The British Empire

The First to believe the Russians posed a  threat to Britain

William Moorcroft was an English explorer who was an East India Company servant who through his travels in the lands north of India came to believe that the Russians posed a threat to British India. He came to this conclusion about the  Russians at a time when Russia was an ally of Britain but despite that was one of the first to explore the regions of the Himalayas, Pamirs and the lands of  central Asia ruled over by a variety of Emirs and Khans in order to gain intelligence about a region he believed would be fought  over by the British and Russians. As such he can be one of the first men to play the Great Game – that game of chess played out between Russia and Britain in the c19th to see who would dominate the region which so many believed was vital to Britain’s wealth and security.

He Grew up to become a Veterinary Surgeon

Moorcroft was born in Lancashire to a farming family and when William showed an ability to treat diseased animals local landowners enabled him to attend a veterinary college in France and qualified as a veterinary surgeon in 1789. He began to practise in London and helped to set up a hospital for horses and later in 1795 produced a pamphlet for the treatment of horses.

Joining the East India Company

In 1808 Moorcroft joined the East India Company to take charge of the Company’s stud in Calcutta. He found on arrival that the quality of the stock was poor and soon set about improving the quality of the horses. He introduced the cultivation of oats and began to travel extensively north of the Himalayas.

He travelled to Tibet in search of horses in 1812 and returned without any to the annoyance of his employers but he did learn from Tibetans of Russian traders working in the area and began to believe that the Russians posed a threat to the British position in India. He realised the potential of the area for British trade and on his return urged his superiors in Calcutta to adopt a forward policy in Central Asia to pre-empt Russian moves southwards as well as developing the trade of British cloth in the area. Moorcroft believed that a small force of British officers with native soldiers could guard the vital passes through the Himalayas, but his ideas gained little support in London or in Calcutta. In urging such a policy Moorcroft was the first person to do so.

A Breed of Horse that had Stamina and Speed

Moorcroft became convinced that in Central Asia there existed a breed of horse that had great speed and stamina. He heard that in Bukhara, south of the Karakum Desert, there was the finest horse market in the whole world and after a campaign of several years eventually persuaded his superiors to allow him to explore the routes through Afghanistan to Bukhara.

His First Expedition

After a years preparations Moorcroft left East India Company territories in March 1819 for a 2000 mile expedition. He had no official status so that he could be disowned if caught. He had a column of oxen pulling carts that were laden with everything from porcelain to pistols that he could exchange or use as presents. His two main colleagues were George Trebeck and George Guthrie. Afghanistan was going through a period of civil strife, so Moorcroft decided to skirt Afghanistan and approach Bukhara from the east through the city of Leh, capital of the Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh which was reached in September 1820.

The Russians had got there first

Moorcroft had not been in Leh long before he discovered that Russia was already trading with the kingdom. A Russian by the name of Aga Mehdi had established a link between the tsar and the government in Leh and had also established links with local leaders in Kashgar, a Muslim area in the far west of China. Mehdi had let it be known that Russia would support local leaders throw off the mantle of Chinese control. Clearly the Russians had a head start on the British in extending influence and control in Central Asia. Mehdi though died under mysterious circumstances and Moorcroft used the opportunity to conclude a commercial treaty with the government of Ladakh by which the whole of central Asia was to be opened to British trade. Unfortunately for Moorcroft, he had no authority to negotiate and sign such a treaty which was being made with a territory which was regarded as a protectorate of Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Punjab and a British ally. The treaty was subsequently disowned by the British government and Moorcroft was suspended by the British government. Before a second letter could arrive recalling him, Moorcroft left Leh in the Spring of 1824 for Bokhara which was to be reached via Kashmir and the Punjab.

Travelling beyond Leh was difficult because local merchants controlled the route, but Moorcroft and his party reached Bokhara on February 25, 1825. The city was the holiest city in Muslim central Asia and as they entered the city they were taken for Russians by the local children, thus making Moorcroft even more paranoid about Russian intentions in this part of the world.

He died in a remote village

The Russians had arrived several years previously and established a lucrative trade in their industrial goods. For the Russians the Great Game was always just as much about extending trade to maintain the industrialisation of Russia. Moorcroft tried to initiate trade with the local people, but he found they preferred the inferior industrial goods they were buying from the Russians. Moorcroft did not even find the horses he was looking for and soon began the journey back to India. Soon after leaving Bokhara Moorcroft left the main body of his expedition to try and buy horses from a remote village. He was never seen again and is thought to have died from enteric fever around the 25 August 1825. His body was later found and brought back by his men to Balkh and buried there. Soon after his colleagues George Trebeck and George Guthrie also died.

His Grave was found by Alexander Burnes

In 1832 Alexander Burnes found Moorcroft’s grave, half covered by a mud wall whilst on a trip himself to Bokhara. He reburied Moorcroft alongside a road along which Russian soldiers passed on their way to Afghanistan in 1980. Moorcroft was one of the first players of the Great Game, but he was by no means the last.

William Moorcroft

William Moorcroft’s Plaque in Lahore


Alexander Burnes