THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

81 posts categorized "Conflict"

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.

 

10 August 2017

First World War Indian soldiers' letters in 'Connecting Stories' exhibition

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The exhibition Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage features extracts from letters written by two soldiers of the 33rd Punjab Regiment fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. The Censor of Indian Mails gathered information about the morale of the soldiers, and would prepare regular reports for the information of Government and the Army, appending translated extracts of soldier’s letters to illustrate his reports. The Censor’s reports and soldier’s letters are part of the India Office Records held at the British Library.

Punjab Regiment Photo 24-(352)
A Punjab regiment on the march in Flanders, 6 September 1915; Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. British Library: Photo 24(352)

The Punjab Regiment suffered heavy casualties in the fierce fighting in Flanders in 1915, and the letters reflect the extreme stress the two soldiers were experiencing. Of these letters and others from soldiers of the 33rd Punjabis, the Head Censor commented that the writers appeared to be dejected, and that the regiment had lost nearly all its British officers. Subadar Pir Dad Khan wrote in Urdu from the front on 2 October 1915 that “This country, which is in the likeness of Paradise, now seems to me worse than Hell! (because of the bad news which comes from the Regiment)”.

Ior!l!mil!5!825!6_f065v
Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France: Vol 1, IOR/L/MIL/5/825/6, folio 999

Jemadar Ghulam Hassan Khan was writing to a friend or family member in Rawalpindi in the Punjab in early October 1915. He wrote that he arrived in France on 19 September 1915, and by 23 September he had reached the trenches. The regiment immediately went into action, suffering great losses, but achieving a good name for itself. Writing close to the trenches, he noted that “It rains day and night - both sorts of rain. I cannot describe it. If God is merciful to me, I will escape with my life, otherwise not. To describe what is happening is one thing, to see it for yourself is an entirely different matter. Even if I were to write a whole book about it, it would fall short of the reality.” He went on to say that the men were fully supplied with everything they wanted in the way of food, matches, tobacco, etc., but that “The cold is what we suffer from most, besides the constant rain and hail of shells. I cannot complain to anyone except God.” A note by the Censor at the end of the letter says that the letter was passed by the Regimental Censor, but subsequently withheld. This was more than likely due to Ghulam Hassan Khan’s closing instruction to his correspondent to arrange a code so they could communicate with each other more secretly.

Connecting Stories is at the Library of Birmingham until 4 November 2017. It was created in partnership with the British Library and generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Details of opening hours, events and family days are on the Library of Birmingham website.

The reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, including extracts from soldiers’ letters can be found online.
 
John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further information:
Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, Aug-Oct 1916 [IOR/L/MIL/5/825/6, folios 980-981, 999]
#connectingstories
#brumpeeps

02 May 2017

India Office Records on the Russian Revolution

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The India Office Records and Private Papers contain many items relating to the Russian Revolution and its effects on global politics. Russia and Britain had pursued an aggressively competitive relationship throughout the 19th century over the issue of influence in Asia, commonly known as ‘The Great Game’.  The India Office therefore routinely received Foreign Office and War Office reports concerning Russia.

Eastern Report No78  murder of Tsar Nicholas II

Eastern Report No.78, 25 July 1918 - IOR/L/PS/10/587

One report which the India Office Political Department regularly received from the Foreign Office was the weekly Eastern Report prepared for the War Cabinet.  The reports gave news, information and analysis of events concerning Russia, the Middle East and Asia.  The report shown here, No.78, dated 25 July 1918 gave news of the death of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  Under the heading “The Ex-Emperor murdered”, the report stated that the following wireless message had been sent out by the Russian Government: “Recently Ekaterinburg, the capital of the Red Ural, was seriously threatened by the approach of the Czecho-Slovak bands.  At the same time a counter-revolutionary conspiracy was discovered, having for its object the wrestle of the tyrant from the hands of the council’s authority by armed force.  In view of the fact the presidium of the Ural region council decided to shoot the Ex-Tsar, Nicholas Romanoff.  This decision was carried out on the 16th July”. The message erroneously stated that the “wife and son of Romanoff” had been sent to a place of security.  In fact Nicholas, his wife and children were all killed on the night of the 16/17 July 1918.

Appreciation by Sir Mark Sykes

IOR/L/PS/10/587

The reports generally were forwarded with an attached ‘Appreciation’ or comment on the report by Sir Mark Sykes.  In his appreciation with report of 25 July 1918, he noted that “once a man has been unjustly killed, the errors attributed to him diminish in popular estimation, while the acts of his murderers are more and more open to popular condemnation”.  Copies of the reports were sent to the Government of India, but without the appreciations.

Short History of Events in Russia Nov 1917-Feb 1919

Short History of Events in Russia from November 1917 to February 1919 - Mss Eur F281/89

Another report received by the India Office looked at the military aspects of the events in Russia between November 1917 and February 1919, and was prepared by the General Staff of the War Office.  This summarised Allied military intervention in North Russia with the purpose of preventing the transference of enemy troops from East to West, and to deny the resources of Russia and Siberia to Germany.  The revolution in Russia was seen primarily through the lens of the First World War.  The introduction to the report stated that: “The political destiny of Russia was no immediate concern of the Allies except in so far as might, in the event of an inconclusive peace, assist in the continuity and enhancement of German military power”.

Map of European Russia

Map of Russia - Mss Eur F112/562

 John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
File 705/1916 Pt 3-4 The War: Eastern Reports, 1917-1919 [Reference IOR/L/PS/10/587]
Short History of Events in Russia from November 1917 to February 1919 (General Staff: War Office, Mar 1919) [Reference Mss Eur F281/89]
Maps of Russia and the Russian front, 1917-1918 [Reference Mss Eur F112/562]

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths  - Our major new exhibition is open until Tuesday 29 August 2017. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website.

Russian_revolution

 

11 April 2017

The Hodeidah Incident: Britain’s ‘indiscriminate’ military action in Yemen

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In the early hours of 12 November 1914 George Richardson, the British Vice-Consul to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah (Al Hudaydah) in Yemen, was awoken by the sound of the town’s Turkish gendarmes forcing their way into his residence.  Fearing assassination, Richardson leapt from his terrace to that of the neighbouring Italian Vice-Consulate, whereupon he awoke his Italian counterpart Gino Cecchi, and pleaded for asylum.  Minutes later, having realised that Richardson had escaped next door, the Turkish gendarmes stormed the Italian Consulate, injuring an Italian guard in the process, and arrested Richardson.

Aden Ma'alla
Postcard showing the wharf at Ma’alla, Aden, Yemen, during the First World War. Source: Museums Victoria Collections . Public Domain.

It took a month for news of the raid and of Richardson’s arrest to reach the newspapers in Britain.  With Italy not yet having entered the war, and the British and French Governments lobbying for Italy to enter on the side the Allies, the British press focused on the ‘outrage’ that the Turkish authorities had inflicted against Italy in raiding one of its consulates, in what became known as the Hodeidah Incident.  On 14 December The Daily Telegraph reported a ‘new and very grave Italo-Turkish incident’, describing the incident as a ‘Turkish outrage at the Italian Consulate’.
 

Hodeidah 1
Copy of a communication sent by the British Ambassador to Italy, Sir Rennell Rodd, to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Edward Grey, 12 December 1914. IOR/L/PS/10/465, f 124.

In press reports, no mention was made of why orders were given by the Turkish to raid the Italian Consulate and arrest and detain the British Consul.  Political and Secret Papers in the India Office Records, now available on the Qatar Digital Library reveal more details.

Reporting on the incident after his eventual release, Richardson wrote that on 4 November a ‘ship of war’ appeared in Hodeidah harbour, flying the Turkish flag.  The warship then swapped its Turkish flag for the White Ensign (the British Naval flag), and dispatched a steam cutter and crew, which proceeded to set fire to a Turkish cargo vessel.  Richardson only later learnt that the vessel in question was HMS Minto, a small ship whose appearance and actions caused great consternation amongst the inhabitants of Hodeidah:

  Hodeidah 2
Extract of a report of the incident at Hodeidah, written by the British Consul, George Richardson, dated 9 February 1915. IOR/L/PS/10/454, ff 62-86.

The Minto’s action led to Richardson’s freedoms being increasingly curtailed by Turkish officials and, fearing ‘an intended massacre of British subjects in the city’, he barricaded himself and his family in the consulate.  The British attack on the Turkish fort at Cheikh Said, 150 miles south of Hodeidah, on 10 November 1914, led to an exodus of the population from Hodeidah, who expected British vessels to visit the port the following morning.  It was amidst this climate of fear and retribution that Turkish officers stormed the British and Italian consulates on the night of 11/12 November.

Richardson had no intimation of the events that unfurled in Hodeidah in early November 1914, writing only that he had received a cypher cable from Constantinople on 3 November, informing him that Britain would declare war on Turkey and that he should make arrangements for his immediate departure.

Hodeidah 3

 Extract of a note written by Arthur Hirtzel of the India Office, 1915. IOR/L/PS/10/454, f 60.

Unbeknownst to him, the Admiralty had ordered HMS Minto to ‘proceed up the Red Sea and destroy Turkish steamers and dhows’ on 2 November, three days before Britain’s formal declaration of war against Turkey.  As one India Office official noted at the time, in the early days of the war, the Admiralty was ‘disposed to be indiscriminate in their action’ in the Red Sea.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project

Further reading:
British Library, London, File 3136/1914 Pt 5 ‘German War. Turkey. Hodeida consuls incident’ (IOR/L/PS/10/465).
Charles Edward Vereker Craufurd, Treasure of Ophir (London: Skeffington & Co, 1929).
“Telegram from Admiralty to the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies [Admiral Sir Richard Peirse] and the Senior Naval Officer, Aden [later South Yemen], with orders for HMS Minto to proceed up the Red Sea,...” The Churchill Papers (CHAR 13/39/50), Churchill Archives Centre (Cambridge), Churchill Archive.

 

24 March 2017

The East India Company’s Black Book of Misdemeanours

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The East India Company knew that it was dangerous to employ overseas servants who were xenophobic, lazy, or dishonest.  Indeed the Company was so concerned that it created a ‘Black Book’ to record errors and misdemeanours. 

  Black Book IOR/H/29 Noc

The book which survives in the India Office Records covers the years 1624-1698.  It copies in complaints made in letters received from Company servants in Asia.  Most reports of wrongdoing relate to private trade carried on against express orders, but they also cover drunkenness, negligence, desertion, disobeying orders, embezzlement, and debauchery.

Company servants had to be careful that in obeying rules set by the directors in London they did not risk alienating the local society hosting them.  Merchants were generally keen to avoid giving offence and tried to discover local protocol before trying to gain access to powerful men. The reports tell us where things went wrong.

Here are a few examples of reported misconduct which affected the Company’s relations with local people in Asia:
• In January 1626/27 Robert Hackwell, master of the Charles,  put two black men to death at Jambi and was discharged from East India Company service for ever.
• Nathaniel Mountney and Thomas Joyce were involved in a fight in 1632: ‘theire heads full fraught with wyne fell out with the Moors & in the fray a moore was slaine’.  Joyce was put in irons for ten days for the offence and only released after a large sum was paid.
• Thomas Nelson, gunner of the Swan, was charged 500 rupees in 1635 for killing a man at Macassar by a bullet carelessly shot into the town.
• In 1642 Humphrey Weston left all the Company’s property at Japara and ran away in fear of his life because he had been consorting with a Javan married woman.
• Richard Hudson’s ‘ill behaviour’ at Masulipatam aroused the local people’s hatred, especially the ‘great ones’.  Hudson had dealt in their grains and taken government duties upon himself.

  IOR H 29IOR/H/29 Noc

Here is the entry in the ‘Black Book’ taken from a letter from Surat in 1686 concerning the conduct of Roger Davis, Captain of the ship East India Merchant. Davis had arrived in Bombay at the time of Richard Keigwin’s rebellion against the Company and had established friendly relations with the rebels. He then fell ill and died, thus removing the problem: ‘Had that naughty man Davis lived, we had for certain protested against him, and should have used the East India Merchant worse than we did’.  Death often did solve disciplinary difficulties for the Company.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Library IOR/H/29 East India Company book of servants’ errors and misdemeanours.

04 November 2016

The case of Margaret Duchell, who “died a confessed witch”

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The early modern period in Scotland is well known for the severe persecution of alleged witches, who were detained, tortured and brought before the court to be tried and sentenced. One volume in British Library collections, Egerton MS 2879, provides an insight into the sort of accusations that could lead to a person’s detainment for the crime of witchcraft. It also documents the process of gathering evidence and presenting a case. Between 1658 and 1659 five women were accused of witchcraft at Alloa, a small town in Clackmannanshire. They were interrogated and cases were prepared against the women. Inside this volume are documents on the case of Margaret Duchell, the first to confess and accuse other women as accomplices.

Duchell 1
 Margaret Duchell's confession, written down by J. Craigingelt, Egerton MS 2879, f.15 Noc


This, alongside a document at the National Records of Scotland, records the accusations against Margaret, demonstrating some of the widespread witchcraft beliefs at the time. She was detained for over a month before she “died a confessed witch” (f.15) in her confinement. During this time she was interrogated and likely tortured into denouncing other women and confessing to her own crimes.

Duchell 2
 Details of the witchcraft case against the five women, Egerton MS 2879, f.1 Noc


In order to receive the power to perform malevolent acts upon other people, Margaret claimed to have entered a pact with the Devil. Sources tell us that the Devil tempted Margaret with money, and the two sealed the deal with both a meal, and through sexual intercourse. Once they entered the pact, Margaret was free to commit “many murders and other mischiefs” (f.1), along with other women who had supposedly also entered the Devil’s service.

Disputes with members of the Alloa community seem to have given Margaret rise for causing them harm. She admitted to striking Janet Houston on the back, which resulted in her death, over a quarrel about money. We also hear about a disagreement with a twelve year old girl, who called Margaret a witch in public, whereby Margaret apparently tugged upon her arm, resulting in her bleeding to death. These accusations were later denied by Margaret at a kirk session in May and even the presiding minister doubted whether they were physically possible.

Margaret was also accused of possessing shape-shifting abilities, to metamorphose into the form of a dog. The Devil himself was sometimes depicted in the form of a dog. During an attack on one William Morrison with a group of other witches, Margaret transformed into a dog to follow him. The later confession of Barbara Erskine reveals that Margaret and a group of women also destroyed a boat, during which they “wer in the lyknes of corbies” (f.4).

 

Witch N10019-09

The Devil as a dog from the title page from ‘The Witch of Edmonton’, a play based on a witchcraft case 644.c.17 Images Online Noc


So why did Margaret originally confess to these crimes? Just being accused of witchcraft at the time was dangerous. To deny involvement could lead to torture, while to confess would result in a death sentence. Interrogators were keen on obtaining confessions to secure a conviction. Torture, particular sleep deprivation, and leading questions were often used to confuse suspects and extract ‘evidence’. It seems unlikely that Margaret’s confession was freely given, as she later denied all charges, but she died before her trial. Both Egerton MS 2879 and the Presbytery minutes bring us closer to what it might have been like to be accused of witchcraft in early modern Scotland.


Claire Wotherspoon
Manuscripts Reference Specialist Cc-by


Further reading:
An abundance of witches: the great Scottish witch-hunt / P.G. Maxwell-Stuart (YC.2007.a.7576)
Marks of an absolute witch: evidentiary dilemmas in early modern England / Orna Alyagon Darr (ELD digital store)
Witches of the North: Scotland and Finnmark / Liv Helene Willumsen (YD.2013.a.1825)