Sunday, 30 January 2011

World enough and time - Austen Layard and the Library of Nineveh

For my valedictory post on this blog, at the end of my residency at the NLS, I thought I'd share two more favourite items from the John Murray Archive.

What you can see above is a passport, circa 1842, personally signed by Lord Palmerston, then foriegn secretary.

Pretty cool to start with.

It's issued to one Henry Austen Layard, son of a reduced aristocratic family, who'd been born in Paris on his parents heavily extended honeymoon, raised in Italy, and then had been uncomfortably educated at an English public school, where his knowledge of foriegn parts and foriegn ways (and enthusiasm for art) had gone down pretty much as badly as you'd expect with his beef-eating schoolmates.

His father by now was serving the Empire in Ceylon, and young Layard got this passport in 1842 intending to travel overland to India to take up a post as a solicitor.

He never made a glance at the rest of his passport can show.

It all got a bit complicated in the Middle East...these entry stamps show him going back and forth between Constaninople, Damascus and one occasion pretending to have the plague...travelling in company with a chum (who was also heading to India), and then alone, but finding himself detained...intelligence gathering on the activities of the Otttoman Empire, the Persians, the Russians and, of course, The French.

He ran into and befriended a Major Henry Rawlinson, who we last met giving a cameo appearance in Afghanistan when he himself was spooking around the Hindu Kush and running into Russian agents on a similar mission.

Layard bears, then, a family resemblance to Alexander Burnes, my previous hero, who had combined his personal, outsider's passions with officially unofficial derring do.

Burnes had been a bit obsessed with his name sake, Sekundar -Alexander, of the Great variety - but Layard, in contrast to Burnes bloody fate, was to live into respected old age as an MP and art collector...and long time contributor to the Murray's Quarterly Review. (His correspondence with the Murrays fills several grey folders in the archive).

Because he had a bit of luck.

The French had been doing some digging in Mesopotamia, exploring "tels" or mounds, which yielded more archaeology on a Sunday stroll than Time Team can dig up in a couple of series. And Layard thought he'd have a go.

What he (and his partner and rival , the similarly eccentric French diplomat Paul Emile Botta) dug up over the next two years (1845-7), now crams room after room of the British Museum and the Louvre.

(They took half each, roughly)

They'd found Babylon...the Babylon of the Assyrians, and before them, the Sumerians. They discovered ancient civilizations, city after city, room after room, carved fresco after carved fresco. They discovered languages, ancient script, carved into walls and pillars. That which had only existed before in the pages of the Bible and the fantasies of Byron, was before them...theirs were the first eyes to see any of this for two thousand years.

It almost beggars the it must have felt to see the massive stone lions, the fantastically detailed scenes of battle and hunting...and how inscrutable it must have been to them, like landing on another planet.

It's an amazing story, for which I have not world enough or time...the deciphering of the script over the next thirty years, the discovery of a flood narrative that seemed to confirm Noah...accounts of the Babylonian exile of the Jews...and, above all, the story of Gilgamesh, King of Kings, and his battle with death recently brilliantly dramatised by the late lamented Edwin Morgan (as yet unstaged)...itself the oldest written narrative we know.

Rawlinson, already a Murray author, put Layard on to Albemarle Street, and the Murrays published book after book of Layard's adventures and discoveries, including Monuments of Nineveh in 1849, which is a quite beautiful coffee table sized presentation of the most spectacular archaeological find before Tutankamun.

(Rawlinson was among the translators and interpreters of this materiaL)

But what I want to leave you, and this blog with, are these.

On his knees in the dark of the burial mounds of lost cities, Layard, by the light of a lamp, exactly transcribing page after page of cuneiform from the very walls...painstakingly copying stories he couldn't begin to read or understand.

For me, the most heroic image imaginable, and the most appropriate for a library like the NLS. One can imagine, ten thousand years from now, scholars and curators, (if there will still be such people), painfully examining the buried remains of GBIV, picking out the characters and attempting to piece our lives together from a labyrinth of scratchmarks.

I hope we get that lucky.

Enjoy. Even better, come to the NLS and enjoy before the ten thousand years are up. It's all here. It's all available free. To everybody.

It's been a priviledge.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Afghanistan and Wrapping Up

I'm coming to the end of my residency now at the NLS. It's been an exciting and bewilderingly diverse three years. This blog has been one of the more interesting experiments. I've tried to use it to tell stories that have fascinated me, and as ways of thinking about how these documents from the 19th Century impact on an understanding of the world today...for me, anyway.

To conclude my posts on Afghanistan, then, I'm going to hand over first to the redoubtable George Glieg, the Scottish miliary clergyman and all round muscular Protestant, whose gripping account of the First Afghan War the Murray's published in 1843.

It's surprising how resonant it is:

"So ended a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, and brought to a close after suffring and disaster, without much glory attaching either to the government which directed, or the great body of the troops which waged it. Not one benefit, either political, or military, has England acquired by the war. Indeed, our evacuation of the country resembled almost as much the retreat of an army defeated as the march of a body of conquerors, seeing that to the last our flanks and rear were attacked, and such baggage as we did save, we saved by dint of hard fighting. Nevertheless, British India proclaimed what the whole world good naturedly allowed, that we had redeemed our honour, and were once more victorious."

This was the official proclamation of the end of the "forward policy" in Afghanistan that had been announced, with much more fanfare, likewise in Simla, only four years before:

"The government of India directed its army past the Indus in order to expel from Afghanistan a chief believed to be hostile to British interests and to replace upon his throne a soverign represented to be friendly to those intersts, and popular with his former subjects The chief believed to be hostile became a prisoner, and the soveriegn believed to be popular was replaced upon his throne, But...after events which brought into question his fidelity to the government by which he was restored, he lost, by the hand of an assassin, the throne he had held only amid insurrections.

Disasters unparalelled in their extent, unless by the errors in which they originated, and by the treachery in which they were completed, have {now} been avenged

(see last post)

....and...again attached the opinion of invincibility to the British Arms.

The British army in possession of Afghanistan will now be withdrawn to the Sutej...the Governor General will leave it to the Afghans themselves to create a government amidt the anarchy which is the consequence of their crimes...the combined army of India and of England...will stand in unassailable strength upon its own soil, and forever...preserve the glorious empire it has won..."

And Alexander Burnes, Murray author, diplomat of talent, linguist of genius, and Scotsman on the the still there...

Next time, to wrap things up for me as well as the British Army of the Indus, a couple of treasures I have to share before I go.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Revenge - Afghanistan 1842

In previous posts, through the writings of Murray authors Alexander Burnes and Lady Sale, I've explored first hand accounts of the outbreak and disasters of the First Afghan War. A third author, Reverend George Glieg, takes the story a little further. The Empire wasn't simply going to lick it's wounds. No. There had to be a response to the humiliation of British Arms.

Abandoned now was any pretext of bringing civilization and order, abandoned now was any talk of countering Russian infiltration of British India. The second British army to invade Afghanistan had no intention of staying, no ambitions towards regime change.

On the 15th of April, two and a half months after Dr Bryden rode half dead into Jallalabad, General Pollock, arriving from India with reinforcements, launched a punitive attack on Kabul in August with two infantry regiments and two squadrons of cavalry. This wasn't politics, this was revenge - shock and awe.

Reverend Glieg was with them:

"And very harrowing to the feelings of the soldiers was this long march. The narrow path by which they moved was strewn with the remains of Elphinstone's army. One upon another lay the dead; some of them reduced to skeletons, some with the features so entire that by many of their old acquaintances they were recognised. Flocks of vultures wheeled over the heads of the living and seemed to claim the dead as their own; while the smell that arose, especially on the night air, was dreadful. Our gallant fellows looked upon the scene of slaughter, and wished for revenge; and they never suffered an opportunity of gratifying the desire to pass unimproved."

He goes on

"The enemy fought with great desperation, standing till but a few paces divided them from our troops, and gave way even then only when the fixed bayonets gleamed before them, and they heard the shout wherewith the British Infantry invariably preface a charge. Then might be seen a flight and a pursuit, the one winged by terror, the other animated to perseverance by a burning thirst of revenge. The 3rd Light Dragoons were set loose upon the fugitives. They soon overtook them, and hewed, left and right, as men do who have the deaths of their friends and comrades to atone for; and the whole summit of the hill, as well as the slope beyond it, and the road, and the declivities leading down to it, were strewed with the bodies of the slain."

"They did not leave a house standing in consumed both cottage and castle..gardens, vineyards and orchards were all cut down."

Next priority was the release of the British hostages, including Lady Sale, still assiduously writng in her journal. Again, I can't be alone in recognizing the "human interest" aspect of the campaign, and its esstially emotional character. Glieg tells the story like this

"Akbar Khan had retreated with the wreck of his army towards the Hindoo of his followers, Salee Mohammed by name, (incapable of withstanding the influence of money) had been won over to betray his post, and was actually moving towards Cabul with the whole of the British prisoners...when told at length that Lady Sale was safe, and that she and his widowed daughter Mrs Sturt, were on their way to rejoin him (General Sale) , there arose a shout, which the men of the regiment soon took up."

And when the hostages were restored, it was time to get out, leaving nothing but bad momories behind.

"Having thus re-established the prestige of British Invincibility, Pollock made ready to return to India. A son of Shah Shujah, Futteh Jung by name, proclaimed himself King. Few men of any note rallied to him, and the young man was made to understand that he need not look to the Ferighees (the British) for the support which his own countrymen witheld from him. Having settled these poiunts, General Pollock gave directions for inflicting on the guilty capital the punishment which it deserved.

With natural vanity, Akbar Khan had built a mosque to commemorate the destruction of Elphinstone's force, which he gave the name of the Feringhee Mosque, and which his flatterers affected to regard as one of the wonders of the world. It was levelled to the ground; and then followed the blowing up of the bazaars, the burning of chief's houses, the destruction of the city gates, and last of all, a conflagration...

On 12th october, the army began it's march towards the (Indian) provinces. Till the mountains of Bootak shut it from them, the soldiers of Sale's brigade saw the whole face of the sky red with the flames which they had contributed to raise."

Coming up, a consideration of these memories, and reflections on what they might mean for our current entanglements