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Through the eyes of C. J. Wills


This was my last job at the Portico library before leaving to start my new full-time job. The exhibition is currently on and will last till 25th January 2024. Do not miss the chance to see the exhibition.


Persia as It Is (second edition), Sir. C. J. Wills (1887), Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington Crown buildings, London.

The author, Sir. C. J. Wills lived in Iran, known as Persia then, for 15 years (1866-1881). The array of reviews at the beginning of the book, e.g., “Accurate with nothing concealed, nothing glossed over”, was impressing, to say the least. Like most books written during the 19th century, when the use of offensive language and racial commentary was acceptable and slavery was a legal trade, Persia as It Is, is not short of offensive words and phrases. At the same time, the colonial approach, the top-down look throughout the book is another characteristic that makes reading the book uncomfortable at places.


Overall an interesting read with details of how life was for an ordinary person living in Iran. The author made many unfair judgments. “All Persians are awful lairs.” (p 128) “With semi-civilized or barbarous nations, a bribe is a cheaper expedient than an expedition.” (p 157) Nearly all Persians are smokers.” (p 202) “Persians are thrifty people.” (p 205) “The number of Englishmen in Persia is very limited. The natural jealousy of the Oriental is shown in the fact that the Shah especially restricted the staff of the English Government Telegraph Department to the actual number required to work the line.” (p 301) “A Persian, from the king to the merest of his subjects, is ever open to a bribe, and English Ministers, whatever they may have been able to do in what they may have been able to do in what is looked on by the Persians as the good old times, can now neither bribe nor intimidate." (p 33) Despite, the colonial language apparent in the examples above, there is no shortage of reasons not to carry on reading the book. However, with its detailed description of people and events, despite the shortcomings, the book is a page turner.


C. J. Wills describes Persia as "a playground almost untrodden by the tourist's foot: a land where hotels are not - or where, at any rate there is but one; a land where Eastern caravanserai opens its hospitable doors, to everyone, rich or poor; a land one can travel as prince, or "pad the hoof," and live decently on nine pence a day … As for climate, perfection.” (p 1-2) “Here peace reigns, the roads are safe, crimes of violence are unknown, the people are timid and tranquil.” (p 2) “Here is the place for the dreamer of dreams and the smoke of pipes. For the Persian water-pipe or hubble-bubble is the poetry of smoking, and a pound of the best Shiraz tobacco costs sixpence.” (p 3)


The range of topics discussed in the book is impressive. Sir Wills describes each and every topic both good and bad to the best of his knowledge, but he is clearly biased. The description of topics is very detailed and informative, for example inside of an art studio, the way the artist tends to sit and the tools used. The book is also interesting for inclusion of facts, e.g., the rate of exchange and the price of items, wages and the cost of necessities for an army such as horse and uniform.


Putting the colonial approach and the tendency to judge aside, the book contains useful information and interesting observations, particularly in terms of the appearance of men and women (the way that they appear in the society, their clothes indoor and outdoor); how men display pencases to flaunt their wealth, how poetry in used in everyday conversations; Persian carpets and the use of colours that improve by the toning influence of age (p116); Persian erroneous system of perspective in art (p 116) their weakness in producing landscape and producing the nude (p 117); The principle martyred saints in the Persian calendars (p 125); the usual diet (p 143); wine consumption (p 153); prisons and types of punishments for different crimes (p 183); bastinadoing (191); the story-tellers trade (p198); use of tobacco (p202); theatre (p 211); Taziyah (a religious ceremony) (p 216) and burial and the mourning ceremonies (p 247 & 248).


The prices of a variety of items or services are reported which gives inside knowledge of how much travelling would have cost then. “(The traditional handmade shoes), Gheva costs 2s to 10s a pair.” (p 134) “A hot dinner of roast meat can be obtained for from one penny to three pence a head, for the price of a single skewer of the steaming delicacy is but a half penny. Jars containing about half a pint of hot, strong, and savoury meat - soup are sold for a penny.” (p 143) “Seven pounds of cucumber may be often had for a half penny (p 144). 40 to 50 eggs for 9d (p145). [The letter d stood for Latin denarius. It was a small Roman coin, originally silver]. Wines from 3d to 6d per bottle (p 154). Old (about 3 years in bottle) Shiraz wine about 9d (p 156). The cost of tobacco four pence a pound (p 123). The wages of a clever artists are about one shilling and six pence a day (p 116). The daily wages of men working on opium trade varies from 2 to 5 Kerans (a Keran being 9d) (p 237). A toman is the name given to ten pieces of silver, value 10d each (p 287). A serviceable horse is to be had for a £10 note, and where feed never exceeds sixpence a day (p 1 -2). An original painting in oil, 24 inches by 16 on papier mâché, in 1880 was 7 shillings and 6 pence. (p 118)


Some observation worthy of notice

"In Persia everything is sold - governorships, judgeships, religious office, places of every kind, official protection, all the great officials are as corrupt as Bacon, but they are not detected, or if detected, know how to buy safety." (P 13)


"The king's first visit to Europe tended for the time to civilize him, but before a year had expired, he wanted to execute his Prime Minister. He had lightened his palace with gas, and even started the electric light there: but when he did not pay the salary of the genital French man who provided that light, all was dark once more. In fact, the Shah was introduced to the high-handed proceedings of gas companies in Europe. After that the French man got paid and the supply has been steady since. The king now returns salute, as a role: before his visits to Europe, he did not. He now looks at the pictures in the illustrated journals with pleasure. But when he last crossed the Caspian he slept on the floor of the ladies' cabin under the table, and on the table, he put his boots." (p 14 - 15)


"Many of the Persian middle-class women are highly educated, according to Oriental ideas. They read and often write poetry; the sing and play, as a rule, well, and are mistresses of all the arts of plain and fancy needlework; cooking is second nature to them; pastry-making and confectionary are among their pleasures. The accomplishments of the poor ones are naturally of a more useful kind. They are good cook and bread bakers; they make clothes of the entire household; they often are able to add largely to the daily income by their knowledge of some business or trade; and none of them are idle." (p 67)


"Three ladies enter the room. Their feet and legs are bare to the knee; for they have cast off their shoes at the door but all the rest of them is shrouded in a large sheet of dark blue silk, the outer veil of the Persian lady." (p 84)

"His (the male Iranian aristocracy) turban of the richest Cashmerian shawl; his gridle of the same day, into which were thrust his be-jewelled poignard his elaborately-painted pencase, his sable-lined and trimmed coast of shawl, and his gold-embraided rest of azure satin; all tending to set off the fair and aristocratic old face with its long jetty beard and bushy black eyebrows." (P 97) “In Persia a man is never seen bareheaded.” (p 132) “Shabkola of quilted chintz which is often worn by the natives of Persia in the house, and by Ispahani (inhabitants of Ispahan) and jews habitually.” (p 135) "A venerable-looking old man is hardly ever seen. In fact, not to dye the hair is looking upon as a sign of mourning." (p 97)


“To preserve them from moth, shawls in the East are always kept in boxes of cypress wood.” (p 247)


"Every Persian interlards his conversation with scraps and snatches from the national poets, more or less appositely introduced, and even the most illiterate peasant can appreciate the rhythm, rhyme and jingle of the Persian bards." (p 99)


The real purpose

Sir Wills is supposed to be working as a medical doctor, but in this book at least, there is no sign of him acting as a medical doctor. He only visits one woman with stomach pain, but it turns out to be an excuse to see the European Doctor.


Beyond the outlook of a tourist being interested in meticulous details of local customs, by chapter 20 we get to see a glimpse of Sir. Wills real mission in Persia (Iran):

- “The country is the finest recruiting ground in Asia. … Persian soldier is brave, active and hardy ... upon dry bread, with an occasional bit of cheese or a basin of curds, the Persian will think nothing of marching his 30 miles a day for days in succession .... as for the cavalry, as irregulars they are probably the finest in the world. No rocky pass is too deep, no march too long.” (p 177)

- “Persia is a wall, though only a mud well, which stands as a barrier between us and Russia. We are allowing the barrier to fall without an effort. We are handing over to Russia or Russian influence hordes by brave and hardy soldiers who would overrun India as their ancestors have done before them. A very little money spent in Persia judiciously goes a long way; and poorly managed, Persia might have been of enormous service to us by harassing the Russian advance.” (p 178)

- “Persia is well worth consideration either as the tool of Russia or as the well-paid mercenary of England.” (p 178)

- “Sir Charles Macgregor remarks of the cavalry that “if not the best light horsemen in the world, they are the cheapest".” (p 179)

- “His (Persian soldier) uniform of dyed cotton stuff, costs at first hand less than a pound. His pay of less than £3 a year, if it only reached him, he would be well satisfied with.” (p180)

- “Such being the "raw material" in Persia, are we wise in abandoning the country to the influence of Russia?” (p181)

- “Persia as a power, is perhaps quantité-négligeable; but she will flourish to the highest bides hordes of hardly mercenaries half-trained, it is true, but only wanting intelligent leadership and regular pay to be transformed from their present condition, which is that of an ill-disciplined and hunger rabble into a formidable army. Is it not possible that the descendants of the men who marched to Delhi under Nadir-Shah may yet be dangerous to us? Is it quitte prudent to permit Russian officers to drill, equip, and command three regiments of so called Persian Cossaks under the very nose of our minister at Tehran?” (p181-182)

- “There was a time - a time not very long distant when we could make our wishes commands to most oriental potentates. Unfortunately, that time has gone by. In Persia we are now principally known as buyers of opium and sellers of McCabe's watches, Roger's cutlery, and prints and shirting. The Persians now say that menses from England would be more idle words. Their expressive term pooch-empty and worthless - is always applied by them to our timid foreign policy - we have, however, the consolation of remembering that though Persia may no longer be frightened, yet she may always be bought.” (p 182)

- “In 1871 the value of export of Opium from Persia was 696,000 Rupees. In 1881 it had increased to 8,470,000 Rupees, and the increase has been steady each year – Probably this increase will continue, and ultimately Indian opium will find a rival, ad our revenue in India will be thus much reduced.” (p 238)

- "Sir Ronald Thompson in nearly sixty years of age, his mild and gentle manner is but the velvet glove to the hand of iron." (p 330) "In dealing with Wily and Semi-civilised Persian we must remember that his ways are not our ways and his modes of thought, though inexplicable to the ordinary diplomatic Briton, are perfectly intelligible to the "local diplomatic", if, like Sir Ronald Thompson he retains his pristine energy, and remains mentally unenervated by a long Eastern experience." (p 33) "Sir Ronald Thomson having absolutely no enemies, and he is a valued friend, contemporary, and adviser of the shah himself, and accompanied his majesty on his first visit to Europe." (p 33) "Such an experienced "local diplomatist" as Sir Ronald Thomson is far more likely to be useful to his government that a man who has never been in the East, who has no sympathies and no experience, and who goes to his post as to exile ... ignorant alike of the language, people and politics of Persia, and possibly suffering from acute Persophilia." (p 33) "This habit (bob-cherry play), the fear of Russia, and the personal affection and respect of the Shah for Sir Ronald Thompson, together with the yearly income the king derives from the telegraph, are the only toleration in Persia." (p 33)


Whether you agree or disagree in principle, you cannot deny the role of spies in shaping the world today. Those who travelled to different countries, under false pretence to gather information and advice their governments. People like Sir. Wills?


Summary: Persi as It Is, is not short of offensive language, tendency to judge and colonial approach. Despite these, with the detailed observations and descriptions, the book is a page turner. The range of topics discussed in the book is impressive. Persia as It Is makes it possible to know the rate of exchange and the price of items and average wages for a few occupations 130 years ago. Beyond the outlook of a tourist being interested in meticulous details of local customs, by chapter 20 we get to see a glimpse of Sir. Wills real mission in Persia (Iran):

- “The country is the finest recruiting ground in Asia.”

- "The value of export of opium from Persia had increased … Ultimately Indian opium will find a rival, and our revenue in India will be thus much reduced.”




Description for the drawing from a section of the book. This is to be displayed with the image at the exhibition (see p201 of the book. Click here for the PDF copy of the book): The drawing shows a Dervish. "The ordinary meaning of the word "Dervish" is religious mendicant. In Persia Dervishes are certainly mendicants; but their religion doesn't go much beyond pious ejaculations and the cursing of the infidel. The panther or leopard skin hanging across his shoulder, is his effective mantle by day, his bed or coverlet by night. The calabash - generally an elaborately - carved, vessel, made from a single Indian nut. this will hold several pints, hangs from the Dervish's girdle by brass chain: it is his wallet, drinking vessel, and alms-box all combined."

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