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02 October 2014

The Euphrates Expedition of 1836: Ingenuity and Tragedy in Mesopotamia

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On 14 March 1836, the German naturalist Doctor Johann Wilhelm Helfer and his wife, Baroness Pauline Desgranges, arrived on the banks of the Euphrates near Birecik in present-day Turkey. The couple were travelling from Prague to Calcutta, and had arranged to descend the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf on board a British steamship.

 Euphrates & Tigris
Steamers Euphrates and Tigris passing Thapsacus. From Chesney, Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition (1868). Noc

In his wife’s memoirs, Johann Helfer recalled the scene of ‘busy confusion’ that greeted them that morning: ‘Turks and Christians were seen everywhere, laden with the most various things, and all in such haste’. Scattered about the banks of the river were, amongst other things, anvils, bellows, gun carriages, wheels, cylinders, trunks and chests, astronomical instruments, tent poles, ‘and an immense quantity of planks’.

Laid up by the side of the river were two steamships, the Euphrates and the Tigris, both of which had been transported from Liverpool in kit form. British engineers took a year to assemble both vessels in preparation for what was to be the first navigation of the Euphrates by steamship, from Birecik to the Persian Gulf, a total distance of 1400 kilometres.

Euphrates cross section
Cross section of the Euphrates. From Chesney, Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition (1868).  Noc

In charge of the expedition was Captain Francis Rawdon Chesney who had occupied himself much with the question of establishing a trade route between Britain and India that avoided rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Chesney had negotiated the Euphrates by sail boat in 1834, and was confident that the great river was navigable by steamship.

Chesney’s project attracted the interest of the British Government. Since the Napoleonic wars, mail had travelled from India to London through the Persian Gulf, and then onwards, overland, through Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Syria. Government officials, reasoning that transporting goods along a similar route could bring great economic and practical advantages to the British Empire, awarded Chesney a grant of £25,000 (more than £2 million in present day terms) to undertake an expedition to establish a steamship route on the Euphrates.

The expedition’s progress downstream was slow, arduous, and not without tragedy. On 21 May 1836 a tornado wrought considerable damage upon both steamers,  causing the Tigris to sink with the loss of twenty-two hands. Finally, after three months, the Euphrates alone entered the Shatt-al-Arab, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet the Persian Gulf.

  Euphrates - Chesney letterNoc
Letter from Francis Rawdon Chesney, Commander of the Euphrates Expedition, to Samuel Hennell, Resident at Bushire, dated 16 February 1837 (IOR/R/15/1/73, ff 7-8). Item digitised as part of the Qatar Foundation-British Library Partnership Programme.

In his subsequent report to Government, Chesney insisted that his expedition had been a success, and that the Euphrates was navigable by steamship. However, a further expedition in 1841 concluded that, because of the numerous irrigation dams and other obstacles that emerged during the river’s low season, the Euphrates as a trade route was impractical. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 put an end to any ideas of transforming the Euphrates into a major trade route between Europe and Asia.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project  Cc-by

Further Reading:

IOR/R/15/1/70 ‘Book 96: Letters Inward 1837’

IOR/R/15/1/73 ‘Letters Inward 1837’.  For example - letter from Francis Rawdon Chesney to Samuel Hennell, Resident at Bushire, dated 16 February 1837, stating that the Governor in Council has sanctioned the expense of tombstones for the deceased men of the Euphrates expedition (IOR/R/15/1/73, ff 7-8)

Chesney, General Francis Rawdon. Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition carried on by Order of the British Government (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1868)

Pauline, Countess Nostitz. The Travels of Doctor and Madame Helfer in Syria, Mesopotamia and Burmah and Other Lands (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1878)

Rathbone Low, Charles. The History of the Indian Navy (1613-1863) (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1877)



30 September 2014

An insubordinate cricketer

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A cursory examination of any memoir describing time spent in the military, civil or medical services in India will reveal a wealth of detail about the leisure activities pursued by members outside of their regular duties. Typical activities included cricket, polo, racquets and hunting.

Whilst researching the plague in India I came across a gentleman who appears to have been a little too dedicated to his sporting activities.

Colonel Harry Ross (1869-1938) attended Sandhurst and served briefly with the Somerset Light Infantry, before joining the Indian Army. Whilst stationed in Simla with the 18th Hussars he occupied himself with cricket and polo, in addition to studying for the Staff College Examination.

An extract from his memoirs shows how far he went in pursuit of his leisure activities:

“During the Simla week which took place at the height of the hot season there was always a cricket match – Outstations v. Simla, & I was invited to play for the former, but my chief would only allow me 2 days leave. This of course was no use at all, as it took a day to get there, an-other to come back, while the match itself was a two day one. I took the 2 days leave, and I’m afraid in a very insubordinate manner stayed away 4.”

  Cricket Naini Tal
Cricket match at Naini Tal c. 1885 from the Mcnabb collection. Online Gallery  Noc

Was it worth it? Ross describes his journey to the cricket match and the change in climate, noting:

“The atmosphere there was delightful after the sultry heat of the plains, but it takes some time to get used to the sudden change to the rarefied air which affects one’s breathing. This probably accounted for the poor display I made in the cricket match. I cannot remember the scores, but I know that the “Outstations” were beaten”.

Expecting trouble for his unannounced absence without leave, Ross decided to strike first:

“I fully expected a row on my return to Amballa, so determined to be first in the field with my resignation from the commissariat Department. I wrote this out & handed it in as soon as I reached office & it was not many weeks before I received orders to return to Regimental Duty & join a new Regiment – 1st Bombay Grenadiers…”.

 Harry Ross - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur B235/1  Noc

Ross would later be stationed on Plague duty at Satara, before proceeding to Bijapur as Plague Duty Officer. He was later commended by the Government for his services during the plague.

Alex Hailey
Cataloguer, India Office Medical Archives Project  Cc-by

Further reading:

Memoirs of Colonel Harry Ross-  India Office Private Papers Mss Eur B235

Eugene O’Meara, I’d live it again. Reminiscences of life in the Indian Medical Service (London: Jonathan Cape, 1935)

Edward Braddon, Life in India: a series of sketches showing something of the Anglo-Indian, etc. (London: Longmans & Co., 1872)


26 September 2014

Engineering a career in India, part 2

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Dipping into another part of the surviving records of the India Public Works Department enables us to enhance the picture of the lives of engineering students on the cusp of careers in India that we began in May this year.

In this instance we fast forward to 1912 and specifically to the report of the Committee which recommended suitable candidates for posts in the sub-continent. H.S. Barnes, John W. Ottley and Alexander R. Binnie had been informed by the authorities that there were a total of nineteen vacancies to be filled in government service that year. A gratifyingly large number of applications were received, and accordingly over four days in late May and early June they interviewed 92 wannabe engineers. (It would have been more, but 35 applicants were found not to have the appropriate qualifications, six withdrew their applications and three were unable to attend.)  Unsurprisingly all were men; the great majority were British, but sixteen Indian candidates also put themselves forward, probably knowing that a small proportion of the available posts had to be filled by non-Europeans. The Committee could not resist making the rather patronising comment that “We are glad to record that the standard attained by the native candidates who appeared before us showed a marked improvement this year”.

Railway engineers photo_798_029
Photo 798 (29) Group of railway engineers 1860s Images Online   Noc

The file includes an example of the four-page form which each candidate had to fill in. As well as the standard boxes for full name, details of education from the age of fifteen and the names of up to three referees, etc., the form demanded details of the profession or occupation of his father, and even the parentage of each parent. There was also the requirement to divulge “the names of any near relatives who have been, or are now, in the service of the Indian government.” (Whether this encouraged or discouraged nepotism is no doubt a moot point.)

When the dust settled seventeen British and two Indian candidates were deemed to have passed, subject to a medical examination and their providing proof of age, and their full names, dates of birth and tertiary education are listed in the file. The Committee was prudent enough to select a reserve list of eight Europeans and four Indians, and their details are given in order of merit. Eight of the lucky nineteen were to be on one year’s probation after their arrival in India; it was recommended that six “be favourably considered in connection with the applications to State Railways”; three had the more dubious honour of being considered best fitted for careers in sanitary engineering.

  Hyderabad-Kotri bridgeNoc
Photo 940/1(34) Hyderabad-Kotri bridge in the Sindh province of Pakistan c. 1900 from an album compiled by P. J. Corbett, a Public Works Department engineer  Online Gallery   

There is one final observation to be made. Why, one wonders, were no fewer than three out of the nineteen successful applicants – Alfred Stuart Manger, Kenneth Eustace Lee Pennell and Francis Vaughan Simpkinson – holders of Third Class degrees in Cambridge University’s  Mechanical Science Tripos?’

Cc-byHedley Sutton
Asian and African Studies Reference Team Leader 

Further reading: IOR/L/PWD/5/29