“Agreeable News from Persia: Iran in the Colonial and Early Republican American Press, 1712-1848”, edited by DT Potts

Gazette of the United-States, 14 January 1792 (Library of Congress) Gazette of the United-States, 14 January 1792 (Library of Congress)

Fifty years ago the Iranian Ministry of Education sent a high-level delegation to my university. As a student of Persian, I was asked to drive their Excellencies around to their various appointments. I ventured to remark, in halting Persian, to the distinguished guests that our university pre-dated the reign of Shah Abbas II (reigned 1642-1666). They went goggle-eyed at the notion that anything American could be so old. Not only did the colonists build schools contemporary with Shah Abbas’s madrassa in Esfahan, but as Daniel Potts tells it, those early Americans eagerly followed “Agreeable News from Persia”, as well as less agreeable news, the first news report about Iran appearing in the Boston Newsletter in 1717.

Much of this news could fit into a tweet. “News has come to us of an earthquake in the city of Tauris [Tabriz]. 100s of thousands are said to have died.” Unlike Twitter, however, information often took six months to reach American shores. Correspondents in Izmir, Istanbul or Saint Petersburg received dispatches conveyed by caravans, and expedited their reports to London or Amsterdam, to be carried to Boston or New York on Yankee schooners. Occasionally a longer narrative was inserted when news was slow. So the Abbé Reynal’s lengthy “Description of the Recent Revolution in Persia” appeared in the colonial press.

 

 Agreeable News from Persia: Iran in the Colonial and Early Republican American Press, 1712-1848, DT Potts (ed), (Springer, September 2022)
Agreeable News from Persia: Iran in the Colonial and Early Republican American Press, 1712-1848, DT Potts (ed) (Springer, September 2022)

American curiosity about Iran had many causes. In the globalized world of the 18th century, Iran played an important role in trade for luxury goods like wool shawls and silk brocades. The vicissitudes of war and revolution diverted trade flows. Would Yankee traders sail to Saint Petersburg to buy these items, or to Izmir, or to Bombay? Knowledge of geopolitical events helped maximize profits and avoid losses. News stories included guidance about the best seasons for bringing merchandise into Iran—Nowruz was a good time—and how much money the grandees spent on gifts. Advanced warnings about diseases, which often originated during periods of wars, aided sailors to avoid lengthy quarantines in foreign ports.

Trade included humble commodities as well as luxuries. Americans saw Iran’s biodiversity as a means to improve their own agriculture. The harsh winters and hot summers of Iran resembled America more than rainy England, so, they thought, Iranian cultivars might offer better yields. One New Englander imported Iranian rice seedlings and sent his first crop as a gift to President Thomas Jefferson. Tobacco, originally a New World crop, was re-imported from Iran as an experiment in Virginia.

Besides Yankee traders and farmers, America had a growing reading public avid for culture and enthused with antiquity. “The lovers of Oriental literature will be pleased to hear,” reported one newspaper, “that a translation of several odes by Hafiz, the Anacreon of Persia, is now almost ready for publication.” Another dispatch reported that a graduate of Yale was building an observatory in Baghdad, “where astronomy was invented 3,000 years earlier.”

 

Intellectually curious Americans struggled to grasp the teachings of Islam. Then as now, the difference between Shiites and Sunnites flummoxed them. They mistook the Shah of Iran’s enthusiasm for a translation of the Gospels into Persian as a presage of his imminent conversion. They swelled with pride over the activity of missionaries in Iran, who founded some of the first modern schools, but recoiled with embarrassment at the export of New England rum. Teetotaling New Englanders then tried to found an Iranian temperance society, but its success among the besotted and addled Qajar elite is not reported.

America had no monopoly on curiosity. “The present King of Persia,” reported the Catskill Recorder, “made many inquiries of [the English ambassador] respecting America, saying, What sort of a place is it? How do you get at it? Is it under ground or how?” One Iranian scholar tackled the translation of Herodotus into Persia, restoring to his countrymen for the first time in 21 centuries the history of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes. A Persian ambassador in London selected a young man from Chicago to paint his official portrait. The American press gushed, “Thus a painter from a twelve-year old city … executes orders for Asia!”

During the American Revolution the papers reported that the Shah of Iran would provide military support to George III. “We hear that the Emperor of Persia, on the earnest solicitation of the court of London, is to send next summer into America, 35,000 of Korazan Archers, who have trained up in the ancient Parthan [sic, Parthian] manner of fighting, by discharging their arrows from their horses as they are galloping off from their pursuers. A mode of annoying the enemy which his Majesty’s light-horse may adopt to great advantage, as the rebels frequently compel them to fight in that attitude, or not at all.” This was almost certainly Fake News.

 

Potts came across this trove of early American newspapers by chance. He noticed that earlier projects had scanned, digitized and made searchable 1,600 titles. A curious researcher could therefore discover at the click of a mouse what forebearers in Utica, New York or Quincy, Massachusetts read about the conquests of Nader Shah (reigned 1736-1747). This curiosity prompted Potts to produce the book.  If digitalization facilitated Potts’s compilation, his erudite and extensive annotations make this an  invaluable reference work. Below each news dispatch, he cites major contemporary sources for 18th and 19th-century Iranian history, including Malcom, Reynal and Hammer-Purgstall. These annotations add to the polyphonic nature of the narrative, as we see how merchants, diplomats and professional historians struggled to make a coherent narrative out of invasions, rebellions and natural disasters that punctuated Iran’s history in this turbulent era.

Throughout this period, Iran remained an inaccessible, mysterious country for the Americans, despite their efforts to learn about it. Nothing better characterizes this misunderstanding than the news report that the last great Asian conqueror Nader Shah was a renegade Irishman named Thomas Coulican, a misreading of his personal name Tahmasp Quli Khan. Journalists today may hope to avoid filing such a story, but still, we will learn from history books written 10 years hence what the tweets we follow today got wrong.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.