Untold lives blog

80 posts categorized "Science and environment"

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?


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.


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, 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.


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.


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

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 



04 October 2016

Poldark, put your shirt on! An 18th Century description of a Cornish mine.

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In the British Library there is a fascinating manuscript, compiled in 1779, recording a journey across southern England.  An anonymous gentleman set out from London “on the 1st day of July 1779”, and went all the way to Cornwall “with a single horse chaise”.

Upon reaching Cornwall, the traveller decided “to gratify a curiosity of visiting one of the tin & copper mines which lay scattered on the roadsides”.  This caught my attention because one of my guilty pleasures is the TV series Poldark.  Aidan Turner (the actor who plays Ross Poldark) frequently removes his shirt while toiling in the rugged, rocky interior of his mine.  Not surprisingly, the 1779 account of a Cornish mine is completely different.

To begin with, the anonymous traveller of 1779 had to wear copious amounts of clothing before he was allowed down the mine.  In preparation for the descent, he... “immediately went to the room of one of the Captains (that is a person of rather greater confidence than others) where [he] furnished myself with a dress consisting of worsted stockings, pair of trousers, flannel shirt, waistcoat sleeved, flannel night cap & hat.  Having procured some candles & taken a small quantity of gin to prevent injury from my new habit, set forth for the shaft” .

The gentleman traveller estimated that the mine was 430 feet deep, and he described it as a murky, unforgiving, water-filled place, strewn with mud and clay.  A steam operated pump that the traveller called a “fire engine” was used to draw water out of the mine at a rate of a hundred gallons per stroke.

Cornish mine 2

Fire engine used to pump water out of a Cornish tin and copper mine in 1779. BL-Mss Eur Mack Private 91, p.447.


The descent into the mine happened at a terrifying proximity to the fire engine mechanism, which perpetually pumped water out of the mine, and inevitably spilled water while it operated.  There was “a large quantity of water flowing over so as to compleatly wet every part of the dress through & endanger the candles going out... the engine sometimes working so close as to make it necessary to keep the cloathing as close to the body as possible; when [we] had descended half way the water from above flowd so fast that our candles were once or twice extinguished to one, though the number[of candles] was about eight”.

At the bottom of the mine “[t]he ground [we] had to walk along where the vein of ore formerly lay consisted of mud or clay considerably over my shoes, & roof so low as to make it necessary to stoop the whole distance...”  It seems that Cornish mines were places where men had to dig about in the mud, and not rock-walled caverns where swarthy men struck hammers against chunks of stone.  At the end of his visit, the traveller “came to a flight of ladders placed so as to form an angle, & it was with some degree of pleasure I revisited daylight after an absence of two hours”.


Cornish mine 1

Ladders leading out of the mine. BL-Mss Eur Mack Private 91, p.451.


The traveller continued his journey to Redruth, and stayed at an inn called the King's Head, where he ate a “Cornish pye formed of meat parsley onions apples cream &c” for his evening meal. Unlike the miners he left behind, life was good for this gentleman. I wonder if he looked a little bit like Aidan Turner?


King's Head Redruth

Photograph of The King’s Head, Redruth, 1900s (now closed).  Image courtesy of


Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia

Further reading:

“A Description of a Cornish mine” was taken from pages 442 to 455 in an account of a journey across the south of England by an anonymous traveller, 1779. British Library, Mss Eur Mack Private 91.

Foster, Patrick. “Poldark star Aidan Turner swaps topless scything for semi-clad mining in new series.”  The Telegraph, 22 August 2016.


08 August 2016

The surgeon’s porcupine

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Sometimes a single page captures a small life. Here John McCosh, East India Company surgeon in Assam in the 1830s, recalls an unusual pet. McCosh was reporting to the Government of India on the topography of Assam. Topography encompassed history, geography, people, customs, economics, and natural history: indeed, anything which a reporter on an area thought worth recording. This topography would have been a valuable work of reference for government officials. But two centuries later, it is the unexpected glimpse into McCosh’s domestic life which stands out.


  Porcupine 2

Porcupine from Burney 97, f.26v De animalium proprietate BL flickr Noc

‘I once had a pet porcupine at Goalpara, I got him or her (for I could never use the freedom of ascertaining the sex) when very young.  It afterwards became so tame as to run out and into the house like a dog, and was wont to make its appearance regularly at meals, and ate from my hand any thing that was at table, whether flesh or vegetable.  It had a great deal of comic humour if I might so call it, and whether to gratify this whim, or from love of stolen treasure, became a great thief.  Nothing that it could carry away was safe; a stick or a shoe, a boot-hook or a broken bottle, was dragged to its nest, but as it never meddled with any thing that was not on the floor, we were easily able to keep things out of its reach.  Latterly this habit became very inconvenient; if any thing fell off the table and was neglected, it was certain to be carried off.  On searching its hoard the lost article was frequently found, but I had sometimes reason to think, the porcupine was blamed for taking away things he had no share in.  It became the torment of the dogs, and was wont to take a fiendish pleasure in pricking and annoying them.  It had a large share of courage, and in fair field was more than a match for any one dog, for it had only to keep its tail towards him to save its head, the only defenceless part about it; sometimes two dogs set upon it at once, and on such occasions it took to its heels, but it only ran to the nearest corner of the room and spreading out its quills, so as to fill the corner, looked back at its persecutors with cool contempt.’


Porcupine Noc

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator, post-1858 India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
John McCosh, Topography of Assam (Calcutta: Bengal Military Orphan Press, 1837)




22 June 2016

National Insect Week

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For National Insect Week, here is an extract from the very first volume of the Calcutta Journal of Natural History, published in 1841. The Reverend Frederick Hope, a well-known entomologist from Oxford, solicits information about insects in India and asks for specimens.


Insects (2)

  Insects (1)

 Calcutta Journal of Natural History 1841 Noc


In the same edition are an article on a species of civet, a review of Robert Wight’s Illustrations of Indian Botany, and an account of a particularly ill-tempered meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (‘A committee that would lay down rules for the direction of a curator, ought to know the difference between minerals and rocks’).

Many of Hope’s entomological collections are now in the Museum of Natural History, Oxford.

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator Post-1858 India Office Records


16 June 2016

A dinosaur dinner and relics from 'one of the greatest humbugs, frauds and absurdities ever known'.

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These are the words which Colonel Charles Sibthorpe (1783-1855) used to describe the Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace. His staunch opposition to any foreign influence, including a deep suspicion of Prince Albert, was the likely cause of his dislike of the Exhibition, which housed 13,000  exhibits from around the world.


Lithograph published by Day & Son, 1854, showing the Crystal Palace and Park in Sydenham. Add MS 50150. Cc-by

The British Library Modern Manuscripts Department owns two volumes of letters, ephemera and artwork relating to the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace and its life in Hyde Park and later in Sydenham, South London. The collection contains posters, letters, tickets, photographs, drawings, newspaper cuttings and advertisements.

One of my favourite items is a letter dated August 27 1862 from Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) to Edward Trimmer (1827-1904), secretary to the Royal College of Surgeons.

Hawkins was the designer and sculptor of the models of extinct animals and dinosaurs which were commissioned to stand in the grounds of the Crystal Palace after its move to Sydenham. To celebrate the launch of the models, Hawkins hosted a dinner on 31 December, 1853, inside one of the dinosaur models.


Baxter-type showing the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace, 1854. Add MS 50150. Cc-by

Trimmer had evidently asked Hawkins which dinosaur was the location of the supper party and Hawkins responded:

"In reply to your enquiry as to which of my models of the gigantic extinct animals in the Crystal Palace Park at Sydenham I had  converted into a sale á manger. I send you herewith a graphic answer in a miniature sketch of the Iguanodon as he appeared with his brains in and his belly full on the 31 of Decr 1853 and if you are further interested in the details of my whimsical feast you will find a good report in the London Illustrated News of July 7 1854 as its proprietor The late Mr Ingram was among the press of guests on that occasion; I had the pleasure of seeing around me many of the heads of science among whom in the head of the squadron was Professor Owen and the late Professor Ed forbes with eighteen other friends we were all very jolly to meet the new year 1854."

Hawkins' sketch of the Iguanodon shows a lively scene of people standing and raising glasses inside the body of the dinosaur.


Detail of the dinner party held inside the Iguanodon, from Hawkins' letter to Trimmer, Add MS 50150. Cc-by

The drawing is similar in composition to the wood engraving from the Illustrated London News which was taken from an original drawing by Hawkins, and shows the dinosaur surrounded by a wooden platform and steps.


 Wood engraving from the Illustrated London News, January 7 1854, showing 'Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham'. Add MS 50150, f. 225. Cc-by

The dinosaurs remain in the Crystal Park today and are Grade I listed. There's a brilliant Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs group who promote the long-term conservation of the models. A recent blog on the FCPD site shows images of the interior of the Iguanodon, the dinosaur in which Hawkins hosted his banquet.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts 1601-1850.

14 June 2016

Failings of English Forestry Students

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In a previous post I wrote about the examinations held in 1880 by the India Office to find suitable candidates for the Indian Forest Department.  Once candidates had been selected they were sent to the French National School of Forestry, which had been established at Nancy, in north east France, in 1824, and was regarded as the premier school of forestry in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Nancy 11258715

Station square in Nancy in 1887 by Jules Voirin - Images Online  Noc


On 27 August 1880, the India Office received a report by the Director of the Forest School on the eight English students who had entered the school in 1879.  For the India Office the report made disappointing reading.  Despite obtaining more than the minimum number of marks required to continue their studies at the School, the students occupied almost all the lowest places in their class, and were trailing behind the French students.  The Director of the School largely put this down to carelessness in their studies, and he was unable to mention one English student who had distinguished himself.

The file on this report in the India Office Records contains the individual report cards for each student, giving marks for each subject studied, and a note on the student’s general progress over the year.  Some remarks on the students would have made uncomfortable reading, both for them and the India Office.  One student, Mr Lillingston, was described as “a charming young man, but giddy, thoughtless and wanting in application.  He is not wanting in intelligence and has a good knowledge of French, but he does not seem to appreciate the importance of learning”.  Another student, Mr Carr, was “intelligent but wanting in energy; he is less attentive to the practical than to the theoretical part of his studies”.  Mr Brasier was “wanting in quickness and energy, but he is attentive to his duties, and in his practical exercises, he has shown a certain aptitude for forestry work”.  Mr Rawbone’s conduct was good, and he was described as fairly intelligent, with the potential to occupy a good position in his class if he would take the necessary trouble, but “he is soft, indolent, irregular and not sufficiently attentive to his studies”.

However, some students were reported on more favourably.  Mr Hobart-Hampden was described as “slow, but conscientious and industrious”, and he had conducted himself very well.  He was expected to take a good position in his class in the next year.  Mr Lace’s conduct was excellent, although he was too fond of being alone and consequently his French had not improved as might have been expected, and he had not done well in his viva voce examinations.

In response, a stern letter was sent to Colonel Pearson, the officer tasked with supervising the English students at Nancy, expressing the Secretary of State’s displeasure at receiving so unsatisfactory a report on the students’ progress, and requesting him to inform them that a more favourable report was expected on their progress the following year.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:
Report on the eight students at the School of Forestry at Nancy, August to October 1880 [IOR/L/E/6/13, File 704]

See the previous posting on forestry students: Sturdy Scots and pale-faced Londoners



08 June 2016

Theodore and Mabel Bent in Southern Arabia

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Could the Phoenicians, the ancient Mediterranean people who gave us the modern Latin alphabet and founded Carthage, have originated in Bahrain? A pioneering 19th century British archaeologist and his wife thought it possible.

Theodore Bent was born in Yorkshire in 1852. His marriage to landowner’s daughter Mabel Hall-Dare saved him from an intended legal career. The Bents shared a love of travel, and Mabel became a lifelong contributor to Bent’s work and writing.  Visits to Italy in the late 1870s were followed by extensive tours of the Greek Islands and Asia Minor in the 1880s, where the Bents developed a deep interest in archaeology. Bent’s researches led him to produce books and articles for both the popular press and learned journals.

In 1889 Bent visited Bahrain. Sir Henry Rawlinson, who had deciphered the cuneiform script of ancient Babylon, had recently suggested that Bahrain was the site of ‘Dilmun’. Sumerian poets had written of Dilmun as an abode of the blessed, the refuge of Ziusudra, the Sumerian Noah.

  Bent 1

An entry in the Persian Gulf Administration Report, 1888-89, recording the arrival of the Bents in the Gulf and the start of their excavations amongst the ancient tumuli at Bahrain: IOR/V/23/56, No 259, f.51r


Bent’s excavations among the island’s ancient burial mounds led him to draw frequent parallels between the objects he found there and known Phoenician artefacts. His conclusion was that there had been close links between Bahrain and the Phoenicians, and that the Phoenicians might even have originated there.


  Bent 2

‘Theodore Bent receiving visitors at the mounds, Bahrein’, from Southern Arabia, to face page 24: YC.1995.b.7122, f.24a

Bahrain was indeed the epicentre of the Dilmun civilisation of eastern Arabia, a maritime trading culture that flourished from the third millennium BC, before being absorbed by the Babylonians in around 600 BC. However, despite the fact that a tradition of the Phoenicians originating in Bahrain (the Greek Tylos) is as old as the historian Herodotus, modern archaeology finds little evidence to support the theory.

Bent 3

An entry in the Persian Gulf Administration Report, 1889-90, recording the opinion of Mr and Mrs Bent that their researches had confirmed the statements of ancient writers that the Bahrain Islands were the original home of the Phoenicians: IOR/V/23/58, No 274, f.201r


More journeys to southern Arabia followed in the 1890s, when the Bents did much to expand European knowledge of the Hadhramawt (Mabel becoming the first European woman to visit the area). They also visited Socotra and the little-known country around Aden.

Bent’s last journey was in southern Arabia in 1897. Here he and his entire party were struck down by malaria, which in Bent’s case turned into pneumonia. Bent died at his home in London four days after his return to England. In a memorial tribute Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, mourned a ‘very accomplished man, both as an archaeologist and geographer, a charming companion and a true friend’.

Bent 4

Reference in Field Notes: Aden Protectorate (1917) to the death there in 1897 of Theodore Bent, after he and his wife had been ‘quite prostrated by malaria’: IOR/L/MIL/17/16/7, f.18r


Mabel Bent saw the account of their Arabian travels into print as Southern Arabia, which was published in 1900. Her book has been described as ‘a classic even of the great age of exploration’.

Martin Woodward
Project Officer, Gulf History Project
Archival Specialist British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
Southern Arabia, by Theodore Bent, F.R.G.S., F.S.A., Author of The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, The Cyclades, Or Life Among the Insular Greeks etc. and Mrs Theodore Bent.. YC.1995.b.7122
 ‘37 File 483 Memorandum on Bahrain; Major E L Durand’s Notes on the Antiquities of Bahrain’. IOR/R/15/1/192
Elizabeth Baigent, ‘Bent, (James) Theodore (1852–1897)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)