Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons by Gareth Winrow
One of the main, general observations of my book is that history is constantly being rewritten. This is certainly the case regarding the Robinsons family. Further research, contacts with members of the extended family, and exchanges with individuals who knew of particular members of the family, has enabled me to tap into new sources of information.
A key character in my book is Hannah Robinson, one of the first female converts to Islam in late Victorian England. In late 1891 she was married to a supposed Afghan warlord in the mosque at Liverpool, before the couple went off in the hope of beginning a new life in Constantinople. Presumably, the founder of the mosque, the lawyer William Henry “Abdullah” Quilliam, officiated at the wedding ceremony.
I have lately discovered that Hannah made use of her ties with Quilliam, who was a close confidante of Sultan Abdulhamid II, to secure financial support from the Ottoman court when her marriage was in tatters and Hannah sought a divorce. Her pleading letter penned to the Grand Vizier, Ahmed Cevat Pasha, in June 1892, can be found in the Ottoman archives. In this letter, Hannah mentioned how she was on good terms with Quilliam, who was by this time establishing a close relationship with the sultan. Connections between the Robinson family and Quilliam, not picked up by other commentators, is one recurring theme in the book which I do believe needs to be explored further. Amazingly, according to the Ottoman archives, Quilliam was the father of Hannah’s children! This is clearly wrong. But how, and perhaps why, the archives came to this conclusion and pedalled this story does need to be examined.
Hannah would continue to benefit from the generosity of the Ottoman court after her divorce and then marriage to the military officer, Ahmed Bahri. I knew that the couple were given rent-free accommodation on Akaratler, a well-heeled neighbourhood very close to the Dolmabahce palace. What I did not know, until recently, was that the Ottoman authorities at one time attempted to claim rent payment of 90,750 kuruş from the Bahris. This was a substantial sum. Hannah immediately notified officials that the accommodation at 107 Akaratler had been provided to her and her family free of charge. The authorities swiftly backed down. The chastened Ottoman Minister of Finance, himself, addressed a letter of apology to Hannah on 12 February 1907. This incident provided a further illustration of the extraordinary strength of character of Hannah, the one-time domestic housemaid from London’s impoverished East End.
Another leading personality in my book is Ahmet “Robenson”, one of Hannah’s sons. Much is already known about Ahmet Robenson. Indeed, in today’s Turkey he is almost a living legend because of his sporting prowess and his achievements with the Galatasaray Sports Club. However, I do believe that there is still a lot more to learn about this celebrated sportsman, who introduced basketball and founded the Scouting movement in the late Ottoman Empire.
After emigrating to the US in the late 1920s, Ahmet Robenson spent his last years working at the famous Lyndhurst mansion in Tarrytown in New York state. I have written a small piece for one of the local newspapers which covers the Tarrytown district, pointing out how nobody in the area knew that the elderly groundskeeper who had worked at the Lyndhurst estate in the 1950s and 1960s had been such a well-known sporting celebrity.
Little is still known about the life of Ahmet Robenson, and of his wife Nina, after they had emigrated to the US. I am fascinated to learn what really happened to Ahmet and his wife. Were the couple forced to abandon Turkey in the face of criticism from hard-line Turkish nationalists who were opposed to Ahmet’s work with the Americans on social and educational projects? Or were there other factors at play? And, how were they able to adjust to living a life of relative obscurity in New York after having been so well-known in Turkey – in the 1920s Ahmet had also played an instrumental role in the construction of the Taksim sports stadium, and had briefly served as President of the Galatasaray Sports Club.
I am hoping to re-trace the lives of Ahmet and Nina in the US. A visit to the Lyndhurst mansion is a must. My study of Ahmet Robenson remains a work in progress.
Who knows what other stories about the Robinsons may come to light in the months ahead? Perhaps, I may also uncover new information about Ahmet Robenson’s father, Spencer – the tenant farmer from Lincolnshire who began a second life as a tea planter in Darjeeling. And, may be, further details about Gertrude Eisenmann, the intrepid motoring amazon of late Wilhelmine Germany, who was an illegitimate daughter of Hannah, may come to my attention.
Will there be a sequel to Whispers Across Continents?! It is too early to say. What I am sure of, though, is that my work with the extraordinary Robinson family is still far from complete.
Gareth Winrow's book Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons is available for purchase now.