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A Brief Description of the Collection of Rawlinson Papers at the Royal Asiatic Society

  • Please note an addendum has been issued for this article.


The contents of the Rawlinson papers have now been sorted into a meaningful order and the contents listed, this note contains a brief description of its contents, in order to make clear what it does and does not contain. Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810–1895) is mainly remembered as a pioneer in the decipherment of cuneiform scripts but it will be seen from the documents in the collection that his interests covered a rather wider range of topics.



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1 Harry Rawlinson was a career soldier who was raised to the peerage for his service as a general on the Western Front during the First World War. He died childless and the title became extinct. The baronetcy awarded to HCR passed to Harry's younger brother Alfred and thence to Alfred's sons.

2 When I first examined the collection it contained numerous small labels in Harry's handwriting. Since they were all couched in rather general terms e.g. “Letters before 1860” and had moreover become detached from the materials to which they referred, there seemed no point in keeping them.

3 For the date of Baroness Rawlinson's death see The Times 2 October 1951. It appears that the RAS has no record of when its Rawlinson Collection was donated, or by whom. The entry in the National Register of Archives for the RGS Rawlinson Collection says “Papers deposited at the RGS by Lady Rawlinson”. This cannot refer to HCR's wife, since she died in 1889, and some of the items in the collection postdate this. The entry for the Rawlinson Papers in the British Library's Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue says “Presented by Miss Elmira Wade, as executrix of Meredith, Baroness Rawlinson”. It seems most probable therefore that HCR's papers remained intact up to Baroness Rawlinson's death and were then divided between the three institutions. However, Baroness Rawlinson's will contains no explicit mention of her father-in-law's papers and it is at present a matter for conjecture as to who decided on their disposition and the basis on which they were divided up. However, it should also be noted that in a letter written to his wife in 1870 [V/10], HCR briefly mentions offering the British Museum “some of my MSS” but there is no further mention of this, nor any indication of what these mss may have been or what became of them.

4 According to the Rawlinson family tree [IV/01(02)] HCR's mother had 11 children of whom at least seven survived into adulthood. No doubt because of these repeated pregnancies, HCR and his sister Maria were sent to stay with their “Aunt Smith” in Bristol. HCR estimated that he spent half his childhood in Bristol [see Annuary IV/13.] and was subsequently sent away to school. This may account for his rather distant relationship with his father, whom he hardly mentions, and for his much closer relationship with his sister Maria than with any other member of his family.

5 See Cathcart, K. J. and Donlon, P., “Edward Hincks (1792–1866): A Bibliography of His Publications”, Orientalia, vol. 52, no. 3 (1983) pp. 325356 .

6 See e.g. III/03(V) “There is no occasion, however, to mention this [i.e. some discoveries which he has made in the Median script] to Dr Hincks as he would probably claim it before the savans of Dublin as his own discovery”. After Hincks's death in 1866, however, he remarked in a letter to Louisa “He was a cantankerous old soul, but peace be to his ashes”. HCR also lent his support to a petition for a Government pension for Hincks's three daughters, who had been left destitute by their father's death.

7 This appeared as Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia and was originally expected to occupy two volumes (see e.g. the Report of the Anniversary General Meeting of the RAS, May 1865) but eventually ran to five, the last appearing in 1884. However, HCR's direct involvement ceased before the publication of the third volume though his name continued to appear on the title pages. The transcriptions and translations that were promised in the Preface to Volume 1 never materialised. Apart from the many other activities competing for his attention, cost was no doubt an obstacle. HCR complains to Norris more than once about the cost of using cuneiform types: he was expected to meet the cost of printing the sheets containing the transcriptions and translations as well as the cost of binding the interleaved volumes out of his own pocket – the Government grants were barely sufficient to cover the cost of lithographing, printing and binding the volumes containing the original inscriptions. Smith, George's History of Assurbanipal translated from the Cuneiform Inscriptions(London and Edinburgh, 1871) gives an idea of the kind of work which HCR was expected to produce. Smith was dependent on financial support from two wealthy amateurs - H.W. Fox Talbot and W. Bosanquet - to cover the cost of printing this work (see e.g. Fox Talbot archive document nos. 4702, 9750, 9778, 9817, 9819). Perhaps in return for this financial support, Smith's History of Assurbanipal contains an essay by Bosanquet explaining his theories on the chronology of the Assyrian/Babylonian empires and its relationship to the chronology given by the Egyptian records. HCR would have been too proud to accept financial support from such a source and would certainly not have agreed to the inclusion of another man's work in “his” book, particularly if he disagreed with it. By contrast, the works of HCR's French rival Jules Oppert were published by the official state publishing house, the Imprimerie Imperiale, later the Imprimerie Nationale.

8 See HCR's letters to Maria [IV/08].

9 For HCR's reluctance to accept the Ambassadorship, see his letters to Norris [III/14] and also the letter to his future mother-in-law [II/09(01)]. It should be noted that the reasons for resigning that HCR gives in his letters and subsequently in his Annuary, viz. that the post had proved to be less lucrative than he had expected and that the increased leisure on which he had counted in order to pursue his scholarly work had not materialised, differ from that attributed to him in the article in the online edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

10 There is insufficient information to form a complete picture of HCR's financial situation in the 1860s: his East India Company Army pension was £365 p.a. and remained at that level to the end of his life and no doubt he had income from the investments that he had been able to build up during his service. Summary accounts of HCR's income and expenditure for the years 1879 to 1890 [see IV/14] show that he had at that time an annual income fluctuating between £4,000 and £4,500, and that he was spending all of it; in some years he had to sell investments in order to make up the deficit. This income was made up of about £1,100 salary from his post on the Council for India, £365 military pension and the remainder from investments (some of this was derived from his wife's inheritance, but it is not clear how much). By comparison, Hincks's stipend as rector of Killaleagh was £712, although he probably enjoyed other benefits such as housing and tithes (see Cathcart and Donlon, “Edward Hincks”, note iv). There is no information about Norris's income, but, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography J.W. Redhouse received £400 p.a. as a translator at the Foreign Office and £90 p.a. as Secretary to the RAS, and it seems reasonable to assume that Norris, who held the same posts, was paid similar sums. It would appear then that, by the standards of his fellow scholars, HCR was enjoying an affluent lifestyle although probably not grander than his wife's relations – she came from an aristocratic family – would have considered suitable.

11 See e.g. letter dated 28 October 1867 from Edwin Norris to William Henry Fox Talbot [Document No. 9264 http//].

12 Particularly striking is his comment that “the Powers” should intervene “to prevent the dismemberment of France” without specifying which powers he has in mind: it is not clear which ‘powers’ apart from Britain would have been willing and able to act at this moment. It is also noteworthy that he does not know the English word for “machine-gun” and is obliged to refer it by the French name “mitrailleuse”.

13 The letter includes the names of several vessels as well as mentioning the King of Dahomey and the King of Porto-Novo. This letter deserves further investigation as it appears to be connected with the anti-slavery patrols which the Royal Navy mounted along the West African coast in the first half of the nineteenth century.

14 It appears that HCR had accepted “warrants” from the local provincial governor for these payments, only to be informed by the next governor that these warrants were not binding on him and that if HCR wanted payment, he must present them in Teheran. In total they represented a substantial sum of money and it is not clear if HCR was ever paid.

15 The writer had held a diplomatic post in Persia between 21 October 1847 and 21 October 1849. He is mainly concerned to air his grievances, but the letters contained much detailed information concerning events in Persia during this period, which included a change of regime.

16 It documents his reluctance to accept the post and his unsuccessful attempt to obtain an assurance that he would be able to resume his seat on the Council for India when his term as ambassador was over.

17 These papers make it clear that HCR had made enemies during his previous period of service on the Council because of his criticism of the way in which India was then being administered, so that his attempts to secure re-election all failed, but he was eventually appointed by the Secretary of State for India.

18 Some appear to relate to speeches in Parliament. The most extensive body of material relates to contemporary events in Persia and Afghanistan, but there are also drafts of an article about the geography of that country.

19 See the letters from Norris in III/20. Despite his comments, the sequence appears to be complete from HCR's first letter to the then Secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, Capt. H. H. Harkness, dated 1 January 1838 to the end of his correspondence with Norris on cuneiforms. This petered out about 1866.

20 It will be apparent that HCR did not keep an orderly record of the progress of his cuneiform researches, and hence there are almost no working papers, as this term is generally understood, in the RAS collection or elsewhere. In the letter to Fox Talbot referred to in note 11 above, Norris laments that “[Rawlinson] trusts his excellent memory too much, like poor Hincks, and will leave nothing behind him”.

21 His failure to complete his work on the Old Persian inscription at Bisitun could also have been partly due to the loss of notebooks and other materials in the fire on the River Sutlej already referred to. By the time he was able to return to Bisitun, other workers had already done so much work on Old Persian that he would have felt his time would be better occupied on the much more complex Babylonian and Assyrian scripts.

22 This despite the fact that when he was in England during the period 1849 to 1851 he appears to have done little if any work on cuneiforms and to have spent the time socialising and dancing attendance on Lord Palmerston in the hopes of securing a more prestigious appointment. See the letters to his sister Maria at IV/08.

23 The following extract from a letter to Norris dated August 24 1854 [III/10(15)] provides an amusing illustration of his attitude: “I commenced work at Birs-i-Nimrud [the ancient Borsippa] about 10 days back and shall now give the place a fair trial. After well examining the exterior indeed and searching for cylinders and clay tablets about the stair cases and doorways, I am half inclined to run a mine into the centre of the mound, and by the help of a few barrels of gunpowder, just turn the whole affair inside out. Do you think this would raise a howl at Exeter Hall or not? [Exeter Hall in the Strand was a venue for religious meetings and provided a home for the offices of religious societies.] If I were sure of finding anything inside, I would brave the fate of Erostratus [some readers may care to be reminded that Herostratos set fire to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus ‘in order that his name should be remembered forever’] without hesitation but it would be a pity to destroy the pile for mere mischief – and I shall therefore go cautiously to work.”

24 This correspondence shows how abrasive and overbearing HCR could be. Initially, relations between the two men were cordial enough, with HCR concentrating on the excavations at Nineveh and Loftus working in the south, where he made important discoveries. However, in February 1854, with the British Museum's funds exhausted, HCR invited Loftus and his team to move to Nineveh to prevent archaeologists from other countries from exploiting the discoveries that the British had made. He tried to make it clear that, if the British Museum received a government grant for further excavations, he would expect Loftus and his team to return to the south and make way for the Museum excavators. However, when this happened a few months later, Loftus refused to withdraw and complained that HCR was going back on his word. There was a period when the two teams were trying excavate the same area in competition, with almost farcical results. In his letters to Norris, HCR admitted that he felt that the whole affair was a “storm in a slop bowl” and that he was half ashamed of it, but refused to back down. Eventually the situation was resolved by the Assyrian Exploration Society effectively going into liquidation, handing its funds over to the British Museum and instructing Loftus to work under HCR's direction. Loftus promptly resigned, as he had said he would do under these circumstances [in a letter to James Felix Jones (1813/14–78) who was working at this time as a surveyor in Mesopotamia] and returned to Britain. When HCR also left Baghdad the following spring, excavations at Nineveh were suspended.

25 There are 22 in 1854, his last year in Baghdad [III/10] compared with 12 in 1855 including his journey to Britain via India [III/12], just 3 for 1856 [III/13] and 18 for the period between the beginning of 1857 and his departure for Teheran in September 1859 [III/14] although this is partly because HCR preferred to deal with questions face-to-face.

26 He also undertook to produce translations of a collection of inscriptions on copper plates from Southern Arabia in Himyaric or Himyaritic [see III/14(08)] which never appeared, although this may have been partly due the quality of the photographs from which he was required to work. The British Museum received the copper plates themselves in 1862 and the inscriptions were published from these in 1863.

27 At this period he was living in lodgings at 21 Langham Place. He seems to have been a rather untidy tenant and his landlady was not as accommodating as Mrs Hudson was to Sherlock Holmes. He complains of numerous papers which he has left lying about being thrown away [see III/14(10)].

28 See e.g. III/12(07) and (08) from Temple Newsam in October and Woburn Abbey in December 1855. From the latter place he writes “Woburn is half full of Cabinet Ministers at present and altogether we are a very agreeable party”. It seems probable that attendance at these parties, as well as his membership of the House of Commons, were at least partly intended to make the connections that would enable him to secure a paid post and so get married.

29 In III/15(05) written on 28 April he looks forward to spending the summer “in camp” and being finally able to get on with the transcriptions and translations. However, in his next letter he says that he left Teheran on 18 May.

30 See e.g. III/17(10) dated March 1863, the reference to “being obliged to be at the Persian Minister's tomorrow morning to settle about the Indian Telegraph”. In July 1863 he mentions “having to see Panizzi about the new Babylonian Excavation grant” [III/17(16)]. In a letter to Fox Talbot dated 20 November 1863, J. W. Redhouse writes, “Sir H. Rawlinson, unfortunately for our Journal, is so much occupied as not to be able, apparently, to contribute any of the translations . . . of which he has frequently held out hopes” [Fox Talbot archive Document No. 8757]. At the Anniversary General Meeting of the RAS held on 29 May 1865 it was announced that HCR was to contribute three papers to JRAS Volume 2 N. S. In a letter dated 20 July 1865, HCR says that he intends to spend August at Tunbridge Wells and while there to write the first of these: Notes on the astronomical knowledge of the early Chaldæans as recorded on the Nineveh tablets [III/18(01)]. Later in the year he tells Norris that, while at Tunbridge Wells, he spent his time in writing an article on the Russians in Central Asia [III/18(02)]. He refers to the second of these promised articles, on legal tablets, in a later letter but has clearly lost interest in the subject.

31 For details of George Smith's life and career, see the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

32 The packet also contains [III/20(05)] the only reply from Norris to a letter of HCR [III/18(02)] in which, among other matters, Norris says that he has checked some signs on a tablet which Hincks says HCR must have misread and finds that Hincks is right.

33 These letters are all dated 1853, i.e. while HCR was still in Baghdad. The first 2, written while Hincks was in London, discuss the names of Assyrian rulers found on a cylinder at the BM, the other contains a detailed critique of Norris's paper on the Scythic version of the Behistun Inscription, eventually published in the JRAS in 1855.

34 The first document in this group [IV/03(01)] is headed “Henry's account on going out to India” and itemises expenditure totalling £454/14/0. Since it refers both to HCR and his elder brother Abram by their first names, it was presumably written by their father although it is not clear for what purpose. It is sobering to reflect that HCR and his father were not to see each other again, as his father died in 1845. This is followed by “Journal of an Exile” covering the voyage and “Journal of an Ensign” covering the period to the end of 1828. These documents were written to please his sister Maria and sent home as soon as finished, thus escaping the fire referred to above.

35 As already mentioned, he also wrote to his elder brother Abram, but the only letter surviving from this correspondence indicates that they were not intimate. A letter which Maria wrote to Louisa [V/05(01)] indicates that HCR also wrote to his mother, but that Maria had burned these letters.

36 The letters indicate that Harry struggled with the classical curriculum considered de rigeur for a young gentleman's education at that time. There is a comment in a letter from Alfred Seymour written while Harry was at Eton: “Harry has a young half-grown steam engine in his room at Eton, he has a decided turn for mechanics”. A military career was probably the only acceptable choice for a boy of his class at that time.

37 The full name of the town is Bad Homburg vor der Höhe. According to his Annuary HCR and his wife had visited the town a few years earlier because Louisa had been ill. There are 14 from HCR to his wife during this visit plus 14 replies from her – the largest group of her letters in the collection. HCR's letters clearly show how bored he was and how lonely without her. During the interval between the two visits, the town had been annexed by Prussia as a result of the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 and there are some references in the letters to the repercussions of this.

38 In this note HCR writes “I went to the Museum & saw Birch, Lepsius and others – and shall see the whole body of savants tonight at the Royal Institution - I shall modify my address a little in order not to appear too hard on G Smith, Sayce & others”. The Times for 15 September 1874 lists in some detail the scholars attending and their achievements, as well as reporting the opening address by the President Dr Samuel Birch. HCR's address to the Semitic Section is reported in The Times for 16 September.

39 “Today I have been 4 mortal hours at the Exhibition . . . but it will take another half dozen visits to place me ‘au courant’ to such a wonderful collection”; according to The London Gazette for 18 November 1884, HCR was one of the Commissioners for this Exhibition.

40 In them HCR says he “feels rather like a fish out of water among all these smart ladies and the house is so hot that I am half suffocated”. It is interesting to compare the tone of these letters with those mentioned in note 22 above.

41 In a further letter dated “Oct/84” HCR writes to his wife: “I wrote to Wolseley yesterday & enclose you his answer – if he wants me to assist him in getting the India appointment he is the more likely to bestir himself in Harry's favor [sic]”. The enclosure reads “Dear Rawlinson I am writing about your son & will let you know the result when I receive my answer. I should like India very well if Stewart came home. Sincerely yours Wolseley” [V/22(03)]. Subsequently, Harry was appointed ADC to Field Marshal Lord Roberts, but there is no indication that Wolseley had anything to do with this, as Roberts was a friend of HCR. Wolseley never did achieve the position which he coveted.

42 In these letters, HCR shows himself to be an indulgent parent by the standards of the time, rejecting both his wife's suggestion of giving the boy a flogging and that of his headmaster to send Toby into the Navy in favour of a stern talking-to which “left the poor boy dissolved in tears and myself not much better”.

43 Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the letter is that it seems to have been assumed, apparently by almost everyone, that cheating in examinations at Sandhurst was general practice. HCR writes: “It seems they said at the College ‘it is hard A.R. should suffer alone when cribbing was the common practice – let us look further into the matter’”. As a result several “cribbers” had been detected and the matter reported by one of the other students to his father, with the result that a public scandal was created, which meant that the authorities would probably have felt obliged to impose some punishment, for forms sake. An account of systematic cheating in examinations as being the norm at Sandhurst was published in The Deseret [sic] News Salt Lake City, for 16 January 1904, with the remark that the practice had been even more widespread in the past than it was at that time. [It might, however, be desirable not to take this evidence at face value without further corroboration. RBP] Although, in a letter written later in 1885, HCR appears to despair of Toby's having a military career, his place in the Army seems to have been assured by the beginning of 1886 and he had set his heart on a commission in the 17th Lancers [a glamorous cavalry regiment], but it is not clear when this was settled. Further information about Toby's brief military career and the illness which led to its abrupt termination will be found in HCR's letters to his son Harry at IV/15.

44 The first is from Pelly to HCR dated 19th September 1865 while he was en route for India, setting out proposed financial arrangements for the forthcoming marriage. The second is from Maria to HCR dated Nov. 1865 expressing outrage at the way Pelly has broken off the engagement as soon as he reached India. It is not clear whether this Lewis Pelly is the distinguished soldier and diplomat Lewis Pelly (1825–1892), but I cannot trace anyone else of that name. The Pellys were related to the Rawlinsons, in his Annuary HCR states that he obtained his cadetship in the East India Company army through the influence of a member of that family.


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An addendum has published for this article: