- Fatima Manji, Hidden heritage: rediscovering Britain’s relationship with the Orient (2021).
This engaging book is part of an important discussion that is deeply unwelcome in conservative circles. It’s in the same vein as the recent challenges (from both historians and ordinary people) to the representation of the legacy of the British empire—BLM, the attacks on statues (Rhodes in Oxford, Colston in Bristol)—in tandem with similar protests in the USA and elsewhere.  Sadly, the PC-gone-mad brigade and opponents of “woke” (a term that may be defined as “an awareness of injustice and the determination to do something about it”—see e.g. here and here) will either attack or ignore such work.
Fatima Manji, a worthy member of the brilliant team at Channel 4 News, attracted the fatuous ire of Kelvin MacKenzie in 2016 when she presented the bulletin featuring the terror attacks in Nice. You can read her reaction to the ruling here. She has recently filmed a fine report on honour killings in Pakistan.
In Hidden heritage, to complement her historical and political insights (besides her refined aesthetic sensibilities), Ms Manji turns out to have a real narrative gift. In the Introduction she notes the rhythm of visiting a stately home:
Walk through the hallways to see portraits of a lionised landed family with their porcelain skins and a compulsory display of European art, collected by a son on the Grand Tour. Admire the architecture, allow yourself to be amused by the story of a rogue uncle or a scorned lover, and end your trip with tea and a scone. If you are interested in interior design, there is inspiration enough in the coving and sconces, the gardens often prove delightful, and lovers of art will find enough to impress them. But beyond the twee trappings, Britain’s heritage sites are home to a hidden history.
It did not seem malicious or deliberate that it was hard to find more information about the occasional “swirl of Arabic, Persian, or Urdu letters, or the brown hue of a sitter’s skin in a portrait” that appeared amongst all the imperial opulence.
Some of the objects described in this book are only ever presented as the rewards of brave colonial conquest, and others are ignored altogether.
Britain’s apparent historical amnesia has lessons for our current debates about immigration and the nature of “Britishness”. Deliberately using the historical term “the Orient” for West and South Asia (notably the Ottoman empire and British India), she observes:
A whitewashed presentation of history directly affects how Britons today perceive the people, buildings, and languages of the Orient. All are regarded as alien threats and new arrivals to be defended against.
Chapter 1 opens in Chiswick House, probing the story behind the portrait of Muhammed bin Haddu al-Attar, ambassador of Morocco, who visited London in 1682 on a diplomatic and trade mission to the court of Charles II. His travels are described in fascinating detail. The ambassador was much admired. He dined with the scholar Elias Ashmole, observed the building of the new St Paul’s Cathedral, and attended performances of Shakespeare. He visited Cambridge, and at Oxford he met Edward Pococke, first chair of Arabic Studies there, as well as the linguist Edward Hyde. Manji follows the Ambassador back to Morocco, where he encountered political difficulties.
is more nuanced than popular history would have us believe. The enthusiasm expressed by people in England, rich and poor alike, to see the Ambassador in person, even when diplomatic relations between the two polities may have been fraught, demonstrates that many showed the maturity of inquiring minds, and not the small island mentality that we may attribute to them retrospectively.
Just as absorbingly, Manji then traces the story back to Elizabethan England. The Queen sought alliances with the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Safavids, and the Moroccans. Among her companions was the Central Asian slave girl Aura Sultana, perhaps the first Muslim woman documented in England. The Shirley brothers courted the Safavids; Robert’s wife was Circassian. The East India Company and Levant Company were founded. Elizabeth established links with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, and corresponded with his consort Sultana Safiye; the delivery (and repair) of a 16-foot-high clockwork organ for their son Mehmed (who became Sultan in 1595) turned out to be a serious challenge. Elizabeth also received at least three ambassadors from Morocco—the London visit of Abul Wahid bin Messoud in 1600 caused as much curiosity as that of Muhammad bin Haddu some eighty years later.
Such influences were evident in English food, dress, and expressive culture, with Oriental carpets and the beginnings of the craze for coffee (“the Mahometan berry”) in 1652, soon criticised. “The Turk” or “The Moor” became a common character in ballads and theatre.
Manji ends the chapter by considering the persistence of such tropes and fears in Britain today. But as she reminds us, an alternative history of the Tudor and Stuart period exists:
Too often our depictions of this era are inward-looking and forgetful of interactions with the world beyond Britain’s shores or Europe’s borders. They are not merely fascinating stories, but a tradition to draw on.
The book is well worth reading for this chapter alone; but the quality is maintained throughout. Chapter 2 takes us to Kew Gardens and the story of its “lost mosque”—the first built on British soil.
The Alhambra arch, the Chinese pagoda, and the Turkish mosque, 1763.
The Chinese pagoda originally had two companions, a Turkish mosque and an Alhambra arch. Much of the design for Kew Gardens, including the plan for an Alhambra building, was brought to fruition by Augusta, mother of George III. The mosque, completed in 1761, was designed by Sir William Chambers. Though not used for worship, it suggests respect for Islam.
It is as if the patron or the designer wished to send out a message about the place of these buildings in Britain, and, through them, the place of Britain in the world: that these ornate Oriental buildings are not alien to this landscape but, rather, that they belong.
While such a message soon met with both praise and detraction, Augusta certainly appears more open and cosmopolitan than our very own Minister for the 18th century. Visiting Kensington Palace, Manji tells the story of Muhammad and Mustafa, taken as prisoners after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, ending up in the retinue of George I (then Prince Elector of Hanover). Muhammad’s close relationship with the King was a source of resentment at court. But both died nearly four decades before the building of the mosque, and indeed they had converted to Christianity, so their influence on the Kew project is tenuous. So Manji finds a clearer proponent of the style in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was closely connected to the Dowager Princess Augusta. She had become immersed in Ottoman culture (including mosque architecture) while living in Constantinople from 1716, and went on to become the first to introduce inoculation against smallpox to Britain.
Oriental structures like the mosque at Kew seemed to denote not only expanding imperial ambitions but also an enquiring world-view. However, the mosque soon fell into disrepair, and by 1785 it had been dismantled.
Again, Manji pursues the story into the 20th century, with the Japanese Gate built in 1910 on the site of the mosque. And she reflects on the modern profusion of mosques in Britain—“no mere ornaments, being active spaces for collective worship, socialisation, and charitable activities”. She describes the struggle of the Lincoln Muslims to construct a mosque there since 2008 in the face of Islamophobic threats, and ongoing anti-Muslim violence.
There is something to be learned from that first mosque-like structure in Britain. It denies those flaunting flags while spewing hatred a monopoly on history and demonstrates that mosques are neither new nor alien in Britain.
More recently, the director of Kew Gardens has had to rebuff accusations of succumbing to wokeness.
Chapter 3 tells the story of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the kingdom of Mysore in the late 18th century, through artefacts now housed in Apsley House, Belmont House, and Powis Castle. A thorn in the side of the British, they vilified him while portraying the East India Company as benevolent.
Manji tells the story of the Wellesley brothers (the younger of whom became the Duke of Wellington) and “Clive of India”, whose daughter-in-law Henrietta did at least make a genuine effort to engage with the culture of the subcontinent.
The mass looting of Mysore after Tipu’s defeat resulted in many acquisitions for British stately homes and museums. Part of the haul from Tipu’s palace was the famous toy tiger which has lived at the V&A since 1897. Its scary mechanical sounds were only muted after World War Two.
In the early 1990s Channel 4 screened the Indian historical drama The sword of Tipu Sultan, in which the Sultan is the hero and the British the villains. This was during the enterprising period of commissioner Farukh Dhondy, when black and Asian tastes were being catered to. Later he reflected that such programming would now be seen as too radical for the channel, with diversity having become a “game of statistics”. Manji too takes a dim view of the images of “the Orient” now being presented by the media.
The treasures of Tipu’s rule found around our country remind us that the power Britain amassed as an empire was wrested from others who also have proud stories to tell. Like Tipu Sultan’s belongings, many children and grandchildren of Empire find themselves scattered around Britain. Perhaps it is time we deployed the tiger’s roar—to demand better depictions and more honest histories, and to shape our own narratives.
In Chapter 4, “Portraits of the forgotten”, she travels to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, summer retreat of Queen Victoria, now run by English Heritage. An entire corridor there is filled with portrait paintings of Indians of various classes. They show prison inmates from Agra, who had been chosen to stay for six months at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1886 to demonstrate the artisan crafts (weaving, carving, engraving, dyeing) that they had learned while in prison. They were housed in a specially-built “native compound” nearby, and escorted by Dr Tyler, superintendent of Agra prison. This was a propaganda exercise, illustrating an idealised picture of India as traditional and primitive in contrast to modern, industrialised Britain.
At the Albert Hall, Victoria’s entourage was greeted by a choir singing the national anthem in English followed by a verse in Sanskrit. Tennyson’s poem for the occasion seems worthy of E.J. Thribb: *
… be welded each and all
Into one imperial whole,
One with Britain, heart and soul!
One life, one flag, one fleet, one throne!
Britons, hold your own!
Manji comments on the fashion for grand exhibitions around Europe at the time. She notes the Jaipur Gateway from the Kensington exhibition, now on show at Hove Museum (“standing in a small front garden, facing a dentist’s surgery and a concrete block of 1960s-style flats”), and is impressed by the Durbar Hall and wooden screens on display at the Hastings Museum. She visits Glasgow to view the remains of a similar exhibition in 1888.
Victoria had a genuine taste for the Orient. She ordered the portraits of the craftspeople from the young Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda, and even commissioned him to travel around India to paint further portraits. She was so impressed by Abdul Karim, a former clerk at Agra prison, that he became her close confidant. He gave her lessons in the “Hindustani” language and the Urdu writing system. Again, courtiers viewed their relationship with suspicion.
We learn of Ram Singh, whose gifts were cultivated by the artist and curator John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard), an advocate of India’s traditional arts. Victoria commissioned Singh to design and construct an Indian room for Osborne House, “a noble chamber of rare beauty and elegance”.
The depth of Britain’s relationship with the Orient is on display, carved into the walls surrounding us, a reminder of how this history is woven into the very fabric of Britain itself.
Yet, that fabric has been embroidered with the misery of millions, then and now. Those who seek to indulge the twin myths of the British Empire—its virtue and its emergence out of an innate British superiority—are often the most resistant to understanding what empire is in material terms. […]
Of course, the idea that Britain’s transport infrastructure, grandest architecture, art, and wealth could only be built on the massacre and subjugation of millions of people around the world must be maintained by a constant stream of propaganda directed at Britons.
As historians concur, it is here that our heritage sites have a particular responsibility. When they
fail to adequately explain the political contexts in which estates or objects come into the possession of landed families, traders, or imperial officers, they simply serve as vessels to perpetuate the twin myths of the Empire.
Reflecting on Victoria’s distress at her courtiers’ treatment of Abdul Karim, she ends the chapter on a topical note:
It is significant that even Victoria’s mild and purely personal interventions in her court on questions of race would be still be regarded in contemporary Britain as inappropriately “radical” by sections of the commentariat keen to stake out a position as more conservative than parts of the monarchy itself.
As to Abdul Karim,
could he ascend to a position of seniority and influence today? To an extent, his racial identity would be less of a problem. A political, economic, and cultural system that outwardly eschews its reliance on racial hierarchies depends to some extent on well-placed people of colour to provide legitimacy, validation, and a model of how non-threatening minorities ought to behave.
But the proliferation of a vast industry since 2001 aiming to demonise Muslims
means that a contemporary Abdul Karim would be at risk of finding himself on a no-fly list long before his arrival to the UK and, even with well-placed patronage, would be identified as a source of potential “radicalisation” and surveilled. However, if he were willing to serve as a loyal handmaiden to stale, preordained ideas of Britishness that are largely ahistorical, he would be enthusiastically embraced and rise quickly through the ranks, serving as corporeal proof of the supremacy and openness of a society that is in fact deeply insecure about its history and its prevailing ideology.
Chapter 5 begins at the court of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster, which hosted its first event in 1867 for the visit of another Ottoman Sultan. Manji gives a vivid account of the pageantry surrounding the Sultan’s tour of England, and explains the diplomatic agendas of the day.
By 1903 the chamber, now named Durbar Court, hosted the rulers of the Indian princely states under the new British King Edward VII, in whose coronation India played a prominent role. On a trip to Liverpool the Indian soldiers were keen to pay homage to the solicitor Abdullah William Quilliam, founder of the city’s Muslim Association. The Maharajah of Jaipur paid a visit to Lord Curzon’s ancestral home of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, now run by the National Trust and housing a wealth of Asian objets d’art.
Manji ends this chapter by lamenting Britain’s current loss of interest in learning the languages of the Orient. SOAS, founded in 1917, is now offering specialist teaching in fewer languages. That English is the world’s lingua franca is an paltry excuse.
If more of us were multilingual, it would become increasingly ridiculous to demonise those speaking in another tongue.
While the former interest in language learning was substantially related to “national interest”, the current apathy seems to imply that Britain is struggling to come to terms with its waning global importance. On the right,
the bunting-and-borders brand of nationalism leads to the particularly short-sighted assumption that jingoism […] will restore Britain’s pride and prominence.
And she finds that the left too has failed to provide a compelling rebuff.
We should resist attempts to turn Britain into an insular ideological state that demands loyalty to one particular set of beliefs. We can and should be a multilingual society that recognises its own cultural inheritance as complex.
In Chapter 6 Manji visits Brighton, where the “astonishing, surreal, and fantastical” Royal Pavilion (1823) is the most visible sign of Britain’s historical admiration for the Orient. She focuses on the Great War, when the palace was converted into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.
More than a million Indians fought for the British in the war, suffering grievously. As hospitals in south England began to overflow, Sir Walter Lawrence, commissioner for the wounded Indian troops, adapted the Brighton Pavilion to accommodate them. This brief introduction has some film footage:
The local population were excited to receive these “warriors from the East”. Many of the nursing staff were of Indian origin. As donations came in, a philosophy society even gave a lecture on “The welding of Western and Eastern thought”.
Manji gains clues to the patients’ own experiences from the letters they attempted to send to their friends and family, often censored but later preserved in the British Library. Despite the weather, many were most appreciative. There was music in the form of Indian records (I wonder what!), and, um, organ recitals. For those “sufficiently convalescent” there was a matinee on the pier to hear music from a Sufi order (again, more please!) and an adaptation of a poem from the Mahabharata.
Still, many were deeply traumatised. And they (as well as Indian student volunteers) were frustrated by restrictions on movement outside the hospital. With the authorities concerned to avoid scandal, local women, though keen to serve as nurses, were not allowed to do so.
Manji again returns to an earlier story, that of Deen Mohammed (1759–1851), who led a most creative life. Born in Patna, he worked for the East India Company army. At the age of 26, helped by a patron, he moved to colonial Ireland, where, moving in “somewhat elite circles”, he married a Protestant woman. Twenty years later he moved with his family to London. He was the first Indian to publish a book in English; and he opened an Oriental coffee-house—which in 1810 became the first curry house in Britain, which even provided a delivery service! ** The restaurant was short-lived, so he now made his home in Brighton, where he set up a Turkish bath-house with his wife, popularising “shampoo”—actually a medicinal Indian vapour massage bath. The establishment became “the epitome of fashion in Brighton for nearly two decades”.
Back with the Indian patients in the Great War, they were also disturbed that on recovery they were repeatedly being sent back to the trenches. A personal request to George V to end the practice made by Mir Dast, who had received the Victoria Cross for bravery, seems to have gone unheeded. And they often felt like prisoners. After a compromise had been reached on allowing female nurses, in June 1915 they were again removed, amidst protest.
Manji investigates mortuary procedures—cremation for Hindus and Sikhs, burial for Muslims. By early 1916 Indian soldiers were largely deployed away from Europe, and the casualties were no longer sent to Britain, so the Brighton hospitals were closed.
But the politics over how they should be recognised—or indeed acknowledging that recognition was due at all—continued in Britain, and does to this day.
She visits memorials, maintained sporadically until a recent revival in remembrance, with the Muslim burial ground at Woking particularly well restored since 2013—“a place Britain can be proud of”.
The Indian gate at the Brighton Pavilion was not added until 1921, and only since 2010 has it had an attic room dedicated to the memory of the patients.
Despite the best efforts of historical institutions and campaigners, across Britain the memory of these men still feels forgotten. […] The story of the Indian men who fought for Britain and those who came to the country wounded are somehow still not seen as an integral part of Britain’s national memory of war.
This feeds into the “myths of Britain standing alone or of the war only being fought by Europeans”. But a “poppy hijab” designed by a young Muslim student almost became a test of patriotism;
sadly the clothing choices of Muslim women once again became tokens in a political and cultural battle. The conversation turned to extremism and integration, rather than true remembrance.
After this poignant closing chapter, in the Epilogue Fatima Manji reflects on the moral panics that have been manufactured through history. She cautions against regarding the embracing of Oriental culture in the past as merely an elite pursuit. And she reflects on the raging debate (over statues, museums, and so on) since she began researching the book:
The myth of British Empire as a civilising mission is a fairytale enthusiastically endorsed by many British adults who otherwise perceive themselves as unrelenting sceptics. This peculiar delusion is the result of a system of schooling, cultural production, and political discourse which reinforces the fantasy at the expense of a collective national reckoning…
At the moment, our heritage sites are not performing the task of reframing the national story and placing “Britain’s relationship with the cultures and peoples of the Orient in its proper context”. She cites promising initiatives from the National Trust.
Of course, it is important to ensure those people who would not ordinarily visit heritage sites do so—that is part of the purpose of this book too. But visitors or potential visitors to heritage sites who have their own Oriental heritage should not be seen as grateful guests who need to be taught the ways and myths of “native” Britons. By choice and by bondage, we made these islands too.
Historians have been working on such stories for some time within their academic niches, and the book has an extensive section of references grouped by chapter; well illustrated with both colour and black-and-white images, the thoughtful, accessible survey of Hidden heritage, argued with both grace and passion, is most valuable.
See also Heritage: a roundup, including posts on China and early music; and my collected posts on west and Central Asia.
* Even-handed in my poetry criticism, I have suggested a similar connection in the ouevre of the Tang poet Bai Juyi.
** This was even before Berlioz composed his March to the Scaffold, immortalised with Indian-menu lyrics by London orchestral musicians in the 1960s when it seemed like a novel concept. Little did we know…
 Further to Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel’s article on the British suppression of history, the recent links below (compiled with her help) suggest what a major issue this has already become—and this is a mere selection.
The National Trust:
Museums and galleries:
Legacies of British Slavery:
The Church of England:
and the Rijksmuseum:
More on anti-woke:
David Olusoga on statues, BLM, and so on:
(and I haven’t attempted to cover Confederate statues in the USA).
Perhaps we can give the last word to Stewart Lee (again, cf. his riposte to Amanda Platell’s complaint about Bake Off):
One thought on “Hidden heritage”
Enjoyed your blog about Fatima Manji’s book – definitely need to read it. I thought you might be interested in a little piece of neglected “oriental” history in Scotland. Castle Menzies in Perthshire is in the process of reconstruction as the home of the Menzies Clan Society. In the process, interesting history is being unearthed, including a sojourn of several years at the Castle by Duleep (Dulip) Singh, the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire. He was deposed and exiled to Britain in 1859 (I think that is the correct date) where he became a protegé of Queen Victoria. He was made a ward of Sir John and Lady Login who leased Castle Menzies for him. He lived there with his retinue until 1858. He led a life between exile and attempts to return to India until his death in Paris in 1893. His grave is at Eleven Church in England.
Readers of the blog might be interested to know that Duleep Singh is now remembered and honored at Castle Menzies with an inscribed bronze plaque and the Sikh standard, and a room in the Castle has been dedicated to inform visitors about his time at the Castle. There is a copy there of a picture of the Maharajah with his family and entourage at Castle Menzies in 1855:
[I tried to paste a copy of the picture here, but it seems that I can’t paste images into the comments section of the blog]
On August 4th, 2015, the Castle hosted the Sri Dasmesh Pipe Band (Malaysian Sikh Band) to pay tribute to Duleep Singh:
Anyone interested in pursuing the story can find lots more on Google – and of course, why not visit Duleep Singh’s monument at Castle Menzies!
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