The icy face of George Everest

Everest
June 23, 2000

George Everest never actually saw the mountain that was named after him. The first recorded observation of the peak by a European was in November 1847, four years after Everest sailed from India for the last time, and a reliable estimate of the height was not determined until 1856. One reason for this was the greater distance of the mountain from the Indian border (Nepal was virtually closed to foreigners at the time) compared to peaks of slightly lower height, so that it was with some surprise that the height was eventually computed to be the highest on the surface of the world.

In this new study of the sixth surveyor-general of India, George Everest does not come across as an amiable character, rather as a stickler for detail with little patience for the shortcomings of others working with or under him. "[His work] was found to abound with errors of such magnitude as to render it unworthy of confidence" is one of many quotations about his subordinates. On the other hand, his five predecessors as surveyor-general served for an average of three years each, while Everest filled the post for 13. The work was gruelling, a constant struggle against ill health, tigers and wild elephants, lack of support from government, shortage of money and the difficulty of training and retaining staff.

At one stage, the East India Company directors in London thought fit to appoint his successor, with no reference to the government of India or Everest himself. The story of how Thomas Best Jervis addressed the British Association, outlining his plans for the future of the Survey of India, and arranged for support for his appointment from 38 scientists, most of whom were fellows of the Royal Society, with Everest's reaction to this outrageous behaviour, adds spice to a rather dry book. As J. R. Smith states at the outset, "little or nothing is known of the man unless the reader happens to be a geographer or surveyor". It is tantalising to learn from Everest's niece that "circumstances into which I cannot now enter, led to the destruction of nearly all written memorials of his life", without ever learning either what these documents were or why they have not survived. However, every scrap of available information has been researched for this study and it gives a rounded account of Everest's work in India, some information on his family life, and the value of his work in determining the measurement of the earth. The main text is free of technical detail, which is supplied in five appendices, and there is a useful chronology, with reproductions of all known portraits. A final section discusses the mountain itself, how it was measured and the issue of its name.

Everest's birth bicentenary was celebrated in 1990, and Smith has brought together the scattered information that resulted. As the half century since Mount Everest was first scaled draws to an end, this book provides invaluable information on the man after whom it was named.

Susan Gole is international chairman, International Map Collectors' Society.

Everest: The Man and the Mountain

Author - J. R. Smith
ISBN - 1 870325 72 9
Publisher - Whittles
Price - £37.50
Pages - 306

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