East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Man that would be Indy: William M. McGovern

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Raiders of the Lost Ark

The list of real-life characters that supposedly inspired the fictional character of Indiana Jones is long and varied.
Roy Chapman Andrews is usually at the top of the list – even if both Spielberg and Lucas denied they ever heard about him before they filmed Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But what about William Montgomery McGovern?
Today, McGovern is not very popular.
The son of a globetrotting couple (his father was an army officer), McGovern put together an impressive curriculum.
He studied Buddhist philosophy in Japan, then moved to the Sorbonne first and the University of Berlin later, finally getting his PhD in Oxford. He was then lecturer and/or examiner in Oriental
Studies at the University of London.

At the time, Tibet was a forbidden kingdom – entering uninvited was punished with death.
Probably just because, in 1922 McGovern decided he would explore Tibet.

To quote the Time…

With a few Tibetan servants, he climbed through the wild, snowy passes of the Himalayas. There, in the bitter cold, he stood naked while a companion covered his body with brown stain, squirted lemon juice into his blue eyes to darken them. Thus disguised as a coolie, he arrived in the Forbidden City without being detected, but disclosed himself to the civilian officials. A fanatical mob led by Buddhist monks stoned his house. Bill McGovern slipped out through a back door and joined the mob in throwing stones. The civil government took him into protective custody, finally sent him back to India with an escort.

3936242916_3f5a3031efIt was a little more complicated than that.
The expedition was thoroughly planned – McGovern set forth at the worst possible moment, so that he arrived on the Tibetan border during a snowstorm; this allowed his expedition to take advantage of the hospitality provided by the Tibetan border guards.
McGovern then gave them the slip, and walked to Lhasa, where he arrived in a fever and severely debilitated by the hardships encountered in his solo march through the Tibetan plateau.
He was lodged in a house by the Tibetan government officials, that did not deem wise beheading a man raving with fever. In his provisional home he was surrounded by an angry mob, set on stoning the desecrating foreigner.
He slipped out the back, joined the mob, and then ran away undetected.

About this adventure, McGovern wrote a book, called To Lhasa in Disguise.

Then, in 1925, he set forth exploring  the upper Amazon basin and Peru. His new adventures were described in Jungle Paths and Inca Ruins.

Finally, he went back to the USA, where in 1927 he was appointed Assistant Curator of the
Anthropology Department at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. He was 30 years old.

Later, he would act as consultant, strategist and intelligence analyst for the United States government during the Second World War.


Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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