Voices from the Mountain: Hidden Transcripts and Transculturation of Labour in the Nanga Parbat and Everest Expeditions (1922-1939)
The emergence of Himalayan mountaineering in the 20th century can be historically situated in the context of Western imperial projects and the performance of heroic masculinity. Mountaineering expedition routes and spaces were shared between the Western climbers and subordinate labouring communities, bound together by social and economic aspirations related to the project of scaling a peak. Such aspirations brings to the fore the idea of the mountains as a ‘transcultural space.’ Henri Lefebvre’s idea of social spaces “contains a great diversity of objects, both natural and social, including the network and pathways which facilitate the exchange of materials, things, and information. Such objects are not only things but also relations.” This presents the idea of the mountain as an interactive arena for circulation – a transcultural zone that offers possibilities for historical agency. This paper looks at a series of expeditions to two mountain peaks in the 1920s and 1930s – the German Nanga Parbat expeditions and the British Everest expeditions – to explore the agency of expedition labour who were recruited from the various indigenous communities of the Himalayan region, for e.g., the Baltis and Chilasis of Kashmir, ‘Bhotias’ and Sherpas of the Nepal-Tibetan region, to work as porters. Scholarship on labour has focused substantially on agrarian or industrial contexts – I wish to draw it to the vertical frontiers of empire with a special focus on the study of transcultural exchanges in the fringes of the empire. I am interested in exploring such exchanges through a study of clothing and food that were distributed to the porters and the role it played in their identity and exercising their agency in the mountains. Through a re-reading of expedition accounts and archival reports one finds ‘hidden transcripts’ that challenge the dominant narrative of mountaineering history, and provide a different understanding of the interaction and relationship the indigenous labouring communities had with mountaineering and the mountain environment.