Untold lives blog

14 posts from November 2015

30 November 2015

The Sheikh’s stamps

Stamps are important symbols of national identity. Kuwait had first issued its own postage stamps in 1923, and by the beginning of 1933, the Ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, had decided that he wished to do likewise.

The Sheikh accordingly communicated his request to the British authorities in the Gulf. The issue would be in the form of standard British Government of India stamps, which were already in use in Bahrain, overprinted (or ‘surcharged’) with the word ‘Bahrain’. A similar format had been used for the Kuwait stamps.

However, there was a problem. Iran (still commonly referred to as Persia) had a long-standing territorial claim to the Bahrain Islands, and the issuing of something as symbolic as a set of postage stamps bearing the name of Bahrain would be likely to provoke protests from the Persian Government.  The British agonised between their desire to meet the wishes of a loyal ally on the one hand, and on the other, their desire not to offend Bahrain’s great neighbour on the opposite side of the Gulf.  Eventually, Britain gave the go-ahead for the issue, the surcharged stamps were produced in India by the Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department, and they went on sale in Bahrain on 10 August 1933.

Government of India two annas stamp, overprinted ‘Bahrain’, circa 1935

Government of India two annas stamp, overprinted ‘Bahrain’, circa 1935. Source: Wikipedia.


When Sheikh Hamad saw the stamps, he was not impressed. For one thing, he was disappointed that the overprinted word ‘Bahrain’ was in English, not Arabic. He had also expected that his own head would appear on the stamps, not that of the British monarch, King George V. However, a few days later, the Sheikh had cheered up, and given his Adviser, the British-born Charles Belgrave, instructions that a commemorative set of the stamps should be sent to the best known philatelist in the world - King George V himself.

Copy of letter sent to the India Office on behalf of King George V, 17 October 1933, expressing the King’s gratitude for the gift of stamps from the Sheikh of Bahrain Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Copy of letter sent to the India Office on behalf of King George V, 17 October 1933, expressing the King’s gratitude for the gift of stamps from the Sheikh of Bahrain. IOR/R/15/2/139, f 167 


The issue of the stamps produced a predictable response from the Persian Government, which ordered its postal service to treat items bearing the surcharged Bahrain stamps as though no postage had been paid on them whatsoever. The Persian Government had earlier that year made a complaint to the International Bureau of the Universal Postal Union at Berne in Switzerland, asserting the Persian claim to Bahrain. The British now followed this up by having a letter published in four philatelic journals, explaining that Bahrain was ‘like Kuwait, an independent Arab State on the Arabian littoral of the Persian Gulf’. Both sides had also made representations to the League of Nations.

Letter from the India Office to the editors of four British philatelic journals, 20 September 1933Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Letter from the India Office to the editors of four British philatelic journals, 20 September 1933. IOR/R/15/2/139, f 149. 


The issue, after being passed from pillar to post, eventually faded away, leaving the Sheikh’s stamps securely affixed for the future.

Martin Woodward
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

Further reading:
IOR/R/15/2/139 File 1/A/1 I Stamps and Postage; Relations with Persia.


28 November 2015

William Blake and London

To celebrate the birth of the visionary poet and artist William Blake #onthisday in 1757, I’ve chosen to write about one of his most beautiful yet bleak poems, London.

    I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
    And mark in every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

    In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infants cry of fear,
    In every voice: in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

    How the Chimney-sweepers cry
    Every black’ning Church appals,
    And the hapless Soldiers sigh
    Runs in blood down Palace walls

    But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlots curse
    Blasts the new-born Infants tear
    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

I always seem to turn to this poem just after the clocks go back and London seems particularly dark, damp, busy and cold.

London was first drafted in 1792 and published in 1794 as part of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience which showed ‘two contrary states of the human soul’.


Title-page to Songs of Experience by William Blake, London, 1794. Plate 29. Relief etching with hand-colouring. British Museum 1856,0209.365. Creative-commons-logo_304x106

The poem forces the reader to follow narrow, dark and unfriendly London streets while contemplating the brutal nature of the city. Streets and rivers alike are ordered by man, blackened churches loom while palace walls run with blood.  Soldiers sigh, harlots curse and babies cry: even the sounds described allude to desperation and woe. Blake’s London is a near-apocalyptic vision of the rotting heart of a nation.

The British Library owns the original manuscript for London which shows Blake developing the imagery within the poem. Here, Dr Linda Freeman explores the manuscript further.


The notebook of William Blake (Rossetti Manuscript) showing the draft of London in the upper left-hand corner. 1792. Add MS 49460. Noc

The published poem was accompanied by one of Blake’s relief-etched illustrations which depicts a blind and aged man led by a small child. This version in the British Museum is hand-coloured and printed in a red-orange ink.

London, plate 46 from Songs of Experience by William Blake, London 1794.  Relief etching with hand-colouring. British Museum 1856,0209.382.Creative-commons-logo_304x106

Blake’s place of burial is marked in Bunhill Fields which despite once being semi-rural, now sits between the financial district near Liverpool Street to the south and the oppressive Old Street roundabout to the north.


William and Catherine Blake’s gravestone in Bunhill Fields, London. Photograph taken by the author.

William Blake's London has inspired so many artists, writers and musicians but probably the most heart-breaking and beautiful example is Sparklehorse’s London of 1995. Sparklehorse was led by the musician Mark Linkous who tragically committed suicide in 2010. The combination of Blake’s words and Sparklehorse and Tuli Kupferberg's haunting melody bring the poem alive.

#WilliamBlake #London #OTD #OnThisDay #Sparklehorse #Linkous

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1601-1850 @AlexandraAult @BL_ModernMSS

27 November 2015

'Even to Live is an Act of Courage'

The factory at Bandar Abbas, run by the East India Company to carry out trade in Persia and the Gulf region, was an unpleasant place to be at the best of times, described to be '…but an inch-deal from hell'.  Many of the men who went there would never leave, dying of a variety of diseases, or from the hostile intent of the locals, their own servants, or even each other.  While any of these methods are sad, both for the small community in the factory and their families, they do not bear the same sense of tragedy as the case of George Batterson.  Batterson was the Sergeant of the guard at the factory, essentially the second in command of the military presence there.

On the morning of 3 February 1746, between about 3 and 4 o’clock, a shot was heard by the watch.  After an alarm was sounded, the shot was found to have come from Batterson’s quarters, where he had shot and killed himself with his own pistol.  In the later entry concerning his death, it is noted that Batterson had sunk into “melancholy” since arriving at Bandar Abbas.


View of the city of Gamron by Johann Wolfgang Heydt c.1735

View of the city of Gamron by Johann Wolfgang Heydt c.1735 reproduced by Atlas of Mutual Heritage

This event highlights the excessive strain that must have accompanied life on the outer edge of the Company’s operations in Asia.  Sadly for Batterson, depression was not a recognisable condition to his colleagues, or to society at large, least of all on the hot, arid coast of the Persian Gulf.  Loneliness, illness and alienation cannot have been uncommon features of life in Bandar Abbas, or any of the Company’s other far-flung outposts, throwing a very human aspect into the discourse of the Company’s trade in Asia.  Trading came at a cost, not only in treasure, but in human lives.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library

Further reading:
IOR/G/29/6 ff.321


24 November 2015

Further Adventures of the Intrepid East India Company Women

The three intrepid women, Mariam Begum, Frances (Webbe) Steele, and Mrs Hudson who managed to travel on board East India Company ships in the early seventeenth century, flouting Company prohibition, continued to cause trouble even after the much harried English ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, no longer had to directly deal with them. Unfortunately for Roe, the journey back to England was not as tranquil as he might have hoped, for Frances and Mrs Hudson were travelling with him.


Portrait of an Indian womanPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Add.Or.3129, f.25v Images Online 

At the time of boarding the Anne in 1619, Frances caused a stir by complaining about the fate of her goods and the ordeals of travelling with “an infant only 18 days old”. This, of course, was Frances’ second child, her first being born shortly after her arrival in India in 1617. The mention of her “goods,” however, is interesting for this suggests that she might have been involved in private trading. This might not come as a surprise, since Mrs Hudson certainly was heavily engaged in private trading much to the Company’s ire. What is important to note, however, is that this makes Frances and Mrs Hudson amongst the first English women to not only travel to sub-continental India but also to participate in private trading whilst there.

The Company usually frowned on excessive private trading which it perceived as a threat to its own profit margins. Despite this, English factors engaged in the practice, which was often a chief lure for the men willing to venture out to the far flung tropics. Without fail the Company hauled up the truant men hoping to make a fortune at its expense, and our intrepid women were no exception. Mrs Hudson in particular got into trouble over importing indigo (which needless to say was transported on a Company ship since private vessels were not permitted to operate owing to the Company’s early monopoly). It was only through the intervention of her friends that Mrs Hudson managed to pacify the Company. This episode is rather remarkable, for yet again it helps implode certain gendered misconceptions surrounding the early years of the Company’s operations in the East Indies: as and when they were able, English women, much like their male counterparts, sought to take advantage of the new global circuits of trade that had opened up during the seventeenth century.

  East India Company arms on a ceiling boss
Arms of the East India Company - painted plaster-cast of the original ceiling boss in St Matthias Church, Poplar. Foster 859 Images Online  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mariam did not accompany her second husband, Gabriel Towerson, back to England. For all intents and purposes Towerson appears to have abandoned her. Roe, of course, notes that Towerson only married her because he mistakenly believed her to be wealthy. He left her with only 200 rupees which she soon ran out of, and was left pleading to the Company for more. The same Company that had at the time of her marriage to Towerson in London given her “a purse of 200 jacobus, as a token of their love”, now refused to listen to any of her petitions. To make matters worse, after Towerson’s death in Amboyna, the Company decided to release his outstanding dues to his brother, thus completing cutting out his native wife.  

Amrita Sen
Associate Professor, Department of English, Oklahoma City University

Further reading:
IOR/B/5 Court Book III

Part one of this story - Early women travellers and the East India Company


20 November 2015

The’ unprecedented’ case of John Calcott Gaskin

In 1905 a proposal was put forward to appoint a consular assistant to the Consul-General at Bagdad, with the Government of India recommending John Calcott Gaskin for the position. Gaskin had most recently served in the newly created position of Assistant Political Agent at Bahrain and had impressed both the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf and the Foreign Department of the Government of India with his diligence in the role. However Gaskin could not be appointed Consular Assistant as he was not a member of the Diplomatic Service.  After much toing and froing he was named Assistant to the Resident, later amended to Commercial Assistant.

When war broke out in 1914, Gaskin was instructed by the Consul-General (on leave in Europe) to sink all of the Residency’s ammunition in the nearest river to prevent it falling into enemy hands. This action prompted his arrest by Turkish officials  and on 22 November 1914 he was sentenced to three months in jail. On 12 December 1914, however, he was released from prison and instructed to retrieve his belongs and depart Bagdad for Constantinople with other consular officials to be repatriated.

On arriving in Aleppo in March 1915, en route to Constantinople, Mr Gaskin was detained by police for having failed to serve the full three months of his sentence and was again imprisoned. The other consular officials on leaving Aleppo placed his case in the hands of the US Consulate, which promised to try to assist him.

  View of Aleppo

'Prospect of Aleppo' from Henry Maundrell, A Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem at Easter. A.D. 1697 (London, 1810) BL flickr

On finally being released from prison Gaskin found himself trapped in Aleppo without the means to obtain food, clothing, or residence, as foreigners were no longer permitted to leave the city.  He  approached the US Consulate for assistance. The US Consulate asked the Foreign Office and India Office if Mr Gaskin could be paid his salary through them in order to survive in Aleppo.

This presented an unprecedented situation for both the Foreign Office and India Office. The Foreign Office’s rules stated that consular officials removed from their positions owing to war would receive full pay for six months, provided suitable work was found for them by His Majesty’s Government.  As Mr Gaskin had been interned, and therefore was not in a position to be provided with suitable employment, it seemed unfair to deprive him of a means of livelihood.  Military officers who had been interned received full pay for 61 days and leave pay thereafter.

The case was ultimately brought before the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Edward Grey, who concluded that as Mr Gaskin was unable to leave Aleppo, and as this situation was likely to continue for the foreseeable future, he should continue to receive full pay until he was released from internment and then suitable employment should be found for him.

John Calcott Gaskin was eventually released from internment following the end of the war in 1918, and reached England in November 1918 where he was placed on furlough to allow him time to recover from his ordeal, before being sent to his new posting in Mesopotamia.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/PS/10/117 - File 636/1907 'Turkish Arabia: Bagdad Consulate. Mr Gaskin (Commercial Asst). Detention by Turkish authorities (1914-1918). Settlement of accounts'.
Foreign Office Records at The National Archives: FO 383/102 Turkey: Prisoners; FO 383/341 Turkey: Prisoners.


19 November 2015

A cartographic life unknown and untold



This map really presents the case for an unknown, and certainly untold, life; its maker, or rather cartographer, remains anonymous and no other institutional examples of the map have been traced to date.

Titled “DISSEGNO E FORTIFICATIONE DI PIADENA E DI CANETO” the map forms part of the King’s Topographical Collection. The collection, formerly belonging to George III, was donated to the British Museum by George IV and is now held by the British Library. It comprises some 40,000 maps, prints and drawings of all areas of the world. The collection is currently being digitised and re-catalogued, improving records that often date from 1829 and show only brief titles concerned solely with the geographical location depicted and not with those involved in an item’s creation, its physical attributes or its context.

The map shows Piadena and Canneto sull’Oglio in Italy.

Maps_k_top_78_10_1 KEY

With a title and key in Italian, as well as the Italian subject matter, then Italy is a likely place of publication. Reference to the Duke of Nevers in the key, as well as to the quarters of Spanish and other troops, suggests a date of publication for the map during or shortly after the War of the Mantuan Succession (1628-1631). Charles Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers and Duke of Mantua, as he would become, was successful in his claim to the Duchy of Mantua.

The map’s existence within the K.Top in a printed and published state, and not just as a manuscript, suggests that public interest in the War had warranted the map’s publication. However, that interest may have been relatively short-lived; if this K.Top example is the single exemplar then the numbers published are likely to have been relatively small. Thus, the map’s survival illustrates the importance of K.Top as a repository for such ephemeral, but extremely scarce, material .

Maps_k_top_78_10_1 KK

The engraving shows traces of a pair of initials at lower left, perhaps “K. K.”.  If these initials do indeed suggest the identity of a person involved in the map’s creation, then that creator remains enigmatic.

Kate Marshall, Map Cataloguer Kings Topographical Collection.

16 November 2015

Flying over the liners: Passenger aviation across the Gulf during the 1930s

Every Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday, Sharjah aerodrome became a hive of activity a few hours before the incoming Karachi bound Handley Page 42 aircraft was due to land. The Aerodrome was a stop on the Imperial Airways route between Britain and Australia, the first air route of its kind which was established in December 1934.

The aerodrome ‘station’ supervisor would have had a very peripatetic role because he was responsible for ensuring that all ran smoothly, from organising the employees to the setting up of the fuel tanks through to the management of the passenger hotel. The Marquess of Londonderry commented that the installation was ‘a triumph over many difficulties’ while acknowledging that ‘there are no luxuries’. It is interesting to note the parallels which existed between airline and rail travel, starkly reflected in the interior detailing of the early planes, right down to overhead baggage racks.

The bar at Sharjah Aerodrome

The bar at Sharjah Aerodrome courtesy of J.S.Adams (from Clive Adams Photo Archive)

The passengers rose from their Pullman seats and exited the plane where the desert air mixed with the sounds of the engines ticking to a stop. Guards waited outside the plane to escort them to the fort/ hotel attached to the aerodrome. Those guards were provided by the Sheikh as part of the rental agreement with Imperial Airways who rented the airstrip and fort for 1100 Rs every month to protect it from desert marauders.  Once inside, they were handed a slip of card emblazoned with the Imperial Airways logo with their room number and the time of departure, which would have been early morning at sunrise.

The courtyard of the fort was a veritable oasis in the desert, where the airline passenger would have been presented with the chance to play the same games found on the deck of those ships plying the route between Britain and Australia. Whilst the passengers waited for their luggage to be transported to their lodgings, their airliner was rolled into ‘a barbed wire enclosure into which aircraft can be brought in for protection’. After the night sky extinguished the sound of deck games in the courtyard, the ‘homely smells of Brown Windsor soup and roast mutton’ would have washed through the canteen and passengers were treated to ‘giant bowls of oysters, good wines and sickly sweet pastries’.

It was prudent to have an early night owing to the early morning departure and possibly all eighteen passengers would have taken it in turns to use the Sharjah Bath, which was the only one available between India and Iraq where ‘the Sharjah bath became an institution almost as celebrated as the Raffles Long Bar’. The aerodrome also boasted its own bar for the use of those passengers overnighting there.
In 2015 the original fort which once welcomed intrepid through travellers by air is now welcoming tourists who travel to glittering Sharjah as a destination in its own right. The original fort is the only surviving element from the 1947 map featured below.

Sharjah aerodrome - 1947 map next to modern aerial photograph Public Domain Creative Commons Licence



Ellis Meade
Imaging and Quality Assurance Technician
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

Further reading/films:
Alexander Frater, Beyond the Blue Horizon (Penguin, 1986 )
Gordon Pirie, Air Empire ( Manchester University Press, 2009)
Military Report and Route Book, The Arabian States of the Persian Gulf (1939)
Paul Rotha, Air Outpost (Strand Film Company, 1937)
Nicholas Stanley-Price, Imperial Outpost in the Gulf. The airfield at Sharjah (UAE), 1932-1952 (Book Guild, Brighton, 2012)


13 November 2015

The moustache which fell off

In November we look for a story to post in honour of the gallant chaps growing facial hair for Movember.  Two years ago we shared The Lay of the Red Moustache, 'a doleful ditty founded on facts'. Last year it was the tragedy of The Moustache Murder. This year we bring you the true story of the moustache which fell off.

Four different styles of moustache

Dundee Courier 13 December 1932 British Newspaper Archive

In December 1935 Professor Ashwini Kumar Gupta of Ripon College Calcutta was sentenced to six months' 'rigorous' imprisonment.  He had been convicted of cheating by impersonation and of forging answer papers to an examination. 

Gupta took the place of one of his pupils, Samaresh Chandra Mookerjee. at a BA economics examination.  The Professor entered the examination hall disguised by wearing dark glasses and a false moustache.  Invigilators noticed his strange appearance and became even more suspicious when Gupta didn't sit in the seat assigned to Mookerjee.

It was an electric fan whirring above Gupta's head which proved his final undoing. The officials watched in astonished fascination as the breeze from the fan caused the moustache to detach itself slowly from the Professor's upper lip.  Gupta fled from the hall, leaving his answer papers behind.  A hue and cry was raised and Gupta was captured, devoid of any moustache.

Mookerjee was charged with aiding and abetting Gupta but was acquitted. Gupta's appeal against his sentence as being overly severe was rejected by the Calcutta High Court in April 1936. The judges described Gupta as a 'brilliant' scholar holding a position of responsibility. and said his defence was 'entirely false and unworthy of his status in society'.

So struggle on Movember moustache growers - you need never know the shame of false whiskers falling off in a breeze.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive - Hartlepool Mail 4 December 1935
The Times of India 5 December 1935 and 25 April 1936