Mining for copper in Kazakhstan

My recent book, Travellers in the Great Steppe, includes a chapter on those pioneering metallurgists and engineers who travelled from Britain and its colonies to set up businesses in the Kazakh steppe around the turn of the 19th-20 centuries. Amongst them was Edward Nelson Fell, who set up and ran the Spassky mine near Karaganda, to the south-east of Nursultan, now the capital of the country. Fell was director of operations at the mine from 1903-1908. Frank Vans Agnew, who eventually married one of Fell’s daughters, also came to work at the mine.

It was thus a great pleasure to receive an email recently from Jamie Vans, Edward’s great-grandson, who told me that two years ago he had travelled to the Spassky mine to see the places where his ancestors had worked. Jamie also has a large archive of material relating to the time they spent in this remote part of what was then the Russian empire. And most importantly, he has written up much of this material into a pamphlet, which you can find here:

Fell and his son-in-law Frank Vans Agnew had an eventful time at the mine. As well as dealing with Bolshevik agitators and striking miners, they found time to interact with the local nomadic Kazakhs and brought back numerous items, some of which are now in the British Museum. Jamie’s pamphlet is very detailed and full of fascinating material. It never ceases to amaze me that such important archives continue to turn up and to shed light on past events that have long since passed from view.

Peter Brown – 1927-2021

Peter Brown, husband of Atkinson descendant Belinda and a man who always took an interest in the story of her exploring ancestors Thomas and Lucy, has passed away at the grand age of 94. Despite his advanced years, he and Belinda both travelled to Kazakhstan in 2016 as guests of the government, visiting the place where Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson was born and putting up with the considerable discomforts of rough travel in the Zhetysu region.

As the oldest Atkinson family member, Peter was given particular honours in Kazakhstan, being introduced first to various dignatories, and always being offered the cooked sheep’s head to portion out to his sometimes less than enthusiastic relatives. He often attended meetings and was always good company. He also had a good hand and produced a delightful portrait of Thomas Atkinson – later emblazoned onto T-shirts. He will be long remembered by his family and friends.

Peter Brown on the shores of Lake Ala Kol in Eastern Kazakhstan
Thomas Atkinson portrait by Peter Brown.

RGS lecture on Travellers in the Great Steppe

On Monday I gave a talk for the RGS based on my recent book Travellers in the Great Steppe. It went very well and over 130 people logged on to listen. If you were not able to make it you can now listen in your own time by clicking on this link. The talk was subtitled ‘Nomads and their Textiles’ and contained a lot of material not directly covered in the book.

Kokpar: An ancient Central Asian sport

In Kazakhtan, Kokpar – known elsewhere in Central Asia as buzkashi (Afghanistan), kok boru (Uzbekistan) or ulak tyrtysh (Kyrgyzstan) – is a sport involving dozens of riders in what looks to outsiders like a brawl over a goat carcass. The winning side is the one that delivers the carcass (or head) into a specified pit the most times. Other than that there are few rules. The film below shows also that there is no specified limit to how far riders will travel in order to defeat their adversaries. I once saw a match in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where the riders disappeared over the horizon, not to return for around 40 minutes. Enjoy!

Two events to cheer you up

This coming week I will be making two presentations, based on my two recent books.

On Monday at 1430 GMT I will be speaking at a Royal Geographical Society event in their ‘Be Inspired’ series, entitled Travellers in the Great Steppe: Nomads and their Textiles. In this talk I will be explaining how my abiding interest in nomadic textiles from Central Asia was the inspiration for researching and writing my book on Travellers. Using some wonderful slides, I will be talking about how many of the early travellers left us with detailed descriptions of textiles they saw as they crossed the steppes. Some, like Henry Lansdell and Henri Moser, brought back with them wonderful embroideries that are now in museum collections across the world. You can find further details of the talk here.

The second event, which takes place on Wednesday at 1500GMT is a talk for the Oxus Society about Chokan Valikhanov, based on my new edition of his writings in English (see below). As the blurb for the event says, “Nick Fielding’s new edited collection of the writings of Chokan Valikhanov brings the brilliance and insights of this young Kazakh intellectual to an English-speaking audience for the first time in more than 150 years. No-one knew the steppes like Valikhanov and his dangerous journeys into Chinese Turkestan have since become legendary. A staunch defender of his people and friend of Dostoyevsky, Potanin and Semenov-Tianshansky, his writings are as fresh today as they were when first written. If you want to attend the talk, further details can be found here. I hope you can join me!

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.