Great Books: Sir John Malcolm’s Sketches of Persia

  • Themes: Great Books, Iran

Sir John Malcolm's seminal ethnography is unrivalled in its critical appreciation of the Iranians at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Nineteenth century map of Iran.
Nineteenth century map of Iran. Credit: North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo

Sir John Malcolm’s Sketches of Persia, first published in 1827 ranks among the finest – and earliest – works of ethnography produced on Iran. It is unrivalled in its critical appreciation of the Iranians (Persians) at the turn of the nineteenth century. The author was among the first to give the Iranians themselves a voice. In engaging in discussions with his interlocutors he was able to pierce the surface of Iranian political culture and society, providing a nuanced understanding devoid of much of the condescension that was to afflict later European writers. This was an Iran shorn of the panoply and complexities of modernity and it is no surprise that scholars of Iran have valued it, even if because of its age and prose style, it has long since been marginalised if not totally forgotten among a wider readership.

A native of Scotland, Malcom was dispatched at an early age to India in 1783, in the employ of the East India Company, ultimately becoming Governor of Bombay in 1827. He was a close confidant of Richard Wellesley (Governor-General of India, 1798-1805) and much admired by his brother the Duke of Wellington. He was dispatched on several embassies to Iran first arriving there in 1800 – the mission which provides much of the material for his Sketches – and wrote the first major History of Persia (1815) in English, winning him the praise of Walter Scott and an Honorary Doctorate from Oxford in 1816. His ‘History’ proved a revelation, not only for the extensive sources he was able to draw on but the sympathetic way in which he interpreted them. That he was able to do this was a result of his long residency in India – then firmly within the Persianate cultural orbit – where he acquired a fluency in Persian, but perhaps more importantly, an acute understanding of the cultural hinterland of the language.

He was accompanied to Iran by a number of Persian companions acquired in India and ringing in his ears was the advice of one Persian diplomat, Mohammad Nubbee Khan, ‘If you wish my countrymen to understand you, speak to their eyes not their ears.’ Aware of the importance of presentation and the visual in Persian culture, Malcolm took care to ensure that he ‘performed’ accordingly. He knew that he would be observed closely from the moment of his arrival. He understood the importance of ritual in a country that did not operate a system of laws as might be understood in the West. Ritual regulated politics and society and also differentiated those on the inside from those outside – foreigners.

To be accepted Malcolm had to navigate this ritual and understand its importance noting that, ‘It is quite astonishing how much depends upon coffee and tobacco in Persia. Men are gratified or offended according to the mode in which these favourite refreshments are offered.’ In one of the more striking sections of the book, Malcolm recounts the ‘Battle of the Ceremonies’ in which he detailed his trial by etiquette as his hosts tried to humiliate him by subtle changes in procedure that would traditionally be accorded to the dignity of his rank. They had banked on him either not understanding or indeed noticing. He succeeded in winning this ‘battle’ hands down, showing the required magnanimity when his Iranian hosts pleaded for forgiveness. For Malcolm it was important to convey the subtleties of the contest, the acknowledgement of the offence, the proper reaction to it and the means by which all could be reconciled and concluded to everyone’s satisfaction. His account remains a masterclass in diplomatic engagement and of relevance to practitioners to this day.

Malcolm did not doubt the superiority of his own political culture, but he never patronised his hosts preferring to engage and understand. His Sketches – written in the third person throughout in a pretence of anonymity – was in fact written as a response to what he, and other colleagues, considered was a slight to the Persian character, James Morier’s highly influential satire, ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Isfahan’ which had been published in 1824 to wide acclaim becoming an early ‘bestseller’. Malcolm was concerned that for all the wit of Hajji Baba, fiction was being too readily accepted as fact and that as such a response was needed to correct the record.

At the same time, he was astute enough to realise that a society would be better understood if one had an appreciation of its popular culture. Folklore and fiction should not be too easily dismissed since they offered windows into society, its historical experience and roots and he was quick to correct his Persian companion’s apparent embarrassed disdain for ‘children’s tales’. ‘I quite understand, my good friend, the contempt you bestow upon the nursery tales with which the Hajee and I have been entertaining each other; but, believe me, he who desires to be well acquainted with a people will not reject their popular stories or local superstitions. Depend upon it, that man is far too advanced into an artificial state of society who is a stranger to the effects which tales and stories like these have upon the feelings of a nation; and his opinion of its character are never likely to be more erroneous than when, in the pride of reason, he despises such means of forming his judgement.’

That Malcolm was able to effectively interrogate such sources was a testament to his immense cultural literacy. His ability to converse fluently in Persian utilising idioms familiar to his interlocutors, opened doors that would have been closed to others and allowed him to engage in discussions about for example, the role of women in Iranian society. He records a remarkably frank exchange with one of his Iranian companions, Jaffier Ali Khan: ‘You English take your ideas of the situation of females in Asia from what you hear and read of the harem of kings, rulers and chiefs, who being absolute over both men and women of their territories, indulge in a plurality of wives and mistresses…but you ought to recollect, that the great and the powerful, who have such establishments, are not in proportion of one to ten thousand of the population of the country.’

But perhaps his most penetrating analysis relates to the political structure of the country and the implicit weaknesses this created. Malcolm had arrived in Iran when the new Qajar dynasty was establishing itself and reasserting norms of Persian kingship. Forming a close relationship with the Chief Vizier, Malcolm acquired an intimate understanding of the way in which politics operated. He engaged the young king – Fath Ali Shah – on a comparative estimation of the political systems of Iran and Britain. The Shah was naturally inquisitive and somewhat puzzled by the limited powers enjoyed by George III. ‘Your king is, I see, only the first magistrate of the country…Such a condition of power has permanence but it has no enjoyment: mine is enjoyment…but then it has no permanence. When I am gone, my sons will fight for the crown and all will be confusion: there is however, one consolation, Persia will be governed by a soldier.’

Few episodes encapsulate the central problem facing successive Iranian states as they have struggled to contend with modernity. For Malcolm Iran’s ills could be summed up in its autocratic and absolutist political structure. It was not that Iranians were inherently wicked or incapable – they were poorly served by an arbitrary political system whose inherent instability created anxiety, obfuscation and an ambiguity which frequently veered into mendacity. In the absence of laws, there could be no stability and without stability there could be no progress. Only within a system of laws could Iran’s potential be unleashed. Malcolm’s assessment, raw and unpolished, remains as true today as it was in 1800.


Ali Ansari