Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

26 October 2020

Libraries and manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)

This blog post is written by guest contributor Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, who has been Professor for the Language and Culture of Thailand at the University of Hamburg since 2009, and advisor to the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang Since 2006.  Grabowsky’s blog looks at the photographs taken by Hans Georg Berger of libraries in Laos, that were acquired by the British Library in August 2020.

 The ancient and exceptional manuscript culture of Laos has survived colonial rule, war and revolution as well as rapid modernization in a globalized world. Unlike in many parts of the world, production of manuscripts did not stop during the 20th century in Laos, where traditional ways of writing have been preserved by monks and lay scribes until present times. The oldest dated manuscript, a mono-lingual Pali palm-leaf manuscript containing parts of the Parivāra of the Vinaya Piṭaka, was made in 1520/21 and is kept at the National Museum of Luang Prabang (formerly the Royal Palace). It is also the first documentary evidence of the Dhamma (Tham) script in the Lao Kingdom of Lan Sang. This sacred script is a special feature of Lao literature. It originated in the neighboring northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na – probably as a derivative of the ancient Mon alphabet of Hariphunchai - in the late fourteenth century and made its way south through the Mekong river basin. As its name indicates, this script was used for the writing of the Buddhist scriptures and other religious texts. Next to this script, the Lao also developed a secular script nowadays called “Old Lao script” (Lao Buhan script).

Cabinet with palm leaf manuscripts
Opening of a cabinet with palm-leaf manuscripts, Manuscript Preservation Project of the National Library of Laos, Vat Muen Na Somphuaram, Luang Prabang, 1996. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(6). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Lao manuscripts were mostly inscribed with a stylus on rectangular cut and cured palm-leaf sheets varying in length. Each sheet had two holes; a cotton string was passed through the left one, making it possible to bind several palm-leaf sheets together as one bundle, or fascicle (phuk). Recent research estimates that more than ninety percent of Lao manuscripts are “palm-leaf books” (nangsü bai lan). The number of leaves in a given fascicle depend on the length and/or the number of text pages. All fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts are fastened by a string (sai sanὸng). Generally, numerous fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts which contain the same version of a literary text are fastened together in bundles, called sum. Two wooden boards are frequently added to such a bundle for protection. The bundle usually is wrapped in a piece of cloth and tied with a cotton string. It is called mat.

Palm-leaf is not only the most widely used but, in this region’s subtropical climate, also the most durable “soft” writing support of the Lao cultural area. It was mostly used for Buddhist text. The leporello format was used for secular texts such as chronicles, legal texts, medical and astrological treatises, official documents, non-religious literary works, and only occasionally, Buddhist texts. For these leporello manuscripts, a cardboard-like paper made out of the bark of the sa tree (Broussonetia papyrifera L. vent.) was used. The grayish sa paper was inscribed on both sides, often with black ink. Sometimes it was first painted with a layer of lampblack and then written on with yellowish ink, or white chalk. The covers of both phap sa, as such leporello manuscripts are called in Lao, as well as palm-leaf manuscripts, were often decorated with lacquer and gold. The manuscripts were kept in elaborately fashioned wooden boxes. In addition, bound books exist, notably in the Tai Lü areas of northern Laos, such as Müang Sing, where each piece of paper has been folded over once vertically, so that it becomes much longer than it is broad. By folding the paper, both the front and the back page of one sheet can be used for writing. These sheets of paper are sewn together along one of the vertical sides. This kind of manuscript is called phap hua. In the manuscript tradition of the Tai Lü, pap sa manuscripts play a very important role and are even more widespread than palm-leaf manuscripts, the latter being restricted to the writing of religious texts.

Sa-Paper manuscripts
Sa-Paper manuscripts of the Lü of Müang Sing at the collection of Vat Mai Suvannaphumaram, Luang Prabang, 1994. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(12). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

The vast majority of Lao manuscripts are not kept in private households but in monasteries. The most precious manuscripts are stored in small and elegant buildings devoted solely to the conservation of manuscripts. They are called hò tham (“House of the Dhamma”) or hò trai (“House of the three [baskets]) because they are dedicated homes to Buddhist scriptures. These libraries are integrated into the monastic site (vat) of which they embrace the organization and architectural style. According to traditional Buddhist belief, no matter whether they were written carefully or not, manuscripts should not be treated disrespectfully, or kept in a demeaning place. The texts that manuscripts contain, especially the ritual ones, should not have any insertions or other writing added to them. Any person who breaks this rule would lose the respect of devout Buddhists. Traditionally, laywomen were not supposed to touch religious manuscripts directly, even if very often they were the persons who donated them to the monasteries. This tradition came to an end during the country-wide effort of manuscript preservation of the National Library of Laos since the 1990s, where laywomen were prominently involved.

Historic wooden Library of Vat Nong Lam Chan photograph by Hans Georg Berger
The historic wooden library of Vat Nong Lam Chan at Ban Nong Lam Chan, Champhon District, Savannakhet Province, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(21). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

It is the sponsor or donor, not the scribe, who is called the “maker” (phu sang) of a manuscript. Usually, its “making” is recorded in the colophons following the end of the text. Here, the names of the leading monastic or lay supporter(s) or mūlasaddhā who took the initiative in commissioning the writing of the manuscript is mentioned. This person provides the writing support and pays the scribe, usually a learned monk or ex-monk. The main aim of that pious deed is to help support the Teachings of the Buddha to endure for 5,000 years. As such, it is expected to bring in return to the sponsors, donors, and – in the case of manuscripts – scribes important karmic benefit. Scribes were exclusively male; recent research found that a surprisingly high number of principal donors were women. In the case of Luang Prabang, we noted a substantial number of manuscripts donated by royalty and members of the aristocracy.

Between 1992 and 2002 the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme, run by the National Library of Laos and supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, surveyed the manuscript holdings of 830 monasteries all over Laos and preserved almost 86,000 manuscripts. Of these, around 12,000 manuscripts were selected for microfilm recordings which are now accessible in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts. More recently, a number of digitization projects supported by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP)  and the Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts (DREAMSEA) focused on the particularly rich manuscript collections in Luang Prabang’s monasteries, the royal city which since the 14th century has been the centre of Lao Buddhism.

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A novice reads from a palm-leaf manuscript written in Tham Lao script, Vat Ban Müang Kang, Champasak Province, Southern Laos, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(19). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Hans Georg Berger, a photographer and writer born in 1951 in Trier, Germany, surveyed the situation of Lao manuscripts in the context of his photographic documentation of Lao ceremonies, rituals, meditation and everyday life since 1993. From 2006 to 2011 he was grant-holder of three projects of the Endangered Archives Programme which resulted in the digitization, identification and safe storage of more than 33,000 photographs taken and collected by the monks of Luang Prabang for over 120 years.

His collaboration with the Buddhist sangha, the National Library of Laos and the Buddhist Archives of Luang Prabang created a unique corpus and overview on Lao manuscript culture from which 60 photographs, both digital and printed, were acquired for the Library's Visual Arts collections. Hans Georg Berger's work for the Endangered Archives Programme was documented in the short film "Theravada Vision".

 

By Volker Grabowsky

 

Further reading

Berger, Hans Georg: The floating Buddha: the revival of vipassana meditation in Laos. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009, c2006

Berger, Hans Georg. Meditation colors: nine digital color photographs. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Berger, Hans Georg. Sacred dust from the Buddha's feet: Theravada Buddhism in Laos. Ulbeek: Salto Ulbeek, 2010

Berger, Hans Georg. My sacred Laos. Chicago: Serindia Contemporary, 2015

Berger, Hans Georg (photographs), Christian Caujolle et al. (texts). Het bun dai bun: Laos - Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang. London: Westzone, 2000

Berger, Hans Georg, Khamvone Boulyaphone. Treasures from the Buddhist Archive of Photography : historic photographs taken or collected by the monks of Luang Prabang between 1890 and 2007. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2010

Farmer, John Alan. The Self-in-Relation: on Hans Georg Berger's photographs. New York / Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2011

Lingham, Brian (ed). The learning photographer: scholarly texts on Hans Georg Berger's art work in Laos and Iran. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Pha One Keo Sitthivong, Khamvone Boulyaphone; foreword by Hans Georg Berger. Great monks of Luang Prabang 1854 to 2007. Luang Prabang: Publications of the Buddhist Archive of Photography; Anantha Publishing, 2011

 

19 October 2020

A Family Affair: The Dukagjinis in the British Library’s Ottoman Turkish Collections

(Sorry, but there’s no RnB to be found here; you’ll have to exit now if you’re looking for some Mary J. Blige)

Manuscript page with text in Arabic script in two columns and floral illumination around the margins and at the header in gold, red, green, blue and black
The first page of a copy of Şah u Geda from a 17th century CE manuscript featuring illumination that was likely added in the 19th century CE. (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Şah u Geda, 26 Zulkâde 1020 AH [16 January 1612 CE]. Or 16422, f 1v)CC Public Domain Image

Sometimes, large collections of data can only find their way into electronic databases through the mind-numbing, but essential, process of manual data entry. In the case of the British Library’s Ottoman manuscripts, the transfer of details by hand from acquisition slips into our online catalogue is the quickest means of making information about our holdings available to the widest number of people possible. There is, of course, an additional benefit to going through hundreds of these slips of paper. In doing so, I’ve been able to pick out patterns of acquisition, and to connect volumes of similar or identical content purchased by or bequeathed to the Museum or Library over the course of its history. In this blog, I’m going to explore one such group of items, all of which are in some way related to members of the Dukagjini family.

To be fair, the vast majority of the works in question are collections of poetry or prose by one Dukagjini, Dukaginzade Taşlıcalı Yahya Bey (Jahja bej Dukagjini in Albanian). Yahya Bey was born in 1498 CE in Taşlıca, today known as Pljevlja, Montenegro. The Dukagjin family were a fairly well-known Christian Albanian group in northern Albania and western Kosova. They are reputed to be descendants of the Progoni, founders of the Principality of Arbanon, the first state in Albanian history. While a branch of the family fled Ottoman rule and established themselves in the Venetian-controlled city of Koper (contemporary Slovenia), the rest stayed, gradually integrating into Ottoman suzerainty. A number of their children found their way to Istanbul in a pattern similar to that of Yahya Bey. Dukaginzade Ahmet Paşa achieved the rank of Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire in 1514-15 CE. His son, Dukaginzade Mehmet Paşa, went on to great feats too, becoming governor of Egypt in the mid-16th century CE. Aleppo even has a Dukaginzade Mehmet Paşa Mosque complex, which is known in Arabic as al-Adiliyah Mosque (جامع العادلية).

Yahya Bey was brought to Istanbul as part of the Devşirme, an Ottoman institution of forcible recruitment through which non-Muslim boys were selected by Imperial authorities, taken from their families, converted to Islam, and then entered into Imperial service. Yahya Bey therefore moved to Istanbul at an early age. He originally trained to be an archer, but eventually impressed Kemalpaşazade (Şeyh-ül-İslam and author of the Tevarih-i Âl-Osman) with a kaside he had written. He thus began his path through Imperial educational structures and into the bureaucracy. He was known as a sâhib-i seyf ü kalem, or master of the sword and pen, meaning a man who was both a warrior and a poet. Apart from his prolific poetical oeuvre, which we’ll see below, he was also a respected soldier, participating in the Battle of Çaldıran in 1514, the Ottoman-Mamluk War in 1516-17 CE, and even the Siege of Szigetvár in 1566 CE. But luck could be fickle for Ottoman civil servants and warriors. When Yahya Bey wrote a poem elegizing Kanunî Süleyman's first-born, Şehzade Mustafa, Grand Vizier Rüstem Paşa, Mustafa’s murderer, lashed out at the poet. When the dust settled, Yahya Bey was exiled to the Balkans. Some say that he took up residence in Zvornik, in present-day Bosnia and Hercegovina. Others claim that he actually spent his final days in Timișoara/Temesvár, Romania. Wherever it might have been that Yahya Bey lived in exile, it was there that he eventually died at some point between 1575 and 1582 CE.

Manuscript page with text in Arabic script in two columns surrounded by gold margins and topped with a floral-themed header in gold and blue
The first page of another copy of Şah u Geda, this time from a late 16th century CE manuscript. (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Şah u Geda, 998 AH [1590 CE]. Or 1159, f 1v)
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The Library holds at least 15 different volumes containing works by Yahya Bey. Most of these are not combined with the works of other writers, although Add MS 7936 (ff 28v-106v, Gülşen-i Envar) and Or 1154 (ff 59-136v, Gencine-i Raz) are both mecmualar or codices containing poetry by Yahya Bey and other poets. The other volumes cover the breadth of his oeuvre, including his Hamse ( Or 1147 and Or 7222); Şah u Geda ( Or 1159, Or 7223, Or 7224, and Or 16422); Gencine-i Raz ( Or 37, Or 1162, Or 7225, Or 16390, Add MS 5979); Gülşen-i Envar (Add MS 19446); and Usul-name or Kitab-i Usul (Add MS 5978). The Hamse (which comes from the Arabic word khamsah خمسة, meaning 5) contains the other named poems, as well as a fifth work, Yusûf u Züleyha. The Library does not appear to hold separate copies of his other works, Edirne Şehrengizi and İstanbul Şehrengizi, and it is likely that other poems that feature in his Divan are scattered in various mecmualar forming part of the Library’s holdings, waiting to be catalogued in full and connected to his name.


A two-page spread of a manuscript text in Arabic script, with text in two columns on each page, written in black ink with red headers and margins

The first two pages of Gülşen-i Envar from a Hamse-i Yahya Efendi, likely copied in the 17th century CE. (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Hamse-i Yahya Efendi, 17th century CE. Or 7222, ff 373v-374r)
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Yahya Bey is well-represented within the Library’s holdings in part because of the high esteem in which he was held by contemporary literati and soldiers as well as by future generations of scholars. Even while in exile, he impressed the Ottoman soldier, poet and historian Mustafa Ali, then stationed in Bosnia, who was later inspired by Yahya’s story in writing his own poetic works. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his popularity was encouraged by the English Orientalist E. J. W. Gibb , a prolific collector of West Asian manuscripts and a giant in Anglophone Ottoman Studies. The full impact of his and other British Orientalists’ collecting and analytical practices has been succinctly reviewed by Dr. Nagihan Gür in a number of her published papers. Gibb claimed that Yahya Bey was a particularly creative and innovative poet, borrowing and adapting themes and styles from Persian poetry. He further elevated the poet for his mastery of Istanbulite Ottoman Turkish, claiming that it was not possible to find any hint of Yahya’s Albanian origins in his use of the Ottoman language. As Gibb’s six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry (OIF 894.351) became a staple of literary criticism for the Anglophone world in the 20th century, so too would Yahya Bey find a place within the Orientalist pantheon of Ottoman poets established by European and American scholars.

A manuscript page with a series of concentric circles subdivided by arcs and filled with Arabic letters and esoteric symbols in black ink
A geometric diagram featuring Arabic letters and esoteric (?) symbols from the start of a Gülşen-i Envar text found in a late 16th century CE Hamse-i Yahya (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Hamse-i Yahya, Safer 988 AH [March-April 1580 CE]. Or 1147, f 1r)
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In 1901 and 1909, the British Museum (whose text-based collections passed to the Library in 1973) received dozens of Ottoman Turkish (as well as Persian and Arabic) manuscripts from Gibb’s estate. It should be no surprise, then, that four of the Library’s holdings of Yahya Bey’s poetry and prose are from Gibb (Or 7222, Or 7223, Or 7224, and Or 7225). But there are, of course, other sources. Nine volumes pre-date Gibb’s bequest. Two were received from Hilgrove Turner (Add MS 5978 and Add MS 5979), while one (Add MS 7936) came from the Rich Collection, amassed by the Franco-British businessman and diplomat Claudius Rich. The copy of Gülşen-i Envar at Add MS 19446 entered the British Museum’s holdings thanks to H(endrik?) Edelman, and Or 37 was sold by George Cecil Renouard. In 1872, four volumes were purchased from the Polish-Russian diplomat and famed Orientalist (particularly within the realm of Kurdish Studies), Alexandre Jaba or Żaba. The volumes (Or 1147, Or 1154, Or 1159 and Or 1162) speak to Jaba’s broader interest in the languages and literary cultures of West Asia and the Caucasus, as well as the formation of a distinct school of Oriental Studies in the Russian Empire. His legacy, and that of the other scholars who worked on such texts within the Tsars’ realms, are taken up in The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies (ELD.DS.18320), edited by Dr. Michael Kemper and Dr. Stephan Conermann.

Manuscript page with numerous seals and couplets and inscriptions written in Arabic script in all directionsManuscript page with numerous seals and couplets and inscriptions written in Arabic script in all directions
Two final pages from an early 17th century CE copy of the Gencine-yi Raz produced by Abdi İbn-i Mustafa of Demirtaş (Teymurtaşı), featuring numerous ownership seals, couplets and inscriptions in Ottoman Turkish. (Dukaginzade Yahya Efendi, Gencine-yi Raz, 1034 AH [1624-25 CE]. Or 7224, ff 83v-84r)
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Another two items would join this list thanks to acquisition activities in the late 20th century. Both Or 16390 and Or 16422 are works that were previously held by C. S. Mundy, another of Great Britain’s well-known Turkologists, this time resident at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. These men, of course, were the final stop for the manuscripts before they entered the Museum or the Library. Before them, countless Ottoman and other readers bought, enjoyed, shared, and sold these works. Some of them left their names or seals on the pages and fly-leaves of the volumes, attesting to the great popularity of a number of the items. Much research is still needed to understand just what paths these texts followed throughout their lives, and how such histories reflect reading and collecting habits of Ottoman audiences.

A manuscript page of Arabic-script text in black ink with headers and margins in red inkA double-page spread of manuscript pages with Arabic-script text in black ink and headers and margins in red
A copy of a letter written to Dukaginzade Osman taken from a collection of compositions attributed to Veysi. (Münşeat-i Veysi-yi Merhum, 18th century CE. Or 7466, ff 39v-40v)
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The story of Ottoman Dukagjinis and the British Library’s Ottoman manuscripts does not end with Yahya Bey. Nor, apparently, did the story of the Dukaginzadeler in the Ottoman bureaucracy. Or 7466 is a münşeat of the late 16th-century Ottoman poet Veysi, which was purchased from I. E. Gégou on 9 April 1910. A münşeat is essentially a collection of letters and other texts that can be used as models for future correspondence. The genre is fairly common within our holdings. The general idea was popular in many cultures until fairly recently; I remember having a French correspondence manual in the 1990s as a supplementary text for high school and university French class. In this particular volume, we find a copy of a letter addressed to Dukaginzade Osman (died 1603 CE), Kadı of Cairo. While Dukaginzade was not nearly as well-known as his relatives, his name does appear in a number of different münşeat held in various locations and penned by different authors. Most recently, he came up in the chapter “The law school of Mehmed II in the last quarter of the sixteenth century: a glass ceiling for the less connected Ottoman Ulema” by Dr. Baki Tezcan, found in Ottoman War and Peace (ZA9.9.a.6407(68)). The British Library’s own holdings, then, would appear to mirror the broader fortunes of the Dukagjini family in the ebb and flow of the Ottoman Imperial order.

As more of our acquisition slips enter the online catalogue, it is possible that further volumes of Yahya Bey’s work will be reconnected to those already identified. Perhaps items relating to other members of the Dukagjini family might be found too. Whatever happens, those manuscripts already documented paint a picture of how one extended family had a profound effect on Ottoman society and history in the 16th century. They also show how collecting practices impact scholarship and our later understanding of the evaluation and appreciation of cultural products in Ottoman society. Finally, the Dukagjinis shine a light on the complexity of kinship, forcible recruitment, and ethnic origins in the Ottoman Empire. At times, statecraft and literary prowess are more than just learned skills; they’re a family affair.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of the Turkish and Turkic Collections
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12 October 2020

For your eyes only: Charles Masson’s observations on the Durrani states

Searching the name ‘Charles Masson’ online returns a healthy amount of results about a rather mysterious historical figure. Born in England with the name ‘James Lewis’, this enigmatic individual enjoyed several adventures in Asia during his relatively short life (1800-53). After deserting from the Bengal European Artillery in 1827, changing his name to Charles Masson, and travelling extensively throughout Afghanistan and modern-day Pakistan, he was hired by the East India Company to conduct antiquarian research in Afghanistan. He continued to travel and excavate sites until his true identity as a deserter was revealed in 1834, at which point he was forced to become an intelligence agent in Kabul in exchange for a royal pardon. He resigned in 1838 and continued to conduct archaeological work before returning to London in 1842.

View of Kabul by Charles Masson
View of Kabul, from Godfrey Thomas Vigne's A personal narrative of a visit to Ghuzni, Kabul, and Afghanistan, and of a residence at the Court of Dost Mohamed. London, 1840, p. 194 (British Library Digital Store 1046.e.17)
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It is his archaeological work for which Charles Masson is largely remembered today. Many of the objects that he took from Afghanistan and parts of modern-day Pakistan are now housed in the British Museum. Indeed, a substantial research project led by Dr Elizabeth Errington has provided a catalogue of material relating to Masson.

As well as the British Library’s Masson Collection , the Masson project catalogue points to traces of Masson’s story which can be found in less obvious sections of the India Office Records. As a cataloguer for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme, it was through an item from the Board’s Collections (IOR/F/4) that I was first introduced to the talented Mr Masson.

IOR/F/4/1399/55442A captures the beginning of Masson’s relationship with the East India Company. It starts with a letter from Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, David Wilson, who wrote excitedly to the Government of Bombay [Mumbai] in September 1830 to inform them of his encounter with a certain Charles Masson at Bushire [Būshehr]. Masson had made extensive observations on his travels through the Durrani states (parts of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan). Wilson enclosed these accounts in his letter, believing they would be of great value and interest to the Company.

Route map illustrating Massons journey in Baluchstan  Afghanistan and Panjab
Extract of map illustrating Masson's journey thorugh Baluchustan, Afghanistan and Panjab, appended to Volume 4 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalāt (Library of Congress DS377 .M4)
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Spanning nearly 514 pages, Masson’s accounts relate to the political status, culture, languages and religions of numerous states, provinces and tribes, and the routes taken during his travels. They include details of the people he encountered, caravan entourages, landscapes, climate, agriculture, villages and fortresses along the routes. In particular, Masson dedicates a significant space to describing ‘the Seicks’ [Sikhs] and Ranjeet Sing [Ranjit Singh, Ruler of the Sikh Empire].

Whilst the observations contain a lot of detail on a variety of subjects, it is possible to glean from Wilson’s letter the particular details that piqued his interest. He states that he queried Masson about the suitability of the routes taken for the conveyance of troops, and whether ‘vessels of considerable burthen’ could pass from Multan to the sea via the Ravee [Ravi] or Indus rivers. Wilson also notes Masson’s thoughts on whether Ranjit Singh planned to extend beyond Punjab, and if there was any concern amongst the Chiefs of Scinde [Sindh] about whether Singh intended to overthrow their power.

IOR_F_4_1399_55442A_f235_imageforMassonblog
Extract of a copy of a letter from David Wilson, Resident in the Persian Gulf, to the Government of Bombay, 11 September 1830, discussing the suitability of a ‘large body of troops traversing that country by the route [Masson] did’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A, f. 235v). Crown Copyright

The details highlighted by Wilson’s letter from September 1830 are significant because they hint at British activity in Sindh and Afghanistan. The 1830s saw large parts of Sindh annexed by the British, followed by an 1838 treaty between the Company and Ranjit Singh to restore Shah Shojāʿ to power in Kabul which led to the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-42). It is this context which reveals to us why Wilson thought Masson’s information was useful to the Company.

In his letter, Wilson also recommended that the Government of Bombay should consider employing Masson in some capacity. He wrote that he had sent Masson to Tabriz in July 1830, equipped with a letter for the British Envoy to Persia, asking the Envoy to ‘direct Mr Masson’s future enquiries to objects in these countries that require elucidation’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A, f 242r).

Whilst Wilson’s letter establishes the circumstances in which Masson was hired by the Company, it also touches on an important point which was to be addressed by Masson in later years – whether Masson had intended his observations to be used as intelligence.

Towards the end of his letter, Wilson wrote that, whilst he had not told Masson that he intended to send the accounts to the Government of Bombay, he argues that Masson ‘must have been aware, that a Public Officer situated as he knew me to be and making the enquiries I did, must have done so with a view to the good of the service.’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A, ff. 243r-243v).

However, whilst Masson later spoke highly of Wilson, he disputed the extent to which he had intended his accounts to be used as political information. Not long after his return to England, he published an account of his travels, entitled Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalāt. The preface to this work included the following passage (see image below):

Extract from Volume 1 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan  Afghanistan  the Panjab  and Kalat
Extract from Volume 1 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalāt, p. v (Library of Congress DS377 .M4)
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Therefore, it seems it was not made explicitly clear to Masson that Wilson was going to send the former’s observations to the British Government in Bombay. Taking into account that Masson was later forced to become an informant in exchange for his royal pardon, and that he went on to become a critic of the Company’s policy in Afghanistan in the late 1830s, this point adds an intriguing element to the question of how Masson viewed his relationship with the Company, both at the time and later. Did he naively assume that Wilson would not pass on his observations as intelligence, or was he fully aware of the ‘interesting schemes’ for which they might be used? Were his comments in the preface to his book a way of setting the record straight, or an attempt to portray his own past in a different light?

The relevant papers in IOR/F/4/1399/55442A form a small but significant part of the Masson project catalogue, as they reveal the interest that the East India Company had in Masson’s earlier explorations. In doing so, they serve as the opening chapter in the story of how Charles Masson became a British informant on Afghanistan, a role it is unclear he wanted to play.

Curstaidh Reid, Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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Further reading:

‘Report by Major Wilson, Resident at Bushire, dated 11th September 1830, with observations on the Political condition of the Dourannee & neighbouring states by Mr. C. Masson. Vol: 4’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A).

Charles Masson, Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, & Kalât, during a residence in those countries : to which is added an account of the insurrection at Kalat, and a memoir on Eastern Balochistan, 4 vols (London: Richard Bentley…, 1844).

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Anglo-Afghan Wars’, Encyclopaedia Britannica online, November 13 2019.

Elizabeth Errington, ‘MASSON, Charles’, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 16 June 2004.

Khushwant Singh, ‘Ranjit Singh’, Encyclopaedia Britannica online, June 23 2020.