e-version of new book on Chokan Valikhanov

The book launch for my new book, Selected Writings of Chokan Valikhanov: Pioneering Ethnographer and Historian of the Great Steppe, held virtually at the Royal Geographical Society, was a great success, with around 80 attending via Zoom and well over 500 on other media. Thank you to all of you. The book, published by Cambridge University Press, can be downloaded by clicking on this link.

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