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Joseph Wolff, the globe-trotting doctor and missionary

Posted in Adventure, Historical articles, History, Missionaries, Travel on Thursday, 5 April 2012

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This edited article about Joseph Wolff originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 683 published on 15 February 1975.

Turkistan, picture, image, illustration

Scene in Bokhara in Turkistan

The old Turkestan dervish laid his hand on his visitor’s shoulder. “My friend,” he said, “if you value your life, do not go to the evil city of Bokhara!”

Dr Joseph Wolff thanked him for his advice and pressed on with his journey, as he had not the slightest intention of turning back. He was fully aware of the dangers of Central Asia. In the first quarter of the 19th century the wild lands to the north of India could be very hard indeed on Europeans, as Wolff had already found out to his cost. On his last visit to those regions he had been robbed, sold into slavery, been poisoned, flogged and almost stung to death by wasps. Yet here he was, doing the same thing all over again.

The truth was that Joseph Wolff had never liked doing things the easy way. He had been born in Bavaria in 1795, the son of a Jewish Rabbi and almost as soon as he could read had shown a deep interest in religion. By the age of seven he was already questioning the faith he had been born into, and within the next ten years he had explored, and discarded, the beliefs of the Lutheran Church. By eighteen he was a Catholic monk, and by twenty-one had been expelled from Rome for arguing with the Cardinals. Finally, at the age of twenty-four, he had arrived in England and enrolled as a missionary.

He must have been one of the most globe trotting missionaries of all time. India, Abyssinia, North America, Russia, Turkey, Mesopotamia, the tireless Bavarian roamed them all. He had an extraordinary gift for languages and a knack of being able to make friends with wildly different kinds of people, which is probably why he returned from his trips alive. But in 1843 he was back in England with urgent news from the back of beyond. Colonel Charles Stoddard, of the Royal Staff Corps, and Captain Arthur Conolly of the Bengal Lancers were prisoners of the Emir of Bokhara. Unless they were rescued immediately they were almost certain to lose their lives.

There was something about Central Asia that had a tremendous fascination for Englishmen in Victorian times. And the very heart of it was Turkestan, a kind of romantic “never-never” land wedged in between Russia and Afghanistan. This was the so called “buffer” between East and West, the route of the half expected Russian invasion of the Indian Empire. It was here that Kim’s “Great Game” was played out daily by agents of the rival powers, and British officers dressed as Afghans, Persians and Pathans wandered in disguise among the wild nomadic tribes.

Today the escapades of those bearded, Victorian James Bonds sound wildly theatrical, but a hundred years ago they were real enough, and the men themselves were highly skilled and exceptionally brave, risking, and often meeting, quite horrible deaths. So when the wandering Dr Wolff came back to England with news that two British emissaries were captive in Bokhara, the very centre of Turkestan, he also wrote a letter to a newspaper addressed to “all the Officers of the British Army” stating that “if someone would be inclined to accompany me to Bokhara, or merely pay the expenses of my journey, I am ready to go there, and I am fully confident that I shall be able, with God’s help, to liberate them from captivity.”

Joseph Wolff didn’t appeal in vain. A Captain Grover promised to raise the money and even offered to join in the rescue operation, but the doctor would not hear of it, any more than he would consider a disguise. When he left England on his dangerous mission he was wearing an ordinary clergyman’s gown, and carried as presents a considerable number of silver watches and three dozen copies of an Arabic translation of “Robinson Crusoe”. With this load of somewhat unlikely equipment, Dr Wolff boarded a ship bound for Constantinople, and having arrived at that traditional gateway to the East, trudged off into the unknown.

His journey was a long one, for apart from the usual hazards Wolff’s passion for discussing obscure points of religion often got the better of him. He was in a part of the world where it was possible to meet men who followed a wide variety of faiths, and as the doctor could always find some common language in which to argue, his errand of mercy slowed down to a crawl. Also, it was winter, and he had forgotten just how bitterly cold Central Asia could be. However, wellwishers dressed him up as warmly as possible, and wearing a wolf skin jacket, a fur cap and hip length fur boots he went slowly but steadily on his way.

It had been October when Wolff left England, and it was February before he reached the Persian capital of Tehran. From there he made his way to Khorassan, a journey that took another month and filled him with some doubts, as it had been there that he had once been sold as a slave for £2.50. Fortunately the incident seemed to have been forgotten and he was hospitably received. Nevertheless it was April before he reached Turkestan, where his old dervish friend pleaded with him not to continue his journey.

Do not go to Bokhara!

It was a warning given in good faith, but Wolff disregarded it. All the same, he was disturbed by rumours he was hearing about the men he had set out to rescue. Apparently the unfortunate Stoddard had been imprisoned in a deep pit in which were bred specially ferocious insects and had only saved himself from being eaten alive by becoming a Mohammedan. Yet it was said that even this hadn’t saved him in the end, and that both he and Conolly were dead. Wolff dressed himself up in his clergyman’s clothes again and marched grimly towards his goal. On April 27th, 1844, he entered the city of Bokhara and was taken before the Emir.

The ruler of Bokhara was not a man to be trifled with, for Emir Nasrullah had murdered his own father and four of his brothers in order to gain power. But Wolff had spent most of his life asking questions with strangers and saw no reason to stop now.

“Where are my friends, Colonel Stoddard and Captain Conolly?” he demanded. “Are they alive or dead?”

He received no answer, but was politely led away to a comfortable house that had been provided for him. Wolff, being the man he was, soon found an old friend, no less a man than Abdul Khan, the commander of the Emir’s artillery.

But for once Joseph Wolff had misjudged someone, for when he announced that the British government would pay a large ransom for Stoddard and Conolly, Abdul Khan’s eyes lit up. Unfortunately, he said, the two officers had long ago been beheaded as spies, so not much could be done about that. On the other hand, how much would the British pay to get back Dr Wolff? With dismay, the good doctor realised that he had not only failed to rescue the Emir’s prisoners, but was now also a captive himself.

Months went by, while Wolff busied himself with oriental diplomacy. He soon realised that Abdul Khan was not only a ruthless villain who had been directly responsible for the murder of Stoddard and Conolly, but was a traitor to the Emir as well. To keep abreast of events Wolff organised his own intelligence system within Bokhara. The Jewish community respected his obvious learning and pretended to chant Hebrew prayers under his window, although actually giving him news, for thanks to his Rabbi father, Wolff spoke Hebrew as fluently as he spoke everything else. He also became a kind of public information service, as the Bokharans had a keen interest in the outside world and asked many questions.

They were lucky in their captive, because Joseph Wolff knew everything. Questioned on religion, he obligingly wrote them a special life of the Prophet Mohammed, in Persian, which gained him immense respect. Even so, he was still occasionally shown the vermin pit in which Stoddard had been confined, with promises that he would be its next occupant. He was also visited by the public executioner who demonstrated in dumb show exactly how he cut off heads. But the doctor had established himself as too great a man of learning to be killed. A British officer was one thing, but a man who could write such elegant Persian was quite another! In August the Emir suddenly announced that a caravan was setting out for Persia and Wolff could go with it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Joseph Wolff’s return journey was no pleasure trip either, as Abdul Khan had sent a party of men with the caravan with orders to murder him. Somehow he managed to survive not only them but the winter snows, a serious fall from a horse and numerous other perils.

Finally, after a journey of nine months, he reached England to be greeted by Captain Grover and a British public that had given him up for lost.

Dr Wolff ended his days as a parson in Somerset. It was a life that suited him, he said, for he was a man who liked his comforts and really detested travelling.

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