[updated 08/05/2014 with additional sources]
Although Sampsonia (also spelled Sanpsonia), a Circassian woman who married Robert Sherley and went to Europe with him is not the first Persian in Europe, she is the first woman whose name is mentioned in early modern records of travels. Robert Sherley and his older brother Anthony are important figures in terms of the relations between Persia and Europe in general and England in particular. They were merchant adventurers who went to Persia with the ambition of opening an overland trade route with the Persian Empire in late 16th to early 17th century. In that, they came into competition not only with the Spanish and the Portuguese, but with the “Honourable East India Company” that already had established shipping routes to India and was expanding to Persia. Anthony and Robert went to Persia not as colonizers and superiors but as “supplicants,” and were at the mercy of the Safavid Shah Abbas on the one hand and the English King James on the other. There is much more to say about them, and there are lots of records of them. But we know very little about Robert’s Circassian wife, Sanpsonia who changed her name to Teresia (also spelled Teresa) when she converted to Catholicism and married Robert.
I find her an interesting figure for including in this project. Aside from the fact that she was an early Persianate traveler to Europe, her presence was inspirational for early Orientalist literature that came to define English identity in a dynamic relation with the Eastern other. Even though she did not write a memoir or travelogue (neither of which was fashionable genre at the time, nor indeed was women’s writing), I think the silences around her and what little can be reconstructed open a great space for feminist decolonizing imaginings.
Initially I intended to combine her with Sayyida Salme and make a composite figure, but I decided against that for the reasons above and because 1) Sayyida Salme has a strong voice that should be honoured as is; 2) Sanpsonia got to Europe before other figures I’m including in this project so, if I decide to go chronologically, I can start with a woman’s voice; and 3) she was in Europe before colonial relations with the East were fully articulated and when, in the balance of power, Persia is still a big weight.
Andrea, Bernadette. “Lady Sherley: The First Persian in England?” The Muslim World. April 2005, Volume 95, Issue 2, Pp.279-295.
Andrea, Bernadette. “The Tartar Girl, the Persian Princess and Early Modern English Women’s Authorship from Elizabeth I to Mary Wroth.” In Gillier, Anke, A. Montoya (eds) Women Writing Back / Writing Women Back: Transnational Perspectives from the Late Middle Ages to the Dawn of the Modern Era. Leiden, Boston: Brill 2010.
Andrea, Bernadette. Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Arthur, Kate. “‘you will say they are Persian but let them be changed’: Robert and Teresa Sherley’s Embassy to the court of James.” In MacLean, G. ed. Britain and Muslim World: Historical Perspectives. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2001.
Eskandari-Qajar, Manoutchehr. “Persian Ambassadors, their Circassians, and the Politics of Elizabethan and Regency England.” Iranian Studies, volume 44, number 2, March 2011.
Ghani, Cyrus. Shakespeare, Persia, and the East. New York: Mage Publishers, 2007.
Shirley, Evelyn Philip. The Sherley brothers, an historical memoir of the lives of Sir Thomas Sherley, Sir Anthony Sherley, and Sir Robert Sherley, knights (1848). Retrieved from Archive.Org 05/04/2014
Tavakoli-Targhi, Mohamad. Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism and Historiography. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Wright, Denis. The Persians Amongst the English: Episodes in Anglo-Persian History. London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1985.