A few final words on the N-W Frontier, the upshot of finishing a co-written book on a late nineteenth-century archaeological enthusiast, Harold Deane, and then writing a review of a book on an earlier nineteenth-century archaeological enthusiast, Charles Masson, shortly afterwards. Both men were British and both found themselves in a place named Shahbazgarhi (شھباز گڑھی), but Masson was there in 1838, and Deane in 1888; and Deane, as we shall see, was perhaps responsible for the more illuminating discovery.
What both of them were doing at Shabazgarhi was studying an ancient inscribed text. Another difference between them, fifty years apart, was that Deane knew he was looking at the words of the great Indian emperor Ashoka.
With Luca Olivieri I’ve been editing over the last couple of years the manuscript draft of Harold Deane’s influential article on the archaeology of Swat and Peshawar, “Note on Udyana and Gandhara” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1896). Deane was by 1896 a British Political Officer based at Malakand in Swat, and it was in the garrison at Malakand that Prof. Olivieri found the early draft of his “Note”.
One of the valuable things about setting this draft against Deane’s finished version in the Journal is the access it gives us to the more personal material that was lost as it was refined into an academic article. One such moment, in this instance crossed out in the editing process by Deane himself, traces the fascination for archaeology that he had developed during a series of postings in the vicinity of Peshawar: “I add here a few notes I have made from time to time regarding the adjoining Province of Gandhara [“the British District of Peshawar” added above]
in which I was first led to taking an interest by discovering the 12 th Edict missing from the large Asoka-inscription at Shahbaz Garha.”
We’ll come back to Deane, but let’s start with Charles Masson, whose visit to Shahbazgarhi came at an important juncture in his complicated and remarkable life. A deserter from the army of the East India Company, Masson had settled in Kabul, safely beyond British jurisdiction, and from there investigated Buddhist sites and the plain of Begram, where the huge collection of coins he gathered allowed him to identify it as the location of the city of Alexandria ad Caucasum, which as Kapisa, the coin record told him, survived for well over a thousand years after Alexander. Masson’s archaeological activities were interrupted by events preceding the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. He left Afghanistan in 1838 and went back to what he was most comfortable doing, discovering antiquities:
“Released from the thraldom in which I had been kept since 1835, I then made an excursion to Shah Baz Ghari in the Yusef Zai districts, to recover some Bactro-pali inscriptions on a rock there, and was successful, returning with both copies and impressions on calico.” (Narrative Of Various Journeys In Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab and Kalat (1842-4), Vol. 3, 493)
A few years later, in 1846 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Masson gave a fuller account of his “excursion from Pesháwer to Sháh Báz Ghari” in October 1838. He indicates that he is following the guidance of Claude-Auguste Court, a Napoleonic veteran who was in the service of Ranjit Singh, Maharajah of the Punjab, and whose description of the environs of Peshawar (with the map at the top that Masson may well have been using) had been published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1836, including a reference (pp. 481-2, and pl. XXVIII) to this inscription.
Masson traces his route from Peshawar across what is now the city of Mardan, his arrival in Shahbazgarhi and the welcome he received from the senior Malik of the village. (Masson’s account acknowledges quite well the help he received from locals in Peshawar and along the way.) He then describes his efforts to record the inscription, written on both sides of a rock, both by copying the text by hand and by coating it with ink and then catching as much of the engraved text as he could imprinted in reverse on calico—around 50 yards of it in total. This material he gifted to the Royal Asiatic Society on his return to Britain in 1842.
All Masson really knew about the inscription was that it was big and its script was the same as that on coins he had found in Afghanistan, some of which bore the script, now known as Kharosthi, on one side and Greek on the other. But from the copies that he had taken others, E. Norris and J. Dowson in this same issue of the journal (calling it the Kapur-di-Ghiri inscription), were able to decipher enough of the text to recognise that the inscription at Shahbazgarhi was substantially the same, although written in a different script and with some slight linguistic differences, as two other inscriptions at Girnar in Gujarat, western India, and Dhauli in Odisha (Orissa), eastern India, one side of which is beautifully carved into the shape of the front end of a royal elephant.
It was left to H.H. Wilson (in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12 (1850), 153-251), a scholar closely associated with Masson and Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, to collate all three inscriptions at Girnar, Dhauli and Shabazgarhi, and translate the Shahbazgarhi text alongside the others. Wilson confirmed the essential similarity between them, but also highlighted one peculiarity: the text was divided into fourteen sections, all of them represented at Girnar, but Shahbazgarhi lacked the twelfth.
The inscriptions at Dhauli, Girnar and Shahbazgarhi have these days been joined by quite a few more, and they are now identified as copies of decrees issued by the Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. The subset of a larger corpus of Ashokan inscriptions to which they belong is referred to as Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts, and their location when plotted is clearly significant: as a group they ring the territory controlled by Ashoka’s Mauryan Empire, marking its boundaries: at Kandahar they were written in Greek.
Yet the Twelfth Edict of Ashoka, as I’ve mentioned, was missing from the inscription recorded by Charles Masson at Shahbazgarhi. Harold Deane’s contribution half a century later was to find it, on a separate rock fifty yards away from the main inscription. But the difficulty of finding Edict XII at Shahbazgarhi tells us something quite interesting about it. The same Twelfth Edict seems to be given special status on another inscription on the N.-W. Frontier at Mansehra, a few miles from Abbotabad. As at Shahbazgarhi the Mansehra Edict XII is inscribed separately, and in both places it is more carefully engraved than the other edicts, and in larger letters (É. Senart, Journal Asiatique 11, 1888, pp. 516-7). In other collections of the Edicts, at Girnar and at Khalsi in the hills near Mussoorie, Edict XII just quietly takes its place in the sequence I to XIV; while at others again, at Dhauli and Jaugada (also in Odisha), the Twelfth Edict doesn’t feature at all.
The natural conclusion is that Edict XII was particularly pertinent to the part of Ashoka’s empire represented by Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra. It is known as the Toleration Edict, and essentially enjoins mutual respect between religions. Here is an excerpt from Amulyachandra Sen’s translation in Asoka’s Edicts (Calcutta 1956):
“Whoever praises his own sect or blames other sects, all (that is done) out of devotion to one’s own sect (with this thought), viz. ‘That we may glorify our own sect’. But by doing so, one injures one’s own sect all the more severely.
Therefore it is intercommunion that is commendable, that is to say, that (people) should listen to and respect the doctrines of one another.”
It’s easy enough to suppose that this frontier region in the North-West supported an unusual variety of religious traditions, and that Ashoka considered Edict XII especially important for his subjects in this location to hear.
The two Britons I’ve been concentrating on in this blog are in many ways very different figures. Masson was at times a strident critic of British imperial activity, while Deane ended up as the first Chief Commissioner of the newly constituted North-West Frontier Province (NWFP; now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). One of the most important observations in our work on Deane is how inseparable his interest in the history of this area was from the information gathering that was of the essence of his role as a Political Officer on the frontier, maintaining colonial control over territory in as discreet a manner as possible.
Between them, nevertheless, Masson and Deane made an important historical document available to the less adventurous scholars who could read it, while in Deane’s case a piece was added to the puzzle that shed light vividly on the character of the N-W frontier of Ashoka’s empire more than two millennia ago.
There’s a nice account of a recent trip to Shahbazgarhi here. I meanwhile have a new pipedream, visiting all of Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts across India and Pakistan.
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).