Untold lives blog

144 posts categorized "Leisure"

21 November 2022

Football in the Gulf – some snippets from the early years

With the start of FIFA World Cup 2022 in which Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran will be competing, here is a look at a few mentions of football in the Gulf from the 1930s to the early 1950s from the digitised archives of the Qatar Digital Library. The Administration Report for the Bahrain Agency for 1933 reported there were ‘seven football clubs in Bahrain.'.

Administration Report for the Bahrain Agency for 1933 reporting on sportAdministration Report for the Bahrain Agency for 1933 reporting on sport IOR/R/15/2/297

Apart from regular fixtures, special football matches were arranged on a number of different occasions.  In January 1935 on the anniversary celebrations of the accession of Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as ruler of Bahrain, the Bahrain Sports Club arranged a fancy dress football match.  The British Political Agent, Colonel Percy Loch, wrote to the Adviser to the Bahrain Government, Charles Belgrave, that he would not be able to attend due to an afternoon reception and then Shaikh Sir Hamad’s dinner.

Football matches were also often arranged on the arrival of a British ship in port.  For example, in October 1951 the British consulate in Muscat wrote to Sayyid Tarik bin Taimur (the father of the current ruler of the Sultanate of Oman, Sultan Haitham) to ask if he would care to play in a Muscat team against a visiting team from HMS Loch Quoich.

Letter from British consulate in Muscat  to Sayyid Tarik bin Taimur Letter to Sayyid Tarik bin Taimur to ask if he would care to play in a Muscat team against a visiting team from HMS Loch Quoich  IOR/R/15/6/301, f 28

As in contemporary times football and politics are often inextricably intertwined.  In the late 1930s the provision of sports facilities including ‘soccer fields’ featured in a report by a journalist entitled ‘IS JOHN BULL’s FACE RED’ which lampooned British officialdom for its perceived ineptitude in the handling of the oil opportunity in Bahrain.

Report on provision of sports facilities including ‘soccer fields’'Articles in Press on Gulf Affairs'  IOR/R/15/2/178

Then, as today, the provision of facilities to play football in the Gulf can attract comment in the media both positive and negative.

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

Further reading:
File 8/8 1931-34 Bahrain Agency Administration Reports and Related Papers [‎102r] (208/310), IOR/R/15/2/297
'File 6/58 Accession Celebrations on H. E. Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's accession as the Ruler of Bahrain Islands', IOR/R/15/2/1276
'File 9/1 IV Visits of HM Ships' [‎28r] (55/96), IOR/R/15/6/301
'Articles in Press on Gulf Affairs' [‎50r] (101/728), IOR/R/15/2/178

 

27 October 2022

‘Dear old Squirrel’ - Cyril Davenport of the British Museum

Cyril Davenport, pictured below in his 80s, does not appear to be as careworn as his life and career should demand!  Not only did he devote 45 years to work at the British Museum Library, he also found time to paint, engrave, photograph, write and edit reference works, lecture on diverse subjects, and judge for international exhibitions.  In addition, he was a Justice of the Peace and Major of the 37th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers.  Only someone with a lifespan of around 93 years could have managed it!

Portrait of Cyril Davenport in his 80s by Edward Patry from Hastings Museum and Art Gallery - white hair, beard and moustache, dressed in a black formal coatPortrait of Cyril Davenport by Edward Patry - Image courtesy of Hastings Museum and Art Gallery

Davenport was not an obvious candidate for a job in the Museum, which he joined as an assistant in 1868 and later supervised the bookbindings department.  He was born in Sterling to an army family, educated at Charterhouse and worked as a draftsman for the War Office.  It seems likely that this training gave him technical and practical understanding in the analysis and description of objects, an experience lacking in his more academic Museum and Library colleagues.

Davenport recognised the importance of identifying and recording the outsides of books.  His ledgers containing descriptions, sketches and rubbings of the remarkable bindings held in the Museum Library are still useful to researchers.

Davenport’s ledger of descriptions and sketches of bindingsDavenport’s descriptions and sketches of bindings in the Library’s Case 20 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Davenport’s publications did not always meet with universal approbation.  His book English Heraldic Book-stamps was subject to particular censure; errors in the heraldry were noted in reviews.  Other books addressed subjects as diverse as coronation regalia, cameos, architecture, mezzotints, and miniatures.

Davenport was much in demand as a public speaker, by learned institutions as well as local societies of amateurs.  There is evidence that he could be inspirational, in one case at least.  The well-known bookbinder Cedric Chivers resolved to create his own decorated vellum covers ('vellucent') after hearing Davenport lecture on the subject.

Vellucent binding by Chivers showing a naked woman draped in mauve cloth with a wine jug on her shoulder, against an Art Nouveau backgroundThe Rubaiyat (1903) with a ‘vellucent’ binding by Cedric Chivers - Shelfmark c108bbb3. Image by permission of the copyright holder. Database of Bookbindings

After his retirement in 1913, Davenport moved to Hastings with his wife Constance (d.1932) and arts-loving daughter Dorothy (b.1891).  His son Cyril Henry had died in the previous year.

There was a rich social life in Sussex with many communal activities, a notable example being the Hastings historical pageant in 1914.  Davenport participated and was apparently a great help in the costume and banner department!

Newspaper article reporting Davenports’s third prize in a national art competitionNews of Davenports’s third prize in a national art competition includes a character analysis! Weekly Dispatch (London), 1 June 1925 p.7 British Newspaper Archive

Perhaps the most sympathetic view of Davenport’s character came from his eccentric friend and British Museum colleague, poet Theo Marzials.  In  a condolence letter to Davenport’s daughter, Marzials wrote: 'Cyril is a bit of me – of course, and always was and ever will be.  We just meet and are side by side, arm in arm, heart to heart …. Dear old Squirrel'.

P J M Marks
Curator, Bookbindings, Printed Historical Sources

Further reading;
Theo Marzials and Davenport in The Best of Betjeman 1878 Selected by John Guest 
British Newspaper Archive e.g. The Hastings pageant - Hastings and St Leonards Observer Saturday 27 June 1914 p.9; Lecture by Davenport entitled ‘Beautiful Bookbindings’ - Hastings and St Leonards Observer 24 October 1914 p.7

 

04 August 2022

Soldiers’ gardens in India

There were two kinds of soldiers’ gardens in British India: regimental and company.  Regimental gardens were worked by the men for fixed rates of pay, or by local people under supervision, and they supplied vegetables for the military commissariat department or the local market.  They were situated at a convenient distance from the barracks.  Company gardens were worked solely by the soldiers for their own amusement and benefit, and they were located in the immediate vicinity of the barracks.

Plan of proposed site for a soldiers’ garden at Rangoon 1850s

Plan of proposed site for a soldiers’ garden at Rangoon, surveyed by John Richard Magrath, Madras Artillery, 1850s - British Library IOR/W/F/4/2648/172549 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

All proceeds from the sale of produce from a regimental garden were paid into a fund managed by a committee of three officers.  Working expenses were drawn from the fund – repair of tools, well gear, or walls and fences; seeds; pay for Indians to work the well.  The balance was divided between the soldiers working in the garden in proportion to their skill and industry, and the produce of their labour.  Annual accounts were accompanied by a statement giving full information about the working of the garden, the number of men employed, and the effect on their character.

The military works services ensured a sufficient water supply to irrigate the gardens.  Cattle were used to work the wells.  The ordnance department supplied garden implements at set rates.

Commanding officers submitted annual requisitions for flower and vegetable seeds to the superintendents of botanical gardens at Saharanpur, Calcutta, and Poona.  The superintendents made notes on the cover of each package of seeds – name, quantity, month for sowing.  Seed potatoes were supplied free of charge by the army commissariat.

Cash prizes for soldiers’ gardens were awarded by the government according to a scale laid down in army regulations.  The distribution was treated as a fête and a holiday for the men.  A band played and the regimental school’s children attended.  Officers were told to make a point of being present at the distribution of prizes.

When new troops moved into the barracks, regimental and company gardens were inspected, and the cost of any necessary repairs to surrounding walls, fences or tools was paid from the garden fund.  The incoming corps had to purchase the fruit trees and any crops in the ground.  One week before the march of regiment, the commissariat officer employed native gardeners to keep up the gardens.  The gardeners were discharged a week after the arrival of the new corps.

Full instructions for the cultivation of gardens in India, both in the hills and on the plains, were contained in a pamphlet written by the superintendent of the government botanical garden at Saharanpur.  Commanding officers could buy the pamphlet at the cost of one rupee per copy.

Gardens for native troops might also be sanctioned at newly occupied trans-frontier stations and remote places lacking local supplies of fresh vegetables.  In these cases, the government gave a grant of money to purchase land, tools, stock the garden with seed, and pay the wages of a mali for one year.  Commanding officers were responsible for these gardens being managed as self-supporting after the first year.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Library, IOR/L/MIL/17/5/633 Army Regulations India Vol XII Barracks (1900)

 

02 August 2022

Papers of John Frederick Macnair

A new acquisition to the India Office Private Papers has recently been catalogued and is available to researchers in the British Library’s Asian & African Studies reading room.  This is the papers of John Frederick Macnair, a partner in the firm of Begg, Dunlop & Co.

John Frederick Macnair was born on 9 August 1846 at Gourock in Scotland to James Macnair (1796-1865) and Janet Rankin (1810-1889).  In 1891, he married Veronica Charlotte Pugh (1867-1969), and they had three children: James (born 1892), John (born 1895) and Veronica (born 1902).  He died on 12 March 1908 at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Letter home to England Letter home to England  - Mss Eur F752/1 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Begg, Dunlop & Co were managing agents in India with interests in a range of commodities such as tea, tobacco and indigo.  There is much in the collection relating to Macnair’s work with the firm, including accounts and information on tea estates, and tobacco and indigo concerns in which the firm had an interest.  Between 1870 and 1893, Macnair was based in Calcutta and the collection contains three of his copy letter books detailing his business correspondence, but also includes a few personal letters to his family in England.  In one letter to his sister Lilla, dated 17 May 1872, he roughly sketched the veranda of his house, and described the view: 'We look over the tank to the Post Office and can just see the masts of the ships & steamers in the river'. 

Letter expressing disappointment at not getting leave Letter dated 28 September 1875 expressing disappointment at not getting leave - Mss Eur F752/1 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Life in India was often not easy, and in a letter of 28 September 1875 to his employer, he expressed his disappointment at being refused leave: 'I did not think my absence would cause much inconvenience and it is a rather sore disappointment to me having to make my mind up for another twelve months in this country but I suppose there is no help for it.  After having been five years in B.D.& Co’s I feel it would be foolish for a present disappointment to throw away future prospects in the firm, though these may be remote, by a resignation now'.

Private Account BookPrivate Account Book - Mss Eur F752/13 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The collection includes his personal account book for 1877 to 1883 giving details of what he spent his money on in order to keep up the lifestyle of a British businessman in India at that time.  It lists subscriptions (hockey club, Daily Englishman newspaper, London Missionary Society), dinner and billiards at the Bengal Club, fees for the Calcutta Golf Club, carriage hire, servants wages, charitable donations, etc.

Receipts for goods purchased Receipts for goods purchased - Mss Eur F752/19 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In the early 1890s, Macnair moved back to England, and settled in Newcrofts, in Hillingdon, West London.  The collection contains fascinating material on the contents of his house giving a glimpse into how late Victorians decorated and furnished their homes.  This includes inventories of the effects and furniture in 1898, and correspondence with local builders, such as Fassnidge & Son on extensive works to improve and maintain the building.  There is also a collection of receipts from a wide array of retailers of furniture, fabrics and homeware, along with antiques dealers and carriage manufacturers.  Many of the receipts are elaborately illustrated to best advertise their business, such as for Samuel Withers, Borough Carriage Works; W E Ellis, a Scarborough net merchant; and Oetzmann & Co, cabinetmakers.  There is also a wonderfully detailed receipt from George Wright & Co, manufacturer of billiard tables, listing everything a Victorian gentleman would want for his games room.

Receipt for Billiard TableReceipt for Billiard Table - Mss Eur F752/19 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
The papers of John Frederick Macnair are searchable on Explore Archives and Manuscripts Mss Eur F752.

Begg, Dunlop & Co 

 

07 July 2022

World War Two Reception Camps for Indian POWs

In late 1944, as Allied forces gradually re-took territory from German control in Europe, increasing numbers of prisoners of war were liberated.  These POWs needed to be organised and assessed before either being sent back to service or returned home.  The India Office Records holds several files on this process for Indian POWs, which gives an insight into the challenges of such a complex task.

Leaflet to all British Commonwealth Ex-Prisoners of War Leaflet to all British Commonwealth Ex-Prisoners of War -  IOR/L/WS/1/709  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

By the late summer of 1944, it was estimated that around 12,000 Indian POWs, together with Indian seamen and civilian internees would come into Allied hands.  Lieutenant General Molesworth, at the India Office in London, was anxious that sufficient funds be provided for rehabilitation and recreation for the POWs at the camps before their onward transit to India.  In a memo to his colleagues he stated: 'I think you will agree that these men may be kept for some time in this country and after their experiences we should do all we can to make their stay a happy one and restore their morale before they embark for India'.

Map showing location of Reception Camps in UKMap showing location of Reception Camps in UK -  IOR/L/WS/1/709  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

By November, the Prisoner of War Organisation was in full operation, with camps at the following locations:
• Near Thetford, Norfolk: Headquarters at Shadwell Court; Reception Centre at Southwood; and camps at Snareshill and Riddlesmere.
• Near Brandon, Norfolk: Rest camp at Lower Didlington, and Indian hospitals at Weeting Hall and Upper Didlington.
• Near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk: a rest camp at Fornham.
• Near Much Hadham, Herts: a rest camp at Wynches
• London: a leave camp at Dean Lodge, Roehampton.

Layout of Indian Reception Camps Layout of Indian Reception Camps -  IOR/L/WS/1/709 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The files do not contain lists of names of the Indian POWs who passed through the camps, but they contain copies of a ‘War Diary or Intelligence Summary’ which gives fascinating details on how they spent their time. 

War Diary for August 1945 War Diary for August 1945 - IOR/L/WS/1/705 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Entertainments were arranged, such as regular screenings of films (both Indian and English) in the Public Cinema Hall in Thetford, and lectures at the India Forces Club.  Volunteers helped at local farms picking potatoes and peas, and there were visits to local fairs and industries, such as a visit to the Vauxhall motor works at Luton and to the Suffolk Cattle Show at Ipswich.  Some camps held classes in arts and crafts, with lessons on carpentry, leatherwork and knitting.  One camp was treated to a variety show of Russian dancers, a conjurer and jugglers.  Sport was always popular, with a Regimental tournament held in August 1945, with football, volleyball, basketball, tug of war, Kabaddi, wrestling, long and high jumps and races.  On 16 June 1945 the rest camp at Didlington received a visit from the King and Queen who enjoyed a parade of 4,000 POWs.

Newspaper article about Queen Mary's gift of ping-pong, cards, darts and other games to Indian POWs at ThetfordQueen Mary's gift of ping-pong, cards, darts and other games to Indian POWs at Thetford - British Newspaper Archive Lynn Advertiser 3 July 1945 

Leave parties were organised to London for sight-seeing.  One group visited Tottenham Hotspur Football Ground to watch a match, and there was a visit to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. A group of Sikh officers and men attended a celebration in honour of Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji at a Sikh temple in London, and a small party of Indian officers and VCOs attended the opening of the Islamic Cultural Centre by the Egyptian Ambassador at Regent’s Park on 21 November 1944.

Newspaper report of the visit of General Sir A G O Mayne to Fornham  Park in April 1945

General Sir A G O Mayne chatting to Indian soldiers at Fornham ParkVisit of General Sir A G O Mayne to Fornham  Park April 1945 - British Newspaper Archive Bury Free Press 27 April 1945

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
War diaries: Indian POW reception headquarters, Part 1, 1944-1945, shelfmark: IOR/L/WS/1/704.

War diaries: Indian POW reception headquarters, Part 2, 1944-1945, shelfmark: IOR/L/WS/1/705.

Indian POWs' reception headquarters: personnel and administration, Part 1, 1944-1947, shelfmark: IOR/L/WS/1/709.

Indian POWs' reception headquarters: personnel and administration, Part 2, 1944-1947, shelfmark: IOR/L/WS/1/710.

Prisoners of War: India POW Reception HQ - liaison letters, 1944, shelfmark: IOR/L/WS/1/1396.

Weekly returns of patients accommodated in Reception Stations, 1945, shelfmark: IOR/L/WS/2/27.

Indian prisoners of war - reception camps, 1944, shelfmark: IOR/L/WS/2/43

 

27 June 2022

Dining with style: the East India Company’s communal table at Mocha

In August 1720, the East India Company’s Council in Bombay received a letter from their factors and merchants based in the city of Mocha.  They had expected this letter for some time.  It was the practice for the factory’s staff to report on their activities regularly as Mocha was the entrepôt for the coffee markets of Yemen, in which the Company had invested heavily.  The letter contained the expected business news of the factory and the shifting political situation in Yemen, which had been growing more and more fraught in the preceding few years.  Despite all this, the Company’s investment in coffee was yielding good results and the Council could feel comfortable in the knowledge that their men in Mocha were managing their affairs well. 

View from the factory at MochaView from the factory at Mocha by Henry Salt from Voyages and Travels to India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia, and Egypt (London, 1809) British Library Digital Store 10058.l.13 BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With this letter came a list of the factory’s expenses, the salaries of guards and domestic servants, the pay given to the Company’s four merchants, and the costs of running the factory itself.  One of the largest of these was the expenses incurred in maintaining the factory’s ‘Table’ which amounted per month to nearly 300 Spanish dollars (the famous piece of eight).  This was a considerable sum to feed the factory’s 22 residents, including the Eurasian ‘topas’ and ‘peon’ guards.  Access to the table was also open to visiting English merchants and ships’ officers when they were present in the port, making it a space for social interactions in addition to eating and drinking.

The records kept by the Mocha factors tell us a great deal about what the table would have been laden with.  For the most part it seems like fairly standard fare for an early modern English kitchen: greens, salt, beef, onions, limes, beef, mutton and fresh fish appear regularly, as do fowls, chickens, pigeons and eggs.  To this menu was added some local flavours, with limes, ‘spice’ and ‘temper’.  This latter is particularly interesting, as a temper, Tadka or Tarka, is a distinctive feature of South Asian cuisine, where spices are mixed with oil or ghee then strained, leaving a flavoured medium.  So, while some of the factory’s inhabitants may have been happy to stick to familiar flavours, others were regularly sampling local ones.  Additionally, the factory regularly received shipments of Persian wine, along with beer produced on the Cape.  Wine was so important to the factory that the letter received from Mocha protests that it had been two years since they had received any from the Company.  Instead, they had been forced to buy their own, rather than face doing without it.

The contents and habits around the Company’s table can tell historians a lot about the merchants’ attitudes to sociability.  The table was a forum for maintaining relationships with the factory’s staff, while also inviting travellers and visitors to make new connections.  Company pay may have been poor, but service in Mocha, as in other factories, came with significant benefits.  Studying the details of conditions in the factories beyond India can provide a great deal of texture and depth to our understanding of the lived experience of Company service, while giving an impression of the daily routines of the merchants themselves.  The factory was a place of commerce, but also a domestic space.

Peter Good
Lecturer in Early Modern Europe and the Islamic World, University of Kent

Further reading:
British Library IOR/G/17/1-2 Egypt and Red Sea Factory Records

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

 

10 February 2022

JMW Turner, Artist and Publican?

In June 1820, JMW Turner’s uncle Joseph Mallord William Marshall, after whom he had been named, died.  Turner had lodged with his uncle, then a butcher in Brentford, for several years during his childhood.  Marshall left everything to his widow, Mary, with instructions about who should inherit on her death.  Turner and his cousin Henry Harpur, a solicitor, challenged the will so that they would not have to wait until their aunt’s death to benefit from their uncle’s will.  An agreement was reached whereby Turner and Harpur received four properties in New Crane Wapping, at the southern end of New Gravel Lane: Turner took nos. 7 & 8 and Harpur 9 & 10.  Turner also agreed to pay his aunt Mary an annuity of £20.

Map of Wapping from Horwood's Plan 1792-1799Map of Wapping from Horwood’s Plan 1792-1799 -  Romantic London Map © The British Library Board

 

Map of the Thames end of New Gravel Lane from Horwood’s Plan showing location of numbers 7-10Map of the Thames end of New Gravel Lane from Horwood’s Plan showing location of numbers 7-10 -  Romantic London Map © The British Library Board

Number 8 was a public house, The Ship and Bladebone.  The pub in Watts Street, off what was Old Gravel Lane, renamed itself Turner’s Old Star in 1987.  This may be somewhere that Turner visited but it is not the pub that he owned.  The Ship and Bladebone was a ten-minute walk away in what is now Garnet Street (formerly New Gravel Lane).

Site of The Ship and Bladebone - photo of sign for Garnet Street in front of school playgroundSite of The Ship and Bladebone  in Garnet Street– photograph by author Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Ship and Bladebone had a succession of tenants, one of whom, Elizabeth Crosset, was involved in an illegal practice, whereby coal whippers, who unloaded coal from the ships on the Thames, were forced to lodge in certain pubs and pay unreasonably high rents.  It is uncertain whether Turner was aware of this, although he was certainly involved in the overall running of the pub, chasing unpaid rent and arranging leases.  There are details of Turner paying for repairs to the roof, which were carried out in 1843 by the landlord Thomas Farrell.

Advert for sale of a 19-year lease on the Ship and Bladebone - Morning Advertiser 28 November 1844Advert for sale of a 19-year lease on the Ship and Bladebone - Morning Advertiser 28 November 1844

There have been many stories about the time that Turner spent in Wapping, most of them without much factual basis.  Turner’s first biographer, Walter Thornbury, suggested that he would go to Wapping in order to visit prostitutes and make sketches of them.  This seems to have been based on comments made by Ruskin, who assumed that some of Turner’s erotic drawings were made in Wapping.  Thornbury seems unaware of The Ship and Bladebone, where Turner would have had legitimate business.

Another story is that he installed his lover, Sophia Booth, as landlady at The Ship and Bladebone.  Her name does not appear on any documents associated with the pub and she is recorded as living, without gaps, in Margate and Deal and then with Turner in Chelsea.

After Turner’s death in 1851, his will was challenged.  When matters were settled in 1856, the pub went to a cousin, John Turner, as ‘heir at law’.  By this time, it had been abandoned and had fallen into disrepair.  The pub next passed to the lawyer, Jabez Tepper, a relation of Turner’s by marriage, who had acted for the relatives who contested the will.  The pub was demolished and, in 1868, Tepper sold the land to the Limehouse District Board of Works and a gasworks was built.  The site is now occupied by a primary school.

Sophia Booth did have an intriguing connection with Wapping.  Her younger sister, Sarah Elizabeth, lived there with her husband John Green.  I have been unable to find any connection between the Greens and The Ship and Bladebone but this is certainly an area for further research.

David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Further reading:
Sam Smiles - ‘On the Waterfront: The Darker Side of the Ship and Bladebone”, Turner Society News. No 107, December 2007.
Franny Moyle, The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W.Turner (London, 2016).
Anthony Bailey, Standing In The Sun – a life of J.M.W.Turner (1997).
Bernard Falk, Turner the Painter: His Hidden Life (London 1938).
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A. founded on letters and papers furnished by his friends and fellow Academicians, Volume 2 (London, 1862).
British Newspaper Archive also available via Findmypast.
Search for JMW Turner papers in the British Library catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

Turner's House logo

Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is open

 

31 January 2022

Ira Aldridge in Ottoman Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untold lives blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs