Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

07 May 2024

Stories of Provenance Research: Charles Masson’s papers in the India Office Records

What do an East India Company Army deserter, an American explorer from Kentucky, and an archaeological expert on Afghanistan who wrote his name in the caves at Bamiyan have in common?  They are actually one and the same person.  Charles Masson, as he came to be known, is an intriguing character, a pioneer explorer, archaeologist, and numismatist, a reluctant spy, and an expert on Afghanistan.  Much has been written about his achievements, which include discovering a lost city (Alexandria under the Mountains at Bagram), helping to decipher a lost language (Kharoshthi) and finding treasure (Bimaran casket, British Museum).  His exploits read like a Boys’ Own adventure story, or a film script. 

Born James Lewis in London in 1800, Masson enlisted in the East India Company’s Bengal Artillery in 1821, deserted in 1827, and - in an attempt to avoid the death penalty - changed his name, began his travels and explorations through Northern India and Afghanistan, and pretended to be an American.  You can read more about Masson’s life and his challenging relationship with the East India Company on the Asian and African Studies blog, but it included groundbreaking archaeological research, being unmasked as a deserter, a pardon in exchange for intelligence work for the British, imprisonment, and a return to London in 1842. 

Volumes from the Masson Collection in India Office Private PapersVolumes from the Masson Collection in India Office Private Papers

India Office Records and Private Papers holds a large collection of Masson’s papers while his drawings are held at by the Visual Arts Department.  For the early part of the 20th century, details of how they came to the India Office had been forgotten.  The 1937 catalogue to European Manuscripts reads 'No record is available to show how the Library came into possession of these papers', before the information was rediscovered in time for the publication of the 1968 Library Guide, where it states that the papers were purchased in 1857.

Title page of Kaye and Johnston's India Office Library Catalogue of Manuscripts in European Languages Volume II 1937Title page of Kaye and Johnston's India Office Library Catalogue of Manuscripts in European Languages Volume II (1937)

Entry for the Masson Papers in the Kaye and Johnston 1937 catalogueEntry for the Masson Papers in the Kaye and Johnston 1937 catalogue 

There is a great deal more information about the provenance of the Masson papers in the records.  They were offered to the East India Company by ‘Mr H Burstall’ in 1857, with the Finance & Home Committee Minutes recording that they were purchased on 11 February 1857 with the sanction of the Court of Directors on the recommendation of Professor [Horace Hayman] Wilson. The decision was recorded in the Court of Directors’ Minutes and approved by the Board of Control on 19 March 1857.  The Company paid £100 for the papers, drawings, coins and artefacts – a substantial sum – on the proviso that it was paid to the legal guardian of Masson’s two orphaned children, for their benefit.

Resolution to buy the Masson Papers, 11 February 1857 - first page
Resolution to buy the Masson Papers, 11 February 1857 - second pageResolution to buy the Masson Papers, 11 February 1857 -  Mss Eur F303/42 ff.158-158v

Henry Abraham Burstall was acting on behalf of Masson’s children, because they were family.  Masson had married Mary Ann Kilby, an 18-year-old farmer’s daughter from Northamptonshire, in 1844.  They had two children - Charles Lewis Robert (born 1850), and Isabella Adelaide (born 1853).  Sarah Kilby, sister of Mary Ann’s father John Carter Kilby, married Abraham Bustall in 1812, making her son Henry Abraham Burstall first cousin to Mary Ann Masson.  Her death in 1855 followed Charles’s death in 1853, leaving her children orphaned and living with her Kilby relatives in Watford, Hertfordshire.  John Kilby, Mary Ann’s brother, was designated their legal guardian.  Charles Lewis Masson followed his father into the military, enlisting as a gunner in the Royal Marine Artillery in 1870, while Adelaide was able to live ‘on her own means’ during her lifetime.

Lesley Shapland
Archivist & Provenance Researcher
India Office Records & Private Papers

Further Reading:
IOR/B/233 pp.885-886: Court of Directors Minutes 11 Feb 1857.
IOR/L/PJ/1/76 No 97: i) Note by HH Wilson on the Masson Collection, Feb 1857 ii) List of Masson Mss by Henry A Burstall 19 Jan 1857 iii) Letter from Henry A Burstall 19 Jan 1857.
IOR/L/PJ/1/77 No 260: letter from Henry A Burstall 8 Apr 1857 accepting £100 in payment for the Masson Collection on behalf of the Masson children.
Mss Eur F303/42, f.158 Finance & Home Committee Minutes.
Mss Eur F303/179 ‘Historical Records, Collections, Original Drawings’.
Charles Masson, Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, & Kalat, during a residence in those countries… 4 vols (London, 1844).
Elizabeth Errington, ‘Charles Masson (1800-1853)’,  Encyclopaedia Iranica
Elizabeth Errington, The Charles Masson Archive: British Library, British Museum and Other Documents Relating to the 1832–1838 Masson Collection from Afghanistan (British Museum, 2017).
Edmund Richardson, Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City (Bloomsbury, 2021).

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