May 9, 2007: Features
An American hero in Iran
One hundred years ago, Howard Baskerville 1907 left Princeton and fought for liberty in Persia
By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
On a windswept plateau near the foothills of the Sahand Mountains in northern Iran stands the grave of a martyr.
Set in a small walled courtyard amid apricot and almond trees, the grave is a plain stone sarcophagus carved with the martyr’s name — Howard Baskerville, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1907 — and the dates of his birth (April 13, 1885) and death (April 20, 1909). A hundred years ago, the site, in the city of Tabriz, was a cemetery and hospital grounds for Presbyterian missionaries. Whoever once carefully tended to Howard Baskerville’s grave, and his alone, with fresh flowers, no longer does so. The Armenian man who lives in the adjoining house built the wall in part to discourage pilgrims, but Tabrizis still can direct a visitor to the site.
That it is the grave of an American and a Princetonian makes the place remarkable. That it is the grave of a martyr to constitutional liberty, and that it is still honored in the heart of a nation whose government is hostile to the United States and many of its values, makes it more remarkable still.
Baskerville has been likened to Lafayette, a foreigner who helped another people defend their freedom, but the comparison is inapt. He was neither a professional soldier like Lafayette; nor a romantic like Lord Byron, who took up the cause of Greek independence; nor even a mercenary like another Princetonian, Johnny Poe 1895, who shipped himself off to far corners of the globe in search of glory. Baskerville, a teacher who planned to become a minister, found his way to what was then called Persia as a teacher, and ended up dying for a cause that he, as an American, felt morally bound to support.
A good dose of Scotch Presbyterianism ran through the Baskerville family; Howard was the son and grandson of clergymen and one of five brothers, four of whom pursued the ministry. (His younger brother, Robert, graduated in the Class of 1912.) Howard was born in North Platte, Neb., and the family moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota before he matriculated at Princeton. Baskerville was a sober, serious-minded young man who graduated cum laude and liked to box and ride horses for exercise. Though a religion major, he took two courses taught by Woodrow Wilson 1879, then Princeton’s president: “Jurisprudence” and “Constitutional Government,” the latter of which would have as great an influence on his future as his religious studies.
Shortly before his graduation, Baskerville wrote to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions explaining that though he intended eventually to continue his studies at the Princeton Theological Seminary, he wanted to gain experience in a foreign language and culture first. He eventually accepted a teaching position in Tabriz for two years.
Tucked in the northwest corner of Persia (the country’s name was officially changed to Iran in 1935) not far from the border with Azerbaijan and Armenia, Tabriz is an ancient city; some have suggested that it is located on the site of the Garden of Eden. At the beginning of the 20th century, it remained distant from the Persian empire that was centered in Tehran not only geographically and historically, but linguistically. Most Tabrizis spoke Azeri rather than Persian.
Baskerville arrived in Tabriz in the fall of 1907 to teach science and English at the American Memorial School, which was run by the Presbyterian mission. There were 80 Muslims enrolled, as well as 135 Christian Armenians and Assyrians. “It is curious,” the principal, Samuel G. Wilson, observed in an annual report, “to call a roll in which more than half have the title of khan [meaning ‘leader of a tribe’], followed by their father’s title, such as ‘The Glory of the Court’ [or] ‘The Pride of the Army.’” Wilson added, “Besides leaders of the people, we are training teachers for their new schools.”
Baskerville moved in with Wilson, his wife, Annie, and their teenage daughter, and attended family prayers with them each morning. Annie Wilson wrote later that they would read aloud to each other on Friday evenings — The Virginian, The Old Curiosity Shop, Vanity Fair, and Bleak House among their selections, as well as Jungle Folk of Africa and a history of the Reformation.
W.A. Shedd, one of Baskerville’s colleagues, recalled in a letter after Baskerville’s death, “As a teacher he was successful, and in his earnest, sincere, and manly character gained the respect of everyone.” In a society strictly segregated by gender, Baskerville had both male and female students, and taught the girls how to ride and play tennis in addition to their geometry lessons. Baskerville introduced his students to some of the Western canon, drilling his English class for a production of The Merchant of Venice and delivering a Thanksgiving sermon that closed with the patriotic lines from Sir Walter Scott: “Breathes there a man with soul so dead / Who never to himself hath said, / ‘This is my home, my native land!’”
Unlike many of the foreign teachers, Baskerville took
a personal interest in his students, notwithstanding his inability to speak much Persian or Azeri. He would visit them at home or invite the boys to meet him in his room for tea and what is described as a “religious conversation.”
“He was extremely popular and many wanted to attend his class in history,” recalled S.R. Shafagh, one of Baskerville’s students, in a tribute published on the 50th anniversary of his death. “Soon the older students asked Dr. Wilson to institute a class on international law, which he did and left it in the care of Baskerville.”
As Baskerville grew closer to his students, he began to take a greater interest in their culture and affairs. Shafagh recalled Baskerville and Wilson coming to his house on Nou Ruz, the Persian new year. Although Wilson spoke fluent Azeri, Baskerville sat uneasily through the visit. As he rose to leave, he managed to get out: “I congratulate you all on your New Year’s Day,” which he had memorized.
Persian politics throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries fell under the shadow of the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for hegemony in central Asia, which Rudyard Kipling called the “great game.” Forced to turn to the European powers for loans, Persian leaders over the years began to give much of the country’s wealth to outsiders. In 1907, Britain and Russia agreed to divide Persia into spheres of influence, with Britain taking the southern provinces and Russia the northern ones, including Tabriz. The so-called Treaty of St. Petersburg was concluded without bothering to consult the Persians.
The Persian constitutional revolution had begun in 1906 when protesters forced the reigning shah, Muzaffar al-Din Shah, heir to a dynasty that had ruled Persia since 1779, to appoint an elected assembly called the majlis, or parliament. The majlis wrote a constitution, the first in Central Asia or the Middle East, which Muzaffar al-Din Shah signed in December. The new constitution promised equality before the law and personal rights and freedoms, required the shah to obtain legislative approval before seeking foreign loans or making treaties, and promised universal public education and freedom of the press.
Unfortunately, Muzaffar al-Din Shah died on New Year’s Day, 1907, just weeks after signing the constitution, and was succeeded by his autocratic son, Muhammad Ali Shah, who immediately began pushing back against the country’s new freedoms. In June 1908, Muhammad Ali Shah launched a successful coup, closed the assembly, and executed many supporters of the constitution.
Opposition to Muhammad Ali Shah centered around Tabriz, which, because of its location near Turkey and Russia, had greater exposure to foreign trade and ideas. The leading military opponent was Sattar Khan, who at one point defied orders to put up white flags of surrender to approaching royalist forces, and instead rode along the city limits tearing down white flags that had been planted by others. When Tabriz refused to capitulate, Muhammad Ali Shah laid siege, his royalist army supplemented by Russian-trained Persian cossacks. The royalists slowly gained control of all roads leading into and out of the city, cutting off supplies, and waited to starve Tabriz into capitulation.
Although Baskerville supported the constitutionalist cause from the time of his arrival — taking time after classes, for example, to take food to soldiers on the front lines — his conversion as a full-fledged ally developed over a period of months. He criticized the Anglo-Russian treaty to his students and was especially scornful of Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, for having abandoned liberal ideals. The example of his Persian students and friends had great influence. According to one of his school colleagues, Baskerville became particularly close with one student, Mirza Husayn Sharif-zada, who became one of the most influential constitutionalist leaders in Tabriz, and was deeply affected when Sharif-zada was assassinated in 1908.
By March 1909, Baskerville asked to organize 150 students to help Sattar Khan in the defense of Tabriz. At his class’s last meeting, Baskerville spoke to his students about their duty to serve their country and told stories of the American revolution. “He repeatedly said,” Shafagh recalled in 1959, that “he could not watch calmly from a classroom window the starving inhabitants of the city who were fighting for their right.” Baskerville himself explained his motives a few weeks later, at a banquet given by some Armenian soldiers in the constitutionalist movement. “I hate war,” he began, but he went on to say that war could be justified in furtherance of a greater good, in this case the protection of the city and the cause of constitutional liberty. He was ready to die for these causes, Baskerville continued. When he finished speaking, the Armenians cheered, “Long live Baskerville!” while Baskerville sang for them a verse of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”
This was not something a visiting American or a missionary was supposed to be doing, and a great deal of pressure was put on Baskerville to change his mind. One day, Baskerville and his men were drilling when William F. Doty, the American consul in Tabriz, arrived at the parade grounds. Shafagh later said that Doty immediately made it clear he had come to see Baskerville. “I am compelled to remind you that you as an American citizen have no right to interfere with the internal politics of this country,” he informed Baskerville. “You are here to act as a teacher and not as a revolutionary.”
According to Shafagh, Baskerville replied, “I cannot remain and watch indifferently the sufferings of a people fighting for their right. I am an American citizen and am proud of it, but I am also a human being and cannot help feeling deep sympathy with the people of this city.” When Doty demanded that Baskerville turn in his passport, Baskerville refused. Doty was furious to learn that Baskerville had been making use of the library at the American consulate, doing research in the Encyclopaedia Britannica on how to make grenades.
Baskerville’s conversion also drew opposition from the evangelical Presbyterian missionaries, who objected both to his participation in a violent movement and to his taking sides in a political struggle, which might jeopardize their ability to send other missionaries to the region. Baskerville resigned from the mission, which in turn disavowed his activities. Nevertheless, Annie Wilson recalled that when Baskerville attended worship services, as he always did, on the Sunday after his decision, he “had quite an ovation afterward, the men pressing around to shake his hands.” When he visited the Wilsons that afternoon, Annie begged him to be careful, saying, “You know you are not your own.” Baskerville replied, “No, I am Persia’s.”
By April of 1909, after 10 months of siege, the city of Tabriz had all but exhausted its food and medical supplies and, surrounded by royalist forces, had no way to get more. Many were reduced to eating grass. In mid-April, a decision was made to send a small force to break through the siege lines and collect food from nearby villages. Baskerville volunteered for the assignment.
On April 15, he and a British journalist, D.C. Moore, set out on a sortie only to have the mission fail, reported Annie Wilson, because Sattar Khan failed to provide the cannon he had promised. By April 19, Tabriz was down to its last day’s supply of wheat. Anticipating that the aborted breakout a few days earlier had alerted the royalists, Baskerville urged Sattar Khan to ask the Europeans for help in obtaining the best terms of surrender he could get from the shah. But Sattar Khan seems to have determined to attempt another breakout, and Baskerville, despite misgivings about the plan’s chances of success, agreed to try again.
At first light on April 20, Baskerville and two other sorties set out to scout for breaks in the city walls. Shafagh, who was with Baskerville, recalled the scene vividly. “The dawn was just breaking,” he wrote, “and a mild breeze of the spring was beginning to blow.” But the ranks may not have been as eager to risk death as their leaders were. “I heard at first that when he was near the enemy his 150 men dwindled to five, but I have seen two of the men who were there, and they put it at nine or ten. None of the rest would come on,” reported Moore, who had been in another sortie that morning.
As Baskerville led his reduced force through the wall, a royalist sniper fired at him. Baskerville returned the shot and, thinking that the sniper had fled, waved his men forward. When Baskerville turned his back, the sniper reappeared and shot him twice, once through the heart, the bullet completely piercing his body. Although some accounts say that Baskerville died a few hours later in his students’ arms, Annie Wilson recorded that the Presbyterian doctor who examined him concluded that Baskerville died instantly.
Baskerville’s body was carried back to the Wilsons’ house, where it was washed and dressed in a black suit for burial, a white carnation placed in his buttonhole. “[W]hen all the sad service was done,” Annie Wilson wrote, “he looked beautiful and noble, his firm mouth set in a look of resolution and his whole face calm in repose. I printed a kiss on his forehead for his mother’s sake.” A merchant who brought a cloth to drape Baskerville’s coffin told Annie Wilson, “We know he died for us.”
Five days after the funeral, Baskerville’s parents, in Spicer, Minn., received a telegram:
Sattar Khan later sent along Baskerville’s rifle, which he wrapped in a Persian flag.
Although Baskerville’s sortie failed, the cause for which he died did not. In part because of the publicity that followed Baskerville’s death, the British and Russian delegations pressured Muhammad Ali Shah to allow their representatives into Tabriz, ostensibly to remove all European citizens there. That broke the siege, and constitutionalist forces were able to make gains elsewhere, finally deposing the shah. Ultimately, however, constitutional democracy could not be sustained, and Reza Shah Pahlavi took power in 1925. His son was deposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
Baskerville’s sacrifice at 24 became a national legend and his funeral cause for a massive outpouring of mourning. Thousands turned out in the streets of Tabriz to watch his coffin pass. During services at the Presbyterian church, Wilson delivered the eulogy while some of Baskerville’s former students sang the old hymn, “There Is A Happy Land,” in Azeri. Sixteen floral wreaths covered the coffin. A band playing the Persian funeral march led the caisson to the cemetery, where S.H. Taqizadah, a member of the Persian parliament, spoke briefly. “Young America,” he said, “in the person of young Baskerville, gave this sacrifice for the young constitution of Iran.” When the Persian parliament finally reconvened that November, one of its first acts was a speech of tribute to Baskerville.
He remained, and remains, in the Iranian memory. In 1950, a memorial tablet (which apparently has been removed) was placed on Baskerville’s grave, containing part of a verse by Aref Qazvini, the national poet of Iran, which read:
Even as American relations with Iran reached their lowest point, Baskerville remained an exception to general Iranian enmity. In December of 1979, during the hostage crisis, Dr. Thomas M. Ricks, then a professor of Middle East and Iranian history at Georgetown University and now an independent scholar who is working on a book about Baskerville, led a group of American clergymen to Tehran to meet with Ayatollah Khomeini. On its last night in Iran, the group visited a mosque. When the group was introduced, a middle-aged Iranian got up and asked, in clear English, “Where are the American Baskervilles of today?”
Several schools in Tabriz and elsewhere in Iran reportedly are still named for Baskerville. In Tabriz’s Constitution House, which stands on the site of what was once Sattar Khan’s house, a bronze bust of Baskerville was erected in 2003. Ricks says that there was some debate at the time over honoring an American, but the bust and memories of the young teacher remain. At the bottom of the bust is an inscription in Persian: “Howard C. Baskerville. He was a patriot — history maker.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.