Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

24 September 2020

Bringing the children home

In the 19th century, the East India Company made increasing efforts to bring the trade in enslaved people in the Gulf to an end.  The majority of the people imported into the Gulf came from the East Coast of Africa and Zanzibar, but some also came from India.  These were usually women and children who had been kidnapped from their homes to be sold in the Gulf.  It was one of the responsibilities of British Agents in the Gulf to discover and rescue these children.

This was not always easy.  The local rulers could be uncooperative, and the merchants and traders would disguise the origins of the children to avoid detection.  The Native Agent at Muscat complained that his efforts to emancipate children had turned the population against him.  Even after they had tracked down the children, the Agents faced further difficulties in freeing them; the British Government stipulated that they must avoid force, but also directed that no money should be handed over, to avoid stimulating the market.  The Native Agent would look after the children at the British Government’s expense until he was able to place them on a ship to Bombay [Mumbai].  The Senior Magistrate of Police at Bombay was responsible for reuniting children with their parents or finding an alternative situation for them.

Photograph of the buildings of the Muscat Consulate and Agency on a waterfront

The Muscat Consulate and Agency, c. 1870 (Photo 355/1/43)

Mahomed Unwur [Muhammed Anwar] lived with his brother, Mirza Abdulla [‘Abd Allah], in Butcher Street, Bombay, when he was twelve.  One morning his brother sent him to the bazaar where he met a man who enticed him on board a ship with sweets.  Two weeks later, he arrived at Muscat and lived there for six or seven months with the man who had kidnapped him.  He was offered for sale privately at different houses during this time, until one day, when he was gathering dates at the Customs House, he was taken to the house of the Native Agent.  He finally returned to Bombay in November 1843, where he was reunited with his brother and returned to live with him.  This happy ending was sadly fairly unusual for kidnapped children.  On the same ship returning to India as Mahomed Unwur was another child, a girl.

Painting of a street in Bombay busy with people, 1867‘A street in Bombay’, chromolithograph by William Simpson, from India Ancient and Modern, 1867. BL Online Gallery 

Eleven-year-old Auzeemah [‘Azimah] knew that she had been born in a village near Moradabad.  She was kidnapped and lived in Moradabad for three or four years.  A man then took her to Muscat and tried to exchange her for a boy, but while at Muscat she was discovered and taken to live with the Native Agent until she could be sent home.  Unfortunately, she remembered so little about her parents or her village that, despite lengthy enquiries by the Government of Agra, her parents were not found.   Auzeemah was instead placed with a family in Bombay who would bring her up.

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer

Further reading:
The stories of Mahomed and Auzeemah can be found in IOR/F/4/2034/98123.

 

22 September 2020

The truth behind the myth: the colonial legacy of the Mayflower voyage - No.1 English colonisation of North America prior to 1620

This month marks a pivotal moment in English colonial and North American history: the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing to North America in 1620.

Approximately one third of the passengers on board the Mayflower were English separatists who wanted to make a living in the profitable ‘New World’ away from religious restrictions.  They are known euphemistically as the Pilgrim Fathers of the United States of America, and are mythologised today as symbols of religious freedom.  They have become a central theme in the United States of America’s founding story.

The settlers founded Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts and what was then Wampanoag land.  Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoags, had no choice but to sign a peace treaty with the invaders.

Jamestown and Plymouth were the first of many English colonies in North America and the Caribbean.  This was driven by the pursuit of economic profit and the fight for influence amidst other European powers.

The consequences of colonisation were grave for everybody who was not European. Native Americans were devastated by disease, the buying out of land and violent conflict. The racial enslavement and transportation of African people to work on colonial plantations became endemic and horribly profitable.

More colonists wanted

The English Virginia Company established the colony of Jamestown in 1607 on Paspahegh land.  The Powhatan Confederacy, a collective of Algonquian peoples that included the Paspahegh, resisted English colonial establishment and expansion for many years in the Anglo-Powhatan Wars (1610-1646).

The settlers defeated the Powhatan Confederacy but they did struggle in the early years of the colony.  No crops were planted in the first year and supply ships either brought more hungry settlers or failed to arrive at all.   There were many fatalities from 1609 to 1610, a period known as the starving time.  The colony desperately needed more settlers.

An advert printed in London by the Virginia Company in 1609 calling for people to sign up.

For the Plantation in Virginia, 1609, C.18.e.1(63) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This is an advert printed by the Virginia Company calling for people to sign up, giving no indication that Jamestown was on the brink of collapse.


Native Americans as seen through European colonial eyes

Picture entitled ‘A weroan or great Lorde of Virginia’ showing two men with bows and arrows, with text describing these 'Princes' of Virginia‘A weroan or great Lorde of Virginia’ Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Picture and text explaining the manner of making boats by Native Americans in Virginia, hollowing out tree trunks‘The manner of making their boates’ Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Engravings by Theodor de Bry in Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590. C.38.i.18

These engravings are the only surviving visual record of the Native Americans encountered by England’s first colonists.

Although stylised, they depict the Secota, Roanoke and Pomeiooc peoples of North-Carolina and their settlements. De Bry based his engravings on the watercolours of John White, a member of the short-lived Roanoke Colony, who drew from life the Carolina Algonquian people in that area.

These images played a central role in shaping European conceptions about the so-called New World and its inhabitants.


How New England became New England

Map of New England unfolded from a book, first printed in 1616Map from John Smith, New England’s Trials, 1622, G.7197 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This map, first printed in 1616, marks the first time that New England was called New England.

It was named by John Smith, the coloniser famous for his association with Matoaka, the Powhatan woman who was captured and held for ransom by colonists during the First Anglo-Powhatan War.  She is known today as Pocahontas.

John Smith’s book is essentially a promotional brochure about North America’s riches and natural resources.  The then Prince Charles (who became Charles I in 1626) renamed the Native American places with English alternatives, erasing their people’s history and culture.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

17 September 2020

Sylvia Pankhurst’s Toilet Papers

The panic bulk buying of toilet paper and dried pasta?  Or Captain Tom Moore’s long march for the NHS?  It’s too soon to tell which aspects of 2020 historians will focus on.  However, as Sylvia Pankhurst’s biographer, my own obsession with toilet paper began a few years before the Covid-19 pandemic, and it began in the British Library.

Many people remember Sylvia Pankhurst as the suffragette sister from the first family of feminism who stayed true to its socialist beginnings throughout her great life.  Fewer reflect upon the whole arc of that life; one of art and resistance against war, fascism, racism, colonialism, and inequality.

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst 1938

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst by Howard Coster, 1938 NPG x24529 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Sylvia was the most incarcerated and tortured of the Pankhursts, but her prison career did not end there.  In 1921 she was once more His Majesty’s guest in Holloway Prison.  This time her crime was not the struggle for women’s equality but sedition, in publishing anti-war articles in her newspaper the Workers’ Dreadnought.  Her health compromised by previous imprisonment and torture, and suffering from endometriosis, one of the bravest Britons of the 20th century served another prison term, this time as a newspaper publisher defending freedom of the press.

Sylvia used her six-month solitary sentence to write.  A political prisoner, her only permitted writing materials were a small slate and chalk.  Yet she was prolific during this period.  On release, she published the poetry anthology Writ on Cold Slate, whose title sonnet agonizes about writing under such conditions.

Whilst many a poet to his love hath writ,
Boasting that thus he gave immortal life,
My faithful lines upon inconstant slate,
Destined to swift extinction reach not thee.

So, I wondered, how did these faithful lines reach us?

My excavation of British Library manuscripts revealed that artist and writer came up with a practical means of transcribing her writing and smuggling it out of Holloway.  Sylvia drafted her ideas with chalk on slate, then reworked them with soft pencil on standard issue HM Prison toilet paper, concealed in the underclothes of her uniform.  These contraband manuscripts were smuggled out by her friend Norah Smyth on prison visits, and other prisoners on release.  Sylvia’s suggestive wipe-away slate metaphor led me to the discovery of the fragile toilet paper reality.  The compressed, previously unsorted bundles surviving today in the BL contain not only poetry but a previously unknown and nearly complete five act play and clandestine correspondence that I spent six months painstakingly transcribing and putting in order for future researchers.

Sylvia complained to Norah that ‘the stuff I write all rubs off because it flops around in my pocket,’ but this line has survived for a century on its little square of rough toilet roll, along with hundreds of other sheets of beige, perforated prison issue toilet paper.  Sylvia Pankhurst died in Ethiopia in 1960, honoured with a state funeral.  When an earthquake and coup followed, her son unsuccessfully attempted to give a portion of her extensive papers to the British Library for safekeeping.  Refuge was instead found in Amsterdam.  Years later, Richard Pankhurst once again offered the BL the opportunity of a further cache of his mother’s papers, including – bundled up in bulging brown envelopes – this toilet paper in which I have found such treasure.  Thank goodness for second chances and for writing under lockdown.

Rachel Holmes
Author 

Further reading:
Pankhurst Papers - British Library Add MS 88925
Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (Bloomsbury, 2020).