Rediscovering Britain’s Lost Love of the Orient

The author of this book poses many intriguing questions: Why was there a Turkish mosque in Britain’s famous botanical garden in the 18th century? How did Persian-inscribed cannons end up in rural Wales? And who is the Moroccan man in a long-forgotten portrait in a West London stately home?

Examining the origins of paintings, drawings, carvings, and statues in Britain’s galleries, museums, and civic buildings offers clues to discovering a largely unknown past.

Often hidden in plain sight, this rich heritage reveals Oriental influences on pre-twentieth-century Britain.

The term “Orient” is deliberately used throughout Fatima Manji‘s book, fully aware of its association with the imperial enterprise referred to as Orientalism.

“Many people today are still unaware that more than a million Indians fought for the British in both great wars, which again reiterates the point about historical amnesia”

The author suggests ambivalence in its usage for cultural artefacts discussed in the book, which were “acquired or built – often simultaneously in a performance of appreciation of the Orient and its cultures, and as part of a political project to dominate the regions and their peoples.”

Manji, a former Channel 4 News presenter and broadcaster, explores the complex and honest legacy of the British Empire through a diverse collection of historical objects that still exist today.

The author argues that as a nation, Britain suffers from historical amnesia and rightly notes: “A whitewashed presentation of history directly affects how Britons today perceive the people, buildings, and languages of the Orient.”

Manji makes a welcome contribution to increasing public literacy on such issues in her journey through this hidden heritage in our nation’s public buildings, many of which were built from the proceeds of colonial cruelty.

The rediscovery of this diverse cultural inheritance also undermines popular narratives about the presence of “foreigners” and points to a more complicated national history than is commonly remembered.

Most British people think that non-White citizens only arrived in the UK in the post-war era with the Windrush generation in the late 1940s, later boosted by South Asian immigration in the early 1960s.

However, the relationship between the British Isles and non-European peoples from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia goes back as far as the Roman era, as many historians have demonstrated in African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History, Black and British: A Forgotten History, and Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History.

In fact, the earliest interactions between the Muslim world and England occurred in the 8th century when the Anglo-Saxon King Offa of Mercia minted a coin between 773 and 774 with the Islamic testimony of faith.

The coin is on display in the British Museum, and for Manji, exploring these forgotten histories turned into something of a personal treasure hunt: “I was pursuing these objects and places out of curiosity but, without knowing it, also perhaps using them to find a sense of belonging in my own country. In some strange way, because of my connections through language, culture, or religion to these objects, it was like a part of me could be found here. The heritage in these places now felt more mine. Ours.”

“This book is not only a richly illustrated exploration of British imperial imagination and the appropriation of property from dominated regions but also a deconstruction of deep-seated civilisational envy that led to cultural appropriation and erasure”

Focusing on the Muslim connection to Britain in these heritage sites, Manji notes that Queen Elizabeth I made alliances with the Ottomans, Mughals, and Safavids and wrote letters to the Mughal emperor Akbar to promote trade with India.

The queen also established links with Ottoman Sultan Murad III, corresponded with his consort Safiye Sultan, and even requested the help of Sultan Murad against the Spanish Armada.

These interactions are illustrated in a portrait of the Moroccan Ambassador Muhammad bin Haddu al-Attar displayed in Chiswick House.

The Ambassador visited London on a diplomatic and trade mission to the Court of Charles II in 1682.

Arriving with an English convert named Lucas Muhammad, the Ambassador presented the King with two lions and thirty ostriches, leaving Charles unsure how to reciprocate the gesture.

The impact of such visits lingered beyond the diplomatic niceties as these encounters encouraged long-lasting commercial exchanges and manifested in an English taste for Oriental food, drink, dress, and carpets.

In the second chapter, the author relates the story of the Lost Mosque built in Kew Gardens. The Turkish-style structure was designed by Sir William Chambers and completed in 1761.

Not used for worship, it fell into disrepair and was dismantled by 1785. Two years after this, the Prince of Wales completed a project to erect a Moorish-style building called the Alhambra.

Manji also tells the story of Muhammad and Mustafa, who were taken as prisoners after the Battle of Vienna in 1683 but ended up in the retinue of George I and became depicted in a grand fresco in Kensington Palace.

We also learn about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu from her painting in the National Portrait Gallery.

She was one of the earliest Western women to have lived in Constantinople in 1716, a keen observer of Ottoman culture, a frequent visitor to Turkish households, and an admirer of mosque architecture.

In chapter three, Manji recalls how the defeat of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Indian Kingdom of Mysore, at the hands of the British in 1799, resulted in mass looting of the region and large numbers of his belongings being taken back to Britain, to be distributed across institutions such as Apsley House, Belmont House, and Powis Castle.

While a few pieces were returned to India, most of these items remain in private collections and the rest are for public viewing like his famous toy tiger, which has been on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum since 1897.

This uprooting and transference of such possessions as a consequence of the Empire mirrors the migration of Muslims from the Indian subcontinent to Britain and serves as a metaphor for the unresolved legacies of identity and belonging.

In chapter four, Manji discusses her visit to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, which was Queen Victoria’s summer retreat. Now run by English Heritage, the site has various portrait paintings of Indians which Victoria seemed to have a particular affection for.

She went as far as commissioning Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda to travel around India to paint portraits of its craftspeople. The story of her close relationship with former prison clerk, Abdul Karim, also known as “the Munshi,” is now widely known due to the book and film, and his portrait hangs in the lavishly furnished Durbar Room.

Manji begins chapter five by recalling an event hosted at the court of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster in 1867 for the visit of the Ottoman Sultan.

As the author notes, the Foreign Office’s Durbar Court “is not merely a piece of history, it is where Britain shapes its relations with the rest of the world, as this room has hosted presidents, prime ministers, and royals for generations.”

Despite modern rebranding and banners promoting diversity, the Durbar Court features carvings and statues that glorify Britain’s dominance over the Indian subcontinent.

Chapter six begins with an anecdote about right-wing social media users’ anger at the Brighton Pavilion being a backdrop at a Labour Party conference in 2017.

These culturally illiterate individuals mistook the building for a mosque. The Pavilion was built in 1823 using Mughal, Moorish, Hindu, and Tatar architecture for inspiration and would later be used as a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers during World War I.

Many people today are still unaware that more than a million Indians fought for the British in both great wars, which again reiterates the point about historical amnesia.

Manji, in the epilogue, links the history and artefacts found on her journey to the modern moral panics about race, religion, and immigration.

Reflecting on the ongoing debates about Muslims and Islam in Britain, she writes: “Sadly, a paranoid ecosystem of commentators, think tanks and media outlets who share deep-rooted ideological hostility towards Islam and Muslims seem determined to push Muslims who cannot be depoliticised or demoralised out of public life. In effect, they serve the same neurotic worldview of the Victorian courtiers horrified that the Queen would learn Urdu or keep the Munshi as her confidant, seeing this as a threat to the state as well as their own power base.”

This book is not only a richly illustrated exploration of British imperial imagination and the appropriation of property from dominated regions but also a deconstruction of deep-seated civilisational envy that led to cultural appropriation and erasure.

Manji masterfully navigates both perspectives to explain why these objects were taken and how this process was perceived by those who experienced this civilisational theft.

Books like this are essential to counter jingoistic narratives of Empire and Britishness, encouraging mature conversations on these matters, and are a must-read for all.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of  Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism

Follow him on X: @SadekHamid

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