Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stoddart, Charles

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STODDART, CHARLES (1806–1842), diplomatist, born at Ipswich on 23 July 1806, was the son of Major Stephen Stoddart (1763–1812), of the 6th dragoons, and his wife Katherine Randal (1773–1824). Major Stoddart was thrown from his horse and killed near Limerick in 1812.

Appointed to the royal staff corps as second lieutenant on 15 March 1823, and lieutenant on 9 Feb. 1826, Stoddart was placed on half-pay on 7 Feb. 1834 with the rank of captain. From 1833 to 1835 he was secretary to the Royal United Service Institution, London; and secretary to the Institute of Civil Engineers. In 1835 he went to Persia as military secretary to the British envoy, Mr. (afterwards Sir Henry) Ellis (1777–1855) [q. v.] When the king of Persia (Mahomed Shah) marched to attack Herat in 1837, Stoddart was ordered to accompany him, and remained in the Persian camp throughout the greater part of the siege. Having left with John (afterwards Sir John) McNeill [q. v.] in June 1838, he was sent back in July with a message to the shah saying that unless the siege was raised England would declare war. This threat, with the news that a British force had reached the Persian Gulf, produced the desired effect, and Herat was saved. Writing on 16 Aug. 1838 to his brother (the Rev. George Stoddart), Stoddart said, ‘I cannot tell you how thankful to the Almighty I feel at being the humble means of effecting this happy change from war to peace.’ Stoddart's services during this critical period were warmly acknowledged by McNeill in a despatch dated 6 Oct. 1838.

After the retirement of the Persian army, Stoddart, who had been given the local rank of lieutenant-colonel (2 June 1837), joined Eldred Pottinger [q. v.] in Herat, and shortly afterwards left for Bokhára, being instructed by McNeill to negotiate for the release of Russian captives there, and, if possible, to conclude a treaty of friendship with the ameer, Nasrulla Khan ({sc|Kaye}}). Reaching Bokhára on 17 Dec. 1838, he appears to have offended the ameer by riding on horseback in the precincts of the palace, and, according to one account, by striking a court official, though it is more probable that he merely drew his sword when an attempt was made to force him to an obeisance (Edinburgh Review, 1845). According to the account given by Grover, and accepted by Kaye, Ferrier, and later writers, he was seized four days after his arrival at Bokhára, and confined for two months in the Siah Cha or ‘Black well,’ an underground dungeon infested with vermin. The same authorities state, with some discrepancies, that, worn out by his sufferings, he consented to become a mahomedan [see Conolly, Arthur]. That Grover, Kaye, and Ferrier were all to some extent misinformed is clear from letters which Stoddart wrote on 14 and 17 March 1839, in which he said that he was still confined, not in the Siah Cha, but in the Zindan, and that he was in good health. Nor do any of the original reports of his alleged conversion support the statement that this event took place within two or even three months after his imprisonment. It was questionable indeed whether it took place at all. That he became a mahomedan at a later period, namely during the latter half of 1839, was asserted by more than one Asiatic witness, including his servant Rujub Beg; and Arthur Conolly [q. v.], who before he left Cabul credited the story, believed it up to the last. Stoddart himself, however, merely wrote that his life was spared and that he was released from prison, on 8 July 1839, on his promising to serve the ameer. ‘I argued hard and long with them, till they brought the executioner with spade and pick to dig the grave near the prison. I told them that the ameer must know it was a false pretence, my service to him; but it ended in my release’ (Letter to his family on 31 July 1839). There is nothing to show that ‘service’ included apostasy.

Towards the end of 1839 Stoddart was again placed in more rigorous confinement, from which he was not wholly released till 8 Oct. 1840. What happened during the twelvemonth from September 1839 to September 1840 is uncertain; but in January 1841 he wrote, ‘Thank God I have fought my way from imprisonment and insult to the highest favour with the ameer.’ On 22 Feb. he became the guest of Abdul Samut Khan, a Persian adventurer in the ameer's service. At this time the ameer was anxious to enter into a treaty with the British government; and at his request Stoddart informed Lord Palmerston of his master's wish to become the ally of England. In the spring of 1841 information reached Russia that, in deference to repeated requests from the Russian authorities, the ameer had given Stoddart leave to proceed to Orenburg, but that he refused to profit by the intercession of a foreign power. Letters he wrote in July intimated his belief that he would shortly be allowed to leave by the way he came. He had also sent messengers to Arthur Conolly, then in Khokand, inviting him in the ameer's name to return via Bokhara; but he hoped to leave before Conolly's arrival (Edinburgh Review, 1845). In August he wrote expressing entire confidence in the ameer's friendliness towards England and himself, and hoped shortly to be allowed to depart with honours (ib.) On 8 Sept. 1841 the Russian envoy, Colonel Buteneff, who had reached Bokhara three weeks before, met Stoddart, who ten days later was allowed to remove to the house occupied by the Russian mission. Buteneff described Stoddart as ‘a very clever, well-educated, and agreeable man.’ On Conolly's arrival in Bokhara (9 Nov.) Stoddart resided with him at Abdul Samut's house.

On 10 Dec. Stoddart received a despatch from Lord Palmerston, and the ameer is said to have been annoyed at not getting a letter from the queen. More probably his dislike of the English was revived by the news of the rising at Cabul and the murder of Alexander Burnes (2 Nov. 1842). On 20 Dec. Stoddart and Conolly were both imprisoned in the house of Abdul Samut. Writing on 28 March, Conolly said: ‘Stoddart is such a friend as a man would desire to have in adversity.’ A few letters from Stoddart have been preserved. On 28 Feb. 1842 he wrote to his sister: ‘Don't believe all you hear or may hear.’ On 28 May he wrote: ‘The Russian mission left this toward the end of April. I feel convinced that Colonel Buteneff's kind desire to procure our release failed solely in consequence of the unreasonableness of the ameer.’ On 17 June 1842 Stoddart and Conolly were taken to a public square in the city and beheaded (so Vámbéry, and Kaye, ii. 139; Ferrier gives 24 June as the date). According to a statement made to Dr. Wolff, Stoddart, before he was killed, said, ‘Tell the ameer I die a disbeliever in Muhammad; that I am a Christian, and a Christian I die.’ A miniature portrait of Stoddart by an unknown artist was bequeathed to the National Portrait Gallery, London, by Stoddart's sister, Miss Frances Agnes Stoddart.

[Blue Book, Correspondence relating to Persia and Afghanistan, 1839; The Bokara Victims, by Captain Strover; Records in the Secret and Political Department at the India Office; private information; see art. Conolly, Arthur.]

S. W.