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26 January 2015

Personal gifts from Mr Churchill

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This week the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill is being commemorated.  There has been a flood of articles analysing his role in British history.  Untold Lives would like to highlight three little-known files in the India Office Records which show Mr Churchill’s generosity to men who had been his servants when he was a young officer in the British Army.

Churchill sailed for India with his regiment, the Queen’s Own Hussars, in October 1896.  He was stationed initially at Bangalore. In July 1943 the India Office set its administrative wheels in motion on behalf of Prime Minster Churchill who wished to send a personal gift of 100 rupees to his former servant Mr S Joshua. Mr Joshua was an inmate of the Friend-in-Need Society’s home in Bangalore.  Officials in London and India liaised to transfer the money through the Resident in Mysore to Mr Joshua after he had shown proof of his identity.  Churchill conveyed his thanks from Quebec where he was attending an Allied conference. He sent a cheque for £9 6s 9d made out to ‘Accountant-General India Office’ to cover to cost of the gift and a telegram to India.


  Churchill 11294555
World War II propaganda poster featuring Winston Churchill ©De Agostini/The British Library Board Images Online

Mr P Muniswamy wrote a letter to Churchill from Bangalore in December 1946 and again in May 1947 after he heard about the 100 rupees sent to Mr Joshua.  He claimed to be an ‘old old Servant’ who had worked for Churchill when he was stationed in India.  Churchill thought that he did remember a servant of that name some 50 years earlier and asked the Private Secretary to the Maharaja of Mysore to help investigate Mr Muniswamy’s character and circumstances so that he could judge whether or not to send him a gift of money.  Information was gathered locally and sent to England. Mr Muniswamy was about 68 years of age and bore a good character. He was earning 40 rupees a month as a bearer in the officers’ mess of Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers and Miners but likely to be discharged in August 1947 when the British officers left Bangalore. His five children were grown-up and his wife was his only dependant.  The three sons were prepared to help their parents financially but Mr Muniswamy ‘wanted a gift from his old master for personal requirements’. Churchill sent a cheque for £5.


  Churchill gifts
IOR/L/PJ/7/14249  Noc

In December 1948 Churchill received a letter from M A Ranookapathy whose father K M Anthimoolum had been Churchill’s dressing boy and butler. Churchill asked the Commonwealth Relations Office to ensure that a letter in reply reached Mr Ranookapathy safely and forwarded a cheque for £5.  Arrangements were made for the money to be paid into Mr Ranookapathy’s savings account in Bombay.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story is the personal attention given by Winston Churchill to his former servants in India.   He took time to ensure the gifts reached the intended recipients even when he was carrying the burden of being Prime Minister of a nation at war.

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
IOR/R/2/Box26/214 Mysore Residency files

24 January 2015

The Death of a Political Agent: Captain Shakespear

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Today, 24 January 2015, marks 100 years since the death of colonial officer and Arabian explorer and photographer, Captain William Henry Irvine Shakespear, who died in a battle at Jarrab between the forces of Ibn Saud, the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia, and his adversary, Ibn Rashid.

Shakespear was well aware of the dangers he faced on his Arabian explorations. A day before his final departure, he wrote to the officiating Political Officer at Kuwait:

‘In case I should get snuffed out in the desert, would you be so good as to post the enclosed two letters as soon as you hear [...] As far as my kit is concerned, it might remain until you hear from   my brother - he is my executor […] I think I have left everything squared so as to give as little     trouble as possible [...]’.

Left: Portrait of Shakespear, courtesy of Imperial War Museum. Right: Letter from Shakespear to Grey, dated 11 December 1914 (IOR/R/15/5/88, f. 33)   Noc

His death was first taken as rumour, but was confirmed by Ibn Saud in a letter dated 4 February 1915: ‘[…] it is a source of regret that our cordial friend and a rare well-wisher Captain Shakespear, was hit from distance by one of the enemy’s shots and died. I offer you my condolence on his death’.

Concerning Shakespear’s presence at the battle, he remarks: ‘We had pressed him to leave us before the incident; but he persisted in refusing to do so […] Amongst other remarks, he said “I have been ordered to be with you. If I leave you it would be a blemish to my honour and the honour of my Government. Therefore excuse me. I must certainly be with you”. Accordingly we allowed him (to come) in compliance with his wish’.

On 17 February, Thomas William Holderness, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for India, wrote a letter of condolence to Shakespear’s father expressing ‘sincere sympathy on the death of [his] son in action in Arabia […] on an important and delicate mission’ and conveying praise for ‘an able and gallant officer’ from the Secretary of State for India. On 22 February, Shakespear’s father responded on black-edged writing-paper thanking him for the ‘kind message of sympathy on our irreparable loss’.

Letter from W Shakespear to Sir T W Holderness, dated 22 February 1915 (IOR/L/PS/10/88) Noc

The death made news in the United Kingdom, with the Manchester Evening News reporting: ‘The intrepid Arabian explorer, Capt. Shakespear, whose death is officially announced is believed to have succumbed to wounds received in this encounter on a mission to Anglophile Ibn Saud’. Indeed, Shakespear’s death was significant enough that a question was asked about it in the House of Commons by Liberal MP Sir John Jardine.

Parliamentary Notice regarding Shakespear’s death (IOR/L/PS/10/88) Noc

In the official account of Shakespear’s death written by Sir Percy Cox on 27 July 1915, he admits ‘[w]e shall probably never know more precisely than we do now how he actually met his death’. However, further information from an eyewitness was received and reported in May 1917 by the Arab Bulletin, an official military intelligence magazine founded by T. E. Lawrence. Shakespear was ‘with Ibn Saud’s artillery, looking through his field glasses and very conspicuous, since he was wearing full British uniform and a sun-helmet […] He was therefore easily picked out, and was shot at long range’.

Further, the political significance of Shakespear’s death in the context of the conflict between Ibn Saud and Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, is mentioned: ‘His [Shakespeare’s] helmet was taken into Medina, and publicly exhibited as proof to all Moslems that Ibn Saud was a traitor to Islam, and he had permitted Christians into his country. There were great demonstrations in Medina, and the hat is still displayed in the Serai, with an inscription pointing its moral’.

Shakespear’s memorial at the Old Jewish and Christian Cemetery, Kuwait (photo by Julia&Keld) Noc

Daniel Lowe
Arabic Language and Gulf History Specialist  (@dan_a_lowe)

Further reading:

The Death of Captain Shakespear on the Qatar Digital Library

Shakespear of Arabia  BBC Magazine 

 ‘File E/8 I Ibn Sa‘ūd’ IOR/R/15/2/31

'File 32/6 Estates of British subjects; accounts of death of Capt Shakespear, 1915' IOR/R/15/5/88

'P 632A/1915 The War: death of Captain Shakespear; text of Bin Saud's letter' IOR/L/PS/11/88

‘Fighting in Persia. Enemy Fail and Retire’, Manchester Evening News, 13 March 1915

‘Fighting in Arabia’, HC Deb 09 March 1915 vol 70 c1248

Peter Sluglett, ‘Shakespear, William Henry Irvine (1878–1915)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

H. V. F. Winstone, Captain Shakespear: A Portrait (Jonathan Cape, 1976)


22 January 2015

How to ship your elephant

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In the India Office Records there is an interesting story concerning the best way to transport an elephant from India. This strange event was brought about by the death in 1734 of the Persian Ambassador to the Mughals, Mahmud Ali Beg. The Ambassador and his retinue had journeyed to Mughal India in 1732 aboard ships provided by the East India Company at the request of Shah Tahmasp II and his famous deputy Tahmasp Qoli Khan (better known by his regnal title of Nader Shah). The Company had been asked, on news of the Ambassador’s death reaching Persia, to transport two agents, Safi Khan Beg and Mahmud Siah Beg, to retrieve his body and effects. This request was granted by the Company after some wrangling concerning contrary winds and the seeming unwillingness of the agents to leave terra firma. The agents asked the Company to put them on a ship, sail for a couple of days, and then return with reports of contrary weather. Fearing a trick, the Company refused to be part of their deception.

The next we hear about this journey comes from July 1735, when the Company records give an explanation of the issues connected with the return of the embassy’s remaining members and accoutrements. The overriding problem seems to have been elephants. Somewhere on their journey, the embassy had been given or had procured four elephants.  The Company explained that their ships’ decks were much too low to admit such beasts and therefore they could not give instructions for their shipment.

  Elephant Qatar
Or 2784 Kitāb na‘t al-ḥayawān كتاب نعت الحيوان [‎136v] (283/534)  View image in Qatar Digital Library

So, if you’re intending to send an elephant to someone by sea, this is what the East India Company advises… “…Such creatures being always transported in Open Vessells, which were filled with their water and provisions, so that they [the Persians] must hire Dingeys [Dinghies] there to bring them…”  .

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

Further reading:
Persian Gulf Factory Records IOR/G/29/5 f.289 Consultation 17 July 1735