The life of a historic polymath, the Great Game against Russia and the army Major forced to give up a set of rare maps

Dr Thomas Alexander Wise was a Dundee born physician who through his vast research acquired a set of maps that are some of the first of their kind to chart Tibet.

Between the 1800s and 1900s information about Asia was highly sought after due to a political dispute between the Russian and British Empires.

Tibet, which was one of the territories situated within the disputed area, was notoriously difficult to gain information about until maps surfaced drawn by a travelling lama depicting the main passage through the country known as the ‘Great Road’.

The maps were drawn in the 19th century by a Tibetan lama
Any information about Tibet was highly sought after in the 1800s

The maps are among a collection of artefacts amassed by Thomas Wise who ended up donating these Eastern antiquities between the British Library, British Museum and Dundee University.

The maps are considered some of the most treasured of Wise’s items which have been displayed in London, New York and most recently at the McManus Art Gallery, Dundee.

But it wasn’t until research of the collection, led by Dr Diana Lange of Humboldt University Berlin, that questions started to arise about whether the maps were originally Wises’.

Dr Lange, a Tibetologist and expert in historical cartography, became intrigued by Wise’s life because she wanted to find out more about his extraordinary collection.

“The story of Wise became interesting for me because I tried to find out when and under which circumstances he acquired his collections.”

Lange says that unlike the rest of the artefacts Wise provided no background on the maps. Because of this she started to believe he hadn’t commissioned them.

“He (Wise) was the name giver of the collection. I wanted to understand about the people involved in the collection’s creation.”

An ancient Zodiac chart
The decorated back of a ‘mirror plate’. Part of the Wise Collection

Thomas Alexander Wise

Dr Thomas Alexander Wise

Thomas Alexander Wise was born in 1802 in Dundee at Hillhead House. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University and in 1826 became a physician in the civil branch of the East India Company.

During his time in the Company Wise was stationed on the eastern borders of India in an area called Hooghly, just south of the the capital of West Bengal, Kolkata.

Wise, born in Dundee, was stationed near Kolkata

Whilst in India Wise achieved many feats including founding a medical school and being made principle of Dacca College while the region – now Bangladesh – was still under British control.

One of Wise’s past times while occupying his medical post was to collect a vast array of Eastern items and learn about the local cultures. So much so that Wise gained the status of a polymath – someone who knows extensively about many subjects.

Among his studies Wise published a series of books about Indian medical practices including ‘A Commentary on The Hindu System of Medicine’, ‘Treatise on Diseases of The Eye In Hindustan’ and he translated the Ayurveda (scripture that describes medical techniques based on traditional Indian remedies).

Wise married twice and had a total of 11 children – nine sons and two daughters. He retired to London after having stints living in Dundee, Fife, Edinburgh and Ireland.

Dr Lange explains that it’s important to remember Thomas Wise because he collected a vast array of information at a time of rising political competition in the Middle East.

“During the so-called Great Game competing empires tried to get access to the region and collected all available information about the area. “Knowledge” was produced step by step. Wise’s life story provides us important information about how that knowledge was produced in the 19th century.”

The Great Game and the information race of the 19th century

The Great Game: the Afghan Emir Sher Ali Khan with his “friends” Russia and Great Britain

The Great Game is a term used to describe a period of history when the British Empire planned to use a number of states in the Middle East to act as a buffer between the Indian and Russian borders.

It was at this time that knowledge acquired about the area became of strategic importance and one of the countries in the centre of this disputed region was Tibet.

“Very little was known about Tibet,” says Dr Lange. “Competing empires were trying to get access to the region at the time.”

While Kashmir and Western Tibet had been explored, Central and Southern Tibet were still empty spaces on the British Imperial map. The mountainous terrain was difficult to explore while access to the country was often denied by the Tibetan people suspicious of Europeans.

At this time a Major in the military branch of the East Indian Company called William Edmund Hay was stationed in Shimla near the Western border of Tibet, a convenient location to start travelling round the region.

Shimla, near the border of Western Tibet, was where Hay was based in India

Dr Lange describes how it was through careful study of Wise’s collection that she discovered Hay as Wise left no mention of the man, literally erasing his name from the records.

“Wise did not provide any information about the map’s historical background. I discovered Hay through my studies on the Wise Collection. In a way Wise erased Hay’s name. It was Wise’s name that was stamped on the albums after he acquired them.”

Major William Edmund Hay

William Edmund Hay was born to an aristocratic Scottish family in 1805. He joined the East India Company as a cadet in 1821 and was described by his younger sister’s daughter-in-law as “handsome, popular and good at sport”. But Hay made an unfortunate marriage and had expensive tastes that throughout his life crippled him financially.

During his time in India between 1821 and 1858 Hay fought in the First Afghan War (1839-1842 ) where he rose to the rank of Major, then after leaving the military he stayed in the region becoming a merchant, postmaster and Assistant Commissioner of Kullu – a district of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

Through her research of both the Wise Collection and Hay’s life Lange believes Hay and Wise would have known one and other and would have come into contact at least once. It is on this premise that it is assumed Wise was able to acquire the maps.

“The assumption is Hay sold his “Tibet collection” to Wise. They most probably knew each other for a long time. After their return from India they were members of the same “clubs” and lived in the same area in London late in their life.”

Attempts to chart a highly secretive land and the commissioning of the maps

The lama shared his “insider-knowledge” with Hay and produced the largest panoramic picture map of Tibet of its time.”

In order to gain an understanding of the restricted territories of Tibet a British surveyor called Thomas George Montgomerie came up with the idea of using Indian natives to infiltrate borders that were often closed to Europeans.

These native ‘spies’ were known as ‘pundits’ and used rosaries that had only one hundred beads on them (instead of the traditional one hundred and eight) to help count the paces they made and the distances they travelled.

Buddhist rosaries were used by pundit spies to help count distances in Tibet

While secret surveys were being made nothing depicted the lands of Tibet as eloquently as the maps drawn by a travelling Tibetan lama. Lange explains that what Hay did – getting a Tibetan to draw a visual representation of his country – was inadvertently create one of the largest panoramic pictures of Tibet of its time.

“The lama shared his “insider-knowledge” with Hay and produced the largest panoramic picture map of Tibet of its time.”

Placed side by side the maps are ten metres in length and present a route that went from Leh in Ladakh to the Yarlung Valley in central Tibet
The line depicts the rough direction the maps would have charted

It was due to the Indian Mutiny, or First War of Independence, that took place in 1857 which allowed Hay to make contact with the lama.

The war was fought over the Indian natives becoming disgruntled about British rule. Among the issues Indians weren’t happy with invasive British-style reforms, high land taxes imposed by the British Raj and treatment handed out to Indian Princes.

Due to the war which primarily took place in the North, the lama who originated from central Tibet changed his travel schedule and remained in the Western Himalayas – where Hay was based.

It was under these conditions that Hay was able to have the maps produced.

Hay’s downfall and the exchange of the maps

Hay was not a wealthy man and had expensive tastes that crippled him financially. He was also involved in an ill-fated marriage that almost resulted in his death. In a correspondence he wrote in 1845 he describes his near poisoning by his newly wed wife.

I shall merely say that my wife disgraced me and to hide it tried to poison me with arsenic. Foresaid disgrace completely upset me, and sent me on a long travel.”

‘William Edmund Hay: The Pioneer of Tibetan Studies Who Sold His Fame’
Paper by Diana Lange, Humboldt University Berlin

Hay did not marry again, left no children and he returned to the UK at a time when the Royal Geographical Society were relying on donations to fill their libraries. So while of value, much of Hay’s collection was unable to be sold.

Whatever Hay’s fate his known exploits are seen as both remarkable achievements and hugely important.

In summarising the complex history behind the maps and their journey all the way from the restricted lands of Tibet to the British archives in London, Dr Lange credits both men for keeping alive a little bit of colonial British history.

“To my mind Hay’s life story is of interest because he commissioned the maps and I am grateful to Wise for donating his collections to the British Museum and Library via way of the Indian Office Library. We don’t know what would have happened to this material otherwise.”

Dr Lange has written further about the maps and the lama who made them in her book: ‘An Atlas of the Himalayas by a mid-19th century Tibetan Lama. A Journey of Discovery’. Available to buy online.

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