In 1868, as now, the Middle East seemed to be a place where fortunes could be made from the region’s mineral resources and from its central location between Europe and India. The Persian empire was slowly recovering from decades of invasion, civil war, banditry, and plagues. A new monarch, Naseroddin Shah, made a good impression in the capitals of Europe, which he visited frequently beginning in 1873. Yet “the well-protected realm” remained mysterious. A lack of information about its people and geography challenged international investors, who still relied on John Chardin’s accounts of 150 years earlier. They were greedy for up-to-date insights into the country. Albert Houtum Schindler was their providential man.
Daniel Potts calls him a polymath. He started off as a simple telegraph engineer in 1868. But he had to learn everything about Persia. You couldn’t travel across its vast expanses without knowing the local dialects, where to obtain food and water for your animals, what weather to prepare for, how to humor the cagey Qajar governors. Dealing with the population posed its own dangers; foreign travelers frequently spoke of the “fanaticism of the local people”. Schindler’s luck, having undertaken the arduous task of stringing telegraph wire all across this country five times larger than the UK, over mountains, deserts, and forest, farsang by farsang, was to learn the reality of Persia on the ground. As a result, he became the go-to person for all the foreign adventures hatched in London, including banking, mining, and petroleum drilling. Schindler served on boards or advisory committees for these important initiatives.
Laying telegraph wires proved to be easier than these more sophisticated ventures. Everybody worked at cross purposes. The British investors considered they were doing good by doing well, and were surprised by the demands of Persians for exorbitant land rights, high profit shares and protection money. Concessions were sold by the Shah’s corrupt ministers, and frequently proved worthless. Naseroddin Shah liked to give the appearance of being progressive, but had neither the education nor the temperament necessary to understand how to modernize Persia (unlike, say, his Siamese contemporary Rama V). Many projects suffered from the chicken or the egg conundrum. For mines to be profitable, roads were required. To build the road, one needed money from the mines. Then as now, the people who made money were the engineers and surveyors who were paid princely salaries to perform studies for projects that never got off the ground. Investors gritted their teeth, then wept. Schindler, ever helpful and optimistic, advised investors to be patient.
Schindler’s real recompense was not financial. He was elected to scientific academies in the UK, Germany, Germany, and Austria; his learned papers were widely read by geologists, numismatists, philatelists. Even better, for a boy born in modest circumstances, he joined the ranks of the great and the good, receiving a knighthood, holding his own with aristocratic diplomats and statesmen, not to mention being an intimate at the fabulous court of the Shah himself.
Schindler’s social success is puzzling. While Persia acted as a magnet for ambitious and adventurous young men, the British were an exclusive lot. They extended British passports to useful foreigners: Armenians from Baku, Jews from Istanbul, and Georgians from Tiflis, but they were uncomfortable with this polyglot environment. “Now, we have a proper white man in charge,” wrote one of Schindler’s colleagues approvingly, referring to the replacement of a Sephardic Jew by a tow-headed Englishman. But Houtum Schindler, with his exotic name, managed to pass.
Like the hero of the Pirates of Penzance, “despite all the temptations to belong to other nations, he remains an Englishman.” Nevertheless, his contemporaries variously referred to him as Dutch or German, with many epistolary references to “Herr General Schindler”. There must have been some tension between the dyed-with-woad Britons and the exotic Schindler, but this never surfaced. He seems to have been able to get along with everyone, British, French, German and even Swedish (he became great friends with Swen Hedin).
While Schindler maintained a constant flow of correspondence, the secret of his success must have been his discretion when it came to expressing opinions versus facts. He kept his views to himself. He lived through a tumultuous period of Persian history, including the revolt against the tobacco monopoly, the assassination of Naseroddin Shah, the constitutional revolution of 1908, and the civil war that followed—yet he apparently left no comments on any of these events. Likewise, we know nothing of Schindler’s sentimental life of 30 years in Iran after losing his wife at age 22. In 1894, he returned to England to marry a woman 26 years younger than himself. She survived him until 1955, but left no clues as to their lives together.
Potts has painstakingly reconstructed the life of the polymath. The writer’s facility with multiple languages matches that of his subject, and his patience with spade and shovel on digs is mirrored by his work in archival sources across Europe. The book is richly illustrated with contemporary photographs, representing in itself a lengthy effort.
A lively period of intellectual and commercial ferment in Iran emerges from these pages, but Schindler remains elusive. More ebullient writers, like Alexander Burnes, James Fraser or even Schindler’s friend Lord Curzon left brilliant descriptions of Persia that we still read today, while Schindler’s work has been largely, and perhaps not unexpectedly, forgotten.