Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

George Tyrwhitt: A true eccentric of the Raj

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'Turwutt came to Nagar Parker at the head of an army in 1858 when Rana Karan Singh ruled over the place. A great battle was fought here in which the English were roundly defeated and had to flee for their lives. The Rajputs went in pursuit, and Turwutt was only able to get away with his life after a Meghwar tanner hid him under a pile of cowhides. Returning subsequently with an even greater army, Turwutt was finally able to overcome the Rajputs of Nagar. And not the one to forget the Meghwar, he allotted him a vast jagir.'

Ali Nawaz Khosa, the elderly teller of tales from Nagar Parker fell silent. The tap-tap-tap of his steel tipped cane on the street became more pronounced. From afar the koel called, the moisture laden monsoon wind gusted down the corridor of the street and the old man sat down in the verandah of the ruined hulk at the west end of the Nagar Parker bazaar. I had never read of any great battle between the British and the Ranas of Nagar, I said.

'But of course there was a battle,' said Khosa. 'It is part of the lore of Thar Desert.' There were, he said, even the ruins of the fortress to show for the eventual defeat of the Nagar Rajputs. At the very end of the bazaar, past the ruined store fronts and houses of the rich Hindus of Nagar Parker's glory days, past the impressive Jain temple, Nawaz Khosa walked up the slight incline. There in front was a length of wall and further on, a subterranean opening that looked like a large water conduit. The wall, according to my guide, was all that remained of the Rajput fortress and the opening led into its basement where a cache of gunpowder was stored.

After the defeat while the Rajput chiefs hid in the surrounding Karonjhar hills, the valiant General Roopa Kohli stole into the fortress to remove the cache. He was discovered, however, arrested and tortured. But he gave nothing away, and so he was hanged to death. Khosa offered to walk me to the east end of town to the site of the hanging. Though this was very clearly fable for the granite blocks of the purported castle and the entrance to the underground vaults were cemented together with modern cement that would have been introduced in Nagar Parker by the British, the little known Roopa (or Roopla) is celebrated in a folk song even today.

Sixteen years ago while free wheeling around Thar Desert I had been told that no trip to the picturesque little town of Nagar Parker at the southeastern edge of Pakistan was complete without visiting 'Turwutt jo Thullo' - the Pedestal of Tyrwhitt, for that was how the Welsh name had been translated into the Sindhi and Parkeri languages. The stories my informant told me at that time made out Tyrwhitt as a saint and a demon in equal measure. Here was a man who pursued his official duties, whether to bridle contumacious Rajputs or to provide justice to the aggrieved, with a single minded madness. Tyrwhitt, it was told, was a fun loving man as well who would climb the hill daily to sit on the pedestal especially prepared for him on the windy peak in order to enjoy his drink in the remarkable scenery of the Karonjhar hills. But, it was also said, he was ruthless in his attempts to bring the recalcitrant Rajputs to heel and carried a pair of binoculars with him daily to keep a watchful eye on his domain between sips on his whisky and soda.

In 1858 the district of Thar and Parker was detached from Bhoj and placed under the Hyderabad Collectorate. Owing to the more regular system of administration, the Ranas of the desert lost some of the independence they earlier enjoyed, consequently they raised the Kohlis to revolt. On 15th April 1859 a mob burnt down the telegraph office at Nagar Parker, killed a number of the police guard and took possession of the town. That is when we first hear of Lieutenant George Tyrwhitt who accompanied the army with a force of six hundred police levies to restore order.

Order was restored, but the miscreants made off to spend the next year as fugitives. When they eventually did surrender, the Rana and his principal abettors were awarded lengthy jail sentences and deprived of their properties, while those who had assisted the government were granted jagirs. The passage of nearly a century and a half had embellished and romanticised the story of a failed revolt with tales of a valiant Kohli general trying to spirit away a cache of ammunition and the defeated white man cowering in fear under a pile of stinking hides.

The authorities now saw the difficulties in keeping a vast desert region under the control of a distant administrative headquarters. Consequently in 1860 what now forms the districts of Mirpur Khas and Mithi was detached to form a separate Political Superintendency. The man to head it was George Tyrwhitt. E. H. Aitken's Gazetteer of the Province of Sind (sic) notes that here was 'an officer whose memory is associated in the traditions of Sind with many eccentricities'. Even at the time of his appointment as the Political Superintendent of the district of Thar and Parker, Tyrwhitt was reputed to be 'able, energetic and possessing an astonishing degree of insight into the characters, habits and feelings of the border tribes.'

The man must have done well to have held his appointment for a full thirteen years until 1873. But it is intriguing where and how he acquired his 'astonishing degree' of knowledge when we do not hear of him in Sindh prior to his appearance on the scene with his force of six hundred police levies. However, we do learn from the illustrious Mirza Kalich Beg that both his father and grandfather enjoyed friendly relations with Tyrwhitt and that the young Mirza was given an English education on the exhortation of the Political Superintendent.

Among the legends regarding the man's singularity of purpose when it came to the job assigned him, one legend still lives: a con artist of his day impersonating as a district administration official complete with his train of clerks and peons visited Thar and Parker. There, right under the nose of the Political Superintendent the impostor received some money from a certain party and gave it possession of a block of land that was another man's rightful property. Even before Tyrwhitt could get wind of the carrying on, the swindler and his party made tracks.

As soon as word reached him, Tyrwhitt saddled up and rode hell for leather after the tricksters, and, it is said, after riding non stop through the night came upon his quarry at the edge of the desert. The impostors were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in the island fortress of Manora outside Karachi.

If Tyrwhitt left anything in writing, all or much of it is lost. However, rather unlike other officers of the Raj, he certainly did not leave many photographs: there is but a single portrait of the man on record. This surely is evidence of his shy, reclusive nature. And so we know next to nothing of this mysterious person. But there are oblique references to his falling from grace toward the end of his service in Thar and Parker. There is no official word on how or why he left his position of Political Superintendent in 1873. There is only the reference that he came heavily under debt - a circumstance rather difficult for a man as seemingly reclusive and retiring as Tyrwhitt. It seems that it was the pressure of this debt that occasioned his departure for home the same year as he was removed from his superintendency.

The Raj apparently protected its officers' secrets well for we get no inkling of the nature of Tyrwhitt's humiliation. We know that he sailed away for England sometime in 1873. Mirza Kalich Beg wrote that Colonel George Tyrwhitt died 'after 1874' in England; if there was a wife and children, there was no mention. The man who had brought order to the vast desert district of Thar and Parker and ruled judiciously over it for thirteen long years disappeared from official record because of an indiscretion. But for the people of Nagar Parker where he had held court, Tyrwhitt's pedestal on a wind scoured hilltop outside town even today remains very much a tourist attraction. They still flaunt it even when his memory is confused with the accretion of time.

The dearth of official record makes it difficult to chronicle the accomplishments of Colonel Tyrwhitt in any detail, but whatever little is available does make one thing clear: here was a man no less in stature than John Jacob or Bartle Frere. But here was a man who missed the Role of Honour because of his reclusiveness. Here was man who missed out on glory because of a minor impropriety. Now, one hundred and twenty five years after his death, let as acknowledge him as one of the able empire builders that he really was. With these words do I celebrate Colonel George Tyrwhitt of the former desert district of Thar and Parker.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 30 May 2016 at 08:50, Blogger Kamalpreet Singh said...

Fascinating and gripping, as always!

At 17 June 2016 at 14:20, Blogger Tariq Amir said...

Interesting, as usual.

At 25 June 2016 at 23:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very fascinating. It might well be that the above Col George Tyrwhitt was the same as one George Booth Tyrwhitt, who was born circa 1829 or 1839 in England, and came out to India as a young cadet in the Bombay (presidency) Army, in 1847. If so, then there might be a bit more information available about him in Mumbai/Bombay, India, in their old archives/records. I have read the name and seen it somewhere too. Will have to check.

At 26 June 2016 at 00:15, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Salman, hi. Maybe you would like to see this, it might be of some help.

At 26 June 2016 at 00:16, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another interesting fact-- In Mumbai (Bombay), Lt Tyrwhitt-Jones , also won a billiards championship in early 1851, before being transferred to Karachi in April that year.

At 26 June 2016 at 06:57, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous. Tyrwhitt did indeed come out as a cadet to Bombay. Will appreciate any input on this remarkable and rather elusive man. About 1861 or so, he was Additional Commissioner at Karachi. It was just by chance that I got to see the incumbency board stored or rather dumped in an unkempt room in the Commissioner's office.

At 27 June 2016 at 09:13, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Tyrwhitt-Jones is someone else. Both Tyrwhitt and Jones are Welsh names, but our man was just Tyrwhitt. George B Tyrwhitt.

At 3 July 2016 at 11:00, Anonymous Omer said...

Dear Salman, hallo. Ref to 'Anonymous' above (Nayab Ahmad in fact) , I have also just emailed you, as Nayab contacted me with the query re Tyrwhitt/Tyrhwitt-Jones. I do think that it was the same person, and I hope the information I have provided in my email will help you to understand how the Tyrwhitt family came to adopt the latter name. Best wishes, Omer

At 19 February 2017 at 00:06, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Salman,
Lieutenant Colonel George Booth Tyrwhitt was born at Stanley Hall, Shropshire, the youngest brother of Sir Henry Tyrwhitt Bt. He entered the 5th Bombay Native Infantry at a very early age and was appointed Political Superintendent of the districts of Thur and Parkur, forming the eastern frontier of Sind in 1865, and Lieutenant Colonel Bombay Staff Corps in 1871. He served in India for twenty six years and died returning to his command from leave on 28th April 1875 on board the mail steamer "Nissam" off Aden.

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