New old light on Charles Masson

Charles Masson’s huge importance as a pioneer of archaeological and pre-modern historical research in Afghanistan, as well as a witness of events leading to war in the 1830s, is increasingly recognised. His significance essentially rests on the six years he spent based in Kabul, 1832-38, and the work he undertook during that time to investigate Buddhist sites, especially stupas, around Kabul and Jelalabad; and also, by collecting coins and other artefacts from the plain of Begram, site of Alexandria ad Caucasum, later known as Kapisa, to trace the perhaps 1,500-year history of that city after Alexander’s foundation in 329 BC.

My own encounters with Masson have been while writing a book about Bamiyan (he visited the valley in the winter of 1832), co-writing another book about Harold Deane, a Political Officer on the N.-W. Frontier whose archaeological discoveries on at least one occasion followed in Masson’s tracks, and most recently reviewing this book on Masson. Entirely superficial, in other words.

Meanwhile the serious work on Charles Masson has been undertaken by the British Museum Masson Project led by Dr Liz Errington. A series of superb publications from that project, all open access, are available here, here, and (coming shortly) here. The first of those I’ll be referring to quite a lot in what follows, specifically Dr Errington’s biography of Masson at pp. 3-14.

But for such a key figure, there are parts of his life, his early years especially, that have remained surprisingly obscure. One major reason for this is that Masson spent a large part of his life pretending not to be himself. He was baptised James Lewis, in London on February 16, 1800, and in 1821 enlisted in the Bengal Artillery. But then in 1827 he deserted from his regiment and escaped British jurisdiction, concealing his identity under his assumed name Masson. Old habits die hard, though, and even in the three-volume memoir that he published in 1842, by which time everyone and their pet cat knew exactly who he was, he consistently shifts the dates of events one year back. “In the autumn of 1826…” begins his account of his travels after his desertion in 1827.

Copies of the three volumes of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab (1842) plus his concluding volume, Narrative of a Journey to Kalat. Including an Account of the Insurrection at that Place in 1840, and a Memoir on Eastern Balochistan (1843), are pictured at the top.

But these, as we shall see, are no ordinary copies.

They were purchased by the American scholar Gregory Possehl, an expert on the Indus Valley Civilisation who had developed an interest in Masson and published on him. I’m not sure that this is where his interest originated, but he describes in his article how he failed in the 1970s to find a graffito by Masson discovered by French archaeologists in a cave at Bamiyan in the 1930s (“If any fool this high samootch explore,/ Know Charles Masson has been here before”: J. Hackin, Nouvelles recherches archéologiques à Bāmiyān III, 1933, p. 2; Masson was a committed mediocre poet), but then apparently found another one. (When Masson had visited Bamiyan, incidentally, he had found graffiti by Moorcroft, Trebeck and Guthrie, three unfortunate predecessors).

In any case, what Prof. Possehl found when he opened the first volume, pasted inside, was a short, handwritten account of Masson’s life, clearly derived from direct communication with Masson, written by William Joseph Eastwick.

Eastwick had been based in the independent state of Sind, Assistant to the Resident in Sind, Masson’s important ally Sir Henry Pottinger. When Pottinger took leave from February 1839, Eastwick became Acting Resident. Eastwick’s note mentions encounters with Masson “on the Indus” in 1839 and 1840, and Masson’s stay with him at Hyderabad. After leaving Kabul Masson spent over a year in Sind, apparently moving between Karachi, Tatta and Hyderabad, the capital of Sind, writing up his memoirs (Errington pp. 3, 7 and 13). Norris in The First Afghan War (1967), p. 252-3 cites the account of the war by Henry Marion Durand (the footnote) to illustrate that “Charles Masson was finding a receptive audience for his slanderous stories [about Alexander Burnes, so probably not so slanderous] among Tory officers on the banks of the Indus in January and February 1839.” And Errington on p. 7 cites another glimpse of Masson in Karachi, not a happy time for him, from Dalrymple, Return of a King (2013), p. 471.

When Pottinger left India entirely in early 1840, he took Masson’s writings with him to show to publishers, and in April 1840 Masson set off back toward Afghanistan to continue his research. Caught up in a rebellion in Qalat (the invasion of Afghanistan was a cause of widespread instability), Masson suffered imprisonment in Qalat and then by the British in Quetta, under suspicion of collaboration in Qalat, experiences to which Eastwick also alludes.

On the evidence of this document, Eastwick knows Masson well. By the time he writes it (between February 16 1842 and February 15 1843 assuming Masson’s age is given correctly at the start) Eastwick has retired from India and returned to Britain: he later became a Director of the East India Company. Masson, who returned to Britain in March 1842, was most probably in London, too, and Eastwick’s document looks like some kind of letter of support solicited by Masson.

The cramped writing after the bracket on the first page is particularly intriguing. Possibly Eastwick’s handwriting, but certainly not Masson’s, it nevertheless repeats a complaint that Masson makes in similar terms in an annotation to his copy of the work in question here, the Oxford Professor H.H. Wilson’s Ariana Antiqua, which had showcased many of Masson’s finds for the first time: the annotation can be read on p. 308 and fig. 137 of this, and there are many more expressing the same intense feelings of injustice on Masson’s part as we find recorded in Eastwick’s note.

[30.10.2021: Edmund Richardson points out to me that Eastwick’s account reflects the false chronology adopted by Masson in Narrative, placing Masson’s first, brief visit to Kabul in 1827 rather than 1828, when it had really occurred.]

Prof. Possehl never published Eastwick’s account, and on his death his library was put up for auction: you can read the catalogue here; he had a fine collection of books! The information that reached the Masson Project was that his library had been purchased by a university in China, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, but efforts by the Masson Project to make contact and confirm that Masson’s memoir (and the Eastwick note) were there proved unsuccessful.

This is where having a brilliant former student and enthusiastic historian based in China, James Norman, came in useful, especially when he was able to put me in contact with Dr Chen Li’er of the Central Academy, who in turn very kindly, along with colleagues in the library, located the Masson volumes, and photographed for me the Eastwick note. I am hugely grateful to both Dr Chen and James. A vague proposal mid-afternoon eventuated in a photograph sent to my inbox before I woke up the next morning.

We might choose to think of this as Eastwick’s biography of Masson simply mimicking what its subject had done, wandering quietly off radar for a spell, but in a safe and happy place.

* * *

What follows is Dr Chen’s photograph of the note and my transcription. Dr Chen’s photo is sharp and legible; I hope my transcription is legible too, but presenting a transcription on a blog at all satisfactorily seems beyond me, and if it defeats you too you can find a pdf here. All of it, anyway, is offered as my gift to Liz Errington for the help she has repeatedly given me in my amateurish noodlings around this period, and I add the observation that Liz has managed, without sight of Eastwick’s note before now, to glean from Prof Possehl’s accounts of it all the noteworthy biographical details that it contains: see her biography (at pp. 3-14 of this) for proof. Especially acute are Dr Errington’s thoughts on how the evidence of his schooling at Walthamstow might elucidate a later encounter, quite possibly with an old schoolmate, in Afghanistan; and how working for Durant & Co. could explain Masson’s fluency in French. Meanwhile the “misunderstanding with his Father” and how “irksome to his feelings” Masson found military service are details that throw a little light at least on two major crises in Masson’s life, his enlistment and his desertion.

What remains in Eastwick’s note is a vivid pen sketch of a fascinating personality–courageous, frank to a fault, eccentric, prickly and embittered by experience, but someone for whom Eastwick has evident respect.

E. Errington (ed.), Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites of Afghanistan: Explorations, Excavations, Collections 1832–1835 (2017);

The Charles Masson Archive: British Library, British Museum and Other Documents Relating to the 1832–1838 Masson Collection from Afghanistan (2017);

Charles Masson: Collections from Begram and Kabul Bazaar, Afghanistan 1833–1838 (2021);

W. Dalrymple, Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan (2013);

J.A. Norris, The First Afghan War, 1838-42 (1967);

B. Omrani, “Charles Masson of Afghanistan: Deserter, Scholar, Spy”, Asian Affairs 39 (2008), 199-21;

G. L. Possehl, “An Archaeological Adventurer in Afghanistan: Charles Masson”, South Asian Studies 6 (1990), 111-124;

E. Richardson, Alexandria: the Quest for the Lost City (2021);

G. Whitteridge, Charles Masson of Afghanistan (1986).

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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