Book Review: “Britain’s Gurkha War” by John Pemble (1971)

“The Invasion of Nepal, 1814-16”

Nearly seven years ago now, I was doing some research on the shipping lanes between England and Australia during the early 19th century, and I came across a ship called The Hero of Malaun. It’s a unique name with a fascinating history of a war that most of the West has missed, due to the ruckus caused elsewhere by a little fiend known as Napoleon. Malaun was the final battlefront, Tolkien-esque in its setting, of a border skirmish that turned into an all-out war between the British East India Company and the mountain-dwelling warriors of Nepal, the Gurkhas. Most Americans would not be aware that, although this particular battle was fierce and bloody, the two opposing sides earned each others’ respect throughout the fight and actually left the battlegrounds as friends, having by now maintained an allied relationship for the past two centuries!

While I had been able to piece together a short history of this battle online, specifically through the public domain eye-witness books of the early 19th century through Google Books, I hadn’t been able to get a broad overview of all that actually took place. My goal in furthering my research was specific, as I had planned to write a novel for youth with this war as its setting (incidentally, my novel is complete but not yet published; if you know a good agent…). Britain’s Gurkha War by John Pemple was (as far as I could tell) the only authoritative English history of the battle published after all the key players had died out, so (like a total nerd) I requested it as a Christmas present in 2010.

Pemble organizes his work into three parts, first with an overview and background to the war; second with the actual events and details of each battle, from Garhwal to “The Final Campaign” in Malaun; and finally with an epilogue, appendices, and other back-matter. It’s a clearly-delivered and intensely detailed treatment of an otherwise lost part of history, though I would assume that Nepal itself is filled with far greater Gurkha lore and might, in their own language, draw different conclusions as to the causes and outcomes of each battle. Nevertheless, for those of us enslaved by English only, Pemble’s work sufficiently slakes our thirst for this tiny piece of world history.

©2016 E.T.

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