Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘East India Company


Tales from the British India Office

Muscat (1811)
Muscat pictured in 1811

A transgender singer hits stardom in Baghdad. Officials scramble to impose order after a Kuwaiti restaurant is found to be selling cat meat. Gulf royals on an official visit to London are left marooned in a drab south London suburb because of a shortage of hotel rooms in the West End.

These are some of the quirky stories hiding in 9 miles of shelving at the British Library (BL) that hold the India Office Records – millions of documents recording Britain’s 350-year presence in the sub-continent.

The India Office did not only administer India, it also exercised colonial rule over an area stretching west as far as Aden. That’s why the files cover Persia and Arabia. And the reason the stories are coming to light is that the Qatar Foundation has paid £8.7m for nearly half a million documents relating to the Gulf to be digitised.

Work started in 2012, and many of those documents have now gone online at the Qatar National Library’s digital library portal.

Never formally part of the British Empire, the Gulf nonetheless came under colonial administration after being targeted for trade in the 17th Century by the East India Company.

Two centuries later, the government established direct control through the India Office.

Persia and Arabia (map of 1850)

For much of the period covered by the documents – from the 1750s to 1951 – the Gulf was a little-regarded backwater, dotted with coastal villages that scraped a living through fishing or pearl-diving, with basic goods being traded to and fro.

Officials created a complex network of regional authorities.

British officers and locally recruited “native agents” in Bahrain, Muscat, Sharjah and other towns reported to a British ambassador known as the Resident, based for most of this period in the Persian port of Bushire or Busheer (now Bushehr in Iran).

British officials would also travel the region, making some of the first journeys by outsiders into the harsh desert interior.

In 1865 Lewis Pelly, the British Resident, was dispatched to Riyadh – then a small oasis settlement – to placate tribes accused of raiding the coastal towns, one of the first such expeditions by an outsider. He was knighted nine years later.

Pelly’s passport – “fair but sunburnt”

Front cover of passport issued at Bombay Castle in 1858 to Lewis Pelly, East India Company officer and British diplomat (“…complexion fair but sunburnt…”), for a journey from India to England.
Front cover of passport issued at Bombay Castle in 1858 to Lewis Pelly, East India Company officer and British diplomat (“complexion fair but sunburnt…”), for a journey from India to England

The records Pelly and other officials left – government papers, diplomatic dispatches, letters, diaries, financial receipts, maps, sketches, photographs and so on – have long been accessible only to those researchers able to visit the BL in person and navigate the often haphazardly catalogued archive.

“Given the paucity of publicly available data within the Gulf States, materials held in Britain are often the primary source of data for scholars working on the Gulf,” says Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, author of Qatar and the Arab Spring.

“Digitising the collection will make it far easier for scholars who are unable to visit London to access the material.”

Anyone with internet access will be able to search 475,000 pages from the two most important British outposts, at Bushire and Bahrain, along with 25,000 pages of medieval Arabic scientific manuscripts from the British Library’s own collections.

Boxes of cinnamon

Handwritten note from 1863 by Lewis Pelly outlining approximate annual imports by sea from India to Basrah and Baghdad, showing the rich array of goods passing through the Gulf at that time, including cinnamon, coffee, copper, ebony, ginger and indigo.
Handwritten note from 1863 by Lewis Pelly outlining approximate annual imports by sea from India to Basra and Baghdad, showing the rich array of goods passing through the Gulf at that time, including wax candles, cardamom and cinnamon – and, lower down (out of sight), coffee, copper, ebony, ginger and indigo

The portal currently holds between a quarter and a third of this total, with the remainder due online by the end of this year. Access is free, without registration, and the entire site is navigable in English and Arabic.

“What makes this project special is the variety of content – maps, archives, manuscripts – and the work we’re doing to create metadata for search, to make sure this content is relevant to a wide range of audiences, both in the UK and internationally,” says Richard Gibby, head of the British Library/Qatar Foundation partnership.

The BL’s curators are also writing contextual features, to help interpret the wealth of material and highlight unique stories from the archive – such as the tale of Massoud El Amaratly.

Born female in southern Iraq in the early 20th Century, El Amaratly identified as male, and became famous in Baghdad in the 1920s for his distinctive renditions of rural folk songs. The BL has several recordings, and has brought in ethnomusicologist Rolf Killius to curate a unique digital Gulf music archive that also includes such rarities as traditional pearl-divers’ sea shanties.

As part of his research, Killius has also embarked on fieldwork, filming new performances of traditional music such as this bagpipe and drum ensemble in Oman.

One benefit of the digitisation project is that curators handle every item in previously poorly-labelled files, sometimes unearthing gems in the process.

Amid a shortage of paper, an unknown clerk in 1940s Bahrain took a couple of British World War II Arabic propaganda posters, turned them over and typed on the back.

Propaganda leaflet

These rare posters, trumpeting British freedoms and progressiveness, went unnoticed for 70 years, until BL curator Louis Allday chanced upon them while preparing files for digitisation. He writes about his find here.

But principles of free academic inquiry, which guide the BL’s work, contrast with Freedom House’s assessment of Qatar as “not free”.

Amnesty International called Qatar’s new cybercrimes law, passed last month, “a major setback for freedom of expression”, and Qatari writer Mohammed Al-Ajami remains in jail, serving a 15-year sentence for a poem deemed insulting to the monarch.

The BL and Qatar National Library (QNL) both hold copies of the digitised archive but Gibby’s expectation is that the portal – currently hosted by Amazon – will eventually be transferred for hosting in Qatar. That could theoretically expose material to manipulation by Qatari censors.

“That was discussed very clearly right from the beginning,” says Gibby. “Both sides made very clear to each other that there is no suggestion this will be censored. To date that has been borne out. We, the British Library, are trusting [the Qatar Foundation] and our faith is in them.”

Rosie Bsheer, history professor at Yale University, comments that any endeavour to make archives more accessible should be welcomed “despite Qatar’s egregious record on civil liberties”.

Al-Biruni and Archimedes

Manuscripts from the British Library - Al-Biruni and a translation of Archimedes
Left: A page from one of only three known copies of a treatise on astrolabes by 11th Century polymath Al-Biruni. The illustration is for a hand-held mechanical calendar, the Box of the Moon, showing internal gears.
Al-Biruni’s manuscript may have been the first to depict such miniature technology.
Right: Arabic translation of a work by Archimedes, showing a section of a water-clock – the man’s head has eyes that change colour on the hour, as a bird drops balls on to a cymbal.

The digitisation project has created dozens of jobs at the BL, where staff are pushing the boundaries of Optical Character Recognition software to convert typescripts and printed text into searchable files – relatively straightforward in English, but notoriously difficult in Arabic, which uses cursive letter-forms.

“In Europe, these kind of funds are not available,” says Dr Joachim Gierlichs of the QNL, referring to the millions provided by the Qatar Foundation. “As a curator, your struggle is to keep the collection open. But to develop and enhance it like this? That’s not an opportunity any more.”

The greatest benefits may be intangible.

A project on this scale, facilitating universal access to a major archive in English and Arabic, has the potential to change perceptions of the Middle East – from outside, and also from within.

“The partnership,” says Gierlichs, “enables Qatar and the Gulf to discover their own history.”

Photo taken in the 1880s by Meccan photographer Abd al-Ghaffar. It shows Sharif Yahya (second from right), a close relative of the ruler of Mecca, with two lesser noblemen (left). Yahya's slave (far right) holds a long-barrelled rifle, and all four men wear traditional weapons, known as "janbiya" – three are long scimitars, one is a shorter, curved dagger.
Abd al-Ghaffar, the first Meccan photographer, took more than 250 shots of Mecca and its inhabitants between 1886 and 1889, as well as the first photographs of pilgrims participating in the hajj pilgrimage

This weekend Matthew Teller starts Round the Bend, a weekly series of tales from the India Office, in the Magazine Monitor.

Forced reforms and atrocities go hand in hand:  Peter “The Great” of Russia (1672-1727)

On March 1697, Tsar Peter “The Great” of Russia (25 years of age) started his 16 months journey visit of western Europe; this was the first time any Tsar ever ventured out of Russia.

A total of 250 people formed the “Great Embassy” and Peter was supposed to be traveling incognito because he had no patience for official ceremonies and he intended to get plenty of hands on the current inventions and state of the arts in shipbuilding and military equipment.

Ambassadors Lefort, Menshikov, and Feodor Golovin were to substitute for Peter in official ceremonies, negotiate, and sign treaties, especially forming an alliance against Turkey so that Russia could acquire a sea port on the Black Sea.

A year ago, the ragtag Russian army managed to take the Turkish Azov Fortress.  The previous year, the Russians failed in the attempt because the Turkish navy shipped to the fortress with supplies and reinforcement. Consequently, Peter built within a year on Voronezh 22 galleys and blocked the river way to the Turkish navy.

Peter loved sailing and building ships and worked alongside the shipbuilder:  he wanted to build a Russian navy.

The first stop was to the Swedish fortress in Riga.  Peter was humiliated by a Swede soldier as he was taking measurements of the fortification.  The governor of Riga replied: “The soldier was doing his job. If your friend wants to travel incognito, incidents like this will occur.

Peter traveled as Peter Mikhailovich with specialty as Bombardier.  He was a giant, almost 2 meter tall and presented an angular athletic strength.  He was afflicted by convulsions, especially in stressful moments: The left side of his face contorted and he looked disfigured; his muscles twisted and his eyes rolled back; the left arm flailing.

The second stop was Konigsburg in Prussia.  King FredericI took Peter hunting and they became friends.  A colonel in the Prussian army was satisfied with Peter’s artillery performance and gave him a certificate as expert in ballistics.

The next stop was Hanover, a small kingdom in northern Germany.  Sophia and lady Charlotte, respectively mother and wife of King Frederick, extended a dinner invitation to Peter and were pleased with his company.  Peter showed the ladies the calluses on his hands for working in the shipyards; they stayed up all night.

Sophia wrote a letter stating: “Peter is a prince, very good and very bad:  His character is exactly that of his country.”

The following destination was Holland (the Netherlands) where peter was to learn shipbuilding from the masters of the seas.  The stay in Zaandam was cut short because kids started throwing rocks on Peter, not knowing his position.  Thus, Peter and his six shipbuilding companions moved to Amsterdam, the greatest port of Europe at the time.

Peter worked on ships for the East India Company as a an apprentice but he was dissatisfied because the Dutch did not use drawings or plans or a written method.

Thus, Peter collected whatever sketches he got his hands on.  Peter was impressed with the open-mindedness of the Dutch; they are a prosperous people and the government focuses on successful trade; they live according to their preferences; they are not afraid of new ideas and their ports are open to ideas and goods.

In January 1698, the party landed in England and Peter received a private visit of King William III in his modest quarters. On a visit to Kensington Palace, Peter was fascinated by an anemometer for predicting the weather.

He visited a cannon factory, the Greenwich Observatory, a coin-making mint, the Academy of Sciences, Oxford University, and acquired new ways of shipbuilding.

The anecdote that Peter met with Issac Newton is not true:  Peter was a hands on person for pragmatic methods. Peter followed a session of the parliament from the roof.

A typical meal for Peter and his 21 companions living in a house consisted of 5 ribs of beef, on sheep, three-quarters of a lamb, a shoulder roasted, a loin of veal, 6 rabbits and ended up destroying the furniture and garden of the host.

The Great Embassy set out to Vienna (Austria) and met the powerful Leopold. Peter had recruited distinguished 640 experts such as Dutch Admiral Cornelius Cruys, Captain John Perry, sailors and craftsmen; 260 chests of technical devices accompanied the return home.

The Embassy was to head to Venice when news that the “streltsy” (the previous army stationed in Moscow) revolted.  Those famished soldiers were banished to keeping the frontiers after the 1697 uprising; the Scottish General Patrick Gordon tamed the revolt and sent 2000 prisoners to Moscow.

As Peter arrived to Russia, he kept a scissor handy to cut and trim the long beard of the nobles and boyars; he also cut short the long oversized sleeves of fur coats.

Within two weeks, invited people arrived clean-shaven:  people were afraid going to hell if they cut their beard.  Noblemen also arrived and wearing comfortable cloths.  He forbade people and nobles from bowing to the ground to him or another nobleman.  The Patriarch was saved from meeting with the two English barbers.

Peter adopted the European calendar, allowed women to attend dinners and parties and instituted a European system of coinage.

Then Peter turned his attention to punishing the streltsy.  These 2,000 captured Russian soldiers who revolted were interrogated and sentenced to death by hanging or dismemberment. Must “giving example” be meted out with utmost savagery and cruelty?

Forced changes and reforms in any society and consequent atrocities and brutalities go hand in hand as a determined monarch holds supreme power.

The representative of the boyyars (feudals) decided to give Peter, a couple of years before he died at the young age of 52, the title “Peter The Great”.

Peter did not believe in his divine  power but the Russian Orthodox Church made the citizens believe that the Tsar is the delegate of God.

Actually, at the death of the Empress Regent the church was faced with two options: 1. Electing the most legitimate but mentally handicapped heir Ivan from Tsar Alexis’ first wife or

2. the 10 year-old, robust, and tall Peter.

The Patriarch demanded a Zemsky Sebor (the people gathered in front of the Kremlin will vote) and the people wanted Peter. Peter was a hand-on monarch and worked with his hands along side the workers building the first Russian navy.

Sofia, the eldest half-sister of Peter initiated a revolt by the streltsy; they invaded the Kremlin and ransacked this fortress for three days.  Peter was deeply traumatized and hid in the Kremlin until the revolt subsided.

Sofia ruled as regent for 7 years, with her brother Ivan and Peter as co-Tsar.  Peter lived with his mother Natalya in Preobrazhensky, 7 miles north of Moscow.

Peter spent his time playing war games with recruited makeshift army of boys in the neighborhood and practiced carpentry.  One day, Peter heard that the streltsy are “on the move” and he jumped from his bed and fled in his nightgown to the Troitsky Monastery, 45 miles Northeast of Moscow.

Soon, General Gordon joined Peter with his army and the streltsy failed to back Sofia who was sent to live in a monastery.

In 1695, Peter advanced with an army of 30,000 to capture the fortress of Azov from the Ottoman Empire. It is a total failure and Peter said: “We did not go wrong anywhere.  We have begun our schooling in the real art of war“.

The next year, Peter tried again reinforced with 22 navy galleys and entered Azov. Peter decided to have a port in the north and had to take lands from Sweden.   Thus, he set siege to the fortress of Narva on the River Neva.

The even younger King Charles XII of Sweden forced-marched with 10,000 veteran soldiers and engaged the 30,000 Russian army at dusk.  Peter was not in the camp during the attack. The Russian army retreated in fear and disarray and drowned in the river.

While King Charles XII was finishing conquering Poland, thinking that his army will inevitably crush the Russians anytime he wished, Peter re-organized his army and attacked the Baltic river towns and cities and conquered the strategic citadel of Noteborg on the Neva.

The Russians captured Narva in 1704 and started building a seaport on swampy lands; the city will be called St. Petersburg.  Ships and land carriages, trading in St. Petersburg were to carry stones for stone constructions.

King Charles XII advanced in June 1908 to punish Peter and capture Moscow as winter was setting in.  That was the first time that an army ventured in the heart of Russia.  (A century later, Napoleon Bonaparte must have studied this calamitous defeat of the Swedish army but he opted to wait for Tsar Alexander to negotiate while in Moscow).

The Russian army avoided major frontal attacks and disturbed the Swedish supply lines and burned the fields and cities (Baturin in Ukraine where the cossacks were to join the Swedes) that could be used for resting location to the Swedish army during winter.  Peter engaged the major attack in Poltava and crushed the Swedish army.

Peter had to return the Azov fortress to the Turks as he tried to reach the Black Sea and concentrated his attention on building and enlarging St. Petersburg; the town counted 34,000 in 1714 and became the capital of Russia during Peter and during Empress Catherine “the Great” who managed to have access to the Black Sea (half a century later) .

Peter had hard times with his son Alexis who asked for asylum in Vienna.   Alexis was lured back to Russia and confined in prison and then died in prison.

In 1719, the second young boy of Peter, Peter Petrovich, from his second wife Catherine died at the age of 4.  Peter was left with no male heir and was devastated.

From then on, Peter focused on internal matters in reforming the government structure, the finances, the management, and the legal system. He confronted the endemic problem of corruption and divided the administration into nine colleges, emulated from the Prussian and Swedish examples: War, Foreign Affairs, Admiralty, Justice, Financial Control, Commerce, Mining and Manufacturing, Revenue Collection, and Expenditure.

Peter built the Winter Palace and ordered all high ranking officials to residing in St.Petersburg. He was frequently sick from many ailments related to “rich food”.  He tried to save sailors on the river in winter and dived in the cold water and died the next day.

The sailors watched the giant stone stature of Peter astride a wild, rearing stallion as the bells toll in St. Petersburg.

Catherine ruled as regent for 2 years and died.  Peter II, son of Alexis, succeeded as Tsar at the age of 12.

Note:  This story and biography was taken from Joe Foleno in the SABIS series




May 2023

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