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Chapter 19

The history of the Sistan Vice-Consulate--Major Chevenix
Trench--Laying the foundation of the Consulate--Hoisting the
British flag--Major Benn--A terrible journey--A plucky
Englishwoman--The mud Consulate--Its evolution--The new
buildings--Ka-khanas--Gardening under difficulties--How horses
are kept--The enclosing wall--The legend of Trenchabad city--The
Consulate Mosque--Dr. Golam Jelami--The hospital--Successful
operations--Prevalent complaints of Sistan--The Sistan Sore.

The history of the Sistan Vice-Consulate does not go back very far, but is, nevertheless, very interesting. We will recapitulate it in a few words.

Major Brazier-Creagh was sent to Sistan on a special mission; as has already been said, and Captain F. C. Webb-Ware, C. I. E., Political Assistant at Chagai, visited the place every year at the end of his annual trip along the new route in North Beluchistan from Quetta to Robat, the most Eastern station of the route prior to entering Persian territory. Major Sykes visited Sistan in 1896 in connection with the Perso-Beluch Boundary Commission and again in 1899, when he travelled here from Kerman by the easier southern route via Bam.

It was on February 15th, 1900, that a Russian Vice-Consul for that important Province was appointed to Sistan to take the place of a Persian who was a news-writer in Russian employ. Major G. Chevenix Trench was then specially selected by the Viceroy of India as a suitable person to look after British interests in that region--and indeed no better man could have been chosen.

Having given up his appointment in India this officer left Quetta on March 7th, 1900, and arrived at Sher-i-Nasrya on the 18th of April, accompanied by Major R. E. Benn, who was on a year's furlough, and can be said, I believe, to be the first European who has travelled all the way from India to England by this overland route, via Meshed-Transcaspia.

Major Trench, prior to leaving for Meshed to take up his appointment of Consul-General for Khorassan, being unable to stand the fierce heat of the sun, laid the foundation stone--it was a "sun-dried mud brick," to be accurate--of the present temporary buildings of the Consulate. A domed mud hut à la Persane was built, with an additional spacious window, but no framework and no glass.

The great difficulty of hoisting the British flag, which seems to have been strongly objected to during the Perso-Afghan Commission when Sir Frederic Goldsmid passed through Sistan in 1872, was overcome mainly owing to the great tact shown by Major Trench. The Union Jack flew daily, gaily and undisturbed, over the mud hovel which will probably be during the next few years one of the most important consular posts we possess in Asia.

Major Benn, who had hastily proceeded to London on a long expected holiday, was immediately recalled to replace Major Trench. Major Benn, accompanied by his plucky and devoted wife and child, journeyed a second time across the Beluchistan desert to reach his post.

The journey was terrible, owing to torrential rains and snowstorms. When already several marches out they were compelled to return to Quetta as their child had become very ill. But they were despatched again on their duty. They encountered severe storms; the country was practically flooded; some of their camels died, and for days at a time they were in the desert unable to move, the country being in many places inundated. In a blizzard two of their men lost themselves and died from exposure, but the party advanced slowly but surely, the plucky little English lady standing all the hardships without a murmur.

Major Benn having been ordered to make a detour, they went down into the Sarhad, south of the Kuh-i-Malek-Siah, and it was not till February 15th, 1901, that they eventually reached Sher-i-Nasrya, and were received by Trench in his mud-hut Consulate, he having moved into a tent. Major Trench, on the arrival of Major Benn, proceeded to Meshed.

During Major Benn's time the Consulate buildings went through a marvellous evolution. It may be recollected that I reached Sistan in December, 1901, or only ten months after his arrival, but there were already several additional mud-rooms built and connected so as to form a suite of a spacious office, sitting-room, dining-room, two bedrooms and a storeroom. There were doors, made locally by imported Indian carpenters, but no glass to the windows,--muslin nailed to the wall answering the purpose of blinds. Famished dogs, attracted by the odour of dinner, would occasionally jump through this flimsy protection, much to the despair of Mrs. Benn--but those were only small troubles. Thieves found their way into the rooms, and even succeeded in stealing Mrs. Benn's jewellery. There was no protection whatever against an attack in force, and the natives were at first most impudent in their curiosity.

Being a Mussulman country, things were at first very uncomfortable for Mrs. Benn until the natives got accustomed to the sight of an English lady, she being the first they had ever seen, or who had ever travelled so far.

The temporary mud-rooms were gradually furnished and decorated with so much taste that they became simply charming, but a new Consulate is now being built, which, by comparison in size and style, seems quite palatial. It is being constructed of real baked bricks, Major Benn having put up a serviceable kiln for the purpose, and the handsome structure is so sensibly built after a design by the versatile Consul, that when finished it will fully combine English comfort with the exigencies of the climate, the incessant northerly winds of the summer months--from June to the end of August--rendering life unbearable unless suitable arrangements to mitigate their effects are provided.

Into the northern wall ka khanas or "camel thorn compartments" are being built some four feet deep, filled with camel thorn. To make them effective two coolies are employed all day long to swish buckets of water on to them. The wind forcing its way through causes rapid evaporation and consequent cooling of the air in the rooms. When the wind stops the heat is, however, unbearable. The rooms are also provided with badjirs, or wind-catchers, on the domed roof, but these can only be used before the heat becomes too great.

An attempt had been made to start a garden, both for vegetables and flowers, but the hot winds burnt up everything. Only four cabbages out of hundreds that were planted had survived, and these were carefully nursed by Mrs. Benn for our Christmas dinner. Unluckily, on Christmas Eve a cow entered the enclosure and made a meal of the lot!

Another garden is being started, but great difficulty is experienced in making anything grow owing to the quantity of salt in the ground and the terrific winds. Poplars have come up fairly well under shelter of a wall, but no tree can hope to stand upright when it attains a height where the wind can reach it. In fact, what few trees one sees about near Sher-i-Nasrya are stooping southward in a pitiful manner.

The Consul's horses and those of the escort are kept out in the open. They are tethered and left well wrapped up, wearing nearly double the amount of covering to protect them from the heat during the hot summer months that they do in winter, on the principle explained in previous chapters. It is not possible to keep them in stables, owing to the terrible white fly, which has a poisonous sting. When out in the open the flies and mosquitoes are blown away by the wind.

It was satisfactory to find that, although the Government did not see its way to furnish the Consulate with a wall for the protection of the Consul and his wife, whose personal property was constantly being stolen, an allowance was at once granted with instructions to build at once a high wall all round the Consulate when one of the Government horses was stolen!

This wall, a wonderful bit of work, was put up in a fortnight, while I was in bed with fever, and on my getting up from bed I had the surprise of finding the Consulate, which, when I had arrived, stood--a few lonely buildings--in the middle of a sandy plain, now surrounded by a handsome mud wall with a most elaborate castellated, fortress-like gate of Major Benn's own design. The wall encloses a good many acres of land; it would be rash to say how many! This has given rise among the natives to the report that a new city is rising near Sher-i-Nasrya, called Trenchabad, or Trench's city.

Major Benn is to be complimented on the wonderful work he succeeds in getting done with comparatively little expenditure for the Government, and there is no doubt that he manages to impress the natives and to keep England's prestige high. He imported from Quetta a flagstaff, in pieces, which when erected measured no less than 45 feet, and on this, the highest flagstaff in Persia, flies from sunrise to sunset the Union Jack. Except on grand occasions only a small flag can be used in summer, owing to the fierce winds which tear the larger flags to pieces the moment they are put up.

Major Benn scored heavily in the esteem of Sistanis when he had the bright idea of erecting a handsome little mosque within the Consulate boundary, wherein any traveller, whether Persian or Beluch or Afghan or any other Mussulman, can find shelter and a meal at the private expense of the Consul. People devoid of a house, too, or beggars when in real need are always helped.

The erection of this mosque has greatly impressed the Persians with the respect of England for the Mahommedan religion. On the religious festival day of the "sheep eat" the place is crowded with Beluch and Persians alike, the Mahommedan members of the British Consulate having raised a fund to feed all worshippers at the mosque during the day.

Major Benn, who has really the energy of half-a-dozen men taken together, has organised some weekly gymkhanas, with the double object of giving his Indian escort of fourteen men of the 7th Bombay Lancers and a Duffadar (non-commissioned native officer) a little recreation, and of providing some amusement to the town folks; exhibitions of horsemanship, tent-pegging and sword exercises are given, in which some of the Persian gentlemen occasionally also take part.

The Sistanis of all classes turn out in great force to witness these displays, and--for a Persian crowd--I was really amazed at their extraordinarily quiet and respectful demeanour. Each man who entered the grounds courteously salaamed the Consul before sitting down, and there was unstinted clapping of hands--a way of applauding which they have learnt from Benn--and great enthusiasm as the Lancers displayed their skill at the various feats.

The phonograph was also invariably brought out on these occasions, and set working near the flagstaff, much to the delight and astonishment of the Sistanis, who, I believe, are still at a loss to discover where the voices they hear come from. To study the puzzled expressions on the awe-stricken faces of the natives, as they intently listened to the music, was intensely amusing, especially when the machine called out such words as "mamma," which they understood, or when it reproduced the whistling of a nightingale, which sent them raving with delight.

Perhaps the most touching part of these performances was when loyal Major Benn wound up with "God save the King," scraped on the record by a tired and blunted needle--phonograph needles are scarce in Sistan and could not be renewed for the sake of only one and last tune--and we Britishers removed our hats. Now, to the natives of Persia removing one's hat seems as ludicrous a thing as can be done, just as their equivalent discarding of shoes seems very ridiculous to us; but the natives, to whom the meaning we attach to our National Anthem had been explained, behaved with the utmost reverence notwithstanding the trying circumstances, and many actually placed their right hands to their foreheads in sign of salaam until the anthem was over.

Another department in the Consulate of great interest is the spacious hospital containing a well-supplied dispensary, where an average of forty daily patients are treated gratis by Dr. Golam Jelami and a compounder.

Patients came on in their turn with various complaints, and they were disposed of with due speed, undergoing the necessary treatment with various degrees of grace.

The hospital contains besides the dispensary, an in-patients' and an accident ward, office, operating room and doctor's quarters, the whole place being kept beautifully clean by Indian attendants--Dr. Golam Jelami taking great pride in his work and in the success and efficacy of the establishment.

Being himself a Mussulman Dr. Golam Jelami has a great advantage over a Christian doctor in attending the natives, and, in fact, he has become the medical adviser to the Amir and his entire family, and a favourite with all the Darbaris or people at the Amir's court owing to his extreme tact, skill and charm of manner.

He has performed some quite extraordinary operations. One day when the Consul and Mrs. Benn were about to sit down to lunch, a huge tumour, which had just been excised from the back of a man's neck, was sent round on a tray for the Consul's inspection; and lenses of the eye from successful cataract operations are frequently sent in for the Consul's approval.

The climate of Sistan is very healthy generally, and the Halmund water delicious--by some it is said to be an actual tonic--but the hot winds of the summer and the salt sand cause severe injury to the eyes. Cataract is a most common complaint, even in comparatively young persons. Also ophthalmia in its two forms. Confusion of vision is frequent even among children, and myopia, but not so common as the opacity of the cornea.

The most common complaint is the "Sistan Sore," which affects people on the face or any other part of the body. It is known by the local name of Dana-i-daghi. It begins with irregularly-shaped pustules--very seldom circular--that come to suppuration and burst, and if not checked in time last for several months, extending on the skin surface, above which they hardly rise.

The digestion of Sistanis, although naturally good, is interfered with by the abuse of bad food, such as krut, or dried curd--most rancid, indigestible stuff.

Venereal complaints are also most common, the most terrible form of all, curiously enough, being treated even by Persian doctors with mercury--a treatment called the Kalyan Shingrif--but administered in such quantities that its effects are often worse than the ailment itself.

Partly owing to this complaint and stomach troubles and the chewing of tobacco, the teeth are usually bad, black and decayed even in young people, nor have the Sistanis themselves any way of saving the teeth.

Siphylitic tonsilitis is almost the only throat complaint noticeable in Sistan, but inflammation of the palate is not rare. Heart disease is practically unknown in Sistan, and there are but very few lung affections.

The bones of the skeleton are extremely hard and possess abnormal elasticity of texture, and are, therefore, not easily fractured.

There are several kinds of hair diseases caused by climatic conditions and dirt, as well as cutaneous affections of the scalp.

The nails both of fingers and toes are healthy, not brittle, with well-marked fibre showing through their smooth surface, and of good shape.

The tape worm, so common in many other parts of Persia, is absolutely unknown in Sistan, and this is probably due to the excellent water obtainable.

Lunacy is also scarcely ever met with in Sistan in any violent form, but cases of hypochondria are not unusual, produced principally by indigestion--at least, judging by the symptoms shown.

The women are much healthier than the men, as they lead a more rational life, but neither possess the power of producing large families. One or two is the average number of children in healthy families. Twins and triplets are unknown in Sistan, or so I was assured.

The mode of life of Sistan men of the better classes is not conducive to large families, the men not returning to their wives till midnight or later, having spent the greater part of the day in orgies with their friends, when, what with opium smoking and what with being stuffed with food and saturated with gallons of tea, they are dead tired.

Abortion seldom occurs naturally, and is never artificially procured, owing to the local laws. Women do not experience any difficulty during labour and operations are unheard of.

The umbilicus of children, here, too, as in Western Persia, is tied at birth in two or three places with a common string, and the remainder cut with a pair of scissors or a knife. A mid-wife, called daya, is requested to perform this operation. Abnormalities of any kind are extremely uncommon.