Abul Hassan, Persian ambassador and society favourite
‘I was utterly amazed! If such a situation had lasted for several days in one of Iran’s cities, 2,000 or more people would have been executed by now.’ This is Abul Hassan, a Persian ambassador writing in his diary about the aftermath of a riot he had witnessed on London streets. Such a reaction is hardly surprising given that most of his family had been murdered only a decade earlier in a bloody power struggle. More surprising, perhaps, is how much of a celebrity he became in London society, still then dominated by the court of King George III. The diary is rich in detail about the city and its people, and often displays a naive, but intriguing, quality in that much of what he saw was so very different from his familiar Persian world.
Mirza Abul Hassan Khan was born in 1776 in Shiraz when it was still the capital of Persia. For a generation his mother’s brother Haji Ibrahim, was the most influential minister in the country, and Abul Hassan married one of his daughters. In 1801, following a power struggle, Haji Ibrahim was murdered (in a vat of boiling water), and most of the rest of the family killed. Abul Hassan was imprisoned and saved from death by a last minute reprieve. He fled abroad, and only returned after receiving a royal decree of forgiveness and favour.
In 1809, Abul Hassan came to London - the first Persian envoy to do so in 200 years - to secure the ratification of an Anglo-Persian treaty. His mission lasted eight months, longer than he expected, but throughout his stay he was attentively entertained by his official host, Sir Gore Ouseley, a diplomat and linguist. (Later, Ouseley would return with Abul Hassan to Persia to become the British ambassador there, and, in 1814, would help negotiate an important treaty between Russia and Persia.) While in London, Abul Hassan became something of a society favourite, for he was tall, dark and handsome, wore rich silken robes, and had a very long beard. His name regularly appeared in the daily newspapers, and members of the royal family gave parties in his honour.
Some ten years later, in 1819, Abul Hassan returned to London to revitalise Anglo-Persian relations. Following the defeat of Napoleon, the British had concluded an alliance with Russia, and were less interested in the Persian connection. He again attracted much social interest, all the more so this time, for having an alluring young companion, allegedly bought in the Constantinople slave market. He stayed 10 months this time, but his visit was not a diplomatic success. On returning to Tehran he acted as an adviser to the Shah on foreign affairs and, in 1824, became Persia’s first foreign minister. He died in 1846.
While abroad, Abul Hassan kept a diary, hoping it might be of use to future ambassadors. The original manuscript is no longer extant, but copies were made for circulation in the Persian court, and then copies of those were also produced. In the 1980s, Margaret Morris Cloake translated one owned by Abul Hassan’s great-great-great-granddaughter and this was published in 1988 by Barrie & Jenkins as A Persian at the court of King George, 1809-10. It includes a copy of the beautiful portrait of the author (held in the British Library) by Sir William Beechey, who lived in Harley Street, one street west of where Abul Hassan was staying. On visiting Beechey for the first time, Abul Hassan noted his 13 children were all ‘pretty as shining stars’. Another portrait by Beechey of Abul Hassan kneeling in a red cloak sold at auction in 2006 for over £180,000.
The diary text itself, as translated by Cloake, is a wonderfully fresh portrait of London in the year before George III finally lapsed into madness and his son took over as Prince Regent. On the diplomatic side, Abul Hassan records his meetings with government ministers and officials of the East India Company, which had been trading with Persia since the early 17th century. Constantly frustrated by delays in the ratification of the Anglo-Persian Treaty, he nevertheless eventually achieved his diplomatic aims. On the personal side, though, the diary reveals an intelligent, cultured, observant man, but one very unused to European ways.
Gold and azure, divs and peris
21 December 1809
This morning I went out with my friends in the carriage to see the sights of London. Splendid houses line both sides of the street. They all look alike; the name of the owner is painted on each door. I saw no humble dwellings, only fine houses of four storeys. The first storey is built of stone and the other three of brick and stucco. The ceilings are decorated with gold and azure; and the walls are covered with designs of wild beasts and birds, divs and peris [names in Persian mythology for demons and fairies]. The windows are glazed with matching panes. Stables and carriage-houses are conveniently placed behind each house.
When we reached the centre of the city, a bridge of massive stones [Westminster Bridge] came into view which spans a river like the one at Baghdad. Words fail to describe it! After crossing the bridge, we came to a street with shops built to the requirements of the various trades. Outside the shops there are signs. If anyone wants to buy something, the shopkeeper opens the door for him; and then the customer, without bargaining, makes his selection, pays for it and returns to his carriage. Because of the cold weather, as well as for fear of thieves, drunkards and madmen, shop doors are kept shut, except to allow customers to enter. Both sides of the market street are closed off by nicely carved balustrades to prevent horse-riders from crossing on to the pedestrian pavement.
Everything is regulated by time
Above the entrance to each house, large round glass lanterns are suspended from iron hooks. One man is responsible for cleaning the glass of the lamps; another looks after the wick and the oil; and at sunset a third comes with a ladder and sparking torch - in the twinkling of an eye the lamps are lit. The owners of the house pay the lamplighters a monthly wage which enables them to live comfortably. It is truly amazing that in winter it is so dark in this city that the sun is invisible and lamps must be lighted day and night. Indeed, the eye is dazzled and no one need carry a hand-lantern even when going out in the evening.
Every man, whether of high or low estate, wears a watch in his waistcoat pocket; and everything he does - eating or drinking, or keeping appointments - is regulated by time. Factories (and bakeries) and livery stables all have fixed hours of work which are strictly adhered to; and each one has a large clock fixed to the wall which strikes the hours.
Servants do not disturb their masters’ privacy until summoned.
These are only a very few of the customs of the inhabitants of London. They are recorded here because it is my hope that this journal will prove to be a useful guide for future ambassadors.
At Hyde Park and the King’s Theatre
28 December 1809
Because I was feeling bilious and sad, Sir George Ouseley took me out to a place called Hyde Park: it is a vast open field, which in spring becomes a flower-garden with green lawns two miles square. Paths surround it, where men and women may walk for pleasure and relaxation. Other paths are reserved for horse-riders and carriages.
It happened that my horse shied and I almost fell to the ground; but my mehmandar [official guide/escort] skilfully managed to control it. He said that tomorrow he would arrange for me to have a gentler mount. They have truly splendid horses in England; but it is a pity they clip short their manes and tails.
30 December 1809
After dinner we went to the Opera, which is a grand theatre like nothing I have seen before; it has seven magnificent tiers, all decorated in gold and azure, and hung with brocade curtains and paintings. [This was the King’s Theatre in Haymarket, the largest theatre in England at the time. It burnt down in 1867, and was replaced with another, which was demolished a few decades later to be replaced by Her Majesty’s Theatre, built in 1897, which is still extant.]
Dancers and sweet-voiced singers appeared one after the other to entertain us, acting and dancing likes Greeks and Russians and Turks. Their music and songs banished sorrow from the hearts of the audience. It is amazing that although 5,000 people may gather in the theatre, they do not make a loud noise - when they enjoy a song they clap their hands together; if they think the singing bad, they say ‘hiss’.
The Bank of England’s ‘notes’
5 January 1810
Accompanied by Sir George Ouseley [. . .] I drove in my carriage to the Bank, which is near the India House in the City of London. The magnificent building was crowded with people, including some 400 soldiers on parade who are employees of the Bank. [. . .]
A most extraordinary thing is the fact that they print thin pieces of paper each one of which is given a particular value from one toman to 1,000 [tomans]. These printed papers are called ‘notes’, and they are just as valuable as gold. Some 200 clerks work from morning till night making these notes, which are printed with certain marks which make it extremely difficult to forge them. Just as it is impossible to create a likeness of the Incomparable Creator - so it is with these notes! [. . .]
I found the bank - with its vast organization of clerks, soldiers and labourers - more impressive than the Court of a powerful Sultan.
Where it is pleasant to walk in all seasons
9 January 1810
Many London houses are built around ‘squares’: these are large, [. . .] enclosed by iron railings as high as a man and set vertically a hand’s breadth apart. The streets between the houses and the square are wide enough for three carriages to drive abreast; and streets for carriages, horse-riders and pedestrians lead out from each corner. Each square belongs to the owners of the houses surrounding it, and only they are allowed to go in. On each side there is an iron gate which the residents - men, women and children - use when they wish to spend some time walking and relaxing within. The squares are pleasant gardens, planted with a variety of trees and beautiful, bright flowers. Most squares also have pools of water and wide, straight paths to walk along. Three gardeners are kept busy in each square repairing paths, plantings trees and flowers and tending the shrubs. At night street lamps are lighted - like those outside each house. The doors and windows of all the houses look out on to the square. It is pleasant to walk there in all seasons.
King Lear and Grimaldi at Covent Garden
12 January 1810
On either side of the lofty stage [Covent Garden theatre, recently rebuilt] are galleries with painted ceilings. Although somewhat smaller than the Opera, the decoration is more elaborate. Musicians banished sorrow from our hearts with their songs. It seemed strange that the audience reacted to some of the tunes with such boisterous applause that it could be heard by the cherubim in heaven, but to others they appeared totally deaf.
The manager of the theatre, Mr Kemble [John Philip] acted the part of a King of Britain who divides his kingdom between two of his daughter, leaving the third without a share [this was a much-altered version of King Lear].
Next, several multi-coloured curtains were lowered, and from behind these curtains - in the manner of Iranian acrobats - appeared the fantastic figures of divs and peris, of birds and beasts. No one watching their antics could possibly have retained his composure. Grimaldi, a famous clown, performed an act which I shall never forget: he would leap from a high window and just as easily leap back up again, returning each time as a different character and causing the noble audience to laugh uncontrollably.
Walking around the theatre, my companions and I saw beautiful ladies, beautifully dressed, casting flirtatious glances from their boxes. Then we left the theatre by the King’s door and came home.
The artisans of London excel in every craft
6 February 1810
I went [. . .] to a glass and mirror manufactory, where we observed stones and other ingredients combined and melted in furnaces to produce clear, jewel-like glass. I enquired about the glass and mirror industry and asked if there were any other, superior, manufacturers of mirrors. The man replied honestly: “English artisans are highly skilled and unrivalled throughout Europe. But the French produce a better-quality mirror because of the different materials they use.” The fairness of the master’s reply pleased me and I ordered two qalians [water pipes] from him. They made two sets for me by hand.
From there we went to a crystal-cutting factory. We looked around and were told the prices of various patterns. English cut-crystal is superior to that of other countries because the English have a greater appreciation of art.
Finally we visited a gunsmith renowned for the manufacture of shotguns and pistols. The perfection of his workmanship is universally recognized - he has no peer in all of Europe.
The artisans of London excel in every craft with the exception of brocade-weaving. But European brocades are rarely used here because their import is prohibited by Royal decree. English leather and metal-work are also of high quality. But prices are high in London. For example: a knife coasts four ‘guineas’. (A ‘guinea’ is the equivalent of one Iranian toman, sometimes more.) Even the drinking water is sold and brings a revenue of 90,000 tomans a year.
Rioting and vandalism in the streets
6 April 1810
On our way there we saw that lamps were lighted at the door of every house and cottage and that the roads were blocked by a multitude of carriages. I asked the reason for the tumult and I was told that a man called Sir Francis Burdett, who is a member of Parliament for London, had spoken against the Government and the King and caused an uproar in Parliament. He was therefore sentenced to two to three months in prison; if the Council agrees, he will be released after the prorogation of Parliament. This evening his supporters were trying to prevent his arrest: they called for every house to light up and they threw stones at the windows of all those who refused. [Burdett, a very popular politician of the time, had published a letter accusing the House of Commons of excluding the press from debates about the disastrous Walcheren expedition during which thousands of troops sent to the Netherlands to fight the French had died of sickness in the swampy Walcheren region.]
7 April 1810
In the morning it was reported that most of the ministers’ and councillors’ houses were stoned and damaged last night, including those of the Prime Minister [. . .]. The King’s Army was called out to quell the rioting and soldiers of the cavalry and infantry are posted in the city.
I left the house to go riding as usual. I met some English friends and acquaintances who tried to discourage me from going out today. [. . .] I met Mrs Perceval, wife of the Prime Minister, riding in a handsome carriage. She, too, advised me against being out of doors and warned me that today’s rioting was worse than last night’s. [. . .] I did not heed her advice and when I encountered the soldiers they all took off their hats to me as a sign of respect. When I asked why the rioting had not yet been suppressed, they said that the councillors were still deliberating and that without a warrant from the Council they could not remove the criminal from his house to the King’s prison.
I was utterly amazed! If such a situation had lasted for several days in one of Iran’s cities, 2,000 or more people would have been executed by now.
Good business for glaziers
9 April 1810
This morning I heard that Sir Francis Burdett has been arrested and taken to the Tower. Ten to fifteen of his supporters have been killed. His term of imprisonment is three months, after which he will be able to resume his seat in Parliament. In the Tower he is not kept in chains and he may even receive visits from his friends.
Calm was restored to the city and in the evening I went to a party.
10 April 1810
[I was told] the guns destined for Iran have been collected together and are ready for shipping.
We discussed the riots and the fact that the glaziers are doing a flourishing business because of all the broken windows.
Old age in the Chelsea Hospital
16 April 1810
I walked in the Park, enjoying the trees and the flowers. From there we went to a vast three-storey building set in a large wooded park on the river at Chelsea. It is called the Royal Hospital [founded by Charles II in 1691] and it houses retired soldiers over fifty years of age who spend the rest of their lives in peace and comfort. They are provided with clothing and food by the English Government: 500 men sit down together for meals. Most of the men I saw there had suffered wounds in battle and had had an arm or leg amputated.
In addition to these soldiers, 12,000 pensioners live at home with their families: they each receive twelve tomans a year from the Government. Near the Hospital is another large stone building built eight years ago by the second Royal Prince, the Duke of York, for children whose fathers were killed in the wars.
I do not know if the King is a religious man, but God must be pleased with him for building this house and caring for orphans. And his soldiers must be all the more loyal and willing to risk their lives in battle if they can look forward to a comfortable old age in the Chelsea Hospital.
20 April 1810
[Good Friday] Today was an important holy day for the English, the anniversary of the day Jesus (may peace be upon him) was crucified on a gallows with four nails. But there were so many people out in the country that it looked more like the day of the Last Judgement.
A boat launch at East India Docks
21 April 1810
We left Greenwich in a Royal barge and travelled three miles down the River Thames. In many places on the river straight canals have been dug to cut across the meanders and thus shorten the journey. A charge is made to boats for the use of these canals.
The East India Company has constructed its own dock for shipbuilding and for the unloading of merchandise brought from India by ship. When we arrived, some 10,000 people had already gathered to watch the launching of the new ship. [These docks at Blackwall on the north bank had opened a few years earlier.]
One of the Royal Princes, the Duke of Clarence [and future King Willian IV], who serves in the Royal Navy, was there to launch the ship. He was accompanied by one of his pretty daughters and he introduced me to her.
The Prince struck the bow of the ship with a bottle of wine and she slipped smoothly into the river. There were many guests on board and a young child shouted: “We are off! Goodbye!”.
What they call an ‘exhibition’
27 April 1810
Early in the morning Sir Gore Ouseley and I went to Somerset House, a large and magnificent mansion built of stone, like a small castle, overlooking the river. In one part of the building about 1,000 naval officers and clerks administer the affairs of the Royal Navy.
In another part of the building famous artists show their paintings to the general public, who pay two shillings to look at what they call an ‘exhibition’. The money collected is given to poor painters and their children. By showing their paintings here, artists may gain in reputation and attract sitters to have their portraits painted. The work is well paid.
My portrait by Sir William Beechey was among those in the exhibition.
Gentleman driving in the rain
17 May 1810
I drove my carriage to Cavendish Square, where there was a crowd of some 3,000 people. It was cold and raining heavily. Nonetheless, ten lords and distinguished gentlemen had taken the place of their drivers in splendid and shining four-horse carriages and were preparing to race each other along a road which had been closed to traffic. I was amazed that these gentlemen should choose to dress in livery of carriage-drivers and apparently enjoy driving in pouring rain! My friends assured me that in this season it is the custom for these gentlemen to parade in drivers’ livery and demonstrate how well they can drive their own carriages. Still, I felt sorry for them in the rain.
I thought about this sport and concluded that these young men are trying to impose some kind of discipline on their idle lives: they do nothing all day long but write letters or walk about town twirling their watch-chains; and their evenings are spent at the theatre or at parties, dancing in shoes much too small for them in order to impress the ladies.
There are 900,000 people of low and high estate in this vast city; but it is true that only a small number are dissolute dandies. Compared with other cities, most Londoners are well mannered and sensible; and if there are a few tearaways, they do little harm.
The English are always happy when it rains because it is good for the crops.
The Royal Arsenal at Woolwich
9 June 1810
I went with Sir George Ouseley [. . .] to visit the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich [. . .]. There are not enough pages in this journal to describe its wonders.
We went first to the house of the General commanding the Arsenal. He and several colonels accompanied us to the brass foundry, where they make brass cannon and shot of various sizes. The foundry operates for twenty-four hours a day. We watched as the necessary ingredients were melted in furnaces and then poured into cannon-shaped moulds which are placed near the furnaces. Twelve cannon are cast at one time. The moulds are slightly larger than the size desired: after cooling, the cannon are lifted from the moulds by a six-horsepower crane; a steam-powered metal drill is used to bore the cannon-mouths and to smooth the barrels. There were ten men each working one of these machines: without steam the work would require 100 men.
In another place they make gun-carriages and other things out of iron. The iron is melted in a large furnace and buckets are used to pour the molten iron into moulds. There are steam-driven circular saws made of iron or steel capable of cutting timber into 100 pieces in one minute. Other machines perform other jobs; for example, a special attachment makes it possible to taper an iron bar as easily as if it were wood. The machines and tools in this workshop were invented only two years ago.
In another place lead is melted in huge cauldrons which hang over constantly burning fires. The lead is used to make shells and bullets. Children are employed to make bullets for firearms. In still another place workers prepare gunpowder and grenades.
In several open fields, cannon made of iron or brass are arranged according to size. There are also two yards for the storage of shot, arranged so that you can tell at a glance how many there are. [. . .]
There is also a dockyard at Woolwich where one hundred warships of all sizes are built yearly to replace ships lost to the enemy or which have become obsolete. Because of the high cost of armaments and machinery, the Government is usually in debt and forced to borrow from the public.