A Nice Long Ramble Round Mt. Everest

I’ve started reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, at the.chronicler’s recommendation. It’s a good read, the story of an ill-fated expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest in 1996, and very foreboding and ominous so far,.

In the opening pages, Krakauer describes how the British discovered Mt. Everest to be the tallest mountain in the world. It was 1852 and the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was working its way across the northern hill country. You heard me right – The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.

I’ll bet Phineas Fogg was Surveyor General before he made that wager about getting Around the World in 80 Days. In fact, let’s go back in time…

Phinney is sitting on the verandah of his bungalow swatting flies and swilling Pimm’s Cups when in runs his chief clerk.

“Sahib, sahib, big news from Calcutta. Radhanath Sikhdar has discovered the highest mountain in the world!”

Phinney pulls himself together, banishes his Pimm’s Cup influenced afternoon haze and his daydreams of Maryanne on the lawn in Devon, stands up and strides down the verandah in his great black boots. A fly lands on his ear.

“Blast these beastly flies! What’s that you say? Old Raddy has…what?”

Radhanath Sikhdar is the Great Trigonometrical Survey’s chief computer. Yes, true. By 1852 there were Indian guys who had mastered trig, a subject that had not existed in the land before the Brit’s arrival. I’ll bet they studied at Fort William College, the first college in India, set up by the governor of India and his shoemaker friend William Carey, the first Christian missionary of modern times and an amazing working-class Renaissance man. He was as interested in botany and typesetting and Sanskrit and butterflies and outlawing suttee (the practice of burning up widows) as he was in teaching the Gospel, which he also did surpassingly well.

It’s tragic how the nineteenth century missionary movement became identified so rapidly with European empire-building. Guys like William Carey were light years ahead of the government and its favorite stepchild, the British East India Company. He had to fight to get in. They didn’t want him around messing up their little sinecure.

Or guys like the mid-Victorian Hudson Taylor, the first Christian missionary in modern times to get beyond the Chinese coastline. He just sailed out there and walked in. Grew his hair in a queue. Learned Mandarin. Didn’t bother with gin and tonic at the club because there wasn’t any club. The British government had no control over him whatsoever. He was doing what Jesus said – telling the Good News to everybody who would listen. Yet by the time of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, Chinese Christians were massacred by the rebels who considered them to be either fifth column or patsies for the white devil enemy.

And the missions did become suspect as they went along. For instance, in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela tells about attending a South African Christian boarding school for exceptional blacks. As he describes it, the school’s purpose was to produce good little black Englishmen with bowlers and umbrellas that could join the civil servant class, keep the Empire’s books, and run its post offices. In Mandela’s experience, Clarkebury Boarding Institute was a Church of England Christian school – but it was very much an arm of Empire.

Anyway, back to our story. In 1852 Everest was called Peak XV and nobody suspected anything unusual about it. A few years earlier, British surveyors had managed to measure, and I quote Krakauer, “the angle of its rise with a twenty-four inch theodolite,” an old but very accurate surveyor’s tool. (find picture) They measured the mountain from six different places, but they never got closer than a hundred miles away. Then they moved on to the next mountain.

I wonder if this team was boldly marching up, over and through Nepal, a country that remains wild and wooly even today, with Maoist machine gunners sharing the trekker’s paths. And as far as I know, the British were strictly forbidden to be there. Nepal was an independent kingdom.

In any case, the team eventually delivered their data to the Calcutta office, where Raddy Sikhdar the computer “took into account the curvature of the earth, atmospheric refraction, and plumb-line deflection” and using meticulous trigonometric reckoning, figured out that Peak XV was 29,002 feet high.

Then he went home and had chai.

I hope you’re amazed. I am. Hurray for the British Empire, Phineas Fogg, and the great Raddy Sikhdar, master computer! It wasn’t until satellites and lasers came along over a century later that humans discovered Peak XV’s height is actually 29,028 feet high. Using 1849 measurements and 1852 computing techniques, Raddy Sikhdar had missed it by twenty-six feet.

What an adventure the nineteenth century British were on. I know most of their colonial expansion was driven by pure greed and military-political game playing. They mushed up and mauled traditional cultures that had flourished for thousands of years. They left disease and malnutrition in their wake. But they cured disease too. And built railroads and mail systems and schools and hospitals. And they tried to stop evil traditional practices like widow burning and foot crushing.

I admire their great, adolescent “the world is my oyster” attitude. Think of it…imagine we’re up in a big hot air balloon looking down on the Victorian British Empire…

  • Down in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan we see some Brits on an expedition to find the source of the Nile.
  • Over in China, some other guys are getting on their Bactrian camels to see if there are any dinosaur eggs out in the Gobi Desert.
  • In Arabia, Sir Richard Burton is disguising himself as a Muslim pilgrim to see what goes on in Mecca.
  • In Turkey, we see a proper Englishwoman bicycling across Anatolia looking for new butterfly species.
  • In India, there’s Rudyard Kipling writing The Man Who Would Be King and Mowgli the Jungle Boy.
  • The Scottish storyteller Robert Louis Stevenson has sailed down to Samoa, built a home for his family, and now he’s trading stories with the tribal chiefs.
  • And there, in the Rocky Mountains, isn’t that young Lord Stuffensuch wandering around with a guide and a rifle, looking for a grizzly to mount over his fireplace?

It was a pretty cool time to be a wealthy, educated Englishman of a certain class. Or a normal Englishman with a vision, like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, or David Livingstone. The old boy network was named after the first group of guys, graduates of Eton and Harrow almost everyone. Here’s an example of how it worked: when in 1865 India’s Surveyor General Sir Andrew Waugh got around to naming Peak XV, he named it after Sir George Everest.

Who was Sir George? Why, the preceding Surveyor General, of course.

However, before I proceed to sneering remarks about the Old Boy Network, I must tell you that Sir George Everest was another of those wonderful, monomaniacal, optimistic, earnest Victorian gentleman who attempted the nearly impossible. He surveyed an exactly straight line right up India’s 24th meridian – to do it he built huge observation towers and lugged thousand pound theodolites up them, he traveled across vast plains on elephant back with tigers stalking him, he raised funds at London banquets and designed new unheard of surveying instruments – and nearly he achieved it – the impossible, that is. Peak XV, unknown to him was right on his meridian, but it took the next generation of surveyors to get up that far.

This has turned into a long ramble about some pretty amazing guys. Anybody out there up to trying out their hand at biography?

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