Howard Baskerville's grave in Tabriz.
"I am Persia's"
Introduced by Robert D. Burgener
The year was 1909. Howard Conklin Baskerville, fresh out of Princeton University, arrived at the Presbyterian mission school in Tabriz, Persia, and quickly found himself caught up, along with his students, in the conflict between Royalist and Nationalist factions.
American foreign policy toward Persia followed a non-interventionist course and public admonitions from the American Consul, William F. Doty, warning Mr.Baskerville not to involve himself in the internal affairs of Persia, became a matter of conscience for Baskerville. He resigned from the mission school to join the Nationalist forces under the command of Sattar Khan.
Howard Baskerville was killed on April 19th, 1909 - six days after his 24th birthday. He was leading a unit comprised of his former students in an attempt to break the Royalist siege of Tabriz and get food supplies to the starving inhabitants.
Annie Rhea Wilson, wife of the principal of the Memorial Training and Theological School in Tabriz, took upon herself the solemn task of writing to Baskerville's parents back in Minnesota. The 16-page typewritten letter, provides an emotional record of the ten days following his death and the arrival of Russian troops to liberate the city. It is also a tribute to his life and the place he held in the hearts of many Iranians until his name and memory were, for the most part, lost to history.
Mrs. Wilson was born in Oroumiyeh, in northwestern Iran, where her father, Rev. Samuel Rhea served as a missionary. He and her mother had arrived on April 26th,1860. After her father's death in 1865, Annie returned to the United States with her mother, brothers Robert and Foster and sister Sophia, who was born eight months after her fathers' death. Annie completed her education and married the Reverend Samuel Wilson and soon found herself back in the country she had loved as a child.
Her observations are therefore somewhat more insightful than might be implied by her credentials as the wife of a headmaster. The first five pages of her letter on Baskerville's death follows:
My Dear Dr. & Mrs. Baskerville,
You have heard long before this letter reaches you that your dear boy has laid down his life. It is almost three weeks since he resigned his position at the mission school, though he has come to see us six times since. The last time was last night. Just before starting to battle. He told us it was a desperate attempt to open the road and get food into this starving city. We had prayer together. Mr. Wilson praying only for his protection and commending him to God's care. Mr. Baskerville himself prayed only for others, "this city to be relieved," "the dear ones of the Mission to be kept in safety, and for peace to be obtained." - not a word of himself.
In the night a soldier brought a note from him, "Dangerous rumor that the Europeans will be attacked to secure immediate intervention. don't be on the streets today." The first Sunday after he joined the army he came to church and sat in his usual seat, - the second in front - and had quite an ovation afterward, the men pressing round him to shake hands. That afternoon he came to see us. I begged him not to be reckless, saying "You know you are not your own." "No," he answered, "I am Persia's."
The name the patriots have adopted for themselves "fidaee" meaning "one devoted," and when the movement first began they marched through the streets in white, as if in shrouds, devoted to death. He, dear boy, has thus devoted himself with them.
An attack was planned last Thursday and he came in at ten o'clock, just before starting, quite confident that they would take the enemy by surprise and "clear them out." We brought him a lunch and he drank milk, laughing at such a drink for a soldier.
The expedition was futile, because Satter Khan, the General, failed to send cannon. They went out and found no cannon, tho' he had been promised it would be ready. They telephoned and got replies that he was coming, but waited in vain till dawn and marched back. Then he and Mr. Moore felt the cause was hopeless with such leaders. Some say Satter Khan was drunk.
He was very much ashamed, and gave an excuse that he was afraid of being shot in the back by traitors and didnít care to go out in the night.
At any rate it seemed futile to fight after that as the enemy would be on their
guard and the city had reached its last day's supply of wheat. Mr. Baskerville and Mr. Moore urged them to ask the intervention of the Consuls to get as good terms for them as they could from the Shah. Such a telegram was sent Saturday to Teheran. Yesterday afternoon (Monday) late, after the plans for renewed fighting had been made, in despair of intervention and on account of the danger of bread-riots in the city, the answer came that all the Embassies would try to persuade the Shah to make peace. The leaders still were determined to fight, in spite of Mr. Baskervilleís and Mr. Moore's advice. Mr. Moore said he would go then with them, but not to fight, only as a war-correspondent.
Mr. Baskerville, although doubtful of the possibility of success, said he would lead his men. He had been drilling 150 - "the pick of the lot." some of them young noblemen and some of his pupils. He thought they had more spirit than the others, and that the only hope of success was for him to lead them - they would not go without him. "It would be dastardly to desert them now," he thought.
The news was brought to us this morning by Khachadoor, one of the boys, who takes care of his horse and room, who had risen at four A.M. to go out and see the battle and especially to bring news of Mr. Baskerville, as he himself had asked him to do yesterday afternoon, saying he might fall and wished us to know at once.
The boy came running in, tears streaming down his face and the well-known brown riding-leggings in his hand., which Mr. Baskerville had borrowed of Mr. Vautier. He said they were bringing the wounded to the rear and he did not at first recognize the body, till he saw those leggings. They put him in a house and would not let the boy bring him home as he wished to do.
Mr. Doty, our Consul, at once got a carriage and sent a guard with one servant and the boy to bring the body. He wanted to go himself, but we dissuaded him, as the Consul's lives have been threatened. While we waited, I wrote the above to you, distracted with the grief and shock.
They returned very quickly and the boys rushed to the gate to carry him in, all of us sobbing and lamenting.
We carried him to our room and laid him on our own bed, and Mrs. Vannemen and I washed the dear body with the blood staining through his shirts and covering his breast and back. We found the bullet hole in front and back, having passed clear through, so small, so fatal. It had entered from the back and come out just above his heart, cutting a large artery. and Dr. V. says causing instant death. His face was bruised a little on one side,where he had fallen.
We dressed him in his black suit, and when all the sad service was done, he looked beautiful and noble, his firm mouth set in a look of resolution and his whole face calm in repose. I printed a kiss on his forehead for his mother's sake. A white carnation is in his buttonhole, and wreaths of flowers are being made. Our children made a cross and crown of the beautiful almond blossoms now in bloom.
The Governor came at once, expressing great sorrow, saying, "He has written his name in our hearts and in our history." The Anjuman (national assembly) sent a letter, saying they wished a share in doing him honor, and asked that the funeral be put off till tomorrow...
Robert D. Burgener is a documentary film maker in suburban Washington, DC. He founded International Connections (INTERNECT) in 1978 as a multi-national organization to connect people and new information technologies across cultural boundaries. In 1976 he was an Associate Field Producer for ABC Television news based in Tokyo with assignments in Korea, traveling with the President of the United States. From1973 to 1975 he was visiting professor at the Department of Psychology, Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan, presenting lectures on cross-cultural communication from both the personal and mass media dimensions. From 1968 to 1975 his U.S. Army assignments included the Office of the Chief of Information at the Pentagon and a photo journalist and editor with Pacific Stars & Stripes, the official armed forces newspaper in South East Asia. (Back to top)
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