Sampsonia, 1: tracing a Persianate woman’s agency

So far, this has been the most challenging part of this project. It’s detective work, following leads and threads, often in endnotes and footnotes. There are only two articles, both written by Bernadette Andrea, that somewhat feature Sampsonia (Sanpsonia) aka Teresa (Teresia) although the focus is mostly on the way she enters early Modern English discourse about Persia. Historical facts about her are mentioned sparsely and in passing. So, in constructing this character’s voice, I will have to pull in what little is known about her with what is written about her and her husband’s embassy. First, though, I’m just culling (sampling) the material, starting with Andrea whose argument the early modern English imaginary about Persia and their proto-imperial self-fashioning is gendered because of Sampsonia’s presence even before she arrived in England. Most accounts and critical analysis of the discourse around Robert Sherley’s embassy focus on him. Andrea foregrounds Sampsonia who becomes the inspiration for a literary character in Mary Wroth’s novel Urania (first novel written by an English woman) and in plays about Sherley brothers’ adventures. She also suggests that Elizabeth I’s fashioned (literally) herself in relation to this Persian Other by using Persian inspired garbs to indicate her imperial mastery.

From 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.

How to access women’s agency in the early modern period beyond the positivistic search for works literally written by women. [p 257]

The inaugural ventures into Muslim lands during their period focused on the route through Central Asia to Persia under the Safavid dynasty. [p 257]

[Central Asian and Persian women in Elizabeth’s court] range from a slave, to servants of various ranks, to an ambassador’s wife. In the former case, that of the ‘Tartar girl’ whom the first Engish man to travel through Central Asia to the Safavid course, Anthony Jenkinson (1529-1610/1611), purchased with the intent of presenting to Elizabeth, the evidence consists primarily or marginalia. However, as an intended accoutrement for Elizabeth’s course, this multiply marginalized subject contributed to the queen’s proto-imperialist self-fashionin. In the latter case that of Lady Teresa Sampsonia Sherley, the wife of the first ambassador from the Safavid court to England, the ‘famous English-Persian’ Robert Sherley, an ample, if often tendentious, discourse developed around her. Yet the only evidence we have of her authorship in the positivistic sense is a petition she addressed to Elizabeth’s successor, King James in defense of her husband. [p 258]

English travelers as subalterns, not colonial masters, in eastern regions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [p 259]

Because the balance of pwer favored Islamic empires such as the Ottomans and their rivals, the Safavids, Elizabeth did not – and indeed could not – take an orientalist stance in her correspondence. Instead, she had to finesse Muslim sovereigns’ perceptions of her as a supplicant and of her kingdom as a potential tributary. [p 260]

[Anthony Jenkinson traveled to Russia with a letter from Elizabeth and was successful in establishing relations between the two sovereigns as well as trade routes.
He next sought the riches of Persia, also bearing letters from Elizabeth… The letter [dated 1561] is notable for its evocation of ‘the Almightie God’ as point of commonality with ‘the great Sophie’ or the Persian shah, Tahmap… However, after learning that ‘a Christian was he that beleeveth in Jesus Christus, affirming him to be the Sonne of God, and the greatest Prophet’, … Jenkinson was summarily thrown out of the shah’s court. As an ‘unbeleever’, he was deemed so ‘uncleane’ that his retreating path had to be covered with sand. [Pp. 261-2]

Traces of subaltern agency surface in the records of the dominant culture, which include accounts of purchases, distributions of goods and wills, and other records of possession; diplomatic, legal, and related documents of social conflict; and literary works, which grappled with the resistance of the subaltern through catharsis, wish –fulfillment, and other imaginary resolutions. [P 263]

[African and Asian slaves brought to England were given names such as] Caesar, Pompey, Hannibal, and other imperial names to diminish them by depriving them of their history and to elevate those English men and women who acquired them. [p 265]

We should consider Queen Elizabeth’s sartorial semiotics, which involved wearing garments of Persian and Ottoman provenance as integral to her self-fashioning as a proto-imperialist sovereign. [p 268]

The exchange of women between England and the Islamic wold during the early modern period was not limited to enslaved ‘wenches’, but included women fro elite circles, who brought with them women of lesser rank, thought not necessarily slaves, in the entourage. The most salient instance involves the entourage of Lady Teresa Sampsonia Sherley, who accompanied her husband in his capacity as Persian ‘Embassador’ from the court of Shah Abbas I to the English courts of James I and Charles I during the early seventeenth century. As a Circassian, her origins were Central Asian, with her aunt a member of the Persian shah’s household. The Circassians situated around the Black Sea, were traditionally Muslim, although Teresa may have come from an Eastern Orthodox background. In any case, upon marrying Robert Sherley, who had resided in Persia for almost a decade she aligned herself with the Roman Catholicism of the Carmelite missionaries in the region, as did he. After her travels across Persia and Western Europe, she died in Rome as a Catholic, with the Carmelite chronicles recording her resistance after Robert’s death to Persia men who sought to (re)convert her to Islam. [p 269]

Lady Sherley was represented, though more often misrepresented in a spate of English pamphlets and stage plays during the early seventeenth century… She was thus positioned, discursively and physically, at the centre of early seventeenth-century England’s uneasy engagement with the Safavid empire of the Persians, which was opposed to England’s erstwhile allies in the Islamic world, the Ottomans. Yet, she contributed to this discourse in at least one instance as an author by filing a petition with the English Privy Council in defense of her husband. Intriguingly, she mediates a dispute over precedence between men – her husband and Naqd Ali Beg both claiming to be the Persian ambassador during the Sherley’s second trip – by arguing that the latter ‘hath noe woman amongst his Traine’, and therefore should be less favored than her husband. She may also have authored her husband’s epitaph, having carried his remains from Persia to Rome, thereby inspiring her own, whch praises her as an Amazon. [p 270]

The trip from Londonto Persia on an East India Company ship included ‘Sir Robert Sherley, the Ambassadour. Teresha, his Ladie, a Circasian. Sir Thomas Powell. Tomasin his Ladie. Leylye, Persian Woman’ along with other English and Persian men. [p 270]

[Lady Sherley is described] by English obxervers as having ‘more of Ebony, then Ivory, in her Complexion, yet amiable enough, and very valiant, a quality considerable in that Sex, in those countries’. [p 272]

From Andrea, Bernadette. “Lady Sherley: The First Persian in England?” The Muslim World. April 2005, Volume 95, Issue 2, Pp.279-295.

To claim Lady Sherley was the “first” Persian in England hence necessitates an analysis of the body of writings associated with the Sherley brothers that attends to the effaced place of gender therein. Moreover, it requires acknowledging those Persian women who came to England with Lady Sherley as servants (or slaves), as well as those Persian women of the serving classes who perhaps preceded the more privileged Lady Sherley. [p 280]

Long after her departure from England’s shores, therefore, Lady Sherley resonated in its culture as a sign of the conflicting discourses of empire that marked the transition from England as a potential colony of the great powers of Europe, including the Ottoman Empire, to England as a potential world power with colonial ambitions stretching from the East to the West Indies. [p 280]

Robert Sherley seems “both a beneficiary and victim of the Sherlian discourse which defined Persia as a land of facade and artifice”. As such, he stands for those “liminal figures, outcasts on the threshold of two cultures, and examples of travelers ‘gone native’ ”[p 281]

Robert, who most frequently appears in earlier Sherlian discourse as “Sir Anthony’s brother,” was left behind in Persia as a hostage ensuring his elder brother’s return (or, in Anthony’s self-exonerating language, “so deare a pawne”). Despite his desperate letters, two of which were intercepted by English agents in Turkey, Robert remained unclaimed in Persia for over eight years (as opposed to the bare half-year Anthony spent there). During this time, Robert adopted Persian customs, served in the Persian army, and married a Persian wife, leading Thomas Middleton to celebrate him as “this famous English Persian” [p 282]

By 1608, as his situation in Persia deteriorated due to his brother’s extended absence, Robert Sherley similarly sued to be named Persian ambassador to Western Christian Europe. His itinerary took him to Cracow, Prague, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid (where he records a potentially murderous encounter with his degenerate brother, Anthony), and finally to England. [p 282]

While this scene bears no direct connection to the action of the rest of the Three English Brothers, its presentation of female desire as disturbingly ambiguous inevitably affects the only other scenes with female characters: those featuring the Sophy’s niece. If Robert Sherley is a hero, that is, Teresa Sherley is potentially a whore. Hence, by the time Lady Sherley arrived in London during the summer of 1611, she had already been rendered through a pair of dubious, albeit highly popular, representations. [p 285]

“Sir Robert Sherley and his Lady, travelling from the Court of the Mogol, (where they had been every graciously received, and enriched with Presents of great value) to the King of Persia’s Court; so gallantly furnished with all necessaries for their travailes, that it was a great comfort unto me, to see them in such a flourishing estate.” He continues, “Both hee and his Lady used me with singular respect, especially his Lady, who bestowed fortie shillings upon mee in Persian money, and they seemed to exult for joy to see mee, having promised mee to bring mee in good grace with the Persian King, and that they will induce him to bestow some Princely benefit upon mee.” [p 286]

In addition, the Carmelite chronicles present conflicting evidence about her social status, with one report presenting her as a “bought slave” of Robert Sherley and another indicating she was “brought to the Persian Court by her paternal aunt, who had become a favourite wife of Shah ’Abbas” [p 286]

the Carmelite chronicles present evidence that she was an accomplished and capable woman, as when “a band [of Robert Sherley’s Persian detractors] fell on the caravan, and, after binding the arms of the servants, tied [Robert] Sherley to a tree and tried to make him drink poison: at that moment a sword fell from the hands of one miscreant and Sherley’s wife, like a true Amazon, bounded on it and proceeded to thrust and cut and kill some of the band, putting to flight the rest.” Lady Sherley fittingly chose to be remembered as an Amazon in her funeral inscription: “Theresia Sampsonia Amazonitis, Sampsuffi Circassiae Principis filia.” [pp 286-287]

As for her person, this lady epitomizes the increasingly contradictory standard of black beauty that remained a possibility in early modern England, even as the formula of “black, but beautiful” militated against its unfettered realization.54 Her brown hair shines “yett butt as gold upon black”; “[h]er apparell of the Asian fashion” provokes awe; yet it is the surprise of her snow-white skin that instigates an encomium whose excess must be quoted in full:

O what? The milky way was durt to that! The snowe on the Mountaine topes, the black sea to itt! What was itt, then? The perfect figure of the most immaculate soule, shining in her skinn. Skinn? O such a skinn as would make a thousand Jasons madd on travaile butt to see, though nott to touch soe pretious a fleece! Such, O such was and is her skinn, the perfectest of mortall creatures. [p 290]

Davies, in Elizabethans Errant, provides the following translation: “Theresia Sampsonia, native of the region of the Amazons, daughter of Samphuffus, Prince of Circassia. For her most beloved husband, the resting place of herself and the bones of her husband who died in Persia and whose bones were brought to this city by herself in her twenty-ninth year”. This translation stresses her ancillary roles as daughter and wife over her own description of her character as an “Amazonian” historical agent. [p 294]

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