THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

29 posts categorized "Middle East"

21 February 2017

Enclosed Herewith: Specimens of Ore from the Kuria Muria Islands

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Recently the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership programme discovered an unusual enclosure in some India Office correspondence:  four small specimens of ore, contained in a little pouch.  Where were these specimens from and how did they become part of the India Office Records?

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IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 17: pouch containing four specimens of ore Noc

The specimens were given to Lieutenant-Colonel William Rupert Hay, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, by some inhabitants of Al Hallaniyah during Hay’s visit to the island on 7 April 1947.  Al Hallaniyah is the largest of the Kuria Muria Islands, a group of five islands located in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Oman.  The islands were presented as a gift to Britain by the Sultan of Muscat in 1854, and they became the responsibility of the Government of Bombay in British India.  They were highly valued for their guano deposits, which were exhausted by 1860, following a brief but intensive period of extraction. The islands became part of the British Aden Colony, but for administrative purposes were placed under the control of the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf.

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IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 17a: four specimens of ore from Al Hallaniyah Noc

Although the islands were long regarded by the British as being of little strategic or commercial interest, their status and administration became a topic of discussion between the India Office and the Colonial Office during the 1930s.  This was mainly in relation to Aden’s separation from British India, but also because of the establishment of a strategic air route from Aden to Muscat.

The reasons behind Hay’s visit to the islands in 1947 are not entirely clear, but he appeared to take a personal as well as a professional interest in the islands.  Following his visit he submitted a short article to The Geographical Journal (the journal of the Royal Geographical Society), which was published later that year.  Hay was also curious about the properties of the specimens that he had received at Al Hallaniyah.  A few days after his trip, in a letter to Eion Pelly Donaldson at the India Office in London, Hay wrote: ‘I forward herewith the specimens of ore handed to me on Hallaniyah Island.  If there is no objection I should be grateful if you could kindly have them analysed and let me know the result'.

IOR_L_PS_12_2106_0045

IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 21: letter from the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf to the India OfficeNoc

The specimens were duly sent to the Geological Survey and Museum (now part of the Natural History Museum) in South Kensington. After an initial inspection the specimens were identified as being crystals of iron pyrites, and were deemed not to be of commercial value.  Donaldson informed Hay of the results and added ‘[w]e will keep the specimens here for the time being, unless you want them returned’.  Presumably Hay did not express any interest in retaining the specimens, which have remained with the correspondence ever since.

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IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 13: letter from the India Office to the Political Resident in the Persian GulfNoc

Images of the specimens will be made available on the Qatar Digital Library website later this year.


David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
Coll 6/39 'Kuria Muria Islands: Administration and Status of', IOR/L/PS/12/2106
John Gordon Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, ’Omān and Central Arabia, 2 vols (Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, India, 1908), II, pp. 1043-1045.
William Rupert Hay, ‘The Kuria Muria Islands’, The Geographical Journal, 109 (1947) No. 4/6 (April-June 1947), 279-281.

  

20 December 2016

Exploring emotional worlds: Indian soldiers’ letters from the Second World War

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“I have written to you many times but God alone knows why I don’t get your letters.  You say you write regularly.  Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us.”
- Written in Urdu by an Indian sepoy from Tunisia on 16 May 1943.

© IWM (E 7180) Indian forces in North Africa during the Second World War
An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk -Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 7180)

Two-and-a-half million men from undivided India served the British during the Second World War.  Their experiences are little remembered today, neither in the UK where a Eurocentric memory of the war dominates, nor in South Asia, which privileges nationalist histories of independence from the British Empire.  And yet military censorship reports from the Second World War, archived at the British Library’s India Office Records and containing extracts from Indian soldiers’ letters home, bear witness to this counter-narrative.  What was it like fighting for the British at a time when the struggle for India’s freedom from British rule was at its most incendiary?

   © IWM (E 5330)  An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941
An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941 - Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 5330)

Letters were written in Indian languages – Hindi, Gurmukhi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil – and often dictated to scribes by Indian sepoys who were illiterate.  They were then translated into English for the censor, who compiled selected quotations from the letters into a report testifying to the spirit or ‘morale’ of the soldiers.  Soldiers’ names have been anonymised in these reports, and so it is virtually impossible to trace the letters to their writers.  All that remains are evocative textual shards – a portal into the soldiers’ emotional world.

The letters forge a material and emotional connection between the home front and the battlefront.  In the sentence, “Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us” with which this post begins, the unknown Indian sepoy links the letter’s affective impact – its “consolation”, assuaging loneliness, homesickness and longing – to its inherent physicality – “half meetings”.  An intimate moment is captured between the home front and the battlefront, a negotiation between distance and proximity created by the act of letter writing.

Letter writing is foregrounded again in the only love letter among the censorship reports.  Written in Urdu by an Indian Lieutenant – part of the rising Indian officer class making inroads into the Indian Army – the extract is addressed to the soldier’s beloved during the Allied invasion of Italy: “Here I am penning this to you in the middle of one of the biggest nights in the history of this war.  Love, I am sure by the time you receive this letter you will guess correctly as to where I am. … You would feel that the whole world were shaking with an earthquake or probably the sky were falling over you…Yet in the midst of this commotion, I sit here, on my own kit-bag and scribble these few lines to my love for I do not really know when I will get the next opportunity to write to you.”

Here, writing itself becomes an source of solace amidst the frenetic sounds and activity of the war.  It also embodies presence.  With the image of the soldier sitting on his kit bag and scribbling, this wartime love letter becomes a remarkable testament to the forgotten experiences of the Indian soldier, and the articulation of his complex inner life, during the Second World War.


Diya Gupta
PhD researcher, Department of English, King’s College London

Further reading:
Middle East Military Censorship Reports: Fortnightly Summaries Covering Indian Troops, April-October 1943, IOR/L/PJ/12/655

We become crazy as lunatics’: Responding to the Bengal famine in Indian letters from the Second World War

The ‘Kashmir of Europe’ and other exoticisms: Indian soldiers’ tales of travel in the Second World War

Find out more in this short film

 

15 December 2016

Christmas in Bahrain

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In the spring of 1949 the Bahrain Political Agency, in a typically organised fashion, began to make arrangements for the production of its very own Christmas card.  At the Agency’s request, the appropriately titled Christmas Card Manager at Gale and Polden Limited sent to Bahrain two folders containing specimens of Christmas cards that the company had produced for various British embassies, consulates, and colonial protectorates.

After receiving the specimens, the Political Agent, Cornelius Pelly, made a request for 200 Christmas cards, similar in style to a card produced for the British Embassy in Washington DC, which features in one of the specimen folders.

British Embassy Washington Christmas Card Cover

IOR/R/15/2/1626, f 152: front cover of the British Embassy in Washington’s Christmas card Noc

 

British Embassy Washington Christmas Card Greeting
IOR/R/15/2/1626, f 153v: the greeting inside the British Embassy in Washington’s Christmas cardNoc

 

British Embassy Washington Christmas Card Photo

IOR/R/15/2/1626, f 154: the photograph inside the British Embassy in Washington’s Christmas cardNoc

 

Pelly sent a photograph (and its negative) of the Political Agency building, which he asked to be included in the card.  Sadly, as of yet, no surviving copy of the resulting card has been uncovered in the Bahrain Agency files.  However, Gale and Polden did return the photograph and negative, and these have been retained with the correspondence.

Bahrain Political Agency

IOR/R/15/2/1626,  f 124: photograph of the Bahrain Political AgencyNoc

The photograph of the Agency building, whilst being rather unimpressive in comparison with that of the British Embassy in Washington, does show how the building, which today is home to the British Embassy, once looked, in a landscape that has changed beyond recognition, following extensive land reclamation.

Images of the specimen folders, along with those of the Agency photograph and negative, will be made available on the Qatar Digital Library website in 2017.


David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

Further reading:
IOR/R/15/2/1626

 

08 December 2016

Anglo-Italian Competition: The sale of military aircraft to Kabul

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In 1937 the Government of Afghanistan purchased 24 aircraft from Italy.  Provision was made for an Italian Air Mission to be deputed to Kabul for the purpose of assembling and maintaining the aircraft, and for training Afghan personnel.  The Political (External) Department of the India Office maintained a file to keep track of the situation.

This development placed the Italians in direct competition with Britain and caused concern amongst British policy makers.  Hawker Aircraft Limited had recently negotiated the sale of eight Hind aircraft to the Afghan Air Force, and was similarly engaged with supplying its own instructors for the same purpose.

Hawker Hind IWM

Hawker Hind - British official photographer: Imperial War Museum © IWM (ATP 8882B)

British policy favoured the maintenance of a stable, independent, and friendly Afghanistan as the best means of securing its Indian Empire.  Meanwhile, Afghan officials feared being outclassed in the event of war by a larger Iranian Air Force, but lacked the resources and expertise to compete with their neighbour.  British policy makers were therefore in favour of the development of a small but efficient air force in Afghanistan for internal security purposes, being both within Afghan means and no threat to India.  Their strategy for achieving this lay with encouraging the Afghans to develop their air force along the lines of the Royal Air Force using supplies from British sources.

The Afghan authorities had expressed an interest in purchasing British aircraft as far back as 1935.  However, the demands of Britain's own re-armament programme limited the number of aircraft which could be supplied to Afghanistan.  Restrictions over the credit which could be provided to Afghanistan by the Government of India provided a further limitation.  Thus the British were hardly in a position to object when the Afghans turned to the Italians to fulfil their requirements.

The British feared that the Italians would send out an imposing mission to Kabul in view of the larger number of aircraft being supplied, and considered sending out a senior British officer to bolster the British mission.  Such fears turned out to be unfounded, the maximum size of the Italian mission being seven personnel to Hawker’s four.

The result was a scene at Kabul’s aerodrome described as peculiar by William Kerr Fraser-Tytler, Britain's Minister at Kabul.  An Italian delegation was assembling and testing aircraft next to a similarly engaged British contingent, while two German mechanics were busy restoring Junkers aircraft supplied in previous years to serviceable condition.

1938 would however turn the situation entirely to Britain's advantage.  The Italian aircraft sold to the Afghans were powered by engines entirely unsuitable for use at high altitude, and were easily outperformed by Hawker’s Hinds which were much more suited to Afghan conditions.  The Italian supplied aircraft experienced difficulties taking off, and were not able to carry a full load.  As a result, crashes and forced landings were common, and the aircraft became unpopular with Afghan pilots.

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Hawker Hind - Afghanistan Air Force. Image via Wikimedia (copyright Alan D R  Brown)

The Italian Mission was withdrawn in 1939, following the German instructors who had been withdrawn the previous year.  Thus Britain was left as the only nation maintaining an air mission at Kabul during the Second World War.  Fraser-Tytler was entirely happy with developments and claimed in a dispatch dated 10 May 1938 to the Foreign Office that ‘This practical demonstration of British superiority could not have been achieved had we been alone in the field’.

Britain had thus achieved an advantageous position in Afghanistan. However the outbreak of the Second World War, and subsequent restrictions on Britain’s ability to supply aircraft and equipment, meant this position could not be fully capitalised on.

Robert Astin
Content Specialist, Archivist
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
British Library, Coll 5/48 ‘Afghanistan: Supply of military aircraft to the Afghan Government; Supply of maps etc. to the Afghan Govt.’ IOR/L/PS/12/2001
British Library, Coll 5/53 ‘Afghanistan: Employment of British nationals in various branches of the Afghan air services; Air instructors’ contracts’ IOR/L/PS/12/2006
British Library, Coll 5/53(2) ‘Afghanistan: Employment of British nationals in various branches of Afghan air services; Air instructors’ contracts’ IOR/L/PS/12/2007
British Library, Coll 5/55 ‘Afghanistan: Supply of Aircraft to Afghan Govt: Contract between Air Ministry & Hawker Aircraft Ltd’ IOR/L/PS/12/2009
British Library, Coll 5/55(2) ‘Afghanistan: Supply of aircraft to the Afghan Govt. Supply of spare parts’ IOR/L/PS/12/2010 IOR/L/PS/12/2010
British Library, Coll 5/55(2) ‘‘Afghanistan: Supply of aircraft to the Afghan Govnt. Supply of spare parts’ IOR/L/PS/12/2011
British Library, Coll 5/60(1) ‘Afghanistan: Purchase of aircraft from foreign sources (1) Italy (2) Germany’ IOR/L/PS/12/2020

 

06 December 2016

Pageantry, Parade and Presents in Persia

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In February 1809, a delegation from the British Government and the East India Company presented the Shah of Persia with a letter proposing an alliance between the two powers. This alliance was intended to thwart French attempts to use Persia to threaten Britain’s Indian Empire, as well as offer Persia military assistance against the Russians in the Caucasus.

Fath Ali Shah

Nigaristan Palace mural showing Fath Ali Shah enthroned with his sons - British Library Add.Or.1239 BL flickr

The envoy, Harford Jones, arranged for a display of strength in the form of a procession consisting of troops and members of his staff to impress the Persians. With this procession came a train of gifts, even the letter Jones was tasked to deliver was richly appointed. The records of the East India Company contain a list of these gifts, including firearms produced by the famous gunsmiths Manton.

The records also contain a set of receipts for some of the gifts, including a bill from Nunn and Barber Haberdashers of London for three letter bags: “…A very elegant white satin bag embroidered in gold extremely rich with gold cords of four tassels…”. This, along with two other bags cost the princely sum of £32.12s, the equivalent of over £1,000 today.

As well as these lavish letter bags, Mr Sydon Williams was paid £7.17s.6d for a “drawing of flowers… envelope… and trim”. There is also a bill for “Turkey boxes with velvet” and “cedar boxes” costing £9.0s.6d, presumably to carry everything else.

These gifts were intended to impress the Persian Shah and his court, demonstrating that the military strength shown in the parade to the palace was supported by the cash to back any promises made to the Persians, should they side with Britain.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library  

Further reading:
India Office Records - Persia Factory Records IOR/G/29/37; IOR/G/29/32 f.530
Sir Harford Jones Brydges, An Account of the Transactions of His Majesty's Mission to the Court of Persia, in the years 1807-11 ... To which is appended a brief history of the Wahauby (1834)

 

15 November 2016

A little embarrassing: Britain fails to prevent Barclay Raunkiær from exploring Arabia

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The British did everything in their power to thwart the journey of a young Danish explorer into the heart of Arabia in 1912 – but ended up helping him by mistake.

The Danes had a history of exploration in the Arabian Peninsula going back to Carsten Niebuhr in the 18th century. In 1911 the Royal Danish Geographical Society decided to revive that tradition by mounting a new expedition.  One of the members was a young Danish student, Barclay Raunkiær, whose father, the botanist Christen Raunkiær, gives his name to a system of plant categorisation still in use today.

The Society duly informed the British Government of their intentions. However, the British viewed the expedition as an unwelcome intrusion into their imperial sphere of influence, and decided that it should be prevented.  The British claimed that as they could not guarantee the safety of their own officers and travellers in the region, they could not offer any assistance or protection to the Danes either.

As a result, the Society abandoned the scheme, despite the fact that money had been raised and plans were well advanced. Nevertheless, Raunkiær decided to make the journey himself, and after passing through Ottoman territory, he arrived at Kuwait in January 1912.

IOR-L-PS-10-259, f 75.

Telegram from the Government of India to the Political Resident dated 1 March 1912 asking the Resident to give ‘a hint’ to the Sheikh of Kuwait
IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 75. Noc

The British Government of India responded by giving instructions to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf  that ‘a hint’ should be given to the Sheikh of Kuwait that no assistance should be given to Raunkiær. Without the Sheikh’s support the expedition would be impossible. British officials also monitored the Dane’s movements in the region and passed on information.

It came then as a considerable surprise to the British some months later to learn that the expedition had been a complete success. Raunkiær had made his way from Kuwait to Riyadh and back to the coast at Bahrain, ‘in a somewhat dilapidated condition’, collecting important geographical, ethnographic and botanical information on the way.

IOR-L-PS-10-259, f 48.

India Office minute: the Royal Danish Geographical Society’s gratitude was ‘a little embarrassing’ - IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 48. Noc

 

Worse, the Royal Danish Geographical Society sent a letter thanking the British Government, particularly mentioning the valuable assistance given to Raunkiær by two British Political Agents, Shakespear at Kuwait, and Lorimer at Bahrain. An India Office minute records that after all the obstacles the British had placed in the way of the Danes it was ‘a little embarrassing’ to be thanked in that way, and in the circumstances there seemed to be nothing for it but ‘to put on the best face we can’.

IOR-L-PS-10-259, f 42.

Part of Captain Shakespear’s report on Barclay Raunkiær, 9 March 1912. It was ‘regrettable’ that the Government of India had not made their objections known sooner - IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 42. Noc

The British Government wanted to know what help, exactly, Lorimer and Shakespear had given the expedition. Lorimer was quickly exonerated, but Shakespear was forced to explain that he had given the Dane his ‘good offices’ and permitted the Sheikh of Kuwait to assist the expedition because instructions to the contrary had not arrived in time. He had also thought that Raunkiær’s limited mapping skills showed he was more of a botanist than a geographer, and he had satisfied himself that Raunkiær was not acting on behalf of either the Turks or the Germans.

Raunkiær himself, weakened by his exertions, died in Copenhagen in 1915. He was 25.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archivist British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by

Sources:
London, British Library, File 1202/1912 'Arabia:- Travellers. Capt. F. F Hunter. Herr Runkiar (Danish Expedition). Capt Shakespear.'. IOR/L/PS/10/259.
Barclay Raunkiaer, Through Wahhabiland on Camelback (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1969).
See also: Desert Encounter: Knud Holmboe 

 

 

24 October 2016

Tagore Meets an Old Friend in Iran

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After ousting the young Ahmad Shah from the imperial throne in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi determined to once again assert Iran as a world power on the global stage. Gone were the Qajars, who had reduced Iran to a mere plaything in the hands of the English and the Russians; their reign had been replaced by a new order, which sought to modernise Iran, embolden a national identity, and salvage the nation from the ideas and institutions that had so entrammelled it for centuries.

In 1932, Reza Shah invited the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore to Iran. Ties between Iran and India stretch back to time immemorial, a fact of which the Shah and the poet were well-aware. The Shah, on one hand, sought to promote and celebrate Iran’s Aryan (or, Indo-Iranian) identity, while Tagore saw Aryan kinsmen in the Iranians. ‘In me they saw a poet, and that too an Eastern poet, an Indo-Aryan poet like themselves’, he noted. Issues of ethnicity, however, constituted only a part of Tagore’s interest in Iran. The poet was familiar with Iranian history and literature, and was also curious about the Pahlavi dynasty.

On 11 April 1932, Tagore and his daughter-in-law Pratima Devi set out for Iran by air, and reached the port city of Bushehr on the 13th. Although Tagore would later visit the ruins of Persepolis and the Iranian capital, Shiraz (in which he arrived on the 16th) undoubtedly marked the raison d'être of his trip.

 

  Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran
Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran Wikimedia Commons

 

In Shiraz, Tagore visited the tombs of the revered Persian poets Sa’di and Hafez. Unlike Voltaire, who had been nicknamed ‘Sa’di’, Tagore – like Goethe before him –felt more of a kinship with Hafez (here is a Mughal-era commentary on his Divan).  Could this have been because of his upbringing? Tagore’s father was a known lover of Hafez. ‘I spent half the night reciting hymns and the verses of Hafez’, he remarked of his childhood evenings. This love was later passed down to his son: ‘… I had my first introduction to Hafez through my father, who used to recite his verses for me’, Tagore recalled in Esfahan. ‘They seemed to me like a greeting from a faraway poet who was yet near to me.’

Indeed, the bond between the two poets extended far beyond verse. At Hafez’s tomb, Tagore sat and read the bard’s poems alone with eyes closed. ‘I had the distinct feeling that after a lapse of many centuries, across the span of many births and deaths … another wayfarer … had found his bond with Hafez’, he afterwards wrote. Echoing the florid imagery of Hafez’s poetry, Tagore penned a eulogy of Iran before leaving for Calcutta in early June:

Iran, all the roses in thy garden
and all their lover birds
have acclaimed the birthday
of the poet of a far-away shore
and mingled their voices in a pair of rejoicing.

… And in return I bind this wreath of my verse
on thy forehead, and I cry: Victory to Iran!

Joobin Bekhrad
Founder and Editor of REORIENT, a publication about contemporary Middle Eastern arts and culture


Further reading:
Das, S.K., ed. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Volume Three: a Miscellany. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.
Marashi, A. Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 1870 – 1940. Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press, 2008.
Mukhopadhyaya, P. & Roy, K. in Radhakrishnan, S., ed. Rabindranath Tagore: a Centenary Volume 1861 – 1961. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961.

 

18 October 2016

Pageantry and Parade in Persia

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In February 1809, the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe. The Ottoman Empire and Britain had just concluded the Treaty of the Dardanelles, while in Spain a British army was forced from the shores of Northern Spain at the Battle of Coruna. Meanwhile, the French, British and Russians were also fighting for influence and control in the Persian Empire. The Russians and Persians fought a bitter war for control of the Caucasus, the French sought to threaten India with a Franco-Persian alliance, and Britain looked to prevent both while also drawing away attention and resources from Europe.

In order to do this, a letter was prepared by the British from George III to the Shah of Persia, Fath Ali Shah Qajar. This letter was delivered by the representative of the East India Company and British government  in Persia, Sir Harford Jones. Being an old hand in Persia, Jones appreciated that it wasn’t just the letter that was important, but also how it was presented. A record of the procession organised by Harford Jones is written in the East India Company’s records. It gives an impression of the importance that such pageantry held in the workings of diplomacy in Persia and elsewhere at this time.

“The Procession to the Palace began in the following manner: Officers belonging to the King of Persia. Led horses belonging to the Envoy [Harford Jones]. Native officer of Cavalry, sword drawn. Trumpeter. The Letter with HM Letter and Present. Guard of Native Cavalry, swords drawn. Persian Officers of the Envoy’s Household mismounted. The Envoy. Secretary and Gentlemen belonging to the mission. Guard of Native Cavalry…”

 

  Fath Ali Shah K90059-69

Add.Or.1241 The court of Fath Ali Shah with foreign ambassadors - from a reduced copy of the Nigaristan Palace mural. Images Online

 

It’s not always what you say, but the way you say it. The embassy of Harford Jones was not just impressive in terms of its personnel either, as it carried with it an array of expensive gifts from India and London. The procession was calculated to look impressive, being a display of wealth and military strength to assuage any doubts as to Britain’s ability to defend herself or her Empire in India. The situation in Persia was complicated by constant shifts in the interests of each power in Europe, with both the French and British wishing to bring Russia onto their side while knowing that any agreement with Russia would abrogate the chances of a treaty with Persia. Displays of power and prowess were therefore seen as a necessary ingredient in diplomacy with Persia.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library

Further reading:
IOR/G/29/37