The British Empire Library

Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City

by Edmund Richardson

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Charles Masson, the subject of this book, is one of those names which is difficult to place - something to do with Afghanistan perhaps, and was he the inspiration for Kipling's The Man who would be King? If Masson seems an elusive character then this is exactly what he was. For a start, his was an adopted name. According to the author , Classics professor at Durham University, Masson was born as James Lewis in 1800 in east London. Even here, right at the beginning of his story , facts seem scarce. What was his family back ground, why did he join the army of the East India Company, and how did a private soldier, as he was, learn Latin and Greek? It is an uneasy start to the book, not helped by an over-emotive opening chapter. The rational reader seeks details of his regiment (Bengal Artillery, we are told), and questions just how easy it was to desert from the army garrison at Agra. Masson himself lied about much in his past in his autobiography, leading some to think he was an American from Kentucky and that he had travelled through Rajputana in 1826, when in fact he was still at the time, an army soldier.

But once the story gets going it is indeed an extraordinary tale. The Alexandria of the title is not of course the Egyptian port, but one of the several cities founded by Alexander the Great on his sweep eastwards through Afghanistan and into northern India. Masson became obsessed with finding the Afghan Alexandria and explored a number of possible sites for the lost city . What he did find was the Bimaran stupa near Jallalabad and the exquis ite casket with which his name ill always be associated - a pure gold ruby-studded reliquary with the figures of Buddha and Indian gods. Although Masson wa s called an archaeologist there was littl e sc ie ntific discipline at the time, and many of the coins in his large collection came from casual finds by tribesmen, without any prove nance. Nevertheless Masson deserves ac kno wledgement as th e first p e rson to id entify a nd record the Kharo s hthi script used in the gigantic s tone inscriptions set up by the emperor Ashoka. There is much more to Masson's story - he was recruited as a spy by the East Indi a Company, who held the threat of punishment for his army d esertion over hi s head. He met other vivid characters including Josiah Harlan, who was American, and certainly wanted to be king of Kafiristan. Handsomely illustrated though no full portrait of Masson exists. It is a good read, but the author's informal prose style throughout the book may annoy some.

British Empire Book
Edmund Richardson
978 I 5266 0378 4
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2021 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe