Warrior Gentlemen: Gurkhas in the Western Imagination

Warrior Gentlemen: Gurkhas in the Western Imagination

Warrior Gentlemen: Gurkhas in the Western Imagination

Warrior Gentlemen: Gurkhas in the Western Imagination


Of late, there has been a growing interest in how non-Western peoples have been and continue to be depicted in the literatures of the West. In anthropology, attention has focused on the range of literary devices employed in ethnographic texts to distance and exoticize the subjects of discourse, and ultimately contribute to their subordination. This study eschews the tendency to regard virtually all depictions of non-Western "others" as amenable to the same kinds of "orientalist" analysis, and argues that the portrayals found in such writings must be examined in their particular historical and political settings.

These themes are explored by analyzing the voluminous literature by military authors who have written and continue to write about the "Gurkhas", those legendary soldiers from Nepal who have served in Britain's Imperial and post-Imperial armies for more than two centuries. The author discovers that, instead of exoticizing them, the military writers find in their subjects the quintessential virtues of the European officers themselves: the Gurkhas appear as warriors and gentlemen. However, the author does not rest here: utilizing a wealth of literary, historical, ethnographic sources and the results of his own fieldwork, he investigates the wider social and cultural contexts in which the European chroniclers of the Gurkhas have been nurtured.


The legendary Gurkhas have inspired a considerable literature about their character, quality and exploits under British command, much of it written by the very officers who have selected, trained and led them in war and peace. Thirty years ago, when I returned from east Nepal after a stay of thirteen months in an area inhabited by Limbus, many of whom had served in Gurkha regiments, I began to read some of the military literature for background purposes, to enable me to complete a research project on 'Hindutribal' relations. It struck me then that the Gurkhas I was being presented with in this literature bore little resemblance to the former soldiers I had come to know in the settlements of Ilam.

Why this should be so was a question which intrigued me, and therefore my return to these texts after many years--during which time incidentally, many more have appeared--to make them the centre-piece of the present study, stems from a long-standing curiosity about these representations of the Gurkhas. in the intervening period, too, anthropologists (along with the practitioners of other disciplines) have focused increasing attention on the manner in which Westerners (Euro-American anthropologists included) depict their (mainly non-Western) subjects. This essay constitutes an attempt to relate the rhetorical devices employed to depict Gurkhas to the wider historical, political and military contexts affecting these soldiers and, in particular, their European officer-chroniclers. It thus relies on a variety of literary, historical and ethnographic sources, published and unpublished, as well as on supplementary interviews with British officers who served and continue to serve with Gurkhas.

Thanks are due to numerous individuals and institutions whose assistance helped to make this work possible. I express my appreciation to the staff at the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library, the Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum and the Gurkha Museum. At the latter I am much beholden to the archivist Claire Mason . . .

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