Pandemic permitting, my new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution, will be published on 1 July, with a launch event at the Royal Geographical Society in London, but that will depend on government guidance on social distancing.
The new book is a history of the exploration of the steppes, a subject which has received little attention. There are plenty of books and articles on the Great Game, but these mostly concentrate on the regions to the south of the Great Steppe, along the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Instead, I have concentrated on the vast Central Asian steppes, south of Russia’s Asiatic border, which until the middle of the nineteenth century were largely unknown to outsiders.
Those who crossed these steppes were usually on their way somewhere else and found these lands too inhospitable for colonisation and too dangerous, due to the wild tribesmen, to stay for long. The book starts by looking at the early travellers sent by popes and kings to the Mongols, whose military might threatened their very existence. Several of them, including Friar Rubruk and Jean de Plano Carpini, passed through this region and left detailed descriptions of both the Kazakh tribes and their institutions. The book also looks at early British attempts by Anthony Jenkinson and others to divert the Silk Road to the north, through Russia, to take the trade away from merchants in the Levant. The story of the rather unhinged John Castle, who commissioned himself to try and persuade Abul Khayir, khan of the Junior Horde of the Kazakhs, to accede to Russian rule in the 1730s, is also set out.
Several tales relate to travellers who tried to reach the remote city of Khiva, south of the Aral Sea, including Nikolai Muravyev, the American diplomat Eugene Schuyer – surely one of the greatest writers on Central Asia of all time – the brilliant journalist Januarius MacGahan, the dashing cavalry officer Captain Fred Burnaby and the fanatical cyclist Robert L Jefferson. Of particular interest is the story of The Daily Telegraph correspondent David Ker, who in 1874 faked his despatches, sending them from Armenia whilst pretending to be in Khiva itself.
Eugene Schuyler, Januarius MacGahan and cyclist Robert L Jefferson
I have also included chapters on the Atkinsons, who remain the most prominent of the explorers of the Great Steppe. Whilst others passed through, the Atkinsons spent many months living in the region, learning about the culture and, in Thomas Atkinson’s case, producing stunning paintings and drawings that remain an important historical record of life in the steppes in the middle of the nineteeth century.
Others mentioned in the book include the remarkable Henry Lansdell, who wrote three superb books about his efforts to distribute bibles and religious tracts throughout the region, and the many Russian travellers or those working for the Russians who risked their lives in these remote areas. The include Peter Simon Pallas, Semenov-TianShansky, Grigory Potanin, Filipp Efremov, Johann Peter Falck, Johann Sievers, Gregory Karelin and Chokan Walikhanov.
The Reverend Henry Lansdell, Chokan Walikhanov and Peter Simon Pallas
Then there were those geologists and engineeers who were fascinated by the question of whether or not there had ever been a huge sea in Central Asia. British army officer Herbert Wood wrote a book dedicated to this subject and Xavier Hommaire de Hell and his very accomplished wife Adele, spent years looking into this question. Other French explorers began to arrive towards the end of the nineteenth century, including Gabriel Bonvalot and Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon, who was portrayed in the popular press in Paris wearing her specially-made exploring outfit.
Gabriel Bonvalot, Adele Hommaire de Hell and Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon
Scientists and miners also spent time in the Great Steppe, none more so that William Bateson, the Cambridge don who invented the word genetics and rediscovered the work of Gregor Mendel. Bateson spent 18 months in the steppes in the 1880s looking for tiny fossilized snails to try and establish if there had once been a single body of water in Central Asia. By the end of the nineteenth century miners looking for copper and other precious minerals were arriving; even butter merchants made their way to these vast open spaces and organised refrigerated trains to bring the butter to Europe.
The book, to be published by Signal Books, contains all these stories and more.
One of Thomas Atkinson’s best-known lithographic illustrations (above), which appears as the frontispiece of his book Oriental and Western Siberia, is a portrait of a man he calls Sultan Souk. ‘Sultan Souk and his family’ has always intrigued me. He sits cross-legged in his yourt, surrounded by three women – presumably his wives – and another kinsman who is standing. Across his legs he caresses a Russian military sabre and around his neck hangs a large gold medallion bearing a portrait. Around him are the accoutrements of wealth – a fine-looking cooking pot with animal finials, a samovar for making tea and any number of fine carpets and textiles. All those present are wearing fine striped khalats beneath their cloaks. Both men wear silken kamarbands and small tubeteika round caps.
The portrait was one of many that Atkinson composed during the journey that he and Lucy made to the Zhetysu region of what is now eastern Kazakhstan. They stayed at the isolated Russian military outpost of Kopal – where their son Alatau was born – from September 1848-June 1849, before slowly making their way back to Barnaul in southern Siberia, which they reached in September that year. Atkinson’s portraits of the prominent Kazakhs he met now represent the only characterisations of a generation of Kazakh leaders whose likenesses would otherwise be unknown.
So who was Sultan Souk? Atkinson does not mince his words: “A greater robber could not be found in the Steppe and though at this time, being eighty years of age, he could not join in the barantas, many were planned by him. On another occasion, when I was staying at his aoul some Kazakhs came from the middle horde to beg of him to give up their wives and children, who had been carried off by his banditti — they formed part of his share of the plunder — but the old scoundrel would not restore one. He received a pension from the Russian emperor, sold his country, and deceived his imperial majesty.”[i]
Atkinson adds that the sultan sat for a portrait and insisted on wearing “a scarlet coat, a gold medal and a sabre, sent him by Alexander the First, of which he was wonderfully proud.” He also mentions that he was vain: “In one of his barantas, a battle-axe had cut his nose and rendered it crooked; and when I was sketching him, he desired me not to copy his present nose, but put in a proper one, or the emperor would discover his plundering habits.”
Lucy Atkinson also wrote about the old sultan in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes. She mentions numerous visits by him to their small house at Kopal in the spring of 1849, when their child Alatau was just a few months old:
“The fine weather is a relief to everybody; it also brings visitors from the Kazakhs. Amongst the most frequent is old Sultan Souk. Many an hour does he pass in our rooms, and one of the great attractions is a small travelling looking-glass. He goes into my bed-room, where it hangs against the wall, and stands for an hour or more, making all kinds of grimaces, and laughing loudly; it is probably the first time he ever saw his own face. He sadly wished to persuade me to present it to him; he coaxed me out of a pair of scissors, and took them to his armourer, who made others from them – the first that were ever manufactured in the steppe. They were given to the Baron, who promised them to me, but, learning that we thought them a curiosity, he retracted, I presume, for I never received them. Another attraction for the old gentleman was the child; indeed, Kazakhs came from far and near to see him; one Sultan sent a follower of his a distance of 200 versts for some smoked mutton for the child to eat when he was six weeks old.”
By 1849, of course, Tsar Alexander was dead, but the atmosphere on the Kazakh steppe was tense and the Russian Tsars were no less interested in what was happening there. Two years before, Russian troops had made their way south from Siberia to establish a series of military posts – including Kopal – along the border with China, to the east. And the reason they timed their arrival for 1847 was that the previous year one of their most serious adversaries, Kenisary Kasymov, regarded by some as khan of all the Kazakhs, had been killed by Kirghiz tribesmen, bringing to an end a two-decade insurgency against the Russians. Kenisary is today seen as a hero in modern-day Kazakhstan, regarded as the last Kazakh tribesman to hold out against the Russians.
Kenisary was khan of the Middle Horde, whose members lived in the north-eastern regions of the Great Steppe. He was also distantly related to Chokan Walikhanov, regarded by many as the first Western-trained Kazakh intellectual. He continued a struggle started by his brother in the 1820s to oust Russians from the steppe. Whether he was a modernizer or a traditionalist is hotly debated, but he undoubtedly made it very difficult for the Russians to complete their project of subduing the steppes and settling the regions with agricultural peasant farmers from southern Russia.
In this context, Atkinson’s painting of Sultan Souk, has a greater significance. What I have established is that Sultan Souk was actually Sultan Siuk Ablaikhanov, a sultan of the Great Horde, son of the hero Ablai Khan and actually an uncle of Kenisary – who was Ablai Khan’s grandson – although with a very different political outlook. In 1831, as Kenesary’s brother was leading an insurrection against the Russians, Siuk had asked the Governor-General of Western Siberia to create an okrug – a jointly-administered territory – on his lands and to bring in Cossacks to pacify recalcitrant Kazakhs. This opened up Lake Balkash and large parts of the Djungar Alatau to Russian exploration. Other tribal groups from the Great Horde followed Siuk in accepting Russian rule. And it was precisely because he was regarded as pro-Russian that in 1846 Kenesary had come to Siuk and demanded that he join him in his struggle against the Russians. In doing so he was acting as head of the Middle Horde, seeking support from the Great Horde. But the old man had refused, despite threats by Kenesary to destroy all Siuk’s aouls.
By the time the Atkinsons met the sultan, he was clearly in favour with the Russians, Kopal being on his territory. Thomas describes how the commander of the fort at Kopal, Captain Abakumov, organised a great gathering of tribal leaders there on 1 March 1849 to discuss the boundary between the Great and the Middle hordes. The lack of an agreed boundary meant that there were constant barimtas (raids) by one group against the other.
The chiefs arrived on the appointed day, along with their mullahs and elders – in all over 100 men. There was no building large enough to hold the multitude, so they met in the open. The Russian administrators of the steppes arrived from Ayagus and others came from the tribes of the Middle Horde. Captain Abakumov started off proceedings with a display of artillery fire, which terrified many of the guests, exactly as it had been designed to do so. A Russian official informed all those present that the governor-General of Western Siberia, Prince Gortchakov, had sent a despatch recommending that the sultans and chiefs agree a boundary to stop all the feuds and plundering. He added that the negotiations should be conducted in a polite manner.
Sultan Siuk was the first to talk, saying that he had considered the Prince’s suggestions and was willing to adopt them, but that the boundary line was paramount. Thomas Atkinson reported his speech thus: “The boundary to which I shall consent is the Ac-Sou, including the shores of Lake Balkash. If the Middle Horde agree to this, it is well, if not the chiefs will maintain their right and seize every man and animal found on the pastures.”[ii] It was an uncompromising message.
The Russian official tried to get Siuk to modify his claim, suggesting that the border between the two hordes should be the River Bean, with the land to the West belonging to the Great Horde. Siuk studied the map presented by the Russian, but was not impressed: “I cannot understand this paper, nor why you have marked the Bean and call that the boundary. It may remain so on the paper, but I will have the pastures to the Ac-Sou. The Prince has ordered the Lepsou, the Ac-sou and the Bean to be placed where he pleased on this paper. He may have them so, but I order the boundary to be on the Ac-Sou, nor shall it be changed. If the Middle Horde do not consent to this, they shall soon see some of my people on the Lepsou.”
A chief from the Middle Horde replied, saying they would not change their position either and threatening to kill anyone from the Great Horde they found on their territory. With that the meeting broke up for the day. Discussions on the following days and weeks did not lead to a breakthrough and by the end of the month the Russian officials were tired and fed up; the tribal leaders, all much embittered, separated more disunited than ever before.
Atkinson, however, had not finished, either with Siuk or with Kenesary. He devotes almost 60 pages of his second book, Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor, to detailing the adventure-filled story of Siuk’s doomed attempt to marry Ai Khanym, the daughter of Sultan Djanghir Khan, one of the leaders of the Kirghiz tribes in the mountains, with whom Siuk’s father wanted to form a pact, . The story ends in disaster, with Djangir Khan going back on his word and trying to marry off his daughter to the Khan of Badakhshan and Siuk eloping with her, only for her to be killed by a tiger in the mountains.
As for Kenesary, during the Atkinsons’ departure from the Djungar Alatau region in the summer of 1849 they took on an old guide who knew the mountains well. The old man said he had once belonged to what Atkinson called “a band of robbers,” commanded by the great ‘Kinsara’ i.e. Kenisary. In this characterisation, Atkinson is following the opinion of the Russians – and possibly the Kazakhs of the Great Horde. He goes on to say that the Kazakhs “quailed as he led on his wild bands; even the Russians, on the frontiers, dreaded his marauding expeditions. He had been the scourge of all the tribes, whom he often plundered, carrying off their camels, hordes, men, women and children.”
High up in the Djungar Alatau Mountains, amongst the headwaters of the Bascan River, the guide even located one of Kenisary’s old camping grounds: “This was the place on which Kinsara had lived and held his daring associates in subjection. My guide told me that no one of the band ever dared to disobey his orders, as doing so would have been certain death. He had acquired unbounded power over the minds of his followers, by his indomitable courage. If a desperate attack had to be made against fearful odds, he led the van, and was ever first in the fight, shouting his war-cry with uplifted battle-axe and plunging his fiery steed into the thickest of the battle. This gave confidence to his men, and was the secret of his success; but the Kazakhs thought he was in league with Shaitan and that no steel could touch him.”[iii]
The guide told Atkinson that Kenisary had 300 men with him, including escaped Chinese convicts from the Ili Valley. He led him to the very spot where Kenesary had lived: “This was sacred ground to him, and his eye moistened as we turned away from the spot. We visited several other places which he examined with intense interest and then came to the spot where his yourt had stood. There were black ashes of his own hearth; he looked at these for a few minutes and then led the way to the eastward. As he strode along he often looked back, evidently lingering affectionately over a locality that had called up many pleasant recollections.”
We can see from these events that Thomas and Lucy Atkinson were in the Great Steppe at a time of turmoil, as the last resistance to the Russian incursions crumbled. The Atkinsons’ many meetings with Sultan Siuk, a prominent leader of the Great Horde, Thomas’ presence at the great gathering of tribal leaders in March 1849 and the visit to the mountains with a former companion of Kenisary, leader of the Middle Horde and the last great resistance hero of the Kazakhs, shows that they were in the thick of great historical events.
[i] T. W Atkinson, Oriental and Western Siberia, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1858, p568,
[ii] T. W. Atkinson, Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1860, p176.
It has been known for some time that the great American educator Andrew Dickson White, the founder of Cornell University in America, met the Atkinsons during a six-month stay in St Petersburg that began at the end of October 1854. As a young man White obtained what we would probably call an ‘internship’ at the US Embassy there, helping with translations, as none of the permanent staff could speak or read Russian or French. The Atkinsons had been in the town since December the previous year, having spent six years travelling in Siberia and Central Asia.
Recalling those days in St Petersburg, White wrote in his autobiography:
“As to Russian matters, it was my good fortune to become intimately acquainted with Atkinson, the British traveler in Siberia. He had brought back many portfolios of sketches, and his charming wife had treasured up a great fund of anecdotes of people and adventure, so that I seemed for a time to know Siberia as if I had lived there. Then it was that I learned of the beauties and capabilities of its southern provinces. The Atkinsons had also brought back their only child, a son born on the Siberian steppe, a wonderfully bright youngster, whom they destined for the British navy. He bore a name which I fear may at times have proved a burden to him, for his father and mother were so delighted with the place in which he was born that they called him, after it, Alatow-Tam Chiboulak.”[i]
Now I have been able to find further comments by White about the Atkinsons, published in his diaries and letters.[ii] Although there are only a handful of comments that mention Thomas Atkinson, they add several important points to our knowledge of the explorer and artist. In a letter to his mother, written on 7 December 1854, White was clearly referring to Atkinson when he wrote:
“There are some very fine English people here and to meet them freely is no small pleasure. We have quite often at dinner a finely educated English gentleman who has devoted the best part of his life to travelling in Asia especially in Siberia and Tartary. He is now employed on a great work on Siberia under patronage of government. It was his conversation last Sunday evening which caused me to be so unfilial as to put off writing.[iii]
What he meant by “under patronage of government” is unclear. White had already noted Atkinson’s presence in his diary. On 1st November, the day after he arrived in St Petersburg, he went to the US legation to meet the staff, including the ambassador, Governor Seymour, who showed him around. “While asking me a thousand questions, he showed me all over his house, pointed out my room, etc, etc. Everything was capitally arranged for my reception. Afterward rode out with him and called upon Mr Atkinson, author of work on Siberia, and Mr _____, the artist.”
A few weeks later, on Sunday 12th November, White noted he had the company of Mr Evans and Mr Atkinson at his home, with Thomas staying for tea and dinner: “He gave very curious accounts of his travels in Siberia and China. Prisoners, political, in the former country not treated in some cases with great severity—offenders, ‘princes’ of 1827 thereabouts—though in the mines for the first two years, now live in grand style. Chinese better people than we generally think…”.
Atkinson was clearly referring to Prince Sergei Troubetskoi and Prince Sergei Volkonsky, both of whom had been exiled to eastern Siberia for their parts in the Decembrist uprising and both of whom he had met and become friends with in Irkutsk.
On New Year’s eve 1854 White had Atkinson to dinner before heading off to a concert in aid of the wounded of Sebastopol – presumably Thomas did not attend that event.
Six week later, on 16th February 1855 White made his first mention of Lucy and Alatau, the Atkinsons’ son: “In the morning to Mrs Atkinson’s to coffee. Thence with young Tartar Alaton Tamchibolak to the booths of the Isak plain.[iv] The battle between the Turks and Russians, in which, of course, the Moslems came out second best. Thence we strolled through the menageries, whirling railway sledges, etc, etc. The most interesting thin by far being the crowd of mujiks in their glee at the dancing and juggling and stirring up of the animals…”.[v]
White discusses in detail the death and burial of Tsar Nicholas I and the accession of his son, Alexander II, giving detailed descriptions of the ceremonies and events in the Russian capital.
On 26th March 1855 White went in state to foreign minister Karl Nesselrode’s villa, garden and greenhouses a mile or two outside the town, where he was struck by the beauty and variety of plants on display, including rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas. Nearby was the tomb of Nicholas I. Afterwards he went to Cluzels, a bookshop, to pick up some books. He notes the following: “Curious reply of our driver. A, who talks Russian, asked him if he was hurt when the horse kicked very near him. ‘God saved me’, was the reply. So goes faith among the mujiks.” ‘A’, as explained in a footnote, was Thomas Atkinson. There has been much speculation about whether or not Thomas spoke Russian. It is clear from this comment that by 1855, after nine years in the country, he could.
On 22nd April White went to inspect the headquarters of the prestigious Cadet Corps, where he was joined by Thomas Atkinson “and we commenced our tour about the immense institution in which are educated for the army boys of all ages.” They saw the rooms of Peter the Great, the collection of antiquities and medals, the dormitories and the classrooms. “Afterward to lunch at Mr Atkinson’s and received present of malachite Easter eggs…”. Presumably Thomas had picked these up during his travels in the Urals, where the malachite was mined. On Sunday 6th May White walked into town and went afterwards to the Atkinson’s home on Vasily Ostrov.
After a quick journey to Moscow, White was ready to leave Russia, which he did by the end of the month. Clearly he had enjoyed his encounter with the Atkinson, particularly with Alatau. According to an article in The Hawaiian Star, White had tried in later life to get in touch with Alatau: “For about fifty years Dr White had tried to find [Alatau] but without result…The rumour was that the young fellow had gone into the navy in after years and so Dr White often but vainly enquired after him at British naval depots…”.[vi] In fact the two men did finally get in touch with each other, probably sometime after 1900.[vii]
i] Andrew Dickson White, Autobiography, Vol 1, Dodo Press, p374.
[ii] Robert Morris Ogden (ed.), The Diaries of Andrew D White, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, 1958.
[vii] As explained in a footnote in White’s autobiography: “Since writing the above, I have had the pleasure of receiving a letter from this gentleman, who has for some time held the responsible and interesting position of superintendent of public instruction in the Hawaiian Islands, his son, a graduate of the University of Michigan, having been Secretary of the Territory.” White, op. cit. The reference to Alatau’ son, is to ALC Atkinson, known as Jack, his eldest son.
I am grateful to my friends in Kazakhstan for pointing out some of the extraordinary videos that show how traditional horsemen deal with unbroken (ie untrained) horses. You may think that American rodeo riders are tough, but they ain’t got nuthin’ on these guys. Enjoy!
I am delighted to tell you that the final report on last year’s horseback expedition to the Djungar Alatau Mountains in the Zhetysu region of Eastern Kazakhstan is now available. You can find a copy here – Zhetysu 2019 Report
The report explains the background to last year’s expedition and shows the route we took. This was the second of three journeys following the routes taken by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in the spring and summer of 1849. The journey brought home to us the difficulties the couple must have faced, not least because they were carrying with them their nine-month-old baby son, Alatau. We were struck by the beauty of these mountains and the difficulty of the terrain. We were also impressed by the wildlife we came across, including ibex, bears, eagles and antelope.
John Massey Stewart will be giving a lunchtime talk on the Atkinsons for the Royal Society for Asian Affairs at the Royal Observatory in Burlington House, London on 29 January. Entitled ‘The Atkinsons adventures in Siberia and Kazakhstan’, it is based on his recent book. Little of this will be new to keen followers of this blog or readers of my book on the Atkinsons, but anything that draws more attention to the this intrepid couple is to be applauded. Tickets can be obtained here.
Travelling by horse in the remote parts of Kazakhstan’s Djungar Alatau Mountains is never easy. Steep slopes, the lack of pathways and, most particularly, the many river crossings make these journeys hazardous, even in the most favourable conditions. No more so than in September last year as our small group of eight riders were coming towards the end of a long and arduous descent of the valley of the Big Bascan River.
The Big Bascan starts high in the mountains in the glaciers of some of the tallest peaks in the magnificent Djungar Alatau range, particularly Peak Tianshansky and the Shumsky Glacier. Normally by the beginning of September it is beginning to decrease in ferocity as lower temperatures in the mountains lead to a decrease in meltwater. But in September we faced a combination of two factors: first, the weather was warmer than usual and second, we had experienced a huge storm the night before our descent, meaning that the river was higher than usual.
The Big Bascan River has cut its way through a series of narrow canyons in the mountainside meaning that to follow it down we were forced to cross the river six or eight times, making best use of the margins of the river. As you will see in the footage below, some of these crossings were distinctly dangerous. In the clip that follows you will see me follow our guide Ruslan into the river. He makes it across, but as I follow close behind, my horse is swept off its feet and I am tipped head first into the river.
In such crossings it is normal to take your feet out of the stirrups in case you go into the river, thus allowing you to escape from the horse. This is what I did during this crossing, but unfortunately my foot got caught in the reins as the horse stumbled on the rocky bottom of the river. With a large daybag on my back I found myself being dragged under the water and unable to escape. After a terrifying few second I finally got free and began to float off down the river. To my intense relief Ruslan jumped in and grabbed me by the neck as I was floating by him. After a few moments, with his help, I was able to drag myself out and remount. No point in finding dry clothes as it was pouring with rain.
Twenty or so minutes later my horse was swept off its feet again and I had a second ducking. It was a salutory experience and brings home exactly how tough it must have been for the Atkinsons travelling in these mountains with a young baby. Total respect!!!
In October last year I wrote about the early American editions of Thomas Atkinson’s books on his travels in Central Asia and Siberia. I mentioned that both Harper and Brothers and also J W Bradley of Philadelphia had published several editions of Atkinson’s two books. I also mentioned the edition of Oriental and Western Siberia published by another Philadelphia company called John E Potter & Co.
Now I have come across yet another version of Oriental and Western Siberia published by Potter & Co. This appears to be a de luxe version of the book, with a fancier spine and cover.
The date is not mentioned inside the book, but it is thought to have been published in 1870. Could there be any more editions lurking out there?
I am grateful to Atkinson descendant Pippa Smith for passing on to me a memoir from her grandmother, Marjorie Whitehead (née Gibbons), who was grand-daughter in turn of Alatau Atkinson. Marjorie’s three-page note sets out all she knew about the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, to the home of her uncle Robert Witlam Atkinson in Pearl Harbor in April 1920.
Marjorie recalls that she and her mother were visiting Hawaii from their home in England when the Prince arrived on the islands on his way to Australia. She was at the ball at the Armory mentioned in the previous article, from where she was whisked away to Robert Atkinson’s house. “But what an unexpected scene met our eyes! Beside the big kamani tree near the house a Hawaiian feast had been laid on the ground and near the gate an entrancing smell was coming from the ‘imu‘ (underground oven) where the pig was being roasted whole, by means of hot stones inside. The tables only a few inches off the floor were decorated and covered with leaves, there were bowls of beautiful fruit and places laid for about thirty guests”.
Robert Atkinson’s house in Pearl Harbor, built entirely from local materials.
A small grass hut had been built in the garden where a Hawaiian band, singers and hula dancers were waiting for the Prince to arrive. When he did so he was sat at the head of the table with the two princesses from the Hawaiian Royal Family. The entertainment began and soon after Marjorie was presented to Prince Edward: “I had been deputed to show the Prince the swimming pool and offer him a dip, but this he refused, so I took him over to the two princesses and went to see what fate had in store for me, as the pig had been taken out of the oven and the meal about to begin.”
All too soon the evening was over, with the guests singing Aloha Oe to the Prince as he departed. “What an evening it had been, never to be forgotten and a happy memory for all time!” wrote Marjorie, who passed away in November 1986, aged 90.
Atkinson descendant Paul Dahlquist has sent me a remarkable press cutting about a visit of Edward, Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII – to Hawaii in April 1920. The cutting reports on a visit by the Prince to the Pearl Harbor home of Robert Witlam Atkinson, grandson of Thomas and Lucy, who was a property developer and civil engineer. Robert built a beautiful house close to the golf course at Pearl Harbor, using local materials and stone. It was sold after his death, but is still standing.
The cutting reports that the Prince was anxious to experience an entertainment in true Hawaiian style and so the Atkinsons threw open their home, to arrange a luau for the Royal visitor. They were assisted by Princesses Kalanianaole and Kawanakoa, who procured all the traditional decorations, such tabu sticks, kahilis, etc.
The Prince arrived at the house following a ball at the Armory and as he stepped out of his car old Hawaiian chants were sung and the prince entered the house under a double arch of kahilis held by the princess’ retainers. Low tables were set under a kamani tree and the prince was introduced to the Atkinsons and Robert’s brother ‘Jack’ Atkinson. Fifty further guests from prominent Hawaiian families made up the party. A massive imu – underground oven – was opened under the light of kukui nut torches and against a background of ancient Hawaiian chants.
According to the press clipping: “The sacred ground was drawn around the prince as he sat at the luau with old golden tabu posts, and as he ate he watched in a setting of banana and cocoa palms, the Hawaiian dancers as they stepped to the steady beat, beat of the gourd shaker. The seed dance, the bamboo dance, the old royal hulas, all were given for the benefit of this, their royal visitor.”
The prince clearly enjoyed his visit to Hawaii. In April 2012 a signed photo of him emerged surfing on Waikiki Beach in Oahu. British Pathé also has a short film of him surfing in a large canoe at the same place, which you can find here.
The royal surf picture was taken by a descendant of Duke Kahanamoku, who gave Edward – later to become King Edward VIII before abdicating to marry American Wallis Simpson – a few surf lessons.
Edward visited the Hawaiian islands along with Earl Mountbatten, future Admiral of the Fleet, in HMS Renown and the two men enjoyed a three-day surf trip. The photo was purchased by the Musem of British Surfing at Braunton in in Devon as it is considered the earliest known photo of a Briton standing on a wave.
In July 1920 the prince ordered the royal yacht to go back to Hawaii so he could surf for three days. Reports say Edward loved surfing. He spent two hours surfing every morning and three hours every afternoon during their July stay.