A Churchill learning Arabic in Burma

I recently found a copy of Hassam’s ‘Arabic Self-Taught, or the Dragoman for Travellers in Egypt‘ (1883) with an intriguing inscription on an inside page. It reads:

S. Churchill Lt RSF
Thayetmyo B. B.

RSF = Royal Scots Fusiliers
B. B. = British Burma

The Royal Scots Fusiliers were stationed in Egypt 1882-1883, which is presumably where Churchill – or a colleague – developed an interest in Arabic, and acquired the book (in Egypt, or after the regiment’s return to England in 1883). In 1885, the Royal Scots Fusiliers were in Burma, and saw action in the Third Anglo-Burmese War.

So is this any connection to the famous aristocratic Churchills? It seems not. There are tantalising connections, but the dates – and initials – just don’t match up. Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-1895) was Secretary of State for India in 1885, and instrumental in the British invasion and annexation of Burma, but he was not a Lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, and was hardly hanging out in Thayetmyo brushing up on his Arabic. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel in command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1916, but he was too young to have served with them in Burma.

A Lieutenant S. V. F. Churchill, however, appears on the Burma Medal Roll of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1885-1887 (you can read it online here). This is surely our man. How did his Arabic studies go? There are no further annotations on the book, which is in very good condition indeed, so perhaps, like many a present-day student of Arabic, his initial enthusiasm and good resolutions waned in the face of challenging grammar and phonology. In Burma, without exposure to the language, it will have been difficult for him to practise.  (Burmese Self-Taught didn’t come out until 1911.)  On the other hand, the Thayet Golf Club didn’t open until 1887, so he may well have had time on his hands.

So how did Lt. Churchill’s copy of Hassam’s ‘Arabic Self-Taught’ come to be in a bookshop in Le Mans, France, in 2014? Your guess is as good as mine.

photo 2

Rachel Mairs

Postscript (21 July 2015):

Our friend Lieutenant Churchill is mentioned briefly in a few contemporary (or near contemporary) accounts of British military involvement in Burma: Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India (1907); The Coming of the Great Queen: A Narrative of the Acquisition of Burma (1888); The Chin Hills (1896).  Caveat lector: these books are (ahem) ‘products of their times’.


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