Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The K2 Man (And his Molluscs): The Extraordinary Life of Haversham Godwin-Austen

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Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen
If early Victorian map-makers and explorers in northern Indian and high Asia were mysterious, shadowy figures, Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen was rather unlike them. Not that his work was any less significant than that of, say, William Moorcroft or George Hayward (both died tragically in remote regions); indeed, the quality and quantum of Godwin-Austen’s work is phenomenal. But unlike others, Godwin-Austen was fortunate to brave all and come home to retirement — unfortunately not as glorious as one would wish for a man of his accomplishments.

This current biography, the first-ever of this great mountaineer explorer, by Catherine Moorehead, is a much belated but useful piece of work. It is useful because outside the circle of mountaineers and students of the history of exploration and mapping in the Himalaya-Karakoram-Hindu Kush region, Godwin-Austen is all but unknown. Now for the first time we know there is much more to this name than it being appended to the mountain K2.

Born in 1834, Godwin-Austen was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a subaltern in 1851 before moving out to India. At Sandhurst, Godwin-Austen, the artist of remarkable exactitude, had come into notice and it took only six years of service — most of it in Burma — before the young man was seconded to the Kashmir Survey at Srinagar. There began a quarter century of the most meritorious service to unravelling the geography and topography of the greatest knot of mountains on Earth.

His name is synonymous with the second highest peak in the world, but for decades there has been a dearth of research on Godwin-Austen

In those pre-camera days, a clean, clear artist’s hand was a bonus to the trained surveyor and map-maker, and Godwin-Austen used this skill to his and our advantage. Through Kashmir, up into the then-little known wilds of Zanskar and Baltistan, this weedy little man (he was no more than a little over five feet tall) blazed a trail on ground that he copied meticulously on paper as the first maps of the region.

In season after season of working in arctic conditions from high-altitude survey stations, Godwin-Austen yet found time for affairs of the heart. In 1858, having romanced her for some time, he married a Sudhan girl from Poonch. There are no physical descriptions of the curiously named Kudikji (or Kudji), but she comes across as a rather spirited young woman who followed her husband on his survey trip to Baltistan.

Camels walk in the foreground of Mount Godwin-Austen,also known as K2 or Chhoghori, the second tallest peak in the world. —Wikimedia Commons

Camels walk in the foreground of Mount Godwin-Austen,also known as K2 or Chhoghori, the second tallest peak in the world. —Wikimedia Commons

By his own account, to affect this union, Godwin-Austen had “to all intents and purposes” converted to Islam. The son, Edward, born to the couple was given up for adoption to a family named Milner
and Godwin-Austen never saw him again. As for the mysterious Kudikji, she seemed to fall off the map sometime in 1861 for Godwin-Austen precipitately wedded a Pauline Plowden to father his second son, Arthur.

As the surveyor worked his way eastward across the Himalayas to Assam and Bhutan, we see the development of the ornithologist and malacologist Godwin-Austen. Over the course of the following years, the man collected thousands of “bird skins” and land and freshwater molluscs. Not only that, he produced as many as — by his own account — 740 watercolours. It is remarkable that he accomplished all this despite the death of Pauline as well as two bouts of malaria that had “broken” his health.

Upon retirement at the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1877, Godwin-Austen returned to England to a third marriage and transition from surveyor to naturalist. The next four decades he worked on his bird skin collection (3,731 specimens) and spent hours at the microscope dissecting, drawing, and painting the innards of snails he had collected from India.

The K2 Man (And his Molluscs): The
Extraordinary Life of Haversham Godwin-Austen
By Catherine Moorehead Neil Wilson,
UK ISBN: 978-1906000585 279pp.
Now Moorehead paints a tragic picture of one of the most heroic and swashbuckling personalities of Himalayan exploration. Having inherited the vast estate of his father, Godwin-Austen was soon faced with straitened circumstances because of failing agriculture. After filing for bankruptcy in 1898 and moving into a second smaller property, he was writing pitiable letters to the British Museum and the Royal Geographical Society to purchase his watercolours or his bird skin or mollusc collection. One can feel the desperation of indigence that the grand old man of Himalayan exploration would have felt through the last two decades of his life. And one cannot but condemn the niggardly and shameful treatment meted out to the great man by both establishments.

In a nutshell, Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen was a most remarkable man. Aggregating more height above the sea than any other mountaineer, his understanding of the fast-growing sport was outstanding; he was truly way ahead of his times. In 1921, at a meeting to discuss an Everest attempt, he rejected the siege-type attempts that were then fashionable. Instead, he suggested a swift alpine-style assault that was soon to become the norm. But the true classicist that he was, Godwin-Austen was appalled by the use of new-fangled equipment such as pitons, crampons, and ropes.

On Dec 3, 1923, the hero passed away. It took fully 90 years for a scholar to write in detail about him so that the world could finally come to appreciate the man whose accomplishments remained largely unknown.

The K2 Man (And his Molluscs): The Extraordinary Life of Haversham Godwin-Austen By Catherine Moorehead Neil Wilson, UK ISBN: 978-1906000585 279pp.

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