Untold lives blog

148 posts categorized "Conflict"

17 September 2020

Sylvia Pankhurst’s Toilet Papers

The panic bulk buying of toilet paper and dried pasta?  Or Captain Tom Moore’s long march for the NHS?  It’s too soon to tell which aspects of 2020 historians will focus on.  However, as Sylvia Pankhurst’s biographer, my own obsession with toilet paper began a few years before the Covid-19 pandemic, and it began in the British Library.

Many people remember Sylvia Pankhurst as the suffragette sister from the first family of feminism who stayed true to its socialist beginnings throughout her great life.  Fewer reflect upon the whole arc of that life; one of art and resistance against war, fascism, racism, colonialism, and inequality.

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst 1938

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst by Howard Coster, 1938 NPG x24529 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Sylvia was the most incarcerated and tortured of the Pankhursts, but her prison career did not end there.  In 1921 she was once more His Majesty’s guest in Holloway Prison.  This time her crime was not the struggle for women’s equality but sedition, in publishing anti-war articles in her newspaper the Workers’ Dreadnought.  Her health compromised by previous imprisonment and torture, and suffering from endometriosis, one of the bravest Britons of the 20th century served another prison term, this time as a newspaper publisher defending freedom of the press.

Sylvia used her six-month solitary sentence to write.  A political prisoner, her only permitted writing materials were a small slate and chalk.  Yet she was prolific during this period.  On release, she published the poetry anthology Writ on Cold Slate, whose title sonnet agonizes about writing under such conditions.

Whilst many a poet to his love hath writ,
Boasting that thus he gave immortal life,
My faithful lines upon inconstant slate,
Destined to swift extinction reach not thee.

So, I wondered, how did these faithful lines reach us?

My excavation of British Library manuscripts revealed that artist and writer came up with a practical means of transcribing her writing and smuggling it out of Holloway.  Sylvia drafted her ideas with chalk on slate, then reworked them with soft pencil on standard issue HM Prison toilet paper, concealed in the underclothes of her uniform.  These contraband manuscripts were smuggled out by her friend Norah Smyth on prison visits, and other prisoners on release.  Sylvia’s suggestive wipe-away slate metaphor led me to the discovery of the fragile toilet paper reality.  The compressed, previously unsorted bundles surviving today in the BL contain not only poetry but a previously unknown and nearly complete five act play and clandestine correspondence that I spent six months painstakingly transcribing and putting in order for future researchers.

Sylvia complained to Norah that ‘the stuff I write all rubs off because it flops around in my pocket,’ but this line has survived for a century on its little square of rough toilet roll, along with hundreds of other sheets of beige, perforated prison issue toilet paper.  Sylvia Pankhurst died in Ethiopia in 1960, honoured with a state funeral.  When an earthquake and coup followed, her son unsuccessfully attempted to give a portion of her extensive papers to the British Library for safekeeping.  Refuge was instead found in Amsterdam.  Years later, Richard Pankhurst once again offered the BL the opportunity of a further cache of his mother’s papers, including – bundled up in bulging brown envelopes – this toilet paper in which I have found such treasure.  Thank goodness for second chances and for writing under lockdown.

Rachel Holmes
Author 

Further reading:
Pankhurst Papers - British Library Add MS 88925
Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (Bloomsbury, 2020).

08 September 2020

Captain Charles Foulis and Commodore George Anson

Charles Foulis (c.1714 – 1783) became wealthy from his maritime career with the East India Company.  For his second voyage he served as first mate under Captain Robert Jenkins on the Harrington bound for St Helena, Bombay and China.  The ship arrived at Bombay at the end of July 1742 and had an encounter with Angria’s pirate ships whilst returning from Tellicherry.

On 18 December 1742, Captain Jenkins died of ‘a feaver and flux’ and was buried with military honours in Bombay.  Foulis took over as captain of the Harrington and sailed for China, his first voyage east of India.

Portrait of George Anson, three-quarters length standing to left, looking towards the viewer, holding a telescope in both hands, his left elbow resting on a grassy ledge beside his hat, wearing a suit with sword and wig.Portrait of George Anson, 1747 - Courtesy of  British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Meanwhile, Commodore George Anson (1697-1762) was continuing a voyage around the world in the Centurion, the last remaining ship of his small fleet.  When the Centurion called at Macao in November 1742, neither the Europeans nor the Chinese wanted this armed warship to approach Canton and threaten the delicate trade balance.  However, she was badly in need of repair, water and stores, and assistance was reluctantly given.  She departed on 19 April 1743, supposedly for England.  There was huge consternation when she returned nearly three months later, towing the Spanish treasure galleon Covadonga as her ‘prize’ worth about £60 million in today’s money.

Anson made his way up river towards Canton, threatening violence to the Chinese officials who tried to stop him.  When the Harrington arrived on 17 July, Captain Foulis was caught up as a pawn in the affair, torn between his respect for Anson and his responsibility to the East India Company.

Foulis went on board the Centurion to discuss the situation with Anson.  Eventually on 28-29 July the Centurion was allowed upstream and Harrington, with a local pilot aboard, guided her through the channels.  After delicate negotiations, Anson was permitted to visit Canton for a meeting with the Chinese officials.

The Centurion left China in December 1743 and the Harrington at the end of January 1744. On 4 July Anson’s magnificent procession of 32 wagons of treasure passed through the streets of London on its way to the Tower.

Introductory page of the journal and log of the Anson 1746Introductory page of the journal and log of the Anson 1746 - IOR/L/MAR/B/549A Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Foulis’s next voyage was in the 1746/7 season as captain of the Anson, under the management of David Crichton, a relative of his wife.  The Anson had a battle with the French outside Bombay but the captain got his papers and treasure landed before the ship was captured.  Foulis managed to return to England and on 2 November 1748 the East India Company Court of Directors agreed that Captain Foulis had ‘done his Duty and behaved like a Gallant and Discreet Officer and is Justly entitled to the Courts Favour’.

From 1750 to 1755 Foulis captained the Lord Anson for two uneventful voyages before retiring from the sea to manage voyages for the East India Company.  Between 1759 and his death in 1783 he managed 38 voyages made by 12 ships and was a significant figure in the shipping lobby.

The memorial erected by Captain Robert Preston to Charles Foulis in St.Mary’s church, Woodford, Essex.

The memorial erected by Captain Robert Preston to Charles Foulis in St.Mary’s church, Woodford, Essex, as a testimony of his gratitude. Foulis had managed three voyages which Preston made as captain and then worked with him in the City. In his will Foulis named Preston as his ‘residuary legatee and executor’. Author;'s photograph. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Charles Foulis had other connections with the East India Company: his sister Margaret married William George Freeman, a director in 1769, 1774-76 and 1778-81.  His wife had a sister who married Andrew Moffatt of Cranbrook House in Ilford, another Principal Managing Owner who was involved in shipping insurance.

Georgina Green
Independent scholar


Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/654D Journal of the Harrington 1741-1744
IOR/L/MAR/B/549A Journal of the Anson 1746-1747
IOR/B/70 East India Company Court of Directors’ Minute Book
Sally Rousham (ed.), The Greatest Treasure - Philip Saumarez and the voyage of the Centurion (Guernsey Museum, 1994)
Glyn Williams, The Prize of all the Oceans (Harper Collins, 1999)

 

02 September 2020

Nil Darpan: the Indigo Revolt and the trial of Reverend James Long

Nil Darpan (sometimes Nil Durpan) or The Indigo Planting Mirror was a Bengali play written by Dinabandhu Mitra in 1858-59.  The drama was written in the context of social agitation in Bengal, known as the Indigo Revolt.  The play examines the treatment of the Indian peasantry or ryots by the indigo planters.  It was first published in 1860.

Indigo Factory Bengal, 1863, showing layout and work on different processesWilliam Simpson - Indigo Factory Bengal, 1863 (shelfmark WD 1017) Images Online

Mitra’s play shone a light on the behaviour of certain European indigo planters, the worst excesses of which were further exposed by an official report of the 1861 Indigo Commission.  Ryots were forced to plant indigo, a crop which was in demand by the international textile industry but which degraded the land.  They had to take out loans and sell the crop to planters at fixed (low) prices, forcing them into a cycle of debt and economic dependence that was often enforced with violence.  The play reflected the realities of intimidation, exploitation, violence (including sexual violence), and lack of redress through the judicial system experienced by many in Bengal.

Title page of Nil Durpan and portrait of  author Dinabandhu MitraTitle page of Nil Darpan and portrait of Dinabandhu Mitra from Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer. A history of the renaissance in Bengal, from the Bengali ... Edited by Sir Roper Lethbridge (London : Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1907.), p.94. 

In 1861 Mitra sent a copy of his play to Reverend James Long, who had run the Church Missionary Society school in Calcutta where Mitra was educated.  James Long, an Anglo-Irish priest, had been in India since 1840, and was particularly interested in what he called the ‘Native Press’.  Long had previously assembled lists of books and other publications in Bengali.  He believed that vernacular writings were an important barometer of the feelings of Indian people, and that they had often been ignored by those in power.  Long mentioned the play to William Scott Seton Karr, Secretary to the Government of Bengal, who in turn brought it to the attention of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Peter Grant.  Grant requested an English translation of Nil Darpan, which Long arranged, and which was almost certainly carried out by Michael Madhusudan Dutt.  The translation was edited by Long who also provided his own introduction.  500 copies were printed, and some copies were distributed by Long in official Government envelopes.  This action appeared to give the translation official sanction.

Portrait of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and bust of James Long in KolkataPortrait of Michael Madhusudan Dutt from Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer, p.30, and bust of James Long in Kolkata via Wikimedia Commons

Nil Darpan quickly reached the attention of both the indigo planters and the pro-planter press, who felt that they had been defamed by the play, and by Long’s introduction and by Mitra’s original preface.  As a result James Long was taken to court by Walter Brett, proprietor of the Englishman newspaper, together with the Landholders Association of British India and the general body of indigo planters.  The trial for libel took place in July 1861, and there was much sympathy expressed for James Long.  Yet he was found guilty, sentenced to one month in jail and fined 1,000 rupees.  The Bengali author Kaliprasanna Singha immediately paid the fine on Long’s behalf.

Nil Darpan was the first play to be staged commercially at the National Theatre in Calcutta; it was one of a number of politicised plays which provoked the Government of India into enacting restrictive censorship measures on Indian theatre via the 1876 Dramatic Performances Act.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Nil Darpan or the Indigo Planting Mirror, A Drama. Translated from the Bengali by A Native (Calcutta: C.H. Manuel, 1861)
Statement of the Rev. J. Long His Connection With The Nil Darpan (Calcutta: Sanders, Cox and Co., 1861)
Claire Pamment (2009) 'Police of Pig and Sheep: Representations of the White Sahib and the construction of theatre censorship in colonial India', South Asian Popular Culture, 7:3, 233-245.
Geoffrey A. Oddie, Missionaries, Rebellion and Protonationalism: James Long of Bengal 1814-87 (London: Routledge, 1999)

 

27 August 2020

Collections in the UK on Indian Independence and Partition

The India Office Records and Private Papers, held at the British Library, contains one of the largest archives outside South Asia of records relating to the Indian independence struggle, and the eventual partition of pre-1947 India into the independent states of India and Pakistan.  This includes official government records, as well as significant collections of private papers.

Photograph of Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for IndiaMahatma Gandhi and Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India, 18 April 1946 - Photo 134/2(19) Images Online c13486-31

 

However, there are also a wealth of records on this subject to be found in local archives, libraries, and record offices around the UK.  Here are a just a few examples of some of the wonderful collections available to be explored.

There are of course many libraries in London which hold collections relating to Indian Independence, including the National Archives, the Parliamentary Archives, the Marx Memorial Library, and the London School of Economics Library. There are also a great many important collections to be found at Oxford and Cambridge, for instance:
• The Bodleian Library in Oxford holds the papers of Clement Richard Attlee, British Prime Minister 1945-1951, along with the papers of several British politicians who were involved with Indian affairs and Indian civil servants.
• Cambridge University holds the papers of many British politicians involved in the administration of British India, while the Centre for South Asian Studies holds the private papers of many members of the India Civil Service and their families, and officers and other ranks who served in the Armed Forces in India at the time of Independence.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru & Mr M.A. Jinnah walking together in the grounds of Viceregal Lodge, SimlaPandit Jawaharlal Nehru & Mr M.A. Jinnah walking together in the grounds of Viceregal Lodge, Simla,  11 May 1946 - Photo 134/2(28) Images Online c13486-35

 

Elsewhere around the UK are wonderful collections on this subject, here are just a few examples:
• The Keep Archive Centre in Brighton, which holds a collection of letters from Gandhi to Madeleine Slade (often known as Mirabehn), many written while he was at Yeravda Prison and during his period of fasting; and a collection of official papers and reports accumulated by Major-General Thomas Wynford Rees, Commander of the Punjab Boundary Force, August and September 1947.
• Correspondence between Jawaharlal Nehru and Eleanor Rathbone, May-Nov 1941, at University of Liverpool, Special Collections & Archives.
• The Mountbatten Papers and the papers of Lieutenant Colonel Nawab Sir Malik K H Tiwana (relating to the Punjab and its partition), both collections at the University of Southampton.
• Papers of Dr V.N. Sharma, Director General of Hospitals in India which include photocopies of letters and photographs sent to him by Subhas Chandra Bose at Hull History Centre.
• Quit India poster (Bombay, 1942) at West Glamorgan Archive Service.

Map showing India and Pakistan boundaries, dated 1947Map showing India and Pakistan boundaries, dated 1947 - Maps MOD OR 6409 Images Online B20151-85

In recent years there has been many fascinating projects to collect oral histories relating to independence and partition.  To name just three:
• The Memories of Partition Project Archive, a project to record the memories of those affected by the 1947 Partition of India is held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, University of Manchester.
• The White Line - Here, There, Then, Now Oral History Project, in which interviews were carried out with people who eventually migrated to Huddersfield to record their memories of pre-Partition, the Partition era and what happened afterwards, is held at Heritage Quay, University of Huddersfield.
• India: A People Partitioned Oral Archive at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).


John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Indian Independence Collection Guide 
Archives HUB 
AIM25 
The National Archives (TNA) Discovery
Scottish Archive Network 
List of UK archives 
Chris Cook (ed), The Routledge Guide to British Political Archives: Sources since 1945 (Routledge, 2006)

25 August 2020

The Temples of Mahabalipuram and the early days of Heritage Conservation

A Privy Council appeal from 1893 reveals an attempt to preserve historic monuments in India at a time when British heritage conservation was in its infancy.

Appeals to the British Privy Council are available for free on the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) and include many cases from British India.  This appeal concerns an area of land on the east coast of India containing a quarry and a group of temples then known as the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram.  It was purchased by the British government from the Mudaliar family around 1890.

Mahavellipore. The Five RathsThe Pancha Ratha or Pandava Rathas, at Mamallapuram near Madras from James Fergusson's Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India (X590) Online Gallery  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The monuments near the town of Mahabalipuram were created in 630-668 CE and now form a UNESCO World Heritage site.  They consist of several raths, or monolithic temples, and caves cut into the rock.    The site is famed for a sculpted frieze depicting the Descent of the Ganges.  After visiting in 1841 James Fergusson, architectural historian, described the sculpture as ‘the most remarkable thing of its class in India’.

The rock sculpture of Arjuna’s Penance, MahabalipuramThe rock sculpture of Arjuna’s Penance, Mahabalipuram (WD 4206) Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Privy Council appeal brought by the Mudaliars concerns the value of the rock remaining in the quarry.  The judgment was given in the Mudaliars’ favour.  However, the document begins by describing the temples, not the quarry: ‘the Government of India is desirous of saving from destruction, and of preserving as public monuments, certain works… known as the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram'.

There were worries that the structures were in danger.  The appeal mentions that the Mudaliars had begun using explosives in the quarry, so ‘local authorities felt alarmed and advised the Government to interfere’.

While government intervention was common in India, in the United Kingdom the rights of landowners made the purchase of sites for their preservation more difficult.  The British Ancient Monuments Protection Act was enacted in 1882 to survey and record the locations of ancient sites, but had no powers to force their purchase.

Mahavallipore. Cave with a structural VimanaCave with a structural Vimana at Mahabalipuram from James Fergusson's Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India (X590) Online Gallery  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Fergusson, who described the temples in the appeal, travelled India in the 1830s and 1840s.  From 1845 he used a camera lucida to sketch Indian architecture for publications like his Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India.  Many of these illustrations are available to view on the British Library website.

In the preface to a later edition, Fergusson notes that his images had captured the British imagination: ‘In consequence of the interest which these publications excited among those interested in the study of Indian Antiquities, a memorial was addressed to the Court of Directors of the East India Company, praying them to take steps to prevent further desecration and destruction of these venerable monuments of the past'.

Books like Fergusson’s publicised the value of historic monuments and increased pressure for their preservation.  In 1895 the National Trust was founded and was soon followed by additional conservation legislation in the UK.

Meanwhile, the Archaeological Survey of India, whose records are held at the British Library, took over the preservation of the site at Mahabalipuram.  The monuments were maintained in the intervening years and are now the main tourist attraction in the area.

Matthew Waters
Cataloguer, Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Privy Council Appeal: Secretary of State for India in Council v Shanmugaraya Mudaliar and others (Madras) 
J. Fergusson (1841) Illustrations of the rock cut temples of India (Vol.1), London – Preface from 1864 edition
Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1925-1932 (IOR/V/21/99)

 

06 August 2020

John Dean: Celebrity shipwreck survivor of the 1740s

On 17 September 1740, the East India Company’s Court of Directors in London received word that a man had returned from the dead.  That man, John Dean, miraculously survived the shipwreck of the Sussex, an East India Company ship that sank, along with its cargo, off the coast of Madagascar in March 1738.  It took Dean 16 months, most of which was spent walking across Madagascar, to find a European ship to rescue him.  That ship transported him from Madagascar to Bombay, where his story was transcribed, then sent on to the East India Company in London.

By the time Dean reached London in September 1741, a year had passed since the Company’s Court of Directors had learned of his survival, and his story had been published at least twice as a 22 page booklet.  Soon after his return, a risqué mezzotint portrait of a shirtless John Dean was also published in London, showing him standing on a rocky shoreline, holding a spear, with the Sussex sinking in the background.  This rugged image of Dean most likely increased his celebrity, and parallels were made between his story and Daniel Defoe’s book Robinson Crusoe.

Portrait of John Dean, three-quarter length, holding a spear, leaning back to the right against a rock, an axe and rolled mat beside him, a knife in his belt, wearing only a tattered pair of shorts, gesturing and looking to left, a ship tossed in heavy waves in the background.Mezzotint of John Dean, c.1743 © The Trustees of the British Museum  1364161001 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) (Another copy -British Library P553)

What is most interesting about John Dean’s story is that the East India Company controlled it.  On 19 September 1740, two days after the Court of Directors first received Dean’s account from Bombay, the Company’s Committee of Lawsuits put forward that 'a Bill be filed at Chancery against the Captain of the Sussex'.   John Dean’s survival had enormous value to the East India Company because Francis Gostling, the captain of the Sussex, who had also survived the shipwreck, had given a different version of events when he returned to London a few months after the Sussex sank, in the summer of 1738.  As punishment for the deaths at sea of sixteen men from his crew (one of whom was John Dean), Gostling was removed from the Company’s service, but he was absolved of losing the Sussex’s valuable cargo.  However, Dean’s account described Gostling’s actions on board the sinking ship as dishonourable, and made him out as directly contributing to the deaths of the abandoned crew.

Armed with John Dean’s story, the East India Company ruined Francis Gostling by ordering £25,000 in compensation for the Sussex’s lost cargo.  After their success at the King’s Bench in May 1743, the Company commissioned Willem Verelst on 16 June 1743 to paint not one, but three portraits of John Dean.  Two of these portraits still exist, and show a happy, healthy man, respectfully dressed in smart working class attire, carrying a hat and a walking stick in one hand and a letter of reference in the other.  They contrast with the mezzotint portrait from 1741 by showing a man who had comfortably returned to civilization.  In 1744 Dean was appointed as an elder porter at the East India Company’s Drug Warehouse, and in December 1747 he died, probably when he was in his early 40s.

Portrait of John Dean, three quarter length,  dressed in smart working class attire, carrying a hat and a walking stick in one hand and a letter of reference in the other.Oil painting of John Dean by Willem Verelst, commissioned 1743. British Library F19  BL - Images Online 

It seems to me that the portraits of John Dean say more about the East India Company than they do about the man shown in the painting.  Do you agree?

Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia

Further reading:
'History of John Dean', The Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1807, p.606.
A True and Genuine Narrative of the whole affair relating to the Ship Sussex as sent to the Directors of the Honourable East India Company; From the Time she was deserted by the Officers, and greatest part of the Crew, till she was unfortunately wreck’d on the Bassas De India... By John Dean, The only surviving person of them all (London, 1740)
Account of John Dean’s story, dated Bombay December 1739, being read at East India House, 17 September 1740, BL – IOR/B/66, f.84.
Account of a bill being filed against Captain Francis Gostling, 19 September 1740, BL – IOR/B/66, f.151.
Account of John Dean’s first appearance before the Court of Directors on 2 September 1741, BL - IOR/B/66, f.366.
John Dean’s appointment as an Elder Porter, Friday 15 March, 1744, BL – IOR/B/68, f.243.
“Warrant be made out to Mr. William Verelst for Fifty Guineas for painting two originals and one copy of John Deane late belonging to the Ship Sussex...” , 17 June 1743, BL - IOR/B/67, f.333.

 

28 July 2020

The Trial of Prince Najaf ʿAlī Khān Zand

The Zand dynasty ruled in Persia [Iran] from 1751 to 1794.  The young Prince Najaf ʿAlī Khān Zand, brother of the last ruler of the Zand dynasty, survived his family’s defeat at the hands of the new ruling family, the Qājārs.  At some point in the early 19th century, he left Persia and made his way to Bombay [Mumbai].  There, he was looked after by the East India Company’s Government of Bombay, receiving a pension of 400 rupees per month.

Painting showing the defeat of Prince Najaf’s brother, Loṭf-ʿAli Khan, the last Zand ruler, with the city of Shiraz in the backgroundI.O. Islamic 3442, f.218v showing the defeat of Prince Najaf’s brother, Loṭf-ʿAli Khan, the last Zand ruler: ‘Defeat of Lutf ‘Ali Khan Zand by (Agha) Muhammad Shah; the city of Shiraz in the background’ -  BL Images Online

This relationship was put to the test under dramatic circumstances in 1828-29.  A dispute between Prince Najaf’s entourage and a group of men from the Custom House escalated and the Prince fired his gun, killing two of the Custom House men.   The Prince was arrested and the case referred to the highest level of authority in the Government of Bombay – the Council.

Copies of letters sent from the Government of Bombay to the Court of Directors reveal an intense debate which broke out amongst the Council.  On one side, Council member John Romer argued that, due to the seriousness of the charges against him, the Prince must be tried as normal in the Circuit Court at Tannah [Thane].  On the other side, the Governor in Council, Sir John Malcolm, argued that the Prince must not be treated as a ‘common criminal’, as this would be a great insult to the Court of Persia.  As the debate intensified, Romer’s language became more and more dramatic. He argued that there were no political considerations which justified withdrawing the Prince from the hands of justice.

Extract of Minute by John Romer at Government of Bombay Judicial Consultation  25 April 1829IOR/F/4/1266/50907, ff. 334v-335r: Extract of Minute by John Romer at Government of Bombay Judicial Consultation, 25 April 1829, arguing that ‘I do not think that any political considerations [justify] withdrawing him [Prince Najaf] from the hands of justice.’  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Meanwhile, Malcolm attempted to pick holes in the accusations levied at the Prince, questioning the witnesses’ accounts and concluding that the Prince had only fired his pistol after being physically assaulted by the Custom House men.

Ultimately, Malcolm revealed that in addition to appeasing the Court of Persia, a trial must be avoided in order to preserve favour with the southern tribes in Persia, from which Prince Najaf’s family had originated.  According to Malcolm, these tribes continued to hold Prince Najaf’s brother and his great-uncle, Karīm Khān Zand (founder of the Zand dynasty), in such high regard that subjecting Prince Najaf to a ‘degrading’ common trial would have serious consequences.  Most pressingly, Malcolm argued that if Anglo-Russian relations were to deteriorate, the Russians might persuade the Court of Persia to allow them access to British India through Persia.  In this scenario, the best line of defence would be for the British to incite the southern tribes in Persia to rise up against the Qājārs.  However, their support could not be counted on if a trial of Prince Najaf were to go ahead. 

Portrait of Sir John MalcolmP616: Portrait of Sir John Malcolm, 1832 - BL Images Online

Despite Romer’s pleas to respect the pursuit of justice in order to preserve the rule of law, no trial ever went ahead.  Prince Najaf was held in comfort at the Company’s Fort at Thane before being sent to Bussorah [Basra] with his family, free to continue with his life.

Curstaidh Reid
Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
IOR/F/4/1266/50907 ‘Removal of Nujif Ali Khan (a Prince of Persia) to Bussorah, in preference to his being tried for murder of which he was accused – His pen[sion] of Rs 400 discontinued from 30th November the allowance of Rs 120 per mo[nth] to the Mother of […] Prince made payable at Bussorah’ 
John Perry, ‘ZAND DYNASTY’, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016 

 

23 July 2020

The lesser-known early years of Sultan Qaboos

Fifty years ago today, on 23 July 1970, the late Sultan Qaboos overthrew his father, Sa’id bin Taimur, in a British-supported palace coup in the monsoon soaked southern province of Dhofar to become ruler of the Sultanate of Oman.  He was to go on to become the Middle East’s longest ruling monarch until his death in January 2020.

Qaboos’ role in facilitating dialogue such as that which led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is now well known but perhaps lesser-known are the circumstances of his early years.  It is said that the first seven years are the formative years of a person’s life, thus the information on Qaboos gleaned from digitised India Office Records,  although sparse and seemingly incidental may be of quite some significance.

In October 1940 the British Political Agent, Muscat, recorded a conversation with Sultan Sa’id concerning succession in Muscat that should anything happen to him ‘at present he has no male heir and has no particular affection for any single member of his family’.  Further, he would prefer a British officer to fill the post of Regent rather than any other members of his family.

Qaboos was born a month later in November 1940 to Sultan Sa’id bin Taimur, Sultan of Muscat and Oman, and Mazoon Al-Mashani, ‘a Dhufari women of good family’.  Sultan Sa’id received the news from Dhofar in Muscat.

Letter from Sultan Sa’id bin Taimur to Political Agent  MuscatIOR/R/15/6/216, f 44 Sultan Sa’id bin Taimur to Political Agent, Muscat


As the child was legitimate congratulations were sent by the King of England and the Viceroy.

Text of telegram from Political Resident at Kuwait  to Secretary of State for India  LondonIOR/R/15/6/216, f 51, Political Resident at Kuwait, to Secretary of State for India, London

Sa’id bin Taimur treated Dhofar as his private estate avoiding ‘the tedium of Muscat weather and Muscat politics’.

British briefing note about Sultan Sa’id bin Taimur

IOR/L/PS/12/3720A, f 413 British briefing note on Sa’id bin Taimur  

Interestingly, Taimur bin Faisal, Qaboos’ grandfather, who had been allowed by the British to abdicate after many years of imploring British officials, kept his grandson in mind as he lived out his life in India and Japan under the name of Al Said, ending a telegram in 1943 with ‘MY BEST WISHES TO QABOOS’.

Telegram from Taimur bin FaisalIOR/R/15/6/217, f 21 Telegram from Taimur bin Faisal

In 1945 the Political Agent, Muscat informed Colonel Galloway, the Resident in Bushire, that he had inquired to Sultan Sa’id about the education of Qaboos.  It seemed Sa’id was considering an elementary education in Egypt from the age of eight and indeed had discussed this with King Farook.

Question of Qaboos's education in letter from Political Agent  Muscat  to the Political Resident in the Persian GulfIOR/R/15/6/216, f 190 Political Agent, Muscat, to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf

The Annual Muscat Administration Report for 1950-51 notes the isolation of the Heir Apparent.  Qaboos, now aged ten, had still not started education in Egypt but was kept ‘strictly under constant supervision and guard’ rarely meeting anyone outside of the palace.

Note on Qaboos in Annual Muscat Administration Report  1950-51IOR/R/15/6/343, f 11 Annual Muscat Administration Report, 1950-51 

Qaboos’ education was eventually to take place in the UK in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk and at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.  From here he returned to Salalah where he was kept as a virtual prisoner by his father forbidden to meet anyone apart from the Sultan’s trusted advisors.  Sultan Sa’id’s ‘personal estate’ with its myriad petty restrictions had become intolerable for its inhabitants and in 1965 a rebellion had started.  It was in the Sultan’s palace, Salalah on 23 July 1970 at the height of the Dhofar War that with the help of his Sandhurst classmate, Tim Landon, that a British-supported coup took place, and Qaboos became the Sultan of Oman.

It was often noted by commentators that in contrast to other Gulf states, Qaboos was ‘alone on the throne’, ruling in isolation from other family members.  Perhaps these glimpses into his early years shed light on this behaviour in his later life.

Dr Francis Owtram
Gulf History Specialist
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
The archival extracts in this article are from IOR/L/PS/12/3720A, IOR/R/15/6/216, IOR/R/15/6/217 and IOR/R/15/6/343 and are all available on the Qatar Digital Library.
A finding aid to the records of the Muscat Agency, IOR/R/15/6 has been written by Ula Zeir.
Francis Owtram, A Modern History of Oman: Formation of the State since 1920 (London: IB Tauris, 2004)
Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans and Empires in Oman, 1965–1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Marc Valeri, Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State, (London: Hurst, 2017)

 

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