Sir Harford Jones (right) in the court of Fat’h Ali, the Shah of Persia, in 1809 by Robert Smirke, RA. Reproduced at the kind permission of trustees of the descendants of Sir Harford Jones Brydges, Bt.
LONDON.- Sotheby's London announced that it will offer for sale as part of its English Literature, History, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations on Tuesday 14th July the remarkable collection of some 3,100 items that document Sir Harford Jones’s time between 1783 and 1811 as agent of the East India Company in Basra then in Baghdad, then his embassy to the Persian court in Tehran. The array of first-hand accounts included in the archive provide an intricately detailed insight into the customs, trade, diplomacy and military upheavals in the Middle East during this period. Estimated at £150,000-200,000*, the archive uncovers the significance in both British and Middle Eastern history of a man considered to have been “underrated at the time and subsequently” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s Specialist in the Books and Manuscripts Department, comments: “Nothing comparable has appeared at auction in modern times - there are few archives that detail the British presence in the Middle East at this significant time in history – and Jones’s continuous immersion in Middle Eastern life is revealed in the frequent references to the language and customs, particularly of Persia and Saudi Arabia. This remarkable archive is not just concerned with British diplomacy but also paints a vivid picture of events and life in the Middle East at this time.”
In 1807 Harford Jones was appointed envoy-extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the court of Fat’h Ali, the Shah of Persia. This appointment was made in the light of growing French influence in Tehran, as Jones explained in a position paper: “…Let England once settle a Peace between Persia and Russia, let her Envoy conduct himself with common prudence and the downfall of the French interest at Tehran must follow of course…”. At this time, the British were concerned that Persians would align themselves with the French, namely Napoleon Bonaparte, rather than the British, and it was Jones who signed a treaty with Persia to secure their support – an agreement from the Shah to prevent any attempted incursion into India via Persia - in return for a pledge that included arms required in the Persian war with Russia of the time. The British were, at this time, extremely concerned about the French threat to their rule in India via the Red Sea or Persian Gulf.
Following the agreement of a preliminary Anglo-Persian treaty, the Shah sent an envoy to England for the first time. Mirza Abdul Hassan’s visited London and was accompanied by Jones’s secretary, James Morier, who wrote more than thirty letters to Jones providing a highly detailed account of this mission and the envoy’s reception England: “… he was received at Plymouth with a guard of honour, salutes were fired…”
In relation to Persian domestic affairs, Jones and the British took a keen interest in the Shah’s heir apparent, the reform-minded crown prince Abbas Mirza. Harford Jones wrote to Robert Dundas, President of the Board of Control for India, on Persia under the Qajar dynasty: “...a Taste and spirit of Improvement seem to possess both the King & the Prince Royal particularly the latter, it is not easy to ascertain the point at which our commercial advantages will stop. If I do not much deceive myself the present Dynasy of the Khajars is likely to be as stable as that of the Suffis and if Abbas Meerza comes to the Throne and his Life is spared to carry into Execution all the vast designs he has for the improvement of the country it will probably be more so...” (26 March 1810)
Sir Harford Jones was in regular correspondence with the British diplomatic mission at the Ottoman court. A richly detailed series of letters by Robert Adair, British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte until 1810, and thereafter by his replacement Stratford Canning, partially in cipher, provides news from Istanbul including the peace treaty between Britain and the Sublime Porte (1809), the actions of the Persian diplomats in Istanbul and Persian politics: “… the whole proceedings of [the Shah’s] Government towards you, are false and deceitful from the beginning to the end..."
Harford Jones kept abreast of events in Istanbul, including everyday events and disasters such as a great fire in the city. Isaac Morier, merchant, on a fire in Constantinople wrote to him: “A dreadfull fire broke out at 8 o’Clock Saturday morning in the street leading to the Great Burying ground, which being favoured by a strong wind, reduced to ashes all that part of Pera to the houses of Chirico and Tranton, which being of stone, stopt it in that direction, but it extended & destroyed all that part behind our palace, which altho’ insulated, was with great difficulty saved [...] The Rapidity of the fire, and want of water, was such as to baffle all efforts to stop it, notwithstanding the presence of the Grand Signor himself, attended by his Ministers...” (23 April 1810)
In 1803 the Hejaz, including the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, was conquered by the Wahhabis led by the House of Saud. The British resident at Bushehr, J.H. Lovett, wrote to Jones of the “general alarm excited by the Wahabee’s motions”, and explained that “A large fleet of transport Dows [...] containing some thousand men was lately assembled at Behryn [i.e. Bahrain]; which you know has joined the reformers. Bussora was the supposed object but measures of precaution were deemed necessary at Bushire. We have since heard that he has attacked Jaifa.” (13 April 1803) Soon afterwards the success of the Saudis was reported to Jones by John Barker: “As to the affairs of the Wahabi, it is confidently reported here, but I have not been ascertain on what authority, that Siood [i.e. Saud] has taken Gidda [Jeddah] and Medina without resistance: and that the sheriff of Mecca, who had fled to Gidda, on being followed by the Wahabi, escaped by Sea to what they call the ‘Islands of the Blacks’.” (Aleppo, 12 July 1803)