The rise to power of His Imperial Majesty Naser al-Din Shah Qajar of Persia (1831-1896) was largely thanks to his mother who championed the cause of her second son as heir apparent. When his father Mohammad Shah Qajar died in 1848, the new Shah’s path was smoothed by Amir Kabir who would become Prime Minister of Persia before being executed on the monarch’s instruction in 1852. Though a moderate reformist, the Shah was an absolute sovereign and held the reins of power tightly until his assassination in 1896.
The Shah was distinguished as the first ruler of his nation to visit Europe. The Tour Diary of HM The Shah of Persia, ostensibly written in his own words, chronicles the Persian monarch’s visit to England in 1873 and paints a detailed miniature of British royal circles. He was celebrated in Vanity Fair with a Spy cartoon depicting the Shah wearing European clothing tailored by Henry Poole from whom he ordered prodigiously while his entourage was billeted at Buckingham Palace.
The Shah’s State Visit to London was a political chess move by Prime Minister Gladstone calculated to forge a territorial alliance with Persia against Russia. Britain had declared war on Persia in 1856 when the Shah ordered the invasion of Afghanistan that was soon repelled. Much to Queen Victoria’s chagrin, Gladstone approved the Shah being appointed a member of the Order of the Garter.
Stories in the London newspapers concerning the Shah reflect European perceptions that the Persian race was little more than barbarian. It was reported that pressure at a government level was placed on the Shah to reluctantly leave the pleasures of the Paris brothels and that Queen Victoria insisted his suite of rooms at Buckingham Palace be redecorated after the Shah’s departure. The most disturbing rumour concerned servants who displeased the Shah being strangled and buried in the gardens behind Buckingham Palace.
Various slips in etiquette and protocol were gleefully reported such as the night at the Royal Albert Hall when the Shah draped an arm over the bare shoulders of the Princess of Wales and her sister the Grand Duchess Marie of Russia and attempted to feed them bonbons. The Shah was partial to the ladies as his twenty-five wives and fourteen sons and daughters demonstrated. But he was also a cultured man well-versed in European arts with interests in painting, photography and poetry. The Duke of Cambridge dined with him at Marlborough House and said ‘no ne could have behaved better or been more dignified while at dinner’.
Of his many excursions in the capital city, the Shah appeared most enthralled by the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. His own dress tunics were embellished with magnificent diamonds and rubies. He was most interested in the legendary Koh-i-Noor diamond that had briefly been in the Persian treasury in the eighteenth century. He witnessed Queen Victoria wearing it as a brooch. The Shah was also most struck by a waxwork of the Emperor Napoleon III on his deathbed in Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. He commented on the uniform that was tailored by Poole’s as was the late Emperor’s wardrobe.
One of the most oft repeated anecdotes about the Shah was a comment made to the Prince of Wales while attending a house party at the invitation of the Duke of Sutherland. The Shah thought the duke was ‘too grand a subject’ and announced ‘you’ll have to have his head off when you come to the throne’. The Shah had met the Duke and Duchess previously at their London residence Lancaster House (in the precincts of St. James’s Palace) so it is unlikely the remark was anything more than a quip.
Mention is made in the Shah’s Tour Diary of a visit to Regent Street that rendered him bewildered and stupefied’ by the ‘concourse of people and throng of carriages’. It was perhaps the same day he visited Poole’s and placed an order totalling £804, eleven shillings and ten pence. Outstanding pieces include ‘a black dress beaver Persian frock coat lined with satin and laced gold’, ‘a pair of black doeskin trousers with scarlet piping and silk fittings’ and ‘a black Alexandra cloth great coat lined with fur’. The most elaborate military order was ‘a scarlet superfine general’s tunic lined silk, gold lace, gold shoulder cords, stars and crowns on collar’ with ‘14/2 mounted gilt buttons’ and ‘a gold sash with bullion tassels to French Regulation with crimson overalls, silk pockets, two gold stripes’.
The Shah’s sybaritic taste was underwritten by the sale of Persian national assets to foreign investors whose proceeds he would pocket. Of his numerous trade agreements, the most unpopular was the Shah’s attempt to sell Persia’s tobacco concession in 1890 that led to a national boycott of tobacco and a fatwah issued by Ayatolla Mirza Hassan. It is believed a follower of nationalist agitator Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who was highly critical of the tobacco scandal, plotted the Shah’s murder in Tehran in 1896.