Though there are so few clues to the early life of Thomas Anson there are, among them, a small number of extraordinarily dramatic anecdotes. In the two most significant cases they are stories told by Thomas to friends or associates who published them after Thomas's death, many years after the events to which they refer. These momentary openings of windows into his life are priceless gifts and it is impossible not to feel that they have been preserved in time for a reason, as if he wanted to leave just a few clues to the most important events in his life.
Philosopher James Harris passes on a fragment of conversation in his "Philological Enquiries", published in 1781.
"WHEN the late Mr. Anson (Lord Anson's Brother) was upon his Travels in the East, he hired a Vessel, to visit the Isle of Tenedos. His Pilot, an old Greek, as they were sailing along, said with some satisfaction, "There 'twas our Fleet lay." Mr. Anson demanded, "What Fleet?" "What Fleet?" replied the old Man (a little piqued at the Question)â€”"WHY OUR GRECIAN FLEET AT THE SIEGE OF TROY". This story was told the Author by Mr. Anson himself."
This story has occasionally been quoted, even, incredibly considering the clear wording of the first sentence, in a biography of James Harris, as an incident in George Anson's life. The source itself is important. James Harris was the key intellectual figure of the Greek Revival, the philosophical part of the Golden Web. He knew Thomas in his later life, certainly from the 1760s, and his family's archive is the main source of information on Thomas's musical activities.
One of the few documents in Thomas's handwriting is a diary of a journey to the eastern Mediterranean in 1740/1. The diary gives little more than the dates of arrival at various ports but it is enough to make it clear that the story passed on by James Harris must refer to a different voyage. Thomas went as far as Egypt and Aleppo but nowhere near the island of Tenedos, now Bozcaada in Turkey, about 100 miles north of Izmir, then known as Smyrna.
Some writers have guessed that there was an earlier trip. Ingamells' Dictionary lists a possible trip to the Levant in 1734. This guess, in fact correct, is based, oddly, on a misinterpretation of a document in the Staffordshire Records Office. This letter, dated 25th September 1734 was wrongly imagined by an earlier researcher to be a "Firmen" or passport for a traveller in the Ottoman Empire. The Staffordshire Records Office has always, until now, listed it as being in Hebrew. It is in fact written in Armenian. When I first attempted to get a translation I sent a copy to an Armenian historian at the British Museum who provided a very fragmentary and misleading translation, explaining that the letter was written in a difficult mixture of Armenian and Persian, used by merchants in the 18th century.
Fortunately the original translator could make out the name of Shariamans in the letter and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, a search for this name led to Sebouh Aslanian of Columbia University who is studying Armenian merchants in Europe in the 18th century. With very great thanks to Sebouh Aslanian this document has been read for the first time in 274 years. It reveals that there was a journey to the East but the letter is not a firmen. The right deduction, of a trip to the Levant in 1734, had been made for the wrong reasons.
To Signor Bortolo di Pietro, Armenian merchant, Livorno .
In the Name of God
To your honorable lordship, Mister Bortolo
In the year 1734 September 25 in Izmir (known to European travellers as Smyrna )
The letter begins with formulaic introduction by Babajan of Avetik (the author of the letter) telling Mr. Bortolo di Pietro of the Sharimanian family in Livorno that he (Babajan) is at his service and always willing to carry out his duties, but that he has not received any letters or orders from Bortolo to respond to him in kind.
Babajan then states that he is writing this letter to ask for a favor.
He writes that "an Englishman arrived from England [ingleterra] in this place [i.e., in Izmir ] stating that he is a lord of a great household and is a very good man. In truth, few kind/good men among the English such as this man are to be found [here?] and he is a good friend of your servant [i.e., Babajan]. His name is Master Tomasso Anson. I was conversing with him one day and remembered your good reputation to him. Since he is returning [to Livorno] with this same English ship, he asked your servant [i.e., Babajan] for a [letter of] recommendation, so that if he has any needs in that place [i.e., Livorno], I beg you to provide services to him without any charge, for providing services to such nobility will not go to waste....
I have recommended you to him so you may show him your friendship to your servant [i.e., Babajan] by going to pay your respects to him at the Lazzaretto [Nazaret? or at the quarantine?] ... The Mister [Tomasso Anson] will go to France from that place [i.e., Livorno ] in order to return to his country from there...I beg of you to [provide your services to Tomasso Anson] and write back to your servant [i.e., Babajan]. May your lordship [i.e., Bortolo] have a long life and always be filled with joy.
From your menial servant, Babajan of Avetick "
This letter reveals that Thomas Anson was in Smyrna on 25th September 1734, preparing to return to Livorno where he would need to spend time in quarantine, as was customary, before travelling on to France. Smyrna is the nearest port to Tenedos, so the incident of the Greek Fleet took place shortly before this. There is no clue about the rest of his journey, though other travellers who reached Smyrna would move on up the Hellespont to Constantinople . He may have come to Smyrna by way of Greece , but Greece was a lawless place and fewer travellers had managed to reach it in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The letter implies that Thomas has asked Babajan of Avetick, a merchant who does business with the Shariamanian family, for an introduction to Mr. Bortolo di Pietro of the Sharimanian family in Livorno . It would be interesting to know what particular business Bortolo was in. "Count" David Shahrimanian, in Livorno, was a diamond merchant. It is very unlikely that Thomas Anson would be interested in diamonds, especially in 1734, ten years before Admiral Anson returned hugely wealthy from his circumnavigation.
There is a bizarre and horrific connection between this document and the Cat's Monument at Shugborough. In one of her letters Lady Anson referred to it as "Kouli Kan's Monument".
Kouli Khan was Nadir Shah, who became Shah of Persia in 1737. Presumably the cat, represented on the monument by a Cheshire Cat-like stone animal, was the first of a line of Persian cats owned by Thomas and named after the Emperor.
In 1747 Nadir Shah had four merchants burned alive in Isfahan's Central Square over an argument about a jewel-studded horsecloth that, presumably, the Emperor wanted for himself. Two of the merchants were Jewish and the other two were catholic Armenians - one being Harutiun (Aratoon) Shahrimanian. This would have probably been the uncle of "Bortolo di Pietro of the Sharimanian family" and brother of "Count" David Sharimanian of Livorno.(2)
Tenedos (its modern name is Bozcaada) is a place of enormous symbolic meaning. As the old sailor had said it was the place where the Greek fleet lay in hiding at the siege of Troy. The Greeks retreated there after apparently abandoning the siege, but they had left behind the mysterious wooden horse.
The island is mentioned in Homer's Illiad and more explicitly stated to be the hiding place of the fleet in Virgil's Aeneid.
Alexander Pope's translation of the Illiad, Book 1:
"O Smintheus! sprung from fair Latona's line,
Thou guardian power of Cilla the divine,
Thou source of light! whom Tenedos adores,
And whose bright presence gilds thy Chrysa's shores."
John Dryden's translation of the Aeneid, Book 2:
"In sight of Troy lies Tenedos, an isle
(While Fortune did on Priam's empire smile)
Renown'd for wealth; but, since, a faithless bay,
Where ships expos'd to wind and weather lay.
There was their fleet conceal'd."
Thomas Anson would probably have read these texts in their original Greek and Latin. One wonders how well he communicated on his journey. He would have sailed on English ships, either navy or merchant ships on the important cloth trade route to Smyrna, but he must have needed Greek to talk to the old Greek sailor. Ancient Greek may not have helped very much.
There was an English community in Smyrna, and an English factory, complete with a chaplaincy, that had been active for a hundred years. Tourists were extremely rare in 1734 but there had been a few who had described their travels in writing and mentioned Tenedos and its relationship to Troy.
T. Smith, in 1668, wrote a diary of a voyage to Smyrna and Tenedos.
"We past by Lemnos, and were up with the Island Tenedos; a fine Champaign Country,
only with one Hill toward the middle of it. The Castle to the N. E. part of the Isle: over against which lye three small Islands in a strait Line. Here we came to an Anchor. We saw the Ruins of Troas at a distance, but did not think it safe to go ashore."
A traveller in 1701, Ellis Veryard, described crossing to Troy from Tenedos:
"Proceeding in our Voyage, we anchor'd under the lile of Tenedos, about Five Miles from the Ruins of the antient City of Troy â€¦It's about Thirty Miles in compass, rockey and barren ; s? that it produces little, saving a small quantity of Wine, which is much esteem'd in the Levant. Next Morning we cross'd over to the main Land, and went on Shore to visit Troy. The Water was so very shallow near the Shore, and so fill'd with Ruins (on which, I suppose, the Sea has gain'd) that we were forc'd to wade a considerable way to get on Land, where we came at length, tho' not without some difficulty. This is said to be the place where the antient Ilium ftoodâ€¦It's celebrated in History for one of the greatest and most flourishing Cities in Asia Minor, but principally for the fatal War it maintain'd for divers Years against the Grecians." (4)
A very detailed geography and history of Tenedos was published in "Relation d'un voyage du Levant" (1718) by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, and this was one of a collection of books on eastern travel that Thomas bought for his library either in preparation for his journeys or as a reminder of them. Tournefort gives a print of the island showing the harbour and the fort. The island had been a constant cause of conflict as a strategic point in the Hellespont, several times controlled by the Venetians and after 1657 by the Ottoman Empire.
The Armenian letter and James Harris's anecdote show Thomas to have been an adventurous traveller, apparently travelling alone. He was certainly not sailing with his brother. George Anson had served in the Mediterranean fleet in the 1720s but by 1734 was in Carolina. What is particularly surprising about this discovery is that the voyage to Tenedos predates by several years the journeys of any of his fellow members of the Divan Club, the society for eastern travellers which Thomas joined in the 1740s. Francis Dashwood and Lord Sandwich, seen as pioneers, travelled east in 1738/9, four years later. Thomas Anson's trip to Tenedos happened at about the time that the Society of Dilettanti was formalised and fourteen years before that Society began to look further east than Italy with its support of Stuart's and Revett's expedition.
The manuscript diary from 1740/1 is a proof of a later trip to the Ottoman lands. There might have been more. How many of the "many years abroad" that John Eardly Wilmot wrote of were spent travelling in such exotic places? Where exactly did Thomas go on what must have been a lengthy trip in 1734? Did he visit Athens?
Surely if he had someone would have mentioned it. Greece was known to be lawless and dangerous and Stuart and Revett came near to death when they were drawing the ruins of classical Greece. Perhaps this encounter with an old sailor was the closest Thomas was able to get to Athens - but on a way he had found himself even closer to the roots of Greece than Stuart and Revett through his contact with the old sailor's memory - as if time meant nothing. For anyone with a love of that world strong enough to inspire him to make this journey that encounter would be powerfully symbolic. What would his feelings have been when he returned to England?
There is no one else In England in the 1730s who would have had a stronger motivation to encourage other travellers and researchers - and in doing so set the first spark to the Greek Revival.
There is a portrait at Shugborough which may be of Thomas, though its provenance is unknown. This painting may well be another souvenir of this 1734 Eastern journey
The portrait is assumed to be by Vanderbank or "school of Vanderbank." It shows a man, in early middle age. Thomas was 39 in 1734. He is wearing a turban, a common replacement for a wig if in a state of undress. He has a rather louche air, and wears an open shirt. He is holding a hand-held sundial. He looks like a traveller returned from a voyage. If the portrait is by Vanderbank himself the picture has to date from no later than 1739, the year of Vanderbank's death. Vanderbank also painted a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Yorke, Lady Anson to be, at about the same time, dressed as a shepherdess. This is also at Shugborough.
It is easy to imagine this painting to be a portrait of Thomas Anson freshly returned from a very dramatic journey and, for him at least, the experience that would bring him close to the very roots of Greek culture and inspire his part in the Greek Revival.
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(1) Staffordshire Records Office. Anson Papers. D615/PA/2. The letter is included in a bundle of correspondence with John Dick, Anson's agent in Livorno.
(2) Sebouh Aslanian: Trade Diaspora versus Colonial State : Armenian Merchants, the English East India Company, and the High Court of Admiralty in London , 1748-1752 1
(3) Finnegan, Rachel, â€˜The Divan Club, 1744-46, (EJOS, IX 2006, No. 9, 1-86)
(4) Publications from 1700-1740 mentioning Tenedos can be searched on Google Books