Whispers across Continents, in search of the Robinsons

Author: Gareth Winrow

Publisher: Amberley

Year: 2019

Pages: 288

ISBN: 978-1-4456-9139-8

Source: https://www.amberley-books.com/whispers-across-continents-in-search-of-the-robinsons.html

“. . . the Robinson’s presence in the lives of key characters in history has been totally overlooked”.  Gareth Winrow’s account is a masterly piece of research and story telling that seamlessly connects stories of nations with the fortunes of one family: “the more I learned about the Robinsons, the more I realised that their lives should be documented and their tales told. I became increasingly attached to them and started to closely follow and identify with their successes and mistakes, their strengths and shortcomings.”  The author was for many years Professor of International Relations in Istanbul and this work conveys his erudition.   The main characters are Spencer Robinson (1838-1889), raised in Lincolnshire, with final years in Bengal; his wife Hannah (1854-1948), from Bethnal Green, who became Muslim around 1891 adopting the name ‘Fatima’, and lies buried in Istanbul; their son Ahmet (Peel Harold) Robinson (1889-1965), born in Bengal and died in New York.

The author’s interest in the Robinson family evolved over many years: “How, then, did I become interested in the history of another family – the Robinsons? If truth be told, there was no immediate rush to put pen to paper upon hearing a few of the exploits of  ‘Ahmet Robenson’ from Ahmet Ceylan, a friend of mine . . . meeting the Ceylans in Istanbul in 1988, we were fascinated to hear that Ahmet Ceylan’s great-grandmother, Maud (Turkish name Adile) was English . . . there was also mention of Ahmet Robenson’s mother, Hannah (Turkish name Fatima or Fatma), who had married an officer in the Ottoman Army . . . In spite of our original interest, we did not purse the story further. We picked up the trail again many years later. Living and working at the time in Turkey, and having formed our own bicultural and binational family, tales of the Robinsons increasingly resonated.”  Whispers across Continents includes the author’s own reflections on migration and identity, ‘Englishness’, and the question, “Is it possible to be a patriot and a liberal internationalist?” He wonders, ‘What is home?’: “Ultimately home may be where one’s parents and other family members are buried.”  A poignant reminder for Muslims in Britain today as we bid farewell to our elders.

 In any case, a debt is owed to the author for ‘picking up the trail again’, and providing access not just to some fascinating lives but disparate topics, such as the changes in farming in rural England in the mid-nineteenth century, the colonial history of tea plantations and life of the ‘sahebs’ and their workers in the Darjeeling hill stations, the upheavals in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey when faced with British occupation in the aftermath of the Great War. There are delightful forays into the history of the North Eastern Railway of British India, the first matches of  the Galatasaray football club in which Ahmet Spencer had a star role, and the introduction of female motorbike and car racing in Europe. Gareth Winrow has the intuitions and forensic skills of a Sherlock Holmes, meeting family members, conducting extensive literature searches and even travelling to the tea plantations in Assam. Few coves are left unexplored. By comparing the evidence from multiple sources, he has been able to identify errors in Turkish historical accounts. Inevitably there are also many lacunae, with the author having to resort to ‘probably’ and ‘most likely’ where hard evidence is not to come by: “The answers to some of my questions remained infuriatingly beyond reach. But, as in all history, the history of any family may be reassessed and reinterpreted if fresh evidence is revealed. . .  After all, history is a living subject and one which should not be foreclosed.”

Several of these ‘beyond reach’ questions concern Hannah/Fatima Spencer, the strong-willed, thrice-married heroine of this family saga. She emerged from humble beginnings in the East End to rub shoulders with the Ottoman elite, but the path that brought her to Islam is unclear, as is  the nature of her relationship with Abdullah Quilliam. The death of Herbert Spencer left her a single mother with four young children. She then settled in Brighton and managed a boarding house. Gareth Wilson speculates that she may have been befriended by Fatima Cates of the Liverpool Muslim Institute, which brought her to Islam – a clue rests in her choice of ‘Fatima’ as a Muslim name.  Or, “Hannah had become acquainted with Quilliam’s wife, also called Hannah, on a visit to Liverpool, and then decided to renounce Christianity and enter the Islamic faith together with her family”.   In any case she later had a short-lived marriage to an Indian quack Ilahi Buksh. The nikah was officiated by Abdullah Quilliam. The couple then settled in Istanbul, but the marriage soon unravelled, leading to a divorce because of the husband’s behaviour.  

There are many examples of Ottoman compassion for vulnerable immigrants. Sultan Abdul Hamid took a personal interest in the future of Hannah and her children, with the State paying for her accommodation and education of the boys in an elite military school. The author speculates again, “.  . . it was quite possible that the Ottoman ruler did recommend that Hannah should marry one of dashing young military officers, Ahmed Bahri.” This was a more successful union, with their son Fevzi Bahri later serving as a military pilot. Maud/Adile was welcomed at the home of Mustafa Zeki Pasha, the Field Marshal of the Imperial Ordinance and Artillery.

Abdullah Quilliam and his wife arrived in Constantinople in May 1898. Gareth Winrow’s research into the sources brings a scene at the Pera Palace Hotel to life:  “when welcoming the Quilliams, Hannah and her daughter Adile (Maud) were veiled, while Hannah’s sons Yakup (Spencer Bernard), Abdurrahman (Eugene B.) and Ahmet (Peel Harold) wore the uniform of the military school which they attended. It appears that the infant Fevzi was not part of the delegation. After the reception at the hotel, the Quilliams departed for the nearby Yildiz Palace, to be received by the sultan. Later in the month, the Bahri family were on hand to accompany the Quilliams to the ship which departed for Smyrna.”

In an amazing piece of detective work, Gareth Winrow discovered a letter in the National Archives written by one Mrs. M. M. Thomson in November 1917 – during the Great War – conveying her anxiety for the wellbeing of her fiancé, Ahmed Robinson Bey. The author has established this is the same Mrs. Thomson associated with Quilliam’s fateful divorce case that led to him being struck off the Rolls! He also questions why Hannah’s son Yakup should be named the son of ‘Abdullah Gevilyan’ in the Ottoman family records.

Readers should invest in a copy of Whispering Across Continents to find out the sequels – and much more besides.  There are also intriguing cases of people assuming different and multiple identities – it was not just Abdullah Quilliam!

Jamil Sherif, January 2020