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Bukhara and back: the good fortune of Joseph Wolff

Bukhara and back: the good fortune of Joseph Wolff

At last, a chance for some intensive cataloguing. Long overdue, and it stirs the blood more than somewhat when the provenance is as much fun as this. Here’s my brief description.

Wolff, Joseph: Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara, in the Years 1843-1845, to ascertain the Fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly London: Published for the Author by John W. Parker 1846. Fourth edition. 8vo. pp. xxvii, , 515, + portrait frontis. Modern quarter calf over marbled boards. Effusive full-page inscription on half title, to John Browne (of Chiseldon House, Wiltshire), with blessings in English, Arabic and Hebrew, possibly written on separate occasions as the first is addressed to John Browne Esq and the second (in a slightly freer hand, after dinner?) is addressed to ‘my John Browne’ and dated 1 May 1847; it’s entirely possible that Wolff gallantly offered to add a further inscription to Brown’s wife after they met. Stoddart, a soldier rather than a diplomat, was sent to Bokhara in 1838 - chiefly to curtail any Russian influence. His imprisonment seems to have arisen from a series of gaffes and the Emir’s natural suspicion of foreign ‘spies’. Conolly, who was well versed in the ways of central Asian diplomacy (and is credited with coining the phrase ‘the great game’) attempted to negotiate his release but instead shared Stoddart’s fate. They were executed when British prestige plumbed new depths in the aftermath of the First Afghan War. News reached Britain by way of one of Conolly’s Persian servants, but Wolff volunteered to journey to Bokhara himself to confirm their fate. Peter Hopkirk (‘The Great Game’) describes him as “a brave but highly eccentric clergyman” and recounts how he “was lucky to escape with his own life, only doing so, it is said, because his bizarre appearance in full canonicals, made the unpredictable Emir ‘shake with uncontrollable laughter’”. I won’t say more about Conolly and Stoddart - their story is well known. Mind you, if you’ve never read Hopkirk’s Great Game which I mentioned above, navigate away from this page now, read it cover to cover, and come back when you’ve finished. Fat but unputdownable, and after all these years still the gateway to the subject: now that’s a rare book. Joseph Wolff, though, deserves a wider audience. In the circumstances, with both officers almost certainly dead, he must have been a bit cracked to volunteer his services to the Stoddart and Conolly Committee. It was the culmination of twenty years of missionary travels in the east (see Travels and Adventures of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, 1860) after which he retired to a quiet Somerset parish, which is presumably where he met John Browne.

Chiseldon House is now a hotel, and the Browne family sold up in 1901. John Browne’s death at the age of 61 is recorded in the Gent’s Mag in 1853, there are a couple of references to him in the Farmer’s Magazine and he was a member of the Wiltshire Topographical Society; he seems to have been a typical gentleman-farmer. I was trying to work out what he and the well-travelled clergyman might have had in common, and other than being of an age I couldn’t come up with much, but they seem to have become friends.

Wolff was presented to his Somerset living in 1845, in the year that the Narrative first appeared, when Wolff was firmly in the public eye (four English editions plus a US edition within two years); presumably he met Browne somewhere in the English countryside, and they simply got on. The first inscription, as I noted above, has an air of formality, as if the book was sent in the post or presented at a first meeting. The second is much freer, and without any real justification I imagine it being penned over the post-prandial port. I’d wondered if Browne was a scholar, versed in Arabic and Hebrew, but I think it more likely that he simply asked Wolff to write something in those languages. Although Wolff’s father was a German rabbi and Wolff was himself brought up in the Jewish faith, it’s noticeable that his Arabic script is much more fluent, although that may also be the hypothetical port talking. Here’s a full transcript of the page: John Browne Esq from his humble servant Joseph Wolff “I commit thee to God, who rules the world: under His gaze, good-health and well-being, to the end of the world.” To desire both together, God & the world, is incompatible & folly. To Mrs John Browne 1 May 1847 “May you be blessed and may the Lord light up your face, and peace be upon you” . The Lord bless thee & keep thee & let the light of His countenance shine upon thee & give thee peace. Jo. Wolff

Just time for a quick, tangentially related map-fix: this is Edward Stanford’s historical map showing the expansion of the Russian Empire, from the first trade edition of his London Atlas, 1887. This is one of the finest Victorian Atlases, for my money. Edward Stanford (senior) acquired John Arrowsmith’s stock in 1874, including the plates for Arrowsmith’s London Atlas. Stanford’s version, published in Jubilee year and dedicated to Queen Victoria, is considered to be his last significant work before his retirement, although later editions were revised by his heirs, in keeping with the latest information. Francis Herbert’s article on the development of the atlas (Imago Mundi, Vol. 41, 1989) is the standard work here. There’s only one historical map in the whole atlas, and this is it. It’s not a map of London in Queen Elizabeth’s day (actually, there isn’t a detailed map of central London at all in the first edition) or a map of the growth of British Empire, but a map of the rapidly expanding Russian Empire, and that’s a very a good indicator of how Russia was bogey-man-in-chief in mid/late Victorian popular culture until the Germans took over the role at the turn of the twentieth century (think also of Fred Rose’s Russian octopus, also reaching east, which made its debut at the time of the Great Eastern Crisis a decade earlier). Independent Tartary as Wolff had known it was under Russian control within twenty years, and later editions of Stanford’s map dutifully recorded further boundary changes: by 1895 the Russians were just a few miles short of Afghanistan. 

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