English explorer (1823-1911)

by Raymond John Howgego

Born into an old Lincolnshire family whose residence was The Grange at Welwyn in Hertfordshire, Smyth was educated at Rugby School. While there he was a contemporary of Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, who immortalized Smyth as ‘Crab Jones’ – ‘the queerest, coolest fish in Rugby. If he were tumbled into the moon this minute, he would just pick himself up without taking his hands out of his pockets or turning a hair’. From Rugby in 1842, Smyth went out to India as an ensign with the 13th Bengal Native Infantry and saw action at the battles of Chenab and Gujerat in the Second Sikh War (1848-49). In the early 1850s, while stationed with his regiment at Delhi, he took frequent hunting expeditions into the Himalaya. About 1853 he hunted in the company of the future explorer, Lieutenant JOHN HANNING SPEKE, making clandestine excursions into the Tibetan borderlands and remaining ‘for months together in Chinese Tartary to the north of the Himalyah mountains from Mansarovar Lake [= Mapam Yumco] to Askardo, Little Tibet’. In 1854 Smyth, Speke and some fellow officers decided to go home together on a three-year furlough, but while Smyth made his way back to England, Speke got no further than Aden where he fell in with Richard Burton (q.v.) and agreed to join Burton on his expedition to Somaliland. In the summer of 1854, Smyth, already an accomplished mountaineer, joined his two clergyman brothers in a climbing holiday in the Alps, making several first ascents, including one of the Monte Rosa. The next year he served in Crimea, once again encountering Burton and his old friend Speke, and with the latter drew up plans for an expedition across the Caucasus and around the Caspian Sea into Russian Central Asia. However, when advised by the Royal Geographical Society that their timing was ill-chosen and that passports were unavailable, Speke and Smyth abandoned the projected excursion.

Smyth returned to India in 1857 to find that his regiment, which had suffered heavy losses at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny, had been disbanded. Over the next four years he spent each summer exploring in the mountains of Kumaon and Garhwal, travelling light with a two-man tent that accommodated just himself and his servant. Smyth’s journeys at this time are largely unrecorded, but it is known that he reopened a long disused pass between Niti and Badarinath on the upper reaches of the Ganges, and that he applied unsuccessfully to the Indian government for permission to lead an expedition to Lhasa. Smyth maintained a close correspondence with his friend Speke, and in 1859 was selected to accompany the explorer on an expedition to discover the source of the Nile. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Speke changed his mind at the last minute and instead selected James Augustus Grant. In 1861 Smyth was appointed to the newly-created post of inspector of the Kumaon Circle Public Instruction Department, with instructions to establish Indian vernacular schools in the Kumaon highlands. Although the job offered few prospects for promotion, it did provide Smyth with the opportunity for further exploration, and it was from the teachers in the newly established schools that Smyth selected some of the early pundits, notably NAIN SINGH and his cousin MANI SINGH, to be trained by Thomas George Montgomerie  for secret cross-border survey work. Around 1860-61, Smyth was hunting in the region of Lake Mansarovar when he shot a wild yak, the fur of which was returned to England and stuffed for preservation in the Leeds Museum (where it still remains). It was apparently the first example of a wild yak to be displayed in Europe. In 1863 Smyth crossed the Himalaya via the Lipti Lekh pass in a clandestine attempt to reach Lhasa, but was turned back at Taklakot (= Burang), just inside the Tibetan border.

In the summer of 1864 Smyth decided to make another attempt to enter Tibet, this time in the company of three other Britons: the Hon. ROBERT ANDREW JOHN DRUMMOND (see below), an officer in the Indian civil service who had surreptitiously entered Tibet on previous occasions; THOMAS W. WEBBER, a young forest officer; and HENRY HODGSON, a friend of Webber’s. To ensure the secrecy of the expedition, the four men made their way independently into Kumaon, rendezvousing at a village close to the Lipu Lekh pass which marked the border with Tibet. The party, heavily armed with hunting rifles, put flight to the first party of Tibetan guards they encountered, but on arrival at Taklakot found their way ahead barred by the local dzongpon who threatened to report back to Lhasa. Smyth and his party reluctantly agreed to retreat into Nepal by following the Purang and Karnali valleys, but about 20 kilometres further on were advised by their Bhotia guides that a pass existed to the northeast which would lead them onto the Tibetan plateau. Leaving the Karnali, after a two day march they arrived at the Dakeo Pass (= Takhu or Tabsi La) – ‘a passage between high walls of black basaltic rock, a veritable gateway of death’ at an estimated altitude of 20,000 feet (6100 metres). Struggling over the pass they came out ‘on the watershed of the Brahmaputra’. Once on the plateau, the party frequently separated, Webber and Hodgson exploring westward to catch a view of Lake Mansarovar and the sacred Mount Kailas, about 30 kilometres to the west, then moving rapidly eastward about 80 kilometres to where the Kubi Tsangpo joins the main course of the Damqoq Zangbo or upper Brahmaputra.

Remarkably, this important expedition remained unreported for thirty-eight years and only came to light when Webber, now in retirement in England, recorded it in his Forests of Upper India. When the book was shown to Sven Hedin, recently returned from Tibet and claiming the discovery of the source of the Brahmaputra as his own, Hedin dismissed the account as worthless and riddled with inconsistencies, devoting six pages of his Southern Tibet to demolishing Webber’s claims. However, a more dispassionate analysis by Charles Allen in his A Mountain in Tibet has established the veracity of Webber’s narrative, pointing out the errors in Hedin’s interpretation. Smyth remained with the Kumaon department until 1868 and was well known to the distinguished army officer, hunter and explorer DONALD MACINTYRE (see below), who records something of Smyth’s activities in his Hindu Koh. When Smyth visited England on furlough in 1868 he decided to retire and never return to India. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society the following year and stayed closely associated with the society until 1905. He wrote nothing about his travels other than a few (unprinted) letters to the Society, and he published nothing other than an obituary of the pundit Nain Singh, whom he had recruited in 1863. Smyth died at Bordighera on the Italian Riviera in October 1911. His obituary, penned by ‘A.L.M’ for the Geographical Journal in January 1912, remains virtually the only source for Smyth’s life beyond his travels.

ROBERT ANDREW JOHN DRUMMOND (1820-87) was the fifth son of James Andrew John Laurence Charles Drummond (1767-1851), 8th Viscount Strathallan, whose seat was at Perth. He entered the Indian civil service along with an elder brother Edmund Drummond (1814-95), later lieutenant-governor of the North-Western Provinces. At the time of the Mutiny, Robert was a magistrate at Agra where, during the siege of the city, he collected all European families into the fort – an action which, although it saved many lives, led to the looting and razing of many European residences. Strongly criticized for his handling of the affair, he was subsequently transferred to Bundelkund, an arid plains district south of Patna. During periods of leave he hunted and explored widely in the Indo-Tibetan borderlands, and on his first journey is said to have launched an India-rubber boat on Lake Mansarovar – an act of extreme sacrilege which offended ‘Hindus and Thibetans alike’. Like Smyth, Drummond never publicly acknowledged having made the journeys, cross-border expeditions being forbidden to government servants.

DONALD MACINTYRE (1831-1903) was born at Kingcraig, Ross & Cromarty, and joined the Indian army early in the 1850s. He first visited Kashmir in 1853 and over the next thirty years, during periods of leave, he explored and hunted in the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush. In 1872, while serving as a major in the Bengal Staff Corps and 2nd Gurkha Rifles during the Looshai Campaign in northeast India, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for valiantly storming the stockaded village of Lalgnoora. He retired with the rank of major-general in the Prince of Wales Own Goorkha Regiment, died at Fortrose in April 1903 and was buried in Rosmarkie churchyard, near Fortrose. His Victoria Cross is held by 2nd Gurkha Rifles Regimental Trust. MacIntyre’s Hindu-Koh: Wanderings and Wild Sport on and beyond the Himalayas, first published in 1889, is now regarded as a classic of its genre.


Webber, Thomas W., The forests of Upper India and their inhabitants (London 1902).
MacIntyre, Donald, Hindu-Koh: wanderings and wild sport on and beyond the Himalayas (Edinburgh 1889, 1891 [2 edns]); New Delhi 1993; Safari Press 1994 [500 copies]).
A.L.M., ‘Obituary: Colonel Edmund Smyth’, Geographical Journal 39, 1, Jan. 1912.
Allen, Charles, A mountain in Tibet (London 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986).
Brears, Peter, Of curiosities and rare things: the story of Leeds City museums (Leeds 1989).
Smyth, Edmund, ‘Obituary: the Pundit Nain Singh’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, new series 4, 5, May 1882.