Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

25 August 2016

‘One heap of stones as good as another’ – Bahrain’s disappearing burial mounds

One morning in May 1944, the British Adviser to the Government of Bahrain, Charles Belgrave, was wandering amongst the stone burial mounds near the Bahrain village of A’ali.  He noticed ‘an elaborate stone crushing’ machine set up on one of the largest and most-valued stone monuments.  ‘I consider it most improper’ he complained in a letter to the British Political Agent, ‘that [the A’ali tombs] should be interfered with’.


  Photo 49- 6-30

The burial mounds at Bahrain. Photograph by the Rev Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox, 1918. Photo 496/6/30 Noc


Enquiries revealed that the Royal Air Force (RAF) was the culprit, and was taking stones from A’ali for use as construction materials at their air base at Muharraq.  The RAF’s Air Liaison Officer in Bahrain conceded that the Air Ministry’s ‘lack of historical knowledge’ of the area meant that ‘one heap of stones was as good as another’.


IOR-R-15-2-1513, f 11

Extract of a letter from the Air Liaison Officer to the Political Agent at Bahrain, 23 May 1945. IOR/R/15/2/1513, f 11. Noc


Belgrave’s objection was not without a touch of hypocrisy. Seven years earlier, in 1937, he himself permitted the demolition of several mounds to make way for a new road on the island. On cutting through the condemned mounds it was discovered that they had been hitherto untouched, with skeletons and grave goods, including pots, dishes and other metal and glass objects all found inside.


IOR-R-15-2-1513, ff 6-7

Extract from a note on antiquities at Bahrain by Charles Belgrave, 1937. IOR/R/15/2/1513, ff 6-7 Noc


Bahrain’s burial mounds, assumed in Belgrave’s time to have been created by the Phoenicians, are now known to date from the Dilmun civilisation that inhabited the region between 4,000 and 500 BCE. Documents in the Qatar Digital Library record the encounters that British explorers and archaeologists had with the mounds from the latter half of the nineteenth century onwards.

Edward Law Durand was the first to come across the mounds in 1879, while exploring Bahrain in his capacity as First Assistant to the Persian Gulf Resident. He drew sketches of the structures and wrote: “This large series of mounds packed together, and of regular rounded shapes, cannot be the ruins of houses, as asserted by the Arabs, tombs they simply must be”.



Drawing by Durand, from his visit to the burial mounds at A’ali, 1879. IOR/L/PS/18/B95 Noc


Durand’s report, which offered the tantalising prospect of relics and other treasures in the tombs, prompted the British Museum to subsidise excavation works to the cost of £100. A decade passed before any more excavations of note took place, this time under the guidance of Theodore and Mabel Bent, in February 1889. The Residency Agent at Bahrain reported back to the Resident on the Bents’ excavations, writing of earthenware finds, and bones and ‘a greasy earth of dark colour’ that ‘belonged to a human body'.

  IOR-R-15-1-192, f 98
Extract of a letter (Arabic, with English translation) from the Residency Agent at Bahrain, on Theodore and Mabel Bent’s excavations at Bahrain, 20 February 1889. IOR/R/15/1/192, f 98 Noc


Bahrain’s burial mounds have been repeatedly excavated ever since, for example by British Political Agents Colonel Francis Prideaux, between 1906 and 1907, and Major Clive Daly, between 1921 and 1926; the British archaeologist Ernest Mackay in 1925; a Danish archaeological team in the 1950s; and the Bahrain Department of Antiquities in the 1970s.

The protection and understanding of the burial mounds at Bahrain was paramount to Bahrain’s first National Museum, which opened in the Bahrain Government’s headquarters in 1970. The museum’s later move into a building that had formerly been the RAF Officers’ Mess at the Muharraq air base is not without some irony, given the RAF’s earlier attempts to use the burial mounds’ stones as construction materials.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project Cc-by

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
British Library, London, ‘37 File 483 Memorandum on Bahrain; Major E L Durand’s Notes on the Antiquities of Bahrain’ (IOR/R/15/1/192)
British Library, London, 'Notes on the Islands of Bahrain and Antiquities by Captain E. L. Durand, 1 Assistant Resident, Persian Gulf.' (IOR/L/PS/18/B95)
British Library, London, ‘16/16 Miscellaneous – Archaeological excavations at Bahrain’ (IOR/R/15/2/1513)
D T Potts, The Arabian Gulf of Antiquity Vol.1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)
Michael Rice, The Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf, c.5000-323BC (New York: Routledge, 1994)



23 August 2016

Gone for a soldier

The British Army was a popular career choice for young men in the late 1800s, however not everyone was ideally suited to it. Take James Henry Baker and Harry Baker, who both enlisted in the Army in 1890, as examples:

James Henry Baker, born 1872 in Islington, London. He enlisted in the 4th Hussars in December 1890.  His statement of service states:
• 22 December 1890: Attested as a Private in 4th Hussars
• 16 February 1891: Awaiting trial
• 20 February 1891: Tried by Court Martial and Imprisoned
• 20 March 1891: Returned to duty
• 1 April 1891: Imprisoned by the Crown
• 1 May 1891: Returned to duty as a Private
• 5 June 1891: Imprisoned by the Crown for making false answer on attestation
• 29 June 1891: Discharged from service


 British soldiers at play [France] 1915

British soldiers at play [France]. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood.Photo 24/(320)  Noc


Harry Baker, born 1872 in Birmingham. He enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in July 1890. His statement of service states:
• 17 July 1890: Attested as a Private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment
• 20 July 1890: Absent from regiment
• 28 August 1890: Awaiting trial
• 3 September 1890: Trial
• 4 September 1890: In prison
• 25 September 1890: Returned to duty as a Private
• 14 November 1890: Transferred to 1st Battalion as a Private
• 29 December 1890: Awaiting trial
• 30 December 1890: Tried by Regimental Court Martial and sentenced to 28 days imprisonment
• 26 Jan 1891: Released from imprisonment
• 29 Jan 1891: Awaiting trial
• 3 February 1891: Tried by Court Martial and sentenced to 6 calendar months imprisonment
• 3 August 1891: Released
• 19 February 1892: In confinement
• 25 February 1892: Tried by Crown Prosecution, convicted of felony and sentenced to 9 calendar months imprisonment
• 23 March 1892: Discharged the service on conviction by the civil power of felony

The circumstances around their respective decisions to enlist in the Army in the first place are unknown, but clearly they either did not wish to be there, or were simply not cut out for a life of military service given their records as shown above.
In the case of James Henry Baker, the false answer on his attestation, for which he was discharged from service, appears to have been in relation to his age.  He had declared himself to be 18 years old and born in 1872, whereas birth records suggest he was probably only 16 at the time and born in 1873/1874.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:
British Army Service Records,  1760-1913 via findmypast for James Henry Baker and Harry Baker
David Scott Daniell, Fourth Hussar: The story of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars 1685-1958 (Aldershot, 1959)
Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, The Story of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, formerly the sixth foot (London, 1921)


18 August 2016

Rescue of an Indian Seaman

On 23 July 1924 the Under Secretary of State for India received a letter from T W Moore, Secretary of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild.   Moore informed him of the rescue of an Indian seaman, bringing to his attention the prompt action taken by Captain Robert Greenhill Hanna of the merchant ship S S Mathura, which had been steaming from Calcutta to Colombo at the time.  The Guild felt that Captain Hanna was to be highly commended for his determination to do all that was in his power to save the man’s life.  They believed that the India Office or the Government of India might like to show their appreciation in some way.



Nottingham Evening Post 25 July 1924 British Newspaper Archive  Noc


The curious, and almost fatal, incident began in the early hours of 25 May.   At 6.30am the Chief Engineer of the Mathura reported one of his men missing, a 3rd Fireman Tindal.  On investigation it turned out that after a quarrel in the engine room with another fireman at around 3.30am, the missing man had deliberately jumped over the side! 

No one on board had witnessed this, and the ship had continued on its way with its crew unaware of the seaman’s rash action.  Captain Hanna immediately ordered the ship to be turned around, and a search was undertaken on the course opposite to that she had been steering.   At just before 10.00am the man was sighted in the water, and a small boat was sent to fish him out.  He had been in the water for almost 6½ hours, but seemed very little the worse for the experience.  Alarmingly he reported that while in the water he had several times been “nosed” by what he described as “big fish”, very probably sharks, but he had scared them away by splashing with his legs and arms.  His rescue was even more remarkable as the ship had steamed about 78 miles from the time the man entered the water to being picked up again, and the ship’s log shows that the weather at the time was overcast with heavy rain.



Collage featuring lascars at work and in their lodgings on shore, Illustrated London News, 1906. Shelfmark: P.P.7611 Noc


SS Mathura had a mostly Indian crew, and it was reported that they were delighted at Captain Hanna’s actions to save their crewmate.  The Secretary of the Guild felt that the incident might be useful to the Government of India in demonstrating to the Indian population that a human life at sea was reckoned by a British shipmaster to be of equal importance, irrespective of colour or station in life.  For his excellent piece of seamanship, Captain Hanna was presented with a gold cigarette case by the Governor of Bengal at a police parade at Lal Bazar Police Headquarters, Calcutta, on 21 January 1925.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:
File 2629: Captain R G Hanna, Mercantile Marine: life-saving at sea, 24 July 1924 to 7 March 1925 [IOR/L/E/7/1350, File 2629]