Claudius James Rich: Administrator, traveller, author, and collector of manuscripts and antiquities

Author

Archival Specialist, British Library
The life and death of Claudius James Rich, author of 'Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan' and the East India Company’s Resident at Baghdad.

Early life

Claudius James Rich was born in 1786 or 1787. He was probably the illegitimate son of Colonel Sir James Cockburn, fifth baronet. His childhood was divided between his father’s home in Bristol and Kilkenny in Ireland. Rich possessed a precocious talent for languages from an early age. When he was eight or nine, the sight of some manuscripts in the library of a gentleman at Bristol inspired him to learn Arabic, and by the time he was fifteen, he was conversant with a number of other oriental languages, including Hebrew, Syriac, Persian, and Turkish.

Portrait of Claudius James Rich, by Thomas Phillips. Image: British Museum
Portrait of Claudius James Rich, by Thomas Phillips. Image: British Museum

Service with the East India Company

In 1804 he was appointed as a writer (clerk) in the East India Company, and travelled to Egypt, where he became assistant to the Consul-General. The post gave him the opportunity to perfect his knowledge of Arabic and explore Palestine and Syria. He even managed to enter the Great Mosque at Damascus in disguise, which would have been extremely difficult for a western visitor at the time.

Marriage to the daughter of the Governor of Bombay in 1808 was followed by his appointment as Resident at Baghdad, where Rich showed himself to be an able administrator. More importantly, his leisure time gave him the opportunity to examine all the remains of antiquity within his reach, and to collect coins, oriental manuscripts, and other artefacts. Visits to the ruins of Babylon resulted in the eventual publication of two Memoirs recording his experiences there.

‘Sketch of the site of Babylon, by Major Rennell.’. IOL.1947.a.2083., Plate 7, f. 104b
‘Sketch of the site of Babylon, by Major Rennell.’. IOL.1947.a.2083., Plate 7, f. 104b
‘General view of the ruins of Babylon’. IOL.1947.a.2083., Plate 1, f. 2
‘General view of the ruins of Babylon’. IOL.1947.a.2083., Plate 1, f. 2

Travels in Kurdistan

In 1820, during a bout of ill health, Rich decided to travel to Kurdistan. The visit led to the writing of his most important work, Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan. The book was the first nineteenth-century geographical and archaeological account of the region, and is a fascinating travel account in its own right. His return journey from Kurdistan enabled him to add to his collection of manuscripts produced by the Christian communities of the East.

Map, ‘Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan’, by Claudius James Rich, T 12055 vol. 1, f. iii-r
Map, ‘Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan’, by Claudius James Rich, T 12055 vol. 1, f. iii-r
Illustration from ‘Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan’ showing the convent of Rabban Hormuz. T 12055 vol. 2, f. 98a
Illustration from ‘Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan’ showing the convent of Rabban Hormuz. T 12055 vol. 2, f. 98a

Death and interment

In 1821 Rich was on the point of taking up an important appointment offered to him by the Governor of Bombay, when he was forced to remove the Residency A diplomatic office of the British Government established in the provinces and regions considered part of, or under the influence of, British India. from Baghdad after a dispute with the local Ottoman governor (vali). He then made a journey to Shiraz, from where he visited the ruins of Persepolis and the tomb of Cyrus the Great. At Shiraz he contracted cholera. Despite ‘every assistance and care’, he died on 5 October and was buried in the Jahan Nama, a Persian royal garden.

In 1822 his tomb was visited by William Bruce, the Resident at Bushire, who found it ‘nearly destroyed by the snow and rains of last winter’. As a result, Bruce decided to commission a replacement monument in marble. The inscription over the door stated that the monument was a ‘tribute of respect and esteem for departed worth and high proficiency in Eastern Literature’. His remains were reinterred at the Armenian Cathedral in Isfahan in 1826.

Letter from William Bruce to Francis Warden in 1822, informing the Bombay Government that he had found the tomb of Claudius Rich at Shiraz to be in a ruinous condition and therefore commissioned a replacement monument in marble. IOR/R/15/1/25, ff. 59v-60r
Letter from William Bruce to Francis Warden in 1822, informing the Bombay Government that he had found the tomb of Claudius Rich at Shiraz to be in a ruinous condition and therefore commissioned a replacement monument in marble. IOR/R/15/1/25, ff. 59v-60r

A contemporary tribute

The anonymous ‘Brief Notice of the Life of Mr. Rich’ printed at the start of the Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan (1836) states that:

‘None could know him without being captivated by his manners, and delighted with his accomplishments, nor without admiring the singular extent of his capacity. The rapidity with which he made his acquisitions in languages and the fine arts, in particular, seemed to belong to instinct rather than exertion. When at a later period of life, he contemplated a survey of Turkish Arabia, with the same facility he acquired the higher mathematical knowledge which his task required. The Turks and Arabs admired him as a man of erudition in their literature […] His force of character enabled him to sway and guide those among whom he was placed. Never did the British character attain so high a degree of eminence as when he presided at Bagdad’ (p xxxi).

Legacy

Rich’s investigations at Babylon are considered to mark the starting point of Mesopotamian archaeology, and his books on the subject stimulated huge contemporary interest. Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan was reissued in 1984 as a mark of its continuing value. Parts of Rich’s collections, including over 900 volumes of manuscripts and the first cuneiform inscriptions ever brought to Europe, were purchased by the British Museum. The manuscripts are now in the British Library, some of which have been digitised and can be viewed on the Qatar Digital Library here.

‘Babylonian antiques and inscriptions.’ IOL.1947.a.2083., Plate 8, f. 192i
‘Babylonian antiques and inscriptions.’ IOL.1947.a.2083., Plate 8, f. 192i

Primary Sources