Untold lives blog

9 posts from January 2022

31 January 2022

Ira Aldridge in Ottoman Turkey

The Ottoman Empire was the second country to abolish slavery in 1847, but the transition period between pre- and post-abolition created multiple and often conflicting ideas regarding the relationship between society and former slaves.  Slaves of almost all ethnic groups were obtained through the multiple routes of the Black Sea or Mediterranean slave trade or seized as trophies from territories outside its realms.  Yet, apart from the origins of the slaves, slavery in the Ottoman Empire bore many differences from its western counterparts.

Slavery there was not a permanent state, because slaves could buy themselves out of slavery, or masters could relieve them of their thraldom as part of Islamic worship.  Far from the western colour-based discrimination, racial differentiation within slavery was a social issue, and as such, in line with Islam’s doctrines about slavery, former slaves could reintegrate into society by taking up high socio-economic posts or even becoming heirs of their former masters as sons-in-law.

But, after 1847 there were many problems regarding the implementation of prohibiting the slave trade as the legal trade went underground.  Besides, most former black slaves continued to work in the service industry which generally sustained social hierarchies.

Ira Aldridge as 'Aaron the Moor'Ira Aldridge as ‘Aaron the Moor’ in Titus Andronicus British Library (2300.h.5.) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Amid this transition period in the rights of black people in Ottoman Turkey, the performance of Shakespeare’s plays by Ira Aldridge, especially that of Othello, was significant on several levels.  Despite the anti-Turkish plot, and contrary to the extremes of mixed reactions about Aldridge’s colour in the UK or the US, his performance in Ottoman Turkey was appreciated.

When Aldridge arrived in İstanbul in 1866, the Naum Theatre and the French Theatre, two of the most renowned theatre companies, competed and asked both the Ottoman court and the English embassy to help to persuade Aldridge to perform in their own theatres, a competition which the French Theatre won.  First performed on 22 March and again on 10 April 1866, Aldridge’s performance of Othello at the French Theatre was not only the first one in English in İstanbul, but also the first bilingual one; Aldridge performed his lines in English, whereas the rest of the cast did so in French.

To capitalise on Aldridge’s performance and to wreak theatrical revenge, the rival Naum Theatre commissioned Laroa’s play Otez l’O, which parodied Othello through a female-cast performance.  Although little is known about this parody, Otez l’O was not racially motivated, but rather out of theatrical rivalry and much in the vein of Aristophanean satire.  Aldridge’s commercially and artistically successful performance, the parody, and the subsequent furore in the Ottoman press contributed immensely to Othello’s prominence in either its full or in its abridged versions, popular both in the Ottoman court and among the Ottoman people afterwards.

Murat Öğütcü
Independent scholar, currently working at Cappadocia University, Turkey, as a part-time Associate Professor

Further reading:
And, Metin. “Geçmişten Yapraklar.” Oyun 23 (1965): 30.
Enginün, İnci. Türkçede Shakespeare. İstanbul: Dergah, 2008.
Forrester, Anna Carleton. “Western Theatrical Influence and Early Shakespeare Performance in the Ottoman Empire (1810–1908).” Shakespeare 16.3 (2020): 272-287.

This blog post is the first in a collaborative series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs).  On the last Monday of every month, both Untold Lives and MEMOs' own blog will feature a post written by a member of the MEMOs team, showcasing their research in the British Library collections.

27 January 2022

The 1914 United Missionary Exhibition 'Other Lands in Leicester': a global and colonial aspiration

In April 1914 the newly built De Montfort Hall in Leicester hosted a United Missionary Exhibition.  ‘Other Lands in Leicester’ was described as ‘A picturesque and vivid representation of work in many lands’.  The exhibition was deliberately fixed during Easter week, between 6 and 16 April, as this is the most important celebration for the Christian religion, and this period must have been thought of as ideal for attracting visitors from all over the country and engaging more volunteers.  The aim was to educate and inspire the public about missionary work abroad.

Advert for ‘Other Lands in Leicester’ at the De Montfort Hall in April 1914Leicester Daily Post, Thursday 19 March 1914, The British Newspaper Archive.

Missionary exhibitions aimed to bring different fields of activity together in one city.   Visitors could tour the colonised world without travelling, through the convenience of a settled exhibition organized by comfortable explanatory pavilions.  In the ethnographic and anthropological museums emerging at the beginning of the 20th century, it was common practice to collect and reframe objects based on colonial contemporary categories.  Material culture circulated in international exhibitions, which emerged around the 1840s and lasted until the 1960s, albeit with substantial changes due to mutations in ideology, politics, and taste after the Second World War.  Both museums and these events played a crucial role in shaping knowledge around the relationship between Britain and Empire through the use of material culture, and therefore the history of collections and taste is closely linked with the objects arrived in Europe through colonial missions abroad.

The concept of a standalone exhibition of missionary objects began with the first independent missionary exhibition organised by the London Missionary Society in 1908 with the name ‘The Orient in London’.  This – and ‘Africa and the East’ the following year, still in London - set the pattern for other exhibitions in Europe and the United States.  These were events to display and sell objects produced before and after the arrival of missionaries.

But what was the idea behind such huge object-based lessons?

While the broader public participated in missionary exhibitions for elements of spectacle, amusement, and exoticism, the Church wanted to show the success of missionary work in converting local population to Christianity, and therefore justify the cost of the Empire and raise funds for further missions.

In ‘Other Lands in Leicester’, three different ecclesiastical institutions – the Baptist Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society - gathered together to show their union and will in achieving the goal of the evangelization of the Empire.  This ‘union’, which saw no major divisions between different branches of the Christian Church, might be considered as the will to foster an imperial civilising mission toward ‘the heathens’.   An article inThe Leicester Mail  clarifies that the exhibition’s scope was ‘Not merely the show, but the coming into contact with the nations that would be represented’.

Plan of the Hall at the United Missionary Exhibition in Leicester 1914Plan of the Hall at the United Missionary Exhibition. It is possible to see evocative sections dedicated to the display of a Chinese Tea Garden, a Congo Village, or a Malagasy Market. The Exhibition Herald, 3, February 1914,  The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, box 4D56/91.

But who decided the narrative in the representation of those nations?  How could missionary exhibitions be neutral if they were imperial institutions that conveyed a religious, artistic and political message?

Around 1200 stewards were hired at Leicester with the purpose of explaining the exhibits to the public.  This suggests that objects were used as a means to educate visitors in Leicester about their global place, and to illustrate the national progress and religious success of Christianity through missions.

Maria Chiara Scuderi
AHRC PhD researcher – University of Leicester

Further reading:
Leicester Daily Post, Thursday 19 March 1914, The British Newspaper Archive.
The Leicester Mail, Thursday 4 March 1913, The British Newspaper Archive.
The Exhibition Herald, 1, October 1913, The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, box 4D56/91.
The Exhibition Herald, 3, February 1914, The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, box 4D56/91.
Corbey, R., Weener, F., K., 2015, ‘Collecting while converting: missionaries and ethnographics’, Journal of Art Historiography, 12, pp. 1-14.
Filipová, M., 2016, Cultures of International Exhibitions 1840-1940. Great Exhibitions in the Margins, London: Routledge.
Groten, M., 2018. ‘Difference Between the Self and the Heathen. European Imperial Culture in Dutch Missionary Exhibitions, 1909–1957’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 47,3, pp. 490-513.
Hasinoff, E. L., 2011, Faith in Objects. American Missionary Exposition in the Early 20th century, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jacobs, K., Knowles, C., Wingfield, C., 2015, Trophies, Relics and Curious? Missionary Heritage from Africa and the Pacific, London: Sidestone.
Longair, S., McAleer, J., 2012, Curating Empire, Museums and the British imperial experience, Manchester: Manchester United Press.
McAleer, J., Mackenzie, J., M., 2015, Exhibiting Empire. Cultures of display and the British Empire, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

 

25 January 2022

A Vignette of Inter-War Anglo-American Relations in the Middle East

In January 1931 the American Consul in Baghdad received a rap on the knuckles from the Political Agent and British Consul in Muscat, Major Trenchard C W Fowle.

Photograph of Sir Trenchard Craven William Fowle in military uniform with medals.Sir Trenchard Craven William Fowle, by Walter Stoneman, 1937  NPG x167632. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

This mild castigation of the American Consul, Alexander Kilgore Sloan, arose from a request by Dr Sarah Hosmon of the American Mission at Muscat to visit the inland village of Rustaq.  Hosmon wished to ‘take care and prescribe for sick people there’, following an invitation from the Governor of that town.

Sloan was under the impression that Fowle had refused Hosmon’s request and wrote a letter of support on her behalf.

Extract of a letter from Sloan to Fowle, 16 December 1930, supporting Sarah Hosmon’s missionary trip to Rustaq.Extract of a letter from Sloan to Fowle, 16 December 1930, supporting Sarah Hosmon’s missionary trip to Rustaq. Qatar Digital Library  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Sloan concluded that if conditions there had not worsened radically since March ‘I can see no reason to forbid her journey to that town and consequently request that you assist Miss Hosmon in making her contemplated trip’.

Further extract of a letter from Sloan to Fowle, 16 December 1930Further extract of a letter from Sloan to Fowle, 16 December 1930 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Map of Oman and the Persian Gulf

Map of Oman showing Rastaq (inland, south-west of Muscat) - Qatar Digital Library  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Three weeks later Fowle replied in a distinctly patronising tone: ‘In the first place I am not “The British Political Adviser, Muscat”, as addressed by you’.

Extract from letter from Major Fowle to Sloan, 8 January 1931, ‘clarifying’ the position Extract from letter from Major Fowle to Sloan, 8 January 1931, ‘clarifying’ the position - Qatar Digital LibraryPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Fowle refused to incur any responsibility for Hosmon’s journey: ‘When in charge of foreign interests a Consular officer has to be even more careful with regard to such interests than those of his own nationals … if some unfortunate incident befell Miss Hosmon, and if she had taken her journey with my permission, then not unnaturally I should be held responsible for her having proceeded with my approval’.

He noted that the Council of Ministers of Muscat advised against the journey to Rustaq, adding that he had made arrangements for an alternative trip by Hosmon to some coastal villages, which she had not yet made.

Further extract from letter from Major Fowle to Sloan  8 January 1931Further extract from  letter from Major Fowle to Sloan, 8 January 1931 - Qatar Digital Library Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Perhaps to hammer home his overseeing role, Fowle signs his letter ‘Political Agent & HBM’s Consul, Muscat. (In charge American Interests in Muscat)’.

End of letter from Major Fowle to Sloan  8 January 1931End of letter from Major Fowle to Sloan, 8 January 1931  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


In March 1931, on his return from visiting various Gulf ports, Sloan replied to ‘His Britannic Majesty’s Consul, Muscat, Arabia’, thanking him for his ‘courtesy’ in writing to him.

Letter from Sloan to Fowle  10 March 1931 abrogating responsibility for permitting Hosmon’s tripExtract from letter from Sloan to Fowle, 10 March 1931 abrogating responsibility for permitting Hosmon’s trip - Qatar Digital Library  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Sloan enclosed a copy of a letter he claimed to have written to Hosmon on 16 December 1930, the same date as his letter to Fowle.  He told Hosmon he had little knowledge of conditions in the Sultanate of Oman, but was aware that travel into the interior could be dangerous.  He cited the case of Mr Bilkert, a member of the American Mission killed in Kuwait territory in 1929, and noted his sympathy with Major Fowle’s ‘reluctance in the matter’ since it has ‘often happened in the past that the killing of an American citizen or of a British subject bound on an errand of mercy has probably caused more distress than that person could have alleviated’.

Extract of a letter from Sloan to Sarah Hosmon  dated 16 December 1930Extract of a letter from Sloan to Sarah Hosmon, dated 16 December 1930 - Qatar Digital Library  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence
 

Sloan’s words appear, in part, to contradict what he wrote to Fowle on 16 December.  By enclosing the copy of his letter to Hosmon he appears to exonerate himself for originally endorsing Hosmon’s trip and for offending Fowle, and he diplomatically dumps responsibility back onto the British!

Interestingly the Persian Gulf Administration Report for Muscat 1931 states that Hosmon, with sanction of the Council, visited Sohar, Saham and Al-Khaburah, whilst Dr Storm, another member of the American Mission, ventured into Rustaq.

Extract of the Administration Report of the Political Agency  Muscat  for 1931Extract of the Administration Report of the Political Agency, Muscat, for 1931 - Qatar Digital Library  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Was there a hint of anti-American irritation in Fowle’s letter? Growing American influence in the Middle East during this period regularly irked the British colonial authorities who regarded the region as their domain.  Or perhaps risk-taking American missionaries had simply put him in a foul mood…?

Amanda Engineer
Content Specialist, Archivist
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
IOR/R/15/6/145: ‘File 6/1 Foreign Interests: American Mission at Muscat’, India Office Records and Private Papers, British Library, London.
IOR/L/PS/12/3719/1: ‘Persian Gulf: Administration Reports 1926-1938’, India Office Records and Private Papers, British Library, London.
IOR/L/PS/10/1177: ‘PERSIAN GULF NEWS SUMMARY 1926-1930’, India Office Records and Private Papers, British Library, London.
IOR/X/3210: ‘A Revised map of Oman and the Persian Gulf, in which an attempt has been made to give a correct transliteration of the Arabic names. By the Rev. George Percy Badger, FRGS’, 1871, Map Collections, British Library, London.

20 January 2022

The man who lost his memory – Part 2

We continue our story of the Reverend Philip Read, looking at his work and travels across the globe.

Philip Read (or Philip Chesshyre Read) was born in 1850 in Hyde, Cheshire, the son of Anglican clergyman Alexander and his wife Anne Whiteway.  He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and won a scholarship to Lincoln College Oxford.  He served as a sub-lieutenant in the Oxford Rifle Volunteers.  After graduating, he taught at Marlborough before being ordained as a priest in 1874.  He was headmaster of the school at Newton in Lancashire in 1876.  The following year Read took up an appointment at Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, Quebec, where he became Professor of Classics and Moral Philosophy.  He travelled a good deal, visiting many countries including the West Indies and Spain.

In 1879 he married Helen Rosina McCallum, the daughter of a Quebec barrister.  Their sons Alexander Cuthbert and Philip Austin Ottley were born in Canada before the family moved to England.  Daughter Helen Chesshyre Hazlehurst (known as Hazel) was born in Newcastle in 1889.

Painting of Royal Mail Ship Ormuz at sea - black smoke coming out of the funnelsPainting of RMS Ormuz c. 1895 © Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

At the time of the April 1891 census the Reads were living in Jesmond, but in the autumn of that year they sailed on RMS Ormuz to Ceylon.  Read was installed as Warden of St Thomas’ College Colombo.  There are reports of the family’s activities in the Ceylon Observer, including Philip Read’s stay in the hill town of Nuwara Eliya to recover his health when struck by illness in January 1893.

The College history describes Read as ‘a brilliant scholar and a great preacher’, kind-hearted with a keen sense of humour, a talented organist and pianist.  However he was said to have been unsuited to the post of Warden, as well as being burdened by ‘private sorrows’, and he left the College in 1895.

After Read’s breakdown and memory loss described in our previous post, he returned to South Asia to perform missionary work in Rangoon.  However his health failed again and he went back to England in 1899.  He then served as curate in Walmsley Lancashire, taking special charge of St Andrew’s Mission Church at Toppings.

In 1901 he was boarding with the family of a lithographic printer in Turton, apart from his family.  Son Philip was a pupil at Haileybury College.  Hazel was living with her uncle Thomas Wood Shaw in Bolton.  Alexander, a clerk, had left Liverpool for New York in July 1900 on board SS Lucania.  The passenger list states that he was joining his mother Helen in New Jersey.  Helen appears to have moved between the United States and Canada before setting in Los Angeles.  She died there in 1942.

Obituary for Philip Read

Leigh Chronicle and Weekly District Advertiser 30 January 1903 British Newspaper Archive Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Philip Read died in January 1903 following an accident on Christmas Day when he slipped into a ditch and broke his leg.  His death was widely mourned, not only by his congregation in Lancashire who had warmed to his ‘kind tact and sympathy’, but also in Ceylon where he was remembered as the ‘most eloquent, most cultivated and most genial of Wardens’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
India Office files about Philip Read's memory loss: IOR/L/PJ/6/417 Files 511 and 570; IOR/L/PJ/6/418 File 615; IOR/L/PJ/6/420 File 845.
Ceylon Observer e.g. 6 November 1891; 5 January 1893; 21 February 1900.
W T Keble, A history of St. Thomas’ College Colombo (Colombo, 1937).
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Manchester Evening News 23 January 1903; Leigh Chronicle and Weekly District Advertiser 30 January 1903.
Ancestry and Findmypast for census and migration records from UK, Canada and USA.

 

18 January 2022

The man who lost his memory – Part 1

In February 1896 a man calling himself William Simpson was sent from Bhusawal to the Bombay Commissioner of Police.  ‘Simpson’ was suffering from loss of memory and could only remember a few facts about himself.  He had travelled a great deal in England, France, Belgium, Spain and the USA.  He was acquainted with classical Greek and Latin writers, spoke some French, German, Italian and Spanish, and could also read a little Hindustani.  As a youth he had studied Arabic and Sanskrit.  He had lived in Gibraltar for some time and knew a clergyman called Addison.  He remembered finding himself in Calcutta at the beginning of the year and thought he had landed from a steamer. 

‘Simpson’ was dressed in soiled white clothing.  His shirt bore the mark of A .G. Copeland of Manchester, and his almost new hat was made by Ellwood.  He wore a gold ring with the initials ‘C S H & S’ inside.

A place was found for ‘Simpson’ in the Strangers’ Home at Bombay where he would receive good care.  The Commissioner asked the Bombay Government to send copies of the information about the man to the police in Manchester and London, together with his ‘Anthrocard’ which bore his photograph and a physical description.

Anthrocard for 'William Simpson', with photograph, thumb print, and physical description.

Reverse of Anthrocard with a diagram of a man showing scar on bridge of nose. 'Anthrocard' for 'William Simpson' completed by the police in Bombay February 1896 IOR/L/PJ/6/417 File 511 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The India Office in London contacted detectives at New Scotland Yard and Manchester to no avail.  No-one at A.G. Copeland remembered ‘Simpson’ as a customer.  However the firm said it would be able to name the person who bought the shirt if they were sent the number stamped on it.

It is unclear from the India Office files if the shirt number proved to be the vital clue, but in April 1896 the Bombay Government knew the identity of ‘William Simpson’.  He was an Anglican priest, the Reverend Philip Read, formerly Warden of St Thomas’ College Colombo.

Read  PhilipPhotograph of Warden Philip Read from W. T. Keble, A history of St. Thomas’ College Colombo Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Ceylon Observer published updates about Philip Read, who was much-liked during his time in Colombo.  He kept himself busy at the Strangers’ Home by teaching the son of the superintendent, and the Bishop of Bombay spent a lot of time with him. His memory was only partially restored and he was not quite himself, although well otherwise.  It was said that a ‘malady’ had been undermining Read’s powers for years before culminating in a complete breakdown at the end of 1895.  His illness had seriously affected his concentration and ability to carry out his duties as College Warden.

The Bishop of Bombay secured a passage to the UK for Read on board SS Hispania.  During the voyage Read suffered from dysentery twice.  On arrival in England, he was attacked with ‘rheumatic gout’ which weakened him.  His family were already in England but he did not join them, instead going to stay with a cousin in the west of Ireland.

Our next post will tell the story of Philip Read’s life and travels before and after his memory loss.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
India Office files about ‘William Simpson’: IOR/L/PJ/6/417 Files 511 and 570; IOR/L/PJ/6/418 File 615; IOR/L/PJ/6/420 File 845.
W. T. Keble, A history of St. Thomas’ College Colombo (Colombo, 1937).
Ceylon Observer 29 April 1896; 21 May 1896; 10 September 1896.

 

13 January 2022

Madras Military Male Orphan Asylum

The Madras Military Male Orphan Asylum opened in 1789 under the superintendence of Dr Andrew Bell.  It was housed in a converted army building called Egmore Redoubt which stood in an open and healthy situation.  The Asylum was funded jointly by the government and by charitable subscriptions.  Military, civil and church officials served as directors.  A Select Committee of six directors met at the Asylum once a month to deal with admissions and routine business, and to oversee the boys’ education.

Egmore Redoubt in the early 20th century - a white plain rectangular building with lower side wingsEgmore Redoubt in the early 20th century from Glyn Barlow, The story of Madras (1921) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

According to the regulations established in June 1796, this was the ranking of eligibility for help from the charity:
1st Children of officers who were boarders, if the death of their parents, guardians or friends deprived them of support.
2nd Orphan children of officers if left destitute.
3rd Orphan children of non-commissioned officers and private soldiers, as it was ‘a main object of this Charity’ to make provision for them.
4th Sons of living non-commissioned officers and private soldiers whose fathers were unable to educate them.

No boy was eligible unless his father was European.  Legitimate children had precedence over illegitimate children.  Boys could only be admitted when recommended by the commanding officer of his father’s corps or by another official deemed competent by the Select Committee.  Any lame or deformed boy, or any ‘whose faculties may be deemed unequal to the elements of letters’ was admitted or rejected by the Select Committee who considered the probability of the boy becoming a permanent burden on the charity, or of his being able to earn his own subsistence at the age of fourteen or earlier.

No boy under four or over fourteen years of age was admitted, and no boy was kept on after the age of sixteen, unless he was employed as a teacher or assistant.  At the age of fourteen or before, the Asylum aimed to bind boys as apprentices to artificers, clerks, or sailors, ’or otherwise dispose of them, as may be thought likely to render them most useful and beneficial to themselves and the community’.

The sons of Europeans of all professions were taken as paid boarders, but they received the same diet, dress and treatment as the boys ‘on the foundation’.

The boys’ diet consisted of:
Breakfast: milk and rice, or coffee and rice.
Dinner: on Sundays and holidays, roast mutton and vegetables with bread; mutton curry three days a week; rice with dhal one day; vegetable curry two days.
Supper: milk and rice, or pepper, water and rice.
The surgeon could recommend changes ‘conducive to general health’.

Boys wore a shirt and long drawers, adding a sleeved waistcoat and leather cap for Sundays, holidays and going out.

This was the daily routine:
Rise at daybreak.
Get washed and combed, read prayers.  Breakfast at 7.00.
School 8.00-12.00 – instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, book-keeping, geometry, and navigation.
Learn tasks until 13.00.  Dinner.
School 14.00-17.00.  Walk accompanied by one of the masters.
Supper at 18.00.
Religious duties at 19.00.
Bed at 20.00.

Parents and others connected to the boys could apply to visit them in school between the hours of 10.00 and 12.00.  No-one was admitted on Saturday evenings or Sundays ‘to prevent crowds and irregularities’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Andrew Bell, The Report of the Military Male Orphan Asylum at Madras (London, 1812)

 

11 January 2022

The Spy Who Came in from the Circus: Haji Ali Germani

In 1915, a man was arrested near the Iranian port of Bandar Lengeh by levies in the pay of the British Consulate, accused of inciting the local population against British interests.  He was ‘fair, though now very sunburned’, with ‘fair hair and grey eyes’, spoke German, English, Farsi, and Arabic, and went by the name of Haji Ali Germani.

The arrest took place against a tumultuous backdrop.  To weaken Britain in Europe during the First World War, Germany and its allies were striking at the British imperial system in Asia.  German, Austrian, and Ottoman agents, along with Indian revolutionaries, were spreading across Iran, approaching Afghanistan and causing panic among the British occupying India.  The arrested Haji Ali was believed to be working with German agents, most prominently the feared Wilhelm Wassmuss, ‘the German Lawrence’, to weaken British influence over southern Iran, and thus the Persian Gulf and route to India.

Haji Ali told his captors that his mother was a German circus performer and his father a ‘Moor’ (North African).  He himself had started out as an acrobat, before joining the firm of Robert Wönckhaus, a former Zanzibar slave trader who had moved into business in the Gulf.

Letter about Haji Ali from the Vice-Consul in Bandar Lengeh to the Commanding Officer in Bushire 25 September 1915Letter from the Vice-Consul in Bandar Lengeh to the Commanding Officer in Bushire [Bushehr], 25 September 1915. IOR/L/PS/10/490 f 138r Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Haji Ali was already known, and distrusted, by British authorities.  He had been involved in Wönckhaus’s concession to mine red oxide on Abu Musa island, which hawkish British officers perceived as a threatening German intrusion into the jealously-guarded Gulf and quickly had shut down.

After his arrest Haji Ali was deported to India.  On reaching Bombay [Mumbai] in October 1915, he was sent into internment in Jutogh in the Himalayan foothills.  He was escorted on the long journey north by one Sub-Inspector Schiff, an Arabic speaker in Bombay’s colonial police, who coaxed information from him about Indian revolutionaries with the Germans in Iran.  After ‘a large glass of brandy (neat) and several glasses of beer at Delhi station’, Haji Ali revealed that German agents were planning to ship arms to Indian revolutionaries from Shanghai, taking advantage of relaxed checks on ships coming to India from the east.  After sobering up, he was ‘very much exercised at having said so much and bound Sub-Inspector Schiff to secrecy by all the oaths in the Arabic vocabulary’.

Letter from the Bombay Commissioner of Police to the Secretary of the Government of Bombay 14 October 1915Letter from the Bombay Commissioner of Police to the Secretary of the Government of Bombay, 14 October 1915. IOR/L/PS/10/490, f 39vPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Schiff judged that Haji Ali was not a ‘true [German] patriot’, and could be led to make further ‘revelations of interest’.  Thus, no sooner did Haji Ali reach Jutogh than he was sent back to Bombay for further interrogation.  There, he revealed the location of the keys to Wönckhaus’s safes, buried near Lengeh, among other fragments of information.

We hear little more of him.  In 1916, he was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Thayetmyo, Burma.  After the war he seems to have returned to Iran – a 1922 file mentions him back in Lengeh, working in Customs.

Extract from Persian Gulf Residency News Summary July 1922Persian Gulf Residency News Summary, July 1922. IOR/L/PS/10/977 f 143v Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It is not clear if Haji Ali really was actively involved in German wartime conspiracies, or simply a bystander.  Either way, he was a colourful bit-player in a tempestuous period in Iran.

Despite declaring itself neutral in the war, Iran became a battleground for rival powers, was occupied by British, Russian, and Ottoman troops, and was wracked by shortages, inflation, and famine, causing immense suffering among ordinary Iranians.  Theirs are among the truly untold lives of the First World War.

William Monk
Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
British Library, File 3443/1914 Pt 3 'German War: Afghanistan and Persia; German agents; British troops in East Persia', IOR/L/PS/10/474
British Library, File 3516/1914 Pt 14 'German War: Persia; general situation', IOR/L/PS/10/490
British Library, File 1749/1921 ‘Persian Gulf:- Residency news summaries 1921-25’ [‎143v] (301/494), IOR/L/PS/10/977
British Library, 'File 14/115 VIII B 15 Abu Musa. Red oxide concession.', IOR/R/15/1/260
Abrahamian, Ervand.  A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Staley, Eugene. ‘Business and Politics in the Persian Gulf: The Story of the Wönckhaus Firm.’ Political Science Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, 1933, pp. 367–385.

 

06 January 2022

Protesting Against the Simon Commission

One controversial moment in India’s fight for freedom from British rule in the 1920s, was the arrival in India of the members of the Indian Statutory Commission in 1928.  The India Office Private Papers at the British Library contains some wonderful material documenting this event.

The Indian Statutory Commission was a British commission appointed on 26 November 1927 to enquire into the working of the system of government, the growth of education, and the development of representative institutions in British India, and to recommend future policy regarding further constitutional reforms.  It is often referred to as the Simon Commission after its Chairman Sir John Allsebrook Simon.  Unfortunately, the members of the Commission all belonged to the British ruling classes, and the exclusion of Indian members understandable prompted outrage in India, with both Congress and the Muslim League boycotting the Commission.  The Commission visited India twice, once in February/March 1928, and again from 11 October 1928 to 13 April 1929, and wherever they travelled there were protest marches.  Protestors questioned the Commission's legitimacy and demanded that it leave India.

A black flag with the words ‘Simon Go Back’ in white lettering'Simon Go Back’ flag, reference Mss Eur D856 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

One particularly striking item in the Private Paper collections relating to these protests is a black flag with the words ‘Simon Go Back’ in white lettering, reference Mss Eur D856.  The flag had been given to Lady Carter, wife of Richard Henry (later Sir Archibald) Carter, Assistant Secretary to the Commission.  It had been presented to her while on a visit to the United Provinces by the Governor, Sir Malcolm Hailey (later Baron Hailey).  Of him, she wrote: ‘I first saw him at a tennis party and he swooped down on us like a great hawk.  Everybody seemed frightened of him, but I loved him at first sight’.  The story Lady Carter told of how Lord Hailey obtained the flag was that he had joined one of the processions against the Commission.  She said: ‘He gave me one of the black flags that they carry in the processions against the Commission, with a SIMON GO BACK on it’.

Protest banner with the words: 'Indian Uninvited Guest, Simon Go Back’Protest banner Mss Eur D890/1 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

There is also another protest banner in the papers of Sir (Samuel) Findlater Stewart (1879-1960), India Office official from 1903 to 1940, demanding ‘Indian Uninvited Guest, Simon Go Back’, reference Mss Eur D890/1.

The Commission published its report in two volumes in 1930 to further criticism and condemnation in India.  It was rejected by virtually all parts of the Indian political spectrum, and in London it sparked a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Station by around 200 protestors.  The British Government responded by holding a series of Round Table Conferences held in London between November 1930 and December 1932.  This eventually fed into the reforms incorporated into the 1935 Government of India Act.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
`Simon go back' black flag used in Congress demonstrations against the Indian Statutory (Simon) Commission; reference Mss Eur D856.

Papers of the Indian Statutory Commission 1928-1930; series reference IOR/Q/13.

Papers of the Round Table Conference, 1930-1932; series reference IOR/Q/RTC.

Papers of 1st Viscount Simon as Chairman of Indian Statutory Commission 1927-1930; collection reference Mss Eur F77.

Government of India Act 1935.

Making Britain, Discover how South Asians shaped the nation, 1870-1950: Indian Statutory Commission.