Untold lives blog

5 posts from May 2012

28 May 2012

Australian Aborigines and Makassan trepangers

There is a popular misconception that Indigenous Australians had no contact with the outside world before European settlement.

Yet Australian Aborigines along Australia’s northern tropical coast had extensive interactions with fishermen from Makassar in the southern Celebes (the present-day Indonesian province of Sulawesi) who visited the northern Australian coast throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Makassan fishermen came in search of trepang (sea-cucumber or bêche-de-mer). The processed trepang is prized in Chinese cooking for its texture and flavour-enhancing qualities and is used in Chinese medicine. The Makassan trepangers, after collecting and processing trepang in Australia, returned to Makassar to sell the product to Chinese traders.

Trepang fishery on the northern coast of Australia
The Trepang fishery on the northern coast of Australia - from The Queen (1861-1863)© The British Library Board  Images Online

Visits by Makassan trepangers were ended by the Australian government in 1906.

In the British Library’s manuscript collection [Add. 32439] there is a letter to Sir Joseph Banks written by the botanist Robert Brown, who accompanied Mathew Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia in 1801-1803, detailing the collecting of trepang in northern Australia:

“soon after we left the Gulph [of Carpentaria], in standing into a Bay formed by two islands, we were not a little surprised to observe 6 Praos [Perahus, Malay sailing boats] already at anchor. On the following day we went on board one of them and procured… some information relative to the object of their voyage … it appeared that they were part of a fleet of 60 sails belonging to the District of Bonij, in the Island of Celebes. They annually visit this coast, especially the Gulph of Carpentaria, along the western side of which we have observed many traces of them. The object of their voyage is the collecting of a marine animal … which they call Terrepang [trepang]. They find it in abundance and after preparing it, which is done by parboiling, then drying in the sun, and lastly smoke drying, they carry it to Timor Laut where they sell it to the Chinese who are either resident there or come on purpose for this commodity.” [BL Add. 32439; f. 82]

The Makassans negotiated fishing rights; employed Aborigines to help them fish for trepang; and traded in Indonesian pottery, glass, fishhooks, coins and clay pipes - remnants of which have been found along the coast. Some Makassan trepangers lived with the Aborigines and participated in their ceremonies and feasts. Aborigines returned with the trepangers to visit Makassar. Recent linguistic studies show that some Australian Aboriginal languages contain Makassan words. Aboriginal rock and bark paintings record the visit of the Makassans and their perahu. Another legacy of the Makassan trepangers is the tamarind trees (Tamarindus indicus) they planted from seeds that now grow wild along parts of the coast of northern Australia.

Nicholas Martland
Formerly Australasian Studies Curator

Further reading:
Brown, Robert. Letters and papers: 1760 - 1858. “Letter of Robert Brown to Sir Joseph Banks, March 1803”, p. 82 [BL Add. 32439]

MacKnight, C. C. The voyage to Marege’: Macassan trepangers in northern Australia. (Melbourne, 1976) [YA.1988.b.5552]


21 May 2012

Engelbert Humperdinck, Eurovision, and the India Office Records!

'Royaume Uni, Douze Points’
This is what all patriotic British viewers will be hoping to hear during the forthcoming Eurovision Song Contest, which this year takes place in Baku, Azerbaijan, on 26 May. National hopes rest upon the shoulders and larynx of Engelbert Humperdinck, who - as readers of this blog may be surprised to hear - has a direct link to the holdings of the India Office Records at the British Library.
Engelbert Humperdinck is not his real name!  He was born Arnold George Dorsey on 2 May 1936 at Royapuram, Madras, the son of Mervyn Dorsey of the Port Trust and his wife Olive. As well as Arnold’s baptism record from St. Mary's Cathedral in Madras, the India Office Records has a birth registration for him. It is quite unusual for there to be both birth and baptism entries since birth registration was never a legal requirement in India during the Raj.

With the utmost respect to past and present members of the Dorsey family, one can appreciate why his showbiz manager might have thought that staying as plain A.G.D. would spell career death. After a spell of releasing records as Gerry Dorsey, his career was relaunched in the swinging Sixties using the name of a German composer born in 1858 who was most famous for his opera ’Hansel & Gretel’.

  Hansel & Gretel lost in the wood‘Nul points’ again?

‘Hansel and Gretel crying’ from A Child's Book of Stories (1913) © The British Library Board   Images Online

And going off at a complete tangent to think of other Engelberts in the British Library, we should not forget Engelbert Kaempfer of Japan fame.

Engelbert Humperdinck is not the only Eurovision Song Contest entrant who appears in the India Office Records. He would have been four years old when Harry Rodger Webb, now better known as Cliff Richard, came into the world in Lucknow on 14 October 1940.

Messrs Dorsey and Webb are just two of a number of famous figures from the world of entertainment who appear in the India Office Records and who will be the subject of future posts in Untold Lives. 

John Chignoli and Hedley Sutton
Reference Specialists, Asian and African Studies


17 May 2012

The Great Escape - Part 2

We left our group of refugees on their way to be interrogated by Polish Consul Banasinski…

Document about the Polish refugees from the India Office RecordsIOR/L/PS/12/318 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

After detailed interviews in August 1940 Banasinski came to the conclusion that
• Stolyhwo and Backer were in the clear
• Bakermann was a Polish Jew after all
• Ukrainian Bazylewski was not a spy
• Boguszewicz was a citizen of Lithuania and should be sent to the Central Internment Camp in Ahmednagar. (In March 1941 Boguszewicz was about to be granted a Polish passport when the Consul discovered that he had been spreading anti-Polish propaganda and complaints about the consular services.)

Tatiana Czynnowa applied to the Government of India for a release in an unusual manner:
‘…From my childhood I have been dreaming of abroad – I imagined a light and happy world and came here, or rather to Iran, yearning for theatres, cinemas, beautiful clothes, restaurants and dances but not in order to be locked up in jail or in a camp. I did not mean to exchange a bad freedom for a good jail…I have already spent 5 long months in prisons and yet for me every month, no every day is precious as the experiences I have to go through are wrinkling my face and I want to live while youth is not completely gone…’
This did not help her and she was placed in the camp at Satara.

Olgierd Stolyhwo went back to Poland to fight the Nazis and according to the Polish Dictionary of National Biography was shot in Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.

Adam Backer survived the war and left Europe.

Jozef Bakermann was released from prison and was given a Polish passport. He was helped by the Jewish Relief Association. With Stolyhwo and Backer he was allotted a passage to the Middle East in order to join the Polish Legion attached to the British Forces.

The whereabouts of the others remain unknown as yet, but maybe Untold Lives readers can reveal the rest of the story?


Dorota Walker
Reference Specialist, Asian and African Studies

Further reading:

IOR/L/PS/12/380A Polish subjects evicted from Persia into British Indian territory, 21 May 1940-21 Oct 1940.
IOR/L/PS/12/318 Polish volunteers, 30 Nov 1939-19 Mar 1941.
Polski Słownik Biograficzny, Tom XLIV/1, Warszawa-Kraków 2006.
‘Ucieczka prawdziwych niepokonanych’ by Rafał Zasuń, Gazeta Wyborcza 5/04/2011.

14 May 2012

The Great Escape - Part 1

Here is a story which could become a blockbuster if put on screen! A fascinating account of escapes from Soviet Russia during World War II has lain buried in the files of the India Office Records. Four Poles, one Ukrainian and a Russian woman give their statements, full of discrepancies.

Statements of Polish refugees from India Office RecordsIOR/L/PS/12/380A Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Olgierd Stołyhwo and Adam Backer were at school together and fought in the Polish Army after the German invasion in 1939. Taken prisoner, they escaped hoping to join the newly formed Polish Army in France. Their chosen route through Hungary was blocked, so they made their way eastwards. They were employed as helmsmen on the M.S. “Armenia” and M.S. “Gruzja“, plying between Odessa and Batum.

They met Tatiana Czynnowa, who left the Black Sea coast with them having fallen madly in love with Olgierd. She helped the men, buying train tickets or food and trading their possessions without raising suspicion. The trio travelled from Odessa to Moscow, then on to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. When their plans of crossing the Chinese border fell through, they went via Novosibirsk and Tashkent to Ashabad on the Persian border where they gave themselves up to the Iranian authorities. Olgierd and Adam became separated from Tatiana, who quickly fell in love with an official!

The Iranians also held three other men escaping from Russia. Jozef Bakermann, a Polish Jew, and Bronislaw Boguszewicz, a Lithuanian with Polish connections, were travelling together. The third man was Iwan Bazylewski, a Ukrainian peasant. All five men were conveyed towards the border with British India and left with directions. The group crossed over and were captured at Juzzak on 6 May 1940.

Tatiana had also become a refugee in India and the British authorities wrote to Mozzafar A’lam, Iranian Foreign Minister, threatening to send the girl back. Tatiana possessed ‘a Lux advertisement on the back of which a series of dots and dashes were written’ and a postcard to her Iranian boyfriend starting with “Greetings from England…”. She explained the dots and dashes were a fortune telling game, not a cipher!

The men were lodged in the dak bungalow in Quetta and a month later Tatiana joined them. The group caught the attention of the local press. Polish Consul Eugene Banasinski accused the British of mistreating the citizens of an allied country. Mrs Vernon-Smith, the American wife of the officer stationed in Baluchistan, could speak a little Polish having been employed as a transport driver for the Red Cross in Poland in 1939. She confirmed rumours that Jozef Bakermann was a German Jew. The local authorities, terrified of espionage, immediately locked him up. The Poles staged a short hunger strike as a protest against ‘being detained in idleness’.

Olgierd Stolyhwo told Mrs Vernon-Smith that he had been in the Polish diplomatic service before the war. In reality he had been expelled from the Marine Academy in Gdynia twice, first for running away and secondly for propagating communism. When confronted by the Consul he denied it all.

The whole group was sent under guard by train to be interrogated by Consul Banasinski. He promised to report back but that is where the story ends in file IOR/L/PS/12/380A. However I have managed to trace the rest of the story in IOR/L/PS/12/318, unhelpfully entitled ‘Polish volunteers’….

Part 2 will appear later this week

Dorota Walker
Reference Specialist, Asian and African Studies

08 May 2012

The Indian Comforts Fund (1939-45) – Humanitarian relief work for Indian soldiers in Europe

To commemorate VE Day on 8 May 1945, we have a story from guest blogger Dr Florian Stadtler -

The contribution made by South Asians living in Britain to the war effort on the Home Front in World War II remains little known. One organisation, run by South Asian and British women, played a particular important function. An entirely voluntary organisation, the Indian Comforts Fund (ICF) worked in close cooperation with the Indian Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance Service.

Founded in 1939 by the Dowager Viscountess Chelmsford, it was a registered war charity approved by the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry to provide for the war needs of Indian troops in Europe and lascar seamen, often stranded for long periods of time in Britain as sea routes became increasingly disrupted. During the war years, an estimated 30,000 Indian seamen arrived in British ports annually. The Fund was headquartered at India House Aldwych, where the Indian High Commissioner had made available space as a depot and accommodation for the working parties, including the food parcel packing centre.

Inspection of the food packing centre for Indian POWs by Queen Elizabeth, February 1942
Inspection of the food packing centre for Indian POWs by Queen Elizabeth, February 1942 [IOR/L/MIL/17/5/2327] Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Fund acted officially as next-of-kin for all Indian prisoners of war and civilian internees in Europe. It coordinated the packing of over 1.6 million food parcels, which were regularly shipped to the International Red Cross in Geneva, from where they would be distributed to the internment camps. The work of the Fund reached its peak in 1943 when the number of Indian internees in Europe had risen to 14,000. The parcels contained special Indian foodstuffs, including dhal, curry powder, ghee, atta and rice. The ICF also sent over 75,400 parcels with warm clothing, which were produced by some 100,000 knitters in the UK who the ICF supplied with wool and whose work it oversaw.

In Britain, the ICF also supported the entertainment of Indian troops and seamen, providing gifts such as gramophone records, books and sporting equipment. The Fund organised weekly leave parties for Indian soldiers to visit London, and introduced a hospital visiting scheme. The Fund’s workload grew exponentially through the war years, until it was wound up at the end of 1945.

Florian Stadtler
Research Associate, 'Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections' project, The Open University

Find out more about the Indian Comforts Fund:

Asians in Britain and Making Britain

IOR/L/MIL/17/5/2327 Indian Comforts Fund Progress Report October 1941 to March 1942

ORW.1986.a.189 War record of the Indian Comforts Fund December 1939 to December 1945