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17 January 2017

Major new digital resource for the India Office Records

A major new digital resource has just become available for researching the East India Company and the India Office.  You can now take an online journey through 350 years of history, from the foundation of the East India Company to Indian Independence.

Adam Matthew Digital has digitised four series of India Office Records -
IOR/A: East India Company: Charters, Deeds, Statutes and Treaties 1600-1947
IOR/B: Minutes of the East India Company’s Directors and Proprietors, 1599-1858
IOR/C: Council of India Minutes and Memoranda, 1858-1947
IOR/D: Minutes and Memoranda of General Committees and Offices of the East India Company, 1700-1858

I have selected some documents to give you just a taste of the kinds of records you can view in the digital collection..

IOR B 1 f.6
IOR/B/1 f.6

Let’s start with the list of the first subscribers to the Company drawn up in September 1599. Differing amounts of money were pledged as investments in the proposed venture to trade with the East Indies.  The Lord Mayor of London heads the list followed by Aldermen and members of the City Livery Companies. Queen Elizabeth I granted a royal charter to the Company on 31 December 1600.

 

IOR B 2 f.20 Instructions to Henry Middleton cropped
IOR/B/2 f.20

Next is an extract from the instructions given by the East India Company to Henry Middleton before he sailed as General of the Sixth Voyage in 1610.  The Company hoped that Middleton would be able ‘to bringe this longe and tedious voyadge to  a profitable end’.  Sailors were to be disciplined for blasphemy and ‘all Idle and fillthie Communicacion’ and banned from unlawful gaming, especially playing dice.


 

IOR B 26 p.278

IOR/B/26 p.278

Here are the Court Minutes for 1 August 1660 which discussed the business affairs of Robert Tichborne, an East India Company Director who had signed the death warrant of King Charles I.  The newly restored King Charles II was taking action to seize Tichborne’s property, including his investments in the Company. Tichborne was tried as a regicide in October 1660 and sentenced to death. He was spared but spent the rest of his life in prison. 

 

IOR D 7 p.876 cropped
IOR/D/7 p.876

In February 1821 Dr George Rees sent a note about patients placed at his mental health asylum by the East India Company.  Lieutenant Felham was very dangerously ill and the use of wine was absolutely necessary for him. Frederick Haydn was to have a violin provided for him. 

 

IOR C 121 3 Mar 1931 
IOR C 121 3 Mar 1931 - 2 cropped
 IOR/C/121

On 3 March 1931 Council recommended that Lord Willingdon, on his appointment as Viceroy, should be allowed to take out to India five motor cars at a total cost of £3450 instead of one good Rolls Royce and 3 other cars.

 

IOR A 1 102
IOR/A/102 Instrument of Abdication

We finish with the Instrument of Abdication, one of six that Edward VIII signed at Fort Belvedere, Windsor Great Park, on 10 December 1936. The document is signed by Edward VIII and his three brothers. An Act of Parliament effected the King’s abdication on the following day, ending a reign of less than a year. India received this copy by virtue of the king’s position as Emperor of India. The document was delivered to the Secretary of State for India.

Happy hunting!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:

East India Company: Rise to Demise
Human Stories from the East India Company

 

12 January 2017

The Beach Pyjama Incident

Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow wore them, but British officials felt that beach pyjamas weren’t right for Sharjah in 1933.

Beach pyjamas

Woman in beach pyjamas, 1932. Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-13627 via Wikimedia Commons

Air travel had come to Sharjah the previous year, when it began serving as a stopover on the Imperial Airways route to India. Facilities included a rest house with bath and showers. However, in 1933 a report reached the British Political Agent in Bahrain that passengers had been making visits to the town, including one female passenger ‘clad in beach pyjamas’, the fashionably fast beach leisurewear of the 1930s.

A senior India Office official, J G Laithwaite, was soon referring in an official minute to the ‘beach pyjama incident’.

IOR L PS 12 3807, f 24

Minute by Laithwaite, India Office, 8 May 1933, referring to ‘the beach pyjama incident’ at Sharjah IOR/L/PS/12/3807, f 24.

British concern about the free movement of air passengers at Sharjah took two forms. On the one hand, they wished to limit contact between visitors and the Sheikh of Sharjah, particularly unauthorised representatives of oil companies hunting for lucrative petroleum contracts.

On the other hand, there was concern that passengers might be ‘insulted or molested’ by the local inhabitants, who had ‘not up to now been accustomed to having strangers, especially ladies, wandering about their bazaars’. If this happened, the British authorities would be forced to insist that the Sheikh identified and punished the offenders, with a consequent straining of relations between the British and the Sheikh.

The British Political Resident, Lieutenant-Colonel Trenchard Fowle, proceeded to write to the Sheikh of Sharjah, warning him, more tactfully, about the possible threat to passengers from ‘some bad character or Bedouin from the desert’, and asking him to enforce a treaty clause stating that no Imperial Airways employee or passenger should be allowed to enter the town of Sharjah without the Sheikh’s permission.

IOR L PS 12 3807, f 29

Letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Trenchard Fowle, Political Resident in Persian Gulf, to the Sheikh of Sharjah, March 1933, warning him of the consequences, if some ‘unfortunate incident’ were to occur involving Imperial Airways passengers at Sharjah: IOR/L/PS/12/3807, f 29.

The historian Penelope Tuson thinks that the concern of British administrators for the safety of female passengers was only apparent, and that that their real motive was to preserve sexual propriety and the status quo, in the face of increasing numbers of female visitors to the Gulf – doctors, nurses, oil industry wives, and travellers like Freya Stark. All of these women were outside the British political and diplomatic class, and hence more difficult to control.

However, British officials may have reflected that Sharjah was in a part of the Gulf that had up to that point seen few manifestations of Western culture. (The airfield ‘rest house’ was actually a fort, Al Mahatta, complete with armed guards.) Moreover, the chief concern of British administrators was normally the need to preserve friendly relations with local rulers, who were themselves part of the status quo.

Thus, Fowle had also been at pains to reprimand Imperial Airways over an incident at Gwadar, an exclave of the sultanate of Muscat, in which an employee of the company had accidentally wounded a local person while out shooting. Fortunately, the incident in question was quickly settled.

In the event, Imperial Airways promptly enforced restrictions on the movements of passengers at Sharjah.

The identity of the female passenger at the centre of the controversy is not recorded. However, the incident illustrates some of the cultural interactions that characterised the changing face of the Gulf in the 1930s.

The correspondence file on which this piece is based will be made available in the Qatar Digital Library in 2017.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archives
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
British Library, Coll 30/88 'Question of residence of European women on the Trucial Coast.' IOR/L/PS/12/3807.
Penelope Tuson, Playing the Game. The Story of Western Women in Arabia (London and New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2003)
Film of the airport at Sharjah in 1937

 

 

10 January 2017

Persia I will eat last

The beginning of the First World War was a difficult time for Persia. With the country divided between Russian and British zones of influence, the Shah and his government were trying to maintain their sovereignty and to keep the country neutral. However, the war was fought on Persian territory on many fronts.

 

  Persia 1877

From Hippesley Cunliffe Marsh, A ride through Islam: being a journey through Persia and Afghanistan to India, viâ Meshed, Herat and Kandahar (London, 1877)

 

Documents from the India Office Records unveil British intrigues to maintain control over Persia. The British aimed to prevent the country from entering the war and supporting Turkey with a Muslim coalition - a jihad.

One of the propaganda efforts reported in the records is an alleged plunder by the Turks of jewels and money to the value of £2 million from the shrines of Nejef [Najaf, Iraq] and Karbala in January 1915.  This news was reported in the British press, discussed in Parliament, and recorded in the Political and Secret Department Records. But there is no evidence that this in fact ever happened.

Najaf and Karbala are the two holiest sites for Shia Muslims, and the value of the plunder would be over £300 million in today’s money. Such news would not have gone unnoticed among Arabic and Turkish sources, yet I could not find anything but a mention during a debate at the House of Commons.

The cautious wording chosen by Charles Henry Roberts, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for India at the time, when interrogated about the loot of Karbala is quite revealing:
'I should hesitate to say that the reports absolutely confirm the truth of the story; but they seem to render it considerably more probable'.

Did the looting ever happen? Maybe the British were exaggerating a story to convince the Persians to join them in the war against the Turks?


  IOR-L-PS-10-481 f.316
File 3516/1914 Pt 4 'German War: Persia', IOR/L/PS/10/481, f 316

Having read numerous files concerning the British occupation of Persia during World War One, I believe that this quote describes quite well the British approach towards Persia:

‘I fear that the only advantage which we can promise Persia is that which the Cyclops promised Odysseus
Οὖτιν ἐγὼ πύματον ἔδομαι μετὰ οἷς ἑτάροισιν’ (Noman will I eat last among his comrades…)

  Odysseus and Polyphemus the Cyclops

Odysseus and Polyphemus the Cyclops from Henri.Raison Du Cleuziou, La création de l'homme et les premiers âges de l'humanité  (Paris, 1887) BL flickr

 

Valentina Mirabella
Archive Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
@miravale

Further reading:
File 3516/1914 Pt 4 'German War: Persia', IOR/L/PS/10/481
Odyssey 9.369 - Translation by A.T. Murray