In this compelling investigative biography, bestselling author of India: A History, John Keay, takes readers on a quest from the American West to the Asian East to unravel the greatest enigma in the history of travel.  Alexander Gardner – a 19th-century Scots-American traveller, adventurer and mercenary – lived a life many found too outrageous to believe and using a wealth of original material and compelling new evidence, Keay uncovers the truth about a character seemingly from the ‘Flashman’ stories.

Among the many gripping tales of travel and exploration the tale of Alexander Gardner is surely one of the most extraordinary. Master storyteller John Keay deftly sifts truth from myth-making to uncover fascinating new evidence, revealing an amazing tale worthy of Kipling or Flashman of a life lived further out on the edge than most could even imagine.
— Michael Wood

HB ǀ £25.00 ǀ 9781911271000 ǀ 16 February 2017 ǀ Kashi House (distributed by Allison and Busby)

The Tartan Turban by John Keay

Like the travels of Marco Polo, those of Alexander Gardner clip the white line between credible adventure and creative invention. Either he is the nineteenth century’s most intrepid traveller or its most egregious fantasist, or a bit of both. Contemporaries generally believed him; posterity became more sceptical. And as with Polo, the investigation of Gardner’s story enlarged man’s understanding of the world and upped the pace of scientific and political exploration.

For before more reputable explorers notched up their own discoveries in innermost Asia, this lone Scots-American had roamed the deserts of Turkestan, ridden round the world’s most fearsome knot of mountains and fought in Afghanistan ‘for the good cause of right against wrong’. From the Caspian to Tibet and from Kandahar to Kashgar, Gardner had seen it all. At the time, the 1820s, no other outsider had managed anything remotely comparable. When word of his feats filtered out, geographers were agog.

Historians were more intrigued by what followed. After thirteen years as a white-man-gone-native in Central Asia, Gardner re-emerged as a colonel of artillery in the employ of India’s last great native empire. He witnessed the death throes of that Sikh empire at close quarters and, sparing no gruesome detail, recorded his own part in the bloodshed (the very same featuring as the exploits of ‘Alick’ Gardner in the ‘Flashman’ series).

Fame finally caught up with him during his long retirement in Kashmir. Dressed in tartan yet still living as a native, he mystified visiting dignitaries and found a ready audience for the tales of his adventurous past - including saving the city of Lahore in 1841 by singlehandedly killing 300 invaders. But one mystery he certainly took to the grave: the whereabouts of his accumulated fortune has still to be discovered. 

JOHN KEAY has been a professional writer, scholar, broadcaster and traveller for more than 40 years. He has written and presented over 100 documentaries for BBC Radios 3 and 4 and is the author of some two dozen books mainly on Asia and exploration. His narrative histories India: A History, China: A History and The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company are widely regarded as standard works. A Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, his prose has been described as ‘exquisite’ (Observer) and his historical analysis as ‘forensic’ (The Guardian). He has also edited The Royal Geographical Society’s History of World Exploration and encyclopaedias of both Scotland and London. For his literary contribution to Asian studies he was awarded the Royal Society for Asian Affairs' Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal in 2009. He lives in Argyll.

Talking Points

Exploration and travel

The travels of a maverick mercenary who, having crossed Central Asia's arid deserts and high
mountain passes in the hope of finding ‘happiness among wild races and in exploring unknown lands’, astounded his contemporaries in ways no man had since Marco Polo

Lone Survivor

What are the odds of a lone traveller surviving thirteen years amidst some of the harshest conditions in Asia, roaming the deserts of Turkestan, trekking round the world’s most fearsome knot of mountains, fending off a wolf-pack, evading the clutches of Central Asian slave-traders, engaging in raids and ambushes against bandits in Afghanistan, and spending nine months in an underground dungeon?

Lost treasure

The fabulous treasure horde, amassed by an American soldier of fortune who had the opportunity to steal the Koh-i-Noor diamond, remains waiting to be discovered somewhere in the subcontinent

Inspiration for Kipling?

As the first white man to trek across the secretive anti-Islamic mountain enclave of Kafiristan (‘Land of the Unbeliever’) and live to tell the tale, was Alexander Gardner the real inspiration behind Kipling’s famous novel, The Man Who Would Be King?

The First American in Afghanistan

Revealing the remarkable tale of a lone American who, two centuries before the United States’ began its military action, became the first of his nation to venture into Afghanistan.

A Son of Scotland & His Tartan Turban

Exploring the ancestry, shifting identities, achievements and tartan tastes of a pioneering Scots American who went native in Asia.

The fashion of white men wearing turbans

Alexander Burnes - British political agent in Afghanistan who lost Alexander Gardner’s crucial Kafiristan journal in the 1840s

Queen Victoria’s sons - they were dressed up like Sikh princes by Maharaja Duleep Singh
(who Gardner had guarded when he ruled at Lahore) soon after his arrival in the UK in 1854
William Simpson - war artist who, like George Landseer who captured Gardner’s portrait, was in
Kashmir in 1860s; the works of both artists are in the collections of the Victoria & Albert

George Hayward - a military man who turned explorer consulted Gardner on routes into the
Pamir mountains

August Schoefft - painter who travelled across India in the 1830s-40s and produced works
connected to the court of Lahore (captured other white officers but not Gardner, who may
have been away on campaign)

Victorian / Edwardian military officers - men like General Sir Samuel James Browne VC (Sam Browne’s Cavalry), Captain Robert Shebbeare VC (15th Punjab Infantry) and Sir John Smyth VC, who wore turbans on campaign, all commanded men (or their descendants in the case of Smyth) from the disbanded Sikh army when Britain took control of Punjab

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