Archive | September 2013

Her child born in that captivity

Shahr-e Zohak

Julia Florentia Mulock was born July 24th 1842 and died April 23rd 1910. I first came across her when I was writing about Afghanistan, a member of a military family which had some interesting connections to Bamiyan. Since then I’ve continued to stumble over information about her, and the more I’ve discovered, the more fascinated I’ve become with the peculiar lives led by the British officer class in nineteenth-century India, privileged, violent and above all precarious.

The image at the top of this post, a view of a castle at the eastern end of the Bamiyan valley, was sketched by Lt. John Sturt, Julia’s father, in August 1840. The British, who had invaded Afghanistan in the previous year, were securing their northern borders, and Sturt was reconnoitring the vitally strategic passes through the Hindu Kush.

A year later Sturt married Julia’s mother Alexandrina (Dinah) Sale, the daughter of Lady Florentia Sale, in Kabul, and in its small way this illustrates the dangerous complacency of the British occupiers, settling into familiar rituals of camp life unmindful of the powder keg they were sitting on. Things unravelled very quickly. In January 1842 the British were forced to retreat in freezing conditions through the passes between Kabul and Jalalabad. The retreat turned into a massacre, and Sturt was one of thousands of fatalities as the column of British and Indian soldiers and civilians was annihilated by the Afghans.

Sturt’s young wife Alexandrina and her mother were with him when he died. As Lady Sale recorded, “we had the sorrowful satisfaction of giving him Christian burial.” They survived the retreat, taken prisoner by the Afghan leader Akbar Khan: during nine months of captivity they became a huge cause célèbre in Britain. Eventually, as their captors tried to keep them out of reach of a British “Army of Retribution”, they also visited Bamiyan, and took a third member of the family along with them: Julia, the baby daughter of John and Alexandrina, born in Kabul six months after her father’s death. The journal kept by Lady Sale during this time was a publishing sensation after the prisoners were released in September 1842. On July 24 she notes wryly, “At 2 P.M. Mrs. Sturt presented me with a grand-daughter;—another female captive.”

I became very intrigued by this baby girl who travelled to Bamiyan when a month old, and gave “Afghanistan” as her place of birth in a census thirty years later. I even tracked down her grave in rural Somerset (she died in 1910), again with that wildly incongruous place of birth, and wrote about her, explaining amongst other things how as a two-year-old in 1844 she, her mother, grandmother and grandfather (Maj-Gen Sir Robert Henry Sale) were fêted across Britain, mobbed by crowds wherever they went and given an audience with the Queen: at the time Lady Sale was the most famous woman in the Empire, with the single exception of Victoria herself. I also described how the girl who lost her father before she was born lost her mother in equally violent circumstances fifteen years later, during the “Indian Mutiny”; and how after all of that Julia went on to lead the same strange life of an officer’s wife as her mother and grandmother had done.

My thanks to Neville Morley for this photo of Julia Mulock’s grave, on which you may just be able to make out the words BORN IN AFGHANISTAN:

When I wrote about Julia back then there were still some niggling gaps in her story. What I most wanted to know was where Julia was on the eve of her fifteenth birthday in July 1857, when the second great trauma of her childhood occurred, the death at Segauli in Bihar of her mother and stepfather at the hands of her stepfather’s troops during the “Indian Mutiny”. I wasn’t certain that she hadn’t been living with her parents when they died, and initially I had assumed she had died at the same time. I now have clear evidence of Julia’s whereabouts, but I’ll come to it indirectly.

Because I also found myself reading the will of Julia’s grandmother, Lady Sale, the heroine of the hour after the hostage crisis. After the death of her husband in 1845 Lady Sale was the recipient of a pension from the Queen which allowed her to retire in some comfort to an estate in Simla. She died in 1853.

Two details of Lady Sale’s will interest me particularly. The first is a reference it makes to her granddaughter Julia, the only case where she bequeaths a specific item to a grandchild: “My Globes I give to Julia Florentia Sturt.” The gift of (presumably) a terrestrial and celestial globe suggests to me that Lady Sale and Julia had spent significant time in each other’s company. It was certainly an appropriate bequest from the well-travelled Lady Sale to her granddaughter, who was born in Kabul, died in North Cheriton, Somerset; and in the interim spent extended periods of her life in India and New Zealand.

The other intriguing detail in Lady Sale’s will was a bequest to Julia’s stepfather (by this time Alexandrina had remarried): “I give my coins to my son-in-law James Garner Holmes, he being the only person in my family that has a taste for Numismatology.” Coin collecting was all the rage among the British and Europeans in N-W India at this period, mainly because coins offered the readiest access to something that greatly interested them, the period of Greek influence in the region dating to the last three centuries BC. I had no idea Lady Sale was another coin collector, but subsequently Dr Liz Errington at the British Museum pointed me to coins she donated to the Museum during her triumphant tour of Britain in 1844: for example this one, which she had picked up in Afghanistan.

But back to Julia. On July 23 1857 her mother and stepfather were killed by her stepfather’s own mutinous troops. I knew that well enough, and the gory details, but I didn’t know where Julia was at the time until I came across the following paragraph from a contemporary letter in Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars:

Major Holmes is a fearful story. He raised the 12th Irregulars (cavalry) & loved them as his children. They were doing zealous service, severely punishing offenders, and keeping a district quiet, till the moment they hacked him & his wife to pieces & burnt the doctor and his family, all but one child saved by an ayah. Mrs Holmes was the daughter of Lady Sale, widow of Lt. Sturt who was killed in the Cabul retreat. Her child born in that captivity, I am glad to hear, was safe in England.

What strikes me about this is that in 1857 people’s impulse, on discovering how Alexandrina died, was immediately to wonder what had happened to her daughter Julia: in other words, the same reaction as mine, 150 years later. In this instance some quite important people were concerned about her, since the letter is from Lady Canning, wife of the Governor-General of India during the “Mutiny”, Lord Canning, to Queen Victoria.

I now think that in 1857 Julia had been in Bath, living with an aunt. One reason I hope that’s true is that the most exciting new information I’ve received about Julia was given me by Dawn and Warren Glase; and that aunt of Julia, Caroline Hill, herself a military widow, was Dawn’s great-great-grandmother. This new piece of information is, quite simply, a photo of Julia Mulock, from the Museum of New Zealand:

Julia Florentia Mulock1

In 1861 Julia married an officer, Thomas Edmonds Mulock, and began her own life as a military wife. Here she is between 1863 and 1865, in her early twenties. Lt Col Mulock was in fact twenty-five years her senior. Julia was in New Zealand because her husband was involved in the wars between the British and Maoris: the little wars, which weren’t little if you were in them, were being fought pretty much continuously by the British in the nineteenth century, as Florentia, Alexandrina and Julia could testify. As for the photo, it does, I’ll be honest, mean a lot to me to be able to attach a face to the name and experiences I’ve been thinking about for so long.

But there’s one more thing to say about this portrait, and it’s a little more macabre, perhaps: certainly very Victorian. But it offers the slightest hint of the impact this woman’s traumatic early life must have had on her. Around Mrs Mulock’s neck we can see a ribbon and a locket. The ribbon is probably black, and the locket is pretty certainly a piece of mourning jewellery. Very popular in this period, mourning lockets held a memento of a dead loved one, typically a lock of hair.

There’s an extended account in Sir John William Kaye’s classic History of the Sepoy War in India of the harsh measures adopted by Julia’s stepfather, Major James Garner Holmes, to suppress rebellion in his district (also a letter from Lord Canning criticising Holmes’ approach to keeping order) during the Mutiny.  Kaye then goes on to describe (in quite gruesome detail) the death of Major and Mrs Holmes. We learn among other things that a loyal ayah (lady’s-maid) recovered from Alexandrina Holmes’ head “the streaming hair, rich and beautiful in its abundance … as a memorial to be cherished by those who had loved her.”

I think I know what is in Julia Florentia Mulock’s locket.

Nice Buddha; nice set of wheels.

I hope you’ll agree this is a pretty evocative photo:


Thanks to Dilek Taş for finding it (and three other photos of Bamiyan) among the papers of Aurel Stein, the great archaeologist of Central Asia (in a box of photos sent to him in letters); and when she found it, bless her, for thinking of me.

Of course, the moment I clapped eyes on it I wanted to identify the car-owner and the date. The place was clear enough: Bamiyan, Afghanistan: in the background the larger, 55-metre Buddha, carved out of the sandstone cliff face, somehow set off so effectively by the stylish motor in the foreground.

I had a hunch the best evidence would be found inside that box of photos, but over the weekend I tried to get what I could from the photograph itself. First the car: from Bozi Mohacek, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of classic cars, I learned that this was a British make (he could tell from the position of the headlights), a Wolseley tourer of about 1926 (“Earlier possible, later by a tiny bit but unlikely. No tiebar on the lights”). Two of the other photos offered a little help, as well. One was a view from the top of the 55-metre Buddha, with the silhouettes of local people sitting on the Buddha’s head:


This offers a small clue in itself, since the head of this larger Buddha had been inaccessible for many centuries, and it was only with the construction of a path along the cliff face by the French archaeologist André Godard, in 1923, that it was possible to reach it. So another terminus post quem. Finally, in this photo in front of the smaller, 38-metre Buddha my first thought was that the European figure on the left, in the white shirt, was a woman:


Yesterday morning I finally got to look at the box of photos. There I found a slip of paper with a bare indication of the sources of the photographs Stein had collected. For these three photos, plus a fourth of the 38-metre Buddha, the provenance was a succinct “Amps, 1929”. The photos had come to Stein in a letter from Amps, in other words, but who on earth was Amps? A quick consultation of the Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK told me no letters between Stein and Amps have survived, and none of my biographies of Aurel Stein mentioned an Amps either.

Like the world-class researcher I am, I resorted to Google: “Amps, Afghanistan.”

I got dogs, loads of them. It turns out that one Mary Amps was a very big noise indeed in Afghan Hound breeding, importing the animals from Afghanistan and running her highly successful “Ghazni kennels” at Penn near Wolverhampton. Most of the Afghan Hounds around today seem to be descended from hers. Go here, and you will start to discover the interesting world of Afghan Hounds, and find lots of articles by Mrs Amps advertising her kennels with picturesque detail of her collecting trips in Afghanistan. What had taken Mary Amps to Afghanistan in the first place was her husband’s attachment to the British Legation in Kabul, effectively the embassy. Major Leon Williamson Amps was an officer of the Royal Engineers, posted to Kabul through the 1920s, a particularly volatile period in Afghan history between the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 and the overthrow of the modernizing King Amanullah in 1929. I don’t at the moment know whether Leon or Mary were among those rescued in what is considered the first major airlift, the rescue in 1929 of foreigners from Kabul when it was in the grip of the revolt against Amanullah.

So we’ve identified the two Europeans in the photos, Major and Mrs Amps, travelling around Afghanistan to see the sites, but also presumably to scout out any promising looking canine bloodstock. I can’t spot any dogs in the photos, disappointingly. The pictures must date to somewhere between 1926 and the time of the letter to Aurel Stein (and the departure of all the British from Afghanistan), 1929. It all looks very jolly in these photos, but we shouldn’t be in any doubt how adventurous you had to be, as a foreigner, to travel around 1920s Afghanistan, and for that matter how uncomfortable a trip into the Hindu Kush would have been on 1920s suspension.

Mary Amps’ business thrived, as we know, and Major Amps rose to be Major-General, honoured for his work building the British Legation compound in Kabul. He died in 1989, at the respectable age of 97.

I’m pleased I’ve identified the owners of the Wolseley tourer, but Aurel Stein is where this started, and I think his reasons for preserving (perhaps even requesting) these images of Bamiyan are worth a final thought, too.

Aurel Stein travelled all over Central Asia, and in the process transformed our understanding of that space where India, China and the West encountered each other. But it’s true to say that what drove this irrepressibly energetic man more than anything else, as he himself candidly admitted, was the intense fascination he had felt since boyhood for the Greek colonisation of what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan during and after Alexander the Great’s campaigns. At the heart of this Greek “presence” in central Asia was Bactria, the territory around Balkh in northern Afghanistan where Stein expected that rich evidence would be found of the meeting of East and West, and the Buddhist cultures that emerged from it. As for Bamiyan, it was generally believed at the time, and Stein shared the belief, that the giant Buddhas and cave temples were also connected to this Greek moment in Afghan history. We now know that the Buddhas are much later than Stein and his contemporaries assumed, and not in any significant way Greek in inspiration, but for Stein Bamiyan was part and parcel of his Bactrian Eldorado, and it was one of the places he tried again and again to get official permission to visit.

But throughout his long and remarkable career, that one burning desire to visit Afghanistan was constantly denied to Stein. The Afghans were determined to “twist the lion’s tail,” make things as difficult as possible for the British, and given the history of relations between the two countries, it’s hard to blame them. In 1902, 1912 and 1919-22 Stein made concerted efforts to persuade the Afghan authorities to let him visit, but each time his request was refused. Finally, in 1943, permission for him to visit the country was granted, but the eighty-year-old Stein caught cold in the famous National Museum in Kabul, and died just a week after arriving. His grave is in the British Cemetery in Kabul.

Shortly before he died, Stein told a friend, “I have had a wonderful life, and it could not be concluded more happily than in Afghanistan, which I have wanted to visit for sixty years.”

I just wonder about Aurel Stein’s thoughts, a decade earlier, as he pondered Major and Mrs Amps’ vivid photographs of a place he just could not seem to get to, no matter how desperately he wanted to.

A witness to suttee

The idea of this blog was to let me share mindworms (intellectual earworms, I mean: please don’t be put off), and this one’s been haunting me all weekend. It’s a description of sati or suttee, the self-immolation of the widow (or in this case widows) of a dead man at her husband’s funeral. There’s some contemporary resonance, I suppose. I’d certainly like to hear how the nineteenth-century debates on suttee, which resulted in a ban on the practice by the British imperial authorities, would play out in newspapers and blogs and on Twitter today. General Napier’s response to the argument that the religious customs of different communities should be sacrosanct, for which I’m grateful to Brian Williams, would come in for some criticism, I’m sure. But it’d be hard to argue he’s wrong on the basic issue.

The account comes from the autobiography of Dr Martin Honigberger, a Transylvanian physician at the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Sikh ruler of the Punjab at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Like many of the other Europeans employed by Ranjit Singh, Honigberger was also an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist and coin-collector, keen to uncover evidence of Greek activity in what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan and N-W India. In Thirty-five Years in the East (1852) Honigberger described his travels and medical activities. What follows is just a part of his description of the funeral of Ranjit Singh in 1839, pp. 101-3 of this edition if anyone wants to read further.

Honigberger is appalled by suttee, and he makes that perfectly clear at the end of this excerpt. But for the most part he describes what he saw with a doctor’s detachment and attention to detail: the woman unveiling herself for the first and only time in public as she walks to her death; the mirror held before her face so that she can be sure she is betraying no fear; the simple clothes and bare feet. I’ve made no change to Honiberger’s text except to break up his long nineteenth-century paragraphs. The elaborate tomb that Honiberger mentions, erected on the site of Ranjit Singh’s cremation, still stands in Lahore.

Early in the morning subsequent to that on which the death of the maharajah happened, I went down the Tukht (coronation-square), accompanied by Col. Henry Steinbach (lately in the service of the maharajah, Gholab Sing, in Cashmere, now in Europe), and we directed our steps towards the large yard, which we had to cross, in order to get betimes to a convenient place close to the funeral pile. This was erected between the walls and the fortress, in a small garden, the conflux of the people having been so enormous in the fortress.

In the large yard, we observed one of the four ranees (queens) coming out of the harem on foot and unveiled, for the first time in her life. She was slowly proceeding towards the place where the royal body was lying, and she was surrounded by about one hundred persons, who kept themselves at some distance, while accompanying her. Close to her side there was a man carrying a small box, containing the remainder of her jewels (as she had already distributed some ), which she made presents of, handing them one by one to the people on her right and left. Two or three steps in front of her, there was a man moving in a backward direction, his face turned towards her, and holding a looking-glass, that she might convince herself that her features were unaltered, and no fear visible on them. At the distribution of the jewels, Col. Steinbach made the observation that, had we stretched out our hands to receive a present, it certainly would not have been denied; but we thought proper to leave it to the poorer people, because we occupied lucrative posts.

 It is curious, indeed, that this was the very ranee whom Runjeet Sing married in the first year of my residence in that country, ten years having passed since I witnessed the nuptials at Nadoun. She was, as I mentioned before, a daughter of Sunsarchund, and she had a younger sister, whom the maharajah at the same time took also for a wife, and conveyed them both to Lahore; the latter, I am told, had died of consumption during my absence. As for the former, although I was present at her wedding, I nevertheless had never seen her before, and it was only on her last fatal walk, which she took to her funeral pile, that I could behold her.

The funeral train, accompanied by many thousands of spectators, was now proceeding; all were on foot, their abode in the fortress not being far distant from the place of the ceremony. The four ranees only were carried, in open palanquins, behind the deceased, after them followed the seven female slaves, barefooted; some of them appeared to be not more than fourteen or fifteen years of age. The ranees, too, were barefooted, their silk dresses were simple, and without any ornaments, and they appeared to be indifferent to the awful though voluntary fate which awaited them. Perhaps our hearts throbbed more at the view of this dismal train than those of the poor victims themselves.

 The body of Runjeet Sing was placed on a board, to which it was probably fastened, and was carried on a light and decorated bier constructed in the shape of a ship; the sails and flags of the vessel were made of rich golden and silk stuff (kimkab), and of Cashmere shawls. A number of people carried the bier from the interior of the fortress up to the funeral-pile, there the board with the body was taken out of it and deposited on the ground, where, on what was a small garden, now stands a summood, i.e., a tomb of the royal family Runjeet Sing, Kurruck Sing and No-Nehal Sing, i.e., the father, son, and grand-child, together with their wives and slaves. The costly ornaments of the richly decorated bier were given to the mob; the Brahmins performed their prayers from the Shaater, a book written in the Indian or Sanscrit language; the Gooroos, or priests of the Sikhs, did the same, from their holy scripture called Grunthsaheb, and the Musselmen accompanied them with their “Ya, Allah! Ya, Allah!”

A slow, but not displeasing rumbling of the drums, and the murmuring of the people, gave to the whole scene a melancholy aspect, and was peculiar to the country. The funeral pile which displayed itself before the eyes of the spectators, was constructed of dry woods, amongst which there were pieces of aloe; it was about six feet high and square. After the prayers of the Brahmins and Gooroos, which lasted nearly an hour, the minister and other sirdars ascended by a ladder the funeral-pile, upon which ignitible matters and substances, as cotton seeds, &c., were strewn, and the royal body was respectfully placed in the middle of the pile, together with the board.

After this, the ranees ascended the fatal ladder, one by one, according to their rank, the slaves followed, and the minister showed himself very officious in affording them assistance. The ranees placed themselves at the head of the royal body, and the slaves close at its feet. There they cowered, remaining in silent expectation for the fatal moment, when a strong thick mat of reeds being brought, with which the whole were covered, oil was then poured over the mat, the minister and sirdars descended, and the pile was lighted at each corner. In a few moments, the deplorable victims of an abominable and fanatic ceremony had ceased to exist.

Words for birds

What is this bird saying?

An odd question for openers, maybe, but the call of the male black francolin or black partridge, francolinus francolinus (fr-fr from now on), must have something about it, because there seem to be versions of what the fr-fr says in practically every language spoken across its range, and that stretches from Turkey to India.  It used to be wider still, but as Percy Molesworth Sykes put it, fr-fr makes “splendid shooting and equally good eating”.

In the ancient world the fr-fr, known as the attagas (or attagen, attagena), was a celebrated delicacy, and that’s how I first came across it, in a poem by the Roman epigrammatist Martial. It’s in a collection called Xenia, “Gifts” (about AD 85), poems describing presents sent home with party guests at the festival of the Saturnalia, and the fr-fr is there as a particularly tasty bird: in fact the poem in full runs, “Of the flavours of birds, the foremost is reckoned to be/ the taste of Ionian fr-frs.” But in the course of making a pretty tenuous argument about this poem I discovered that an elaborate folktale had been woven around the fr-fr‘s call: the birds, so the story went, had been captured in Lydia and taken to Egypt, and the Egyptians suffered punishment for mistreating them in the shape of a failure of the all-important Nile flood. Ever since, the birds have commemorated the vengeance visited on the Egyptians, crying tris tois kakourgois kaka or tris tois kakois ta kaka, “Threefold evils on the evildoers!”

Another tale of mistreatment is told on modern Cyprus. A young wife gets into an argument with her cruel mother-in-law about the baking: were there twenty-four or twenty-three loaves? Eventually the mother-in-law loses her temper and pushes the girl herself into the oven, but God takes pity on her and turned her into a fr-fr. Now the bird protests for eternity, ’kostethera, ‘kostethera, pethera!, “Twenty-four, twenty-four, mother-in-law.”

When Babur, founder of the Moghul Empire, wrote about what he called the durraj in his memoirs, the Baburnama, there aren’t any stories attached, unfortunately; or at least he doesn’t record any. But it’s a fascinating passage. He’s describing the fauna and flora of his new possession, Hindustan, in effect north-west India, and when he gets to the fr-fr he writes,

“It has a fantastic cry. Sher daram shakarak [“I have milk and a little sugar”] can be heard from its cry. It says sher like qit, but it pronounces daram shakarak quite correctly. The partridges is Astarabad say qat meni tuttilar [“Quick, they have seized me!”] , and those in Arabia and thereabouts say bi’sh-shukri tadumu ‘n-ni’am [“With gratitude good things endure”].”

So Babur gives us three versions of the fr-fr‘s call, in Persian, Turkish and Arabic: the text and translations here are from Thackston’s version of the Baburnama, which I enthusiastically recommend. But what seems clear here is that Babur doesn’t regard these as words attributed to the fr-fr by Persians, Turks and Arabs. He thinks the birds are actually speaking their local languages, though Persian not so fluently: “It says sher [“milk”] like qit, but it pronounces daram shakarak [“I have a little sugar”] quite correctly.”

Perhaps Babur’s just being naively open about something common to all these attempts to fit human words to a bird’s mating call: all of them are confusing birds with humans at some level. (The proper ornithologists sternly eschew anthropomorphism and go for clip, gek-ge-gek, gek-ge-gek; or lohee-uha-which-a-whick; or compare it to “the harsh grating blast of a cracked trumpet”, if anyone happens to know what that sounds like.) 

A few more versions, mainly courtesy of Hobson-Jobson: two in Urdu, lahsan piyaz adrak, “Garlic, onion and ginger”, and khuda teri qudrat, “God is thy strength!”; and two from the British in India, which I can’t help thinking offer a snapshot of the military life led by the “sportsmen” most likely to encounter the fr-fr: “Be quick, pay your debts” and “Fixed bayonets, straight ahead!”

Sir Richard Francis Burton offers another Arabic version, man sakat salam, “who is silent is safe,” along with the observation, “All primitive peoples translate the songs of birds with human language, but, as I have noticed, the versions differ widely.” True enough, except that I don’t think there’s anything exclusively “primitive” about all this. There’s no doubt, though, that behind this confused babel of languages attributed to francolinus francolinus there’s a very simple impulse shared by Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Turks and even Englishmen, to give a human shape to the non-human world.

Whether any of these “translations” sound anything like the fr-fr is another matter.

Addendum, 22.09.2013: a beautiful image of Babur’s durraj from a manuscript of the Baburnama in the British Library, by the artist Mansur. My thanks to BL Asian and African for this!