Archive for April, 2012

Goa’s Japanese slaves

April 30, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)



I met Daniel Botsman recently in New Haven, Connecticut. An Australian by origin, he is a scholar of Japanese history and teaches at Yale. When he heard of my connection with Goa he asked if I was aware that Goa’s population had once included a fair number of Japanese.

I suppose I should no longer be surprised by the ‘connectedness’ of the world, but I confess that I was astonished to hear this. Cosmopolitan as Goa is, I have seen no signs of a Japanese presence there.

But of course Dani was not referring to the Goa of today. He explained that in the 16th century there had been a flourishing transcontinental traffic in Japanese slaves. The Portuguese had taken many slaves from Japan to Portugal, and since Goa was then the capital of the Portuguese empire in Asia, a good number had ended up in Goa.

Shortly afterwards he sent me an article on the subject, by Thomas Nelson: it is called ‘Slavery in Medieval Japan’ (Monumenta Nipponica, vol 59, No. 4, Winter 2004, pp. 463-492). Here are a few passages from the article.

“Portuguese and other Occidental sources are replete with records of the export of Japanese slaves in the second half of the sixteenth century. A few examples should serve to illustrate this point. Very probably, the first Japanese who set foot in Europe were slaves. As early as 1555, complaints were made by the Church that Portuguese merchants were taking Japanese slave girls with them back to Portugal and living with them there in sin. By 1571, the trade was being conducted on such a scale that King Sebastian of Portugal felt obliged to issue an order prohibiting it lest it hinder Catholic missionary activity in Kyushsu.

‘Political disunity in Japan, however, together with the difficulty that the Portuguese Crown faced in enforcing its will in the distant Indies, the ready availability of human merchandise, and the profits to be made from the trade meant that the chances were negligible of such a ban actually being enforced. In 1603 and 1605, the citizens of Goa protested against the law, claiming that it was wrong to ban the traffic in slaves who had been legally bought. Eventually, in 1605, King Philip of Spain and Portugal issued a document that was a masterpiece of obfuscation intended both to pacify his critics in Goa demanding the right to take Japanese slaves and the Jesuits, who insisted that the practice be banned.

‘”I have been informed of a number of abuses and injustices concerning the taking and captivity of people from Japan. My late cousin King Sebastian ordered in 1570 that this be prohibited. I ordered that the said decree should be published and obeyed in those regions. I have no been told that it has been claimed that this edict should be extended to slaves who are legally and properly held. This has created many problems in addition to the damages incurred by the inhabitants of the Estate [of India] as well as the problems in that are likely to arise if they are set free. It was not my intention, nor would it have been the wish of the King Sebastian, to prevent Japanese being held as slaves when there are just and lawful titles and in those cases in which the law permits it to be done, as with the people of other nations. In order to prevent other problems that have been reported to me by the cities of Goa and Cochin, I have enacted the accompanying provision, which you will order to be published so that it will come to the notice of everyone; you will see this is obeyed, taking care that all the abuses presently existing and that hitherto have existed in this matter be prevented, and that the said slaves have the right to seek justice if they claim their captivity is illegal and lacks legitimate title”‘[p. 463-464]

The Jesuits realized that the Portuguese participation in the slave trade was endangering their missionary efforts in Japan (to add further to the ‘connectedness’ of the story, one of the most prominent Catholic missionaries in Japan was an East Indian from Vasai/Bassein, near Mumbai: St. Gonsalo Garcia, who was crucified near Nagasaki in 1597). The Jesuits’ fears, writes Thomas Nelson ‘were confirmed when Hideyoshi, the great unifier of Japan after a century of civil strife, arrived in Kyushu. He shared the disgust of many of his countrymen at the custom, common in Kyushu, of selling Japanese slaves to foreigners, and he questioned the Jesuits sharply on this practice. On 24 July 1587, he sent the following letter to the Jesuit Vice-Provincial Gaspar Coelho, preserved in Luis Frois’s Historia de Japam:

‘”It has come to our attention that Portuguese, Siamese, and Cambodians who come to our shores to trade are buying many people, taking them captive to their kingdoms, ripping Japanese away from their homeland, families, children and friends. This is insufferable. Thus, would the Padre ensure that all those Japanese who have up until now been sold in India and other distant places be returned again to Japan. If this is not possible, because they are far away in remote kingdoms, then at least have the Portuguese set free the people whom they have bought recently. I will provide the money necessary to do this.”‘ [p. 465]

The article is fascinating but leaves many questions. What became of Goa’s Japanese slaves? Some of them must have had children and if so, what was their fate? I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to know more.


Opportunity for a working holiday in India

April 27, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)





Karina Corrigan is the principal curator for ‘Asian Export Art’ at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.


Karina in one of the museum’s spectacular galleries




This is the genre of art that was produced in the major ports of Asia in 18th and 19th centuries – cities such as Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, and most notably Canton (Guangzhou).




View of Canton, 1750-1800, ivory bas-relief, Peabody Essex Museum



One of the greatest pleasures of embarking on the Ibis Trilogy was that of being drawn into the exuberantly improvisatory, wildly interfused, kedgeree-and-achar, can-do ethos of the world that produced this genre of art. I have come to love its startlingly innovative creations and the unusual characters who populate it.




Rajinder Dutt, ca. 1848, clay, straw, paint, cloth, attributed Shri Ram Pal



I have long known that the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts





possesses what is probably the world’s finest collection of works of this genre, but for one reason or another I wasn’t able to visit the museum until a couple of weeks ago, when I had the immense good fortune of being shown around the collection by Karina herself, and her colleague Susan Bean, who is the Curator of South Asian and Korean Art at the Museum.



Susan Bean, framed by Anish Kapoor’s ‘Halo’




I will be writing at greater length about the Museum when time permits, but suffice it to say for now that my viewing of the Museum’s treasures was enormously enriched by Karina and Susan’s erudition and intimate familiarity with the collection.

In the course of the tour I discovered that Karina also supports a voluntary group in Chennai that works on issues of public health and education. Recently she sent me this message:

Do you know anyone interested in a working holiday in India?

This is a great opportunity with Nalamdana, the public health communication non-profit based in Chennai, India with which I am affiliated.

Since 1993, this creative collaboration has created street plays on a variety of health issues, and Nalamdana has reached more than half a million people through street theatre, and many more through other media like tele-dramas, interactive media and print. Nalamdana’s performances are targeted at a semi-literate and illiterate audience in rural and urban Tamil Nadu. They are now launching a radio program with which to reach an even wider audience, so it’s an exciting time to be involved with this dynamic organization.

Would you share this with individuals and/or the universities with which you are connected (or let me know which offices at those institutions to direct this info)?

Here is a link to the page on Nalamdana’s website that has specific information about the working holiday program.

Irrawaddy dolphin film clip

April 26, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




This letter and the accompanying clip took me back to my own trip on the Mekong, in which I accompanied Isabel Beasley on a river dolphin survey (see my posts of Dec 2011 and Jan 2012). Despite the ominous commentary on the clip, the news is actually more encouraging than not. In 2oo4 Isabel estimated that the Irrawaddy dolphin population in the Mekong was perilously close to 50, the minimum number for a sustainable population. This clip suggests that the population is now close to 100.





Dear Mr. Ghosh

I love your books and to me they are unique; I adore your
“traveller’s” take on things. I have a connection with each of your
books “The Hungry Tide” is my favorite as I am an ecologist and work
in the everglades on effects of sea level rise on coastal forests. ”
The Sea of Poppies” too, I had been to Trinidad a couple years ago and
fell in love with the place. My dad visited Ratnagiri  again after
reading your book “The Glass Palace”, as originally we are from Konkan
area. I wanted to bring to your attention this movie I saw on Al
Jazeera, on the endangered  Irrawaddy dolphins, it is indeed sad that
these magnificent animals will go extinct soon. Thanks to you to have
brought them into limelight.

best wishes and good luck with everything

Sonali Saha





Mosquitoes and malaria: where the link was discovered…

April 24, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)





From Kolkata Rangan Datta sends the letter below with a link to an interesting piece on the Ronald Ross memorial. There are several other interesting posts on his page, including an excellent piece on Kolkata’s Chinese temples and one on the Zoroastrian temple, which he visited when it was under renovation (the temples are otherwise closed to non-Zoroastrians).



Dear Dr Amitav Ghosh, I am one of your numerous reader and one one of the numerous persons to write to you. I have read many of your books but the one that fascinated me most is “Calcutta Chromosome.” Centered round Ronald Ross’ Nobel Prize winning discovery the book has left an enormous impact on me.

My first encountered with the Roland Ross Memorial, located on the western wall of the Presidency General Hospital, happened during my days of Post Graduation in the Department of Business Management of Calcutta University’s Alipur Campus (1998 – 2000). During the two years I regularly walked past the memorial and often stopping to read the inscriptions over and over again

I read Calcutta Chromosome a couple of years back and it was enough to ignite my decade old passion on the memorial. I decided to have a small writeup (along with photos) on the Ronald Ross Memorial in my Blog.

I am sending you the link Ronald Ross Memorial.

I would be ever grateful if you come up with your comments and suggestions.

Eagerly waiting for a reply.


Sea of Poppies: The Film

April 23, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (18)





Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui are a dazzling couple,



blessed with a superabundance of talent, energy and charm.








Anusha wrote and directed the hugely successful 2010 film Peepli Live (Mahmood was the co-director). The film was a critical and commercial success both in India and abroad: it was selected for the Sundance Film Festival and was also India’s official entry for the Oscars in 2010.
















Mahmood is a Rhodes Scholar with degrees in history from Delhi University, Oxford and Cambridge. He is also a gifted scholar of Urdu  (his uncle, Shamsur Rahman Farooqui, is one of the towering figures of contemporary Urdu literature).

In 2010, the same year that Peepli Live was released, Mahmood published a remarkable book about the 1857 uprising: Beseiged: Voices from Delhi 1857 (Penguin India).  The book is a genre-defying compilation of letters, memoirs and other documents – it is about as close to a Twitter-feed from the Delhi of 1857 as is possible to imagine.

But Mahmood is also an enormously talented actor and performer, and over the last several years, under the mentorship of his uncle, he has collaborated with Danish Husain in reviving an Urdu performance art known as Dastangoi: this is a form of story-telling that had all but died out by the start of this century. Now Mahmood and Danish’s performances regularly draw huge audiences (some clips can be seen here and here and several more are posted on their website).

Although Mahmood and I had exchanged occasional emails in the past I was completely unprepared for the message he sent me in May 2011:


Dear Amitav,
I am writing to ask you how you feel about Sea of Poppies being made into a film. I have been toying with the idea ever since I read the book, which incidentally I did while we were shooting Peepli Live. I know its a part of a trilogy but I do think there is enough material in it for one to base a film around it. We don’t have a script yet, nor a producer, but wanted to ask your views before we began to work on it.


Mahmood’s message put me in something of a quandary because it came at a time when I was considering expressions of interest from some other, very well known, film-makers. But I was soon to travel to New Delhi, where Anusha and Mahmood live, for the release of River of Smoke so I arranged to meet with them there.

I must admit that I did not expect much to come of the meeting when I went into it – but this was only because I had never met Anusha and Mahmood before. Such was the passion and eloquence with which they spoke of the book, and of the film they hoped to make, that I was in a completely different frame of mind by the time the meeting ended.

From that day on, the more I thought about it the more I came to be persuaded that Anusha and Mahmood were right for Sea of Poppies. Their passion for the project played a large part in this: I always knew that to make a film of this book would require great reserves of passion,energy, conviction and perseverance – and I could see that Mahmood and Anusha possess all of these in plenty. Another factor that weighed greatly with me is that Mahmood grew up in Gorakhpur and speaks Bhojpuri: he has a visceral connection with the book’s themes and characters.

But in the end decisions like these are made not so much in the head as in the gut. And it was patently evident to me – as it must be to everyone who meets them – that Mahmood and Anusha are people of unflinching integrity. I felt I could trust them to be true to the spirit of the book.

Within a couple of months we reached an agreement that gives Mahmood and Anusha’s production company an eighteen month option on the film rights of Sea of Poppies.

The ink had yet to dry on the contract when Mahmood wrote: ‘We have a kind of a working draft of the screenplay ready now, down to 155 pages from the first mammoth structure (which was a whopping 294 pages). But I feel that we will need to pare this too down to some 125 pages or so, which in theory makes for a two hour film…

I offered to read the draft but Mahmood countered with an even better offer: ‘I would much rather do a Bombay style ‘narration’ of the script than send it to you over mail.’

And so it happened that Mahmood and Anusha came to Goa where he performed a ‘narration’ of the script over three spell-binding sessions.






That Mahmood’s performance was superlative need scarcely be said: but no less impressive was the skill with which he and Anusha had woven together the multiple strands of the book, preserving many more than I would have thought possible. To a quite astonishing degree the script also preserved the language of Sea of Poppies – but in some of its most compelling passages the diction is transformed into Bhojpuri!

Listening to the last part of the narrative, where the climactic events unfold in rapid succession, was an unforgettable experience: I found myself marveling, not just at Mahmood’s performance but also at the thought that this story had sprung from my own head.

Recently Anusha wrote: ‘The first draft of the script was chosen for the Mumbai Mantra – Sundance global filmmaking awards 2012 and was also part of the first ever Sundance screenwriters Lab held in India, Lonavala,  2012. Both Mahmood and I would direct this film and it would be produced under Third World Productions Pvt Ltd.’

They are now hard at work on the second draft. When they finish it I’d like to make a film of my own: a documentary of Mahmood’s second narration of the script.





The Glass Palace and Recent Events in Burma

April 20, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Dear Mr Ghosh,

My name is David, I am a middle-aged Englishman, and an avid reader.

I recently, for the first time, bought a couple of your books.

I started reading The Glass Palace a couple of weeks ago (I only ever have time for a good read at the weekends) and was fascinated by the story.

I certainly learnt a lot of the history of the Indian/Burmese/Malay region and from a new perspective.

So on Saturday now I was reading the final chapters, those dealing with the post-war history of Burma, the movement of General Aung San, and the military dictatorship.

At the same time the news media was full of the news of the elections and of Aung San Suu Kyi.

I almost felt that I was racing to read the final pages alongside the election news.

This was really quite an emotional experience, and to be honest I had quite a lump in my throat at the end.

Let’s hope that this first step will eventually lead to a new and free Burma.

It won’t be easy and expectations will be colossal, especially for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Fingers crossed for Burma.

I don’t know why, but I felt that I had to share this with you.

Thank you for writing such a wonderful and engaging novel.

And now I’m looking forward to reading The Sea of Poppies.

Best wishes,

David Hammond


Indian dies of Eating too Much Opium: London; 1903

April 19, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Dinyar Patel, a gifted young historian, has written several pieces about the catastrophic state of Indian archives: he has done more to bring this matter to public notice than anyone else. His pieces can be read here, here, here and here.

His most recent article on this subject has just been published in the Hindu. He writes: ‘Over the past fifteen months, I have visited many institutions across the country in connection with my dissertation research on Dadabhai Naoroji. What I have seen has disturbed me. Archival experiences recounted by my academic colleagues have horrified me. Unless the government takes quick and decisive action, India is at risk of letting much of its heritage literally crumble into dust. Written sources of Indian history are at grave risk of being lost forever.’

‘At the National Archives of India, I consult Naoroji’s papers in the Private Archives room, which has broken windows and no proper temperature control. It is no surprise, therefore, that thousands of Naoroji’s letters have been destroyed over the past few decades and that thousands more are now too damaged to be read: while Naoroji bequeathed over 60,000 items upon his death in 1917, less than 30,000 survive today. The papers of Naoroji’s colleagues, such as Romesh Chunder Dutt, are in a similarly shameful state. How would the Grand Old Man, who so enthusiastically championed self-government as a solution to India’s administrative woes, react to this disappearance of so much nationalist heritage? ‘

Recently Dinyar sent me some interesting fragments from Dadabhai Naoroji’s papers. They were prefaced with this:

As a bit of background information: in the Naoroji Papers, there are hundreds and hundreds of letters from Indians resident in the UK from the 1860s-1900s. Since Naoroji was recognized as the most senior and prominent member of the British Indian community, he functioned as a mentor and father-figure for many of them. Whenever anyone got into trouble, faced financial problems, or needed academic advice, they turned to Naoroji. I have discovered a telegraph from New Years Day 1901 (if I remember correctly) at 1am where a police constable at Vine St Station lets Naoroji know that an Indian has been arrested for public drunkenness, and wants Naoroji to bail him out of jail! Some of these letters will be included in an edited volume of selections from the Naoroji Papers that I am co-edited with Professor S.R. Mehrotra, who has written extensively on the early phase of the Indian nationalist movement.


No date (Naoroji’s reply dated 7 April 1903)

Rajaram B. Panvalkar to Dadabhai Naoroji

Anerley Park, London

R-13 (1)

Six handwritten pages

Original: Laminated. Difficult to read due to lamination and ink bleeding through paper.

The following letter was written at Naoroji’s Anerley Park residence, on Naoroji’s stationery. As the author himself indicates, it was written ‘in haste & in mental uneasiness;’ hence, the numerous spelling and grammatical errors, which have all been left intact.

[DN:] repld 7/4/1903

Washington House,

72, Anerley Park,

London. S.E.

Dear Sir

I think you remember to have met Pundit Jwalanath Sharma [(]B.A. B.L. of Calcutta) some months back. He was staying at 50 Kenilworth Road, Kilburn N.W.) [sic].

I am sorry to tell that he is dead; and I wanted to consult you about his funeral; he has some 60£. in the bank (Thomas Cook & Sons). He was a Brahmin and belonged to the Nagari class. I wish to give him a descent creamation [sic] & I hope you will join me in that.

I dare say you know me. I am a member of the London Indian Society. I am a man of no means, therefore I can’t take the matter in my hand. The Police have removed the body to their quarters and tomorrow there will be the coroner’s inquest. The Police have also cabled to his wife in Calcutta through Thomas Cook & Sons) [sic]. I am a Maratha Brahmin. I wish to do my best to help in the matter. The police have his bank acc. book; but if you will be kind enough to forward me me [sic] some advice as to what should be done I shall be highly obliged to you.

The undertaker says he must make a coffin for him—& a special permission for creamation should be issue[d]—or granted.

I am sorry you were not home—hoping to know from [you] immediately tomorrow morning and with kindly regards.

I am writing in haste & in mental uneasiness

Yours sincerely

Rajaram [B. Panvalkar]

If you could conveniently do so, I shall be pleased to see you at his funeral.

I am poor and so could not do anything for him in the matter of money.


Please write without fail—

Hon. Dadabhai Nawaroji

9 April 1903

Rajaram B. Panvalkar to Dadabhai Naoroji

Kilburn, London


Two handwritten pages

Original: fair

[DN:] Repd 10/4/1903


41 Hopefield Avenue,

Kilburn, N.W.


Dear Sir,

The coroner’s inquest took place yesterday forenoon at 11.35 A.M. The doctors verdict was that he died of “heart disease accelerated by opium eating”. We have arranged to cremate him on Saturday morning at 11 A.M. at the Crematorium Golders Green, Finchley. The funeral procession will start from 73, Victoria Road Kilburn N.W. (where he died) at 10 A.M. sharp.

I shall be pleased to see you among us that time if this time is not inconvenient to you.

From Victoria sta.—red buses come straight to Kilburn.

Hoping to see you on Saturday morning—

The Glass Palace and the Trail of the Last King of Burma

April 17, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (9)



Dear Dr. Amitav Ghosh,

I presume you must be getting a lot of fan mail, my mail is no different.

Ever since I got hold of The Hungry Tide (while on a visit to Calcutta), I have been reading your books. I’ve not read all your books but I’m reading them in intervals, else I would have read them all.

I was so enamored and griped while reading The Glass Palace, that I took off , the next weekend to Ratnagiri from Bombay. I had, vaguely known that King Thibaw was exiled to Ratnagiri by one of my friends from Assam, many many years ago. But the catalyst was your wonderful book. I was driven to seek out the story for myself.

I looked up the Kings descendents Chadrakant Pawar (Chandu),










chatted with him and his family, to get to know a bit more of this forgotten tale, visited the Palace












and also the royal tombs.






What a joy to experience all this right from your book.




I thank you for this interesting journey. After my visit, a clearer picture emerged of the story. But I was saddened by the plight of the Kings descendents, there was nothing in it for them, being of blue blood, such is life.








If you have the time, please have a look at some of the photos of my Ratnagiri visit.

I very very eagerly await more and more books from you. 2012 will be dedicated to reading all your books, which now very few remain unread.



Inscription: Royal Tombs, Ratnagiri









My name is Gauraang and I work for the Economic and Political Weekly in the commercial section. You had published an article in the EPW sometime back.


















Dear Gaurang

Thanks so much for this generous letter! It’s wonderful to know that the book inspired you to visit Ratnagiri. I really liked the town – did you visit BG Tilak’s birthplace?




It’s a beautiful Konkani house.

I should tell you though (but perhaps you already know this) that the King did not live in the present day ‘Thebaw Palace’ for long. He spent most of his time in Ratnagiri in Outram House, at the other end of town.

You’ll be glad to know that an excellent account of the Burmese royal family’s years in exile is soon to be published. It is by Sudha Shah – I am just reading the proofs. I will soon review it on my blog [posted on April 12].

Speaking of which, would you mind if I posted your letter on my blog? If you send me jpgs of some of your pictures I could post those too.

I am glad to know that you work at the EPW. It is an extraordinary publication – and Ram Reddy is an old friend of mine.

With my best wishes





Dear Dr. Amitav Ghosh,

What a delight to receive your email. It would be a privilege for me, to have my letter on your blog. I’m sending a few photos along with this mail.

No, I did not get a chance to see Tilak’s house, I will surely do so on my next visit. The time I went, was just with a singular purpose of finding anything about King Thibaw in Ratnagiri.

I did know, that the King did not spend much time in the present Thibaw Palace, but is not the present day Outram House, the residence of the District Collector, just a short distance from the Palace. There is even a “point” opposite the Collectors residence called Thibaw Point.

Thank you for informing me about Sudha Shah’s work on the Burmese royal family’s years in exile, I will be looking forward to that.

Many in India know about Bahadur Shah Zafar, being exiled to Rangoon, but very few know about the Burmese King being exiled to India. You might be surprised, in Assam, my friend tells me, King Thibaw’s exile was a chapter in their history syllabus.

Thank you once again for the wonderful books.










The Mystery of the Meteorite in Bihar’s Opium Fields

April 15, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



This correspondence alerted me to a subject that I had no inkling of: the role of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in collecting and studying meteorites. My correspondent, Kevin Kichinka, has published a well known book on meteorite collection. He is currently interested in a meteorite that landed in Bihar on Aug 25, 1865 – the Shergotty meteorite. In his second letter he writes: ‘If your readers might be in a position to help in this search for data, I’ll mention other background items that would add to this fantastic story, a story that has never been told before.’


From: Kevin Kichinka <>
Sent: Tuesday, 3 April 2012 4:59 PM
Subject: Location of 19th Century Opium Crops in India


Mr. Ghosh:


I am presently writing a feature on the Shergotty meteorite which fell
in Bihar on August 25, 1865. This meteorite is now of the class that
is most common to meteorites from Mars, ‘shergottites’. The feature
will appear as two parts in ‘Meteorite’ in May and August. This
quarterly is published by the Univ. of Arkansas and NASA.

No one has been able to describe the circumstances of the fall but
with help I was able to obtain a doc “Proceedings of the Asiatic
Society of Bengal” from Dec, 1865 that contained this information.
Since then, I have been treasure hunting for biographies of the
British Raj magistrates involved with the meteorite.

To my utter and great surprise, I discovered the meteorite was about
to be discarded as a ‘meteor-wrong’ until a ‘sub-opium agent Mr.
Peppe” mentioned that he had seen other meteorites with common
characteristics to Shergotty.

My story now takes a detour to the opium trade, something of which,
like myself, 99.999999% of the world’s past and present population had
no idea of. Fascinating!

Today, I came upon your book, “Sea of Poppies” and was further amazed
to learn that my inkling that neither the British nor the Indians
realized the impact of the opium trade was correct.

Do you know the duties of a ‘sub opium agent’ in the 1860’s?

Can you write me whether crops were grown near Shergotty, Bihar, which
is south of Gaya, a place my research indicates poppies were grown and
the product stored?

I will be purchasing your book asap I return to Florida next month (I
live in Costa Rica).

Please, consider this a ‘serious’ scientific inquiry. See my best
selling book here:

A hopeful ‘thank you’ in advance that you can help me.

Kevin Kichinka
Santa Ana, Costa Rica




Dear Kevin

Thanks very much for this fascinating letter. The duties of a sub-opium agent would have involved traveling through the countryside for the purposes of procurement and assessment, so they would certainly hear of something like this.

Would you mind if I posted your letter on my blog? It’s possible that some of my readers might know something about this.

best wishes






Please use our correspondence as you see fit.

If your readers might be in a position to help in this search for
data, I’ll mention other background items that would add to this
fantastic story, a story that has never been told before. We are all
forensic history detectives :>) Your readers/sources will be duly
credited for their help.

The 1865 paper found in the minutes of the Asiatic Society of Bengal
says the meteorite fell “in some upland appertaining to Mouzah
Umjhiawar, in the sub-division of Sherghotty.”

1. Where did Mouzah Umjhiawar live?

The meteorite’s fall was “witnessed by Hanooman Singh, a resident of
Mouzah Ahiherrah, in Pergunnah Bilounjah, Thannah Nubbeenuggar.”

Indian postal records from 1854 list Nubbeenuggar as a sub post office
of “Sherghauti’. I suppose Singh lived near where he recovered the
meteorite. I don’t know if he was a ‘peon’ working that day in the
fields or what crops, possibly poppies, might be cultivated there.

2. Where is Nubbeenuggar?

The paper, written by magistrate W.C. Costley, also says, “The
latitude and longitude of the spot where the aerolite fell, can, I
fancy, be approximately obtained from the knowledge of its position
with reference to known localities. But this information, which I do
not at present possess, together with the replies to the queries put
to me and noted above, will have to be furnished hereafter, as they
appear necessary to make the report more ample, and can conveniently
form an addendum to it.”

The coordinates of the fall, as per multiple, probably copied sources,
are 24* 34’N, 84* 47’E., at an altitude of 121m/397′.

But the GSI Registration document S-179 for the Shergotty meteorite
says it fell near 24* 33’N, 84* 50’E.

There is now no way to know how these coordinates were derived.

I have sent you a Google Earth map with these locations marked.
Neither has an altitude of 121m/397′ or appears to be an ‘upland’.

All of this opens the door to another location for the fall.

At the time of the fall in August, 1865, Cecil Beadon was the
Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal. S.C. Bayley was the Officiating
Secretary to the Government of Bengal, A.Hope was the Magistrate of
Behar, W.C. Costley was the Deputy Magistrate of Shergotty.

A piece of the meteorite ended in the hands of a Mr. O’Connor,
assistant Superintendent of Police. If we knew where Mr. O’Connor was
assigned, this may help in locating where the meteorite fell. I can
find no record of his service. That fragment of the meteorite
apparently was never returned to the GSI or the museum in Calcutta,
and may be still with his family.

3. If we knew where Mr. O’Connor was assigned, this may help in
locating where the meteorite fell

Mr. Peppe was the sub-opium agent that recognized the meteorite as a
meteorite. I can find no record of his service.

4. If we knew Peppe’s assigned area, this may shed light on where the
meteorite fell.

Lastly, The Commissioner of Patna wrote communication No. 329, “dated
the 5th instant, and enclosures” that contains more information
regarding the circumstances of the fall of this meteorite.

5. If some government file cabinet still holds this document, it may
prove crucial, especially in locating where it fell.

It’s only a mathematical possibility, but knowing where the meteorite
fell would open the door to locating other possible fragments.

Please keep me apprised of any information your readers can ‘dig up’.

That was a pun :>)

In the seventies, I twice passed near Bihar on bus trips I took as a tourist.



Please find attached for your enjoyment (and since it won’t be
published for another month, please embargo “for your eyes only”),
part one of my feature for Meteorite magazine on Shergotty.

The captivity of Burma’s last king and the fall of the Konbaung dynasty: a compelling new account

April 12, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (16)

I met Sudha Shah in Mumbai in 2008, at the launch of Sea of Poppies. We had a brief conversation in the course of which she told me that The Glass Palace had inspired her to work on a book of her own: a non-fiction account of the lives of King Thibaw, the last monarch of Mandalay, and his wife Queen Supayalat and their family. This immediately caught my interest for I have long felt that such a book needs to be written, so I did something I very rarely do: I offered to read the manuscript.
I next heard from Sudha on Sept 23, 2010 when she sent this letter to my website:

Dear Amitav,

Your book The Glass Palace so captivated me that I was inspired to research and write the biography of King Thibaw and his family. My book tells the story of King Thibaw’s intrigue-filled seven-year rule, the loss of his throne, and his family’s life during and after their exile.The raison d’être of the book is to provide an insight into, firstly, how an all-powerful and very wealthy family coped with forced isolation and separation from all that it had once known and cherished; and, secondly, how the exile continued to echo in the life of the family in a myriad ways well after it ended. My sources include in-depth interviews with King Thibaw’s descendants including four of his grandchildren, two of whom are now deceased; extensive interviews in Ratnagiri, Kalimpong, Kolkata, Mumbai, Yangon, and  Pyin Oo Lwin; libraries, newspaper records and  government archives  in Mumbai, London, Yangon and New Delhi; published material; and  letters, articles, family photographs and  other material given to me  by two Burmese historians and by members  of the late king’s family.  I have been working on the book for the last six years and have very recently handed over the manuscript to HarperCollins (India), who will be publishing it.

When I met you at the launch of your book Sea of Poppies in Mumbai, you had very generously offered to read my manuscript. May I take you up on your offer now? I would really appreciate your comments   and, if you feel it appropriate after reading the manuscript, a   blurb from you for my book would mean the world to me!

I look forward to hearing from you.


Sudha Shah

I wrote back to explain that I’d stopped doing blurbs some years before, because I’d found myself in a situation where I was doing too many and it was taking up too much of my time. But I renewed my offer to read the ms and I also said that if I liked it I would write about it on my blog.

The proofs of Sudha’s book, which is soon to be published by Harper Collins India, arrived in my mailbox last month. The book is called The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma.

The book was well worth the wait for it is an absorbing read. Exhaustively researched and gracefully written The King in Exile tells a story of compelling human interest, filled with drama, pathos and tragedy.

The King in Exile heralds the arrival of a writer of non-fiction who is both uncommonly talented and exceptionally diligent. Sudha Shah is clearly an indefatigable researcher and in the seven years it took to write this book she seems to have spared no effort in exhuming the lives of King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat and their four daughters.

Perhaps the most heart-rending narrative is that of the First Princess, the royal couple’s oldest daughter. The Princess fell in love with Gopal Sawant, a youth from Ratnagiri who was employed as a gatekeeper in King Thibaw’s residence. She bore him a daughter called Tu-tu, and long after King Thibaw’s death, when the rest of the family had left Ratnagiri, she rejoined him there with her daughter. Sawant’s resources were limited and he had another wife and family; the Princess and Tu-tu were installed in another house where he would visit her once a day. ‘For the rest of her life,’ writes Sudha, ‘people would see her pacing up and down, her hands clasped behind her back, her lips moving in prayer. When seated, she would tell her beads. As an act of merit, she would share her meagre rations with any poor person passing by; sometimes all she had to give was ‘half a slice of bread’. The townspeople, seeing her piety and her distress, viewed her with newfound compassion and sympathy. Although sorry for her, they never reached out to her.’ (p. 255)

The Princess’s daughter, Tu-tu, also married a local man, Shankar Yeshwant Pawar; he too had once been an employee of the royal family. After Tutu’s marriage the princess, now truly alone ‘turned to local young children for some companionship. Some of these children, now adults in their seventies and eighties, still have vivid though limited memories of her. One gentleman, who used to see her regularly, recalls that every evening ‘she used to hand out biscuits to kids and biscuits were rare in Ratnagiri in those days’. He remembers she would invite him and his friends into her home, which consisted of three very bare rooms with a chair or two, a stool and a cupboard. He does not remember a bed and says she slept on the floor. For an hour or so every evening the boys would play boisterously in her house, shattering the deafening silence that usually permeated it, and inadvertently providing her with a measure of distraction and a semblance of belonging. Although she and the boys had nothing much to say to each other, he recalls her attempts to talk to them in her foreign-accented, broken Marathi which was not always easy to follow. He says she called Gopal ‘Shivrekar’ (as did many in Ratnagiri), and she would tell the children, ‘Shivrekar has taken my money and gone.’ He describes how she waited ‘every evening at her door for Shivrekar. When she would see him coming she would chase the kids away, saying in Marathi “Shivrekar alle! Shivrekar alle!”(Shivrekar’s come! Shivrekar’s come!).’  It was clear she wanted the children gone before Gopal reached her door; it was clear she sought and needed his company.’ (p. 244)

Tutu’s life was no less difficult than her mother’s. She had nine children with Shankar of whom seven survived: ‘About four years older than Tu Tu, Shankar was a gentle and warm man who unfortunately gradually became an alcoholic.  In spite of his addiction, Shankar did hold down a job most of his life,  but sadly, he squandered away much of his salary on drinking binges,  and it was Tu Tu who had to eke out a living, in addition to looking after her perpetually growing family and her lonely ageing mother… She raised ducks and goats for sale.  And, with her children’s help, she grew and harvested paddy on the land on which she lived.  People in Ratnagiri say that Tu Tu was never ashamed or embarrassed to do any kind of work. They remember her setting out, basket on hip, to salvage discarded scraps from around town to recycle; they remember her collecting cow dung, to pat into cakes to sell as fuel. She disregarded exclamations of ‘Look at the princess now making cow dung cakes!’ and soldiered on. According to one of her ex-neighbours Tu Tu had two strains of genes: royal and worker. The worker genes were apparent in the hard work she relentlessly put in every day; the royal genes were apparent in her regal bearing and her generosity, which reminded people of her mother, the First Princess, and her grandfather, King Thibaw.  Tu Tu did not let a harsh and impoverished existence kill her innate generosity and kindness… Perhaps because she had felt unloved and stigmatized as a child, Tu Tu had tremendous compassion for unwanted babies. Numerous unwed mothers, from in and around Ratnagiri, would silently leave their newborns on Tu Tu’s doorstep, secure in the knowledge that she would take the baby in and look after it.’ (p.254-55)

In 1999, at the age of 93, Tutu and her family found themselves embroiled in a property dispute and were evicted from their land: ‘To enforce the eviction, a posse of five policemen and one lady constable arrived unannounced a few days before Diwali in 1999 and physically dragged the then ninety-three year old Tu Tu and her family out, and threw their possessions off the property. Demolition of the house began that very instant, with the roof and the Dattaguru shrine being destroyed in the family’s presence. A devastated Tu Tu refused to budge and stayed next to her broken hut for three nights… Like her mother, she believed that the royal residence in Ratnagiri belonged rightfully to her family and that the government had appropriated it without any compensation. She felt that as King Thibaw’s granddaughter, she was entitled to some help—financial, housing—from the government and it frustrated her that this help never came, and that she had to live in poverty in a small hut almost all her life. When even this inadequate hut was cruelly snatched from her, she sentimentally pleaded that she be allowed, for old time’s sake, to spend just one day in the royal residence that had been her childhood home. ‘After spending a day in the Palace I will die happily,’ she said to a journalist. But the Indian government, for various bureaucratic reasons, was unable to grant this request to the dying woman who had given so much of herself to the town of Ratnagiri.’ (p. 260).

Tutu died, the author tells us, a few months later, ‘in the garage cum residence where her son Chandu still lives with his family.’

Thibaw Palace, Ratnagiri, 1998

The  British had their reasons for keeping the royal family out of sight: they were afraid the dynasty would become the focus of resistance to colonial rule in Burma. They understood very well that in a realm composed of a dense patchwork of communities and ethnicities, a monarchical tradition could serve as a binding thread. One of the contributions of The King in Exile is that it show the anxieties of the British to be well-founded: it is evident from Sudha’s research that the dynasty’s appeal did not end with the fall of the monarchy. Even after the King Thebaw’s death, British administrators in Burma were careful to keep the royal family under wraps.

But perhaps the most startling revelation (or rather suggestion) in the book is that the British might also have tried, at the very end of colonial rule, to use the royal family to counter the nationalist movement that was headed by General Aung San (Daw Suu Kyi’s father).

Prince Taw Phaya Galae, a descendant of the royal family told Sudha that in 1945 the ‘Home Minister Sir Paw Tun… approached his eldest brother with the proposal that if Prince Taw Phaya Gyi agreed ‘to join hands with the British Government to suppress Aung San, I [Sir Paw Tun] will take care of the matter that Prince Taw Phaya Gyi should become King-designate’. A shocked Prince Taw Phaya Gyi, who wanted his country’s independence as much as any of his most patriotic countrymen, and who saw in Bogyoke Aung San the means to this cherished end, categorically refused. Sir Paw Tun asked him to reconsider and accept the offer that was being made by the British ‘out of goodwill’. Prince Taw Phaya Gyi, always known as a man of principle, indignantly replied, ‘I would rather be a vagrant than be a king elected by the British and that’s my answer, Sir Paw Tun…As a man of wisdom you may have heard of the adage “A lion even though dying of hunger does not eat grass”’’ (pp. 301-2).

Nor was this the last turn of the wheel: the colonists’ successors also had reason to fear the dynasty’s appeal. Sudha describes a ceremony held in the 1950s by General Ne Win who was then head of a caretaker government: ‘The government let it be known far and wide that the royal family would be coming, and people from all around the area poured in through the previous night to reserve a spot for a glimpse of the family. The Third Princess, Prince Taw Phaya, Prince Taw Phaya Galae, Princess Hteik Phaya Htwe (the Fourth Princess’s youngest daughter), and two of Prince Taw Phaya’s eldest sons attended the event. As the family approached the stage, girls and women of all ages, in a truly astounding demonstration of affection, bent forward in the traditional sheiko, and loosened and laid down their long hair so that the royal family would not have to walk on the bare ground, ‘and we had to step on their hair and go.’ Prince Taw Phaya rather nonchalantly adds, ‘I mean there is always a sentiment for their old kings with the people.’ The government’s reaction was not so nonchalant. Taken aback and flustered by the obvious depth of public sentiment for the royal family, the government took no more chances. They now longer saw the familynot as allies for a common cause but as potential competitors for popular support, and stopped involving them in any further campaigns.’ (p. 294)

One of the great merits of The King in Exile is that it is completely free of jargon and theorizing. It is in essence a family story, centred on five women whose lives were waylaid by history. To my mind Sudha is at her best when she writes about the Princesses – and the reason for this, I suspect, is that these sections are founded largely on interviews. When she depends mainly on archival and secondary material she sometimes falls hostage to the sources.

But these are rare lapses: for the most part the crafting of the book is so assured that I could not help wondering about Sudha’s previous experience as a writer. On reaching the end of the book I sent her some questions. They are posted below, along with her answers.

Q. Where did you travel in the course of your research?

A. For interviews with descendants, I’ve traveled several times to Ratnagiri, Kolkata (where the Second Princess’s son had settled), Yangon and Pyin Oo Lwin. Also to Mandalay, for a feel of the city and palace, and to Kalimpong for a better understanding of the Second Princess’s life. My archival and library research has been done in Mumbai (The Maharashtra State Archives), New Delhi (National Archives of India), Yangon (National Archives Department of Myanmar), and London (British Library, SOAS library).

Q. How long did your research take?

A. I read The Glass Palace in 2004 and was hooked. I felt I had to know more about the family.  I first visited Ratnagiri in July 2004, and met some of the First Princess’s descendants. I almost immediately afterwards visited Maharashtra Archives to determine what information it held on the family. So began my research. I researched and wrote for seven years (I have revised my manuscript a couple of times after handing it in to HarperCollins in 2010).

Q. Did you have any previous connection with Burma/Myanmar?

A. No, I had no previous connection with Burma, although descendants of the Fourth Princess tease me that there must be a karmic connection for my interest to have been sustained for so long!

Q. You seem to be adept in the use of historical sources. Were you trained as a historian?

A. No, unfortunately, I have not been trained as a historian. I studied economics at Smith College, Massachusetts.  However, it was a liberal arts education with exposure to many other subjects. Once I finished one of the last drafts of my manuscript, I requested Dr Michael Charney, Reader in South East Asian and Imperial History at SOAS, and a specialist on the Konbaung dynasty, to look at it to confirm that there were no historical inaccuracies. I am very grateful to him for having gone through it and for sending me his suggestions.

Q.  What is your present profession/occupation?

A. My primary occupation for the last seven years has been researching and writing this book. After graduation from Smith, I worked for almost a decade in the field of finance, after which I started and ran a small business, which I abandoned when I began my research.

Q. What led you to this project?

A. The Glass Palace was very honestly the starting point of my project. I felt I had stumbled upon a fascinating story just begging to be further explored.

Q. Was it difficult to find a publisher for this book?

A. It didn’t take me long to find a publisher – a few months – but after signing me up, it seemed they just put the manuscript on a back burner! Although that was frustrating, it has perhaps been to my advantage, as Burma is now so much in the news.

Q.  Do you have any other projects lined up for the future?

A. This is my first book, and I would love to write another book since I have found that I really enjoy both the research and the writing process. The research was very exciting – I felt like a detective on a trail, finding clues and piecing together picture after picture! And details helped me colour each picture– every detail adding greater nuance and depth. I enjoyed the writing too, although deciding what to include and exclude was often very difficult, which is part of the reason I had so many drafts! I’m not sure what I will write about next, but human-interest stories, set in a historical context, fascinate me. I greatly admire a writer like you, who can write fiction in historical settings so detailed, accurate and convincing.

For me it is a source of the deepest gratification that The Glass Palace played a part inspiring The King in Exile. I hope it will not be another seven years before Sudha publishes her next book ( how about the story of the last king of Kandy and his life in exile in Mauritius?). Whatever the subject I will very much look forward to reading it.

Harbour, Ratnagiri

ucuz ukash