Robert Shaw and the Atkinsons

Before the Atkinsons there were precious few European travellers in Central Asia. Those that did visit, like the Scotsman John Bell or the German Peter Simon Pallas, were mostly just passing through on their way from Moscow to China. Alexander von Humboldt and Roderick Murchison briefly visited the steppes along the southern border of Siberia to the south of the Altai Mountains, in the 1820s and early 1840s respectively, and there was a sprinkling of others, but few of them actually spent time in the region or travelled extensively across the great steppelands.

Even after the Atkinsons it was some years before others followed them into Central Asia. There were a few Russians, like Pyotr Semyonov and Nikolai Severtsof, who were engaged in mapping and exploring the lands newly conquered by the Tsar’s imperial armies. But British colonial rulers in India were reluctant to allow anyone to cross the Himalayas from the south. In fact, when the tea merchant Robert Shaw and adventurer George Hayward visited Kashgaria in 1868 it was in defiance of this long-standing policy.

Robert Shaw (to the right of centre) and his attendants

It was because of this Indo-centric view of the world that the Atkinsons’ remarkable journeys were little known in the Raj. The Atkinsons, of course, had travelled not from British India, but from St Petersburg and barely met another Englishman during the entire seven years they spent travelling in Central Asia and Siberia.

However, as I recently found out, Robert Shaw himself certainly did know about Thomas and must have read his books. He makes two references to Thomas in his book Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar (1870). Writing on 10th November 1868 from his tent which was pitched on the flat roof of a fort on the Karakash River on the northern side of the Karakorum Pass, Shaw notes how for the first time he came across people speaking a dialect of Turkish: “Now, as three days ago my knowledge of Toorkee was confined to the word ‘yok’ – no – which I had picked up in Atkinson’s book, and as they know no Persian, and, of course, no Hindostanee, we have to make up by smiles and signs for our lack of common words”, he writes.

A few pages later Shaw describes his first view of a nomad’s yurt: “There was no mistaking it after reading Atkinson’s books. A circular structure, with a low dome-shaped roof, covered with a dirty-white material, evidently felt.”

So in some circles at least, Thomas Atkinson’s writings were known and respected. Within a generation, however, he and Lucy had been all but forgotten.

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