O Lydian lord of many nations, foolish Croesus,
Wish not to hear the longed-for voice within your palace,
Even your son’s voice: better for you were it otherwise;
For his first word will he speak on a day of sorrow.
A Lydian prince, born mute, miraculously acquires the power of speech as his father’s body is thrown onto the funeral pyre. This story from Herodotus appears in the preface to a Persian translation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen from 1794. Its author, an Indian “prince” called Ahmed Khan, claimed to be the son of the deposed Nawab of Broach, a city in the western coastal region of Gujurat, India. The handwritten manuscript held in the archives in Versailles challenges assumptions that the Muslim world was cut off from the wider revolutionary age. But was Ahmed really what he seemed? Was he some kind of impostor?
In the early modern period, identity was not as we understand it today. Natalie Zemon Davis famously wrote about a sixteenth-century soldier who stole a comrade’s name and settled down for years with his wife. Among those navigating between Europe and the Muslim world, such counterfeits were even more common. New identities could be created by conversion: some people maintained multiple personas and moved between them, like Haji Mustapha, uncle of the famous revolutionary poet, André Chénier. The revolutionary age at the end of the eighteenth century was a hive of possibilities for inventing or reinventing selves, as thousands switched allegiances and crossed borders. One woman claiming to be the daughter of the deposed Ottoman Sultan Ahmad III duped the French royal court into giving her a pension: a well-placed “patriotic gift” in 1790 won her further support from the revolutionary authorities.
Was Ahmed Khan just another of these swindlers? He too benefited from “revolutionary hospitality” in return for political alignment. In April 1794, at the height of the period often called the “Terror,” the members of the notorious Committee of Public Safety signed an order granting him support. On the way from Istanbul to London via Marseille, Ahmed had found himself stranded in Lyon when his brother, Nawazish Khan, fell ill. They had survived the terrible months of siege and reprisal that followed, but ultimately Nawazish Khan succumbed to his illness. Ahmed continued alone to Paris and asked for support from the revolutionary government. His request was granted, but the Committee asked Ahmed to remain in France rather than continuing his journey. He was given lodgings in Versailles with an interpreter named Pierre Ruffin, who would work with him on translating the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The documents suggest that the Committee believed Muslims were open to the ideas and values of the Revolution and that Ahmed might offer a unique bridge to the Muslim world.
But a lot of things in this story don’t add up. The East India Company seized Broach in 1772: Ahmed arrived in France more than twenty years later. He offered no comment about what he had been doing in the meantime. He claimed his other brothers stayed behind in Istanbul while he and Nawazish left for London to assert their political claims to the illegally occupied state. Yet at almost the same moment another of the Nawab’s sons, Odudeen Khan, travelled to London and successfully claimed a huge pension, then returned to Bombay, where he lived off the Company’s allowance. It’s hard to know why the brothers would have departed at the same time on missions with such different aims—political redress versus self-enrichment—or why they’d waited so long to do so.
In contrast to Odudeen Khan, when Ahmed Khan returned to India in 1796 by way of Istanbul, he was immediately arrested by the East India Company. It appears that something had been hidden in the coffin containing the remains he was ostensibly bringing back to India for burial: possibly communications with the Emir of Muscat, an important French ally in the global war with Britain. An English official denounced Ahmed as a “subject of Tippoo-Saib’s” who had accompanied Tippoo’s ambassadors to France in 1788 “and might be supposed to have outstayed for better reasons than mere personal amusement.” This suggestion that Ahmed had visited France previously appeared nowhere in Ahmed’s communication with the French.
The captain of the ship that carried the embassy of 1788 did report that a mysterious government interpreter from Île-de-France outstayed the ambassadors’ visit. Mohamed-Assad-Oullah, an interpreter between Urdu, Arabic, and Persian, ostensibly discovered on arrival what should have been obvious before departure—that there was no use for him in France. In documents held at the Archives d’Outre-Mer, Assad-Oullah is described as a “Moor” from Arcot in the Deccan, and as “Assad-Zaïb,” a term reserved for those of high rank.
“You will no doubt be surprised,” Pierre Monneron wrote to royal authorities in May 1789, “that the aforementioned Assad-Oullah should not have accompanied the ambassadors on their return to India, but . . . since his services proved unneeded, he took advantage of the rare position in which he found himself, to travel through some parts of Europe.” Assad-Oullah had travelled with Captain Monneron to Spain, Portugal, and England—for what purposes, it is entirely unclear. The French were furious about the unauthorized wanderings of this individual at such a critical moment. They agreed to pay Assad-Oullah’s way back to India but declared him “suspect” and banned him from further employment. If this was the man who accompanied Nawazish Khan, he may have had good reason to conceal his identity.
Was Assad-Oullah masquerading as Ahmed Khan? Did Ahmed Khan disguise himself as Assad-Oullah? Did he have another identity altogether? Does it matter? Neither the French nor the British concerned themselves primarily with who he was: they sought instead to establish his political allegiance. Ahmed Khan’s importance for the revolutionary era is not a question of identity, but rather of itinerary. If he was not in fact the “Indian prince” that he appeared to the French, this makes him all the more fascinating for historians of the revolutionary age.
If Ahmed was misleading both the English and the French, for whose account was he working? Could his case point to some hidden history of resistance networks across South Asia lost in the colonial history that followed? To return to the story of the Lydian prince who found his lost voice in a time of crisis, was this Ahmed Khan’s relation of his own awakening in the midst of the revolutionary age? That would suggest that he connected his political “voice” back to events in India—to the loss and crisis provoked by British aggression. If he was not the son of the Nawab, then his political awakening is all the more significant, since it suggests not a dynastic or familial motivation, nor that of personal enrichment like Odudeen Khan, but rather an emergent sense of patriotic resistance. This is part of the global story of the revolutionary age that remains to be told.
Ian Coller is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798–1831.