Untold lives blog

11 posts from March 2015

30 March 2015

The Defiance of Zaki Khan

In the middle of 1826, the British Resident at Bushire, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Ephraim Stannus received intelligence that the forces of the Imam of Muscat were threatening a seaborne attack on the Persian port of Bushire. Stannus communicated the news to Zaki Khan, the Persian Vizier at Shiraz.

The purport of the letter Stannus received in reply was clearly intended to reach the Imam himself. The version transcribed in the India Office Records letter book cited below is a translation prepared by the Assistant Resident, Samuel Hennell. However, Hennell was a good administrator who went on to be Resident himself for many years and the translation is more than likely to be reliable. The Vizier’s richly allusive, not to say menacing, words are worth considering in detail.


  Translation of a letter from Zekee Khan [Zaki Khan], Wazeer [Vizier] at Shiraz to Colonel Stannus
Translation of a letter from Zekee Khan [Zaki Khan], Wazeer [Vizier] at Shiraz to Colonel Stannus, received 11 July 1826: IOR/R/15/1/36, f 118.  Noc

Zaki Khan begins his letter with heavy irony:
‘The intentions of Syed Said [the Imam of Muscat] towards Bushire with which you made me acquainted are most excellent and proper’.

He then adds a suitable proverb:
‘It is a well known fact that the “Fated Bird runs towards the Fowler”.’

Moreover, in case the Imam didn’t know it, God was on the side of the Persians:
‘Numbers of individuals are anxiously looking forward to the Imam’s arrival at Bushire in order that they may display the power of the Almighty.’

At this point the gloves really come off:
‘He must be a mighty Chief that fears not to meet and encounter in war the hundred thousands of crocodiles belonging to the sea of this powerful Kingdom in order to display his courage'.

Although the allusion to crocodiles is difficult to justify in terms of the marine life of the Persian Gulf, the image is undeniably graphic. Clearly, if the Imam attacked, he would get the drubbing he deserved.

The Vizier then becomes somewhat mystic:
‘Should the Fates on his arrival pull his ears so severely [underlining in original] (punish him so) as to prevent any other person from entertaining similar intentions as long as the world may last, let him not be vexed'.

Zaki Khan would evidently like to pull the Imam’s ears himself, but failing that, he will allow the fates to do it.

And he had warned the Imam once before, as he points out, using a startling metaphor:
‘Before this intelligence arrived [. . .] I had the pleasure to address His Highness recommending him to give up his intentions and not to cast himself uselessly into the Whirlpool of reprehensions and disgrace’.

He then adds a further proverb, intimating that the Imam would do well not to learn a lesson the hard way:
‘for the Wise man saith “Shame produces no profit”’.

Zaki Khan ends the letter with a suitable crescendo:
‘Should however His Highness notwithstanding persevere in his purposes I can only add he is master of his own actions and is welcome to come up with his swift sailing vessels and to see into whose hands God will give the victory’.

Martin Woodward
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by

Further reading:
British Library, Outward Letters, Book No 42, 1 January 1826 to 31 July 1826. IOR/R/15/1/36


27 March 2015

Gandhi’s Salt March, Part 2: 20-26 March 1930

We continue our look at Gandhi’s famous salt march, with a telegram from the Governor of Bombay on 20 March 1930. In it he indicates that Gandhi was raising the stakes in provoking Government action. It was reported that in his speeches “…although as usual advocating non-violence, he stated openly he had come to preach sedition and spread disloyalty”. The marchers crossed the Mahi River into Broach District on the night of 19 March. The telegram of 22 March reported that Jawaharlal Nehru had briefly joined the march, it was supposed in order that he could confer with Gandhi about a meeting of the Congress Working Committee, and after making a short speech, left for Ahmedabad. The marchers continued on through northern Broach where it was reported that no particular excitement or interest was aroused, reaching Gajera on the morning of 21 March.


  Album of Photographs of Gandhi’s Salt March
Rasikalal Chotalal Parikh, Gandhikuca (Amadavada: Prasthana Karyalaya, 1930). Album of Photographs of Gandhi’s Salt March. PP Guj B 18.  Noc

At Gajera, Gandhi addressed a meeting of 3,000 people, and caused some controversy in the crowd by introducing some untouchables. The Governor of Bombay reported on 23 March that the “Reception in Broach District continues to be lukewarm everywhere and at some places poor”. However there were reports of resignations of headmen in Surat and Kaira Districts, and a boycott of Government servants in those districts had started.

At Jambusar, on 22 March, Gandhi met with Nehru and other Congress representatives, before addressing a crowd of 5,000. The march then moved to the town of Amod, where he met leaders of the Bombay Youth League, and spoke to a crowd of 2,500 people. By the evening of the 23rd, the march had reached Samni, 14 miles from Broach, where it paused for Gandhi’s day of silence on 24 March.

Meetings took place on the 25 March at Tralsa and Derol, with the marchers reaching Broach on the morning of 26 March. They stayed at the Ashram of Doctor Chandulal Desai, described in the Bombay Governors telegram as the chief agitator of the District. The marchers crossed the Nerbudda River to Ankleshwar that evening. The Governor's telegram reported the physical strain which the march was taking on Gandhi and his supporters. There was apparently “…much sickness in the party which is said to be weary of marching”, and Gandhi appeared to be tiring. Despite his fatigue, on his arrival at Ankleshwar, Gandhi addressed a meeting of 4,000 people, which included some Muslim Parsees and Christians from the local mission.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Civil Disobedience Campaign Events in Bombay: reports on demonstrations, rioting and police action; arrests, trials and judgments passed; Parliamentary questions and replies, March 1930 to October 1931 [IOR/L/PJ/6/1998]

 Gandhi’s Salt March, Part 1: 12-19 March 1930

Gandhi’s Salt March, Part 3: 27 March to 6 April 1930



24 March 2015

Thin dogs, neglected children and rising crime

Thin dogs and domestic animals, expensive grain, and unemployed men wandering in search of employment ‘careless of their children and old dependants’ were signs of local scarcity in danger of developing into a famine situation, according to Moonshi Ishree Pershad, Rai Bahadoor, Deputy Collector of Muzaffarpur in North India. His testimony in response to set questions from the 1878 Bengal Famine Commission was unusual in giving an Indian’s perspective, and paints a more intimate picture of village life than that given by the majorityFamine_compressed of the British respondents. According to Moonshi Ishree Pershad, in times of scarcity loans became difficult to obtain, the number of beggars increased, private charity was over-burdened and crimes against property gradually increased. 

In rural India, the people likely to be worst affected by serious crop failure were the panch pamania who attended to secular ceremonies, including births and weddings, together with artisans such as potters and weavers, and of course labourers and cultivators.  

Famine, Hindu men in front of the British, 1897, illustration from Petit Journal  
© De Agostini/The British Library Board



Bengal Famine Commission Proceedings IOR/P/1160


Moonshi Ishree Pershad said that the district officer would know that famine was imminent if he found that ‘Grain imported to his district is not from neighbouring districts but other provinces; that exportation from his district is altogether blocked; that cattle, gold and silver ornaments and brass utensils do not fetch one-fourth of what was paid for them; that men of high caste go in disguised state to earthworks situate at a distance from their homes, and that infants of his district have very miserable looks.’ 

This information was provided as part of his response to the Bengal Famine Commission’s set questions about the condition of the country and people, relief during the earliest stages of distress, famine relief and prevention. 

Moonshi Ishree Pershad’s comments were informed by his experience of relief works in 1874 when the winter rice crop failed following a lack of rain and one seventh of the population was in receipt of support.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records



Bengal Famine Commission Proceedings, December 1878, pp.367-372, IOR/P/1160, which are part of the India Office Records. Catalogues are available online Search our Catalogues Archives and Manuscripts

Richard Axelby and Savithri Preetha Nair Science and the Changing Environment in India: a guide to sources in the India Office Records (London, 2010) 

20 March 2015

Gandhi’s Salt March, Part 1: 12-19 March 1930

This month marks 85 years since Gandhi started the second great campaign of non-cooperation in British India, with the famous salt march from his ashram at Sabarmati to Dandi on the Bombay coast.  The law prohibited Indians from producing or selling salt. Gandhi regarded the government tax on salt as particularly iniquitous as it affected the poorest most.    On 12 March 1930 he set out with 78 followers on a 240 mile march.


'Gandhi and Eighty Martyrs going towards the Jalalpur saltmines'
'Gandhi and Eighty Martyrs going towards the Jalalpur saltmines' Achille Beltrame (1871-1945), from La Domenica del Corriere, 1930. ©De Agostini/The British Library Board  Images Online


The India Office Records has a collection of almost daily telegrams from the Governor of Bombay to the Secretary of State for India, between March 1930 and March 1931, giving details of the salt march, and the increasing unrest in Bombay. Over the coming weeks we will be featuring them on Untold Lives, and following Gandhi’s march through the eyes of an anxious Government.

At 9pm on 12 March 1930, the India Office received a telegram reporting that no further information had been received concerning Gandhi’s march, beyond a press telegram that he had left the Ashram at 6.30 that morning. Three hours later, another telegram arrived with further intelligence “…that Gandhi’s destination is Dandi in Jalalpur Taluk of Surat District. This, we understand might mean march of 20 days as against 5 which we had hitherto been contemplating”.

The march reached Aslali on 13 March, where Gandhi preached non-violence and reaffirmed his intention to break the salt laws at Jalalpur. Passing through Bareja in the Ahmedabad District, Gandhi was reported to have received a poor reception. By 15 March, the Governor of Bombay felt able to make tentative conclusions as to the effect of the three days of marching. Crowds were reported to have been smaller than expected, and Muslims had shown no interest, and Gandhi was said to be feeling the physical strain of the march. In his speeches, Gandhi appealed to villagers with references to village uplift, removal of untouchability and Khaddar.

At Matar, which was reached on the night of 14 March, Gandhi addressed a crowd of 5,000 people. The next day a meeting was held at Dabhan attended by 3,000 people, followed by a meeting of 20,000 at Nadiad. By the evening of 16 March it was reported that the march had reached the town of Anand, where it was expected to halt one day, as it was Gandhi’s day of silence, and to allow the clothing of the marchers to be washed. At Anand Gandhi appealed for volunteers, and asked students and schoolmasters to leave the schools and join the campaign.

The telegram received in the India Office on 19 March stated that “Since the fourth day when Gandhi’s party reached the more populous and disaffected parts of Kaira District more attention has been paid to it and local excitement has been greater”. Gandhi was reported to be suffering from varicose veins, but otherwise was said to be in cheerful spirits and to show no sign of mental breakdown. More village headmen were resigning and more volunteers were enrolled as the campaign gained momentum.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:
Civil Disobedience Campaign Events in Bombay: reports on demonstrations, rioting and police action; arrests, trials and judgments passed; Parliamentary questions and replies, March 1930 to October 1931 [IOR/L/PJ/6/1998]

Gandhi’s Salt March, Part 2: 20-26 March 1930

Gandhi’s Salt March, Part 3: 27 March to 6 April 1930


17 March 2015

Everyone is badminton mad here!

In August 1873 a new sporting craze was sweeping through India in the form of badminton. Beatrice Aitchison, the wife of Sir Charles Umpherston Aitchison, Foreign Secretary to the Government of India) wrote to their family friend Lewis Pelly (Agent to the Governor-General at Rajputana, on special duty as Special Commissioner to Baroda) about the latest craze which she and her husband had taken up:
“We have even taken to it in a quiet way – we play by ourselves instead of going out to walk. It is good exercise and the Foreign Secretary thoroughly enjoys it”.


European men and women playing badminton on an outside court at Shillong, India
Photo 913/(25) Oscar Jean Mallitte, European men and women playing badminton on an outside court at Shillong, India. Images Online  Noc

In her letter to Pelly she describes how the sport has created quite a trade in the bazaar with the bats (racquets) being made by the locals and proving to be very popular but the difficulty was with the shuttlecocks as the locally made ones simply didn’t fly properly. Even her husband Sir Charles was quite enamoured with the sport, noting in a letter to Pelly that ‘my good old joints are getting supple from Badminton which I have been at length dragged into’.


   Beatrice Aitchison's letter to Lewis Pelly
MSS Eur F 126/4 Beatrice Aitchison to Lewis Pelly, August 1873 Noc

The craze for playing badminton recurs throughout the private papers collection of Sir Lewis Pelly, with correspondents writing to him throughout 1874 and 1875 and making reference to their fondness of the sport and the various matches that had been taking place.

One such match occurred in January 1875 and was between staff of the Government of India Foreign Office, including Aitchison, and staff of the Rajputana Agency which according to the descriptions to Pelly had resulted in a draw and had prompted one correspondence Adelbert Cecil Talbot to comment to Pelly about the Foreign Office team that

 “We have a [ ] fair side and could I think play most others thanks to Mr Aitchison who is a very good player indeed”.

Even Lewis Pelly was not, it seemed, immune to the latest craze with Aitchison proposing in November 1873 a match between the two gentlemen and commenting that “I hope you won’t play the same tricks with my office as I played with yours”. Whether this match took place and whether any of the ‘tricks’ referred to were played we shall perhaps sadly never know.

Karen Stapley
Content Specialist, Archives Cc-by
British Library /Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme

Further reading from India Office Private Papers:
Mss Eur F126/4, f 26v
Mss Eur F126/7, ff 57v-58, 82v-83
Mss Eur F126/69, f 50v
Mss Eur F126/71, f 53v, 71v-72

Read an earlier blog post about Charles Umpherston Aitchison


13 March 2015

Friday the 13th

Today is Friday the 13th – a day of trepidation for the superstitious. Friday is traditionally considered to be an unlucky day and thirteen an unlucky number, so the combination makes for a difficult day. Many people believe that accidents and mishaps are more common on Fridays and so refuse to travel that day.  Many tall buildings do not have a 13th floor, airlines leave out row 13, house numbers jump from 12 to 14.  On Friday 13th, bookings for weddings and events fall away, house purchases are not finalised, and business transactions are slow.


Black cat Noc
'By day she made herself into a cat' from Grimm’s Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham (London, 1925) Images Online


In 1889 the London Thirteen Club was founded by a number of journalists, artists and actors led by writer William Harnett Blanch.  The main aim was to attack and expose superstitions of all kinds, but members also intended to raise money for charity. Similar clubs flourished in Paris and New York. 

The club was to meet on the 13th of every month.  Members were to make a declaration that in their daily life they would, whenever practicable and convenient, act in ways that were deemed unlucky by the superstitious.

Annual dinners were an opportunity for club members to test a large number of superstitions.  Dinner was announced by the smashing of a mirror.  Guests entered the dining room by passing under a ladder and an open umbrella.  They ate at tables with thirteen place settings, decorated with shoes and peacock feathers, and with knives crossed. Salt was spilled as the diners sat down. The menu consisted of thirteen courses, with such delights as salmon with Friday sauce, spectral veal cutlets, black-cat chicken (better known as rabbit), and full-moon jelly.  Speeches lasted exactly thirteen minutes.

It appears that no harm came to any devotees of the Thirteen Club, but their activities did little to reduce superstitious behaviour. Shoes on a table, peacock feathers with an 'evil eye', and spilt salt are still said to be harbingers of bad luck. Crossed knives mean a fight will happen.  Black cats are the familiars of witches and so it is bad luck if one follows you, but lucky if one crosses your path – it hasn’t noticed you! 

Fingers crossed and touch wood, you will not be affected by reading this blog post. For in Ohio, it is said that if you learn something new on Friday 13th a fresh wrinkle will appear on your face, and if you laugh on Friday 13th you will cry on Sunday 15th.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive for articles about the London Thirteen Club for example: Nottingham Evening Post 12 February 1889;  Reynold’s Newspaper 18 February 1894; Lincolnshire Echo 14 December 1894; Dundee Evening Post 15 June 1900; Lancashire Evening Post 2 April 1930.

Richard Webster, The Encyclopaedia of Superstitions (2008)


11 March 2015

‘My beautiful reformatress’: The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and corporal punishment

Last night British Library copies of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine appeared on ‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: the Agony Aunt Story’, shown on BBC4. Shortly after the Corset Controversy, another provocative topic became the subject of hot debate in the magazine.

Cover of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine

The question of corporal punishment as a useful means for disciplining children was first broached in the autumn of 1868, when a number of readers’ letters in support of whipping began to be published. In the Conversazione pages for September, a correspondent called Pro-Rod wrote ‘I believe a good sound whipping from its mother’s hands will generally have a wonderfully good effect’. From this time on, a huge number of letters on the subject flooded in, both for and against corporal punishment.

Letter about punishment of disobedient daughter


However the entire discussion was hijacked and subverted by people writing in, not from the point of view of a parent wondering the best way of bringing up a child, but seemingly with quite a different aim in mind.

In March 1870 A Rejoicer in the Restoration of the Rod wrote in with a weirdly detailed and salacious description of various whipping incidents:

Description of whipping incidents

More and more people wrote in, ostensibly to contribute to the argument, but it’s difficult to read these letters as anything other than erotica, with various strict governesses and other authority figures whipping adolescent boys and girls. This is especially surprising and subversive since the magazine was aimed at proper Victorian middle-class women, who were instructed throughout the rest of the publication on being ladylike. The anonymity of the writers means that we don’t know anything about these correspondents, but it’s very likely that some of them were men, writing with the merest pretence of being a woman.

The magazine’s publisher, Samuel Beeton, came under some pressure over the series of letters.  Seemingly torn between the people who wrote in to say the whole thing was disgusting and the huge flood of further correspondence continuing the argument, he realised that there was a way of pleasing everyone and making money in the process. From April 1870 onwards, the letters were published in a special supplement, which could be purchased every month for twopence (the normal magazine sold for a shilling an issue).

Cover of Supplement to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine


Who was the target for all this veiled pornography? Were women reading it as a sort of late-nineteenth century Fifty Shades of Grey, or were the people who bought the supplement not the normal middle class female readership of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine? Recently the British Library acquired a bound copy of all the Supplemental Conversazione which came from a major collection of erotica, and, evidently, had been part of a Victorian gentleman’s private library. It includes additional, privately printed material such as a poem entitled ‘The Victory of the Rod’:

Poem The Victory of the Rod

Moreover, some of the letters that were sent to the magazine eventually found their way into the 1881 edition of a pornographic publication called The Birchen Bouquet.

Publication called The Birchen Bouquet

Tanya Kirk
Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 Cc-by

‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: The Agony Aunt Story’ is presented by psychotherapist and agony aunt Philippa Perry, and was broadcast on BBC4 at 9.00pm on Tuesday 10 March.

  Programme details for ‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: The Agony Aunt Story’

10 March 2015

‘To be tightly laced is a most superb sensation’: the Corset Controversy

Some fascinating British Library collection items feature as part of ‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: the Agony Aunt Story’, showing on BBC4 this evening.

  Cover of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine

The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine was published by Samuel Beeton and ran from 1852 till 1879. It was a trailblazer as an early periodical aimed primarily at the middle-class woman. The magazine established the standard format for women’s magazines, including serial fiction, fashion and beauty advice, sewing and household tips, and, significantly, a section for readers’ correspondence.

Fashion plate from The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine


From 1867 the magazine had an expanded letters section, entitled the Conversatione.  It typically included letters asking for advice on various matters – varying from love and relationships to the correct colours to wear with sallow skin.  In March 1867, ‘a lady[…]  from Edinburgh’ wrote in to with a cautionary tale: she had sent her daughter to boarding school, and, visiting her for the first time after being abroad for four years, she was horrified to discover that the daughter had been tight-laced.

  Lady from Edinburgh's letter on tight-lacing

Whilst corsetry in the Victorian period was considered an essential part of female attire, tight-lacing involved very great constriction of the waist established over a period of time, resulting in what some saw as the ideal female form: a waist that could be easily spanned with two hands.

To tight-lace or not to tight-lace quickly became a recurrent theme in the letters section. Discussions cover such topics as “correct” ratio of waist to height, neck and wrist size (if your neck and wrists were disproportionate, presumably you’d failed as a woman); the right age to start wearing a corset (one recurrent correspondent, Fairplay, disapproved of extreme tight-lacing but greatly approved of girls wearing corsets from young childhood); and the preferences of men comes up again and again, with one correspondent stating that tight-lacing women do it to be competitive with each other, rather than for male approval. The question of class also runs through some of the letters – some assert that only lower and middle classes would consider figure-training to such an extent.

In the June 1868 issue, “a Widower” wrote in as follows:

Widower's letter on tight-lacing


This letter seems to have opened the floodgates, because after that, barely an issue goes by without a man pleading to be advised on purchasing a women’s corset for himself (mail order if possible).

Although the magazine was ostensibly aimed as a solely female readership, it’s evident that men wrote in to the Conversatione pages to get advice from women – on topics that they could never have freely discussed in Victorian society, safely behind the anonymity that the letters pages provided. During the tight-lacing debate, the pages of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine became an outlet for hidden desires and free discussion between the sexes.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the second time The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine caused a scandal – this time with corporal punishment.

Tanya Kirk
Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 Cc-by

‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: The Agony Aunt Story’ is presented by psychotherapist and agony aunt Philippa Perry, and will be broadcast on BBC4 at 9.00pm tonight (Tuesday 10 March).

Programme details for ‘Sex, Lies and Love Bites: The Agony Aunt Story’