Original painting by Mehdi Taheri

Original painting by Mehdi Taheri

My wife, please?

A brief excerpt of the "Prelude to War" of the Anglo-Persian War of 1856, as described in Barbara English's 1971 book entitled "The War for a Persian Lady". The bulk of the references are from the Dalhousie Papers (James Andrew Broun, 10th Earl and 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, governor-general of India from 1848 to 1856, private papers deposited at the Scottish Record Office, Register House, Edinburgh). Thanks to Farhad Frouzan for sending this excerpt.

One of the unheralded aspects of the Anglo-Persian War of 1856 was its relatively petty and sordid origins and its subsequent escalation into an imperial war. This absurd conflict took place at a time when the Governments of Britain and that of India (i.e. the East India Company - the trading company which founded an empire, and actually owned the continent) could least afford it. In fact, it was the last war fought by the East India Company, or John Company as it was known.

The conflict began with the ramifications of a successful Persian attack on Herat in 1852. Herat was a rich city at the entrance to the North-Western frontier of India, and thus a key prize in "The Great Game" for imperial dominance of the region between Russia and Britain. It was known as the "Gate of India" as it offered the one major land access into India proper. Historically, every conqueror of India has had to capture Herat first.

This Persian attack was different from the previous siege of Herat in 1838, when the Persians were obliged to stop their ten month long siege and return back. It was successful, and for a while Herat was officially annexed as part of the Persian empire. The British had tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the Persian Shah - Nasser-udin, from attempting such an invasion.

Into this melee, a new British ambassador - Charles Augustus Murray, was appointed to the Court of Persia in 1854. Charles Murray was the second son of the Earl of Dunmore. His mother was the daughter of the Duke of Hamilton, and his godfather was a royal prince. He was educated at Eton, and attended Oxford where he was remembered by his practical jokes and noisy parties. He did win a silver racquet at tennis, of which he later wrote: "This is the only incontestable distinction that I can claim to have achieved in my long life". While still at Oxford, he traveled throughout Europe and the U.S., where he fell in love with Elise Wadsworth, a rich landowner's daughter. Her father refused to permit the two to marry as he wouldn't allow his daughter to settle in England, in contrast to Murray's parents' wishes. In order to stay in the U.S., he tried unsuccessfully to become the Secretary of the Legation. Returning to England, he tried to get elected to parliament three times, again unsuccessfully, until he was given a place at Court, where, according to his own account, he used to assist the young Queen Victoria with poor advice in chess and draughts.

After seven years at Court, he began his diplomatic career at Naples and later as consul at Cairo. His reputation would ultimately rest on his two main achievements, the building of the Cairo-Alexandria railway, and the reintroduction of the first hippopotamus into Europe in 1,500 years. It would later be reported that, in their respective old ages, Murray would often be seen shouting greetings in Arabic to his hippo in Regent's Park, as it lumbered up to him with what was alleged to be welcoming rumbles. As a result, he was nicknamed "Hippopotamus Murray", and it wasn't for his diplomacy. He returned to Scotland where, by chance, he re-encountered and married his early love - Elise Wadsworth, only to lose her a year later while giving birth to their son. He left his child in the care of a relative and took up his next post as consul in Berne. But he was soon writing to Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India that "The Fates (represented by Lord Clarendon, then Foreign Secretary) have again turned my face towards the East; by the next post you will see me gazetted as Minister in Persia:-it has not been without a struggle that I made up my mind to go so far away from my only and motherless child, but I thought that a crisis like the present (the Crimean War) when so many are called upon to sacrifice their domestic ties and feelings, I should not be justified in declining to accept an appointment which recent events have rendered more than usually important."

Nasser-udin Shah had already taken a dislike to Murray and his mission long before he ever laid eyes upon him. One reason was Murray's long sojourn in Cairo, and his great friendship with the Pasha of Egypt and the Imam of Muscat, both enemies of the Shah. Another reason was the advance publicity given to his mission. As Murray was leaving for Persia, The Times had a paragraph to the effect that Murray "would soon bring his Majesty's nose to the grindstone." Some busybody found this quote and translated it for the Shah. Murray later wrote: "Conceive the effect of such a phrase upon a Monarch who has been a spoilt child from infancy and has never heard himself styled otherwise than 'Center of the Universe', 'King of Kings', etc., etc., etc."

Upon Murray's arrival in Teheran, he was confronted with some smoldering troubles over a "Mirza", or Persian secretary, called Hashim Khan. This trouble, a leftover from the previous envoy, was fanned by Murray into a huge conflagration with serious repercussions. Hashim Khan had grown up in the household of the previous Shah - Mohammad Shah. He was initially a page, and later became one of the Shah's confidential bodyguards, and an officer in the army. He married a woman of dubious reputation who had had two other husbands, and whose claim to fame was that she was the sister of the Shah's principal wife. Hashim Khan had applied for a pay raise, but had been promptly turned down by no less a person than the prime minister, who had a long-standing feud with Hashim Khan's family and disliked him personally. Murray reports that the prime minister had told him that he - the prime minister had ended their meeting by telling Hashim Khan "to get more money where you can". Hashim Khan therefore applied to the British Mission and was appointed First Persian Secretary to the Mission.

The Persians were outraged, particularly in view of Hashim Khan's aristocratic background, his wife's royal connections, as well as the fact that he was considered a deserter from the army who was now ensconced in the British Embassy. No documents in his writing would be accepted by the Persian Government, and his effectiveness thus curtailed, Hashim Khan's appointment was turned over to another individual. But given the prime minister's enmity, Hashim Khan was permitted to remain within the Embassy grounds, without position or pay, where he performed "unofficial" work. This was how Murray first encountered Hashim Khan when he arrived. Murray innocently considered him well qualified and sufficiently trustworthy to appoint him British Agent in Shiraz - a town of strategic value and doubtful loyalty, and well beyond the effective control of the Persian Government. The prime minister retaliated that should Hashim Khan leave the Embassy, he would face immediate arrest and any disturbance blamed on the British.

Suddenly all across Teheran, within the palace and the bazaar, there was gossip about Hashim Khan's wife. There was mention of the frequency of her visits to the Embassy, and her name was associated with that of the previous envoy as well as that of Murray himself. The Persian Government did attempt to forewarn Murray, but undaunted Murray permitted Hashim Khan to bring his wife to the summer quarters of the Embassy in Gholhak, and to place her in a tent among those belonging to the Mission, being only separated by a single wall. This was all the proof required by the Persians: an innocent woman, or even a discreet one, would have lived in the nearby village, a mere hundred yards away. On the 14th of November, 1855, the princess was seized by her outraged brother and kept imprisoned in his house. She was threatened with forcible divorce unless she and Hashim Khan set up a respectable household once more.

Murray, playing straight into the hands of the Persians, sent Hashim Khan to demand his wife's release, which was refused. Murray then wrote to the prime minister, who replied on Saturday, November 17th that he couldn't discuss the matter as it concerned royal ladies, and the honor of the Shah. He further stated that he would pretend that Murray's letter had never even been received. At this point, goaded into action, and without any consultations with either India or London, Murray responded that the matter must be discussed or on Monday, November 19th, at twelve noon, he would bring down his flag and break off diplomatic relations with the Persian Government.

Sunday passed without any further activities on either side. On Monday before noon, the prime minister sent a messenger to request a two hour delay, so that the Shah could be consulted. This was followed by an additional two hours as the Shah had just returned from hunting. Just before dusk, Hashim Khan went to ask for his wife's release one final time, and was refused. Just as Murray was about to order the striking of the flag, the Ottoman charge d'affaires appeared with a request for a further delay. Around 10 p.m. notes from both the Ottoman charge and the French ambassador were received requesting Murray to delay for a few days, as the Shah had departed to visit his mother. Murray refused and decided to act. But it was now well after sunset, and the flag had already been lowered for the night, and the impact of hauling down the flag was lost for another day. On Tuesday morning, it finally came down and the Mission prepared to leave Persia. There was rioting in the streets of Teheran over the scandal of Murray and the princess.

The French ambassador believed the scandal to be true, and even Napoleon III, Emperor of France, made a remark to that effect to the British ambassador in Paris. Was Murray guilty ? Although he never admitted it, all his contemporaries seem to have accepted that he was. In spite of potential personal danger, Murray's demands continued to escalate. At first, he was content with a formal and highly public visit by the prime minister, and the return of the princess to her husband's house. But as the correspondence grew more heated and offensive on both sides, he demanded recognition of Hashim Khan as being in British employ, an apology and recantation by the mullahs of Teheran for their endorsement of the slander. Later, after leaving Persia, he wanted the humiliation of all Persia and the dismissal of the prime minister. He wrote to the Marquess of Dalhousie (Governor General of India): " If Lord Palmerston (then prime minister) and you do not make the Persian Government 'howl for this' there is no faith in man." It took another two weeks before all was ready, and Murray, followed by a 100-mule loads of baggage made his retreat to Tabriz, there impeded by heavy winter snows to await his revenge on Persia.


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