Sampsonia, 5: the “honourable company”

Excerpts from
Wright, Denis. The Persians Amongst the English: Episodes in Anglo-Persian History. London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1985. Pp 1-9

A note on the source: Perhaps because this book was published in 1985, height of anti-Iran sentiments in the West, Wright seems rather prejudiced in his writing. Though I cannot dispute his research or sources (as I have no access to them myself), I find his implicit interpretations and elaborations “rather too British.” But he has some details in his accounts that don’t appear in other sources so I’m adding this to the pile.

The first [Persian] whose name has long since been lost, is said to have come [to England] in 1238 A.D. during the reign of Henry III. He was sent by the Persian ruler Ala ed-Din Muhammad to seek English help against the Mongo hordes [sic.] then threatening Ala ud-Din’s domains. The envoy failed in his mission and returned empty handed. [P 1]

[February 1626] Naqd Ali Beg, sometimes described as the first Persian Ambassador to England, landed at Portsmouth. With him on board the East India Company’s vessel Star were his son and a Persian merchant, Khwaja Shahsuwar, likewise accompanied by a son. Both men were attended by Persian servants. The merchant also brought with him a valuable consignment of silk which… was to be the cause of a bitter dispute between himself and the ambassador. [P 1]

On arrival in London Naqd Ali learnt that there was already someone there claiming to be the Persian Ambassador. What is more, the man was an Englishman, by name Sir Robert Sherley, who fr the past two years had been accepted at the English Court as the Shah’s representative. [P 1]

1607, Anthony Nixon, The Three English Brothers:

“Sir Thomas Sherley his travels, with his thre yeares imprisonment in Turkie, his Inlargement by his Maiesties Letters to the great Turke; and lastly, his safe return into England this present yeare; Sir Anthony Sherley his Embassage to the Christian Princes. Master Robert Sherley his wars against the Turkes, with his marriage to the Emperour of Persia his Neece. [P 2]

All three [Sherley brothers] were true Elizbethans and in the spirit of the age sought their fortunes in foreign parts. It was, however, more by accident than design that Anthony, who had been born in 1565, and Robert, his junior by fifteen or sixteen years, found themselves in Persia towards the end of 1598. A year earlier Anthony had been in Venice seeking amusement and employment. It seems probable that while he was there the Venetian authorities and a Persian merchant suggested the possibilities of an expedition to Persia. [P 2]

In May 1598 the two Sherleys, with a band of twenty-four or so companions, mostly Englishmen who had traveled to Italy with Anthony the previous years, set said from Venice for the Levant. They disembarked at Antioch and made their way overland to Persia by way of Aleppo and Baghdad. [P 2]

After less than six months at the Persian Court Anthony was on his way back to Europe as the Shah’s ambassador. His diplomatic mission included a Persian, Husayn Ali Beg, with four secretaries, two Portuguese friars and a number of Anthony’s original English companions. [P 3]

The mission … came to a premature and sad end in Rome, where Anthony and Husayn Ali Beg fell out. The Persian resented the superior status claimed by the Englishman and accused him of selling the Shah’s presents meant for the rulers they intended visiting. Neither of them went to England… Anthony never set foot in England or Persia again, preferring to remain on the Continent, where he lived by his wits and served many masters until his death in about 1636. [P 3]

Meanwhile Robert Sherley remained in Persia… It is on record that in 1607 he married the daughter of a Circassian chieftain. His bride, aged about nineteen, had, according to a contemporary account, been brought up by her aunt at the Shah’s Court. She was originally called Sanpsonia, but after baptism by Carmelite missionaries in Isfahan she was given the name Teresa. [P 3]

The Carmelite missionaries established in Isfahan were meticulous in keeping the papal authorities informed of what was going on in Persia. They reported Robert’s marriage and corrected an earlier report of theirs that his bride was a Muslim slave girl. Robert himself they described as “a man of medium height, fair and beardless, aged about 30 years; he wears in one ear a small ring, with a tiny diamond; he is a man of sagacity, but a boaster, pretender and conceited. In Persia he has lived in public as a Catholic, has been to confession and to Communion once a year, attended the churches and performed all other pious acts of a good Christian.” [P 3]

Robert, accompanied by his wife, Teresa, left for Europe in February 1608… In August 1611, after a circuitous journey, they arrived in England. Three months later Teresa gave birth to a son at the Sherley home in Sussex. The boy was duly christened Henry, after the Prince of Wales, who, with his mother, Queen Anne, was a god-parent – a clear indication fo the high standing of the Sherleys at the time. [Pp 3-4]

Before receiving him [on 1 October], the King [James I] is said to have insisted that Robert, who normally wore Persian dress, should – contrary to Persian and Islamic custom – first remove his turban. According to a report furnished by the Venetial Ambassador in London, Robert wore English dress for the occasion and, as he approached the King, fell on his knees to implore his pardon for having accepted office under the Shah. [P 4]

The powerful Levant and East India Companies, both of whom had a vested interest in trading with Persia through Turkish territory, objected to any diversion of trade to the sea route round the Cape envisaged by Robert’s proposal. [P 4]

Early in 1613 he and Teresa, with a retinue of fourteen, sailed from Gravesend for India by the long Cape route in one of the East India Company’s ships. They remained some time at Surat at the Court of the Great Mogul and then proceeded overland to Persia, eventually reaching Isfahan in June 1615. [P 4]

[Shah Abbas] allowed him and his wife to leave Isfahan again for Europe [in October]… Was Robert again charged with a diplomatic mission on behalf of the Shah, perhaps to Spain rather than England? Or did he leave Persia of his own free will with the idea of not returning? [P 4]

Even though he did go to England with the claim of ambassadorship and eventually returned to Persia in 1627?! Denis Wright’s work seems highly prejudiced toward Sherley.

They arrived in England in January 1624 by way of Goa, Lisbon, Madrid and Rome, where the young Anthony Van Dyck painted splendid full-length portraits of them both in Persian dress. [Teresa’s dress is clearly European.] [P 4]

In England… Robert had no difficulty arranging to be received by the King at Newmarket… he wore Persian dress for the occasion but removed his turban as he approached James I and, after laying it at the King’s feet, “made his Speech of Entrance kneeling, till the King willing him to arise and cover, he did, and presenting his Letters of Credence (written in Persian Language, and un-understood for want of an Interpreter nowhere then to be found in England.] [P 5]

The Levant and East India Companies hinted that he was an impostor. They refused to contribute towards his expenses while in England and objected once again to his proposals for developing trade between the two countries… “whether Embassador or not, it concerns not the Company who have noe need for Sir Robert’s helpe, neither desire to have any thinge to doe with him.” [P 5]

Unexpected arrive at Portsmouth in February 1626… of Naqd Ali Beg [P 5]

The East India Company, which had probably encouraged the Shah to send Naqd Ali to England [because, of course, the Persian king had no agency of his own], lost no time in notifying the King of his arrival and arranging for the Earl of Warwick, the Master of Ceremonies, and other Course officials to join them in welcoming him at Kingston, where he was transported in the royal coach to London. The welcome given to Naqd Ali was in marked contrast to that given to Robert Sherley… “these Merchants (with an affected honour, beyond that done to the other Persian Ambassador Sir Robert Sherley) had procured the King’s Coach to be drawn with eight Horses (as with the more grace to the latter to disgrace the former).” [P 5]

On the morning of the very day, Shrove Tuesday [pancake day], fixed for Naqd Ali’s first audience with Charles I, Sherley arranged to make an official call on the Persian with a view to establishing hi sown position. With the help of an influential relative, Earl of Cleveland, he first obtained from the royal archives the credentials signed by the Shah which he had presented to James I. He secured the use of the royal coach for paying his call and, to re-inforce his claim to be the recognized Persian Ambassador, was accompanies by Cleveland, Finett and other courtiers. [P 6]

They found the Persian “sitting in a chair on his legs double under him, after the Persian Posture, and affording no motion of respect to any of us,” until, being informed of Lord Cleveland’s high position, he “let fall his trust-up leggs from his chaire, and made a kinde of respect to his Lordship.” Robert then unfolded his precious credentials, touched his eyes with them and kissed them “as the Persian use is in reverence to their King.” As he made to hand them over for examination, Naqd Ali jumped from his chair, snatched them from Robert’s hands, “tore them and gave him a blow on the face with his Fist.” Before anyone could intervene Naqd Ali’s son had struck Robert “two or three blows more” and knocked him to the ground… Naqd Ali apologized for offending Lord Cleveland, but insisted that Robert was an impostor, alleging that his credentials were false and that he was not, as he claimed, married to the Persian Queen’s niece. Robert… retorted that he had only claimed to be married to a kinswoman of the Queen and that his credentials bore the Shah’s signature. [P 6]

The East India Company disapproved of the “lewde strumpett” with whom Naqd Ali had bee living and took steps to see that she did not accompany him on his return to Persia… Shortly before Naqd Ali’s eventual departure for India, the Honourable Company presented him with a full-length portrait of himself … In March 1627 the Sherley’s and Dodmore Cotton with their retinues embarked in the Star, while Naqd Ali and the merchant’s son Muhammad, without their lady friends, went on board another of the Company’s vessels, the Hart. [P 7]

The most plausible explanation [about Sherley’s alleged ambassadorship] wasprovided by the vizier… As Sherley was anxious to return to his native country, the shah had provided him with a letter to the English king to help him but “not with intention thereby to convey authority unto him to treat in his name of any business with his Majesty.” With no one available in London to translate the letter, Sherley was able to make good if dubious use of it to establish himself as the Shah’s ambassador. [P 8]

Teresa Sherley left Persia after Robert’s death and settled in Rome. In 1658, she caused Robert’s remains to be brought from Qazvin and interred in the church of Santa Maria della Scala. She herself was buried there ten years later. [P 8]

The Honourable East India Company, or plain “John Company” to the public [P 9]

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Knowledge base, Script