American Collections blog

05 May 2011

'I remember the day when I first came here'

Everyone's geographical knowledge has improved over the last week.  I wondered a bit more about the man after whom the town just outside of Islamabad was named, so I snatched half an hour to look through Major James Abbott's Narrative of a Journey from Heraut to Khiva, Moscow and St Petersburgh (London, 1843).  (There are several later editions, and also some holdings of his manuscripts in the India Office Private Papers and Western Manuscripts.) 

It's an account of Abbott's part in the 'Great Game', Russia and Britain's long struggle over the northern approach to India.  In 1839, Abbott was sent on a mission to Khiva to help release captured Russians, who it was feared would be used an excuse for a Russian incursion in the territory.  Lacking an understanding of the khan's court, he failed in this mission, but was persuaded to travel to St Petersburgh as an intermediary between the Khivans and the Russians, something that far exceeded his brief.  After his kidnap and release by Kazakhs (he lost several fingers during the attack), he eventually reached St Petersburg, where the Russians rejected his terms.  He then returned to England, and published his Narrative, which is full of detail about the terrain and peoples he met during his epic journey, as well as thoughts on Russian aggression and defence of his actions (and a curious account of the Giraffe House at London Zoo, opposite the modern-day residence of the American Ambassador; what would an Iain Sinclair make of all this?).  He returned to India, where he pursued a successful career as an administrator, leading to the naming of the town after himself.

As well as an imperialist adventurer, Abbott was also a poet, author of perhaps the 'worst poem ever written'. Jeremy Bernstein has included it in his New York Review of Books blog post, That 'Sweet Abbottabad Air':

I remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air

The trees and ground covered with snow
Gave us indeed a brilliant show [...]





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