My new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution (Signal Books), will be launched next Wednesday at 1430 at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Although the COVID-19 restrictions prevent us from opening the event to the public, there is full online access to the presentation. You can log in via Zoom using the link in the article below this, or you can check out the RGS website, where there is also a link – see here. After short speeches from guests, I will give a brief illustrated presentation of the book’s contents. Hope you can make it!
I can confirm that the official launch of my new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: From the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution, will take place on Wednesday 23rd September at 14.30. It will be a hybrid event, meaning that the launch will be broadcast live from the Royal Geographical Society in London, but members of the public will not be able to attend in person, although they will have full access via the internet. If you would like to register for the launch please click this Zoom link. I will outline some of the fascinating stories contained in the book and there will also be words from H E Erlan Idrissov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan, Thomas Atkinson descendant Steve Brown and from a speaker from the RGS.
I am delighted to say that the first edition copy of Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, that was for sale on Ebay for £1,320, has now been sold to one of her descendants.
The book contains a fascinating inscription. It says “To her Grace, the Duchess of Wellington, from Rod. I. Murchison, 15 March 1863”. This is clearly Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, who was President of the Royal Geographical Society for many years, including from 1862 until his death in 1871. He was the most important geographer of his generation and many natural features around the world – and one on the moon – are named after him.
Murchison was a great supporter of the Atkinsons and after Thomas died in August 1860 he organised a public subscription fund to raise money for their child Alatau’s education. The fund raised around £300, which enabled Alatau to attend Rugby School. Murchison pointedly supported Lucy even after Thomas’ bigamy became public knowledge. He clearly obtained this copy of her book very soon after it was published at the beginning of 1863 and presented it to one of the grandest ladies in the land.
I have recently identified a previously unrecorded American edition of Thomas Atkinson’s first book of travel, Oriental and Western Siberia. This is a subject I have written about several times before. In October 2018 I wrote about the early editions published in America by Harper Brothers, J W Bradley of Philadelphia and John E Potter, also of Philadelphia. Then in December last year I came across a deluxe edition, also published by Potter, possibly in about 1870 – WorldCat says 1885. The Potter company bought the assets of J W Bradley in 1867.
The newly-discovered edition was published by The Keystone Publishing Company, also of Philadelphia, but published later, possibly in 1890. It is not listed on WorldCat. Just as John E Potter had bought out J W Bradley, so in 1889 Keystone bought out John E Potter.
The cover gives little clue to the book; the spine says Oriental and Western Siberia, but does not mention Atkinson’s name. And the front cover has Explorations of Siberia embossed in gold lettering. There is no publication date on the title page. Inside, it resembles the Potter edition in terms of paper quality, with the same poor quality woodcuts of Atkinson’s original illustrations, but none of the colour plates.
The continuing publication of various editions of Atkinson’s books in America throughout the second half of the nineteenth century suggests that his publishers in the UK sold unrestricted foreign rights for its future publication. Either that, or as was often the case at the time, the books were published without a royalty being paid. Are there more copies out there? I daren’t guess, but WorldCat lists another US edition published in the early 1900s. Anyone seen one?
The official launch of my new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution (Signal Books, Oxford), originally scheduled for 1st July, is now due to take place on Wednesday 23rd September at the RGS in London. It is likely to be what is now referred to as a ‘hybrid’ event ie myself and a few guests will gather together – socially distanced, of course – and broadcast the event to anyone who cares to watch. Please watch this space for further details. Copies of the book should be available from bookstores and Amazon before that date.
An interesting first edition copy of Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, is presently on sale on Ebay. Priced at an eye-watering £1,320 – only 700 copies were printed, so this is not so outrageous for a copy in good condition – it was once owned by Elisabeth Wellesley, the Duchess of Wellington (1820-1904). On the front endpaper it is inscribed ‘To her Grace the Duchess of Wellington’ and signed and dated March 15 1863.
Elisabeth, Duchess of Wellington, was the wife of the second Duke, Lord Douro, who succeeded his father in 1852, although the arranged marriage was not a happy one and there were no children. She served as Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria from 1861 to 1868, and again from 1874 to 1880.
At some point, the book was passed on to Hersham Village Hall Company Limited and the library of Hersham Working Mens Club, close to her home at Burhill Park near Walton on Thames, Surrey. A rare book, it remains a classic of nineteenth century women’s travel literature and is almost certainly the first serious travel book written by an Englishwoman.
I am sorry to announce that social distancing restrictions mean the launch of my new book Travellers in the Great Steppe, due to be held at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 1st July, has been postponed until September. If restrictions remain in place the event may take place as a virtual launch. I will let you know as soon as I hear any further details.
One unforeseen consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown is that it has given many of us the opportunity to do the little jobs we have all been meaning to do for years. Such was the case with Paul Dahlquist who lives on Big Island in Hawaii. Paul, who is a direct descendant of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, decided it was time to go through some old papers. “With all the time I have had on my hands, I have been rummaging through a box containing family letters from at least the 1920ʻs to the 1970’s,” he tells me.
Imagine his surprise when he came across a scribbled note and three metal buttons. The note reads:
“Gun metal (Russian) cuff buttons, or studs, given to the Revd. Canon Alexander Mackintosh of St. Andrewʻs Cathedral, Honolulu, by Alatau T. Atkinson, Esq of Pauoa Road. The buttons belonged to Mr. Atkinsonʻs father the famous traveller. So it is fitting that the son of Helen Dahlquist, being the 5th generation, should possess the buttons. Canon Mackintosh landed in Honolulu for 1st time with Mr. & Mrs. Atkinson & carried Zoe on shore!”
The note describing the buttons left to Paul Dahlquist
Paul adds: “I don’t know who wrote the note but think it might have been not long after I was born in December 1940, perhaps at my Christening, but there is no mention of the buttons in a list of attendees, gifts given, and the food for that august event. The really important fact is they once belonged to TWA. And I didn’t even know we had them. There are 3 buttons, two look like cuff links to me but Iʻm not sure as they have an unusual, to me, clasp. The third is larger and has a fastener like a pin, so I don’t know what that might have been.”
The silver buttons, two of which have been converted into earrings.
From what we can gather from the note, it would appear that Thomas and Lucy’s son Alatau Atkinson, gave the buttons to Alexander Mackintosh, the canon of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Honolulu. Mackintosh had travelled to Hawaii in 1869 with the Atkinsons and, according to the note, had carried their daughter Zoe ashore in Honolulu. The two men were clearly very close friends. Alatau played the organ at St Andrews and was a regular churchgoer.
Alexander Mackintosh died in 1930, but it would appear that one of his descendants decided to return them to the Atkinson family a decade later and presented them at Paul’s christening in 1940.
The Revd. Canon Alexander Mackintosh surrounded by his family in Hawaii.
As for the buttons, rather than being Russian military buttons, they look very similar to buttons that were made of silver and decorated with niello in the Central Asian steppes and were highly prized. Most nomadic clothing did not include buttons, but they were widely used to decorate the elaborate headdresses of women. In fact, the traveller John Castle, writing in the 1730s, tells how all his buttons were snipped from his clothing by the women in the yurts in which he stayed with members of the Junior horde of the Kazakhs.
Kazakh silver buttons similar to those once owned by Thomas Atkinson
Two of the buttons rediscovered by Paul have been converted into earrings, while the other has a simple pin. They join the small group of artefacts, including a samovar, a pair of acquamarine earrings, a penknife, some letter seals and various other objects that have survived within the family for more than 170 years. Who knows what else will turn up!
Pandemic permitting, my new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution, will be published on 1 July, with a launch event at the Royal Geographical Society in London, but that will depend on government guidance on social distancing.
The new book is a history of the exploration of the steppes, a subject which has received little attention. There are plenty of books and articles on the Great Game, but these mostly concentrate on the regions to the south of the Great Steppe, along the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Instead, I have concentrated on the vast Central Asian steppes, south of Russia’s Asiatic border, which until the middle of the nineteenth century were largely unknown to outsiders.
Those who crossed these steppes were usually on their way somewhere else and found these lands too inhospitable for colonisation and too dangerous, due to the wild tribesmen, to stay for long. The book starts by looking at the early travellers sent by popes and kings to the Mongols, whose military might threatened their very existence. Several of them, including Friar Rubruk and Jean de Plano Carpini, passed through this region and left detailed descriptions of both the Kazakh tribes and their institutions. The book also looks at early British attempts by Anthony Jenkinson and others to divert the Silk Road to the north, through Russia, to take the trade away from merchants in the Levant. The story of the rather unhinged John Castle, who commissioned himself to try and persuade Abul Khayir, khan of the Junior Horde of the Kazakhs, to accede to Russian rule in the 1730s, is also set out.
Several tales relate to travellers who tried to reach the remote city of Khiva, south of the Aral Sea, including Nikolai Muravyev, the American diplomat Eugene Schuyer – surely one of the greatest writers on Central Asia of all time – the brilliant journalist Januarius MacGahan, the dashing cavalry officer Captain Fred Burnaby and the fanatical cyclist Robert L Jefferson. Of particular interest is the story of The Daily Telegraph correspondent David Ker, who in 1874 faked his despatches, sending them from Armenia whilst pretending to be in Khiva itself.
Eugene Schuyler, Januarius MacGahan and cyclist Robert L Jefferson
I have also included chapters on the Atkinsons, who remain the most prominent of the explorers of the Great Steppe. Whilst others passed through, the Atkinsons spent many months living in the region, learning about the culture and, in Thomas Atkinson’s case, producing stunning paintings and drawings that remain an important historical record of life in the steppes in the middle of the nineteeth century.
Others mentioned in the book include the remarkable Henry Lansdell, who wrote three superb books about his efforts to distribute bibles and religious tracts throughout the region, and the many Russian travellers or those working for the Russians who risked their lives in these remote areas. The include Peter Simon Pallas, Semenov-TianShansky, Grigory Potanin, Filipp Efremov, Johann Peter Falck, Johann Sievers, Gregory Karelin and Chokan Walikhanov.
The Reverend Henry Lansdell, Chokan Walikhanov and Peter Simon Pallas
Then there were those geologists and engineeers who were fascinated by the question of whether or not there had ever been a huge sea in Central Asia. British army officer Herbert Wood wrote a book dedicated to this subject and Xavier Hommaire de Hell and his very accomplished wife Adele, spent years looking into this question. Other French explorers began to arrive towards the end of the nineteenth century, including Gabriel Bonvalot and Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon, who was portrayed in the popular press in Paris wearing her specially-made exploring outfit.
Gabriel Bonvalot, Adele Hommaire de Hell and Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon
Scientists and miners also spent time in the Great Steppe, none more so that William Bateson, the Cambridge don who invented the word genetics and rediscovered the work of Gregor Mendel. Bateson spent 18 months in the steppes in the 1880s looking for tiny fossilized snails to try and establish if there had once been a single body of water in Central Asia. By the end of the nineteenth century miners looking for copper and other precious minerals were arriving; even butter merchants made their way to these vast open spaces and organised refrigerated trains to bring the butter to Europe.
The book, to be published by Signal Books, contains all these stories and more.
ISBN 978-1-909930-86-5. Cloth.
One of Thomas Atkinson’s best-known lithographic illustrations (above), which appears as the frontispiece of his book Oriental and Western Siberia, is a portrait of a man he calls Sultan Souk. ‘Sultan Souk and his family’ has always intrigued me. He sits cross-legged in his yourt, surrounded by three women – presumably his wives – and another kinsman who is standing. Across his legs he caresses a Russian military sabre and around his neck hangs a large gold medallion bearing a portrait. Around him are the accoutrements of wealth – a fine-looking cooking pot with animal finials, a samovar for making tea and any number of fine carpets and textiles. All those present are wearing fine striped khalats beneath their cloaks. Both men wear silken kamarbands and small tubeteika round caps.
The portrait was one of many that Atkinson composed during the journey that he and Lucy made to the Zhetysu region of what is now eastern Kazakhstan. They stayed at the isolated Russian military outpost of Kopal – where their son Alatau was born – from September 1848-June 1849, before slowly making their way back to Barnaul in southern Siberia, which they reached in September that year. Atkinson’s portraits of the prominent Kazakhs he met now represent the only characterisations of a generation of Kazakh leaders whose likenesses would otherwise be unknown.
So who was Sultan Souk? Atkinson does not mince his words: “A greater robber could not be found in the Steppe and though at this time, being eighty years of age, he could not join in the barantas, many were planned by him. On another occasion, when I was staying at his aoul some Kazakhs came from the middle horde to beg of him to give up their wives and children, who had been carried off by his banditti — they formed part of his share of the plunder — but the old scoundrel would not restore one. He received a pension from the Russian emperor, sold his country, and deceived his imperial majesty.”[i]
Atkinson adds that the sultan sat for a portrait and insisted on wearing “a scarlet coat, a gold medal and a sabre, sent him by Alexander the First, of which he was wonderfully proud.” He also mentions that he was vain: “In one of his barantas, a battle-axe had cut his nose and rendered it crooked; and when I was sketching him, he desired me not to copy his present nose, but put in a proper one, or the emperor would discover his plundering habits.”
Lucy Atkinson also wrote about the old sultan in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes. She mentions numerous visits by him to their small house at Kopal in the spring of 1849, when their child Alatau was just a few months old:
“The fine weather is a relief to everybody; it also brings visitors from the Kazakhs. Amongst the most frequent is old Sultan Souk. Many an hour does he pass in our rooms, and one of the great attractions is a small travelling looking-glass. He goes into my bed-room, where it hangs against the wall, and stands for an hour or more, making all kinds of grimaces, and laughing loudly; it is probably the first time he ever saw his own face. He sadly wished to persuade me to present it to him; he coaxed me out of a pair of scissors, and took them to his armourer, who made others from them – the first that were ever manufactured in the steppe. They were given to the Baron, who promised them to me, but, learning that we thought them a curiosity, he retracted, I presume, for I never received them. Another attraction for the old gentleman was the child; indeed, Kazakhs came from far and near to see him; one Sultan sent a follower of his a distance of 200 versts for some smoked mutton for the child to eat when he was six weeks old.”
By 1849, of course, Tsar Alexander was dead, but the atmosphere on the Kazakh steppe was tense and the Russian Tsars were no less interested in what was happening there. Two years before, Russian troops had made their way south from Siberia to establish a series of military posts – including Kopal – along the border with China, to the east. And the reason they timed their arrival for 1847 was that the previous year one of their most serious adversaries, Kenisary Kasymov, regarded by some as khan of all the Kazakhs, had been killed by Kirghiz tribesmen, bringing to an end a two-decade insurgency against the Russians. Kenisary is today seen as a hero in modern-day Kazakhstan, regarded as the last Kazakh tribesman to hold out against the Russians.
Kenisary was khan of the Middle Horde, whose members lived in the north-eastern regions of the Great Steppe. He was also distantly related to Chokan Walikhanov, regarded by many as the first Western-trained Kazakh intellectual. He continued a struggle started by his brother in the 1820s to oust Russians from the steppe. Whether he was a modernizer or a traditionalist is hotly debated, but he undoubtedly made it very difficult for the Russians to complete their project of subduing the steppes and settling the regions with agricultural peasant farmers from southern Russia.
In this context, Atkinson’s painting of Sultan Souk, has a greater significance. What I have established is that Sultan Souk was actually Sultan Siuk Ablaikhanov, a sultan of the Great Horde, son of the hero Ablai Khan and actually an uncle of Kenisary – who was Ablai Khan’s grandson – although with a very different political outlook. In 1831, as Kenesary’s brother was leading an insurrection against the Russians, Siuk had asked the Governor-General of Western Siberia to create an okrug – a jointly-administered territory – on his lands and to bring in Cossacks to pacify recalcitrant Kazakhs. This opened up Lake Balkash and large parts of the Djungar Alatau to Russian exploration. Other tribal groups from the Great Horde followed Siuk in accepting Russian rule. And it was precisely because he was regarded as pro-Russian that in 1846 Kenesary had come to Siuk and demanded that he join him in his struggle against the Russians. In doing so he was acting as head of the Middle Horde, seeking support from the Great Horde. But the old man had refused, despite threats by Kenesary to destroy all Siuk’s aouls.
By the time the Atkinsons met the sultan, he was clearly in favour with the Russians, Kopal being on his territory. Thomas describes how the commander of the fort at Kopal, Captain Abakumov, organised a great gathering of tribal leaders there on 1 March 1849 to discuss the boundary between the Great and the Middle hordes. The lack of an agreed boundary meant that there were constant barimtas (raids) by one group against the other.
The chiefs arrived on the appointed day, along with their mullahs and elders – in all over 100 men. There was no building large enough to hold the multitude, so they met in the open. The Russian administrators of the steppes arrived from Ayagus and others came from the tribes of the Middle Horde. Captain Abakumov started off proceedings with a display of artillery fire, which terrified many of the guests, exactly as it had been designed to do so. A Russian official informed all those present that the governor-General of Western Siberia, Prince Gortchakov, had sent a despatch recommending that the sultans and chiefs agree a boundary to stop all the feuds and plundering. He added that the negotiations should be conducted in a polite manner.
Sultan Siuk was the first to talk, saying that he had considered the Prince’s suggestions and was willing to adopt them, but that the boundary line was paramount. Thomas Atkinson reported his speech thus: “The boundary to which I shall consent is the Ac-Sou, including the shores of Lake Balkash. If the Middle Horde agree to this, it is well, if not the chiefs will maintain their right and seize every man and animal found on the pastures.”[ii] It was an uncompromising message.
The Russian official tried to get Siuk to modify his claim, suggesting that the border between the two hordes should be the River Bean, with the land to the West belonging to the Great Horde. Siuk studied the map presented by the Russian, but was not impressed: “I cannot understand this paper, nor why you have marked the Bean and call that the boundary. It may remain so on the paper, but I will have the pastures to the Ac-Sou. The Prince has ordered the Lepsou, the Ac-sou and the Bean to be placed where he pleased on this paper. He may have them so, but I order the boundary to be on the Ac-Sou, nor shall it be changed. If the Middle Horde do not consent to this, they shall soon see some of my people on the Lepsou.”
A chief from the Middle Horde replied, saying they would not change their position either and threatening to kill anyone from the Great Horde they found on their territory. With that the meeting broke up for the day. Discussions on the following days and weeks did not lead to a breakthrough and by the end of the month the Russian officials were tired and fed up; the tribal leaders, all much embittered, separated more disunited than ever before.
Atkinson, however, had not finished, either with Siuk or with Kenesary. He devotes almost 60 pages of his second book, Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor, to detailing the adventure-filled story of Siuk’s doomed attempt to marry Ai Khanym, the daughter of Sultan Djanghir Khan, one of the leaders of the Kirghiz tribes in the mountains, with whom Siuk’s father wanted to form a pact, . The story ends in disaster, with Djangir Khan going back on his word and trying to marry off his daughter to the Khan of Badakhshan and Siuk eloping with her, only for her to be killed by a tiger in the mountains.
As for Kenesary, during the Atkinsons’ departure from the Djungar Alatau region in the summer of 1849 they took on an old guide who knew the mountains well. The old man said he had once belonged to what Atkinson called “a band of robbers,” commanded by the great ‘Kinsara’ i.e. Kenisary. In this characterisation, Atkinson is following the opinion of the Russians – and possibly the Kazakhs of the Great Horde. He goes on to say that the Kazakhs “quailed as he led on his wild bands; even the Russians, on the frontiers, dreaded his marauding expeditions. He had been the scourge of all the tribes, whom he often plundered, carrying off their camels, hordes, men, women and children.”
High up in the Djungar Alatau Mountains, amongst the headwaters of the Bascan River, the guide even located one of Kenisary’s old camping grounds: “This was the place on which Kinsara had lived and held his daring associates in subjection. My guide told me that no one of the band ever dared to disobey his orders, as doing so would have been certain death. He had acquired unbounded power over the minds of his followers, by his indomitable courage. If a desperate attack had to be made against fearful odds, he led the van, and was ever first in the fight, shouting his war-cry with uplifted battle-axe and plunging his fiery steed into the thickest of the battle. This gave confidence to his men, and was the secret of his success; but the Kazakhs thought he was in league with Shaitan and that no steel could touch him.”[iii]
The guide told Atkinson that Kenisary had 300 men with him, including escaped Chinese convicts from the Ili Valley. He led him to the very spot where Kenesary had lived: “This was sacred ground to him, and his eye moistened as we turned away from the spot. We visited several other places which he examined with intense interest and then came to the spot where his yourt had stood. There were black ashes of his own hearth; he looked at these for a few minutes and then led the way to the eastward. As he strode along he often looked back, evidently lingering affectionately over a locality that had called up many pleasant recollections.”
We can see from these events that Thomas and Lucy Atkinson were in the Great Steppe at a time of turmoil, as the last resistance to the Russian incursions crumbled. The Atkinsons’ many meetings with Sultan Siuk, a prominent leader of the Great Horde, Thomas’ presence at the great gathering of tribal leaders in March 1849 and the visit to the mountains with a former companion of Kenisary, leader of the Middle Horde and the last great resistance hero of the Kazakhs, shows that they were in the thick of great historical events.
[i] T. W Atkinson, Oriental and Western Siberia, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1858, p568,
[ii] T. W. Atkinson, Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1860, p176.
[iii] Ibid., p223