Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons

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Dr Gareth Winrow, University of Oxford


I knew that my Turkish friend, Ahmet Ceylan, came from an interesting family. His great uncle, known in Turkey as Ahmet Robenson, had introduced basketball and Scouting to the Ottoman Empire and was one of the first goalkeepers to play for the Galatasaray football team. What I did not know, when eventually deciding to investigate the family, was that I would discover a cast of amazing characters who are surprisingly little known outside Turkey. The life of Ahmet’s mother, Hannah (Fatima) Robinson, is a case in point.

Turkish commentators have spun various narratives about the mother of the celebrated Ahmet Robenson. Ahmet Robenson, himself, in his final years, had contributed to the mythologizing of his mother by stating that she was related to Cecil Rhodes. He noted how his mother came from a family renowned in the fields of art, education and literature. In a children’s picture story booklet published in Turkey, Ahmet’s mother is referred to as “Lady Sarah”. In the booklet, there are sketches of an attractive, aristocratic-looking young woman who supposedly had decided to convert to Islam after witnessing the poverty of the Muslim population in British-ruled India.

Other Turkish accounts, referring to material in the Ottoman archives, have suggested that Ahmet Robenson and two of his brothers were the offspring of a relationship between Hannah/Lady Sarah, and William Henry “Abdullah” Quilliam – the lawyer who converted to Islam and established in Liverpool one of the first mosques in late Victorian England.

It was only later that I realised that a disillusioned Ahmet Robenson had decided to fabricate the story about his mother’s upbringing. Ahmet had emigrated to America in the late 1920s after hard-line Turkish nationalists had repeatedly opposed his efforts to cooperate with American officials on various social and educational projects in the recently founded Republic of Turkey. My research would also reveal a close connection between Hannah and Quilliam, although I also learned that Quilliam was most certainly not the father of Ahmet Robenson.

Hannah Rodda (note the similarity with the surname, Rhodes) was born in the slums of London’s East End in 1854. Her father, a merchant seamen, died soon after her birth, and the infant Hannah appears to have spent a period of time in the local workhouse with her mother and siblings. She later worked as a house maid for one of Queen Victoria’s personal physicians. Evidence strongly indicates that Hannah had an illegitimate child with the “gentleman” doctor. Ahmet Ceylan had told me that there were rumours in the family that Hannah had been engaged to Queen Victoria’s doctor. In this case, family rumours seemed to have been well-founded. In an unexpected turn of events, Hannah later married the well-to-do Indian tea planter, Spencer Robinson. Her husband’s death in 1889 forced Hannah to return to England with her young children.

I then learned that in 1891 Hannah converted to Islam and married at the mosque in Liverpool a certain Dr Gholab Shah. Gossip in the high society media of the time noted how Dr Gholab Shah of Kabul was the eldest son of the late Sheikh Mohammed, and had fought valiantly against the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. I attempted to learn more about this colourful Afghan warlord, but there was no mention of a Gholab Shah in the detailed accounts of the campaigns fought by the British in Afghanistan. I realised only later, looking through the National Archives, that Gholab Shah was an imposter and a charlatan. His real name was Eliahie Bosche, and he was an Indian eye doctor who had a reputation for abusing and exploiting women.

To my surprise, the National Archives has a bundle of correspondence between Hannah and British officials. Hannah had begun a new life in Constantinople with Bosche. Bosche had started to terrorise Hannah and her children, and so Hannah wrote two letters to the Prime Minister’s office in London. Desperately seeking a divorce, Hannah beseeched the British authorities to lobby on her behalf so that she could secure more financial support from Sultan Abdulhamid II. Amazingly, Hannah had succeeded in obtaining some funds from the Sultan after writing a pleading letter to the Grand Vizier in which she spoke of her close ties with Quilliam. By this time, the activities of the mosque in Liverpool had attracted the interest of the Sultan, and Quilliam had cultivated close ties with the Ottoman court. Hannah’s entreaties prompted a flurry of communications between British officials in London and Constantinople. The last thing they wanted was to annoy the Sultan at a time when Britain and Tsarist Russia were vying for influence in the Ottoman Empire.

The connection between Hannah and Quilliam was clearly an important one. I also uncovered other previously unexplored connections between the Robinsons and Quilliam – for example, Ahmet Robenson was apparently engaged to the woman whose notorious divorce case had led to Quilliam losing his licence to work as a solicitor. I find it quite extraordinary that the previous detailed works on the life of Quilliam have failed to pick up and develop the Robinson connection.

I was also struck by how a woman of Hannah’s background could figure so prominently in relations between the Ottoman court and Britain. Her conversion to Islam clearly had an impact on the Sultan, who apparently offered Hannah one of his rising young military officers to be Hannah’s third husband. The myth that developed in Turkey about Lady Sarah might be explained, at least in part, by this dramatic series of events.

Perhaps I was lucky to write about a family in which one extraordinary story after another  unexpectedly unfolded before me. The book is full of other tales of characters who have left their mark on history, including Gertrude Eisenmann, Hannah’s illegitimate daughter, who became a famous racing motor cyclist and car rally driver in Wilhelmine Germany. There are more stories about Hannah recounted in the book. Researching the Robinsons, I came to appreciate how delving deep into the lives of a particular family may provide new insights and perspectives on already well-explored subjects and themes in history.

 

Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons (2019), is published by Amberley 

 

About the author: Gareth Winrow previously lived and worked in Istanbul for twenty years, where he was a Professor of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. He is the author of a number of books and articles on Turkish foreign policy and energy security issues. A member of Chatham House, he is also the recipient of two NATO Research Fellowships and a US Institute of Peace Fellowship. Gareth currently works as a part time tutor in the Department for Continuing Education at Oxford University.

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