THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

86 posts categorized "Conflict"

09 April 2018

Bahrain is not in Ruritania: Colonel Prior and the ‘Royal’ Sheikh

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When the Ruler of Bahrain began to adopt a distinctly regal style in 1940, Britain’s senior official in the Gulf moved quickly to nip the development in the bud.

On 7 February 1940 Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah announced in an official decree, or alan, that he had decided to institute a new honour, the Order of the Khalifah.  The order was to have three classes: Star, Decoration, and Medal, and the Sheikh stated that the decree was issued ‘By our royal pleasure’.

Bahrain 1Alan issued by the Sheikh of Bahrain concerning the Order of the Khalifah, 7 February 1940. IOR/R/15/2/644, f 5


Three days later, the Political Agent in Bahrain, Hugh Weightman, reported ‘this rather silly idea’ to his boss, Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Prior, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf.  Prior was incensed.  He had complained to Weightman the previous November, following his last visit to the Sheikh, that he had been placed between two sofas, with the result that he found himself about a foot lower than the Sheikh.  He insisted then to Weightman that two seats of equal size should be arranged in future ‘as conversation between different planes is difficult’. 

He had also seen a picture in Weightman’s office of the Sheikh sitting ‘on a sort of Woolworth throne’, while the Political Officer, Cole, ‘sat somewhere down by his coat tails in an ordinary chair’. He hoped that no Political Officer would ever put himself in such a ridiculous position again.

Bahrain 2Colonel Prior writes to the Political Agent in Bahrain about the Sheikh of Bahrain’s ‘Woolworth throne’. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 25 (detail)

Prior suspected that the Sheikh’s regal pretensions came from Charles Belgrave, his British-born Adviser, and he told Weightman that the Sheikh needed to be reminded that ‘Bahrain is not in Ruritania’.

 The India Office in London was also concerned to ensure that there should only be one ‘fount of honour’ in the British Empire, and as such an Indian ruler had recently been refused permission to institute an order of his own.  However, they recognised that the Sheikh of Bahrain enjoyed a rather more independent position.

Nevertheless, Prior was in no doubt that the Sheikh’s regal tendencies should be suppressed, and he went to Bahrain in March 1940 to interview both Belgrave and the Sheikh.

Bahrain 3Colonel Prior administers a stern lecture to Charles Belgrave, the Sheikh of Bahrain’s Adviser. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 22 (detail)

He first carpeted Belgrave, informing him that the British ‘did not retain him in his position for his administrative experience or executive ability, but on account of his political gumption, and that he had failed us lamentably on this occasion’.  He then sent for the Sheikh, raised the issue of the ‘odd alan’, and, reading it out, asked who the king referred to was.  Prior continues: ‘The Shaikh giggled rather feebly at this and said that people wrote these titles on the letters sent him and that as for the order, people liked these things’.

Prior then told the Sheikh that orders of chivalry were for great states and that people would laugh at Bahrain for instituting one.  When the Sheikh mentioned that Egypt and Iraq had them, Prior pointed out that Egypt was fourteen times bigger than Bahrain.  The Sheikh then ‘relapsed into a sepia cloud of patriotic protestations’

Bahrain 4Colonel Prior administers a stern lecture to the Sheikh. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 23 (detail)

Prior’s recommendation to the India Office was that only the third class, or Medal, should be allowed to remain, and that the Sheikh’s decree should be allowed to die a natural death.


Bahrain achieved independence from Britain in 1971.  In 2002, the country’s Emir, also named Hamad bin Isa, and now at a safe distance from any risk of being ticked off by the British, declared himself King of Bahrain.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archives
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
London, British Library 'File 26/2 Bahrain Government Honours ("Order of the Al Khalifah")' IOR/R/15/2/644
London, British Library Coll 30/190 'Bahrein: Qn. of the institution of a Bahrein "Order".' IOR/L/PS/12/3927. (A digitised version of this file will appear in the Qatar Digital Library in the course of 2018).

 

01 April 2018

An April Fool hoax at London Zoo

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Easter Sunday fell on 1 April in 1866. A large crowd gathered outside London Zoo.  They produced admission tickets which they had bought for one penny, a bargain since the usual price was 6d. The visitors became ‘exceedingly boisterous’ when they were refused entry and told that they were victims of an April Fool hoax.

The tickets were printed on green coloured card and read:
‘Subscriber’s Ticket – Admit bearer to the Zoological Gardens on Easter Sunday. The procession of the animals will take place at three o’clock, and this ticket will not be available after that hour.  J. C. Wildboar, Secretary’.

London Zoo G70037-27Children being given a ride on an elephant at London zoo from London Town  by Felix Leigh, illustrated by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton (1883) Images Online

Three hundred people arrived with a ticket, lured by the low price and the promise of seeing a parade of lions, tigers, bears and leopards.  The bewildered Zoo officials informed them that the gardens were not open to the general public on a Sunday – only fellows or members of the Society were admitted with their friends.  The ticket holders were not happy with this and the Zoo feared a riot was about to spark off.  An extra force of policemen was summoned to the gate and the crowd dispersed without further trouble.

London Zoo immediately started an investigation to discover who was responsible for the hoax.  They found that Sarah Marks, a bookseller in Houndsditch, had sold thirteen tickets.  The Zoological Society brought an action against Mrs Marks who was summoned to appear at the Mansion House ‘for that she, on the 29th of March did unlawfully and knowingly obtain, by certain false pretences, the sum of 1s 1d, with intent to cheat and defraud’.  The case was greeted with much amusement in court. 

Sarah Marks had written a letter to the Society expressing her great regret for the foolish prank which had been instigated by her sons and promising that nothing of that kind would take place again at her establishment.  The Society accepted her apology and withdrew the summons. Mrs Marks was given a severe reprimand by Alderman Finnis and discharged.

Happy Easter and beware April Fool tricks!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Isle of Wight Observer 7 April 1866; Belfast Morning News 9 April 1866, Sussex Advertiser 10 April 1866.

29 March 2018

Love and tragedy in the British Library: The story of Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling Part 2

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Edward Aveling was a well-known public thinker, noted for his secularist views and socialist politics. In 1882 he registered to the Reading Room at the British Museum, which set the stage for his romantic pursuits as much as intellectual ones.

Aveling-EdwardEdward Bibbins Aveling - Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow via Marxists Internet Archive CC BY-SA 3.0 logo


In his essay ‘Some humours of the reading room at the British Museum’, Edward suggested that ‘a special district should be set aside for ugly readers’ with a police force to ‘prevent those who were plucked and dissatisfied from forcibly asserting their right to a place amongst the well-favoured’. Aveling’s piece, written for Progress journal, displays his savage wit and weakness for ‘dainty-figured, sweet-faced women’. 

Humours of the reading room 1Edward Aveling, ‘Some humours of the reading room at the British Museum’, Progress (1883). P.P.5857.e.

Unscrupulous, spendthrift, and reptilian in appearance, Aveling was roundly disliked by many of his peers. However, he possessed a charm that exceeded the sum of his parts, and proved an unaccountably seductive figure. In 1883, Aveling first encountered Eleanor Marx in the Reading Room, and commissioned her to write a short biography of her father for Progress. The two quickly fell in love. By June of 1884, they were presenting as married; but only unofficially, since Eleanor was under the impression that Aveling had another wife from whom he was long separated but could not divorce. As she told her friend, writer Dollie Radford:
‘Well then this it is – I am going to live with Edward Aveling as his wife. You know he is married, and that I cannot be his wife legally, but it will be a true marriage to me – just as much as if a dozen registrars had officiated…’

Photo 27.09.17  14 58 14 Photo 27.09.17  14 58 25 Photo 27.09.17  14 58 29 (2)Letter from Eleanor Marx to Dollie Radford, 30 June 1884. Add MS 89029-1-25.


Eleanor and Edward collaborated in their political work, which included the pamphlet The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View. But Aveling's egalitarian mores did not extend to his home life. His hot temper, unexplained absences and frequent infidelities made a mockery of Eleanor’s devotion to him, and the values they publically espoused.

Aveling, much like Eleanor’s father Karl, was known for borrowing money. The British Library holds various records of his debts, including one of £50 to the artist William Morris. ‘I regret to say,’ he writes in a letter dated December 1896, ‘that I am not in a position to repay now. Long arrears of difficulties are still slowly being cleared off’. Eleanor shouldered the burden of Aveling’s spending, settling his scores from her own income.

Photo 03.10.17  11 14 08 Photo 03.10.17  11 14 15Letter from Edward Aveling to William Morris’s agent, 1 December 1896. Add MS 45346, f. 96.

Sometime between 27 and 31 March 1898, Eleanor discovered that Aveling – under an assumed name – had secretly married his mistress, a young actress named Eva Frye. We know not how the revelation came about, but for Eleanor, it proved a fatal blow. On the morning of 31 March, she was found dead in her room, having swallowed a phial of prussic acid. Though the exact circumstances of her demise remain unclear, the socialist community generally blamed Aveling for Eleanor’s death. ‘I have little doubt in my mind,’ wrote Olive Schreiner, ‘that she discovered a fresh infidelity of Aveling’s, and that ended all. I don’t know if you know the life she had with him: she has come to me nearly mad having found him in her own bedroom with two prostitutes... I am so glad Eleanor is dead. It is such a mercy she has escaped from him’.


 Schreiner 1
Schreiner 2
Schreiner 3Letter from Olive Schreiner to Dollie Radford, June 1898. Add MS 89029-1-26.

 

Izzy Gibbin
Doctoral student, University College London - Anthropology department

Further reading:
Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life (London, 2014) [ELD.DS.71583]
Tara Bergin, The tragic death of Eleanor Marx (Manchester, 2017) [DRT ELD.DS.167611]
John Stokes (ed.), Eleanor Marx (1855-1898): Life, Work, Contacts (Aldershot, 2000) [YC.2000.a.13685]
Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx – Volume I: Family Life 1855-1883; Volume II: The Crowded Years 1884-1898 (London, 1972-6) [X.0809/449]
Chushichi Tsuzuki, The Life of Eleanor Marx 1855-1898: A Socialist Tragedy (Oxford, 1967) [X.709/5699]

Love and tragedy in the British Library: The story of Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling Part 1

Discover the links between the British Library and Karl Marx and his daughter Eleanor, through original documents from their work in the British Museum Reading Room and their political activism in London. Free exhibition in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery 1 May-5 August 2018. 

 

27 February 2018

Papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning

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In 2013 the British Library acquired the papers of Charles Canning (1812-1862) and his wife Charlotte (1817-1861) together with the papers of Charles’s father George Canning (1770-1827), Britain’s shortest serving Prime Minister. Charles Canning held posts in successive British Governments of the 1840s and 1850s. But he is most well-known as Governor General and first Viceroy of India.

Charles-John-Canning-Earl-CanningCharles John Canning, Earl Canning by Henry Hering. From albumen carte-de-visite, late 1850s-early 1860s NPG x25261
© National Portrait Gallery, London CC NPG

Appointed in 1855, Charles Canning arrived in Calcutta on 29 February 1856 to succeed Lord Dalhousie. In a prophetic speech to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London, Canning had said “I wish for a peaceful time in office, but… We must not forget that in the sky of India, serene as it is, a cloud may arise, at first no bigger than a man’s hand, but which growing bigger and bigger, may at last threaten to overwhelm us with ruin” [Maclagan p.21]. He had been in India for a year when disturbances broke out amongst the Indian sepoys of the Bengal Army. This was the start of the uprising known as the’ Indian Mutiny’.

‘Clemency’ Canning was severely criticised both in Britain and in India for being too lenient in his punishment of those involved in the uprising, particularly sepoys not involved in violence. Canning refused to exact vengeance upon the general population.

The events of 1857-58 had profound consequences for the governance of India. In 1858, the rule of the East India Company was transferred directly to the Crown. Canning became India’s first Viceroy, acting as the British monarch’s representative.

MSS EUR F699-1-1-2-4-87Mss Eur F699/1/1/2/4 f.87

Canning’s period in office was one of reform. Indian finances were given an overhaul, with new taxes and a new paper currency. There was reform of the Executive and Legislative Councils in India, and the first Indian members were appointed to Council in 1861.

Wide reaching reforms were experienced by the Army too. Many European troops returned to Britain rather than transfer from Company to Crown, and in 1860 the East India Company’s European forces were amalgamated with those of the British Army.

MSS EUR F699 on shelvesMss Eur F699/1/1 Governor General’s Papers

The Canning papers have been catalogued and re-packaged to enable them to be used by researchers. They comprise 155 volumes, 222 boxes and 9 oversize portfolios. The bulk of the collection originated in India and relates to Canning’s time as Governor General, although the collection includes material relating to Charles Canning’s early career, and to the Canning family.

The Indian papers include letters between Canning and principal officers of Government in both India and England, as well as letters between Canning and Regional Governors. There are formal Minutes, day to day telegrams, and Miscellaneous Correspondence. A significant part of the collection comes from the offices of Canning’s Private Secretary and his Military Secretary, and these include day to day correspondence, telegrams, applications for positions, and subject papers. The papers also cover the Persian campaign of 1856-57 and the China Expedition of 1860, and there is material from Pegu and Rangoon.

Charlotte-Canning-ne-Stuart-Countess-CanningCharlotte Canning (née Stuart), Countess Canning by Henry Hering.  From albumen carte-de-visite, c.1860 NPG x45082 © National Portrait Gallery, London CC NPG

The collection also contains papers of Charlotte, Lady Canning, including family correspondence, and papers originating in India such as letters and diaries.  There is a noteworthy correspondence between Charlotte Canning and Queen Victoria, whom she served as a Lady of the Bedchamber (1842-55), and papers relating to Lady Canning's interests in nursing, education, and charity work. Charlotte Canning's papers will be explored in more detail in a future blog post. 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Mss Eur F699 Papers of Charles Canning and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning
M. Maclagan, ‘Clemency’ Canning: Charles John, 1st Earl Canning, Governor-General and Viceroy of India (London: Macmillan & Co., 1962)
William Gould, The Indian papers of the Rt. Hon. Charles John, Earl Canning: an introduction to the microfilm edition (Microform Academic Publishers, 2007)

 

14 December 2017

Sixty Thousand Signatures against the Bengal Partition: Bengali Resistance in 1905

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The ‘Partition’ of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 saw the birth of India and Pakistan in an unprecedented human tragedy.  But it was not the first time that British India witnessed a partition.

On 16 October 1905 Bengal province was ‘redistributed’ by the Viceroy Lord Curzon, apparently for administrative efficiency. Its eastern part was conceded to Assam Province to form a new ‘Eastern Bengal and Assam Province’. The remaining part of Bengal was further reduced by surrendering some of its parts to the Central Province.

This partition excited the Bengali population and resulted into various kinds of organized protest movements.  Memorials containing thousands of signatures were sent to the Governor General of India in Council to revoke the partition.  It was unprecedented in the history of the Raj that so many of her subjects literally took up their pen in an organized manner to register their protest against a Government decision.


L PJ 6 754 File 1027IOR/L/PJ/6/754. File 1027

One of many such memorials, sent on 31 December 1906 by Khaja Atikulla of Dacca, describes the day of the partition: ‘The demonstration which took place on the 16th October 1905, when the Partition was carried out, will never be forgotten. The whole Province was in mourning; the shops were closed; it was a day of fasting and prayers; and in Calcutta thousands of devout Hindus bathed in the Ganges, as is customary when a great misfortune overwhelms them’.

L PJ 6 803IOR/L/PJ/6/803

The ‘multitudinous signatures’ created a stir even in the British Parliament. MP Herbert Roberts asked the Secretary of State for India 'whether he has received & considered a memorial signed by 60,000 of the inhabitants of Eastern Bengal, protesting against the proposals of the Government of India in reference to the partition of Bengal...’

L PJ 6 729  File 2260IOR/L/PJ/6/729, File 2260

The list of the signatures running to thousands of pages bears the marks of a great number of Bengali population either in terms of written signatures or thumb impressions.

L PJ 6 803 AOne of many such volumes containing thousands of signatures IOR/L/PJ/6/803

The pages of signature were divided into three columns: Name/Signature, Address, and Profession. The overwhelming majority of the signatories were Hindu by religion, even in places like ‘East Bengal’ where Muslims outnumbered the Hindus.  A conspicuous absence of Bengali women from the lists went against the fact that Bengali women participated in the Movement in great numbers.

L PJ 6 754A page bearing the signature of Upendra Kisor Raychaudhuri, an eminent Bengali writer who established India’s finest printing press in Calcutta and introduced half tone and colour block making for the first time in the subcontinent IOR/L/PJ/6/754

  L PJ 6 755A signature page  IOR/L/PJ/6/755

The lists start with signatures of men of prominence and authority, mostly Maharajahas and Zamindars. They were followed by common men of different professions. During the first decade of the 20th century, the majority of Bengalis were farmers by profession. But the list does not reflect a proportionate representation of the Bengali population as the majority of the signatories were land owners (Taluqdar) or in money-lending professions (Mahajani, Tejarati).

However, organizing such a huge signature campaign against the reigning colonial power was not an easy job. Reaching the households of hundreds of villages all over Bengal, crossing rivers and forests, braving seasonal difficulties like those in the monsoon time could not have been possible without very organized concerted efforts. The list of 60,000 signatures seems to be a premonition of organized nation-wide struggle against the British Government which paved the way for the leaders like Gandhi.

Parthasarathi Bhaumik
Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, and Chevening Fellow at the British Library

Chevening_primary_CMYK (with bleed)

 

 

 

 

 

09 November 2017

Testimony from the Trenches: personal journeys of WW1

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First-hand accounts of war provide us with details missing from official reports, and offer insights into personal survival strategies, ranging from the mundane and superficial to the profound. Collections at the National Archives, Imperial War Museum and National Army Museum cover official and non-official narratives, ranging from military documentation and papers of high-ranking or well-known officials, to the private collections of individuals from the rank-and-file.

The British Library also holds personal archives relating to a number of conflicts, including the recently-catalogued archive of Alfred Forbes Johnson, which will shortly be available for consultation in our reading rooms (Add MS 89235).

AddMS89325box

Letters in the archive, following re-housing. Copyright held by Tim Johnson, on behalf of the family of A F Johnson.

Lieutenant Johnson was drafted into the Royal Garrison Artillery from the Artists’ Rifles in 1917, and discharged in the spring of 1919. His archive consists of trench maps, retrospective war diaries, collected memorabilia and correspondence with family members.

AFJportraitPortrait of Alfred

Daily letters to his wife Essie allow a good grasp of how he, his colleagues and family managed and made sense of their imposed obligations. Alfred’s philosophy was to spend life productively, no matter the circumstances, and with good humour.

'This is a weird state of affairs here. The Hun is shelling something about a quarter of a mile on the left, and on the right there is a band playing.' (16/08/1918)

His strategies included exploring the landscape, villages and towns of France and Belgium, engaging in debates of the day with Essie and the Mess, and involving himself in lectures, sports and intellectual activities. Most significantly, the British Museum employee read avidly, favouring satire, the humour of Dickens, and other classics, popular novels and magazines of the day.

'I generally manage to read a book every time I am at the O.P. as there are generally many hours in the early part of the day when it is too hazy to see anything.'

AFJreading

Magazines which Alfred and colleagues read at the time are held in the Library’s journal collections. A flyer included advertises how reading material was distributed to the troops. The Sphere illustrates the first tube strike in London in 1919, which Alfred discusses with Essie at the time.

Alfred expresses regret at losing out on bonding with his new-born son Christopher in his two year absence. Yet he gained from his experience too: a Military Cross, a vastly enriched literary repertoire, skills in French, German, Italian, and even a new-found tolerance for Americans!

The archive also includes letters from other serving family members. Alfred’s brother-in-law Reggie died of wounds following his involvement in supporting front-line duty. The battles at Loos and Polygon Wood have since become notorious landmarks for reckless objectives in warfare.

'The German Minenwerfers are terrible things, you hear a slight pop & then see the bally thing coming over, it is very hard to judge where they will let, so you are kept in suspense with your eyes protruding out of your head watching the torpedo till it hisses down…. Dugouts werent much use against these blighters.' (20/04/1916)

The young man eagerly describes his knowledge of German and British ammunition, makes frequent requests for Lemon Fizzers from his mother, and tells of his generally uncomfortable experience:

'In the night we have heaps of company, rats & mice & the other livestock.. everytime you wake [the rats] are fighting & squeeking all over you.. the other night one took a flying jump on to my face, he had been washing his feet I believe, it was just like a wet rag.'

In what was to be Reggie’s last letter he anticipated that American involvement would bring about an end to the war; it was to be the last his family heard from him.

'Essie hasn’t given my pants away has she? I shall want them when Peace is declared, which may be soon if America has declared war.' (04/05/1916).

19CountyLondonRegimentPhoto sent on to Reggie's next of kin following his death

Find further stories of servicemen from the British Library collections at Europeana 1914-1918, as well as many commissioned articles exploring the effects of the war.

Layla Fedyk

Cataloguer, Modern Archives and Mss

12 October 2017

The City of Polish Children

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How Isfahan in Iran became the City of Polish Children during the Second World War.

Group photo Isfahan

Group photo of older children at one of the children's homes in Isfahan. Reproduced with kind permission from the personal collection of Dioniza Choros, Kresy, Siberia Virtual Museum (http://kresy-siberia.org/hom/element/gradzik-collection/group-photo-at-isfahan-childrens-camp/)

Intelligence summaries prepared by Britain's Embassy in Tehran during the Second World War record details of the journeys made by Polish military and civilian refugees from the Soviet Union to Iran between 1942 and 1944. In these reports, one poignant statistic stands out: in January 1943 the camp in the city of Isfahan contained 2,457 civilian refugees, of which 2,043 were children.

IOR_LPS_12_3504_f71

Extract of an intelligence summary, prepared by the Military Attaché at the British Embassy in Tehran, 21-26 January 1943. IOR/L/PS/12/3504, f71.

Most of Isfahan's 2,000 children were either orphans or were accompanied by their one surviving parent. They were part of the second wave of the evacuation of 25,000 Polish refugees from the Soviet Union in August 1942, where they had been incarcerated since the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. After Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 Stalin signed a Polish-Soviet treaty that freed Polish citizens in Russia. After years of incarceration, violence, malnutrition and disease, and with no homeland to return to, the futures of these Polish refugees remained bleak.

In August 1942 thousands of Polish refugees arrived from Russia at the Iranian port of Pahlavi (now Anzali) on the Caspian Sea. The Red Cross and the Polish Government in Exile assisted in the establishment of transit camps for the refugees. To prevent the spread of disease and lice the refugees’ hair was shaved off, and the rags they wore incinerated. New clothes, shelter and provisions were supplied. From Pahlavi the refugees travelled onwards to Tehran, Isfahan, Ahwaz and Mashhad. Children needing the most care were sent to Isfahan, where the climate was thought more amenable to their recovery.

EAP001_7_1

Portrait of Polish refugee children, taken by Abolghasem Jala between 1942-1944. Abolghasem Jala took thousands of portraits of Polish refugees during his time in Isfahan at the Sharq photographic studio. Abolghasem Jala Photographic Collection, Endangered Archives Programme, EAP001/7/1 (http://eap.bl.uk/archive-file/EAP001-7-1)

Memoirs indicate the sympathetic reception given by Iranians to the Polish refugees. One man recalled that the Iranians he met at Pahlavi were ‘well-wishing, very cordial and presented the Polish youth with sundry delicious tidbits’. Another family remembered being ‘warmly greeted by the Persian people with gifts of food, dates and clothes’ upon their arrival in Tehran.

  Naqsh-eJahan Square

Photograph of Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan, in 1925, taken by Walter Mittelholzer. Source: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv/Stiftung Luftbild Schweiz (http://doi.org/10.3932/ethz-a-000274599_) Public Domain

With its tree-lined avenues and numerous gardens and parks, Isfahan was ideal for healing young lives damaged by war and exile. 

Twenty-one ‘establishments’ were opened across the city for Polish children, many of which were concentrated around Isfahan’s famous Chahar Bagh boulevard. Royal princes, affluent families and the city’s religious institutions donated their palaces, mansions, monasteries and convents for use as orphanages, hospitals and schools. Many establishments had their own gardens that the children made full use of. One former refugee later recalled walking through a ‘paradise of tall mulberry, fig, and quince trees and pistachio bushes’. Eight primary schools and one secondary school were established for Isfahan’s Polish children, as was a technical school training women in tailoring. Scout and Girl Guide groups also proved a popular activity.

Many of Isfahan’s Polish children remained in the city for the duration of the War. Later on they departed for new lives in East Africa, India, Mexico and New Zealand. Memoirs shared by the Polish diaspora indicate a fond regard for their time in Iran, and for Isfahan in particular which, for many, will always be remembered as ‘the city of Polish children.’

 

Mark Hobbs

Content Specialist: Gulf History, Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme

Primary Sources:

British Library, London. Coll 28/97 'Persia. Diaries. Tehran Intelligence Summaries', IOR/L/PS/12/3504 *currently being digitised for the Qatar Digital Library*

Further reading:

Irena Beaupré-Stankiewicz; Danuta Waszczuk-Kamieniecka; Jadwiga Lewicka-Howells (eds.) Isfahan, City of Polish Children (Hove, Sussex: Association of Former Pupils of Polish Schools, Isfahan and Lebanon, 1989)

Anna D. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann, The Exile Mission: The Polish Political Diaspora and Polish Americans, 1936-1956 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004)

Andrzej Szujecki “Near and Middle East” in Tadeusz Piotrowski (ed.) The Polish Deportees of World War II: Recollections of Removal from the Soviet Union and Dispersal throughout the World (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007)

05 October 2017

The quest for El Dorado

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Have you seen Werner Herzog's 1972 film Aguirre, Wrath of God?  Although historically wildly inaccurate, it has always been a hugely popular cult film. TIME magazine included it in its list of 'All-Time 100 Best Films'.  Herzog tells the story of the Spanish descent of the Amazon in 1560 – a quest for El Dorado.

The movie starts well, with the huge expedition winding its way down from Andean foothills to where they built their boats. But the later part of the film, with a handful of men and a horse on a raft, is wrong in every way – the expedition had no horses, hundreds of men, and two or three proper boats.

Spanish explorer

Spanish explorer from Edward Eggleston, The Household History of the United States and its people (London, 1889) BL flickr Noc

El Dorado was an elusive rich kingdom, now thought to be associated with the Omagua people on the main Amazon near the present Brazilian-Peruvian frontier, rather than in forests east of Quito.  In 1560 a great expedition led by Pedro de Ursúa built boats and embarked on the Amazon in northern Peru. But it found heavy rains, little food, and no wealth. The venture was hijacked by the embittered Basque arquebusier Lope de Aguirre.  Ursúa, his officers, and his beautiful mistress Inéz de Atienza were all murdered.  Aguirre wanted to descend the river as fast as possible, sail up the coast to Venezuela, and then march south to conquer Peru for his band of traitors.  The voyage down the Amazon became a bloodbath, with the paranoid psychopath Aguirre killing a third of the Spaniards and marooning hundreds of native Andean porters.  The story of the expedition was sensational, with El Dorado gold, Amazonian adventure, treachery, sex, class warfare and scores of murders.  But it added almost nothing to knowledge of Amazonian geography or indigenous peoples.

In 1570 Richard Hakluyt published Lopez Vaz's first-hand account of this disastrous descent of the Amazon by Pedro de Ursúa and his murderer Lope de Aguirre.  Hakluyt's English translation of this important source is the only known version, because the Spanish original is lost.

   Bollaert front coverNoc

 In 1861 the Hakluyt Society published The Expedition of Pedro de Ursua & Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omagua in 1560-1.  It is unfortunate that William Bollaert chose to translate from the Franciscan friar Pedro Simón, whose Noticias historiales de las conquistas de Tierra Firme (Cuenca, 1627) were entirely plagiarized without acknowledgement from earlier sources.  There were four eyewitness accounts by members of the ill-fated journey: Lopez Vaz, Captain Altamirano, Gonzalo de Zúñiga, and Francisco Vázquez,  Summaries were also written soon after the event by Diego de Aguilar y Córdoba (1578), Toribio de Ortigüera (1581), and Juan de Castellanos (1589).

  Pedro Simon Noc
Clements R. Markham wrote a stirring introduction to the Hakluyt Society edition - 
‘The blood-stained cruise of the “tyrant Aguirre”… is by far the most extraordinary adventure in search of El Dorado on record.  The dauntless hardihood of those old Spaniards and Germans, who, undismayed by the reverses and sufferings of numerous predecessors, continued to force their way for hundreds of miles into the forest covered wilds, is sufficiently astonishing; but in this cruise of Aguirre all that is wildest, most romantic, most desperate, most appalling in the annals of Spanish enterprise seems to culminate in one wild orgie of madness and blood’.

John Hemming
Hakluyt Society

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Richard Hakluyt, The Principall navigations, voiages and discoveries of the English nation (London, 1589) volume 8.
The Expedition of Pedro de Ursua & Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omagua in 1560-1, (from Pedro Simón, Sixth Historical Notice of the Conquest of Tierra Firme), translated by William Bollaert with an introduction by Clements R. Markham, Hakluyt Society, 1 ser., 28, 1861.