Sampsonia, 2: silk trade, image and fashion

Excerpt below are from:
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. Pp 37-51

Robert remained [in Iran] for ten years, waiting in vain for the return of his brother [Anthony] in whose stead he was held virtual hostage. Anthony’s efforts at diplomacy went unrewarded, however… By 1608 Robert had eventually persuaded Shah ‘Abbas to send him to Europe to represent Persian interests. His mission to James I in 1611 focused on the offer of a monopoly on the trade routes out of Persia, a deal which would allow the passage of Persian raw silk, a highly valuable luxury commodity, directly into English hands. [Pp 37-38]

Robert had to work hard to establish himself as a bona fide ambassador of Persia… He needed to make a dramatic and distinctive statement about his status as an agent of the Safavid Empire; a symbol of it power and beauty, and a reliable representative of (competing) European values and interests. He attempted to encode this matrix of dynamic relationships through the costume in which he appeared, and by presenting his wife as a genuine and idealized Christianised Persian article. [P 38]

Reactions to his mission varied but he was unfailingly admired for his magnificent appearance. He well understood how dress could enhance his status at the courts of seventeenth century Europe, notable for their fashionable extravagance. [P 38]

Reports of him dressed in “cloth of gold, his gown and undercoat, with a rich turban on his head”… his attachment to Persian style of dress became a focus of fascination … “as if his clothes were his limbs, he accounted himself never ready till he had something of the Persian habit about him.” [P 38]

“I do not like the fashion of your garments,” Lear challenges Kent, “You will say they are Persian but let them be changed.” [P 38]

Clothing signaled a dynamic relationship between the wearer and the viewer which was both potent and fragile. Fashion denotes the immediately desirable and the speedily replaceable. [P 38]

The Sherleys were already well known before they arrived in England in August 1611. The Sherley phenomenon attracted interest from some of the leading journalists and printers of the moment… The “Sherleian Adventures” provided material for a publishing market already alive to the genre of travel writing epitomized in the success of Hakluyt. Anthony and Robert attempted to capitalize politically and diplomatically on the publicity that print had generated for them… Constantly changing circumstances were in fact, reinterpreted and rebranded into a complex world of images and genres. Central to this was… the 1607 play The Travels of the Three English Brothers. [P 39]

Despite the “brothers” of the title, the conceit of the play, English success in Persia, rests on the agency of the unnamed “Sophy’s niece,” a characterization of Teresia Sherley. The Sherley brothers’ legitimacy in the Persian hierarchy is predicated on the romance between Robert and the “Sophy’s Niece” which unfolds in the play and leads to their marriage. Despite her protestation to her maid that “he is a Christian, and his state too mean/to keep even wing with us” the niece becomes the means by which the English derive power from the sophy, an authority that is dramatically displayed in the final scene with the Christian baptism of Robert’s child, with the Sophy as godfather… Since his son is “descended from the emperor’s niece, / A pagan”, the character Roberts is able to boast that “sherley in Persia did the first Christian make”. [P 39]

In the Berkeley Castle portraits of Teresia and Robert Sherley, Teresia is portrayed as a woman of no discernible Middle –Eastern race, wearing a sumptuous Persian silk gown in a European style… She holds in her right hand a gun – a symbol of Robert’s supposed prowess on the field of battle against the Ottoman Turks and the superiority of European weaponry… In her left hand she hold a watch, indicating the urgency of the proposition, often referred to in Robert’s correcpondence. Around her neck and on her ears are pearls, another Persian export. Pearls could also signify Teresia’s pregnant state… Teresia is offered as a desirable and exotic object whom – her husband’s mission suggests – it is possible to acquire and change into European and Christian style. The fact that she wasn’t ethnically Persian or even Shi’a was lost on the English who referred to her as Robert’s “Persian wife.” But the great feature of this portrait is the sumptuous and intricately patterned Persian silk, though notably made into a European style garment. She wears a diaphanous veil typical of fashionable Isfahani women, but is hard to discern… The jewel on her chest depicts a cross, evoking the “Sophy’s iece” who gave birth to the “first Christian” in Persia. [P 44]

Reported: “Don Robert Sherley arrived in Rome on Monday … dressed in Persian costume, in a cloak of black velvet trimmed with gold; he wore a turban with a cross on the top of it to show he is a Catholic.” [P 44]

Robert complained: “The merchants make many needless oppositions, so that it seems they have no will to the Persian business… This great business can bear no delays, for of necessity they that first come shall be best welcome.” [P 45]

R wrote to Shah Abbas: “His Majesty should not conclude with any prince in this matter of trade, until good advice from him.” [P 45]

March 28, 1612, reported: Three carracks had departed Madrid with presents from the King of Spain to the Shah. Later, on 12 July: Shah has sent “a quantity of silks to the value of 400,000 or 500,000 crowns” to Portugal “and with them an ambassador; a great testimony, if true, how much the Persian desires to settle a trade in these parts of the world.” [Pp 45-46]

From the perspective of Isfahan an undifferentiated Christian alliance with the Shah was possible, but in Europe, anything other than bilateral trade agreements were treated with suspicion. It began to be suspected that the Sherleys’ allegiances could be changed as easily as their clothes. [P 46]

The Sherley’s first visit came to an abrupt end with reports of an agreement reached between the Ottoman Sultan and Shah Abbas over trade routes. [P 46]

There was much trouble between the East India Company merchants and the Sherleys… It would seem that, as well as doubting Robert’s credentials, the East India Company were taking a conservative approach to trading ventures, but this was not the case. The company did send English factors to Persia… Furthermore, the East India Company engaged in the silk trade, on 12 December 1618 sending “the first shipment of silk, 71 bales” aboard The Expedition. [P 46]

The Sherleys, ever attentive to their public image, had Van Dyck paint their portraits in Venice in 1622. The focus in these works is the sumptuous richness of the fabric, and although these portraits are describes as Sir Robert and Teresia Sherley in Persian costume… Teresia is again in European style dress… An Englishman in Persian dress and a Circassian woman in European dress, both representing Persia… She is wearing a similar outfit to the Berkeley portrait, and the silk may not be Persian, but Ottoman. The style and material … identifies Robert as a member of the fashionable elite of Safavid Iran:

The fabric decorated with a scene of young men and women reclining among peony foliage, may be identified with the figured silk brocades and velvets which were fashionable in seventeenth century Isfahan… Robert Sherley’s clothes were matched by those of the courtiers and notable citizens of Isfahan, who devoted a lot of time and money to their wardrobes. [P 47]

17 January 24: The Sherleys suddenly appeared in England and … “Robert’s request for an audience in quality of an ambassador is granted at Newmarket, because he lies not far off at his sister’s, lady Crofts.” [Pp 47-48]

Staying at Little Saxham with Lady and Sir John Crofts on their second visit would have brought Robert and Teresia into intimate contact with the King. James frequently visited nearby Newmarket racecourse, and there were rumours about his relationship with Cecelia Crofts, their daughter. But Robert returned to a court that had changed… By 30 January 1624 Secretary Conway had written to the East India Company seeking advice on an offer from the “King of Persia” for free trade, brought by Sir Robert… The Company deliberately sideline Robert and sought to remove him from their dealings in Persia. [P 48]

Over the next few months an extremely frustrating situation emerged. Robert presented to the king a new and highly attractive set of terms for the English … to carry all the Persian trade and levy a tax on all shipping, and an opening to sell English cloths, allowing the merchants to trade without capital… East India Company replied that “the vent of cloths in Persia is better known to the Company than it can be to Sir Robert.” [P 49]

Robert wrote to Secretary Conway: “Which trade if we neglect and the Dutch embrace they shall be the gloriest and flourishing nation in the world, and we the most unfortunates in losing so great a treasure as seeketh us. I speak as a well-devoted naturalist to my own Patria, and should be more than thrice happy (although with great deal of danger) to effect this business and rest with my father’s bones.” [P 49]

Robert and Teresia left England in 1627 and Robert died in 1628 in Persia. Thomas Middleton wrote: “This Persian robe, so richly woven with the praises only of Sir Robert Sherley (thy countryman), comes to thee at a low price, though it cost him dear that wears it.” [P 49]

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