River Deep Mountain High
Emery, Michael, The Birmingham Post (England)
Michael Emery reviews an intriguing account of the mapping of the Indian sub-continent and Ross Reyburn looks at three books on the legendary climber George Mallory's final doomed Everest attempt.
If asked to name the world's highest mountain most of us would probably give the correct answer but mispronounce its name. Mount Everest is, of course, the world's highest peak but it is not pronounced Ever-rest as in cleverest, but Eve-rest. And it is named after an appallingly cantankerous British colonel whose work led to its discovery and whose family had always pronounced its name as Eve-rest.
This and many other obscure but interesting facts are to be found in John Keay's The Great Arc (HarperCollins, pounds 14.99). The author is one of our most talented narrative historians and an authoritative voice on the British in India. This is Keay's fifth book about various aspects of Indian history and is as heroic an example of niche publishing as you are likely to find as one cannot imagine who will buy it apart from a few historians and cartographers.
The book deals with the mapping of India, and although maps and navigation are things we tend to take for granted nowadays, when even humble family saloons come equipped with satellite navigation systems, in 1800 finding your way around was a matter of life or death.
At that time, even though the British were well established in India, no reliable maps existed and the task of mapping the sub-continent fell to an illusive genius called William Lambton. Begun in 1800, the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian was the longest measurement of the earth's surface ever to have been attempted. Its 1,600 miles of inch perfect survey took nearly 50 years, cost more lives than most contemporary wars, and involved equations more complex than any in the pre-computer age.
Rightly hailed as 'one of the most stupendous works in the history of science' , it was also one of the most perilous. Through hill and jungle, flood and fever, enduring the most dreadful privations, an intrepid band of surveyors carried the arc from the southern tip of India up into the frozen wastes of the Himalayas.
Lambton, a kindly and endearing man about whom little is known, conceived the idea; Colonel George Everest, an impossible martinet, completed it. Both found the technical difficulties horrendous. With instruments weighing half a ton, their observations had often to be conducted from flimsy platforms 90 feet above the ground or from mountain peaks enveloped in blizzard. Malaria wiped out whole survey parties, tiger and scorpions also took their toll.
Everest suffered from malaria for the rest of his life and described the grizzly symptoms in his journal. 'Dreadful rheumatic pains in my bones, fever, loss of appetite, indigestion, intestines totally deranged, stomach totally powerless, my strength entirely gone, my whole system apparently destroyed and forever undermined.' This was not written from the safety of a hospital bed but in his little tent somewhere in the Indian wilderness. …