Sampsonia, 4: and Shakespeare

Excerpts from
Ghani, Cyrus. Shakespeare, Persia, and the East. New York: Mage Publishers, 2007.

In 1600 Queen Elizabeth had chartered a commercial company named the East India Company, which was given monopoly of trade between East and West. In 1615 the East India Company made its first attempt to break into the Iranian market. An officer of the company had realized that northern Persian winters could be very cold and that there would be a good market for English broadcloth. Shortly thereafter the company sent two of its employees to Isfahan and soon a market was established. Shah Abbas issued a farman (royal decree) giving the East India Company the right to trade throughout the country. England was to send an ambassador to Persia. English nationals were granted the right to practice their religion and in legal matters to be under jurisdiction of their ambassador. [P 58]

The adventures of the Sherley brothers even reached the London stage in an absurd dramataization by two lesser-known playwrights based on Antony Nixon’s 1607 pamphlets. The play’s end reaches an absurd height with the “Sophy,” Shah Abbas I, ordering Robert Sherley to build a church saying, “The Persian children shall be brought up and know no other education, manners, language, or religion, than what by Christians is deliver’d to them.” [P 62]

The euphoria created by the defeat of the Spanish Armada encouraged a public demand for heroic deeds by Englishmen. It is plain that the Sherleys had captured the imagination of the English public. [P 63]

Shakespeare even may have been privy to the origin of Sherley’s voyage as it involved the Earl of Essex who was closely associated with the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s benefactor. [P 64]

Essex became a national figure when he shared command of an expedition that raided Cadiz in 1596. He again became a favorite of the queen. In 1598, he sponsored the voyage of Sir Anthony Sherley and his brother Robert to Persia ostensibly to unite the Christian powers of Europe with Persia to wage wars against the Ottomans who had emerged as the dreaded foe of Europe. An underlying motive was to explore the possibility of lucrative commerce with Persian and neighboring lands. [P 68]

Essex’s fall was in part responsible for the failure of the Sherley expedition to Persia. It was, however, ill conceived from the beginning. Neither the English government nor the queen had been consulted. In retrospect, it appears that the European powers never had any intention to fight the Turks. It was an attempt to goad Persia to mount a campaign against the Turks and keep them engaged, preventing them from making further incursions in Europe. [P 74]

The Sherleys “were gentlemen on the make; chicanery, larceny, adultery, heorism, and treachery figured in their story.” [P 75]

Everyone was eager to make a fortune in a short time. [P 77]

In 1592 some seven years before the arrival of the Sherleys, Pope Clement VIII had sent a proposal to Shah Abbas that he and the Christian princes of Europe should combine in a league against the Turks. [P 78]

When the Sherleys arrived in Qazvin, Shah Abbas had not yet returned from his punitive expedition against the Uzbeks in Khorasan. When the shah arrived the guests were furnished with expensive garments and a magnificent banquet was held in Anthony’s honor. The shah invited the Sherleys and their companions to accompany him to Isfahan, the new capital. [P 79]

It has been said that Anthony introduced canons to the shah’s army, but this cannot be true. Since he claimed to have had a commission to retrain the artillery, it must therefore have existed earlier. [P 80]

The origin of the controversy is the fact that the Persians did not use artillery at the key battle of Chaldiran where the Ottomans defeated the Persian army on 22 August 1514 and occupied Tabriz. The single factor in the defeat was Ottoman artillery supported by handguns. “The question arises why did the Safavids not use artillery and handguns at the battle of Chaldiran. The Persians had an innate dislike of firearms, the use fo which they considered unmanly and cowardly. In this opinion they were supported by Mamluks of Egypt and Syria and they disliked artillery which hampered swift maneuvers of their cavalry.” [Pp 81-82]

Shakespeare appears to have closely followed the travels of the Sherleys. Twelfth Night has reference to the pension given by the shah [to Anthony Sherley]. [P 82]

To the Safavids an ambassador was a person carrying messages from the shah; to the Europeans only one person could be the spokesman for the ruler. The Persians had accused Sherley [Anthony], probably with some justification, of having sold or given away the gifts Shah Abbas intended for European princes. As disenchantment with Anthony grew most of the Persians accompanying him as secretaries left. [P 83]

Robert impressed people as a person of integrity. During his long years at the court of Shah Abbas, waiting for news of Anthony, Robert appears to have been useful… In February 1608 Robert married Sampsonia, the daughter of a Circassian chieftain. She was nineteen and he was some ten years older. She was baptized by the Carmelites and given the name Teresia. [P 85]

Robert Sherley left for Europe on 12 Fenruary 1608 with his wife Teresia. They travled by way of the Caspian Sea, up the Volga to Moscow where they overtook another ambassador of Shah Abbas, Ali Qoli Beq, who had left earlier. They had an audience with the tsar. On leaving Moscow Robert went to Krakow, Poland, where he and his entourage and Ali Qoli Beq were well received at the court of Sigismund III. Teresia was left in a convent in Poland. Robert and Ali Qoli Beq proceeded to the seat of the emperor at Prague… Robert had problems wherever he went having to settle Anthony’s debts. [P 86]

[In 1611] Robert returned to Persia. During Robert’s absence Shah Abbas had greatly improved the military position of Persia. Kandahar had been recovered from the Moghuls and a peace treaty had been signed with the Ottomans in 1611. Abass had recovered the port of Gambaroun from the Portuguese soldiers who had been taken prisoners at Gambaroun as a peace offering to the Portuguese who still held Hormuz. He set off again for Spain less than a year after his return. The new mission was the same as the previous one of 1609-1611. Robert left Isfahan on 10 October with a Carmelite father. [Pp 87-88]

[R. returned to Persian in 1626 with Dodmore Cotton, English Ambassador to Persia.] They received a cold welcome from the shah. Sir Dodmore put forward proposals for trade that Robert had previously raised in England on behalf of Persia. The shah declared that he had known Robert Sherley for many years and had granted him as many favors as he had to any Persian. Abbas had allied himself with the English to expel the Portuguese from Hormuz and break their power in the Persian Gulf. Although he had assiduously sought their help, he strove to avoid allowing them to get a firm commercial foothold in the country. The shah soon thereafter departed for Qazvin and the Englishmen followed. On the way both Dodmore Cotton and Robert suffered from severe dysentery. Robert died on 13 July 1628. [Pp 88-89]

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