Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

30 November 2015

The Sheikh’s stamps

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Stamps are important symbols of national identity. Kuwait had first issued its own postage stamps in 1923, and by the beginning of 1933, the Ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, had decided that he wished to do likewise.

The Sheikh accordingly communicated his request to the British authorities in the Gulf. The issue would be in the form of standard British Government of India stamps, which were already in use in Bahrain, overprinted (or ‘surcharged’) with the word ‘Bahrain’. A similar format had been used for the Kuwait stamps.

However, there was a problem. Iran (still commonly referred to as Persia) had a long-standing territorial claim to the Bahrain Islands, and the issuing of something as symbolic as a set of postage stamps bearing the name of Bahrain would be likely to provoke protests from the Persian Government.  The British agonised between their desire to meet the wishes of a loyal ally on the one hand, and on the other, their desire not to offend Bahrain’s great neighbour on the opposite side of the Gulf.  Eventually, Britain gave the go-ahead for the issue, the surcharged stamps were produced in India by the Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department, and they went on sale in Bahrain on 10 August 1933.


Government of India two annas stamp, overprinted ‘Bahrain’, circa 1935. Source: Wikipedia.


When Sheikh Hamad saw the stamps, he was not impressed. For one thing, he was disappointed that the overprinted word ‘Bahrain’ was in English, not Arabic. He had also expected that his own head would appear on the stamps, not that of the British monarch, King George V. However, a few days later, the Sheikh had cheered up, and given his Adviser, the British-born Charles Belgrave, instructions that a commemorative set of the stamps should be sent to the best known philatelist in the world - King George V himself.

Stamp Bahrain IOR_R_15_2_139_0338Noc

Copy of letter sent to the India Office on behalf of King George V, 17 October 1933, expressing the King’s gratitude for the gift of stamps from the Sheikh of Bahrain. IOR/R/15/2/139, f 167 


The issue of the stamps produced a predictable response from the Persian Government, which ordered its postal service to treat items bearing the surcharged Bahrain stamps as though no postage had been paid on them whatsoever. The Persian Government had earlier that year made a complaint to the International Bureau of the Universal Postal Union at Berne in Switzerland, asserting the Persian claim to Bahrain. The British now followed this up by having a letter published in four philatelic journals, explaining that Bahrain was ‘like Kuwait, an independent Arab State on the Arabian littoral of the Persian Gulf’. Both sides had also made representations to the League of Nations.

Stamp Bahrain IOR_R_15_2_139_0302Noc

Letter from the India Office to the editors of four British philatelic journals, 20 September 1933. IOR/R/15/2/139, f 149. 


The issue, after being passed from pillar to post, eventually faded away, leaving the Sheikh’s stamps securely affixed for the future.

Martin Woodward
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/R/15/2/139 File 1/A/1 I Stamps and Postage; Relations with Persia.


28 November 2015

William Blake and London

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To celebrate the birth of the visionary poet and artist William Blake #onthisday in 1757, I’ve chosen to write about one of his most beautiful yet bleak poems, London.

    I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
    And mark in every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

    In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infants cry of fear,
    In every voice: in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

    How the Chimney-sweepers cry
    Every black’ning Church appals,
    And the hapless Soldiers sigh
    Runs in blood down Palace walls

    But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlots curse
    Blasts the new-born Infants tear
    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

I always seem to turn to this poem just after the clocks go back and London seems particularly dark, damp, busy and cold.

London was first drafted in 1792 and published in 1794 as part of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience which showed ‘two contrary states of the human soul’.


Title-page to Songs of Experience by William Blake, London, 1794. Plate 29. Relief etching with hand-colouring. British Museum 1856,0209.365. Creative-commons-logo_304x106

The poem forces the reader to follow narrow, dark and unfriendly London streets while contemplating the brutal nature of the city. Streets and rivers alike are ordered by man, blackened churches loom while palace walls run with blood.  Soldiers sigh, harlots curse and babies cry: even the sounds described allude to desperation and woe. Blake’s London is a near-apocalyptic vision of the rotting heart of a nation.

The British Library owns the original manuscript for London which shows Blake developing the imagery within the poem. Here, Dr Linda Freeman explores the manuscript further.


The notebook of William Blake (Rossetti Manuscript) showing the draft of London in the upper left-hand corner. 1792. Add MS 49460. Noc

The published poem was accompanied by one of Blake’s relief-etched illustrations which depicts a blind and aged man led by a small child. This version in the British Museum is hand-coloured and printed in a red-orange ink.

London, plate 46 from Songs of Experience by William Blake, London 1794.  Relief etching with hand-colouring. British Museum 1856,0209.382.Creative-commons-logo_304x106

Blake’s place of burial is marked in Bunhill Fields which despite once being semi-rural, now sits between the financial district near Liverpool Street to the south and the oppressive Old Street roundabout to the north.


William and Catherine Blake’s gravestone in Bunhill Fields, London. Photograph taken by the author.

William Blake's London has inspired so many artists, writers and musicians but probably the most heart-breaking and beautiful example is Sparklehorse’s London of 1995. Sparklehorse was led by the musician Mark Linkous who tragically committed suicide in 2010. The combination of Blake’s words and Sparklehorse and Tuli Kupferberg's haunting melody bring the poem alive.

#WilliamBlake #London #OTD #OnThisDay #Sparklehorse #Linkous

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1601-1850 @AlexandraAult @BL_ModernMSS

27 November 2015

'Even to Live is an Act of Courage'

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The factory at Bandar Abbas, run by the East India Company to carry out trade in Persia and the Gulf region, was an unpleasant place to be at the best of times, described to be '…but an inch-deal from hell'.  Many of the men who went there would never leave, dying of a variety of diseases, or from the hostile intent of the locals, their own servants, or even each other.  While any of these methods are sad, both for the small community in the factory and their families, they do not bear the same sense of tragedy as the case of George Batterson.  Batterson was the Sergeant of the guard at the factory, essentially the second in command of the military presence there.

On the morning of 3 February 1746, between about 3 and 4 o’clock, a shot was heard by the watch.  After an alarm was sounded, the shot was found to have come from Batterson’s quarters, where he had shot and killed himself with his own pistol.  In the later entry concerning his death, it is noted that Batterson had sunk into “melancholy” since arriving at Bandar Abbas.



View of the city of Gamron by Johann Wolfgang Heydt c.1735 reproduced by Atlas of Mutual Heritage


This event highlights the excessive strain that must have accompanied life on the outer edge of the Company’s operations in Asia.  Sadly for Batterson, depression was not a recognisable condition to his colleagues, or to society at large, least of all on the hot, arid coast of the Persian Gulf.  Loneliness, illness and alienation cannot have been uncommon features of life in Bandar Abbas, or any of the Company’s other far-flung outposts, throwing a very human aspect into the discourse of the Company’s trade in Asia.  Trading came at a cost, not only in treasure, but in human lives.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/G/29/6 ff.321