Tinco Lycklama and the Persian telegraph men – business or pleasure at Pas-e-Qaleh?

Around this time, in 1866, Tinco Lycklama made a brief and leasurely excursion into the Alborz mountains. Leaving his summer residence in Tajrish (north of Tehran), he traveled the same road as the one he took on August 23, on his way to the Shah’s encampment at Shahrestanak. However, this time he simply went to look for a waterfall, a few kilometers higher and beyond the village of Pas-e-Qaleh (or, as he calls it, Paskalé).

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Tinco obviously enjoyed the visit to the waterfall. But, the excursion is perhaps more interesting for the people he was traveling with. Major Smith, Captain Pierson, Doctor Baker, Mr. Mounsey, and Mr. Helm. The former three were all employees of the Indo-European Telegraph Department (1), a British government agency responsible for connecting the nascent telegraph communications in Persia into an international network. Mounsey was a secretary at the British legation in Tehran. And Mr. Helm, well, we’re not sure about him – except that Tinco calls him ‘a tourist’.

Telegraphy in Persia

One of the questions about Tinco Lycklama’s travels through the Middle East is this: how did he stay in touch with his friends and family in Paris and The Netherlands?. He tells us that he sent and received letters. He also talks a lot about (and with) the personnel working on the telegraph systems in the Middle East. He never tells us if he used the telegraph himself. We assume he did.

Siemens telegraph pole from 1870
Telegraph pole in Persia, dating from 1870

Having said that, Tinco arrived in Persia at a time when telegraphy was totally new in the region (2). Since 1858, the Persians had started experimenting with telegraphy, but only to connect a few places within the country. The first connections were established between Qajar palaces and some cities close to Tehran – allowing Naser al-Din Shah and his administration to communicate faster and excercise power in a more efficient way. As it happens, Persia was only connected ‘to the world’ from March 1865 onwards (3), when the local Persian system was hooked into the international system built by the Indo-European Telegraph Department.

Thus, when Tinco arrived in Tehran, it was theoretically possible for him to send a message to Paris (which could be useful, as his financial affairs were managed through the French capital). However, keep in mind that sending telegraph messages in those days was not like making a phone call! A message between London and Karachi would typically take 6 days, as the message had to be intercepted and re-transcribed at verious posts along the lines.

The Persian system also connected into the competing system backed by the German Siemens family – the Indo-European Telegraph Company (note the confusing names of these competing entities!). However, it’s only in April 1868 that Tehran connects through this alternative route to London, via the Caucasus, Russia, Warsaw, and Berlin (and thus after Tinco’s departure from the region).

Socializing at Pas-e-Qaleh

Interestingly, In Persia and Iraq, Tinco often traveled along the exact main routes that the overland cables were taking. And he certainly was interested in the topic of telegraphy. It is therefore not a surprise that he would make the trip to the Pas-e-Qaleh waterfall in the company of people that had a major hand in building the network.

Robert Murdoch Smith (1835-1900)
Sir Robert Murdoch Smith, KCMG (1835-1900)

Major Smith was Robert Murdoch Smith (1835–1900) (see his profile…). He was a military officer but also an archaeologist who proceeded (between 1856-61) with excavations in present Turkey and the North African Cyrenaica. During his time in Persia (1863-85), he collected valuable Persian art on behalf of the South Kensington Museum. Subsequently, he became the Director of the Science and Art Museum at Edinburgh, and was also chairman of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. But, Robert Murdoch Smith was also a major force in telegraphy. It was he who, in 1863, negotiated with the Qajar court the right for the Indo-European Telegraph Department to construct lines in Persia. He remained working for the Department until 1885 and, in 1887 (after his return to London) he became its director-in-chief.

Captain Pierson was William Henry Pierson (1839-1881) (see Wikisource…), a military officer who did duty in India between 1860-63.  He joined the Indo-European Telegraph Department in 1863 and was critical to the success of constructing large tracts of line from Bagdad into Persia. In 1866, he also did a brief stint on the telegraph lines in the Caucasus. Pierson was also the main designer and builder of the new British legation at Tehran. In 1871-73, he becomes the director of the Persian Telegraph, and later returns to military duties in England.

Doctor Baker was James Edmund Baker, the head physician to the Indo-European Telegraph Company (not the Department!in Persia. We know little of him, but he is noted for an authoritative report to the House of Commons in 1886, about the sanitary situation in Persia (4). On the other hand, we do know something about his family. James Edmund Baker was a son of a military officer named John Robinet Baker. He had several sisters. Eleanor Katherine Baker married Robert Murdoch Smith in 1869. Another sister, Frances Josephine Baker, married in 1870 to William John Dickson, the Oriental secretary at the legation in Tehran. The Bakers were a well connected family!

Augustus Henry Mounsey
Augustus Henry Mounsey (1834-1882)

M. Mounsey was August Henry Mounsey (1834-1882) (see Wikipedia…) – was not working for the Telegraph Department. He was a career diplomat who, after a few previous assignments, was stationed in Tehran in 1865 as 2nd secretary to the British legation. Together with the minister plenipotentiary Charles Alison, he is particularly remembered for the substantial relief efforts made for the Jewish victims of the pogrom at Barfurush, in May 1867. Later, Mounsey was stationed to many other places in Europe, but he is most noted for his duty in Japan, where he was a direct witness of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 – an event about which he wrote a book.

That leaves us with M. Helm, the remaining member of the little excursion to the Pas-e-Qaleh waterfall. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to identify him. Tinco Lycklama describes him as a “young tourist, and very skilled hunter“. It is a bit unusual that Tinco, who is otherwise quite meticulous with details and information, doesn’t tell us who Helm was, or from which country he came. Given the German-sounding name, one could wonder if Helm was in any way associated with the efforts of the Siemens company  to negotiate the connection of Tehran to the telegraph system through the Caucasus and Russia (efforts that were ultimateluy successful in 1868). Dr. Baker worked for the Indo-European Telegraph Company – which was primarely backed by Siemens. But, this is just one of many possibilities.

Business or pleasure?

Tinco enjoyed very much his escapade – and the excellent company – to the Pas-e-Qaleh waterfall. They had to leave their horses behind in the village, and had some very difficult and perilous climbing to do for about 4 kilometers towards the waterfall. But, it was worth it. The waterfall in itself wasn’t that pretty, but the view was spectacular, nevertheless. They had great fun, did some hunting and had a delicious barbecue.

Ali Quli Mirza
Ali Quli Mirza, Minister of Telegraphy (and other duties) – Portrait published in 1863.

Did Tinco have more in mind than simply enjoying the scenery? Did he have a particular interest in what was happening with the telegraph systems in Persia? We don’t know. On the other hand, let’s keep in mind that Naser al-Din had appointed a new government in June 1866. The minister for Telegraphy (amongst his other attributions) was Ali Quli Mirza, a powerful advisor who was a son of Fath Ali Shah (and thus a grand-uncle of Naser al-Din). Tinco became close friends with this powerful minister, and they maintained a correspondance long after Tinco’s return to Europe. We know that Tinco was a sociable person, but there are some interesting coincidences that beg for closer scrutiny.




Further reading…

  1. About the Indo-European Telegraph Department, see the German Wikipedia page…
  2. For a history of telegraphy, check the Distant Writing web site…, and in particular its chapter about “Competitors & Allies”, which provide great detail about the operations of the telegraph companies in Russia, the Caucasus, Persia, and the Ottoman empire.
  3. A chapter on the early years (1858-1865) of telegraphy in Persia, when the system was destined only to transmit messages within Persia itself, see Iranica Online…
  4. “A few remarks on the most prevalent Diseases and the Climate of the North of Persia”, by Dr. James Edmund Baker, Report to the House of Commons, 1886


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