Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

29 July 2014

Death in Paradise

Add comment Comments (0)

As the formal centenary of the start of the First World War grows nearer, a casual dip into the voluminous files of the India Office’s Political & Secret Department reveals details of a small, sad episode which took place in the autumn of 1915 in exotic Zanzibar.

From Les Lacs de l'Afrique Équatoriale. Voyage d'exploration exécuté de 1883 à 1885 (1890)

British Library flickr photostream  Noc

This island off the east coast of Africa had become a British Protectorate in the late 19th century, opposite the mainland colony of German East Africa. When the two countries went to war this meant that an essentially European conflict came to be fought on African soil as well.

The British authorities in Zanzibar gradually came to suspect that Jaffer Thavur, an Ismaili normally resident in Bagamoya in the nearby German territory, was involved in spying for the enemy. He had come to Zanzibar in July 1914 to see his spiritual leader the Aga Khan who was then visiting the island, and on the outbreak of hostilities in the following month he had found himself unable to return home. A thorough search of his lodgings brought to light three concealed unsigned documents written in Swahili (the local lingua franca) and Arabic, both languages which he could not understand. He was put on trial on 23 September 1915 before a military tribunal, found guilty, and sentenced to death. His public execution was set for the morning of 4 October.

On the evening of 3 October, hours before the sentence was due to be carried out, his defence lawyer Mr. Boyce  – the only individual to emerge with much credit from the whole sorry tale – sent a number of communications to the India Office, the Colonial Office, the War Office and to the Aga Khan himself (c/o the Ritz Hotel in Paris) about his client’s case. The file contains a letter to the War Office  which states

   " … the Aga Khan occupies a very important position among Indian Muhammadans [sic] & has done valuable service since the outbreak of war with Turkey in bringing influence to bear on his     co-religionists to remain loyal to the British Govt".

Major General Tighe, the British military governor of Zanzibar, made his feelings plain on 5 October:

     "… I very strongly desire to represent that the interference of civil authorities in proceedings under martial law creates a most undesirable precedent, especially in view of  the doubtful attitude of a certain section of the native population … "

The impasse was broken when the news came back that Jaffer Thavur was a follower of whom the Aga Khan had no personal knowledge, and this was enough for the authorities to abandon any lingering qualms and to proceed with the carrying out of the capital sentence. He was accordingly shot by firing squad at 08.00 in public on 20 October. 

Cavell 902_05_1855316

Imaginary drawing of the execution of Edith Louisa Cavell (1865 -1915) on 12 October 1915. Inset, Edith Cavell at home with her dogs Images Online © UIG/The British Library Board  Noc

A factor which may have tipped the balance against him – albeit nowhere mentioned explicitly in the file – was the execution in faraway Brussels on 12 October of the British nurse Edith Cavell, condemned for her role in assisting the escape of Allied soldiers from occupied Belgium. It is at least possible that this shocking and widely-reported case had repercussions very soon afterwards in east Africa.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Team Leader


Further reading:  IOR/L/PS/11/98, file P 4718


24 July 2014

Pottinger’s property lost in Afghanistan

Add comment Comments (0)

Eldred Pottinger came to prominence in the service of the East India Company in the 1830s as an assistant to his uncle Henry Pottinger, Resident at Cutch, and through his travels in Afghanistan. When the uprising against the British presence in Afghanistan broke out in 1841, Pottinger was serving as a political officer in Kohistan, a district north of Kabul. During what came to be known as the First Anglo-Afghan War, Pottinger received a serious leg injury, and was detained as a hostage by the Afghan leader Akbar Khan. On his return to India in 1842, he was granted medical leave and travelled to Hong Kong where he died on 15 November 1843.

 Brydon 917_05_0390000692
Dr William Brydon,  the only survivor of the 4,500 British soldiers and 12,000 camp-followers who left Kabul on 6 January 1842 to escape, arriving at Jelalabad with news of the disaster, on 13 January © UIG/The British Library Board

At the time of his death, Pottinger was in dispute with the Company over compensation he felt was due to him for the loss of his property in Afghanistan. The India Office Records holds a memorial prepared by him, and submitted to government after his death by his younger brother Lieutenant John Pottinger of the Bombay Artillery. John hoped the Company would give the compensation he felt had been due to his older brother to his mother and sister living in Jersey, and he pointed out that three of his brothers had died in the Company’s service.

 Kabul 073713
Bazaar at Kabul in the fruit season (X 614, plate 19) NocImages Online

Enclosed with the memorial is a list of Eldred’s property taken by the enemy in the castle of Laghman in the Kohistan of Kabul on 5 November 1841, and it gives an interesting glimpse into what a Company officer on political service felt he needed to do his job and to preserve the dignity of his position. There is a long list of books on a wide range of subjects such as history, botany, geology, mathematics, engineering, and politics. Not all seem to be directly related to his posting. There are volumes of poetry by Chaucer, Shelly, Byron and Wordsworth. Gillies’ History of Greece and Leland’s Life of Philip of Macedon sit alongside Robertson’s History of Scotland and Burke’s Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, and the satirical The Clockmaker, or Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick. The collection of Eldred’s books and maps alone was valued at £715 in 1843.

Sublime & Beautiful G70110-45
Title page of Burke’s Sublime and Beautiful (RB.23.a.18100) Images OnlineNoc

As well as the books and maps, Eldred listed scientific equipment, guns and swords, European and Persian clothes, furniture (tables and chairs, bookcases not surprisingly), Persian carpets, dinning implements (plates, knives, forks, spoons, some in silver), wine, beer and spirits, and six horses. The total value of his lost property was taken as £2,322 or roughly £102,000 in today’s money!

The opinion of the Governor General of India was that Eldred Pottinger was only entitled to the same compensation as if he had sustained the loss on military, rather than political service, and that the compensation should have no relation to the value of the property lost, but only to the value of the property an officer ought to have with him on service.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

Memorial from Lieutenant John Pottinger of the Regiment of Artillery respecting certain claims of his late brother, Major Eldred Pottinger for allowances and compensation alleged to be due to him for loss of his property in Afghanistan, October 1842 to June 1844 [IOR/F/4/2058/94289]

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Historical currency converter


21 July 2014

George Bernard Shaw discards his birthday

Add comment Comments (0)

George Bernard Shaw, playwright and polemicist, was born in Dublin on 26 July 1856. So we decided to post a story about Shaw to mark this anniversary . But a little research revealed that Shaw would not have been flattered or pleased – he never celebrated his birthday.

  George Bernard Shaw c13160-07
Add. 50582 f.38 George Bernard Shaw Images Online  Noc

Shaw’s antipathy to birthday celebrations is revealed in newspaper articles by journalists who were eager to congratulate him.  They describe the various ways that they were rebuffed by Shaw.  A representative of the Daily News asked him on his 60th birthday how young he felt. Shaw replied that ‘The day is not really different from any other, except that when you saw me last I was between 50 and 60 and now I am between 60 and 70, not young enough to be really proud of my age and not old enough to have become really popular in England’ (Aberdeen Evening Express 27 July 1916).

In July 1929 Shaw was asked if he would give the world a message to mark the ‘notable occasion’ of his 73rd birthday. Shaw replied, ‘Please send out a brief message suppressing the fact that it is my birthday’.  During that month he was busy directing rehearsals for his new play The Apple Cart which was to be performed at the Malvern Festival.  His secretary confirmed that Shaw would be working as usual, adding ‘He does not believe in birthday parties’ (Gloucester Citizen 25 July 1929).

  GBS 1

Gloucester Citizen 25 July 1929 British Newspaper Archive Noc

The Evening Telegraph was nevertheless not deterred from running an article pointing out that, at the age of 73, Shaw was still as active as ever: dodging buses like a man of 25, and never taking a drive in a car without breaking the law.

On his 74th birthday, Shaw declared to a reporter: ‘The more my birthday is forgotten, the better I am pleased. By deed poll I have discarded my birthday forever’ (Evening Telegraph 25 July 1930).  When a brave young reporter from the Sunderland Echo telephoned Shaw to ask him about his birthday in 1935, Shaw said:’Young man, you know not what you do.  If ever you are 79 you won’t want to discuss the fact.  And who is the least interested in my birthday?’  On being told that everyone was interested in George Bernard Shaw, the writer retorted: ‘But not in my having birthdays.  I am not distinguished by having birthdays. Public interest in me depends on the things I can do that nobody else can do. Anybody can have a birthday’.  He then declined to discuss the matter further (Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 July 1935).

  GBS 2
Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 July 1935 British Newspaper ArchiveNoc

Newspapers continued to commemorate Shaw’s birthdays up to the year of his death in spite of his pleas. His 94th birthday in July 1950 was marked with an article in the Aberdeen Journal stating that G.B.S. was as mentally alert as ever, although physically a little frail.  The playwright spent his final birthday at home in Ayot St Lawrence Hertfordshire: ‘He did not celebrate it – he never does’.

Margaret Makepeace
Curator, India Office Records  Cc-by