Another great shikari

The purpose of my recent trip to Kashmir was to identify a European hunter who mounted a remarkable expedition through Central Asia, as illustrated by a superb set of magic lantern slides that I had purchased a few months back. Fortunately, I had been able to identify one of his Kashmiri guides (shikaris) shown in the photographs and then, through a series of fortuitous connections, make contact with the shikari’s descendants.

Raheem Lone

It turned out that this shikari, Raheem Lone, was widely regarded as one of the greatest of his generation. So much so that the hunter even took him to England at the end of the expedition. Later, the Roosevelt brothers Theodore and Kermit, sons of the American president at the time, took him to China on an expedition. Famed for his eyesight and strong organisational skills – not the mention his mastery of Central Asia languages – Raheem Lone stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries, as the many letters of recommendation still held by his family testify. It was one of these letters that allowed me to identify my anonymous hunter as Captain ‘Willie’ Ronald Read MC, DFC, AFC and bars, a much-decorated 1WW pilot.

But in fact Raheem Lone was not the only shikari of great repute in Kashmir at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of his great friends, also from Bandipore in the north of present-day Kashmir, was a man called Ghulam Hassan Bhat, who died in 1952.

Like Raheem, Hassan Bhat (as he was known) was very familiar with the routes from Kashmir up into the Pamir Mountains and from there onwards to Kashgar and the hunting grounds of the Tien Shan Mountains in present-day Kazakhstan, where many an English army officer took leave in order to shoot ibex, maral deer, Marco Polo sheep and game. At the beginning of the 20th century these areas were still largely unknown and unmapped.

So it was a wonderful surprise to be taken by descendants of Raheem to meet the descendants of Hassan Baht, who today still live in Bandipora. The two families are close. That is how I met 94-year-old Ghulam Ahmad Bhat, Hassan’s son, and his grandsons, Ibraheem and Mohammad. At their wonderful house I was shown yet another folder of letters, this time from Hassan’s clients. As with Raheem, they included some hugely important names.

Ahmed Bhat and his sons Ibraheem Owais and Mohammad Umar

In particular, I noticed the name of William J Morden. Morden was a leader of the 1926 Morden-Clark Asiatic Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He had been deputed to collect specimens for the museum from Central Asia and the story of the 8,000-mile expedition is told in his book Across Asia’s Snows and Deserts ( G P Puttnam’s, New York, 1927). Incidentally, the book contains three photographs of Hassan Bhat, taken during the expedition.

Hassan, as portrayed in Morden’s book

There is no doubt that Bhat impressed his employers. In a recommendation dated 23 September 1926 Morden says that Hassan Bhat is “an excellent hunter, an excellent caravan leader and a good servant. He is conscientious and the hardest worker I have ever known. He speaks a very useful amount of Turki and the various local dialects of this country, besides English.” In fact, as his descendants told me, he spoke seven languages.

In another letter written directly to Hassan, expedition co-leader and Museum deputy director James L Clark states “Mr Morden and I are to lunch with Mr Kermit Roosevelt next Monday. We always talk about your fine cooking when we get together and all want to come back some day.” He was still writing to him many years after the expedition finished. E A Waters of the Universities of Pennsylvania and Harvard thanked him in 1930 for looking after him and his wife on a trip to Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan. “We feel that all things considered we cannot speak too highly of Hassan Bhat’s services to us and we are already planning a trip to the Tien Shan which we should not think of taking without him.”

Morden’s recommendation for Hassan Bhat.

So there you have it. Both Hassan Bhat and Raheem Lone have between them dozens of testimonials from some of the most prominent hunters and specimen collectors in the world. The animals they shot are still on display at museums in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Without their skills it is doubtful if their clients could have shot a thing or found their way through the difficult terrain up into Central Asia. Their descendants, whilst no longer supporting the kind of extensive hunting trips that happened in the past, are proud of the achievements of their forbearers, who knew some of the world’s most remote places better than almost anyone else.

Mystery hunter identified!

For the last couple of months I have been trying to identify a hunter whose remarkable collection of magic lantern slides, illustrating a ground-breaking journey from Kashmir to Siberia, I recently purchased. Two weeks ago I got on a plane to Kashmir in order to try to solve the problem by speaking to people who may know something of the story. And I am delighted to announce that the outcome was positive!

But first, more about my trip to Kashmir. I particularly wanted to speak to the family of the shikari (hunting guide) whose identity I had confirmed, due to his participation in an expedition organised by the Roosevelt brothers, Theodore and Kermit, to Central Asia in search of specimens for various American natural history museums. This shikari, Raheem Lone, I have since found out, was regarded by many as one of the best of his generation, with a wide knowledge of Central Asia and the languages in the region.

I received a wonderful reception in Srinagar from Dr Mohd. Amin Malik and Dr Abdul Qayoom Lone, both descendants of Raheem. Mr Mushtaq Bala, editor of Kashmir Pen, also gave me tremendous support. It was in his magazine that I first read about Raheem Lone and his involvement with the Roosevelt brothers.

From left: Dr Mohd. Amin Malik, myself, Dr Abdul Qayoom Lone and Mr Mushtaq Bala in Srinagar, Kashmir

Dr Malik had in his possession a large file of letters sent to Raheem by grateful clients that he had taken on shooting expeditions into the mountains. They dated from 1896 until the 1920s and included glowing references from the Roosevelts, as well as many others, most of whom were British Army officers. From these I thought I would have a good chance of identifying my hunter.

The day after meeting the relatives, Dr Malik took me to Bandipora, about 50 miles north of Srinagar, where we visited the house that Raheem built to entertain his guests. Although empty at present, it is a wonderful building. Members of the family, including Dr Umar Qayoom Lone, live nearby and Raheem himself is buried in a grave only a short walk away.

Raheem Lone’s house in Bandipora
Dr Malik in the house of his great-grandfather, Raheem Lone

Later we visited the home of Ghulam Ahmed Baht, whose father Ghulam Hassan Baht, was also a famous shikari and close friend of Raheem Lone. More of Ghulam Hassan in a separate article. Ghulam Ahmed is 94 and still remembers Raheem, who died in the 1950s, very clearly.

On my return to England last Saturday I began to examine the letters that I had copied from Dr Malik. Several were from a person who was a good candidate for my hunter. He wrote of having enjoyed his journey to Central Asia with Raheem, which took place in 1912, and also sent him letters from Egypt and elsewhere asking after him. His name was Captain, later Wing Commander, William Ronald Read (1885-1972) of the Royal Flying Corps/RAF.

Read is a World War I flying ace and war hero, awarded the Military Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross and, almost uniquely, the Air Force Cross (three times!). His family home, Gorse Cliff in Shoreham by Sea, was used as a hospital for Sikh soldiers during WW1. Originally a soldier in the Royal Dragoon Guards, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in April 1914 and later fought in France and Palestine and was several times wounded in action. In September 1930 he was appointed to be Commander of RAF Boscombe Down before retiring the following year. Below are some pictures of Read during his RAF days.

Is that one of his hunting trophies he is wearing?
‘Willy’ Read’s pilot’s license, issued in 1913

As you can see, the resemblance with my anonymous hunter is unmistakeable:

Mystery hunter, now identified as Captain W R Read

One final point. In one of his letters to Raheem, Read mentions that the trophy heads he obtained in Central Asia and which are shown in his magic lantern slides, were still with Rowland Ward, who specialised in mounting such trophies. We should also remember that one of the slides mentions his “record Ovis Littledalei 57 1/2 inches”. Having looked at the Rowland Ward records for the period up to 1914, we find the following:

Second on the all-time list, with a length on the front curve of 58″ is W R Read, our man. I guess his trophy was re-measured on his return to the UK. I should add that Read also mentions that Raheem Lone visited his house in Shoreham, so my thought is that the latter completed the journey with Read from Kashmir all the way to Omsk in southern Siberia, afterwards travelling to England, before returning by sea to Kashmir. (Lone also travelled to China with the Roosevelts, but I will tell that story another time).

There is much more to this story, which I will tell over the coming days. But for now, I can announce without any doubt that our mystery hunter is WW1 war hero Captain ‘Willie’ Ronald Read MC, DFC, AFM and bars. What a story!