Henry Lansdell and the elusive Emir of Bokhara

For some time I have been interested in the remarkable travels of Dr Henry Lansdell, a Victorian-era priest who travelled for thousands of miles throughout Siberia and Central Asia in the late nineteenth century. Travelling alone, he made a pledge to visit every hospital and prison in these regions and to leave religious tracts behind him, usually in the local language. Lansdell wrote three double-volume books on his travels which to this day remain some of the best of their kind, stuffed full of interesting details and photogravure illustrations based on the many photographs he took along the way.

I have already written a substantial article for Asian Textiles (subscription required) about Lansdell and the many wonderful objects he brought back from his travels and donated to various museums across the country. I will no doubt write more about him in the future. But for now I want to solve one mystery: where are the many hundreds of photographs that Lansdell took during his journeys? Although technology at the time (1880s) did not allow them to be reproduced directly, his photos were used in his books through the medium of photogravure ie engraving the details of the photo onto a copper sheet which was then used for printing.

Recently I have found out that Lansdell often gave magic lantern slideshows and talks in England during the times between his extensive travels. I have even found some of his slides, such as those below. But I have yet to find a full set of his slides – or, indeed any of the original glass plate negatives that surely must still exist somewhere. Here are some examples of his work:

A Kazakh woman
Interior of a Kazakh yurt

I have now found more than 40 of Lansdell’s slides, as used during his magic lantern shows. But just to give you an idea of what is still out there, here is as example of one of the photogravure’s from his book Russian Central Asia, a portrait of the Emir of Bokhara, Muzaffar al-Din bin Nasr-Allah (who was Emir from 1860-86):

The Emir of Bokhara, Muzafferadin bin Nasr-Allah

The Emir clearly took a shine to Lansdell and presented him with some amazing armour and robes of honour, some of which are now in the British Museum and the Beany Museum in Canterbury, Kent. This, as far as I know, is the only known portrait of Muzafferadin bin Nasr-Allah. But where is the original photograph? An online search revealed one image only, which is clearly the original Lansdell photograph:

Lansdell’s original photo

From the facial expression and the clothing it is clearly the same image as the photogravure. I found this image on a Dutch website interested in the trim on the coat the Emir is wearing. Exactly the same image can be found on a few other sites. In all cases, the photo is the same low-res image as seen above. So it was mostly certainly copied from Lansdell’s original photo. Can anyone help me find it? And the many other remarkable photos taken by Lansdell, who was one of the first photographers to take pictures in Central Asia. As with this particular picture, some are undoubtedly of historical signficance. I will keep you up-to-date with my search for this image and the remaining lost photographs of Henry Lansdell. And just to finish, here is one of him wearing a suit of armour given to him by the Emir:

Henry Lansdell wearing armour given to him by the Emir of Bokhara

What a guy!

New book on Chokan Valikhanov out in December

This year has been a busy one for me. On 15 December the launch will take place of my new book. Selected Works of Chokan Valikhanov, Pioneering Ethnographer and Historian of the Great Steppe will be published in a joint venture between the Kazakh Embassy and Cambridge University Press. The launch, which will be a Zoom event, will be hosted by the Royal Geographical Society. More details to follow.

English readers may not be very familiar with Chokan Valikhanov who died in 1865 aged just 29. He was one of the first Kazakhs to be educated through the Russian system. He entered the Siberian Cadet Corps at Omsk in 1847 and on graduating was taken on to the staff of the Governor of Western Siberia. Soon he was taking part in expeditions into the steppes, often travelling undercover in places that were off-limits to Russians or outsiders. Prior to the translation of the 20 essays in this volume, only three of his essays had previously been translated into English.

For this volume I worked with Dr Ziyabek Kabuldinov, director of the Chokan Valikhanov Institute of History and Ethnology in Almaty, who convened a group of his senior staff to select the essays from Valikhanov’s five-volume collected works. The essays were then translated into English by leading translator Dr Arch Tait, before I edited them and prepared them for publication. Their publication is a major event for Central Asian scholarship and should allow the work of this hugely talented pioneer to reach a much wider audience. Valikhanov wrote with great authority and power on the history of the Kazakh hordes, their myths and legends, the politics of the steppes, as well as recording in diary form his various remarkable journeys. I will provide more details of the book’s contents closer to publication day.

The Steppes come to Brighton – sort of…

I am delighted to announce that Steve Brown, a great, great, great grandson of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, is presenting a humourous show at the Brighton Fringe Festival based on his discovery of his family roots. He will be presenting Slightly Famous in Kazakhstan at the Black Dove pub – COVID permitting – on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th October at 4pm.

As Steve points out, the Atkinsons are almost forgotten in their English homeland, but in Kazakhstan it is a different story. There they are regarded as national heroes, the earliest Europeans to spend time in the region and to write extensively about it and – in Thomas’ case – to paint it.

Having visited the remote places in which his ancestors stayed – and had a child – in the late 1840s, Steve came to realise the awe which the Atkinson name generates in Kazakhstan today, and which, as the flyer for his show says, resulted in he and his family members being “feted on Kazakh TV, rubbing shoulders with various ambassadors, politicians and oligarchs and also learning a little about the seductive nature of fame”, as well as the scandal which led his ancestors to be airbrushed from the history books. Steve will also explain why he thinks Lucy Atkinson should be a feminist icon for our troubled times. So get out there and buy a ticket while you can…

Video of launch of Travellers in the Great Steppe


Dr Steve Brown, H E Erlan Idrissov and myself at the launch

I am delighted to report that yesterday’s launch of my new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution, went off yesterday at the RGS without a hitch. The virtual audience heard from RGS director Professor Joe Smith, from His Excellency Erlan Idrissov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and from Dr Steve Brown, great-great-great grandson of explorers Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, before the presentation. Don’t worry if you missed it, because there is a link to the video of the event , which you will find here. You will need to use the access code *udEv2jV. I will try to find a way to create a permanent link, but you should be able to download the files to your own computer – note that this is a very large file. Please let me know if you have any questions about the video, or, more generally about the book itself. Many thanks to all of you who were able to tune in and watch the event. Another book coming later this year….

RGS director Professor Joe Smith also addressed the launch meeting
Nick Fielding at the podium

More on ‘Travellers’ book launch

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!

Official launch of Travellers in the Great Steppe

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.

Published on 23rd September

More on first edition of Lucy’s book on Ebay

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’s dedication to the Duchess of Wellington

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.

Sir Roderick Murchison in 1860

Another rare US edition of Atkinson’s Oriental and Western Siberia

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.

Keystone edition-1
The Keystone edition of Oriental and Western Siberia

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?

Keystone edition-2
Keystone edition title page