First Kashmiri in Britain

Other regular British visitors to Kashmir were the military officers and civil servants who either did not want or could not afford trips back home during summer holidays. For such officers Kashmir became an ideal place to escape the scorching heat of Indian plains during summer. Tosha Maidan near Srinagar was one of the popular summer resorts for the foreigners.

According to Yousaf Saraf (1977) in the summer of 1833 one colonial army officer Colonel Thorpe came here on holidays. More likely while socialising with the local elites he caught sight of a local girl and the sight turned into love – the love at first sight. Jani according to Saraf was the daughter of Dayim Rathore, the then ruler of Kishtawar principality. All we know about this ‘Daughter of Kishtwar’ is that her name of was ‘Jani’, and she was exceptionally beautiful. The love bloomed to the point that the Col. could not leave without Jani. However, to take her with him, he had to become Muslim. He did just that, married to Jani and brought her with him first to India and then Britain.

Nothing specific is told about the arrival of the first ‘British Kashmiri’ couple to Britain their life here as to where they lived and what were the name of three children they had. However, the available information show that the story did not end here and took a rather dramatic turn when one of their sons Robert Thorpe joined army and went to visit what was literally his ‘motherland’ or, at least, ‘mother’s land’, in 1860s. By now Kashmir was formed into a princely Kingdom resulting from a Treaty between British East India Company and Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu signed in on 16th March 1846 at Amritsar that transferred Kashmiri and its adjacent territories to the later for 7.5 million rupees Nanak Shahee. At the time of Thorpe’s visit to Kahsmir the state was ruled by Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the son of Gulab Singh. While in Kashmir Lt. Robert Thorpe also became involved but not with the beauty but misery of Kashmir. During his stay in Kashmir, he travelled around and collected significant primary data on taxation, shawl industry, judiciary and police systems and the actual execution of various laws and policies. He wrote several articles accusing British government of selling Kashmir’s Muslim majority population to a Hindu ruler whose rule is characterised by suppression and exploitation. He argued for Kashmir state to be merged with British India. According to father Biscoe who visited Kashmir in 1890, Thorpe was ordered by the Maharaja Government to leave Kashmir and on refusal was bounded with his Khaatt (bed) and carried out of the Kashmir boundaries by the soldiers. However, he managed to escape and sneaked back to Srinagar but of no avail as next morning, he was found dead after his breakfast.Pakistan Occupied Kashmir Flag and Indian Occupied Kashmir Map

Was it a murder? It remains a mystery.

According to Saraf, he died on 22nd November 1868. He is buried in the British cemetery at Sheikh Bagh Srinagar. The epitaph read the First foreign martyr who died for Kashmiris. Was he, a foreigner or a British Kashmiri?  His articles were published after his death under the title of ‘Cashmere Misgovernment’ by Longmans, Green and Company, London in 1870. The book that can possibly be described as the first social study of Kashmir provides useful information on the taxation system, shawl industry, beggar (forced unpaid labour), the 1846 treaty between Gulab Singh and British government and migration of shawl workers from the Kashmir Valley.
Who were the siblings of Robert Thorpe and who are the descendants of this first ‘British Kashmiri’ family? These questions remains to be explored.

Another mention of a Kashmiri woman who married to, and was brought to Britain, by a British colonial officer has appeared in history of Asian migration to Britian by Rozina Visram titled ‘Asians in Britain’ (2002). Identifying various museums with collections from South Asia during the colonial rule she mentions of Newbridge House Museum, County Dublin in Ireland where belongings of Thomas Alexander Cobb (1788-1836) are kept ‘who married to Nazir Begum, the daughter of Aziz Jehan of Kashmir’ (p:5).

The author is originally from ‘Mora Loharaan’ in Akalagarh, Mirpur, Azad’ Kashmir and settled in Oldham since 1988. At present writing up PhD thesis on ‘Transnationalism from below and British Kashmiris’.

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