More of the Kazakhs met by the Atkinsons in 1849

In my last posting I mentioned five of the Kazakhs that Thomas and Lucy Atkinson met on their journeys in Central Asia in the middle of the nineteenth century – Sultan Souk, Sultan Boulania, Sultan Alie Iholdi, Sultan Beck and Sultan Sabeck. I have now had a chance to research further and below you will find five more of the tribal leaders that the couple met during their travels. I will continue to publish further details in batches of five. There are no existing drawings of the leaders mentioned, but Thomas’ descriptions of their clothing and personalities are detailed.

My aim is to find the descendants of as many of these great Kazakh sultans and khans as possible. This should be possible, even after 168 years. Kazakhs, like other central Asians, generally know their genealogy very well for many past generations. So, I appeal to my readers, particularly those in Kazakhstan, to help me in this project and to let me know if you can identify these historical figures or their living relatives. In some cases the spelling may not correspond with present-day usage. This is hardly surprising, as Thomas would only have heard the names being pronounced and did not know enough Kazakh to be able to interpret the names properly. So, if you see a name that looks similar, please let me know anyway.

Most of these khans and sultans lived in the Semirechye region in today’s Eastern Kazakhstan, or possibly even further east in what is now the Djungaria region of Xinjiang. Some lived north-east of Lake Balkash (which Thomas called Lake Tengiz), but most are from the area south of the Tarbagatai Mountains, down to the Ili River. In each case I will give the name and any biographical details provided by Atkinson.

The Atkinsons met most of the leaders mentioned below during the spring of 1849 as they migrated with their vast flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and camels from their winter camps on the littoral of Lake Balkash into the jailoo (high pastures) in the Djungar Alatau Mountains for the summer.

Sultan Kairan: Thomas met him in his aoul (encampment), consisting of 13 yurts and 90 inhabitants as he was making his way with his flocks from Lake Balkash into the Alatau Mountains during the annual spring migration. Aged about 50, “with broad and heavy features, a wide mouth, small and deeply-set black eyes, a well-formed nose and a large forehead. His head was shaved and he wore a closely-fitting blue kanfa cap, embroidered with silver and coloured silks. His neck was as thick and as sturdy as one of his bulls; he was broad-shouldered and strongly built: taking him altogether, he was a powerful man. His dress was a Kokhand cotton kalat striped with yellow, red and green, reaching down to his feet and was tied round his waist with a red and green shawl.

Urtigun: Thomas met him close to the place he met Sultan Kairan. “He was a tall, well-built man, about 40 years old, with the audacity of a captain of freebooters; indeed, he would not have disgraced with illustrious robber chief (Kenisary) whose region I had just left, by claiming descent from him. It was obvious that we were to each other objects of interest, while to his followers, who had crowded into the yurt, I appeared a great curiosity…I spent more than an hour with this chief and then departed with the usual salutations. When outside the yurt, I observed a fine bearcoot (eagle) chained to his perch and several splendid dogs ranging about; they were of a particularly fine race, somewhat like the Irish wolf-hound, were powerful animals and exceedingly fleet. Urtigun held my horse and gave me his hand to the saddle; he then mounted his own steed and accompanied my party to a small stream about a mile from his aoul. Here we parted, when he expressed a wish that we might meet again in the mountains and hunt deer with his bearcoot.

Thomas’ drawing of the gorge of the Ac-Sou River

Sultan Djani-Bek: Thomas met him twice, close to the Ac-Sou River in the plains at the foot of the Djungar Alatau, not far from Kapal. He was “a man about 40 years of age, with a burly figure and a jolly, Friar Tuck-looking face, which showed that abstemiousness formed no part of his creed. Four other Kazakhs were sitting in front of us, his boon companions; beyond these there sat a small number of his retainers and herdsmen scanning my face and figure with their small sparkling eyes, evidently wondering from what part of the globe I had come.”

Kal-matai: This chief was also first seen between the Ac-Sou River and the Bascan River, shortly after Thomas left the aoul of Djani-Bek. Kal-matai’s aoul consisted of seven yurts, but this was only part of his tribe. “The aoul belonged to a rich chief, Kal-matai, and some of his children, with one of his wives, were here, with their numerous attendants and herdsmen. In four days the chief was expected to join with his other herds, by which time this part of his tribe would have selected the pastures and established themselves in the upper valleys of the Alatau. All the camels, horses and other animals had been assembled close around the yurts, as the space on which these had been pitched was limited.

Thomas also described one of Kal-matai’s wives: “My hostess was a woman about 45, with strong Kalmuck features – showing that she had descended from that race and most probably had been stolen from them when young. She wore a black kanfa kalat, a scarlet and green shawl round her waist and a fox-skin cap; yellow leather tchimbar (trousers) embroidered round the bottom and the usual high-heeled boots…. Notwithstanding her finery, she was occupied with her domestic duties, preparing cheese from a mixture of sheep and cow’s milk. It is formed into squares like our cream cheese, and then dried in the sun on a rush mat. I have eaten it and when fresh the flavour is not bad.”

Amoor10 12-Jan-15 17.06
Each spring the tribes moved from Lake Balkash up to the pastures in the Djungar Alatau Mountains.

Barak: This was the next aoul after that of Kal-matai, located closer to the Bascan River. Barak gave Thomas and Lucy a warm welcome. “From him I learned that it was utterly impossible to ascend to the glaciers in which the Bascan has its source, as the route was still deep in snow and the river so much swollen that it had stopped their march. I therefore accepted his offered hospitality to remain the night…Few people possess such a spot: Barak could sit at the door of his yurt and look at his tens of thousands of animals feeding on the mountain slopes. He could also enjoy a view of his domain in which beauty and savage grandeur were combined.” Thomas added: “My host was a Bee (magistrate) and had great influence with the people. During the evening a man was brought before him, charged with having stolen five horses and two camels. The theft was observed by a couple of witnesses and the animals were discovered among his herds.” Thomas describes the trial of the man in detail, how witnesses described the colour of his robes, which appeared not to match those the accused was wearing and how his three kalats were removed to expose the one he was wearing during the theft. “This condemned him and the Bee ordered the restitution of the stolen animals, at the same time imposing a fine of ten horses and four camels. The trial did not last more than an hour and speedy justice was awarded.  Thieving of this kind is instantly punished among the Kazakhs.”

I will soon publish further details of the tribal leaders the Atkinsons met in Semirechye.


Thomas Atkinson’s Kazakh portraits

During his travels in Central Asia Thomas Atkinson met many local and tribal leaders. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thomas decided to give them a place in his narrative, both by describing his encounters and conversations and, more importantly, by making artistic drawings and paintings of the people he met, which were later published in his books.

Today, those descriptions – literary and artistic – are often the only surviving record of the people who were prominent on the Steppes during the middle of the nineteenth century. Having made contact with the descendants of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson and helped them to travel to today’s Kazakhstan to see the places associated with their ancestors, it seems only right to try and trace the descendants of the Kazakh people they met during their journeys.

So I am publishing here Thomas’ portraits of the people that he and Lucy met on their travels in the late 1840s. I will include the names as they were recorded at the time. In many cases the spellings of the names in use today will be different, but it should not be too difficult to work out who they are. If you know any of these figures or their present-day families, please let me know. I am sure there will be people, particularly in Kazakhstan, who know some of these people.

I will start with Sultan Souk and his family. The Sultan, seen here wearing a medal from Tsar Alexander I, was a prominent nobleman who became a close friend of Thomas Atkinson. Aged at least 80 at this time, he was a leader of the Great Horde and Thomas describes him taking part in a meeting held at Kapal in January 1849 that brought

Atkinson’s painting of Sultan Souk and his family

together all the leaders to decide on a boundary between the Great and the Middle Hordes. Sultan Souk was determined that the northern boundary of the Great Horde’s lands in Semirechye region should be the Ac-Sou River, not the Bean or any other river.

The next character is Sultan Boulania. This Sultan, who had also received a medal from Tsar Alexander, was also a prominent leader. Thomas wrote of him that he was “reported to be by far the most enlightened and talented among the Kazakhs.” He found him in the hills around the headwaters of the Lepsou River in Semirechye. Here is his portrait:

Sultan Boulania

Soon after meeting Sultan Boulania, Thomas met with Sultan Alie Iholdi. He says he was “a distinguished man, who claims his descent from Timour Khan ; indeed, his son bears his name, as though destined to march the wild men of these regions across the Himalaya, like his ancestor… Behind him stands the chair of state, which is carried before him on a camel when the yurt is removed from one spot to another. The plumes of peacock’s feathers are a mark of great distinction among these people. The sultana is sitting on a pile of carpets, and the son behind the great iron caldron, standing on an iron frame, in which the sheep are cooked.”

Sultan Alie Iholdi

Next we hear of Sultan Beck, “the largest man and most wealthy Kazakhs in the steppes. He has ten thousand horses, and camels, oxen, and sheep in proportion to this vast herd.” His aoul was not far from the eastern end of Lake Balkash. Thomas writes: “He saluted me by touching the chest in the usual manner, after which we sat down and became friends. He drank tea with me, and remained to partake of his own mutton; and while this was preparing, he ordered his poet to sing for us. The man obeyed, and chanted forth songs, describing the prowess and successful plundering expeditions of my host and his ancestors, which called forth thunders of applause from the tribe. After spending more than two hours in the company of the sultan and his bard, we separated on friendly terms.” Thomas says he was fond of hunting with eagles, as is shown by the portrait he drew:

Sultan Beck and family
Sultan Beck with his favourite beercoote (eagle)

We next hear of Sultan Sabeck, whom Thomas met during a long journey into Dzungaria, Mongolia and then back into Eastern Kazakhstan. The precise place he met Sultan Sabeck is unclear, although it was very close to the Chinese border, north of Alakool Lake. Thomas says of the Sultan: “Sultan Sabeck was a tall man, with a ruddy, intelligent countenance, black eyes, and a dark beard. His kalat was of kanfa (Chinese satin), of a deep purple colour, with flowers embroidered in various-colored silks, which produced a beautiful robe. A rich yellow crepe scarf was tied round his waist; his cap was sable, turned up with crimson silk ; and he wore light green boots and yellow over-shoes.

Thomas did not publish a picture of Sultan Sabeck, but there is enough detail here to identify him.

I will publish further names and details shortly. In the meantime, if you can identify any of these important figures in Kazakh history, please let me know.


The Atkinsons and the Decembrists

Amongst the papers held by Thomas Atkinson’s direct descendant Paul Dahlquist in Hawaii is one remarkable document about a final book he had intended to publish. The document is a draft contract in Thomas’ own handwriting, dated 1861, for a book to be entitled The Exiles of Siberia. He spells out his structure of the book, noting it would contain “about six hundred pages and (give) an account of the Russian political exiles, the Polish and the criminals sent to work in the mines. Also an account of the mode in which they are employed in the gold mines and their colonization, with illustrations by the said T W Atkinson”.

The only reason Thomas Atkinson did not write this book is that he died in August the same year. He had not been able to write anything before then, despite his and Lucy’s close and warm contacts with many of the Decembrist exiles during their years of travel in Siberia, because he was so indebted to the Russian Tsars for permission to travel in the remotest parts of their empire. Indeed, his book Oriental and Western Siberia, published in 1858, is dedicated by special permission “To His Imperial Majesty, Alexander the Second”. In the preface he also notes that he was “deeply indebted” to Alexander’s predecessor, Tsar Nicholas I, “for without his passport I should have been stopped at every government and insurmountable difficulties would have been thrown in my way.”

Both emperors, father and son, must have been impressed by Thomas too because each gave him a valuable jewel-encrusted ring, one of which is still retained by the family. We know he met Tsar Alexander and it is very likely he also met Nicholas before he died in 1855. Lucy also mentions being in the same room as Tsar Nicholas, possibly when he came to visit her employer in St Petersburg, General Mikhail Nikolaevitch Muravyev.

A diamond and emerald ring presented to Thomas Atkinson by Tsar Nicholas I

The idea that Thomas could have written about the Decembrists in his books would have been unthinkable in the light of the special privileges they had given him that allowed him to travel so extensively throughout Siberia and Central Asia.

It was the connection with the Muravyev family that gave Thomas and Lucy such remarkable – possibly unprecedented – access to the Decembrist exiles in Siberia. At least five members of the family had taken part in the attempted coup in December 1825. One of them, Sergei Muravyev-Apostol, was one of the five Decembrists who were hanged on the orders of the new Tsar, Nicholas I.

In February 1848, when family members heard that Thomas and Lucy were setting out for Siberia, they begged them to take gifts and goods for those members of the family still living in exile after more than 20 years, including Sergei’s brother, Mattvei Muravyev-Apostol, who they found in the town of Jaloutroffsky, to the east of Ekaterinburg. As Lucy recalled in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes (1863):
On entering the dwelling, a gentleman in the prime of life came forward to meet us; he appeared not a little surprised at seeing strangers, Jaloutroffsky being off the great post road. I enquired for Mouravioff; he said he was the person I required. I told him I had come from Petersburg, and gave him my maiden name; I was instantly received with open arms; he then hurried us into his sitting-room, giving me scarcely time to introduce my husband. I was divested of all my wrappings, although we stated that our stay would be short; he then seated me on a sofa, ran himself to fetch pillows to prop against my back, placed a stool for my feet; indeed, had I been an invalid, and one of the family, I could not have been more cared for, or the welcome more cordial.

A painting of Mattvei Muravyev-Apostol by Nikolai Utkin

Later, in Eastern Siberia, the Atkinsons were to meet more of the Decembrist exiles, including the artist Nikolai Bestuzhev and his brother Mikhail at their home in Selenginsk. Whilst in Irkutsk, Thomas even gave some of his precious Winsor and Newton watercolour paints to Prince Sergei Volkonsky, another of the exiles.

By the time Lucy published her book in 1863, she was free of the political constraints that had bound her husband. The emancipation of the serfs in Russia had taken place and most of the surviving Decembrist exiles – but not the Poles or criminals – had been allowed to return to European Russia. Indeed, some of them had actually come to London to meet her. Thus we find many stories about the Decembrists in her book.

This is not the place to go into a full discussion of Thomas and Lucy’s connections with the Decembrist exiles, but we cannot over-estimate the importance of their meetings. One or two other travellers, including Charles Cottrell and Samuel Hill, also met some of the exiles, but none experienced the level of intimacy over such a long period of time that was conferred on Thomas and Lucy, due to the latter’s employment in the household of General Muravyev in St Petersburg. The intriguing question is did Thomas ever paint any of the Decembrists? The fact that he mentions that his proposed book was to contain illustrations strongly suggests this to be the case. If so, where are these illustrations now?