Robert Lambert Playfair and his ‘Account of Aden’: a new acquisition adds to substantial archive

Monday 11 June 2012

Earlier this year, Howard S. Mott, Inc. brought to our attention a book from their stock which would fit our collection very nicely. The book in question was the very rare and fragile printing of Sir R.L. Playfair’s An account of Aden : re-printed from “A history of Arabia Felix” in its original wrappers. This was of immediate interest because of our holdings of Playfair’s papers in the Manuscript Collection. As detailed below, we have many of the print publications that Playfair was responsible for during his time in Aden in this collection, but not a copy of this work.

Portrait of Sir Robert Lambert Playfair, K.C.M.G. by John Adamson, 1865 (St Andrews Photographic Collection ALB8-16).

Sir Robert Lambert Playfair (1828-1899) was the grandson of the Reverend Dr James Playfair who was Principal of the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard from 1799 until 1819 and the son of Surgeon General George Playfair (1782-1846) and his wife Jessie Ross (1795-1862).  He was born in St Andrews whilst his parents were home there on leave and left there to be educated when they returned to India.  He trained as a military officer and went out to Madras in 1846 when he was commissioned into the Madras Artillery.  Having qualified as an Arabic interpreter, he transferred to the Indian Political Service and spent some years in Egypt and Syria, possibly as a spy.  His subsequent diplomatic career took him to Zanzibar as Politcal Agent and then to Algiers and Tunisia where he served as Consul General.  He was appointed KCMG in 1886 and made an Honorary LL.D. of the University of St Andrews in 1899.

The port of Aden, c. 1864, five years before the Suez Canal was opened (source: the British Empire Map Room).

In 1854 Playfair moved to Aden, then under the British Indian administration, as assistant to the Political Resident, Brigadier Sir James Outram and began a very active and highly successful political career.  Whilst at Aden, he was central in negotiations to maintain peace between the often warring tribes of the Barbary Coast, in attempts to track down and rescue explorers and shipwrecked mariners who had disappeared into the interior and in the ceaseless struggle to prevent the slave trade in from the African coast to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

St Andrews holds a large collection of papers from the Playfair family, dating from 1778 to 1999. Section 6 of the Playfair Papers (msdep14) consists of Sir R.L. Playfair’s reports, notes, correspondence and other papers, bound into albums.  His arduous undertakings are to be found in particular detail in PLFR6/4 (msdep14/6/4) which includes accounts of his missions to Zailah to investigate piracy charges in April 1856, to Berbera to negotiate a treaty with the tribes there that November and,  to Ourbah concerning the piratical seizure of a British vessel in 1858 and to Tajura and Zailah to investigate the murder there of a French subject in June 1859 and, most dramatically, in 1858,  his lightning occupation of the strategic islet of Perim under the noses of the French who had been eying it up as a vital staging point.

A German map of the Gulf of Aden as Playfair would have known it, printed 1860.
An example of one of the Playfair albums full of Sir R.L. Playfair’s correspondence during his time in Aden (St Andrews Manuscript Collection msdep 14/6/18).

Playfair was an active diplomat in the area, which is illustrated throughout  PLFR6/3 (msdep14/6/3), in which there are copies of his despatches and reports of his negotiation of a peace treaty between the settlements of Miat and Hais in a bloody dispute over guano in 1859, the rescue of 63 enslaved people from traders in 1860, the rescue of shipwrecked British sailors in 1861 and investigation into the murder of the crew of HMS Penguin in 1862  together with his personal reports of a massacre of Europeans at Mecca and insurgency against Turkish domination of the Yemen in 1856 and 1859.  Further details of these and other of his diplomatic activities are to be found in PLFR6/6 (msdep14/6/6), PLFR6/7 (msdep14/6/7), PLFR6/14 (msdep14/6/14) and PLFR6/15 (msdep14/6/15).

Busy as his diplomatic life was, Playfair found time for serious study of the history, geography, archaeology, flora and fauna of the countries in which he served producing numerous highly respected publications.  Whilst at Aden he wrote A memoir on the ancient reservoirs, lately discovered and now in course of restoration at Aden published in Aden in 1857 and Memorandum on the trade of Aden for 1858-59 published there in 1859 and A history of Arabia Felix or Yemen, from the commencement of the Christian era to the present time, including an account of the British settlement of Aden published in Bombay in 1859. Volume PLFR6/6 (msdep14/6/6) in the collection contains publications produced at various stages of his career notably his memoir on the ancient reservoirs of Aden which was the first of his important writings.  PLFR6/3 (msdep14/6/3) contains also his influential compilation and analysis of the trade and judicial system of Aden.

Original paper wrappers for the 1859 printing of An account of Aden, printed in Aden at the Jail Press by prison labour (St Andrews copy at rDS247.Y47P53).

Our new acquisition of Playfair’s An account of Aden : re-printed from “A history of Arabia Felix” adds to this collection of his publications produced during his time in Aden. As stated in the title, An account of Aden is drawn from his History of Arabia Felix but was printed at the Jail Press for Cowasjee Dinshaw. Dinshaw Adenwalla was a Parsee trader who emigrated from Surat, Bombay to Aden around 1855. At the time that Playfair was resident in Aden, there were two presses in operation, one in the jail run by convict labour and the other ran by Cowasjee Dinshaw and Brothers; both presses printed for the local government and for private interest, and the imprint on this book shows that the trade flourished co-operatively.

Sir Robert Lambert Playfair and Agnes Mary (Minnie) Playfair, 1857 (St Andrews Photographic Collection ALB9-57).

Playfair’s interest in botany is evidenced by his prolific correspondence with the experts at Kew found particularly in PLFR6/15 (msdep14/6/15).  He sent many plant specimens back to Kew Gardens including a unique specimen of poinscaria in 1861 which was actually named after him; Kew also sent out to Playfair in Aden various plants which they thought might flourish there.  As he moved on to later posts, his writings expanded to produce a magisterial guide to the fishes of Zanzibar and travels in Algeria and Tunisia amongst other topics.

On the family front, Playfair was devoted to  all the members of his large and distinguished family and his papers show his strong interest in and support for them all through his life.  He married his cousin Agnes Ranken Webster (1832-1918) at whose home near Cupar he had spent many childhood holidays.  She was an interesting and intelligent woman.  It was a strong and loving marriage and many letters between Playfair and his wife are incorporated into the collection.

Marion M. Stewart & DG

Following a period of short-term project work, Marion has been a long-standing volunteer for the Department of Special Collections and has spent much of her time working through the Playfair Papers and other papers relating to the Scottish diaspora. She previously was archivist for Dumfries and Galloway Council, the Churchill Archive Centre, Cambridge and Kings College, Cambridge.

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