THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

102 posts categorized "War"

17 April 2018

Papers of Major Geoffrey Herbert Blake, Royal Indian Army Service Corps

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The India Office Private Papers recently acquired the diaries of an officer who served in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps during the Second World War. 

RIASC IWM SE 588Royal Indian Army Service Corps troops unload an American C-47 cargo plane at an airstrip in the Pinwe area, 21 November 1944 © IWM (SE 588)

Geoffrey Herbert Blake was born in Peterborough on 30 September 1923.  On leaving school, he began training to become an accountant, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war.  In June 1943, he joined the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, which was responsible for vital supply and transport services for the Indian Army.  He spent the next four years in India, and recorded his experiences in his diaries.

Blake diaries  Mss Eur F717British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

The diaries begin with an introduction on 5 March 1943 in which Blake stated his reasons for keeping the diary: 'I hope that it may record in some detail the most interesting journey of my life, and that it will give me something to talk about in my old age (if I even qualify for this status in life)'.  He then described the process of embarking on the long journey to India.  He left Liverpool on 14 March aboard the MV Britannic, a White Star liner which had been converted to carry troops for the duration of the War.  The Britannic joined a large convoy for the voyage south, with Blake commenting that 'As far as we could see, troop transports were in line', with destroyers protecting them.  The convoy stopped at Freetown, in Sierra Leone, for two days, before resuming the journey to Cape Town in South Africa.  Blake would spend about six weeks camped near Cape Town, before continuing on to Bombay, arriving on 11 June 1943.

First sight of India  Mss Eur F717-1British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

On arriving in India, Blake travelled to Bangalore, where he would spend six months at the Officer’s Training School, before taking up his duties in Air Despatch.  His diaries give a daily account of his life in India as an officer in the Indian Army during the tumultuous years of the Second World War.  He left Bombay aboard the SS Empress of Scotland on 22 January 1947 for the voyage to Liverpool.  Expressing sadness at leaving a country he had grown fond of, he wrote philosophically: 'It looks as if my Indian journey is drawing to an end, but what will the next journey be?'

The start of a journey  Mss Eur F717-1British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

The catalogue of the papers can be found online.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Papers of Major Geoffrey Herbert Blake (1923-2017), Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) 1943-1947 [Reference Mss Eur F717]

 

11 January 2018

The fascinating life of Stella Alexander

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In 2016 the British Library acquired the papers of Stella Alexander, a Quaker and scholar of Yugoslav history. She lived a long and fascinating life, and her papers are a rich resource for a wide variety of research subjects. Her letters and draft unpublished memoir give first-hand accounts of diplomatic and expat life in 1920s and 1930s China, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, and Chinese customs and society. The reports she wrote for the Quakers on her visits to Yugoslavia give rare eye-witness reports of life in eastern Europe during the Cold War. Her work for the Quakers and her travels round India, where she met Gandhian educationalists at Sevagram, are also covered thoroughly by the papers.

SA 1929Stella Alexander née Tucker in Shanghai, 1929 - British Library Add MS 89279

Stella Tucker was born a “privileged alien” in Shanghai in 1912, the daughter of an American bullion broker. She was educated in Shanghai, the United States, and Oxford. After graduation she married John Alexander, a British diplomat, and returned to China in the midst of a tempestuous time in the country’s history. Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and occupied Shanghai in 1932.

The life of a diplomat’s wife involved seemingly non-stop entertaining of diplomats, politicians, and journalists, but it was not all glamour; it was also peripatetic and the family (including their two children) moved frequently with John’s postings, with each move necessitating setting up home anew.

It would have been easy for Stella to settle into the “the narrow, shallow-rooted life” of the diplomatic community, but instead she took the trouble to learn Chinese, spoke Chinese not pidgin English to her staff, made Chinese friends, and ensured her children played with local children.

This comfortable life changed dramatically in December 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. Foreign diplomats in China were interned, in the case of the Alexanders in the Cathay Hotel, “in adequate comfort… like a prolonged ocean cruise”, according to Stella. It was a far cry from the conditions that the thousands of internees without diplomatic status had to endure.

In September 1942 the family was among approximately 1500 Allied citizens who were exchanged for a similar number of Japanese civilians who had been interned in the United States and Stella returned to the US.

It became increasingly difficult for Stella to follow John’s postings, and his frequent secondments and moves between Paris, New York, and Geneva, and the lengthy separations these occasioned, eventually took their toll and they divorced amicably in 1950.

After her divorce Stella worked for the United Nations Association, travelled round India for a year, and became increasingly involved in the Quakers, representing the London Yearly Meeting at the UN General Assembly in 1957. It was through her work for the Quakers that Stella developed her other great interest. After meeting three young Yugoslavs at a seminar in 1957 she became enthralled by the country. She visited almost annually from 1961 into the 1970s, travelling round by bus and train, often alone, learned Serbo-Croat, and wrote academic tomes on Yugoslav subjects.

Alexander  Stella 2Stella Alexander in later life - photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Anthony Upton.  © Anthony Upton

Stella remained active in Quaker affairs, even after being received into the Catholic Church in 1991, and lived out her long and active life in London, surrounded by children and grandchildren. She died, aged 85, in 1998. The phrase ‘a life well lived’ could have been written for her.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager

Further reading:
British Library Add MS 89279
Stella Alexander, Church and State in Yugoslavia since 1945 (Cambridge: University Press, 1979).
Stella Alexander, The Triple Myth: A Life of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1987).

 

02 January 2018

Forfeiting a Victoria Cross

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Documents in the India Office Records shed some light on the story of a flawed Victorian military hero.

The man in question is Edward James Collis, who was serving as a Gunner with the Royal Horse Artillery during the Second Afghan War when an act of near-suicidal bravery gained him the country's highest military honour, the Victoria Cross. The citation in the London Gazette of 17 May 1881 gives brief details of his feat:

' ... during the retreat from Maiwand to Kandahar, on the 28th July 1880, when the officer commanding the battery was endeavouring to bring in a limber [part of a gun carriage], with wounded men, under a cross-fire, in running forward and drawing the enemy's fire on himself, thus taking off their attention from the limber'.

Battle of MaiwandBattle of Maiwand - from Archibald Forbes and Major Arthur Griffiths, Illustrated Battles of the Nineteenth Century (1895) BL flickr

The battle of Maiwand, fought on the previous day, had been a disaster for the British, who lost almost 1,000 officers and men killed in action. As it was deemed impractical to travel back to the UK for the purpose, Collis was presented with the medal at Poona on 11 July 1881 by Sir Frederick Roberts, who had himself won the Victoria Cross during the Indian ‘Mutiny’.

Collis later joined the Bombay Police, marrying a widow, Adela Skuse, on 14 March 1882 and fathering four children in quick succession - Arthur (born on 5 January 1883), Elsie (born 5 May 1884), William (born 11 December 1885) and finally Robert (born 7 October 1887). By the time of Robert’s birth, he was working as a railway engine driver.

Unfortunately the domestic bliss of the family was not to last. Eight years later, on 6 August 1895, the Assistant Commissioner of Police at New Scotland Yard wrote to the Chief of Police in Bombay. He requested assistance in tracing Mrs Collis, as part of an investigation into a charge of bigamy. Collis had left India and married again in Wandsworth on 26 February 1893, his hapless bride having no inkling that he already had a wife and family in far-off Bombay. The un-divorced and still living first Mrs Collis having been located, in November 1895 her errant husband was sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour.

Contemporary regulations dictated that he was also obliged to forfeit his precious medal which, in a further sad twist, poverty had driven him to pawn. He is thought to be one of only eight individuals who came to be deprived of their Victoria Cross through subsequent dishonourable behaviour.

Collis Evening Star 26 Nov 1895Evening Star 26 November 1895 British Newspaper Archive 

Collis Worcester Journal 30 Nov 1895Worcester Journal 30 November 1895 British Newspaper Archive

Collis died aged 62 in June 1918, and was buried with full military honours. His medal, which had no doubt brought him both pride and pain, can be seen in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services

Further reading:
The Victoria Cross, 1856 – 1920, edited by Sir O'Moore Creagh and E.M. Humphris, - shelfmark OIA355.134.
Correspondence on the Collis bigamy case is in files 2057 & 2081 of the volume IOR/L/PJ/6/409 and press reports can be found in the British Newspaper Archive
Collis’s marriage to Adela and the baptisms of their children can be viewed on the Find My Past website, free of charge in any British Library Reading Room.

28 December 2017

Untold Lives looks back at 2017

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As 2017 draws to a close, we’re looking back on some of our posts which proved to be the most popular during the past twelve months.

In January we told you about a major new digital resource which had just become available for researching the East India Company and the India Office. We showed a few of the digitised documents, including the list of the first subscribers to the East India Company drawn up in September 1599...
 

IOR B 1 f.6
IOR/B/1 f.6 Noc

.. and the Instrument of Abdication signed by Edward VIII at Fort Belvedere on 10 December 1936.

IOR A 1 102IOR/A/102 Instrument of Abdication Noc

 

‘Value in unexpected places’   was the story of the sole surviving copy of a 17th-century schoolbook now held at the British Library. The grounds of learning was written by schoolmaster Richard Hodges primarily for children as early learners of literacy.

HodgesPhoto1Noc

 In March we asked: Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning? In the drawer of Jane Austen’s writing desk at the British Library are three pairs of spectacles. The Library had the spectacles tested and the post revealed the results.

  Jane Austen's glassesSpectacles believed to have belonged to Jane Austen (now British Library Add MS 86841/2-4) Noc

 

We researched Gerald Wellesley’s secret family. Wellesley was an East India Company official who spent many years as Resident in the Princely State of Indore. He provided for his three children born to an Indian woman in the 1820s but stopped short of giving them his name or recognising them publicly as his offspring.

Indore X108(15) Indore from William Simpson's 'India: Ancient and Modern X108(15) NocOnline Gallery 

Thomas Bowrey’s cloth and colour samples  were unexpected treasures found in tucked away in a volume packed with closely-written correspondence and accounts. The colours are still vibrant after 300 years.  And how about number 18 on the chart – Gall Stone?

MSS Eur D1076 (9)MSS Eur D 1076 Noc

MSS Eur D1076 (3)MSS Eur D 1076Noc

The East India Company’s Black Book of Misdemeanours 1624-1698  was brought out of the shadows this year. Most complaints relate to private trade carried on against express orders, but they also cover drunkenness, negligence, desertion, disobeying orders, embezzlement, and debauchery.

 Black Book  IOR/H/29 Noc

We told the story of how Isfahan in Iran became the City of Polish Children during the Second World War. Thousands of Polish military and civilian refugees journeyed from the Soviet Union to Iran.. 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.

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

  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

 

In 1847 a book called Real Life in India offered advice to British ladies going to live in India. This covered clothing, equipment for the voyage, household management, and ways of passing the time. Women were told to take six mosquito sleeping drawers and to learn the art of piano tuning.

India - ladies' equipmentFrom Real Life in India by An Old Resident (London, 1847)  Noc

 

And finally we treated you to the untold life of a paper bag!

  Paper bag Evan 9195Evan.9195 Noc


The bag reveals that Indian sweetmeats were being sold in London in the late 19th century, much earlier than most people would expect. This lovely piece of ephemera was displayed at Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage, an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham which ran from July to November 2017.

We hope that you have enjoyed revisiting these fascinating stories as much as we did. Who knows what our great contributors have in store for you in 2018?

Twittter takeover posterNoc

A Happy New Year to all our readers!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

 

05 December 2017

The Rani of Jhansi

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Lakshmi Bai is probably the most famous woman in modern Indian history.  The widowed Rani of Jhansi was pensioned off in 1854 when the East India Company annexed her state.  She then fought against the British disguised as a man and died at their hands four years later during the Indian ‘Mutiny’.
 
An account of her death was given in a letter by John Latimer, a member of the Central India Field Force. Writing in camp in Kalpi on 24 June 1858 to his uncle in the UK , he describes the fighting and marches that he and his unit have recently endured.  He goes on to say: 

 '… a fine looking native woman was killed in the pursuit by a grape shot it is supposed, She was riding a white mare which was also shot, A beautifully limbed and pretty woman she must have been, the Jhansi Ranee is said to be very ugly otherwise we were all inclined to think and even hope it might be her, As it is the matter is likely to remain a mystery (unless some of the big fellows can manage to get some clue as to her identity) '.

Rani of JhansiLakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi. Add.Or.1896


 He continues the story in the same letter on 9 July, mentioning her death and the massacre of Europeans at Jhansi thirteen months previously: 

 'The so called Ranee of Jhansi has been killed at Gwalior.  She seems to have been a brave and determined woman, worthy of a better fate, the cruelties attributed to her at Jhansi, have since been officially contradicted.  Our unhappy countrymen and countrywomen may have been it is true, killed with her sanction, but it is generally believed that she could not have saved them had she wished it, the terrible atrocities attributed to her have been found to have been purely fictitious'.
 
His grudging admiration becomes clearer a few lines later: 

 ' … seeing her army broken and defeated, with rage in her heart and tears of veneration in her eyes, she mounted her horse and bent her course towards Gwalior, here her last stand was made, she disdained further flight, and died with a heroism worthy of a better cause, when the storm burst in May last year the mutineers visited her and persuaded her, that the hour had come for the asserting of her rights … Proud and impetuous, she required but little persuasion, she girded on her father’s sword raised the standard of her ancestors and entered the Palace of Jhansi at the head of the troops … Her life has been a brief and eventful one, and gives to the revolt – its only romantic tinge, Whatever opinion the world may entertain regarding her cruelty, her courage shines pre-eminent and can only be equalled, but not eclipsed by that of Joan of Arc . She played for a high game, and even when she found she had losing cards did not despair, but looked defiance [sic] to the last'.
 
Given the atrocities committed by both sides talk of a 'romantic tinge' seems misplaced, but at least one of Lakshmi Bai’s enemies paid tribute to her undoubted bravery and charisma. 
 
Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services

Further reading:
John Latimer’s letter – India Office Private Papers  MSS Eur C596

 

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)

25 September 2017

‘Inflammable material’ in the British Library

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‘The amount of inflammable material in all the advanced countries of the world is increasing so speedily, and the conflagration is so clearly spreading to most Asian countries which only yesterday were in a state of deep slumber, that the intensification of international bourgeois reaction and the aggravation of every single national revolution are absolutely inevitable.’

V.I. Lenin, ‘Inflammable Material in World Politics’, 1908

Stored in the Asian and African collections of the British Library is a cache of material banned in colonial India. Consisting of more than 2800 items, it constitutes one of the largest archives of primary sources relating to any 20th-century independence movement.  The period during which these works were collected, 1907-1947, covers two world wars, revolts and autonomy movements across the world, and the texts in this archive often register these events. 

The 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure had defined ‘seditious material’ as that likely to incite ‘disaffection’ towards the Government of India or ‘class hatred’ between India’s different communities, thus setting the two main grounds for proscription during this period. The 1910 Press Act reinforced this by requiring publishers to pay a security deposit of up to Rs 5000,  which would be forfeited if any document was found to contain ‘words, signs or visible representations’ likely to incite sedition. But this did not prevent circulation of publications printed overseas, the ‘inflammable material’ described by Lenin, emanating from international publishing centres, and centres of political dissent, in Europe and America.

The British attempted to prevent the entry of this material into India through use of the Sea Customs Act, and by the application of diplomatic pressure. Both instruments were used against William Jennings Bryan’s British Rule in India, a pamphlet written by an American politician who had been won over to the nationalist cause during a trip to India in 1906. This work was republished during the First World War by a San Francisco based Indian revolutionary group, embarrassing the US government, in which Bryan had served as Secretary of State from 1913-1915.

IMG_3613
Title page of a republished English edition of Bryan's British Rule in India, n.d. (microfilm number: IOL NEG 1397)

The range of languages into which Bryan’s pamphlet was translated indicates how extensive underground distribution networks were. Their presence in the proscribed publications collection suggests how hard they were to control. The banned English language edition bears the inscription in red ink ‘The sending of this publication out of the United States prohibited by President Wilson!’, and its European language translations repeat this boast.

IMG_3615
W. J. Bryan, Die englische Herrschaft in Indien (Berlin: Karl Curtius, n.d.), a German translation of British Rule in India (microfilm number: IOL NEG 1397)

Apart from versions in Urdu and Bengali, there is also what is described as a ‘Tartar’ (sic) edition sent from Stockholm to Shanghai and intercepted on the seas in August 1916. This was produced with Central Powers assistance, and the collection is rich in such material: works in Arabic, Chinese, Persian and Turkish, intended to foment unrest in Allied territory. During a time of global war and national revolt, the best guarantee of ‘the freedom to read’, it seems, was the inability to censor.

IMG_3610
Sheet attached to cover of a Tatar translation of British Rule in India, 18 August 1916 (shelfmark: PP Turk)

Pragya Dhital
Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London

Further reading:

Shaw, Graham and Mary Lloyd (eds.), Publications proscribed by the government of India: a catalogue of the collections in the India Office Library and Records and the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books (London: British Library, 1985)

Full text of Bryan’s British Rule in India available from the South Asian American Digital Archive: https://www.saada.org/item/20101015-123


This blog was written by Pragya Dhital for Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September). Banned-Books-Week-Logo

Banned Books Week was first initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.