison in 19th-century-Tibet

In August 1830, the acting British Resident in Kathmandu, Brian Houghton Hodgson, received a strange petition. It came from Ahmed Ali, a Kashmiri merchant who had been imprisoned in Lhasa, Tibet, on charges of being a spy by Chinese authorities loyal to the Qing dynasty. Describing himself as a “dependent and servant” of the British, Ali sought help. The Chinese officials (called the Amban) in Lhasa insisted he was a spy, for incriminating documents had been found on him.

The work of historians, in particular John Bray and his essay, Trader, Middleman or Spy? The Dilemmas of a Kashmiri Muslim in Early 19th Century Tibet, tells us about Ahmed Ali’s compulsions and his numerous interactions with the British over a 15-year period. Matthew W Mosca’s essay, Kashmiri merchants and Qing Intelligence Networks in the Himalayas, details the wider role played by Kashmiri merchants in this region. Besides, there are also accounts provided by British administrators and explorers of the time, William Moorcroft and Brian Houghton Hodgson, that shed tangential information on this.

Ali’s story began 15 years earlier, around 1815 or thereabouts. It can be placed within a larger context, that of the wider world of Kashmiri merchants who for 350 years and more (early 17th century to mid-19th century CE, as written documents go) served as trade and cultural intermediaries across a region that encompassed Kashmir, Ladakh, Tibet, and Western and Southwestern China.

Trading community

They traded in wool, animal skin, silk, spices, and also opium. At a time when Persian was the main language in trade centres and routes across Central and West Asia and in Mughal and later British India, the Kashmiris were also translators, interpreters and even diplomatic agents.

Their movement across this region, through the passes of the Himalayas and the Karakoram, speak of a time when borders were more fluid or were just being ascertained. It was a time when the science of map-making was also relatively rudimentary. Islam, the religion professed by most among the Kashmiri merchant community, ensured a close-knit and devout community. Kinship networks helped find community across a broad region – though there were instances when they married local women and settled down, as in Ladakh.

Ali’s life encompassed, at various times, these three roles: he was, as Bray writes, a “trader, middleman and then also a spy”.

In the early 17th century, the rulers of Ladakh gave a group of Kashmiri merchants permission to trade in wool, while one group was also allowed to mint coins. Around the same time, the fifth Dalai Lama, Bray writes, wrote to the Mughal emperor (perhaps Shah Jahan or Aurangzeb) for Persian translators and interpreters in his court and Kashmiri merchants stepped in. Their role became crucial beginning the late 18th century. The Kashmiri merchants and intermediaries assisted and even travelled with Italian Jesuit missionaries Ippolito Desideri and Manuel Freyre through Ladakh to Tibet, acting as bank agents and, of course, interpreters.

In a way eerily resembling the present, in the 1770s, when the governor general of the East India Company, Warren Hastings, realised that the Chinese Qing dynasty was beginning to have a greater say in the affairs of the Gorkha-ruled kingdom of Nepal, he sought a way towards Tibet via the kingdoms of Cooch Behar (North Bengal) and Bhutan. British official George Bogle, accompanied by surgeon Alexander Hamilton and a mysterious Tibetan agent called Purangir Gosain, travelled to Lhasa in 1774. This first British mission to Tibet, immortalised in Tilly Kettle’s 1775 painting, had some limited success. Bogle died of cholera but much before this, it is believed, he married a Tibetan woman with whom he had two daughters.

Moorcroft and Ali

It wasn’t until 1815 or so that the British made more serious overtures. These endeavours were largely spurred by the efforts of William Moorcroft, a British explorer, veterinary surgeon and head of the Company Stud in Calcutta (which bred good quality horses for the Army). It was this need that led Moorcroft to explore North India, Ladakh, Kashmir and beyond. He understood well the value the network of Kashmir merchants and traders presented – for trade and knowledge and information of this area, and about Chinese intentions.

It wasn’t until 1815 or so that the British made more serious overtures. These endeavours were largely spurred by the efforts of William Moorcroft, a British explorer, veterinary surgeon and head of the Company Stud in Calcutta (which bred good quality horses for the Army). It was this need that led Moorcroft to explore North India, Ladakh, Kashmir and beyond. He understood well the value the network of Kashmir merchants and traders presented – for trade and knowledge and information of this area, and about Chinese intentions.

In 1815, as Bray and Mosca write, Moorcroft first forwarded a proposal from Ahmed Ali to the East India Company headquarters in Calcutta. Ali was the Patna-based representative of a Kashmiri trading house with branches not just in Ladakh and Tibet but also in Kathmandu, Dhaka and Patna. He traded in otter furs and skins from Chittagong and Dhaka to Tibet. He had a family and owned property in Lhasa.

Yet he, as Moorcroft persuasively wrote, was keen to help the British. Ali referenced his knowledge of Nepali officials being in contact with the Chinese. He also knew the secret roads from the Nepal border with India to Kathmandu.

The governor general in council had reservations about Ali. For once, having promised to help the British, Ali began to dither. He feared his being an agent would harm the Kashmiri community in Tibet, who were beholden to the Chinese. He also feared for his family and property in Lhasa.

At the end, around 1817, between the British and Ali, or more specifically between Moorcroft and Ali, certain agreements were made: that Ali would help them in an informal capacity, for he was not formally anointed a British agent. It was Moorcroft who advanced Ali a small loan against his trade interests and as a precaution, in case his goods (otter skins were perishable) suffered because of his initial journey and covert activity.

Ali’s appeal

Fifteen years went by before Ali appeared in the news again – in the form of that desperate appeal for help to Brian Hodgson, the acting British Resident in Kathmandu. His mentor, Moorcroft, had died while on an exploratory trip in Bukhara in 1825. Despite this, occasional sightings of Moorcroft continued to be reported. There were stories that Moorcroft had disguised himself as a Kashmiri “Mussalman merchant”, for he spoke several languages and had travelled incognito up to Tibet. However, these sightings were eventually confirmed as rumours.

As for Ahmed Ali, his appeal came from a falling out. As Bray writes, two of his brothers in Lhasa reported their suspicions about Ali being a British agent to the Amban. The documents in Ali’s possession were handed over to Qing officials, who had the original Persian translated to Chinese, again with the help of Kashmiri interlocutors and translators. The documents, rudimentary maps and survey reports provided an accurate assessment of border roads, the topography around Tibet, the nature of the Chinese presence in Lhasa – data that proved to be very incriminatory.

Confrontation and resolution

Hodgson took his time sending Ali’s petition to Calcutta. The British response was equally cagey and tactful (though it remains doubtful if it ever reached the Chinese). It suggested that Ahmed Ali was no British agent but a free-wheeler of sorts, and that the documents he claimed to have recorded were no secret but widely known, thanks to, as the British cheekily added, official Chinese gazettes.

The Chinese obviously wished to avoid a confrontation. Hodgson learnt in April 1831, again via the network of Kashmiri merchants and Nepalese officials close to China, that the Chinese had granted Ali’s release. They did refuse to accede to Hodgson’s later request that Ali’s release be delayed to after the malaria season (after the rains). The British Resident, however, sent an elephant and porters to ensure Ali safely crossed the border into Kathmandu and then on to British India.

Little is known about what happened to Ali thereafter. He was compensated to some extent for his efforts – the British dug out old records from 15 years ago. The goods he had with him, fine silks and woollen clothes worn in Tibet and parts of China, were assessed by the then secretary of the Asiatic Society (another Moorcroft discovery), Hungarian scholar Alexander (Sándor) Csoma de K?rös, and placed in the museum in Calcutta. The rest, comprising tea and other perishables, were sold off.

Csoma would go on to earn fame as the compiler of the first Tibetan English dictionary. Hodgson would make a notable contribution not just as a diplomat but also as an educationist, making a case for vernacular education across India. He also apparently married a Kashmiri woman while in Kathmandu. Charles Allen’s 2015 biography on Hodgson, The Prisoner of Kathmandu: 1820-1843, lauds the Briton’s many contributions toward building a valuable knowledge base about Nepal, its languages, flora and fauna – something that rightly gave him the title, father of Himalayan studies.

The Article First Appeared In Scroll.In

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