Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

9 posts from July 2014

29 July 2014

Death in Paradise

As the formal centenary of the start of the First World War grows nearer, a casual dip into the voluminous files of the India Office’s Political & Secret Department reveals details of a small, sad episode which took place in the autumn of 1915 in exotic Zanzibar.

From Les Lacs de l'Afrique Équatoriale. Voyage d'exploration exécuté de 1883 à 1885 (1890)

British Library flickr photostream  Noc

This island off the east coast of Africa had become a British Protectorate in the late 19th century, opposite the mainland colony of German East Africa. When the two countries went to war this meant that an essentially European conflict came to be fought on African soil as well.

The British authorities in Zanzibar gradually came to suspect that Jaffer Thavur, an Ismaili normally resident in Bagamoya in the nearby German territory, was involved in spying for the enemy. He had come to Zanzibar in July 1914 to see his spiritual leader the Aga Khan who was then visiting the island, and on the outbreak of hostilities in the following month he had found himself unable to return home. A thorough search of his lodgings brought to light three concealed unsigned documents written in Swahili (the local lingua franca) and Arabic, both languages which he could not understand. He was put on trial on 23 September 1915 before a military tribunal, found guilty, and sentenced to death. His public execution was set for the morning of 4 October.

On the evening of 3 October, hours before the sentence was due to be carried out, his defence lawyer Mr. Boyce  – the only individual to emerge with much credit from the whole sorry tale – sent a number of communications to the India Office, the Colonial Office, the War Office and to the Aga Khan himself (c/o the Ritz Hotel in Paris) about his client’s case. The file contains a letter to the War Office  which states

   " … the Aga Khan occupies a very important position among Indian Muhammadans [sic] & has done valuable service since the outbreak of war with Turkey in bringing influence to bear on his     co-religionists to remain loyal to the British Govt".

Major General Tighe, the British military governor of Zanzibar, made his feelings plain on 5 October:

     "… I very strongly desire to represent that the interference of civil authorities in proceedings under martial law creates a most undesirable precedent, especially in view of  the doubtful attitude of a certain section of the native population … "

The impasse was broken when the news came back that Jaffer Thavur was a follower of whom the Aga Khan had no personal knowledge, and this was enough for the authorities to abandon any lingering qualms and to proceed with the carrying out of the capital sentence. He was accordingly shot by firing squad at 08.00 in public on 20 October. 

Imaginary drawing of the execution of Edith Louisa Cavell

Imaginary drawing of the execution of Edith Louisa Cavell (1865 -1915) on 12 October 1915. Inset, Edith Cavell at home with her dogs Images Online © UIG/The British Library Board  Noc

A factor which may have tipped the balance against him – albeit nowhere mentioned explicitly in the file – was the execution in faraway Brussels on 12 October of the British nurse Edith Cavell, condemned for her role in assisting the escape of Allied soldiers from occupied Belgium. It is at least possible that this shocking and widely-reported case had repercussions very soon afterwards in east Africa.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Team Leader


Further reading:  IOR/L/PS/11/98, file P 4718


24 July 2014

Pottinger’s property lost in Afghanistan

Eldred Pottinger came to prominence in the service of the East India Company in the 1830s as an assistant to his uncle Henry Pottinger, Resident at Cutch, and through his travels in Afghanistan. When the uprising against the British presence in Afghanistan broke out in 1841, Pottinger was serving as a political officer in Kohistan, a district north of Kabul. During what came to be known as the First Anglo-Afghan War, Pottinger received a serious leg injury, and was detained as a hostage by the Afghan leader Akbar Khan. On his return to India in 1842, he was granted medical leave and travelled to Hong Kong where he died on 15 November 1843.

  Dr William Brydon arriving at Jelalabad
Dr William Brydon,  the only survivor of the 4,500 British soldiers and 12,000 camp-followers who left Kabul on 6 January 1842 to escape, arriving at Jelalabad with news of the disaster, on 13 January © UIG/The British Library Board

At the time of his death, Pottinger was in dispute with the Company over compensation he felt was due to him for the loss of his property in Afghanistan. The India Office Records holds a memorial prepared by him, and submitted to government after his death by his younger brother Lieutenant John Pottinger of the Bombay Artillery. John hoped the Company would give the compensation he felt had been due to his older brother to his mother and sister living in Jersey, and he pointed out that three of his brothers had died in the Company’s service.

  Bazaar at Kabul in the fruit season
Bazaar at Kabul in the fruit season (X 614, plate 19) NocImages Online

Enclosed with the memorial is a list of Eldred’s property taken by the enemy in the castle of Laghman in the Kohistan of Kabul on 5 November 1841, and it gives an interesting glimpse into what a Company officer on political service felt he needed to do his job and to preserve the dignity of his position. There is a long list of books on a wide range of subjects such as history, botany, geology, mathematics, engineering, and politics. Not all seem to be directly related to his posting. There are volumes of poetry by Chaucer, Shelly, Byron and Wordsworth. Gillies’ History of Greece and Leland’s Life of Philip of Macedon sit alongside Robertson’s History of Scotland and Burke’s Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, and the satirical The Clockmaker, or Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick. The collection of Eldred’s books and maps alone was valued at £715 in 1843.

Title page of Burke’s Sublime and Beautiful
Title page of Burke’s Sublime and Beautiful (RB.23.a.18100) Images OnlineNoc

As well as the books and maps, Eldred listed scientific equipment, guns and swords, European and Persian clothes, furniture (tables and chairs, bookcases not surprisingly), Persian carpets, dinning implements (plates, knives, forks, spoons, some in silver), wine, beer and spirits, and six horses. The total value of his lost property was taken as £2,322 or roughly £102,000 in today’s money!

The opinion of the Governor General of India was that Eldred Pottinger was only entitled to the same compensation as if he had sustained the loss on military, rather than political service, and that the compensation should have no relation to the value of the property lost, but only to the value of the property an officer ought to have with him on service.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

Memorial from Lieutenant John Pottinger of the Regiment of Artillery respecting certain claims of his late brother, Major Eldred Pottinger for allowances and compensation alleged to be due to him for loss of his property in Afghanistan, October 1842 to June 1844 [IOR/F/4/2058/94289]

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Historical currency converter


21 July 2014

George Bernard Shaw discards his birthday

George Bernard Shaw, playwright and polemicist, was born in Dublin on 26 July 1856. So we decided to post a story about Shaw to mark this anniversary . But a little research revealed that Shaw would not have been flattered or pleased – he never celebrated his birthday.

  George Bernard Shaw
Add. 50582 f.38 George Bernard Shaw Images Online  Noc

Shaw’s antipathy to birthday celebrations is revealed in newspaper articles by journalists who were eager to congratulate him.  They describe the various ways that they were rebuffed by Shaw.  A representative of the Daily News asked him on his 60th birthday how young he felt. Shaw replied that ‘The day is not really different from any other, except that when you saw me last I was between 50 and 60 and now I am between 60 and 70, not young enough to be really proud of my age and not old enough to have become really popular in England’ (Aberdeen Evening Express 27 July 1916).

In July 1929 Shaw was asked if he would give the world a message to mark the ‘notable occasion’ of his 73rd birthday. Shaw replied, ‘Please send out a brief message suppressing the fact that it is my birthday’.  During that month he was busy directing rehearsals for his new play The Apple Cart which was to be performed at the Malvern Festival.  His secretary confirmed that Shaw would be working as usual, adding ‘He does not believe in birthday parties’ (Gloucester Citizen 25 July 1929).

  Article from Gloucester Citizen 25 July 1929 about Shaw not celebrating his birthday

Gloucester Citizen 25 July 1929 British Newspaper Archive Noc

The Evening Telegraph was nevertheless not deterred from running an article pointing out that, at the age of 73, Shaw was still as active as ever: dodging buses like a man of 25, and never taking a drive in a car without breaking the law.

On his 74th birthday, Shaw declared to a reporter: ‘The more my birthday is forgotten, the better I am pleased. By deed poll I have discarded my birthday forever’ (Evening Telegraph 25 July 1930).  When a brave young reporter from the Sunderland Echo telephoned Shaw to ask him about his birthday in 1935, Shaw said:’Young man, you know not what you do.  If ever you are 79 you won’t want to discuss the fact.  And who is the least interested in my birthday?’  On being told that everyone was interested in George Bernard Shaw, the writer retorted: ‘But not in my having birthdays.  I am not distinguished by having birthdays. Public interest in me depends on the things I can do that nobody else can do. Anybody can have a birthday’.  He then declined to discuss the matter further (Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 July 1935).

  Article from Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 July 1935 about Shaw wanting to forget his birthday
Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 July 1935 British Newspaper ArchiveNoc

Newspapers continued to commemorate Shaw’s birthdays up to the year of his death in spite of his pleas. His 94th birthday in July 1950 was marked with an article in the Aberdeen Journal stating that G.B.S. was as mentally alert as ever, although physically a little frail.  The playwright spent his final birthday at home in Ayot St Lawrence Hertfordshire: ‘He did not celebrate it – he never does’.

Margaret Makepeace
Curator, India Office Records  Cc-by


17 July 2014

The Difference caus'd by mighty Love! - romance and the Benthams

In the short time since we announced on Untold Lives that the British Library had joined the Transcribe Bentham initiative and asked for volunteers to help us advance scholarly research into the life and ideas of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), public interest in the online transcription of Bentham’s manuscripts has exploded. In just over three months, 1,163 manuscripts have been transcribed—almost 10% of the British Library’s Bentham collection! We are delighted to announce the release of more material to explore, and cordially invite any interested newcomers to join us in transcribing them.

  Transcribe Bentham logo

Our inclination was that the British Library’s Bentham material represents a chance to really get to know the Bentham family, since the majority of it is correspondence, and discoveries made by our volunteers have certainly borne this out.

Jeremiah Bentham, father of Jeremy, though cold-hearted in business matters (one letter reveals him being responsible for the cutting off of the water supply to one of his tenants) was found to be quite the romantic, as this love letter to Jeremy’s mother Alicia (transcribed by volunteer Peter Hollis) shows:
while I was present with you Time bore me on his rapid Wing, so swiftly did the delightful hours pass on, but no sooner was I gone from you than that Wing became pinion'd & coud no longer fly, or was rather chang'd into leaden Feet, so slowly do the Sluggish Minutes now creep forward — such is the Difference caus'd by mighty Love!

Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Alicia, 1745
Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Alicia, 1745 (BL Add. MS 33537 f. 4r) Noc

Romantic interest was a dominant theme in first batch of manuscripts released online, which covered the period 1744 to 1783. Jeremy himself was courting, as shown by this rather cruel letter to brother Samuel about a certain ‘Miss S[arah]’  (transcribed by volunteer Simon Croft):
She has indeed a most enchanting set of teeth — seems well made: and is of a very good size. But her features viz: nose and mouth are too large for her face: eyes I do not recollect much about.
Indeed I could not get a full view of her face: she was dressed very unbecomingly.

Jeremy Bentham’s letter to his brother Samuel, written in 1776
Jeremy Bentham’s letter to his brother Samuel, written in 1776 (BL Add. MSS 33538 f. 1r)  Noc

Six months later, Jeremy complained to Samuel (also transcribed by Simon Croft) that his letters to Sarah (‘the little vixen’) had gone unanswered, though we might not be surprised given his ungentlemanly attitude.

New material, covering the period 1784 until 1794, has now been uploaded to the Transcription Desk. Events covered include Jeremy’s long journey to Russia to visit Samuel, where he first conceived of his famous panopticon prison. The period also includes the early years of the French Revolution, as well as the return of Samuel from Russia in 1791, and the death of Jeremiah in 1792. Some of the most intriguing material revolves around the scheme to establish the panopticon, which dominated the next decade of Jeremy’s life, and includes his attempts to lobby leading politicians of the day.

There is no need for specialist equipment or expert knowledge to begin participating—just a willingness to get to grips with 18th and 19th century handwriting, and transcribe it through our website. Visit Transcribe Bentham today to get started!

Dr Kris Grint
Dr Tim Causer
Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws, UCL


14 July 2014

Can an Englishman become truly Indian?

Elwin1Many 19th century anthropologists regarded non-European societies as specimens of the primitive stage of human evolution to be studied as ‘fossils’ of prehistory, a view abhorred by Verrier Elwin (1902-1964), one of the rare European anthropologists to assimilate into non-European society in order to have a thorough understanding of the other peoples. An Oxford-educated theologian turned anthropologist, born into the family of a clergyman, Elwin joined the Christian Service Society mission to India in 1927. In the course of his proselytising, he converted himself to an ‘Indian’ (but not quite Hindu).


Verrier Elwin with aboriginal children at Patangarh, 1940s

Elwin had unconventional political views; influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, he was a staunch supporter of Indian independence. In a Christian tract Christ and Satyagraha, he writes, “…it is love that drives me, an Englishman, to be a supporter of Indian nationalism...”.  A fictitious conversation among the natives in one of his novels (p.45, A Cloud that’s Dragonish, 1938) explains his thoughts: “What are the English [in India]?”  “Robbers and thieves!” Following the natural course of development, he took Indian nationality after Indian Independence.

Elwin Gandhi-letterElwin could have married an Englishwoman of class and rank that suited his family background, but instead he followed Gandhi’s advice and married an indigenous Indian woman of the Bison-Horn Maria tribe, in the region of the Satyagraha Ashram. He lived in a hut with glassless windows, from which the villagers came to peer at him as if he was a new species of homo sapiens. He made humorous remarks about the villagers of the Ashram, “Not all are as simple [as they appear to be].  One of them said to me the other day, ‘Love must be Ontological.  I can never think of love as Epistemological’ ”.

Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to Elwin (undated, c1932) Mss Eur D950/22




Elwin3 newsBy marrying a native woman, Elwin acquainted himself with the local customs of love and sex, as well as the physical and psychological state of their well-being.  Among his personal papers at the British Library, a cutting from the Daily Mirror shows clear curiosity about his unusual life, but refrains from comment.


News of Elwin’s wedding in the Daily Mirror, April 16 1940 [Mss Eur D950/23]


In 1940, The Illustrated Weekly of India published an interview with his young wife Kosibai who claimed that Gond women had a very privileged position, with the paper suggesting that “many a feminist might well envy them”. 

 Elwins wife-love marriages            Elwins wife-photo

Kosibai, wife of Verrier Elwin, pictured for her interview with The Illustrated Weekly of India, September 08 1940 

Elwin wrote several scholarly books on the Gond tribes in India, including an interesting book on the aspect of ‘Murder and Suicide’ among them.

Elwin’s death in the early 1960s provoked some controversies as to the validity of his anthropological studies.  Some dismissed his studies as “a bit of propaganda for his continued support by the [Indian] Government”. Much of the criticism can be attributed to certain academic rivalry and cynicism from his contemporaries. The question remains, “Can an Englishman ever become truly Indian?”

Further reading

Verrier Elwin,  The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin.  (1964)
Mss Eur D950  Papers of Verrier Elwin
Mss Eur F236/266  Papers of W.G.Archer

Xiao Wei Bond, formerly Curator, India Office Private Papers
Penny Brook, Lead Curator, India Office Records

10 July 2014

Let’s vary piracy, with a little burglary!

On 20 January 1732, Bandar Abbas on the north coast of the Persian Gulf was gripped by panic, as musket shots rang out over the city and two local soldiers ran about warning of an impending attack by Afghan raiders.


Afghan foot soldiers in their winter dress
Afghan foot soldiers in their winter dress, 1848 (Plate 11 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray)  Online Gallery Noc

This would not be the first such attack, the Afghans and other Sunni rebels having recently plundered the outskirts of the city,  a caravan and the village of Afseen, where the East India Company’s Baghche or pleasure garden had been looted and used as the rebel headquarters (IOR/G/29/5 f.144). The previous attack on the city had been repulsed by the recently arrived Mir Haydar, an official from Shiraz. This same official, spurred to action by the warnings of people fleeing from the perceived danger, mounted his horse to face the attackers a second time. To his surprise, rather than finding an Afghan attack underway, he discovered that the two soldiers who had earlier evacuated the local population had taken the opportunity to burgle abandoned houses nearby in order to pay off gambling debts. The two were pursued by the Persians.

These events are recorded in an East India Company consultation book, written as a record of matters discussed in the regular meetings held by the British traders and administrators in the factory at Bandar Abbas. At this time, Persia was just lifting itself out of a decade of civil war, the Safavid dynasty having been toppled by an Afghan invasion in 1722. Raids and banditry as well as all-out war with the Turks made Persia at this time a very risky place to do business. We know, for example, that the Dutch and British factories in Bandar Abbas were fortified and armed against such dangers, the locals even flocking to the shadows of their walls for protection during the Afghan raid. A Company factor, William Cordeux, after leaving Bandar Abbas to warn approaching caravans of the Afghan’s presence as well as to hurry along one carrying Company goods, was subject to an assassination mission by the Afghans, whom he was lucky not to meet with on the road.

The continued presence and activity of the British in Persia during this tumultuous period go some way to showing the importance of Persia and more specifically Bandar Abbas, as a trading hub and outlet for the Company’s trade goods from India and Europe.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library Cc-by

07 July 2014

Sidekicks and arch enemies in the archives

Inspired by finding Batman in the India Office Records for our last post, I decided to look for some more Gotham City characters in the baptisms, marriages, burials and wills for Europeans in India.  

              Coaster with the word Pow offered for sale in the BL Shop in 2014            Coaster with the word Wham  offered for sale in the BL Shop in 2014

Coasters offered for sale in the BL Shop 2014

Amongst the thousand or so Robins who appear, my eye was caught by a sad entry.  Robin, whose father and mother were unknown, was baptised aged about five years at Ganjam on 6 November 1810 by W. Montgomerie acting magistrate.

  Register entry for Robin's baptism

IOR/N/2/4 f.372  Noc

Could I find Batman’s female sidekick, Batgirl?  How about Claire De La Bat who married Eugene Francis Duncan at the Catholic Cathedral in Calcutta on 14 August 1927 at the age of 20?

Register entry for Claire De La Bat
IOR/N/1/503 f.42Noc

Let’s move on to Batman’s arch enemies.  First – Mr Freeze.

Register entry for Hendrick Freeze
IOR/N/1/1 p.27 Noc

Hendrick Freeze was a soldier who was buried in Calcutta on 5 July 1719.

Next, The Riddler. Stanislaus Riddler was born on 28 September 1912 and baptised in Dacca on 10 October 1912. He was the son of John David Riddler, a railway guard, and his wife Marie Louise IOR/N/1/384 f.182].

Also, The Joker.  (Well, almost!)

  Register entry for Jolker Junius

Johker Junius M F Van Hamert was a passenger on the French mail steamer Irrawaddy. He died at Aden of anaemia on 12 May 1885 aged 60 and was buried there on the same day.

Not forgetting Hush - George Hush of Calcutta made a will on 18 September 1787 leaving all his worldly goods to his mother Mary Hush of Deptford Kent [IOR/L/AG/34/29/6 f.182].  There is a detailed inventory of his possessions at death which range from carpenter’s tools, timber and ship masts, to a broad sword, a palanquin, and a cracked tureen [IOR/L/AG/34/27/9 f.240].

And finally, The Penguin. Samuel Thomas was buried in the Town Cemetery at Rangoon on 29 July 1887 aged 28.  He was a sailor on board HMS Penguin [N/1/290 f. 160].

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading : 

Batman in India 

British in India - images of the documents in this post are available from find my past

Comics Unmasked exhibition


03 July 2014

Batman in India

What story could Untold Lives possibly find in the India Office Records to link in with the Comics Unmasked exhibition?  It seemed that we might have to admit defeat until we remembered that there was an officer called Batman in the East India Company army.  And while our Batman might not have been a superhero, he certainly led an interesting life.

Batman (or Battman) John Lorimer was baptised on 22 July 1781 at Eye in Suffolk.  He joined the Bombay Army as a cadet in 1802 and served with the Bombay European Regiment.

  NocBaptismal entry for Batman John Lorimer
IOR/L/MIL/9/112 f.108 NocBaptismal entry for Batman John Lorimer

In 1806 Lorimer became embroiled in a quarrel with Lieutenant George Cauty of the Bombay Native Infantry.  Cauty claimed that Lorimer had circulated a report highly prejudicial to his character, namely that Lorimer had kicked and beaten him.  Matters came to a head on 23 February when there was a confrontation between Cauty, Lorimer and Major Thomas Gibson in Church Street Bombay.  Cauty claimed that Lorimer and Gibson drew their swords and stopped his palanquin by force.

European gentleman reclining in a box palanquin
Add.Or.4200 European gentleman reclining in a box palanquinNoc

On 28 April 1806 Cauty faced a Court Martial on charges brought by Gibson in relation to the events of 23 February:

- refusing to obey orders and behaving disrespectfully

- ‘maliciously aspersing’ Gibson’s character by accusing him of lying

- behaving in a scandalous and infamous manner unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

Cauty was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to be cashiered, that is dismissed and debarred from future employment with the Company . 

The following trial that day dealt with charges brought by Lorimer  against Lieutenant Bryan McGuire for behaving in an ‘irregular and unofficer-like manner’ between 20 and 23 February by acting as the bearer of two written challenges to Lorimer.  McGuire was also found guilty and cashiered.   The Court noted the inconsistency of evidence given by Lieutenant Charles Savage and recorded its belief that he was instrumental in promoting the quarrel between Cauty and Lorimer.

In 1808 Cauty was back in England petitioning the Company in vain for reinstatement.   He then joined the King's army, securing a commission in the Royal York Rangers.

Lorimer was also in London at this time having been granted furlough on a sick certificate.  He had married Ann Catherine Houghton in Bombay on 17 September 1806 but she does not appear to have been with him when he arrived in England on board the East Indiaman Huddart in September 1807.  Lorimer had sustained a severe wound to the abdomen when fighting for the Company and suffered from an abcess in his liver.  He ran up large medical bills being treated in London by 'eminent physicians'.  Although Lorimer petitioned the Court of Directors to be pensioned, claiming that 'a return to India would be attended with immediate Death’, he went back in 1809.  He was eventually pensioned on 13 May 1815 in England.

Batman Lorimer died in November 1820 in Bedford but he had previously lived in Brussels.  His will names his wife Mary, two daughters Caroline Elizabeth and Harriet, and a natural son John Lorimer Eastaugh.   Please get in touch if you can tell us more about our Batman in India!

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading –
Cadet papers of Batman John Lorimer IOR/L/MIL/9/112 f.108
Marriage to Ann Catherine Houghton IOR/N/3/4 f.277 – see image on find my past
For full details of the quarrel between Lorimer and Cauty: IOR/D/165 ff.89-101
Courts Martial of Lieutenants George Cauty and Bryan McGuire: IOR/L/MIL/ 17/4/376 Bombay General Orders 28 April 1806
Lorimer’s petitions to the East India Court of Directors: IOR/D/167 ff.330-334
Will of Battman John Lorimer: The National Archives PROB 11/1637

 More about Comics Unmasked