Edmund Hillary, I suppose (after Wilfred Thesiger died), was the last of the “British” explorers in the old tradition. Hillary and Tenzing took their place with Scott of the Antarctic. Thesiger never quite made it into the popular imagination.
Hillary didn’t care whether he or Tenzing Norgay had trodden onto the summit first. Tenzing much later revealed that it was Hillary. The climb, directed by John Hunt, using the South Col route, was a team effort. Hillary disliked the obsessiveness with which modern climbers tried to reach their goal, even, in 2006, passing a dying climber, David Sharp, as several of them did, without helping him.
The British reported the conquest of Everest – which took place on May 29 1953 – as if it was a British moment. But Hillary was a New Zealander and will have a state funeral in New Zealand. Hunt was British, but I don’t think Hunt reached the summit. New Zealand didn’t object, and the reason all this was not discussed was that most British in 1953 still thought of New Zealand as being, virtually, British and most New Zealanders still thought of Britain as home.
Most people think of Sherpas as porters or guides. They are an ethnic group. Edmund Hillary’s main achievement, in his own view, was not his conquest of Everest, but his work with a trust which he established which has founded schools and hospitals in the Sherpa region of eastern Nepal, and with the American Himalayan Foundation. Nepal is predominantly Hindu. If you did a straw poll in a pub about its religion, there would doubtless be a consensus that it was Buddhist.
A counter-intuitive fact: Everest is south of Delhi. I’ll look at the complicated history of Nepal soon.
Nepal will abolish its monarchy in 2008. Unless Kosovo gets there first, it will be the world’s next republic. Will New Zealand ever become one? There are republicans in New Zealand, but the republican movement is weak. New Zealand became a separate British colony in 1841, having briefly been part of New South Wales. It became a self-governing Dominion in 1907 and is still a Dominion even if the word is no longer used. (Canadian republicanism is weak because the Crown symbolically distinguishes Canada from the US. New Zealand doesn’t need to distinguish itself from Australia in that way.)
Three things occurred to me when I went to New Zealand, once, in the late ’80s. First, it isn’t anywhere near Australia. Second, it has a very obviously different ecosystem: Australia is a continental desert; New Zealand, at least the northern part – I didn’t travel south of Wellington – is a South Sea island. Third, I realised that I’d never really seen Polynesians. I thought that if I tried to draw a Maori (if I could draw) the result would involuntarily be like the drawings eighteenth-century travellers made of people they met: caricatures. The drawings those travellers made weren’t done as caricatures deliberately or out of racism, but because they weren’t used to what they were seeing. Even to me, a Londoner, everything was new about the Maori, starting with the oily hair.
Hillary had a close relationship with the Sherpas, and so did Britain with the Gurkhas. They come from four ethnic groups, take their name from an eighth-century Hindu warrior-saint, Guru Gorakhnath, and claim descent from the Rajput princes of northern India. When they invaded Tibet in 1791, there was a Chinese retaliation – which led to a Chinese conquest of Tibet which lasted until the fall of the Chinese Empire in 1911. The Chinese recovered Tibet after the Communists took power in 1949. The Gurkhas fought the British between 1814 and 1816, at which point Nepal became a de facto British protectorate, which it remained until 1923. During that time, and subsequently, Gurkhas from poor villages enlisted/were enlisted as British mercenaries in many wars. There are Gurkhas in Iraq now. They were “the bravest of the brave” and are still a major part of the Singapore police force.
Today’s World at One, the BBC Radio 4 lunchtime news programme (available for a few more days here), had a touching, even historic, interview with Jan Morris and with Tenzing Norgay’s son Tashi Tenzing (who reached the summit in 1996). Tenzing Norgay himself died in 1986. Jan Morris, as James Morris, accompanied the 1953 expedition to the base camp as a correspondent for The Times and reported the news to the world. It arrived in time to reach the press on the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, June 2. Was it held back so that it would coincide with that event, in a Britain of uncertain post-war morale? The question has often been asked. Jan Morris’s answer today was that it was hurried back, but that the coincidence had been a happy one.
Everest from the International Space Station, looking south over the Tibetan plateau, Everest in the middle, Wikimedia Commons: