Dr Najam Abbas, of the Central Asian Studies Unit at the IIS, presented a paper at an interdisciplinary conference, entitled Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Narratives, Histories and Collections, organised by the University of Lincoln, UK. Scholars from across Europe, North America and Africa were in attendance.

Dr Abbas’ paper, entitled Analysing Accounts of British Explorers Visiting North Western Indian Borders with China in 1870s, highlighted the significant features of accounts written by members of the Forsyth Mission who in 1870 and 1873 travelled to border areas significant due to their proximity to China (East), Badakhshan (North) and Hunza (then in North-West India). A closer examination of these late 19th-century British travellers’ accounts of their visits to North-Western India reveals a number of features such as the evolution, expansion and consolidation of British interest in those territories, which are now in present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Western China.

The paper examined how British explorers visualised the Northern Indian frontier in the latter part of the nineteenth century, providing an analysis of the process by which these perceptions were transformed into the descriptions in their travelogues. Until the late 1860s, the frontier was effectively a blank canvas for British readers, unknown and devoid of any representations.

Dr Abbas and audience members at the presentation.

Dr Abbas explained that, although most travellers were not trained ethnographers, their accounts of interactions with the elders of their host communities provide an interesting account of local and regional power dynamics among rulers of those areas. Their travel accounts also highlight the sociological dimension of relations these rulers forged to strengthen their rule and secure their political and commercial interests. These accounts document the dynamics and complexities of relations between local tribes and the approach of the British authorities towards the expansion and consolidation of their interests.

Dr Najam Abbas summed up the presentation by noting that members of the Forsyth mission were motivated, in the first instance, to explore the geographical and human terrain. Secondly, they wished to broaden their reach by opening the channels of communication with local tribes. He also suggested that they wanted to improve relations with and amongst the tribes in order to remove restrictions on trade and review strategic transport and supply routes.