Untold lives blog

380 posts categorized "Journeys"

14 October 2019

400 Years of India and Britain: The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Roe

2019 marks 400 years since the return of Sir Thomas Roe, merchant diplomat with the East India Company and England’s first official ambassador to India. Roe arrived at the port of Surat in September 1615 with a letter from King James I to the then reigning Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, seeking a trade agreement. The ambassador would go on to spend four years of negotiations at the Mughal court, eventually returning to England in 1619 without the trade agreement he sought. Nonetheless, it would be a first formal introduction that would mark the beginning of a relationship spanning centuries, the significance of which cannot be overstated.

So important was the embassy that a mural depicting Roe’s audience with Emperor Jahangir is featured in St Stephen’s Hall at the Palace of Westminster. The political and economic fallout following the break with Catholic Rome would see Queen Elizabeth I seek trade with the Islamic empires of the early modern world, establishing the Levant Company to trade with the Ottoman Empire and the East India Company to trade with Mughal India.

One of the many joys of delving into the archives at the British Library is in being able to tangibly experience such crucial and influential moments in history. Throughout his travels, Ambassador Roe maintained a fascinating record of his exploits in his memoirs. A manuscript of his memoirs and letters is held at the British Library, Add MS 6115. Presented to the library in 1817 by Rev. J Coltman, the work is beautifully preserved along with Rev Coltman’s original letter.

Letter from Rev Coltman accompanying the manuscript

Back of Coltman's letter, showing the seal and postage stamps

Coltman's letter of deposit, Add MS 6115, ff 1-2

The neat writing of Roe’s engrossing hand shapes a tale of struggles and successes. The early entries focus on details of navigation during the lengthy and treacherous voyage to India.

Table of observations made during the voyage

Paragraph commenting on the table of observations

Table of observations, plus Roe's comments on the voyage. 

Upon arrival we see Roe’s struggles with port officials, who repeatedly attempt to search the English while Roe insists on diplomatic immunity. More interestingly, we find this entry:

Manuscript passage describing the refusal of food and drink during Ramadan fasting hours

Row relates his discussions with officials at Surat. Add MS 6115, f 23r

Here Roe relates his discussions with Surat officials who came to call on him a few days after his arrival. At one point Roe states, “I offered them drincke which they refused beeing Ramdam, but sayd after it was finished they would come daylie and sitt and eate with me”.

This reveals that Roe arrived during the Islamic month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from food and drink from sunrise until sunset. What is notable is that Roe does not elaborate further on the point. The implication appears to be that Ramadan is understood, both by Roe as well as his expected readers. English diplomatic and mercantile circles were then seemingly versed in the religious traditions of the nations they travelled to; at the very least they understood the Islamic traditions of Ramadan practiced by the Muslim Mughal empire. 

While Roe would not achieve what he set out to do in India, he nonetheless formally began an engagement that would go on to herald a lengthy, and indeed controversial, history. As we mark 400 years since the conclusion of his embassy, a look back at his experiences is timely and eye-opening. And what better place to start than his original memoirs at the British Library.

Lubaaba Al-Azami is a doctoral researcher at the University of Liverpool. Her AHRC funded research explores early modern English encounters with Mughal Indian imperial femininity. She tweets @Lubaabanama.

10 October 2019

Dr Johann Helfer and the curious case of an unexplained footnote

There is a reference to Dr Johann Wilhelm Helfer in C R Low's three-volume A History of the Indian Navy 1613-1863. The reference itself relates to Helfer's role as naturalist to Francis Rawdon Chesney's Euphrates Expedition in 1836; however it is a footnote next to his name which is most intriguing:

“Dr. Helfer, while on a scientific expedition for the Indian Government, was murdered at the Andaman Islands on the 31st January 1840, when his heroic wife shot the assassin dead with her pistol, an act worthy the niece of Field-Marshall Von Bulow.”

Page from C R Low, History of the Indian NavyC R Low, History of the Indian Navy, 1613-1863, Volume 2, p. 36, via the Qatar Digital Library

Being intrigued by the notion of his wife Pauline des Granges, later Countess von Nostitz, (who was apparently a niece of Field-Marshall Baron von Bülow) having avenged her husband’s death I decided to look in more detail at this story.

In 1878 The Countess published an account of her life and travels with her husband Dr. Helfer, which included a chapter on his death in the Andaman Islands in January 1840.

This account however revealed that not only had the Countess not shot and killed her husband’s assassin, she had not even accompanied him on his expedition, having chosen to remain at their estates in Mergui, Burma.

Pauline, Countess von NostitzCountess von Nostitz

Where this strange reference to such a tall tale came from is unfortunately a mystery.

Dr. Johann Wilhelm Helfer (1810-1840) was a naturalist employed by the East India Company who was also an avid collector of ornithological and botanical specimens which he donated to various institutions across the world.

The Helfers were avid travellers and were passing through Syria when they were asked to assist Colonel Chesney and accompany the Euphrates Expedition to Bussora. Helfer was subsequently appointed in 1837 as a Naturalist in Mergui and Tenasserim and was instructed to undertake surveys and reports on the natural resources there. His reports being approved of his employ was extended in March 1838, and by January 1840 he had written four lengthy reports on the resources he had discovered. Official letters following his death, describe his work as follows:

“These documents are equal in interest and value to the former reports of this intelligent and enterprising naturalist whose melancholy fate in prosecution of his researches we greatly lament.” [IOR/F/4/1852/78316]

Extract from Mathilde Pauline Nostitz's bookMathilde Pauline Nostitz, Travels of a Doctor and Madame Helfer in Syria, Mesopotamia, Burmah and other lands, (London: 1878)

According to Mrs Helfer, her husband’s expedition to the Andaman Islands had been to try and learn more of the resources and items for trade with some of the occupants of the smaller islands and it was in the pursuit of this that he was killed. Her account states that he had encountered a small number of locals and was keen to see their wares so had followed them across the beach towards the treeline where his party were ambushed. They fled back to their boat, attempting to dodge arrows laced with poison, but Dr. Helfer was struck in the back of the head whilst in the water and was reported to have sunk beneath the waves, with his colleagues and servants unable to recover his body. His was the only casualty. According to one obituary he was the first scientist to have reached these smaller parts of the Andaman Islands.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:

Travels of Doctor and Madame Helfer in Syria, Mesopotamia, Burmah and other lands, narrated by Pauline, Countess Nostitz (formerly Madame Helfer), and rendered into English by Mrs George Sturge, in two volumes. London (1878)

IOR/F/4/1735/70256 - Employment on a survey of the natural resources of Tenasserim, including his printed account of Amherst District

IOR/F/4/1608/64733 - Appointment as Naturalist at Tenasserim for 6 months, includes account of his journey from India -

IOR/F/4/1593/64583 - Appointed as Naturalist in Mergui, 1837.

IOR/F/4/1852/78316 - Letters regarding Dr Helfer’s 4th reports on resources of Tenasserim and his murder on 30 Jan 1840 

IOR/F/4/1896/80506 - Employment of Dr. Helfer, and news of his death

IOR/F/4/1926/86249 - Transmission of a Report by the late Dr. Helfer on the Islands of the Mergui Archipelago (includes diary kept Jan 1838-Jan 1839).

 

08 October 2019

Crystal chandeliers for the Shah of Persia

In 1819 the Persian Ambassador Mirza Abul Hassan Khan arrived in London on a diplomatic mission from the Shah of Persia.  He bore gifts of jewellery, ornamental swords, beautiful rugs, carpets and paintings, and Arabian horses for the King and Prince Regent - an image captured by the artist Henry Chalon. 

A Representation of the Persians in the Costume of their Country Attending at Carlton Palace with Portraits of the Horses Presented to His Majesty by the Ambassador from the Emperor of PersiaHenry Bernard Chalon, A Representation of the Persians in the Costume of their Country Attending at Carlton Palace with Portraits of the Horses Presented to His Majesty by the Ambassador from the Emperor of Persia  (1819?), Tate (T02357) digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Relations between Britain and Persia were cordial, the countries having signed a treaty of alliance in 1812, but the situation was sensitive due to the possibility of Russian expansion into Persian territory.  As part of the diplomatic dance, reciprocal gifts were commissioned for Fath Ali Shah.  ‘As a pledge of the continuance of our respect, we shall send by way of Bombay some of the productions of this Country, which … we trust will be accepted as a further indication of the sentiments with which we are impressed’ wrote the East India Company Court of Directors in March 1820.

Seal decorated in gold, from letter in Persian from the Shah of Persia to the East India CompanySeal decorated in gold, from letter in Persian from the Shah of Persia to the East India Company, 1819 [IOR/L/PS/19/189, f 4] Noc

Blades & Co., Royal glassmakers of Ludgate Hill, crafted 'lustres' or suites of candelabra to be delivered to the Shah, intended to decorate the newly refurbished Golestan Palace in Tehran.   At the behest of John Blades and with the permission of the East India Company, Edward James Matthews set sail from England to Bombay in October 1820, tasked with accompanying the cases of fine glassware.

Transporting fragile and highly breakable items to Persia was a tricky business.  Having arrived safely in Bombay, Matthews was instructed to take the eighteen cases to Bushire on the Persian coast.  He travelled on the Frances Warden, arriving in early August 1821.  Henry Willock, the Chargé d'Affaires at Tehran wrote to Matthews requesting that he oversee the onward transport of the glassware and installation of the chandeliers.  ‘I have to request that you will remain at Bushire until the arrival of the Persian Officer who will be charged with their Transport, and I have further to beg that you will accompany their progress to the interior and strive by every Act of Necessary precaution to secure their preservation’.

It is over 750 miles overland from Bushire to Tehran.  It proved impossible to transport the cases by cart, so Matthews arranged for them to be carried on men’s shoulders the whole way.  The journey took five months – ‘an undertaking of infinite difficulty… I may say danger’. Thankfully the glassware arrived intact, and was ‘most graciously received by the King.  His Majesty expressed his approbation and praise of the great care and diligence evinced by Mr Matthews’.   Letters of thanks from both the Shah and Mirza Abul Hassan Khan arrived back in London with Matthews, together with a gift to the Company of the Shah’s portrait. 

Letter in Persian from Mirza Abul Hassan Khan to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the East India Company, giving thanks for gifts of lustres sent to the ShahLetter in Persian from Mirza Abul Hassan Khan to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the East India Company, giving thanks for gifts of lustres sent to the Shah, [1823]. [IOR/L/PS/189, ff 23-24] Noc

The return leg of Matthews’ journey proved eventful. He travelled to St Petersburg via Tabriz, but was shipwrecked in the icy waters of the Baltic in December 1822.  Illness confined him to Oesel Island (Saaremaa) for 4 months, until he finally reached England in June 1823, a journey of ‘2 years, 7 months and 23 days’. 

Letter from Edward J. Matthews to the East India Company describing his experiences, dated 29 Jul 1823 Letter from Edward J. Matthews to the East India Company describing his experiences, dated 29 Jul 1823 [IOR/E/1/151, 603-604]  Noc

As a result of his efforts, Matthews was awarded the badge of the Lion and the Sun by the Shah, and Blades and Co. were awarded a Royal Warrant from the Persian Court.  Much of the correspondence from Matthews in the India Office Records pertains to his attempts to get the Company to reimburse him for his out of pocket expenses.  A warrant to pay him £368 and 7 shillings was finally made on 26 Sep 1823.

 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
IOR/E/1/151: Miscellaneous Letters Received 1823
IOR/E/1/259: Miscellanies 1823 [Miscellaneous Letters Outwards], entries 1290, 1291 & 1838
IOR/R/15/1/25: Political Residency Bushire Vol 25: Letters Outward, 1822
IOR/L/PS/19/189: Correspondence with the Court of the Shah of Persia, 1819-1823

01 October 2019

East India Company private trade

Advertisements in the Calcutta Gazette of 12 March 1795 alerted readers to the arrival of the East India Company ship Royal Admiral with private trade goods to sell.   Private or ‘privilege’ trade was allowed to the captains, officers and crew of East Indiamen on a sliding scale of cargo space and value based on rank.  Mariners tended to concentrate mainly on items of high value but low volume.

Calcutta - ships near Smith's Docks 1820s'A view of the river, shipping and town, from near Smith's Dock' from Views of Calcutta engraved by Robert Havell - Shelfmark X644(18) [1824-1826] Noc
 Images Online 

The firm of Tulloh, Henchman, and Innes in Calcutta begged leave to inform their friends and the public that within the next few days they would be offering for sale on commission at their warehouse ‘the large, elegant, and well chosen Investments‘ brought from England by Essex Henry Bond, Captain of the Royal Admiral, and William Fairfax, his chief officer.

The goods offered by Bond and Fairfax consisted of:
• Claret from Carbonal, Paxton, Brown and Whiteford, Wilkinson and Crosthwaite
• Old hock and red port
• Ale and small beer in hogsheads and butts
• Cider and perry from Silas Palmer
• Hams; pickled tongues; red and pickled herrings; salted salmon; pickled oysters, French and Spanish olives; capers; Durham mustard; salad oil, with ground stoppers; pickles and sauces; white wine, elder and tarragon vinegar
• Cheeses – Cheshire, Double Gloucester, Berkley and Pine
• Bloom raisins; new currants; shelled almonds; Turkey figs; French plums; Sir Hans Sloane’s and plain chocolate; cocoa; pearl and Scotch barley
• Confectionery from Hoffman
• Books
• Elegant lustres [candle holders] and girandoles [chandeliers]; table and wall shades; milk bowls; butter dishes; sweetmeat cups; hookah bottoms; salt cellars; muffineers [small castors for sprinkling salt or sugar on muffins, or covered dishes for keeping toasted muffins warm]; Italian shades; tumblers; wine and water glasses; Madeira and claret glasses to match
• Beautiful prints from Macklin
• Looking glasses
• Mathematical instruments
• Plate and jewellery
• Silk and cotton stockings for ladies and gentlemen
• Irish linen; Manchester dimities; cambrics
• Cloth and cashmere; buttons
• Blankets and flannels
• Perfumery
• Stationery and Mogul cards
• Saddlery
• Cutlery
• Haberdashery
• Medicines
• Mahogany furniture
• Fowling pieces and pistols; shooting tackle
• Tin ware; iron kitchen furniture; garden scythes; ship chandlery; ironmongery; spermaceti candles; garden seeds; cork and cork jackets; gunpowder and patent shot
• Toys

Dring, Cleland and Co were offering by private sale Madeira wine imported in the Royal Admiral.  Bucking the trend for non-bulky goods, Steuart, Maudslay and Gordon alerted readers to the arrival of a number of elegant London-built carriages on board the Royal Admiral – chariots, phaetons, gigs and buggies.  They were also selling saddlery, superior in ’variety, taste and fashion’.

There are several advertisements in that issue of the Calcutta Gazette offering European goods just arrived in other East India ships.  The auction houses vied for custom and the buyers had the luxury of choice.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive
H V Bowen, ‘Sinews of Trade and Empire: The Supply of Commodity Exports to the East India Company during the Late Eighteenth Century’ in The Economic History Review, Vol.55, No.3 (Aug 2002)

 

10 September 2019

Asylum for the support and education of deaf and dumb children of the poor

An Asylum for the support and education of the deaf and dumb children of the poor was established in London in 1792 by Reverend John Townsend. The institution was maintained by charitable donations.  Its aim was to rescue deaf and dumb children from ‘a state of deprivation, ignorance, and inaction’ and to prevent them from being a burden to society. 

Portrait of Joseph Watson and drawing of the Asylum for the deaf and dumb'Joseph Watson and the Asylum for the deaf and dumb, Camberwell, in which he taught.' Engraving by former pupil George Taylor. Wellcome Collection CC BY

The Asylum opened in Fort Place, Grange Road Bermondsey.  It moved to larger premises in Old Kent Road in 1809 when there were 182 pupils.  Joseph Watson was the principal from its beginning until his death in 1829.  He had a small number of private ‘parlour’ students housed in his own quarters at the Asylum. They were taught by the Braidwood oral method, set out in Watson’s guide entitled Instruction of the deaf and dumb; or, a theoretical and practical view of the means by which they are taught to speak and understand a language.  Charity pupils were instructed using sign language.

Illustration showing a variety of people from John Watson, Instruction of the deaf and dumb; or, a theoretical and practical view of the means by which they are taught to speak and understand a languageIllustration from John Watson, Instruction of the deaf and dumb; or, a theoretical and practical view of the means by which they are taught to speak and understand a language (London, 1809-10) Noc


There was a ‘manufactory’ in Fort Place from 1801 to 1820 which offered practical vocational training in tailoring, shoemaking and stay-making for the Asylum’s children.  The manufactory also operated a printing press.

The Asylum actively aimed to spread the word about its existence throughout the UK.  Applications far exceeded the number of places available and there was a long waiting list.  Applicants had to be aged between nine to fourteen years and pupils were selected by a poll amongst the Governors.

The Asylum published reports of its work which included lists of current pupils and details of their father’s trade and location, and the number of siblings.  Children came from a variety of backgrounds, urban and rural – their parents were labourers, artisans, shopkeepers, publicans, schoolteachers, agricultural workers and small farmers, seamen, soldiers, deserted mothers and widows.

In the 1817 report there is a note about John Williams, whose father William was a stone-cutter and house painter in Merthyr Tydfil Glamorganshire with six children.  As it had been noticed that John had ‘a considerable talent in drawing’, the Asylum Committee thought it would be a good idea to allow him to receive instruction.  They arranged for John to go to the British Museum every day for practice and moved him to live at the manufactory to make his journey easier.  His work was inspected by the eminent artist Richard Westmacott who took John under his patronage.

John returned to Merthyr and earned his living as a house painter and glazier.  However he continued to paint portraits and landscapes and appears to have been well-known locally as an artist.  Examples of his work have survived including a portrait of William Moses which is inscribed: ’Drawn by John Williams, Deaf & Dumb 1814’.

It has been said that John was more talented than Penry Williams, his famous younger brother. Penry secured patronage to support his art training in London and he spent most of his career in Rome.  John died in Merthyr at the age of 51.

Our next post will look at the family of Asylum pupils Henry and Louisa Tattler from London.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Plan of the Asylum for the support and education of the Deaf and Dumb, situated in the Grange Road, Bermondsey (London, 1797)
List of the Governors and Officers of the Asylum for the support and education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor; with the rules ... and an introductory statement of the purposes of the institution (London, 1817)
List of the Governors and Officers of the Asylum for the support and education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor; with the rules ... and an introductory statement of the purposes of the institution (London,1821)
Joseph Watson, Instruction of the deaf and dumb; or, a theoretical and practical view of the means by which they are taught to speak and understand a language; containing hints for the correction of impediments in speech: together with a vocabulary illustrated by numerous copperplates, representing the most common objects necessary to be named by beginners, 2 vols (London, 1809-10)
Mary E. Kitzel., 'Creating a Deaf place: the development of the Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Poor Children in the early nineteenth century,' Journal of Cultural Geography (2017)
Derrick Pritchard Webley, Cast to the winds – the life and work of Penry Williams (1802-1885), (National Library of Wales, 1997)

 

05 September 2019

A librarian’s death on Lake Onega - Roger James Chomeley

The British Librarians’ memorial at the British Library records the names of 142 persons who died during the First World War.  Two died after the signing of the Peace Treaty at Versailles on 28 June 1919.

Captain Roger James Chomeley M.C. of the Cheshire Regiment died during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War.  The Allies began to withdraw their forces from North Russia in June 1919, but it was a long, drawn-out process.  Chomeley was drowned on Lake Onega on 16 August 1919, aged 47.

Steam tug Azot captured from the Bolshevik forces on Lake Onega  1919Steam tug Azot captured from the Bolshevik forces on Lake Onega, 1919 © IWM (Q 16793)

A naval court of inquiry reported:
‘Captain R. J. Cholmeley was on board the Russian steamship Azod, one of the lake flotilla, on Lake Onega, and on the night of August 16, 1919, he was washed overboard while overhauling machine guns which were required for action at daybreak the following morning.  The vessel was heavily laden, and there was a very heavy sea, hence this imperative duty was most dangerous.  The court considers that Captain Cholmeley sacrificed his life in the execution of his duty’ (Brisbane Courier 20 February 1920).

Studio photograph of Roger James CholmeleyRoger James Cholmeley, lecturer in Classics, The University of Queensland, c1910?  Fryer Library Photograph Collection

Roger James Cholmeley was born at Swaby, Lincolnshire in 1872, the son of the Rev. James Cholmeley and his wife Flora Sophia. He studied at St Edward’s School in Oxford, before gaining an open classical scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, graduating in 1894.  He afterwards taught at Manchester Grammar School and the City of London School.  Roger married Lilian Mary Lamb in Oxford on 12 August 1896.  They had one daughter Katharine Isabella born at Wimbledon in 1903.

Having already served with the East Surrey Volunteer Corps, Cholmeley enlisted in the Imperial Yeomanry at London in March 1900.  He served in South Africa until June 1901. He obtained a commission and, on his return to the UK, continued to serve with the volunteers and the Territorial Force.

In 1901 Cholmeley published his edition of The Idylls of Theocritus.  He returned to South Africa in 1905 to take up a post as professor of Latin at the Rhodes University College at Grahamstown, where he also acted as librarian.  In 1909 he moved to Australia, teaching classics at Scotch College, Melbourne.  In 1911, he was appointed to a lectureship in classics at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, combining teaching with sorting out the University Library.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Cholmeley once again offered his services.  He was initially employed as a military censor in Australia, a post using his considerable knowledge of French, German, Russian, Dutch, and Greek.  He was rejected by the Australian authorities for active service, so in June 1915 he sailed to the UK where he obtained a commission in the Cheshire Regiment.  Chomeley wrote the preface to a revised edition of his Theocritus on the voyage over, lamenting the war’s interruption to scholarship.


Cholmeley's preface to his new edition of The Idylls of TheocritusCholmeley's preface to his new edition of The Idylls of Theocritus shelfmark 2280.d.10 Noc

Despite his age, Cholmeley served with the 13th (Service) Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment on the Western Front, being wounded twice.  In September 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions as brigade intelligence officer.

After the Armistice, Captain Cholmeley was posted to Northern Russia.  In expectation of his return from military service, the University of Queensland promoted Cholmeley assistant professor of classics, but he died before he could take up the post. 

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
Damien Wright, Churchill’s secret war with Lenin: British and Commonwealth military intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20 (Solihull: Helion, 2017), pp. 75-85.
Ian Binnie, 'Captain Roger James Cholmeley, MC', Moseley Society History Group
The Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 20 September 1919, p. 9
Brisbane Courier, 20 February 1920, p. 2
J.M.S., 'Roger James Cholmeley', The Classical Review, 34 (1920), pp. 76-77
R. J. Cholmeley (ed.), The Idylls of Theocritus (London: George Bell & Sons, 1901).
R. J. Cholmeley (ed.), Principiorum Liber (London: Edward Arnold, 1910).
R. J. Cholmeley (ed.), The Idylls of Theocritus, new ed. (London: George Bell & Sons, 1919)
Albert C. Clark, Journal of Hellenistic Studies, XLI (1921), pp. 152-154

 

 

15 August 2019

Gerasim Lebedev, a Russian pioneer of Bengali Theatre

Whilst browsing through a list of inhabitants of Calcutta in the 1790s one particular entry caught my attention.  In June 1794 a Russian musician by the name of Gerasim Lebedev was listed as a resident of Calcutta.  As it seemed unusual to find a Russian in India at that time, I was intrigued to learn more.

List of European Inhabitants in Calcutta June 1794IOR/O/5/26 – Gerasim Lebedeff’s entry in a list of European Inhabitants in Calcutta, June 1794 Noc

Lebedev was born in Yaroslavl Russia in 1749, the eldest son of a church choirmaster.  The family later moved to St Petersburg where Lebedev sang in the choir, performed in theatre and began to learn English, French and German, also teaching himself to play violin.

In 1792 Lebedev accompanied the new Russian Ambassador to Vienna as part of a musical group.  However he left this employment shortly afterwards and began to tour Europe, earning a living as a violinist.

By February 1785 Lebedev was in England.  He sailed for India aboard the East India Company ship Rodney, arriving in Madras in August 1785 where he obtained the patronage of the Mayor, Captain William Sydenham, and earned a living putting on musical programmes.

In August 1787 Lebedev moved to Calcutta where he was to live for the next ten years, and where with the support of a Russian doctor he was able to establish himself as a musician.  Lebedev was interested in Bengali language and music and he is considered to be the first person to perform Indian music on western musical instruments.

In 1791 Lebedev was introduced to a teacher named Goloknath Das who taught him Hindi, Sanskrit and Bengali.  He used his new language skills to translate plays into Bengali and in 1795 he opened the first drama theatre in Calcutta.  The two plays he translated were Love is the Best Doctor by Molière, and The Disguise by M. Jodrelle.  They were performed on 27 November 1795 and again on 21 March 1796, with music composed by Lebedev himself and lyrics from a Bengali poet Bharatchandra Ray.

Poster advertising Lebedev’s first performances of his plays on 27 November 1795Poster advertising Lebedev’s first performances of his plays on 27 November 1795. Image taken from Wikimedia (Public Domain)

The shows were very well received and Lebedev received great encouragement from Calcutta society, including the Governor-General Sir John Shore.  The performances are today considered to be the first performances of modern Indian Theatre.  But Lebedev’s success was short lived as his theatre burned down shortly afterwards.

Lebedev was also involved in several disputes with both the British administration and one of his former employees and was asked to leave India in 1797.  Lebedev returned to London where he set about publishing works on the Indian Languages including A Grammar of the Pure and Mixed Indian East Dialects in 1801.

Lebedev returned to St Petersburg shortly afterwards and was still working there on publications on Indian languages in 1817 when he died at his printing house on 27 July 1817.

Plaque erected in Calcutta in 2009 to mark the location of Lebedev’s theatrePlaque erected in Calcutta in 2009 to mark the location of Lebedev’s theatre. Image taken from Wikimedia. Attribution: By Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY 3.0

In 2009 the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and the Cultural Department of the Russian Federation Consulate in Kolkata erected a plaque in Ezra Street, Kolkata to commemorate the site of the pioneering theatre Lebedev had opened there in 1795.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
A Grammar of the Pure and Mixed East Indian Dialects, by Herasim Lebedeff (London, 1801) V4516.  (The introduction pp. i-viii gives a summary by Lebedev of his life up until the publication of this work.)
IOR/O/5/26 List of European Inhabitants in Calcutta, June 1794.

08 August 2019

Captain Henry Liddell’s recipe for spruce beer

Entered in the journal of the ship Fame for 1796-1797 is Captain Henry Liddell’s recipe for spruce beer which was believed to ward off scurvy:

Take 2 tablespoons of essence of spruce, add 20 or 21 lbs of molasses or coarse sugar with 20 gallons of boiling water.  When well worked together and frothing, add 1 bottle of porter or wine. Work them all well together, then let them stand until cool, keeping the bung closed for 12-15 hours.  When done working, it will be fit for use.

If the beer was given to the sailors on Liddell’s ship, it was not entirely successful.  On 24 December 1796 there were ‘from four to Six People sick for some time past, complaint is most Scurvey’.


British sailor from mid 19th centuryA British sailor from A collection of 111 Valentines HS.85/2 plate 15 (London, 1845-50?) Images Online Noc


The Fame had been chartered by the East India Company from Calvert and Co for a voyage to Bengal.  The ship was built for the West Indian trade and had recently undergone thorough repairs.  Henry Liddell commanded the ship, assisted by two British officers: John Cundill, first mate, and Giles Creed, second mate.  33 crew members joined the ship on 22 July 1796 – twelve British, twelve Swedish, six German, two Danish and one Spanish. Of these, three died at sea, one drowned, and nineteen deserted. 

The Fame sailed from England in convoy with a fleet of East Indiamen in August 1796.  The French Wars increased the dangers of the voyage and there are many sightings of strange sails noted in the journal.  The ship arrived in Bengal in February 1797.   On 19 March 1797, 32 crew were signed on for the return journey to England via St Helena – nine Swedish, eight Malay, and fifteen Portuguese (two of whom drowned the same day).  A cargo of 4,729 bags of sugar, 434 bags of ginger, 773 cases of indigo, and one case of cochineal was loaded.  Evidence of some plundering by the crew is recorded.  Rum, rice and paddy was delivered to the East India Company personnel at St Helena.   The Fame arrived in the Thames in December 1797.

The ship’s journal is written in more than one hand, with Liddell’s distinctive writing easily to spot.  On 7 November 1797 Captain Liddell composed a note complaining about his officers, particularly ‘everlasting Grumbler’ John Cundill who was ‘of such a Temper that if any thing of violence happens he has brought it on himself by his Capricious ways’.

The Fame made a second voyage for the East India Company in 1798-1799, this time to Bombay under Captain Richard Owen.  Unfortunately there is no journal for this voyage in the Company archives, although there is a copy of a memo by Owen about Company shipping.  He reports that there is very little news from India apart from the expectation of war with Tipu Sultan, with a Company expedition sent from Bombay to take Mangalore. Calvert and Co subsequently sent the Fame on slaving voyages captained by Diedrick Woolbert.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/242A  Journal of the Fame on a voyage to Bengal, Captain Henry Liddell.
IOR/E/1/100 no.155 Copy of memo from Captain Richard Owen to the East India Company’s agent at Deal.
Gary L Sturgess and Ken Cozens, ‘Managing a global enterprise in the eighteenth century: Anthony Calvert of The Crescent, London, 1777-1808’ in Mariner’s Mirror Vol 99 No.2 (May 2013), pp.171-195.

 

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