Untold lives blog

12 posts from October 2014

09 October 2014

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

On 28 May 1742, the British Agent dispatched a gift of cloth and other rich goods to the Sardar (a military commander) of the region around Bandar Abbas. To his great surprise, his gift was politely declined, though with thanks and replaced by a shopping list of goods for the Sardar’s family in Khorasan, with promise of payment. This was very surprising as the Persians were rarely backward in their expectation of gifts and presents. The Persian custom known as Pishkash is a catch-all term for gifts given for political purposes, rather than out of any personal friendship. Often, when these gifts were not forthcoming as expected, they were politely, but firmly requested. This habit was viewed by the Europeans and most especially the British, as a form of taxation and deeply resented by them. The rejection of their gift, far from causing offence, elicited the following response from the Agent, Nathaniel Whitwell:

“This Extraordinary procedure, against the mode of the times, in which an honest, generous Persian is hardly to be found, we being so used to see so much of the reverse…” [IOR/G/29/6 f.216].

Safavid Persian prince at court
Safavid Persian prince at court, miniature from a Persian manuscript, 1650. ©De Agostini/The British Library Board  Images Online

 The British were often undermined in their attempts to withhold from this practice of giving ‘presents’ by their European cousins, the Dutch. The Dutch regularly jumped the gun, providing generous presents to Persian officials without prompt [IOR/G/29/6 f.204] or giving unnecessary gifts when they saw favour being given to the British. This happened just after the incident with the Sardar when the Dutch Chief at Bandar Abbas gave 200 toman (nearly £500 of the time) in order to receive a horse from the Governor of Shiraz, who had given the one to the British Agent as a sign of his favour.

The giving of Pishkash was a cause of concern to the Presidency in Bombay, especially as visits by more important officials could incur significant costs to the Company. It was not just the major officials: their retainers, viziers and other staff were also given gifts by the British when their masters received theirs. This was firstly an expectation and secondly a useful tool to gain influential voices within the Royal and regional courts, mostly importantly in Shiraz, the seat of the Governor responsible for the areas in which the majority of British interests lay.

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

 Further reading:

India Office Records - Factory Records for Persia and the Persian Gulf c.1620-1822 [IOR/G/29]


06 October 2014

A bottle of water and half a biscuit

The Red Sea was a perilous place in the early 1830s. Foundering on treacherous reefs was a constant threat and pirates ‘swarmed’ there according to Clements Markham, author of the Memoir of Indian Surveys. William Lowe, Commander of the East India Company’s brig the Nautilus, also had to battle with adverse weather in the Red Sea after setting sail from Bombay in November 1833 carrying a Packet for Suez.

Fame - loss c13595-32

Engraving of the Fame East Indiaman sailing ship foundering and sinking in a storm, P411   Noc

In his letter to the British Consul General in Alexandria, Lowe describes how they were wrecked on a rocky reef about 30 miles from the African coast ‘nearly opposite Jeddah’. Forced to abandon ship at about 1 pm on 06 December in the ship’s boats, it ‘being unsafe to remain any longer on board, the wind still increasing, we only succeeded in saving about fifty gallons of Water, two Bags of Bread (completely wet with Salt Water) and a small quantity of Salt meat; the nearest port to us with the wind then blowing was Suakin, distant about 110 miles; with this small quantity of provisions and eighty men in the boats, we stood on for the aforementioned place, where we arrived on the afternoon of the 9th without a drop of water in the boats, and not being able to procure any on the way the last day we had only one bottle of water between six men and half a biscuit.’

Lowe concludes by saying that he sends the Packets over land by Lieutenant Lynch of the Indian Navy. Among the three passengers accompanying Lynch was Captain Bourchier of the Royal Navy, who wrote an account of their journey, in which he claims that their route from Suakin across the desert to Berber had never before been attempted by Europeans. In total, they rode 613 miles by camel in twenty nine days, including four rest days. When they reached the Nile at Kroosko, they continued their journey by boat. Bourchier describes the privations of the journey across the desert beyond Abu Hamet – heat in the day, cold at night, the discomforts of their accommodation and the difficulties of maintaining standards of cleanliness and grooming owing to the scarcity of water. He seems to have become rather attached to the camels and was greatly saddened when they had to abandon one to join the other skeletons in the desert. The travellers did not always command respect – Bourchier relates how at Berber he took to wearing a turban because the locals compared the English hats to their cooking pots! 

The East India Company Steam Navigation papers show that danger and arduous journeys were quite commonplace for the people pioneering potential routes, but it is surprising that I was unable to find many references to this particular adventure in the British newspapers. Does anyone know if there was a reason for this?

Steam communication_IOR-L-MAR-C-560

Map from Steam Navigation Papers, IOR/L/MAR/C/560   Noc

You can read more about adventures in navigation in an earlier blog about Colonel Chesney’s expedition to explore the Euphrates. Lynch joined this expedition and was shipwrecked again while in command of the Tigris and suffered the tragedy of losing his own brother.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records   Cc-by

Further reading Capt W Bourchier, R.N., Narrative of a Passage from Bombay to England Describing the Author’s shipwreck in the Nautilus in the Red Sea; Journies across the Nubian Desert; Detentions in the Lazaretto at Leghorn etc. (London, 1834)
C. R. Markham, A Memoir on the Indian Surveys, 2nd edn (1878)

IOR/L/MAR/C/557-572  Steam Navigation Papers
IOR/L/MAR/C/567, pp.515, 584-588, 821-823 for details of the wreck of the Nautilus IOR/F/4/1479 Collection 58137 : Report of Lieutenant William Lowe of the HEICS Nautilus on the disturbed state of the ports on the Red Sea and the insecurity of trade in that region (with associated correspondence), Jun-Oct 1833 

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03 October 2014

Sausages and bunting comfort troops in Paris

These women are doing their bit_smallThe contribution of women during the First World War, whether as munitions workers, members of the Women’s Land Army, determined knitters or sustaining correspondents, is commemorated in our current exhibition Enduring war: grief, grit and humour. One of the individual women featured is Albinia Wherry (1857-1929) whose collection of posters and postcards, donated to the Library, includes material relating to the Women’s Emergency Canteen in Paris which you can see in the exhibition.  (Now extended until 26 October!)

During the First World War she worked at the Women’s Emergency Canteen beneath the Gare du Nord in Paris. Opened in April 1915, initially as an initiative of the Women’s Emergency Corps (a suffrage organisation), with a staff of mostly British women, it was also known as the Cantine Anglaise.


These women are doing their bit: learn to make munitions. Poster [London, 1916]   Noc

Over the course of the war, it provided meals, drinks, cigarettes, magazines, washing facilities and sleeping accommodation for Allied troops. An illustrated account of the canteens in France compiled by Josephine Davies (Work of the Women’s Emergency Canteens in France) gives a flavour of what life was like and the hectic nature of the work especially in the period when the ambulance trains were routed through the Gare du Nord. The chapter on the Paris canteen includes a description of the wonderment of a soldier when he descends the gloomy stairs to find a huge hall, hung with flags and bunting, the inviting smell of sausages and a ready welcome. This sense of the warmth of the welcome is also reflected in the comments quoted by Davies from the Visitors’ Book which include the following accolade: “the most homely place I’ve been in since leaving my home in 1914”.

Albinia Wherry worked at the Paris Canteen from 1915 to 1918 and is recorded in Davies as one of the Paris workers who had been awarded a badge for her service there. Postcards from her collection relating to that period feature both in Enduring war and in the related display Postcards, stamps and covers from the First World War (in the Philatelic Exhibition space on the Upper Ground Floor) and colleagues have posted in our European Studies blog about some of the French posters and Russian postcards from her collection.

Albinia was the daughter of Robert Needham Cust the orientalist (whose diaries are held by the Library: Add MS 45390-45406) and Maria Adelaide Hobart. In 1881, she married George Edward Wherry, a surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and a member of the Alpine Club. Her own wide range of interests is reflected in her pre-war publications, including several about art which were aimed squarely at both school children and the lifelong learner. Some biographical material, including a photograph and a family tree, can be found in The Albinia book (about women named Albinia descended from Albinia Cecil), a work she compiled with her cousin Albinia Stewart but which was published posthumously, with the assistance of her brother Robert Henry Hobart Cust, following her death in a car accident in 1929.

See our blog about Sophia Duleep Singh to learn about another remarkable woman who worked for the welfare of soldiers during the First World War.

Alison Bailey
Co-Curator, Enduring war     Cc-by

Further reading:

The Albinia book…Compiled by Albinia Lucy Cust (Mrs. Wherry). Illustrations and genealogies collected by Albinia Frances Stewart. London: Mitchell Hughes and Clarke, 1929. British Library shelfmark: 10824.b.7.

The Work of the Women’s Emergency Canteens in France 1915-1919. Compiled by Josephine Davies. [London]: [Women's Printing Society], [1919] B.L. shelfmark: YA.1989.a.3456.

Explore over 500 historical sources from across Europe, together with new insights by World War One experts in our World War I online resource


02 October 2014

The Euphrates Expedition of 1836: Ingenuity and Tragedy in Mesopotamia

On 14 March 1836, the German naturalist Doctor Johann Wilhelm Helfer and his wife, Baroness Pauline Desgranges, arrived on the banks of the Euphrates near Birecik in present-day Turkey. The couple were travelling from Prague to Calcutta, and had arranged to descend the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf on board a British steamship.

  Steamers Euphrates and Tigris passing ThapsacusSteamers Euphrates and Tigris passing Thapsacus. From Chesney, Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition (1868). Noc

In his wife’s memoirs, Johann Helfer recalled the scene of ‘busy confusion’ that greeted them that morning: ‘Turks and Christians were seen everywhere, laden with the most various things, and all in such haste’. Scattered about the banks of the river were, amongst other things, anvils, bellows, gun carriages, wheels, cylinders, trunks and chests, astronomical instruments, tent poles, ‘and an immense quantity of planks’.

Laid up by the side of the river were two steamships, the Euphrates and the Tigris, both of which had been transported from Liverpool in kit form. British engineers took a year to assemble both vessels in preparation for what was to be the first navigation of the Euphrates by steamship, from Birecik to the Persian Gulf, a total distance of 1400 kilometres.

Cross section of the EuphratesCross section of the Euphrates. From Chesney, Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition (1868).  Noc

In charge of the expedition was Captain Francis Rawdon Chesney who had occupied himself much with the question of establishing a trade route between Britain and India that avoided rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Chesney had negotiated the Euphrates by sail boat in 1834, and was confident that the great river was navigable by steamship.

Chesney’s project attracted the interest of the British Government. Since the Napoleonic wars, mail had travelled from India to London through the Persian Gulf, and then onwards, overland, through Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Syria. Government officials, reasoning that transporting goods along a similar route could bring great economic and practical advantages to the British Empire, awarded Chesney a grant of £25,000 (more than £2 million in present day terms) to undertake an expedition to establish a steamship route on the Euphrates.

The expedition’s progress downstream was slow, arduous, and not without tragedy. On 21 May 1836 a tornado wrought considerable damage upon both steamers,  causing the Tigris to sink with the loss of twenty-two hands. Finally, after three months, the Euphrates alone entered the Shatt-al-Arab, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet the Persian Gulf.

  Letter from Francis Rawdon Chesney, Commander of the Euphrates Expedition, to Samuel Hennell, Resident at Bushire, dated 16 February 1837 Noc
Letter from Francis Rawdon Chesney, Commander of the Euphrates Expedition, to Samuel Hennell, Resident at Bushire, dated 16 February 1837 (IOR/R/15/1/73, ff 7-8). Item digitised as part of the Qatar Foundation-British Library Partnership Programme.

In his subsequent report to Government, Chesney insisted that his expedition had been a success, and that the Euphrates was navigable by steamship. However, a further expedition in 1841 concluded that, because of the numerous irrigation dams and other obstacles that emerged during the river’s low season, the Euphrates as a trade route was impractical. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 put an end to any ideas of transforming the Euphrates into a major trade route between Europe and Asia.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project 

Qatar Digital LibraryCc-by

Further Reading:

IOR/R/15/1/70 ‘Book 96: Letters Inward 1837’

IOR/R/15/1/73 ‘Letters Inward 1837’.  For example - letter from Francis Rawdon Chesney to Samuel Hennell, Resident at Bushire, dated 16 February 1837, stating that the Governor in Council has sanctioned the expense of tombstones for the deceased men of the Euphrates expedition (IOR/R/15/1/73, ff 7-8)

Chesney, General Francis Rawdon. Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition carried on by Order of the British Government (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1868)

Pauline, Countess Nostitz. The Travels of Doctor and Madame Helfer in Syria, Mesopotamia and Burmah and Other Lands (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1878)

Rathbone Low, Charles. The History of the Indian Navy (1613-1863) (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1877)