Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

18 October 2018

Propaganda Portraits of Muslim Rulers during WW2

The Ministry of Information was the British Government department responsible for publicity and propaganda during the Second World War. On 22 August 1940, Arthur John Arberry at the Ministry of Information wrote to Roland Tennyson Peel at the India Office, enclosing colour portraits of Emir Abdullah of Transjordan (ʿAbdullāh bin Ḥusayn al-Hāshimī), the Sultan of Muscat and Oman (Sa‘īd bin Taymūr Āl Bū Sa‘īd), and the Shaikh of Bahrain (Shaikh Ḥamad bin ‘Īsá Āl Khalīfah, erroneously referred to as the Shaikh of Kuwait in the letter).

Arberry wrote that the Ministry’s Far Eastern Section had ordered a large quantity of these portraits for distribution in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and that a caption would be added ‘indicating that these Muslim rulers support Britain in the present war’, in an attempt to foster support for the Allies amongst the predominantly Muslim population. He went on to request Peel’s advice ‘as to whether these portraits could appropriately be used for distribution on a large scale in the Middle East, especially in Hadhramaut and the Persian Gulf’, as propaganda.

This letter and the portraits, below, are included in the file IOR/L/PS/12/3942, which has been digitised and will soon be available to view on the Qatar Digital Library


Letter from Arthur John Arberry of the Ministry of Information, to Roland Tennyson Peel of the India Office, 22 August 1940. Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 19. 


EmirAbdullahPortrait of Emir Abdullah of Transjordan (ʿAbdullāh bin Ḥusayn al-Hāshimī), c 22 Aug 1940. Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 21.

The copyright status is unknown. Please contact with any information you have regarding this item.

SultanMuscat&OmanPortrait of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman (Sa‘īd bin Taymūr Āl Bū Sa‘īd), c. 22 August 1940. Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 22.

The copyright status is unknown. Please contact with any information you have regarding this item.

Portrait of the Hakim of Bahrain (Shaikh Ḥamad bin ‘Īsá Āl Khalīfah), c. 22 August 1940 . Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 23.

The copyright status is unknown. Please contact with any information you have regarding this item.

Arberry was sent a reply from John Percival Gibson of the India Office, advising him that ‘we think it undesirable to make any use for publicity purposes of the Sultan of Muscat’s portrait, chiefly for the reason given in Peel’s letter to Rushbrook Williams of the 23rd January [1940]’. The letter referred to is not included in this file, however a draft copy of it can be found in file IOR/L/PS/12/2995, f 9. In this letter, Peel informs Laurence Frederic Rushbrook Williams of the Ministry of Information that ‘the Sultan of Muscat has asked that steps might be taken to prevent publicity being given…to Muscat. Apparently the Sultan is apprehensive that such publicity might draw unwanted attention to his country in German & Italian quarters’, and ‘We have promised to respect his wishes’. 

In Gibson’s reply to Arberry, he also stated that provided the Sultan of Muscat’s portrait was omitted, he did not think there would be any objection to distribution of the other portraits in the Middle East generally, but that this was more a matter for the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office. However, he added that ‘I doubt it would be worth the expense to make any distribution in the Persian Gulf, where the attitude of the Sheikhs is well enough known’.

Arberry further consulted the India Office about whether it would be politically acceptable to include a portrait of the Shaikh of Kuwait (Shaikh Aḥmad al-Jābir Āl Ṣabāḥ), to which Peel responded that there was no objection.

Before the portraits were finally approved, Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, Adviser to the Secretary of State for India, was asked for his opinion on them. Suhrawardy approved the green border of the portraits, but thought that it should be an olive shade instead. He also advised the Ministry of Information that the star and crescent symbol should be omitted from the border, for the reasons stated in the letter below.


Copy of a letter from Sir Hassan Suhrawardy to E J Embleton, Studio Manger at the Ministry of Information, 5 November 1940. Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 11.



Susannah Gillard,

Content Specialist, Archivist

British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading

British Library, Coll 30/202 ‘Persian Gulf. Photographs of Notabilities (Sheikhs &c) (used for propaganda purposes)’ IOR/L/PS/12/3942

British Library, Coll 20/35 'Sultan of Muscat's desire to avoid wireless and press publicity during wartime' IOR/L/PS/12/2995

15 October 2018

The royals are here!

RA_QEIIRoyal armorial of Queen Elizabeth II used at her coronation, 1953. BL

We have a vast array of images and information about British armorials, thanks to the British Armorial Bindings database. The database was created by John Morris, and since his death in 2006 has been edited by Philip Oldfield. It is a fantastic resource and - thanks to the various ways of interrogating the system - simple to use.  Royal British coats of arms (many from bindings in the British Library) have only just been added to the database.  This is due to their sheer number and complexity.  These armorials are more than simple marks of ownership, the actual motifs (called ‘charges’) throw unexpected highlights on the history and mythology of the UK.


How did we recognise who was who before the invention of the internet?  Today images, personalised emojis, logos and avatars mean immediate identification is easy with a click or tap.  In the midst of a 15th century battle, though, a fully armoured knight was effectively a man of mystery unless he had a shield, badge or flag depicting his allegiance.  When a king took part in a battle his coat of arms had to be noticeable, enabling the soldiers to rally around their own royal general.

Harry PayneHenry V at the Battle of Agincourt, wearing on his surcoat the royal arms of England (three lions on red), quartered with the fleur de lys of France as a symbol of his claim to the French crown. Painting by Harry Payne.

All British monarchs have at least one stamp of the “arms of dominion” reflecting the lands over which they reigned. As William III did not rule over just Britain, he used the Stuart coat of arms (from his Stuart wife, Mary) with the addition of the escutcheon (i.e. shield) of Nassau in the centre to represent his lands in the Low Countries (see below).

BL_292_d_29BL 292.d.29

Every member of the royal family has an individual coat of arms which must be different from that of the reigning monarch.  The Prince of Wales has a ‘label of difference’ to distinguish him as the oldest son of the reigning monarch.

BL_c46_b_7BL C.24.b.7. The white arrows point to the label of three points, a mark of cadency to indicate an eldest son, in this case Prince Henry Frederick, who died before he could become King, at the age of eighteen.

 There are many royal motifs.  This link from British Armorial Bookbindings demonstrates some used on the books of the Stuart Prince of Wales, Henry Frederick (1594 -1612) Charles I’s elder brother. 

A royal armorial can reflect the history of the realm. George III of England was king of Hanover, (see left below, in the centre) therefore those arms had to be included too.  This continued until the reign of Queen Victoria when it disappeared because she did not rule Hanover.



The royal armorial has also something to tell us about the myths of a country.  One of the animals which supports the British royal shield is the mythical unicorn, Scotland’s national animal.  It first featured on the arms of William I of Scotland d.1214 and was associated with purity, nobility and strength.

In 1603, James VI of Scotland, whose Scottish shield can be seen on a bookbinding here, assumed the English crown (as James I of Great Britain).  This event was reflected in the royal armorial.  The individual royal arms of Scotland, Ireland and England were brought together and have remained major elements of the royal arms today. The new shield was supported by the lion, standing for England and the unicorn representing Scotland.  Sometimes the charges are arranged in such a way as to give Scotland pride of place in dexter position.


The nursery rhyme beginning “The lion and the unicorn / Were fighting for the crown” is thought to refer to the heraldic supporters.

P J M Marks

Printed Heritage Collections

See British Armorial Bindings online

11 October 2018

An Irish soldier in India

In July 1859 Gunner Richard Scott wrote a letter to his father from Poona.  Scott was about to return to Britain after fighting with the Bombay Horse Artillery in the Indian Mutiny or Rebellion.  He wrote of his military experiences and asked for help in finding employment.

  Poona 1871Street scene in Poona by John Frederick Lester (1825-1915) c.1871 WD3549 No. 18

Richard Scott enlisted at his home town of Dublin on 24 August 1857 for twelve years’ service with the East India Company.  Scott was 5 feet 7⅛ inches tall, with brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. His age is given as twenty but records point to him being just seventeen, suggesting that he was joining the army without parental consent.  This is borne out by his letter home.

  Scott letter L MIL 5 365IOR/L/MIL/5/365 no.473 Noc

 ‘Dear Father
Altho I never wrote to let you know of it I suppose you are aware that I am a soldier in the East India Company’s forces.  I would have written long since to let you know how I was getting on, but from the time I landed in the Country up to the present I could not be shure if I wrote would I ever live to receive an answer.  All the fiting is now over and we are just returned to quarters after being out on field service for nearly 18 months.  The Troop to which I belong has been engaged several times with the rebels but I came off unhurt through it all and strang to say, altho we often were obliged to take the field against overwhelming numbers, our small forse always came off victorios.

Dear Father I suppose you are aware that by a late Act of parliment the East India Company’s Troops are disbanded that is all that wish to take their discharge can have it and all those who wish to stop in the country can Remain as they are, their former service will count for them.   I have taken my discharg & come what will of it for I do not like the country, And perhaps I would never get the chace of leaving it again. Dear Father I cannot expect that you will do any thing for me when I go home again, but I will be in a very poor condition when I land, I will be left in London without one penny in my pocket and who have I to look to except you, if you can spare it Dear Father send me a few pounds that will keep me some time an buy me a suit of clothes And shurly you have interst enough to get me a situation with some Gentleman.  I would go as a groom, I have been Riding horses since I joined the service both in the Military style and the other way.’

Lucknow after Mutiny IWMAftermath of the Siege of Lucknow by Felix Beato  © IWM (Q 69821)

 Scott was given a certificate of discharge from the Bombay Regiment of Artillery on 1 October 1859 ‘being unwilling to serve in HM Indian forces’ after the disbandment of the East India Company armies.  Sadly he died of dysentery on 26 October 1859 at sea on board the Hope on his way home.  His father John sent his letter to the India Office in 1863 with an application for payment of Lucknow Prize Money.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MIL/9/23 Recruitment register Dublin 1855-1858
IOR/L/MIL/12/282 f.1369 Discharge certificate for Richard Scott 1859
IOR/L/MIL/5/365 nos.473, 1793, 2491 – enquiries about soldiers