Thomas Atkinson’s evidence to Parliament on Central Asian trade

Yet again, I have been delighted to find another substantial reference to the work of Thomas Atkinson, this time evidence given by Thomas to a select Parliamentary Committee. The evidence is fascinating because it was taken down verbatim by shorthand writers and every now and then something of Thomas the man comes across as he gives evidence. His performance was very impressive. He exhibited a detailed knowledge of the facts and delivered new and interesting information to the committee members, who questioned him at length.

The first I knew of this evidence to Parliament was last year in Hawaii, when I came across original letters between Thomas and William Ewart MP among the papers belonging to Thomas’ descendant Paul Dahlquist. In one letter, dated February 1859, William Ewart MP, chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Colonization and Settlement of India, wrote to Thomas Atkinson asking him if he would be willing to give evidence on his experiences in Central Asia, and in particular on the possibility of increasing trade.

Thomas replied on 11 February, stating that he would have “much pleasure in attending your committee…when I shall endeavour to answer such questions about the regions I have travelled through as they desired to be informed upon.”

Three days later, on Monday 14th February, Thomas made his way to the Houses of Parliament to appear before the committee. It was only last week that I finally found time to search the Parliamentary archives, where Rhiannon Compton was kind enough to locate the records. This is what they show.

The Select Committee report to which Thomas gave evidence

Thomas was the committee’s second witness, preceded only by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the founder of Kew Gardens and a great expert on northern India and the Himalayas. Dalton and Hooker later became great friends and it is interesting to speculate that this was where they first met each other. Thomas was first asked about the extent of his travels. He revealed that he had been as far east in Siberia as the source of the Lena river in the Baikal Mountains, west of Lake Baikal; as far south as latitude 42 degrees, and to within 70-80 miles of Kashgar in what is now Xinjiang, western China, to the sources of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes).

He was closely examined on what he had heard about Russian trade with Central Asia and gave well informed answers, noting that British calicoes were being brought from India to Khokan (Kokand) in the Ferghana Valley. The MPs were particularly keen to know if there were good prospects for opening up trade between Britain and Central Asia and Thomas replied in the affirmative. He said woollen clothes would be bought, but “they must be of particular colours; dark colours would not sell, but vivid colours, red, crimson, yellow, green or light blue are much admired; dark blue would not sell.” He said he had had several local costumes, but had to leave them behind in Russia: “I found things accumulated so fast that having to travel on camel and horseback it was impossible to bring as many things as I desired.”

Thomas noted that the Russians were trying to increase their trade with Central Asia and that they sold calicoes, leather, copper, iron and hardware. They banned gunpowder and the Chinese had a monopoly on the supply of brick tea, about which there was a long discussion, including its use as currency: “I have had as many as 100 of those bricks to travel with; it was the only money,” he told the committee. He also described how it is brewed and said he “very often found it an excellent supper.”

The MPs asked him about the wealth of the tribes on the steppes; and Thomas recounted how he had often come across chiefs who owned 10,000 horses and 50,000 oxen. The MPs seemed bemused when he explained that there was no agriculture and that the nomads lived simply on the products of their animals. Their income came from selling livestock, particularly oxen, to the Russians. “They grow no corn,” he explains, “they eat animal food, horse flesh and mutton and drink koumis, made from mare’s milk. They have hyran (cheese), made from the milk of cows and sheep, which is dried in the sun till it becomes as hard and very like limestone; when used it is broken into small pieces and then softened in water. I have sat down at a brook and made an excellent meal of it.”

Thomas was then questioned about gold production, noting it was mostly found in the small mountain ranges south of the Altai mountains, where it is washed from river gravels. Asked what size nuggets he has seen he replied: “the largest I have seen was about 84lbs in weight; it was considered the largest nugget in the world for a long time; 10lb is quite common in some of the mines.”

Thomas gives his evidence

Asked about the dress of the locals, Thomas stated that they wear costume and were “well dressed, frequently in silk…they wear garments of most vivid colours; and when seen together they made the most picturesque groups of people it is possible to imagine.”

Thomas was asked in detail about the danger of travelling in Central Asia. He said that the caravans were well protected and that Europeans would be able to get to Khokan, although the caravan trade would have to be in the hands of local Tartars. He was protected by the Cossacks provided to him by the Russian Tsar, although in more remote areas “they were obliged to put off their uniform. It would have been dangerous for them to wear it.” As for himself: “I never changed my costume, although I was advised to do so and put on that of an Asiatic, which it was said would afford me more security. I found myself favourably received in my own costume and I should recommend others to adopt this course.”

He continued: “I had a passport from the Emperor himself, which enabled me to leave his empire and re-enter it wherever I chose; otherwise upon the frontier they would not have permitted me to leave.” He always had three Cossacks selected for their language skills. “I could speak Russian with the Cossacks and then they acted as interpreters for me.” He said he spoke Russian “sufficient to travel”. In fact, we know that Lucy often translated for him as her language skills were better than his.

He was never plundered except in Siberia, where he was robbed by convicts. “I believe a man may travel by the caravan routes through these regions with perfect security, if he has firmness and deals honestly with the tribes. Other areas were more dangerous, he admitted, but added “I was well armed and I showed them that I could use those arms if it was necessary…I had the Cossacks and if I had ordered them to shoot a man they would have done it in a moment.”

Thomas also gave a good account of his first meeting with Tsar Nicholas I: “He asked me to state distinctly what my object was, and I did so. I had found great difficulty with the government, when I made an application to be allowed to travel and then I came to the determination that I would apply to the Emperor for his permission. I made an application through Mr Buchanan, our minister in St Petersburgh, and in three days I had the Emperor’s order to travel.”

Asked whether the Tsar had questioned him over his purpose in travelling, he replied: “He desired to know my object in travelling and I told him it was to sketch the scenery of the country and make notes of anything I thought valuable.”

Thomas’s information on the attitude of the Central Asian tribes to the Russians is of great interest to the committee. He said they “know very well that Russia is surrounding them with forts and that the time is not very far distant when she will say ‘You must pay tribute, and not only pay tribute, but become soldiers when it is necessary’.” He thinks they would respond favourably to an approach from the British and adds that “England lost a favourable opportunity of making acquaintance with them a few years ago.”

Here he was referring to the fate of Lt Col Charles Stoddart and Capt. Arthur Conolly, two British army officers who were beheaded by the Emir of Bokhara in 1842. “I was not there,” he added, “but my impression is, from what I could gather, that the death of our two officers, Messrs Conolly and Stoddart, was solely their own fault.”

This was controversial, as the Revd Joseph Wolff’s account of his attempted rescue of the two men, first published in 1845, had lauded them as heroes. Thomas was undeterred: “Several Russian officers and merchants of my acquaintance who have visited Khiva do not agree with Dr Wolff. They believe that these officers were sacrificed by their overbearing conduct, believing they could command the Khan of Bokhara as they would a regiment on parade at the Horse Guards.” Asked how it was their own fault, Thomas replied brusquely: “From being somewhat insolent.”

charlesstoddart      arthurconolly

Stoddart and Connolly – executed by the Emir of Bokhara

After further extensive questioning, Thomas was thanked and left the committee meeting. Two days later, on 16 February, William Ewart wrote to Thomas again: “In consequence of the interesting evidence you gave us on Monday I am led, on behalf of the Committee, to ask whether you could give us a summary of the most obvious measures adopted of late years by Russia for developing the trade of Central Asia. We would not ask you for more than the aforesaid views. The committee could receive you tomorrow at 2 o’clock.”

So on 17th February Thomas returned to Westminster to continue giving evidence. In answer to the question of how Russia was extending its trade into Central Asia he talked of the three Kazakh hordes (jus in Kazakh) and explained that two – the middle and small hordes – were now under the complete control of the Russians, allowing caravans to pass in complete security and that the third horde, the Great Horde, was partially under Russian control. Tartars from Russia controlled the caravans, which were now widely accepted by the khans and sultans.

Thomas also talked about the steamer traffic on the great Central Asian rivers, including the Syr Darya – then called the Jaxartes or Sihon. He pointed out that they could steam up above Khokan and that there were six steamers of up to 1,000 tons on the Aral Sea in 1856, but that there were now more. However, they were not used for trade, but solely to resupply the forts and military camps of the Russians. He said that the tribes had tried to resist the Russians: “Even during the years I spent with them there was a great commotion and if the Kazakhs had had a leader, Russia would have been driven out of the Great Horde, undoubtedly.” Russia had expanded its forts so extensively that they now stretched well beyond the Chinese border – “50 miles beyond in some parts, 300 miles in others.” He had little doubt that Russia would be successful in Central Asia: “The Kazakhs have been completely asleep and Russia has gradually gone on from one point to another and erected forts, so that the time will come when she will say to the sultans and chiefs, ‘You must pay us tribute’. In fact, they are hemmed in.”

Overall, Thomas’ evidence is impressive. It is both precise and accurate. He spoke from knowledge and at that point was surely more knowledgeable than any living Englishman on the Russian progress in Central Asia. He said that British trade could make headway in Central Asia, but that the Russians had pretty much got things sown up. And that was precisely the case. The Central Asians, he said, recognise the quality of British goods, but could not easily obtain them. The Russians were even falsely printing ‘Made in Manchester’ on their cottons in order to dupe traders into buying their inferior goods.

Despite the very interesting material that was uncovered by this select committee, its final deliberations were never fully published, although the verbatim evidence was. On 7th April 1859 an election was called by Lord Palmerston’s government and the committee, along with Parliament, was dissolved. The recommendation was that another similar committee should be formed in the following Parliament, but I have not been able to find out if this occurred.

Thomas kept in touch with Ewart, accepting invitations to dinner at his house in Cambridge Square and agreeing to show Ewart’s daughters his paintings. Whether they bought any is not recorded. In March 1860, just over a year after he had given his evidence Ewart wrote to Thomas to tell him that he was going to make a few remarks about Central Asia during a debate in the House of Commons, basing his comments on Thomas’ evidence.

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