I’tisam al-Din’s Shigarfnamah, 1: how the journey began

Initials indicate translator. GH stands for Gita Hashemi. KH stands for Kaiser Haq. Where both initials appear indicates that the passage is based on KH’s version but substantively modified by GH. My translation is based on the Farsi version, publication forthcoming: Mirza I’tisam al-Din. Shigarfnamah Vilayet. Toronto: Foundation for Iranian Studies, 2014.

To you experienced travelers and world explorers must be admitted that this feeblest of men was taken to the English Vilayet by fate and demands of livelihood. The curious facts and features I saw and heard on sea and land make wondrous tales and strange allegories. gh

In this year of Hegira 1199, 1784, as I suffer great anxiety and distress at the turn of my fate and the chaos in the land, my talent for writing and the beneficial effects of storytelling known to the wise, it is at friends’ insistence that this biggest of all sinners, I’tisamuddin, son of late Shaikh Tajuddin, resident of Panchnour village in the Nadia district of Bengal, put pen to paper and inscribe the wondrous journey’s accounts. gh

Because the goal is informing and benefiting the reader, I have restrained from using complex phrasing and colourful structures that prove mastery of writing and excess of talent, for indeed I lack literary abilities that would please the grand master and elevated munshies. So I have condensed my tales and named this collection Wondrous Tales of Vilayet, to leave as a mark on the page of history to be remembered by. gh

During the reign of Nawab Mir Zafar Ali Khan I had the good fortune to learn to read and write Persian from Mirza Mohammed Qasim, Head Munshi to the Nawab on whose recommendation I became a servant of Major Mark, and was present during the war with Asadzaman Khan, the ruler of Birbhum. Upon the victory I accompanied the Major to Azimabad, where I had the honour of an audience with Badshah Shah Alam. gh, kh

Shortly after Major Munro trounced the combined forces of Mir Qasim and Shuja-ud-dola at the battle of Baksar, I took service under the British Commander-in-Chief, Colonel Carnac, and had the honour of an audience with the Emperor Shah Alam at Jahajgarh in 1765. kh p17

When fresh troubles ensued, Colonel Carnac who had the order to aid the Emperor, marched from Faizabad and defeated the challengers at Shora-Shapur. The Emperor offered this smallest of all men the title of Mirza and a position as munshi in the court which I most humbly accepted. It was at this time that I was sent to Vilayet, in the year of 1765. gh and kh 18

After my journey I returned to the Company’s service and was involved in diplomatic maneuvers connected with the Maratha wars. In sum the best part of my youth was spent in the Company’s service, and now what I face in my old age is deserving of my destiny and times. gh and kh

Lord Clive, who had lately returned to Bengal as the Company’s Governor, negotiated the peace a treaty between the Emperor and Shuja-ud-dola, appointed Najim-ud-doula as the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, and obtained for the East India Company the revenue rights of these regions in perpetuity. When Clive was taking his leave, the Emperor entreated him not to abandon him with so many challengers and decision was made to … Gh, kh18-19


Youthful enthusiasm in conjunction with the pull of fate filled me with the desire to see Vilayet, and I embarked with Captain Swinton on the voyage.


I was struck dumb by this information and clearly realized that a deep game was affot, in which the journey was a mere pretext. Arduous and hazardous as it was, no benefit would come of it. If I had any inkling of this, I would not have undertaken the journey but alas it was out of my hands now as the arrow had been shot from the bow. Gh kh 20

I helplessly surrendered to fate, and the will of Allah and endured six months’ hardship on the sea before we reached England. There I saw many wonders and rare spectacles but my joy was diminished and my mood darkened. The Captain had absolutely bid me to secrecy about the letter and the matter, so I could neither talk nor bear the strange state of distress I was in. I thus spent my days and nights reading books of history, and had no desire to master the English script nor to tour the Vilayet. To this day people of Bengal reproach me that you went to England but did not learn English well. How could I tell them the secrets of the affairs? So I purse my lips and display ignorance. Gh kh 20-21

In short, I waited for a year and six month for the Emperor’s letter. When Lord Clive arrived in England, he offered the Emperor of India’s presents to the English King in his own name and on Company’s behalf and kept the letter and the truth of the matter secret. At the time there was disagreement between the English court and the Company administration about ruling of Bengal, the former asserting that Bengal had been won through the efforts of the King’s soldiers and thus its revenues belonged to the King and the court. The Company claimed that during the war it had sustained great damage in merchandise, currency and assets and had spent grand sums in support of the army and its employees had made great sacrifices to secure Bengal. It was prepared to pay the King in taxes and support the army that was stationed in Bengal, and anything beyond this would be impossible. It was in this context that Lord Clive did not see it advantageous to the Company to reveal the letter by the Indian Emperor. Farsi pp. 19-20 translated gh

After my return to Bengal I learned that the Company had won the argument. The King had been advised that because Bengal was given to the Company by the Indian Emperor in a charitable act and in return takes a part of the revenues, if the King of England were to become the ruler of Bengal he would in effect become a subject of the Emperor of India. It was decided that whenever the entire territories of India come under the occupation of the English army then it would be appropriate for the English King to become rulers of India. Meanwhile the Company were to pay levies to the King. gh

Captain Swinton tried very hard to keep me in England for three or four more years but I did not submit. In those days there were nobody with knowledge of Farsi in England, and after the take-over of Bengal the English were very enthusiastic in learning Farsi. Therefore, Captain Swinton, Dr Belton and Mr Steele and others had agreed to keep me in the country for some more years and employ this smallest of all servants to teach Farsi to their young and they were willing to pay well. But I was struck by pain of separation from my home and family so deeply that their pay was nothing to me as the wise have said: gh

Love of home is superior to all the lands of Suleiman gh

In short, I returned to Bengal in the year Hegira 1183 (1768). My entire journey having taken two years and nine months. Fari pp. 20-21 gh

In the year 1180 (1765), I boarded the ship with this poem gh

In this endless tempest, on this sultry sea
I trust my fate to the creator, the god of all paths and docks gh

In four days we reached the saltwater sea, characterized by its black water and vast shores. The seashore’s water is mixed with sweet water, it is shallow and the sand is white. Upon passing that we reached the Oman Sea whose water is deep dark blue. At night the foaming waves shine like lights, like masses of fireflies. The sages say that the earth is circled by an emerald mountain range. The hyaline sky takes its indigo colour from the emerald mountain, and the sea looks indigo because it reflects the sky for indeed the water is clear and transparent when it’s held in the palm of the hand. Farsi pp 23-24, gh

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