Untold lives blog

8 posts from September 2013

27 September 2013

Diamonds at the Court of the Shah

In 1810 Sir John Malcolm undertook a diplomatic mission to Persia with the aim of consolidating Britain’s position in the region.  A letter from the Civil Auditor’s Office at Fort William in Bengal to William Bruce, Resident at Bushire, includes a list of presents given to the Persian Shah by Malcolm on his departure.  Malcolm thanked his host for the favour shown to him with a variety of gifts: cattle, pistols, a telescope, a ‘Copernican System of Astronomy’, swords, as well as luxury goods including opera glasses, various cloths in satin and muslin, shawls, and diamonds.

Sir John Malcolm

Sir John Malcolm - Lithograph by R.J. Lane (1832)       Images Online  Noc

The ‘List of Diamond Jewelry’ still looks enchanting after 200 years.  Diamonds feature in rings with pearls, enamel, emeralds and in other objects, like a ‘Rose Diamond Girdle clap’ [sic] worth 638 Rupees.  But the best piece of the collection is the last on the list, a ‘diamond valued 11.000 Rupees’.

List of presents given to the Persian Shah by Malcolm on his departure
IOR/R/15/1/15, f 90r   Noc

List of presents given to the Persian Shah by Malcolm on his departure
IOR/R/15/1/15, f 90v  Noc

What would be the price of this diamond nowadays?  According to the same list of presents, a gold watch was worth 1 Rupee, and a pair of spectacles 5 Rupees.  Assuming that the exchange rate at that time was 8 Rupees for £1 Sterling, this source suggests that nowadays the approximate values would be £170 for the gold watch, £533 for the spectacles, and an enormous £1.2 million for the diamond.

Fat′h Ali Shah was certainly a great connoisseur and collector of gems and Sir John Malcolm must have been aware of this when he brought expensive gifts for him and his ministers.  He commented that this ‘extravagance of the public money’ would cause him problems with the East India Company.

However even this lavishness was not enough to please the Persian Court.  Malcolm’s diary records: ‘I made the Prince a present of about 14.000 rupees, of which a diamond valued between 10.000 and 11.000 made part.  The royal jeweller, angry at not being consulted, undervalued the stone, swearing, I understand, it was not worth more than two or three thousand’.  Malcolm had to withdraw the gift and donate the money he received from selling it, and concluded that the Prince was as ‘rapacious as his brethren, and as insensible to shame’.

According to his later memoirs Sketches of Persia, Sir John Malcolm was given the privilege of inspecting the Shah‘s richest jewels ‘amongst which was the "Sea of Light," which is deemed one of the purest and most valuable diamonds in the world.  Many of the others are surprisingly splendid.  The "Darya-i-Nur" or "Sea of Light" weighs 186 carats, and is considered to be the diamond of the finest lustre in the world.  The "Taj-e-Mah" or "Crown of the Moon", is also a splendid diamond.  It weighs 146 carats.  These two are the principal diamonds in a pair of bracelets, valued at nearly a million sterling. Those in the crown are also of extraordinary size and value’.

We just don’t know what happened to the diamonds; but, as I write, other correspondence volumes from the British Residency at Bushire in the period are being catalogued and digitised, so there is a possibility that new discoveries will be made.

The main issue encountered in writing this piece is to understand the historical value of goods.  Please let us have your comments and thoughts on the subject.

Valentina Mirabella
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by

Qatar Digital Library

Tweet @miravale

Further reading:
IOR/R/15/1/15, ff. 90-91, letter from J. W. Sherer, Civil Auditor at Fort William, to William Bruce, Acting Resident at Bushire, 13 June 1812.
John Malcolm, Sketches of Persia : from the journals of a traveller in the East (London: Murray, 1827)
Historical exchange rates

24 September 2013

Endangered Archives Programme reveals Untold Lives

13th century Arabic manuscripts in the Al-Aqsa Mosque Library, East Jerusalem; rock inscriptions in the Tadrart Acacus mountains in Libya; records of the sale of slaves on the island of St Vincent in the West Indies; photos of Andean culture from Peru; Buddhist manuscripts from Bhutan – all of these and more have been preserved through funding from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme.

Saqras dancers of the Diablada DanceEAP298/14/4/34 Saqras dancers of the Diablada Dance. Torres Belon Stadium, Puno, Peru  Noc

The Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), sponsored by the charitable foundation Arcadia, was set up in 2004 and will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. During this time 214 projects have been funded in countries around the world: from Azerbaijan and Argentina, to Vietnam and Zambia, vulnerable archival material has been preserved. This is achieved through the relocation of the documents to a safe local archival home where possible, digitising the material, and depositing copies with local archival partners and with the British Library. These digital collections are then available for researchers to access freely, either by visiting the local archives, visiting the British Library, or viewing them online through the EAP website. To date, the digital collections from 35 projects are available online.

  Tshamdrak Temple - Thor bu sTon pa'i skyes rabs
EAP310/4/2/23 – Tshamdrak Temple - Thor bu sTon pa'i skyes rabs  Noc


St Helena Banns of MarriageOne of the more popular items that has been viewed online is the Banns of Marriage (1849-1924) from the remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. The island’s archives in Jamestown hold records from its first years as an English colony, with the earliest documents dating from 1673 and including East India Company records through to 1834. After 1834 and the transition to direct Crown rule, the records follow the standard pattern of similar colonies. The Banns of Marriage are remarkable in allowing an insight into people’s lives at this time and are of great interest to people researching their family history.





EAP524/2/3/1 Banns of Marriage (1849-1924)   Noc


Volumes of St Helena Ordinances
EAP524 St Helena Ordinances Noc

Pile of documents in a poor condition










Do you know of any collections that merit preservation? The Endangered Archives Programme is now accepting grant applications for the next annual funding round – the deadline for submission of preliminary applications is 1 November 2013 and full details of the application procedures and documentation are available on the EAP website.

Cathy Collins
EAP Grants Administrator  Cc-by

Further reading:

More about EAP

13th century Arabic manuscripts in Al-Aqsa Mosque Library
Rock inscriptions in the Tadrart Acacus mountains
Sale of slaves on St Vincent
Photos of Andean culture, Peru
Buddhist manuscripts from Bhutan


20 September 2013

Pistol, teapot, soap, and satin doublet: an East India Company merchant’s possessions

East India Company merchant Richard Wickham was the son of William Wickham a Bristol merchant.  He was appointed in December 1607 as a factor for the Company’s Fourth Voyage. In early 1609 he was taken prisoner by the Portuguese and taken to Goa and then Lisbon. Wickham managed to escape and returned to England.  He was re-employed for the Eighth Voyage led by John Saris and sailed for the East Indies in 1611 on board the Clove.  He went to Japan with Saris and remained as a member of  the newly-established factory at Hirado from 1613 to 1617 when he left for Bantam.  He died at Bantam on 12 November 1618 and a detailed inventory was taken of his possessions, a copy of which survives in the India Office Records.

Richard Wickham's inventory
IOR/G/40/23 Richard Wickham's inventory Noc

Here is a selection of Richard Wickham’s possessions in 1618 taken from the inventory:

Chests of silk
Pieces of velvet and taffeta and many other textile pieces
Basins and ewers
Japanese wine
Writing desk and writing materials
Clothing including purple satin doublet with gold lace; purple satin hose with gold lace; scarlet hose with gold lace; doublet of cloth of gold; orange satin doublet and hose with black lace; suit of black striped satin; English cloth cloak lined with velvet; black satin suit cut upon yellow taffeta; velvet cassock; silk quilt waistcoat; suit of striped taffeta; handkerchiefs; 10 pairs of pumps, shoes and slippers; 18 doublets and waistcoats; bands and cuffs; caps; sashes; garters; stockings; hatbands; girdle with silver buckles; gold and silk Japanese girdle
Perfuming ball
Silver teapot
Rapier and dagger
Brass astrolabe
Mathematical instruments
Weighing beam
Arrow case
Japanese saddle with furniture
Sheets, towels, quilts, carpets, cushions
Loose money
Silver spoons and forks
Gold rings
Pearls, diamonds, and other stones
21 + 58 books small and great; chest of books unopened
Embroidered Old Testament
Pair of spectacles in Japan case
Brass pictures
18 cases of soap
Java spear
Items from China e.g. quilts, aniseed, stillyard
Japanese bedsteads
15 bags of cloves
Pots of musk

From the list of his clothing, it appears that Wickham must have been a very snappy dresser!  He was also a keen collector of books and his will states that the proceeds from the sale of his books in Bantam were to be paid to the library in his home town of Bristol.

The value of Wickham’s estate from the inventory was £1,400 -  a vast sum in 1618. The East India Company was outraged, convinced that Wickham had gained his fortune by using its money to finance his own ventures or even by theft.  Wickham’s mother had to fight to have the estate made over to her by the Company but eventually won her case.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Japan400 logo

Further reading:
IOR/G/40/23 ff.4-7v Richard Wickham’s inventory
Anthony Farrington, The English Factory in Japan 1613-1623 (The British Library, 1991)


17 September 2013

Famous Frenchman found at Falmouth

Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais is best remembered as the naval commander who captured the English settlement at Madras during the War of the Austrian Succession in September 1746. Having fallen out with his superior the Governor of Pondicherry Joseph-François Dupleix over the generous terms he offered to the English, La Bourdonnais returned to Europe and was captured at Falmouth. When cataloguing a volume of East India Company correspondence for 1747-1748, I discovered original intelligence reports submitted by the Admiralty and Post Master General to the East India Company. This correspondence adds significantly to La Bourdonnais’ own account of his capture published in 1748.

Painting of Falmouth, CornwallFalmouth, Cornwall (G.7046 plate 297) Images Online   Noc

The initial report of La Bourdonnais’ presence at Falmouth was submitted to the Post Master General by George Bell on 4 January 1747. It recounts how La Bourdonnais left the East Indies in company of four French men of war which put in at Martinique following a hurricane. After sending his wife and family ahead with his treasure on board a schooner bound for Portugal, La Bourdonnais with four of his principal officers boarded a Dutch vessel bound for Holland, where he hoped to remain until he could settle matters with the French Court. Contrary winds forced the Dutch ship to put in at Falmouth where she waited ten days for provisions and an outward bound convoy. A local merchant learned that there were French officers on board the vessel and told Bell. Bell’s report led to the capture of La Bourdonnais and his retinue by HMS Mercury commanded by Captain Bladwell. In light of his generous treatment of the English at Madras, La Bourdonnais was treated well, granted parole and allowed to return to France.

Richard Scott Morel
Curator, East India Company Records   Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/E/1/34 ff. 283-284v: Mr George Bell dated at Falmouth 4 January 1747 to the Post Master General.

Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais, The Case of M. de la Bourdonnais in a letter to a Friend (London, 1748).

13 September 2013

‘An adventurer of a doubtful reputation’

Documents from the Political and Secret Department of the India Office dating from just over a century ago shed light on a little diplomatic contretemps involving foreign capitals on two continents. 

One file details the struggle, lasting almost two years, of the Greek businessman Michael Sevastopulo to be officially recognized as the Austro-Hungarian Consul in Rangoon, Burma.

  Emperor Franz Joseph I of AustriaEmperor Franz Joseph I of Austria ©De Agostini/The British Library Board  Images Online

Images Online

In most circumstances such posts were filled without fuss, but in October 1904 the British authorities hesitated to wave through the appointment of Sevastopulo on the grounds that he was not – ahem – a gentleman:

‘The Deputy Commissioner, Rangoon, reports that his reputation is not very good, and that there have been rumours that he has been connected with illicit dealings in opium...’.

Sevastopulo fell under more suspicion in the wake of a fire at the bazaar in Mandalay:

‘The Insurance Companies had a certain amount of evidence against him in connection with the fire … but the police apparently did not see their way to take proceedings against him'.

Major W.A.W. Strickland, the officiating Commissioner of Mandalay, added the baleful (and possibly libellous) comment: ‘He is a shifty sort of individual’.

In British eyes the preferred candidate was Mr E. Janni, about whom nothing untoward was known, and for a while he served as acting Consul.

The matter might well have ended there but some behind-the-scenes diplomacy in London, Vienna, Simla and Calcutta involving Lord Minto, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, and Secretary of State for India John Morley saw the saga revived in the summer of 1906. A Viceregal telegram of 27 July shows a softening of British hostility, albeit grudgingly:

‘Sevastopulo has been an adventurer of a doubtful reputation, but he is now a man of some wealth and his concern, the Colonial Trading Company, belongs to the Chamber of Commerce …’.

Shortly afterwards the estimable Mr Janni was formally replaced by Mr Sevastopulo, and the Austro-Hungarian community in Burma could therefore relax in the knowledge that their interests were being looked after by someone now deemed ‘a perfectly honourable person’.


Shwe Dagon Pagoda RangoonPhoto 261/213 Shwe Dagon Pagoda Rangoon Images OnlineNoc

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Team Leader     Cc-by

Further reading:

10 September 2013

Indian soldiers’ views of England during World War I

Previous postings on this blog have mentioned the extracts from the letters of Indian soldiers serving in France during the First World War which are appended to the reports of the Censor of India Mails in France found in the India Office Records.

  Dome Hospital in Brighton Photo 24/1 Dome Hospital in Brighton  Digitised Manuscripts    Images OnlineNoc

One interesting aspect of the letters is the description of English life by injured Indian soldiers who were recovering from their wounds in the various Indian military hospitals which had been established in Brighton and other parts of the south coast.  Here are some examples from October and November 1915.

A Ali, a storekeeper at one of the Brighton hospitals, wrote to his brother in Lyallpur of a trip he took with his father to London on 1 October.  They visited the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, which he described as absolutely magnificent, and the Zoological Gardens.  He was very impressed with the respect the police commanded, remarking that “If one policeman raises his hand every single person in that direction rich and poor alike, stands still where he is as long as his hand is raised.  There is no need to talk”.  Ali was also impressed with London’s shops, saying that “There is no need of asking as the price is written on everything”.  Ali and his father used the London Underground to get around, and he recalled his excitement: “Then we went in the train that goes under the earth, it was for us a strange and wonderful experience”.

The cost of living was a common topic for letters.  G R Chowam at the Kitchener Indian General Hospital in Brighton wrote that “Unlike India nothing cheap can be purchased here”.  Abdul Said, a Punjabi Muslim, wrote on 1 November to his brother in Jammu , commenting on how expensive the newspapers were.  He attributed this to the fact that “…everyone great and small reads the papers.  Several newspapers come out during the day”.  Like Ali, Abdul Said was impressed by English shops, noting how clean and tidy the butchers' shops were, and how “…every shopkeeper tries especially to keep his shop spick and span and everything is in perfect order”.

  Indian soldiers outside the Brighton Pavilion HospitalPhoto 24/2 Indian soldiers outside the Brighton Pavilion Hospital   Digitised Manuscripts    Images OnlineNoc

The British weather was often noted by the Indian soldiers.  Abdul Said picked up on the very British custom of starting every conversation by commenting on the weather: “Now the winter has begun and the sun is always hidden.  If by accident it comes out, the day is regarded as we regard the day of Id, and whoever you meet that day will first of all praise the fine day & then go on to whatever else he has to say”.  Desraj at the Pavilion Hospital in Brighton complained that “It rains all the year round”.  One Indian Sub-Assistant Surgeon at Brighton reported that winter had already begun: “Weather is very wet and cloudy and it is raining day and night with few breakages…After 5pm it is so dark that no one could dare to go out of the huts”.

John O’Brien
Post 1858 India Office Records     Cc-by

Further Reading:

IOR/L/MIL/5/825/7 Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, October to November 1915

The collection of photographs of the Indian Army in Europe during the First World War by H D Girdwood, reference Photo 24, is available to view online

Other Untold Lives postings on the WWI Indian censored letters:

The Indian sepoy in the trenches

Letter from an Indian Soldier in France during World War I


06 September 2013

Plague, Snakes and Fishes

This rather unappealing trio of topics are central themes in the published works of Patrick Russell, who spent most of the 1780s in southern India under the auspices of the East India Company.

Patrick Russell
Patrick Russell from An Account of Indian serpents (X360)  Noc

Born in Edinburgh in 1727, he studied medicine at King’s College in Aberdeen before following one of his brothers to Aleppo in Syria, becoming physician at the factory of the English Levant Company in 1753. Undaunted by epidemics of plague which ravaged the city during the early 1760s, he stayed in the Middle East for more than twenty years before returning to Britain, settling in London and gaining election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1777.

It seems, however, that the lure of the East proved too strong and in 1781, in the footsteps of another brother, he travelled out to India. In November 1785 he was appointed Surgeon in the Madras Army. This position allowed him to indulge his wide interests in natural history (as, in fact, his predecessor had done, the Dane Johan Gerhard Koenig), and shortly before his return to London in January 1789 he left the collection of zoological and botanical specimens he had amassed with the Company’s museum.

Between then and his death in 1805 he wrote, edited and published a number of works on scientific subjects. Utilizing his experiences and memories of Aleppo, in 1791 he brought out a two-volume A Treatise of the Plague (reference W 2799). Four years later he wrote the preface to the first volume of William Roxburgh’s Plants of the coast of Coromandel (i.e. south east India – X 606). In 1796 he published the first of what were to be four volumes entitled An Account of Indian serpents collected on the coast of Coromandel  (X 360) – one of the earliest works in Europe about Indian snakes - and this was followed in 1803 by another two-volume opus, his Description and figures of two hundred fishes collected at Vizagapatam (X 1000). Collaborators ensured that his work on snakes was completed in 1809.  

These works contain many fascinating illustrations, a small selection of which are reproduced here.

  Snake Coluber Naja
"Coluber Naja"  Noc


Fish Nooree Nalaka"Nooree NalakaNoc


Snake Ourdia
"Ourdia"  Noc

Fish Bondaroo Kappa
"Bondaroo KappaNoc


Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Team Leader   Cc-by

03 September 2013

Lip salve and worms in the face

Having previously shared Miss Addams’ 18th century recipe for ketchup featuring worm-eaten mushrooms, we now pass on her recipe for lip salve.

Recipe for lip salve Noc
Take 2 ounces of fresh butter before it has any salt put into it 2 ounces of Virgins wax a quarter of an ounce of Alkanet root [a pigment] & a lettle juce of white Grapes, put all these together, over the fire, & when it is melted it is enough.

Lip salves were being concocted hundreds of years before Katy Perry sang about Cherry Chapstick.  There are several recipes from 1772 in Pierre-Joseph Buc'hoz’s  The Toilet of Flora, ‘a very perfect Collection of the Methods which tend to improve Beauty, to repair the Wastes of Languor and Fatigue, and to avert the Marks of Decline and Age’.  Some of the lip salve ingredients are as innocuous as those used by Miss Addams: oil of sweet almonds; oil of rhodium; oil of eggs; the stones of half a bunch of ripe black grapes; orange flower water; beeswax. Others are less appealing to modern tastes, for example the ‘hogs-lard’ kneaded together with red and damask roses in a recipe for a scarlet lip salve.  Fresh mutton suet, goose grease, veal marrow, and deer or goat suet are combined with almond or flower oil.

  Toilet of Flora title pageNoc

The Toilet of Flora also contains useful health tips.

‘A Crust of Bread applied hot, is an efficacious remedy for pimples that rise on the lips, in consequence of having drank out of a glass after an uncleanly person.’

‘Powder your head with powdered Parsley Seed, three nights every year, and the hair will never fall off.’

And who could resist experimenting with these?

‘An excellent Preservative Balsam against the Plague’

‘A Water to change the Eyebrows black’

‘An approved Receipt against that troublesome Complaint, called the Teeth set on Edge’

‘A Liniment to destroy Vermin’ and ‘A Liniment to destroy Nits’

And last but not least –
A water mixture ‘To remove Worms in the Face’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records  Cc-by

Further reading

India Office Private Papers/MSS Eur C 426 Miss Addams’ recipes in the scrapbook belonging to Sir Charles Marsh.
Previous posts from the scrapbook: Reading Music Festival  and Cooking with worm-eaten mushrooms

Pierre-Joseph Buc'hoz, The toilet of Flora; or, a collection of the most simple and approved methods of preparing baths, essences, pomatums, powders, perfumes ... (London, 1772)
A digital copy is available on Eighteenth Century Collections Online.