SI SPORT WEEK #5-2: Confetti of Empire: The Conquest of Everest in Nepal, India, Britain, and New Zealand (by Usha Iyer)

Usha Iyer discusses the conquest of the Everest. Is the story of Everest purely a victory of humans’ pursuit for excellence and physical endurance, or also about British imperialism and decline of empire, nationalism and fluid nationality?

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Confetti of Empire: The Conquest of Everest in Nepal, India, Britain, and New Zealand [1]

This brief piece seeks to introduce the myriad political narratives that attached themselves to the first-ever successful conquest of the Everest on May 29, 1953. This is by no means an exhaustive discussion or analysis, but an attempt to shed light on the complexities that accompanied the completion and celebration of the historic feat. The references mentioned below offer an excellent start to further research into this area.

The expedition was led by Col John Hunt (later, Sir Hunt). The final leg to the summit was carried out by Edmund Hillary (later, Sir Hillary) and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

Tenzing was born in Tibet, raised in Nepal and had lived for over two decades in India prior to the 1953 expedition. Accordingly, he saw his own nationality as fluid. Col John Hunt was Welsh and a member of the British army. He was born in India and had served in the Indian police. Edmund Hillary was from New Zealand and at that time, New Zealand saw itself primarily as British. Conquest of Everest, the official film of the ascent, opens with a photograph of Tenzing holding aloft his ice axe, from which the flags of Britain, Nepal, India, and the United Nations flutter in the wind[2].

Immediately after the expedition, the victorious team arrived in Kathmandu to a tremendous reception[3]. To Nepal, Sherpa Tenzing’s part in the Everest success perhaps suggested an assertion of their Nepali identity in response to European domination and Indian influence on their country. Celebrations had largely nationalistic overtones. In fact, it is reported that some pictures used by Nepali revellers portrayed Tenzing as having reached the summit first with the flag of Nepal in one hand and hauling up an exhausted Hillary with the other.

India also saw Tenzing as her own and appeared to take immense pride in his achievement. The victorious team was feted extensively[4] and eventually also by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It has been reported that Nehru rejected knighthood for Tenzing (conferred on Hunt and Hillary) in keeping with independent India’s rejection of British honours, thereby forcing a fierce republican ‘Indian-ness’ on Tenzing and speaking for him.

For Britain, which had led this expedition, this victory came at a time of great flux. The empire appeared to be in decline and Britain’s standing on the post-war world stage appeared to have been eclipsed by the USA and other powers. This victory seemed the perfect recipe to rejuvenate the imperial spirit and pride in Britain’s record of scientific and technological excellence. Coincidentally, news of the successful expedition reached London on the morning of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (June 2, 1953)[5]. The partnership of Hillary and Tenzing led by Col Hunt seemed tailor-made for the moment when Britain attempted to redefine the Empire as a British-led “Commonwealth”. Newspaper headlines in Britain evoked comparisons with Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Drake and the Golden Hind and hailed the Coronation Day as the beginning of a new Elizabethan era- marked, as in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, by scientific and technological innovation and exploration. Col Hunt and the other climbers were received in London by the Secretary of State for War, Brigadier Anthony Head, indicating the importance of the event[6].

In New Zealand, the bee-keeper Edmund Hillary’s personality and success shaped and reinforced perceptions of masculinity and identity in New Zealand.

There was also a press conference in London in which the interviewer asked a pointedly leading question to Col John Hunt about “empty arguments over who got to the top first”. Hillary described how Tenzing had saved him from slipping into a crevasse but both he and Col Hunt were quick to emphasise that the conquest of Everest had been a team effort and that questions about who reached first ought to be dismissed[7]. In order to diffuse a potential crisis triggered by Nepali depictions of the victory, diplomats and ambassadors (especially in Britain and India) worked behind the scenes with the team to ensure that politically correct messages were delivered everywhere (see clips: Col Hunt displayed an ice axe with the Nepali, Indian and British flag on arrival in Kathmandu, New Delhi and London respectively). It has been hinted that there may have been some degree of collusion and agreement between the Everest Committee (Royal Geographical Society/Alpine Club) and the British Pathé news crew at London airport on questions to be asked during the press conference[8]. The question on ‘who reached first’ was clearly designed to dispel any thoughts on one-upmanship.

The British Pathé news clips on the successful Everest expedition of 1953 tell us a fairly straightforward story of courage, excellence and public joy. However, as academic works on the topic suggest, a lot remained untold about the context and implications of events. Besides scientific and technological excellence, the story of the Everest expedition of 1953 reeks of imperial pride and decline, nationalism and fluid nationality. Britain, Nepal and India were all eager to appropriate this expedition to make nationalistic statements. What we hear and see are perhaps approved versions of reports on celebrations. For instance, in spite of the praises heaped on him, Col John Hunt was reprimanded by the War Office for ‘endorsing’ a nationalist party in his native Wales during a ceremony in his honour whilst still a serving member of the British army. What we also don’t grasp is that Tenzing Norgay arrived in London wearing clothes given to him by PM Nehru out of his own wardrobe (see especially, Buckingham Palace garden party clip), thereby adding his touch to the occasion, even if a seemingly innocuous one. All of this suggests to me that whilst frantic efforts were made to prevent politicisation and misappropriation of the event, various political narratives succeeded in attaching themselves to it.

Finally, while top-level officials, diplomats and news-reporters colluded to present a sanitised version of events, how did the common people in these three countries react? Presumably, with joy and pride as clips of crowds in Kathmandu, New Delhi and London show. A glimpse of the position occupied by the expedition in public consciousness that year was revealed by these newsreel clips from 1953[9].

Notes:

[1] Title borrowed from article by Peter Hansen. See references.

[2] See British Pathé clips of the Queen attending the premier of Conquest of Everest in London: http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=31354 and http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=68064)

[3] http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=38774

[4] http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=38785 and http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=38790

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0529.html#article (last retrieved on 07/06/2011)

[6] http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=31028 and http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=31033. See the garden party hosted by Buckingham Palace for the heroes: http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=58948

[7] http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=31037

[8] See footnotes 60-61 of Gordon Stewart, ‘Tenzing’s Two Wrist-Watches: The Conquest of Everest and Late Imperial Culture in Britain 1921-1953’, Past and Present, 149.1 (1995), pp. 170-197.

[9] http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=31217 : “Now through the eyes of a child, we see…..the Conquest of Everest”

http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=31044 : “No, they are not the Everest conquerors, just part of a grand fancy dress parade…”

References:

Peter Hansen, ‘Confetti of Empire: The Conquest of Everest in Nepal, India, Britain, and New Zealand’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol  42, No. 2 (April 2000), pp. 307-332.

Gordon Stewart, ‘Tenzing’s Two Wrist-Watches: The Conquest of Everest and Late Imperial Culture in Britain 1921-1953’, Past and Present, 149.1 (1995), pp. 170-197.

Peter Hansen, ‘Debate: Tenzing’s Two Wrist-Watches: The Conquest of Everest and Late Imperial Culture in Britain 1921-1953’, Past and Present, 157 (Nov, 1997), pp. 159-177.

Gordon Stewart, ‘The British Reaction to the Conquest of Everest’, Journal of Sport History, Vol 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1980), pp. 21-39.

Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire: 1939-1965, Oxford University Press: 2005.

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