Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

15 April 2014

Zanzibar brawl

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31 March 1860, a sultry afternoon in the beautiful beach town of Zanzibar. Monsieur Frédérick Rochiez, a French grocer, was having a quiet siesta and enjoying his peaceful life in this quasi-paradise.  His tranquillity was broken by the intrusion of a group of rowdy English sailors who barged in asking for brandy.  When they were told there was none, the drunken seamen went on a rampage, vandalizing the shop and helping themselves with any booze they could lay their hands on.  After the shop was wrecked, they ran away with crates of wines as well as cash stolen from the till.

Drunken sailors c13568-56
   ‘Lall Bazaar, Calcutta.’ [WD 4336]  1860s.   Images Online

M. Rochiez incurred a substantial financial loss by this wilful looting and pillaging.   He lodged a complaint via French Consul M. Derché to Lt-Col Christopher Palmer Rigby, British Consul at Zanzibar, demanding an apology and compensation.

The British authorities felt this was French ‘extortion’, a deliberate put-up job to frame the English.  Rigby immediately launched a personal attack on the character and conduct of the French diplomats in Zanzibar.  In his letter dated 1 June 1861 to the Secretary of State for India he wrote: “I beg to state that the present French Consul (Monsieur Derché) was born and bred in the Levant…  he is now about to leave by the first opportunity, and the present Chancellier who is appointed to succeed him, is a Pole, who is stated to have deserted from the ranks of the Russian Army in the Crimea by feigning death during an action.  He lives in a most disreputable manner, and bears a very indifferent character…”.

The complaint about the drunken English sailors was not unprecedented.  The English and French had been bickering with each other for several years since both nations established their consular offices on the island.  

The wine shop brawl quickly escalated to a serious accusation of slave trafficking.  The British on Zanzibar, charged with the duty of the abolition of slave trade, captured and confiscated the Famosa Estrella, a ship under Spanish colours.  The ship was consigned to a notorious slave agent named Buona Ventura Mas, who had long carried on an extensive traffic in slaves with both Cuba and La Réunion.   The British claimed that “Buona Ventura Mas was the Agent here for the two slave dealing houses of Vidal Frères, and Regis & Co” both supported by the French Consul which proclaimed to provide French protection to the ships and subjects of any Roman Catholic State, including Spanish and Portuguese.

Just next to the French territory of La Réunion sits Mauritius, a British possession in 1861. Hundreds of thousands of indentured labourers were shipped across the Indian Ocean to work in the British plantations on Mauritius under the conditions hardly any better than those of slaves under French protection.

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers


Further reading:
India Office Records/ L/PS/9/37-38 Zanzibar correspondence



11 April 2014

RAF Tragedy in Oman

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On 30 October 1937 a Vickers Vincent of 84 Squadron RAF crashed at Khor Gharim, a remote and desolate spot on the southern coast of Oman.  All three crew aboard, Wing Commander Aubrey Rickards, Pilot Officer Robert McClatchey, and Aircraftman Leslie O’Leary were killed.

Khor Gharim was described by the British Political Agent, Muscat, who reported the loss in the Administration Report of the Persian Gulf Political Residency for the year 1937, as ‘perhaps one of wildest and most lawless districts of the State where the authority of the Muscat Government is treated with scanty respect’.

From IOR/R/15/1/717 Administration Report of the Persian Gulf for the Year 1937  Noc

A general increase in air traffic was one aspect of the changing face of the Persian Gulf in the 1930s, stimulated by oil discoveries in the region and the need for improved communications.  Security was also becoming increasingly important to the British as the threat of war loomed, and 84 Squadron was involved in reconnaissance of landing grounds between its headquarters at Basra and the important British base at Aden.

Rickards’s death was a tragic loss.  In addition to intelligence and liaison work that helped preserve the security of Aden, he had done much to increase geographical knowledge of the little-known hinterland of the southern Arabian Peninsula, by means of air photographs and sketch maps made from his cockpit.  His efforts earned him the OBE for services to Aden.

Rickards’s plane was one of a squadron of three, and the crews of the other two reported their horror at seeing the lead plane, piloted by McClatchey, smash into the shore on the far side of a salt water lagoon while attempting to land.  The bodies of the three RAF men were buried at the site.

The location of the graves became lost in the upheaval of the war years that followed and it was not until 1997 that an expedition to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the crash went back to the area.  After making two sweeps the searchers discovered first a shard of metal from a Vincent and then human remains.  All three bodies were exhumed and transferred to Muscat. One year later they were interred in the Christian Cemetery there, while the sun set over the hills of Mina al Fahal and a lone piper played a lament.

The British Agent in Muscat remarked one other noteworthy feature of the tragedy in his 1937 report: the attitude of the local inhabitants.  Despite their fearsome reputation, and the ample opportunities for plunder afforded by the crash, the local Bedouin were ‘not unfriendly and their conduct certainly not as dangerous as their reputation would lead to suspect’.

Martin Woodward
Project Officer, Gulf History Project  Cc-by

Further reading:

IOR/R/15/1/717 Administration Report of the Persian Gulf for the Year 1937

09 April 2014

Cityread London 2014 and the Experiences of Soldiers of Colour in World War One

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Cityread London, which launched this week, will run throughout April with events in every London borough; aimed to promote reading for pleasure and also to encourage Londoners to contemplate their city’s history.  Each year Cityread London selects a book for the whole capital to read together and for 2014 this is My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, selected to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.  Louisa will be speaking about this at a Cityread London event at the British Library on 14 April.

Also as part of the Cityread London event programme, several public libraries are hosting a production by the District 6 Theatre Group, on the role and experience of soldiers of colour in World War One; exploring the contribution made by people of all colours, ethnicities, religious beliefs and nationalities to the British war effort in World War One, whether by serving in the armed forces or providing material and financial resources.  You can see this performance on these dates at the following libraries:

15 April - Richmond Lending Library

22 April - Barking Learning Centre 

24 April – Dagenham Library

28 April – Battersea Library

30 April - Wembley Library


Photo 24/(122) An Indian Cavalry horse hospital in a French factory, 1915.  Noc

It is encouraging to hear that Cityread London 2014 events are including these narratives; as non-white non-European experiences of World War One have traditionally been given less media coverage than other aspects of the war.  For researchers interested in this topic, there is a wealth of material in the British Library’s India Office Records with information about the stories of South Asian soldiers serving in the British Indian Army  during World War One; we blogged about some of these stories previously in posts Indian soldiers’ views of England during World War I, An Indian soldier in France during World War I, and The Indian Sepoy in the trenches.  Furthermore last month we wrote about the experiences of Indian Muslims travelling from India to Mecca as part of the Hajj during World War One  in the post Pilgrim traffic during the First World War.

Stella Wisdom
Digital Curator Cc-by

Further reading 

World War One sources on the British Library website