Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Moorcroft, William

1332565Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 38 — Moorcroft, William1894Henry Manners Chichester

MOORCROFT, WILLIAM (1765?–1825), veterinary surgeon and traveller in Central Asia, a native of Lancashire, was educated at Liverpool for the medical profession. While he was a pupil under Dr. Lyon at the Liverpool Infirmary, the attention of the local medical authorities was directed to the outbreak of a serious epidemic among cattle in the district (presumably the Derbyshire cattle-plague of 1783). It was agreed to depute a student to investigate the disease. The choice fell on Moorcroft, who carried out his task in conjunction with a Mr. Wilson, described by him as 'the ablest farmer of his time.' Encouraged by a reported remark of the anatomist John Hunter, that but for his age he would address himself to the study of animal pathology the next day (Moorcroft, Travels, vol. i. Preface), Moorcroft spent some years in France studying veterinary science. He afterwards settled in London, at first in partnership with Mr. Field, and for some years had a very lucrative veterinary practice. In Kelly's 'Directory' for 1800 his name appears at 224 Oxford Street. He seems to have realised an ample fortune; but he lost largely over patents which he took out in 1796 and in 1800 (Patents No. 2104, 16 April 1796, No. 2398, 3 May 1800) for the manufacture of horseshoes by machinery (Fleming, Horse Shoes, p. 516). He therefore readily accepted the offer in 1808 of an appointment as veterinary surgeon to the Bengal army and superintendent of the East India Company's stud at Piisa, near Cawnpore. He advocated the improvement of the native cavalry horse by the introduction of English or Turcoman bone and muscle.

His preference for the Turcoman over the Arab horse appears to have directed his attention to the possibilities of commercial intercourse between British India and the countries behind the Himalaya. In 1811-1812, accompanied by Captain (afterwards General Sir John) Hearsey, he crossed the Himalaya by the Niti Pass and made his way to the great plain between it and the Kuen-Lun chain ; he examined the sources and upper courses of the Sutlej and the eastern branch of the Indus, and found the positions of Lakes Ravan and Manaforavara. He was the first British traveller to cross the Himalaya. An account of his journey appeared in 'Asiatic Researches,' xii. (1816) 375-534. Seven years afterwards, in the latter part of 1819, Moorcroft again set out on an exploring expedition, taking much merchandise with him. He visited Runjeet Singh at Lahore, and thence made his way into Ladakh and resided some time at the capital, Lé. When asked what the British desired, Moorcroft replied: 1. Liberty to trade with Ladakh. 2. Moderate duties. 3. A permanent footing in Ladakh. 4. The good offices of the government with that of Gordakh to induce the latter to open the Niti Ghat to British commerce. He had previously made proposals to Runjeet Singh at Lahore for increased facilities of commercial intercourse. The important political arrangements which Moorcroft proposed to the independent states adjoining British India were wholly unauthorised by the government. Disapproving his long sojourn at L<3, the Bengal government suspended his pay and allowances during absence. Moorcroft spared no effort to obtain permission to enter Chinese Tartary, but in this he was unsuccessful. From Lé he proceeded to Cashmere, entering that city on 3 Nov. 1822. His zealous inquiries into the management of the shawl-wool goat and the various processes of the Cashmere shawl manufacture, together with the specimens he sent home, are allowed to have contributed much to the improvement of the shawl industry at home. He finally quitted Cashmere by the Pir Punjab mountains, descending into the Punjab by a route new to Europeans, and proceeding by way of Attock and Peshawur to Cabul, on the line of route previously pursued by the embassy under Mountstuart Elphinstone [q. v.] He asked the Indian government for a letter to the king of Bokhara, which was refused. He nevertheless made his way from Cabul to Bokhara, and 'met with as much kindness from the king as could be expected from a selfish, narrow-minded bigot.' He got rid of all his merchandise, and bought some valuable horns to take back to India. The route from Cabul to Bokhara was then new to Europeans. Moorcroft wrote: 'Before I leave Turkestan I mean to penetrate into that tract that contains perhaps the finest horses in the world, but with which all intercourse has been suspended during the last five years. The expedition is full of hazard, but "le jeu vaut bienlachandelle."' He started from Bokhara on his return on 4-5 Aug. 1825. With a few servants he separated from his party to visit Maimama. But he was taken by robbers, and he died, by some accounts of fever, by others of poison, at Andekhui, after a few days' illness. His body was brought on a camel to Balkh, and was buried outside the walls. George Trebeck, a young Englishman who had accompanied Moorcroft from Calcutta, was too ill when Moorcroft's body arrived at Balkh to investigate the case. Trebeck died of fever shortly afterwards at Mazar.

As Moorcroft's pay had been suspended, there was a question as to the ownership of his papers. This was settled, and the papers became the property of the Indian government, by whom they were made over to the Asiatic Society of Bengal. A summary of those in the India House, arranged by the Hon. Mountstuart Elphinstone, appeared in vol. i. of the 'Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London.' The narrative of Moorcroft's ' Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab . . . from 1819 to 1825,' ending with his arrival at Bokhara, was published in 1841 under the editorship of Professor H. H. Wilson. In a review of the work the 'Athenæum' observed with much truth : 'When we take into account the difficulties experienced by those who followed in his [Moorcroft's] track, we hardly know how to express sufficiently our admiration of his hardihood and address, and to do him justice we must remind our readers that not only did death overtake him at a time when he had triumphed over the chief difficulties of his undertaking, but that his papers remained unnoticed until those who followed his example had carried off the honours that were justly his due.'

Moorcroft was author of: 1. An English translation of Valli's ' Experiments in Animal Electricity,' London, 1793. 2. 'Directions for Using the Portable Horse-Medicine Chest adopted for Service in India,' London, 1795. 3. 'Cursory Account of the Various Methods of Shoeing Horses hitherto in Use,' London, 1800. The following papers were published, the first excepted, after his death: 1. 'Journey to Lake Manaforavara in Little Tibet' (sic) f 'Asiatic Researches,' xii. 375-534. 2. 'On the Púrik Goat of Ladakh,' 'Asiatic Society's Transactions,' vol. i. 1827; 'Froriep Notizen,' xxviii. (1830) 275-6, 3. 'Notice on Khoten,' 'Geographical Society's Journal,' i. (1832) 233-46. 4. 'Notices of the Native Productions of Cashmere,' ib. ii. 253-68.

[East India Registers and Army Lists, 1809-1825; Moorcroft's writings; Journ. Roy. Geogr. Soc., London, vol. i. and notices in vols. xii. xxi. xxiii.; Sir Alexander Burne's Travels, i. 243; Moorcroft and Trebeck's Travels, ed. H. H. Wilson, London, 1841, with biographical notice in Preface, pp. xlix et seq.; review of the work in the Athenæum, 20 Feb. 1841.]

H. M. C.