The real story of Hajji Baba

Ottoman and Persian Odysseys

April 10, 1998

James Morier's The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Isfahan was first published in 1823 and at once became a bestseller. In it, the eponymous protagonist, a Persian adventurer half Candide and half rogue, tells the story of his life from humble beginnings to final success, through dramatic vicissitudes and brushes with death.

The book was a satire on Persia and its people, in particular the despotic Shah Fath Ali Shah and his corrupt, intriguing courtiers. The device of using a fictitious narrator to satirise a society was not unusual among 18th-century authors - Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Charles de Secondat Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes spring to mind. But while the heroes of these books are strangers commenting on an alien world, Morier's Hajji was a native of the country and provoked comparison with Alain Le Sage's masterpiece Gil Blas of Santillane. In Persia itself, it was believed to be the work of a Persian writing under an English pseudonym: how could a foreigner have such a deep understanding of the country, of the subtleties of its language, of the nuances of its customs? It soon became a classic and has remained one of the most popular picaresque novels.

But who was Morier? Ottoman and Persian Odysseys is an attempt to answer that question. Part biography and part history, it tells the story of James Morier and his brothers, the older Jack and the younger David and William, while illuminating an important aspect of the Napoleonic wars - the struggle for supremacy between Britain, France and Russia in the Levant.

Henry McKenzie Johnston first came across Morier in 1988 in Mexico City. He was writing a book on the treaty between Britain and the newly independent Mexico in 1824, and discovered that the author of Hajji Baba was part of the British delegation sent to negotiate it. McKenzie Johnston published the book in 1992 but did not forget Morier. He got in touch with historian Alice Cunnack, a great-granddaughter of David Morier, who put her research and family archives at his disposal. She died soon after, but her generous contribution enabled him to write this enjoyable and instructive book, which at times reads like a riveting picaresque novel.

Of the four brothers, William, the youngest, who became an admiral in the British Navy, had the least eventful life. Jack and David were closely connected to James in their earlier careers and feature prominently in the book. The Morier brothers were the sons of Isaac Morier, a Swiss merchant in Smyrna (Izmir in Turkey), which was then a thriving port with a sizeable European community. He married Clara Van Lennep, the daughter of a Dutch trader, and their second son James Justinius was born on August 15, 1782. Having studied in England, Isaac was determined that his sons have an English education, and brought the family to London in 1788. Clara's sister Cornelia had married William Waldegrave (younger son of the Earl and later Baron Radstock), who took the family under his wing. The boys were educated privately, went to Harrow and learnt languages and music; Clara's charm and beauty ensured their acceptance in society.

Isaac had hoped that his sons would return to Smyrna and join him in business, but although at first they dutifully obeyed him, they showed little desire or aptitude for trade. Their knowledge of the Orient, linguistic talents and, above all, connections with the English aristocracy made them natural candidates for the Foreign Office: "In those days it was rare for anyone outside the ranks of high society to make a career in diplomacy."

The opportunity arose when Lord Elgin was appointed British ambassador to the Ottoman court and took Turkish-speaking Jack with him. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, then part of the Ottoman Empire, "Jack proved resourceful and determined" in dealing with the Egyptians, the Turks and the French. He ended his career as British minister in Dresden. His brother David followed in his footsteps: he was "taken under the wing of his old Harrow friend Lord Aberdeen", became "involved in the final diplomatic stages of the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna" and finally ended as British minister in Switzerland.

James was the most gifted of the brothers. He was an accomplished draughtsman, he illustrated his books with his own drawings, he wrote well, and he had "an easy-going sense of humour and funI an eager curiosity". At 22, he hitched himself to Sir Harford Jones as private secretary on a mission to the Persian court. The British were seeking an alliance with Persia to counter Napoleon's advance in the Middle East and his predatory intentions towards India, while the Persians were seeking allies in Europe to stop Russia grabbing their Caucasian dominions. Feverish diplomatic activity ensued, involving all three European powers, with the Persians trying to secure the best deal. James accompanied three British envoys to Persia and stayed in the country six years in all, at one stage becoming interim minister. A treaty was finally signed between Britain and Persia, and the French were sent packing. But after Napoleon's fall, the British came to an understanding with the Russians, and abandoned Persia, which in a series of wars lost all of its Central Asian provinces to Russia.

Morier's writing life began with two travel books about his journeys through Persia, Armenia and Turkey, illustrated with his delightful sketches. But it was Hajji Baba that made his name and enabled him to leave diplomacy, marry and settle in Brighton as a full-time writer. Hajji Baba paints an extremely unflattering caricature of Persia and the Persians. Even Morier's boss, Sir Harford Jones, was embarrassed, and wrote that "it would be just as wise to estimate the national character of the Persians (from this book)I as it would be to estimate the national character of the Spaniards from those of Don RaphaelI" But in his preface to the 1894 edition of Hajji Baba, Lord Curzon defended Morier by pointing out that "no satirist worthy of the name from Juvenal to Swift has ever dipped (his pen) in honey or treacle".

But McKenzie Johnston's ample quotations from James's letters and diaries make it clear that from the start Morier had a streak of Calvinistic puritanism and a pronounced xenophobia that made him dislike anything "foreign". Although he himself had only "a remote and tiny drop of English blood", he hated the French and does not seem to have had a good word to say about anyone east of the Danube.

In 1809, Morier accompanied Mirza Abul Hasan, the first Persian ambassador to London, as his interpreter. With his exotic good looks and sumptuous clothes, jewellery and lavish presents, the Persian became the toast of London, charming everyone and courting every woman, even falling in love with the niece of the foreign secretary. Needless to say she tactfully refused his offer - he already had a harem full of wives back home. Later Morier wrote The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Isfahan in England, whose hero, Mirza Firouz, is a caricature of the colourful envoy. Impatient with the trappings of democracy, which delay the signing of a treaty between the two countries, Firouz writes to Persia describing Parliament: "Then they have certain houses full of madmen, who meet half the year round for the purpose of quarrelling. If one set says white, the other cries black; and they throw more words away in settling a common question than would suffice one of our muftis (magistrates) during a whole reign. In short, nothing can be settled in the State, be it only whether a rebellious Aga (chieftain) is to have his head cut off and his property confiscated, or some such trifle, until these people have wrangled."

When Hajji Baba and its sequel were translated into Persian, Morier's Persian friends were none too pleased. Even ambassador Mirza Abul Hasan broke up with him: "What for you write Hajji Baba, sir? King very angry, sir. I swear him you never write lies; but he say, yes - write. All people very angry with you, sir. That very bad book, sir. All lies, sir. Who tell you all these lies, sir? What for you not speak to me? Very bad business, sir. Persian people very bad people, perhaps, but very good to you, sir. (Italics in the original.) What for you abuse them so bad?" James Morier died in 1849, aged 66, in Brighton.

Shusha Guppy is a writer and London editor, Paris Review.

Ottoman and Persian Odysseys

Author - Henry McKenzie Johnston
ISBN - 1 86064 330 2
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Price - £29.50
Pages - 257

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Reader's comments (1)

I recall seeing the cinema version "Hajji Baba" years ago and finding it a charming movie. Yet, as a historian, I'd always wondered if there was anything "historical" about it. The one problem I had with the movie was that, like so many of those "sand and sandal" movies made about the same time, one could never get a sense of an actual time period in which it took place. In the movie, it could have just as easily been the early 1800's(Morier's timje) as much as it could have been the 800's. That being said, the movie princess' father did briefly mention the Taj Mahal which means it had to have taken place post-1650. I did once have the actual book by Morier but found it a somewhat difficult read at the time; and it in no way paralleled the movie - or maybe it was more like the movie didn't follow the book! In any event, I was grateful to this site for the small biographical information on Justin Morier - very little of which is available elsewhere. Time permitting, I am eager to read this book in it's entirety. It somewhat come as a disappointment to learn that Morier was NOT sympathetic to his subject matter in the way that most "orientalist" writers were. In stark contrast to Morier, Robert van Gulick's stories set in ancient China one cannot help but notice his love and admiration for the Chinese people - a telling contrast indeed to Morier's dislike of the Persians. Yet I can imagine this new book could go a long way for people in our time to better understand the seemingly unbridgeable gap between modern Iran and the west.