LEWIS, James (pseudonym Charles Masson)

LEWIS, James (pseudonym Charles Masson). Aldermanbury (Middlesex) 16.2.1800 — Edmonton, Middlesex 5.11.1853. British pioneer of Archæology in Afghanistan. Son of oil dealerGeorge Lewis and Mary Hopcraft, apparently had a good education. Served in E. I. Company’s army, from 1821 in Bengal Artillery, soon after participation in the siege of Bharatpur deserted in 14.7.1826 (or 4.7.1827?) in Agra. Taking the name Ch.M. and posing himself as an American he travelled in what is now Pakistan, and in Afghanistan and Iran, being thus beyond the rule of the British. Now he soon started exploration and antiquarian research. As supposed American he served British intelligence as well as archaeology and found supporters in Calcutta (e.g. the Prinsep brothers). Warrant of pardon (for desertion) was given in 1834, but he never took back his original name. Even before this he was nominated the agent of Indian Government in Kabul. After some time in England (?) he returned to India in 1838. In 1840 he again started explorations in Baluchistan, but was arrested by the British on the suspicion of being a Russian spy. Released, he returned to England. Looked in vain for a new employment and lived on a meagre pension. He opposed strongly to the Afghan war. Married 1844 Mary Anne Kilby, one daughter and one son.

His keen powers of observation and his courage to live and travel among local people made him one of the best observators among early Western travellers in Afghanistan. He knew Latin and Greek (and French) and was much interested of the route of Alexander’s campaign. He conducted excavations in the Kabul-Jalalabad region (e.g. Begram and Bamiyan), made sketches, collected coins (total estimated as 60,000) and artefacts (e.g. the Bimaran casket) and kept good record of everything. The major part of his collections is now in British Museum (some also in Ashmolean Museum and Fitzwilliam Museum), papers (letters, drafts, notebooks, journals, newspaper cuttings, drawings and sketches) in British Library. In a nearly inaccessible cave at Bamiyan there is an inscription by him:

If any fool this high samooch explore,  

know that Charles Masson has been here before.”

Publications: “Memoir on the Ancient Coins found at Beghram, in the Kohistān of Kābul”, JASB 3, 1834, 152-175, 5 pl.; “Second Memoir…”, JASB 5, 1836, 1-28; “Third Memoir…”, JASB 5, 1836, 537-547; “Suggestions on the sites of Sangala and the altars of Alexander, being an extract from notes of a journey from Lahore to Karychee, made in 1830”, JASB 6, 1837, 57-61.

– “Memoir on the Topes and Sepulchral Monuments of Afghanistan”, Wilson, Ariana Antiqua. L. 1841, 55-118; “Narrative of an Excursion from Pesháwar to Sháh-Báz Ghari”, JRAS 8, 1846, 292-302; “Illustration of the Route from Seleucia to Apobatana, as given by Isidorus of Charax”, JRAS 12, 1850, 97-124.

Narrative of various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab, including a Residence in those Countries from 1826 to 1838. 1-3. L. 1842; Narrative of a Journey to Kalāt … and a Memoir on Eastern Baluchistan. L. 1843; both works republished together: 1-4. L. 1844.

Legends of the Afghan Countries, in verse, with various pieces, original and translated. 7+328 p. L. 1848.

Sources: G. Alder, Oxford D.N.B.;; A. D. H. Bivar, review of Whitteridge 1986, BSOAS 51, 1988, 574f.; *K. Walton Dobbins, “Charles Masson and the Jani Topes”, Prācī-Prabhā … in honour of B.N. Mukherjee. N.D. 1989, 137-1??; E. Errington, “Ancient Afghanistan Through the Eyes of Charles Masson (1800-1853)”, IIAS Newsl. 27, 2002, 8f. (with some difference in detail, claiming that he remained in Afghanistan in 1833-38 and then resigned) and Encyclop. Iranica 2004 (online); S. Garg, “New Light on Charles Masson”, V. Widorn, U. Franke, P. Latschenberger (eds.): Contextualizing Material Culture in South and Central Asia in Pre-Modern Times. Papers from the 20th Conference of the European Association for South Asian Archaeology and Art held in Vienna from 4th to 9th July 2010. Turnhout 2016, 203-211; J. Hackin, Rech. arch. à Begram. MDAFA 9, Paris 1939 (short note on p. 3); Frank E. Ross, “New light on Charles Masson”, IA 1933, 221f.; *R. B. Whitehead, “James Lewis alias Charles Masson”, Numismatic Chronicle 1943, 96f.; *Gordon Whitteridge, Charles Masson of Afghanistan: explorer, archaeologist, numismatist and intelligence agent. Warminster 1986; Wikipedia (as Ch.M.); no portrait known.

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