Labour in the High Himalayas: Recruitment and Agency of Mountaineering Expedition Labour on Nanga Parbat and Everest (1922 – 1939)

Nokmedemla Lemtur

The Himalayan mountains are a lived space and studies on their transcultural nature show it to be inhabited with indigenous communities with a distinct historical relation to the environment surrounding them – as trade routes, refuge (Viehbeck 2017) and the peaks as the ‘abode of gods’. Martin Conway´s expedition to the Karakorams in 1892 signalled the beginning of mountaineering in India and the shift in the western gaze from the Alps to the Himalayas as Europe´s “New playground.” Scholarship on mountaineering has shown how it functioned as sport and through it a way to display colonial masculinity and the growing strength of empire (Hansen 2000) (Bayers 2003). With colonial expansion in the nineteenth century, this region became the frontier and borderlands of the empire. The borderlands became “complex and fragmented entities” far from the image of stability and control that the colonial state projected (Simpson 2017). The numerous survey and exploration expeditions called unto a labour market that was highly dependent on local intermediaries and intervention of the colonial state given the absence of a reliable civilian labour pool (Sharma 2016).  The expeditions required the consistent supply of labour given the immense logistical demands of such an undertaking. Thus, this ´playground´ also functioned as a space of work for the various communities recruited for expeditions Moreover, the idea of a specialized community of high altitude porters like the Sherpas emerge through the process of negotiation and patronage of the European climbers. On one hand, this paper looks into the mountaineering expeditions in the early twentieth century, by tracing continuities, and on the other hand, it breaks in the colonial policies on recruitment, management and control of labour in the Himalayan region. Using archival material and accounts of various expeditions, it aims to not only identify labour policy through the regulations enacted by various colonial state officials and institutions like the Himalayan Club in 1928 but also the emergence of a claim to a certain kind of work through negotiations and conflict with other indigenous communities that became characteristically identified with the Sherpas.  Mountaineering in the early twentieth century was critical in consolidation of a workforce that served the expeditions.

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