A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus


John Wood (1811–71) was an officer in the navy of the East India Company who in 1836 was appointed to take part in a mission to Afghanistan led by Alexander Burnes. His instructions were to “ascend the Indus from its mouth to Attock, that a more perfect knowledge of the river may be procured, as well for purposes of commerce as of war….” He proceeded upstream to the region of Kunduz, Afghanistan, and in February 1838 discovered what he thought was the source of the Oxus (Amu Darya) River, located in the Pamir Mountains at what he estimated was latitude 37° 27’ North and 73° 40’ East (most likely in present-day Tajikistan). Wood subsequently resigned from the Indian navy in a dispute over British policy toward Afghanistan and what he believed was the breaking of good-faith assurances he had given the Afghans about British intentions. Journey to the Source of the Oxus is Wood’s account of his expedition and discoveries, first published in 1841. Presented here is the second edition, which appeared in London in 1872. Wood was one of the first Europeans to visit many remote regions of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. The book includes observations on topography and hydrology, climate, economic activity, religion, politics and history, and different ethnic groups encountered, including Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Kyrghyz, Kaffirs, Kazakhs, and others. The book includes many interesting anecdotes, for example, encounters with local chiefs claiming to be descended from Alexander the Great. Wood estimated that his party at one point reached a height of 14,400 feet (4,389 meters) above sea level, and he offers speculations about the as-yet poorly understood effects of altitude on the human body. The book contains a fold-out map of the upper Oxus and another of Wood’s route up the Indus.

Last updated: September 30, 2016