Untold lives blog

386 posts categorized "Journeys"

12 December 2019

Emma Ewart Larkins' last letter from Cawnpore

On 9 June 1857, Emma Ewart Larkins, the wife of an artillery officer in Cawnpore, composed a letter to family and friends in England.  Along with about a thousand others, she, her husband George, their three youngest children, and Munna, their cherished family ayah, were sheltering from bombardment under appalling siege conditions, and behind hopelessly inadequate defences.

 Letter written by Emma Larkins in Cawnpore 9 June 1857 and smuggled out by her AyahMSS Eur F732/1 Letter written by Emma Larkins in Cawnpore 9 June 1857 and smuggled out by her Ayah


Addressing a sister-in-law in London, Emma began: ‘I write this dearest Henrietta in the belief that our time of departure is come’.  She explained: ‘the whole of the troops rose here & we took refuge in a Barrack We are so hemmed in by overpowering numbers that there seems no hope of escape’.  Emma was right: death was staring her in the face.  But Munna would take the dangerous decision to attempt to slip away, and she successfully carried the letter with her.

Portrait of Emma Ewart Larkins, India, 1840Emma Ewart Larkins by L. Power, India, 1840. © Rebecca Gowers.

Months later it somehow reached England.  Within it were individual messages for Henrietta and several others, including Emma and George’s four oldest children, sent ‘home’ for their education.  One of these, Alice Shaffalitzky Larkins, then aged 11, was my great-great-grandmother; and I was brought up knowing that my own life depended on the fact that she had avoided the Cawnpore Massacre.  Emma’s last letter was kept by the family in a double-sided picture frame so that it could be read front and back, though the crossed writing made it incredibly hard to decipher.  My grandmother showed it to me as a child.  But four years ago, when I found myself wondering about it again, I realised I no longer had any idea where it was.

Photograph of George and Alice Larkins 1851George Larkins, Artillery Commander, Cawnpore, 1857, here with his daughter Alice: daguerrotype, India, Christmas 1851. © Rebecca Gowers.

I looked idly online, and found the letter selectively quoted in a number of books on the Indian Mutiny.  The British Library held a rough transcript, but where was the original?  While I tried to solve this question, I stumbled on an outré, unproven theory: that another of the four children to survive, Henry Thomas Larkins, also addressed in Emma’s letter, just might be the same person as ‘Major Harry Larkyns’, a mysterious, louche character murdered in 1874 by the famous photographer of galloping horses, Eadweard Muybridge.  To my surprise, this was a theory I found myself able to verify almost at once.  And it has led to my writing a book about Harry’s genuinely extraordinary exploits.  Setting about this project, I badgered numerous relatives about boxes in their attics that might contain Larkins-family archive, with the particularly gratifying result that I ended up being given not only Emma’s final letter, but others that had preceded it too.  This reassembled correspondence forms a total of about a hundred letters whose terrific details I could only hint at in my book.

It was a great pleasure for me recently to donate the whole collection to the British Library, where I hope they will be of interest to other writers and historians.  Emma's last letter was in a frail state indeed, but it has now been conserved, and digitised as well, meaning that this pitiful survivor is now available for all to see.

Rebecca Gowers
Writer

Further reading:
MSS Eur F732 Papers of Emma Ewart Larkins (d. 1857), wife of Major George Larkins (1807-1857), Bengal Artillery
Rebecca Gowers The scoundrel Harry Larkyns and his pitiless killing by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (2019)

 

05 December 2019

Marine Society boy to master mariner to pauper – Part 2

We left George Byworth in Tasmania working as a merchant officer on sealing voyages.

Back in London, his father Thomas died in 1837.  His will left everything to George’s mother Mary.  She carried on with the watch-making business in Lambeth with her son Thomas.

We know that George returned to England at some point, because on 24 October 1844 he married Amelia Webb in Camberwell.  He described himself as a master mariner of Old Kent Road.  Nineteen-year-old Amelia came from Binfield in Berkshire.

View of Singapore with ships at anchorView of Singapore with ships at anchor from Pieter Harme Witkamp, De Aardbol (Amsterdam, 1839) Shelfmark 10002.g.16-19. BL flickr Noc 

The couple were soon travelling.  Their son George Alfred was born in October 1845 and baptised in March 1847 in Singapore.  In June 1847 George was the master of the Antaris sailing from Singapore to Port Jackson with a general cargo.  His wife and son were passengers on the ship.  Sons Donald Campbell and William Wordsworth Russell, were born in Sydney in July 1847 and April 1849.  Four more children were born in Tasmania between 1851 and 1858: Mary Ann Louisa, Amelia Frances, Edith Constance Burnell, and Loughlin Alan.

George’s mother Mary died in 1853.  She left the business premises and equipment to her son Thomas.  Household goods and other personal effects were shared equally between her sons George, John and Thomas.  She named her friend Henry Vandyke of the Marine Society as her executor but he renounced probate in favour of Thomas. An intriguing link to the Marine Society!

In 1854 George changed careers and became licensee of the British Hotel in George Town, Tasmania.   He advertised in his local paper, the Cornwall Chronicle:
‘GEORGE BYWORTH (late Master Mariner) has great pleasure in making known to the public at large, and particularly to families who visit George Town for health and recreation, that he has obtained a license for the BRITISH FAMILY HOTEL, where will be found accommodation for families and parties, of the most agreeable nature, and at moderate remunerative charges. G. B. will devote himself to ensure the comfort of all persons who favour him with their patronage’.

George Town, TasmaniaGeorge Town, Tasmania from Francis Russell Nixon, The Cruise of the Beacon: a narrative of a visit to the Islands in Bass's Straits (London, 1857) Shelfmark 10498.aa.7. BL flickr Noc

However in September 1857 George Byworth, licensed victualler, was declared insolvent.  By July 1859 the Cornwall Chronicle was reporting the destitute state of the family.  George was desperate to find work and, even though he had ‘seen better days’, he was very willing to accept ‘humble employment’.  Local people raised money for the Byworths and donated clothing, flour, tea, sugar, wood and coal.  Amelia was given help to open a milliner’s shop. 

Launceston, TasmaniaLaunceston, Tasmania from Élisée Reclus, The Earth and its Inhabitants (London, 1878) Shelfmark 10005.ff. BL flickrNoc

The next blow was Amelia’s death from dropsy in October 1862.  George tried to earn a living by running evening classes in navigation, and then expanded this into a commercial and nautical school offering ‘an English education’.  But in 1869 the seven-roomed cottage in Launceston he had occupied was advertised for letting, and his household goods were put up for auction – ‘Piano, table, chairs, bedstead, cooking utensils, and quantity of sundries’.

Things weren’t going well for the Byworth family in London either.  In 1869 George’s brother Thomas was sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour for receiving stolen goods.

In September 1870 George Byworth entered the Launceston Invalid Depôt, a government-run institution for the sick and poor.  He was unable to work but left in March 1872 at his own request.  George died in Launceston on 20 October 1876 at the age of 69 after a life full of incident.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Trove newspapers
British Newspaper Archive

Marine Society boy to master mariner to pauper – Part 1

03 December 2019

Marine Society boy to master mariner to pauper – Part 1

We met George Byworth in our story about the East India Company and Marine Society boys.  He was given as an example of a boy apprentice who made good of the opportunity offered by the Marine Society.  Here we look at his interesting life in more detail.

George was born in London, the son of watchmaker Thomas Byworth and his wife Mary.  His baptism record at St James Clerkenwell from March 1807 gives his date of birth as 23 February 1807.  This tallies with the age given on his death certificate.  However records from the Marine Society and the Board of Trade say George was 14 in March 1823 and 15½ in September 1824, suggesting he was born in 1809.  Why the discrepancy?

Sailor Boy on the lookoutSailor boy on the look-out from Mark James Barrington Ward, The Round World (London, 1890) Shelfmark 10004.f.7.  BL flickr  Noc

From March 1823 to May 1824 George served in the East India Company ship Scaleby Castle on a voyage to Bombay and China.  He sailed with nine other Marine Society boys, one of whom fell overboard and drowned.  They were paid a monthly wage of 10s. 

List of Marine Society Boys on the Scaleby CastleList of Marine Society boys from IOR/L/MAR/B/34-O Journal of Scaleby Castle Noc

Captain David Rae Newall’s journal of the voyage sheds light on how vulnerable these young boys were.  On 1 April 1823 seaman Thomas Barnes was confined in irons for making attempts ‘to commit an unnatural crime on some of the Marine Society Boys’.  On 13 August 1823 a court of enquiry found seaman James Russel guilty of an ‘unnatural attempt’ upon George Byworth.  Russel had a cut on the back of his hand which George said he had made with his knife.  Russel was punished with three dozen lashes.

 In September 1824 George was bound as a merchant navy apprentice to William Shepherd for four years.  He petitioned the East India Company in September 1827 to be granted free mariner’s indentures for India.  This was approved and he spent some time in Calcutta as a merchant officer in the intra-Asia or ‘country’ trade.

George then based himself in Australia undertaking convict and sealing voyages.  Questioned about provisions on sealing vessels in 1834, he described an allowance of pork, bread, flour, coffee, sugar and spirits, supplemented by gathered food such as fish, penguin eggs and petrels.

Map of KerguelenMap of Kerguelen from John Nunn, Narrative of the Wreck of the 'Favourite' on the Island of Desolation (London, 1850) Shelfmark 10460.e.23. BL flickr  Noc

In March 1832 George was the chief officer in the Adelaide when she was sent to Kerguelen, or Desolation Island, to rescue five shipwrecked men.  The Adelaide met with Captain Alexander Distant who reported that he had already taken the men to St Helena.  George went on board Distant’s ship for some supplies but a violent gale prevented him from returning to the Adelaide.  He was obliged to sail with Distant to St Helena.

View of St Helena from the seaView of St Helena from the sea from John Charles Melliss, St. Helena: a physical, historical, and topographical description of the island (London, 1875) Shelfmark 10096.gg.15.  BL flickr Noc

On 14 August 1833 George wrote to the Governor of St Helena telling his story and asking to be paid the cost of clothing provided by Captain Distant plus the rate allowed by the British government to wrecked mariners.  The St Helena Council granted him a daily allowance of 1s 6d.   George wrote again on 9 September expressing his thanks for the island’s kindness, and asking for £12 for his passage on the Lord Hobart to the Cape of Good Hope where he could pick up a ship to return to Tasmania.  The East India Company was repaid George’s expenses by the Admiralty in March 1834.

Part 2 will tell what happened next!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/34-O Journal of Scaleby Castle and IOR/L/MAR/B/34DD Pay Book of Scaleby Castle.
IOR/B/180 pp.398, 406 Petition of George Byworth to the East India Company to be granted free mariner’s indentures September 1827.
The National Archives BT 150/1 Merchant Navy apprenticeship September 1824.
IOR/G/9/24 Cape Factory Records.
IOR/G/32/96 St Helena Factory Records.
Trove newspapers.
Thierry Jean-Marie Rousset, ‘Might is Right’. A study of the Cape Town/Crozets elephant seal oil trade (1832–1869). A dissertation submitted for the degree of Master of Arts in Historical Studies. Faculty of the Humanities University of Cape Town. 2011.

 

26 November 2019

Sending sad news from India in 1858

A letter reporting the death of a friend in India in 1858 was donated earlier this year to India Office Private Papers.  Alfred Eteson of the Bengal Medical Service wrote from Camp Amorka Gorruckpore on 4 April 1858 giving an account of the death of Dundas William Gordon, Bengal Artillery, who was killed at Lucknow on 8 January 1858 during the Indian Uprising. 

EtesonMss Eur F731 Letter from Alfred Eteson at Camp Amorka Gorruckpore 4 April 1858, giving an account of the death of Dundas William Gordon

Eteson asked a friend, Mrs Barnett, to pass on the sad news to the Gordon family: ‘I think it is incumbent on every survivor in these troubled times to send home if he possibly can, any account of those who have fallen, more particularly if he has been at all intimate with any one of them’.  From clues in the letter, I have identified the recipient as Eliza Barnett, wife of medical practitioner Henry Barnett, living in Blackheath, Kent.  Her son James was serving as an officer in the Madras Army - Eteson reported that he thought he had caught sight of him in Burma.

Alfred Eteson and Dundas Gordon had lived in the same house in Burma from November 1854 until May 1857.  They then travelled together to Calcutta where they separated in July. Eteson went with Major Vincent Eyre to Arrah whilst Gordon was disappointed to be left in Ghazipur to guard the opium in the warehouses. 

The young men were reunited in September 1857 and went on together to Allahabad.  Eteson then stayed behind, ill with fever, and that was the last he saw of his friend.   He wrote to Gordon several times but the letters may never have reached him as the post was so uncertain at that time.  Eteson received no reply.  He only heard of Gordon’s death when he met up with two sergeants of their old battery a few days before he wrote to Mrs Barnett.

Gordon had been in charge of an 8-inch howitzer gun at the Alambagh in Lucknow.  He was leaning over the parapet, looking through his glasses, when a stray round struck the top of his head killing him instantly. Eteson said he felt full of hatred and vengeance at losing an old friend in this way.

Gordon never told Eteson anything about his family and so he did not know their address or even if the parents were alive.  Eteson had found out by accident that Gordon knew his friends the Barnetts.  When talking about batting, Gordon mentioned that he had been a pupil of ’Felix’ at Blackheath – Nicholas, or ‘Felix’, Wanostrocht was a schoolmaster and famous amateur cricketer.  Eteson then asked if he knew the Barnetts of Blackheath.  Gordon said he did and that he had just received a letter saying that his sister had gone to a ball with Miss Barnett.  

Eteson wanted to pass on to the Gordons £30 which was his friend’s share of the house in Burma.  He had instructed his agents to keep this money separate from his estate should anything happen to him meanwhile.  He expressed his willingness to do anything necessary in Bengal for the Gordon family. 

The letter ends with him sending good wishes to the Barnetts although he added: ‘I can scarcely flatter myself by supposing any of the younger ones remembering me after so long an absence’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Mss Eur F731 Letter from Alfred Eteson (1832-1910), Bengal Medical Service, at Camp Amorka Gorruckpore 4 April 1858, giving an account of the death of Dundas William Gordon, Bengal Artillery, who was killed at Lucknow on 8 January 1858.  Kindly donated in 2019 by Lucy Henley, great great niece of Dundas William Gordon.

 

07 November 2019

India Office Records sent to the salt mine

In November 1940, a large quantity of original records was sent by the India Office in Whitehall to Meadowbank Salt Mine in Winsford, Cheshire for storage during the war.  Paperkeeper A T Williams went to Winsford to oversee the move.  A decision had to be taken whether to store the volumes at the top or bottom of the mine.  The chief engineer said that ‘there was a slight damp at bottom & a remote or possible chance of flooding apart from which there was a possibility of interference & handling of the volumes by malicious men below who might damage them, unless they were secure, some wire caging round them, or stored…above in a room in racks on the top level of the mine.  Also if by any chance the mine was bombed heavily in, or on the top section they again might not be safe’.

Salt mine 1Arthur Williams' letter to the India Office 8 December 1940 IOR/L/SG/8/499 Noc

Williams started his task of sorting the records.  He wrote on 8 December: ‘The sooty London dust has gone from them and now they are more or less covered with a fine film of salt which is however quite dry’.  It was a tedious and tiring job, often by candlelight.  He requested overtime pay: ‘The amount of our stuff here has caused some astonishment.  It really is a colossal pile and there are 15 wagons in the siding’.  The salt had rotted his leather shoes, so he bought himself a pair of Wellington boots.

Williams’ update of 23 February 1941 contained further worrying information.  All the volumes were covered with a thin layer of salt, and hundreds were encrusted with small particles up the diameter of a sixpence because they had been unloaded in wet or damp weather and then placed on the floor of the mine.  Some covers were warping.  Williams had worn out his leather gloves and his hands were sore and lacerated.  He had about 20,000 more volumes ‘to wade through’.  By the end of March it had been decided the leave the volumes at the bottom of the mine and joiners were at work fixing strong book racks.

Salt Mine 2List of India Office Reocords stored in the salt mine IOR/L/SG/8/499 Noc

The government’s Paper Shortage Committee became aware of the volumes at Winsford,  some dating from the 18th century. In November 1941 a note was sent to the India Office: ‘The Committee realises of course that this material may be of real historical value but it has thought it worth while to ask for your comments in view of the great demand for safe underground storage, and in view of the urgent need for waste paper salvage’.  The Committee was assured that all the records were either of historical value or of importance to discharging peacetime functions. The 44,000 volumes, weighing 250 tons, comprised copies of Proceedings of governments in India; Public and Judicial records; military recruitment and embarkation lists; Army muster rolls, lists and statements.

After the war the records had to be removed from the mine.  However the basement of the India Office had been altered and there was no room for them.   Arrangements were made in 1947 to take the records to the deep shelter at Stockwell Station in London, but only after the film of salt had been dusted off.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/SG/8/499 Storage of records at Winsford

 

29 October 2019

Sir Thomas Roe’s letters: People, products and politics of the first English embassy to India

One of the benefits of studying original manuscripts is in feeling a direct connection with the author to a degree that is not experienced in print. Much of Sir Thomas Roe’s writings during his embassy in India, from his journal to his letters, have been transcribed and printed.  We owe a debt of gratitude for this to Sir William Foster (1863-1951), the industrious and prolific Registrar and Superintendent of the India Office, as well as to the Hakluyt Society of which Foster served as President.  These transcribed and printed materials are easily and freely accessible in digital format online.  It is to these resources that I often turn during my own research.

Yet in encountering the handwritten original manuscripts, we draw closer to the people behind the writings.  We become conscious of their intentions as they write and the intended audience they write for. In the case of Roe, we become conscious that this was an official state ambassador recording his embassy perhaps for the benefit of his superiors back in England.  Thus his recollections in his journal may be coloured by an awareness of his audience.  And his accounts in his letters may seek to portray an embassy in a manner that reflects well on himself as ambassador.

Sir Thomas Roe's handwritten memoirsSir Thomas Roe's handwritten memoirs, Add Ms 6115  Noc

Roe’s memoirs and original letters are available for perusal at the British Library, and they prove an engaging read.  While his memoirs are part of the Western Manuscripts collection, which I have blogged about previously, his letters are in the East India Company archive in the India Office Records.  This in itself reflects the two cultural spaces Roe traversed and the engagement between them he sought to establish and nurture.

One of the topics often raised by Roe in his letters is the subject of saleable items at court.  Roe was after all a merchant ambassador seeking to secure a trade agreement with the Mughals.  In his letters we see lists of items deemed popular and saleable to the Indian court.
    
   Roe letter in IOR1

Roe letter in IOR2

Roe letter in IOR3

Roe letter in IOR4Advice by Sir Thomas Roe on goods and presents for Surat February 1617/18-  IOR/E/3/5 ff. 376-377  Noc

Roe also includes copious lists of presents. Mughal court protocol required visiting diplomats to present a gift to the Emperor. Roe’s letters accordingly include details of suitable gifts to be sent by the East India Company that he might impress the Emperor Jahangir.  Although in his memoirs and letters Roe would lament the “bribery” of having to give so many presents, as envoy he recognised the importance of the protocol to the Mughal court and sought to fulfill it.

Roe letter in IOR5

Roe letter in IOR6 Advice by Sir Thomas Roe on goods and presents for the Mughal court November 1616 IOR/E/3/5 f. 375 Noc

Roe would not manage to secure the trade agreement he sought, ultimately returning to England empty-handed in 1619.  The Mughals were among the most powerful and wealthy empires in the early modern world, and our less influential English isle had little to tempt them with.  Yet the ambassador’s letters reveal both the diplomatic efforts he invested in his embassy as well as his meticulous mind as a merchant in identifying commodities to sell, gift and, albeit unsuccessfully, entice the Mughals with.

Four centuries on we can look back upon a dramatic, impactful and often fraught history of Anglo-Indian relations that Roe is unlikely to have envisaged, but certainly was among the crucial first actors to play in.  As we recall that momentous embassy today, the manuscripts at the British Library are a perfect place to start to explore the historic journey.

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

Further reading:
Sir Thomas Roe’s journal 1615-1617 Add Ms 6115
Sir Thomas Roe’s letters in East India Company correspondence IOR/E/3/3-6
Sir Thomas Roe’s journal of his voyage to the East Indies Add Ms 19277 

 

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).

 

Image from The Life of the Buddha

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