The ‘Irish lad’ James Curtin, ‘servant’ to the Belzonis

by Dr Robert Morkot

Paper delivered at the ASTENE conference in Jordan 2013; published in ASTENE Bulletin 56 (2013), 16-19 with additional note in Bulletin 65 (2015), 18

In the story of Giovanni Belzoni it has become quite normal to bemoan Sarah’s rather relegated position and her ‘trifling account’, but their ‘young servant’ James Curtin only ever seems to enter the narrative as that, an appendage. Curtin’s fate is much the same as that of the many other ‘servants’ or ‘dragomans’ who accompanied travellers, shared the adventures, but left no personal accounts. Giovanni Belzoni generally refers to him as ‘the Irish lad in my service’, and occasionally as ‘James’. Sarah is less obliging. On her arrival at Philae in June 1817, where her husband, Irby, Mangles and Beechey were preparing to go into Nubia, she says that she was left behind, but ‘I had a servant with me at this time who had been with us some years.’ He gets no mention on the journey to the Holy Land until she was left on her own: ‘The gentleman [Thomas Legh] who had engaged my servant, who wanted to return to England, was good enough to permit him to come and guard me till we should depart.’

Yet Curtin is mentioned by his other employers in a more positive way.

Roger De Keersmaecker (ASTENE Bulletin 10, October 2000, 21-22) has sketched what is known of Curtin from the various narratives. To this we can now add Curtin’s death and burial, and contemporary newspapers also tell us a little more about this ‘servant’.

Although he is referred to by all his employers as ‘James’ the elegant inscription he carved at Philae is for ‘H.J. Curtin’ and tells us that he was a native of Limerick, where he must have been born around 1796.

[RDK 915, Philae, Temple of Isis, main temple, first pylon, right side, inside near the top. He made another graffito in the same temple, RDK 1168, on the roof, back of the second pylon. J. Curtin, no date. See also Berlin photo n° 299.]

Thomas Legh tells us that when he employed Curtin in March 1818, he had been with Belzoni for eight years, suggesting 1810 for their meeting. In the Narrative Belzoni calls him ‘James Curtain’ and says he had ‘acquired him’ in Ireland. James is named as Cortin on the passport which Belzoni received for the 1812/13 voyage from Cadiz-Gibralter-Malaga.

James was with Giovanni and Sarah Belzoni when they sailed from Malta 19 May 1815, arriving in Alexandria 9 June. They travelled to Cairo with William Turner, who mentions the Belzonis, but not Curtin, in his publication (Journals of a Tour of the Levant  1820). They arrived in Cairo in July. The early part of their residence in Egypt was when Belzoni prepared and demonstrated his hydraulic wheel to the Muhammad Ali. Having gained the Pasha’s interest, and a small stipend, the Belzonis were set up in a small house in Shubra, and the next months were spent on producing the wheel. During this time, they became acquainted with William Bankes, Henry Salt, and J.L. Burckhardt amongst others. Finally the wheel was demonstrated to the Pasha in June 1816, and it was during this that James was thrown from it and broke his thigh. The wheel project abandoned, Belzoni entered Salt’s employ: a point bitterly disputed later. The Belzonis left Cairo on 30 June, arriving in Luxor 22 July, where they set to work on the removal of the ‘Younger Memnon’. There were various troubles and Belzoni tells us that ‘the Irish lad’ was sent to Cairo ‘as he could not resist the climate’. As Roger De Keersmaecker notes, it may have been the thigh, rather than (or in combination with) the heat, that was the real problem.

James is not heard of again until January 1817 when he accompanied Sarah from Rosetta to Alexandria by land while Belzoni took the Memnon by boat. He had presumably rejoined them on their arrival in Cairo 15 December 1816: did he stay with Salt or other British representatives (such as Cochini) during this period?

When Belzoni returned to Thebes, Sarah was left in Cairo with the family of Mr Cochini ‘the British chancellor’. Belzoni took Salt’s secretary, the skilled but wayward Henry Beechey, with him and makes a few disparaging remarks, as Sarah does later, about his silver spoons and fork (although while at Philae, Curtin was allowed to wash them – suggesting somebody was using them while Beechey was in Nubia!).

James presumably travelled with Sarah Belzoni to Philae where they arrived 5 June 1817. On 16 June, Belzoni, along with Irby, Mangles, Beechey and others went off into Nubia to ‘open’ the temples of Abu Simbel. They returned to Philae in August when the whole party travelled back to Thebes. Curtin and the Belzonis remained in Thebes where Straton, Fuller and Bennet arrived soon after. Those three continued on to Nubia with Finati and returned about the same time that the Belmore party arrived in Thebes. Finati and the ‘three gentlemen’ returned to Cairo where Finati was to wait for Sarah Belzoni who was ‘resolved’ to go to Jerusalem. The Belzonis arrived in Cairo 21 December; the narrative says ‘Mrs. Belzoni set out for Jerusalem, accompanied by James the Irish lad and a Janizary, who went to meet a traveller [William Bankes] in Syria, to escort him to Egypt.’ Finati – the ‘Janizary’ – tells us that Mrs B and Curtin were ‘both wearing the dress of Mameluke youths’. Finati had been summoned by his earlier employer, William Bankes, to meet him at Acre. It was a long journey: Sarah’s own account says that she left Cairo on 5 January 1818, arrived at Damietta on 10th where they were detained for two months; they then went by boat to Jaffa, arriving 9 March; setting out again on 11th for Rama, they arrived in Jerusalem 12 March. Finati found Bankes’s servant at Acre and waited there, but then learning that Bankes was at Jersualem went to join him. He found Sarah Belzoni and her ‘servant’ along with Bankes and other travellers from Egypt – Irby, Mangles, and Belmore’s large party (of 20). They were then joined by Thomas Legh of Lyme Park, Cheshire, who arrived from Moscow via Istanbul.

Now Curtin apparently said that he wanted to return to England, and joined Thomas Legh as interpreter. Thomas Legh gives a much more positive comment on Curtin’s abilities than the Belzonis ever offer:

“By birth an Irishman, [he] had been for eight years in the service of M. Belzoni; his zeal, fidelity, and knowledge of the Arabic language, were of the greatest use to me.”

During the Petra expedition, other than his new employer, James was travelling with a number of old acquaintances: Irby and Mangles he had met a few months before; Bankes he knew from Cairo on his arrival in Egypt in 1815; Finati he must have known quite well by now. If James wanted a quick way back to England he had made a mistake: the Petra journey with Bankes, Irby and Mangles followed; and after Petra, Curtin travelled with Legh to Jerash, Baalbek, Damascus, Palmyra, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Antioch, and Scanderoon, then over the Taurus to Iznik and on to Istanbul. No doubt thoroughly saddle-sore, James Curtin eventually arrived back in England.

Soon after the return, Legh had his portrait painted by Manchester artist William Bradley. Now hanging on the staircase at Lyme Park, Legh is shown in full Oriental dress with his black horse. At his feet, also in Oriental dress, a smaller, bearded figure sits cross-legged. This is very probably James Curtin: his long journey with Legh, and Legh’s clear respect for his abilities, makes him the only likely candidate for inclusion.

  Lyme Park © National Trust

Lyme Park © National Trust

In April 1819, Curtin produced a short account of the opening of the Abu Simbel temples for John Murray (who presumably wrote the title), ‘A note respecting the operations and discoveries of Belzoni in Nubia. By Curtin, an Irish youth who accompanied him.’ The Quarterly Journal of Literature, Science and the Arts. Volume VII, No. XIV, Art. XVI. London, April 1819 John Murray (Ed.), pp.344-346.

Whether he was unable to gain employment in London, or was simply keen to travel again, it was not long before he advertised his services, also using John Murray. The advertisement seeking a new job appeared in The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, April 5, 1819; pg. [1]; Issue 15041. (19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.):-

“Wants a Situation, a Young Man, who has been for eight years last past travelling in Upper and Lower Egypt, Nubia, the Holy Land, and Arabia Petrea ; he is perfectly acquainted with Sheich Nasa, and the other different Shechs of the Deserts ; would have no objection to travel on the European or Asiatic Continent as INTERPRETER, in which capacity he has recently returned with an English Gentleman, and as such can have the best of references; likewise speaks five European languages, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. All letters will be punctually attended to, or communications. Direct, post paid, for J. C., at Mr. Murray’s, Albermarle-street, Piccadilly.”

Perhaps his transfer from the Belzonis to Legh as ‘interpreter’ was a way of improving his position from ‘servant’ to a more professional – and presumably better-paid – position. His new employers were George Waddington and Barnard Hanbury. The published narrative of this journey (Waddington, G. and B. Hanbury, 1822, Journal of a visit to some parts of Ethiopia, London: John Murray) was written by Waddington.

Waddington tells us that travelled to Venice in January 1820 where he met up with his friend Barnard Hanbury who was planning a trip to Dongola. As Waddington had intended to travel only around Greece, we might assume that it was Hanbury who had engaged Curtin’s services, but whether he travelled with him, or went ahead to Egypt is not stated. Waddington and Hanbury arrived in Alexandria in August and the next we hear they are at Wady Halfa on 10 November 1820, where Curtin and the rest of the group are first mentioned:

‘we mounted and commenced our expedition, in search of the ruins of Meroe. Our party was not numerous; it consisted of ourselves; our dragoman; James Curtin, a young Irishman, who had been some time with Mr. Belzoni, and who is mentioned with praise in Mr. Legh’s Account of the Journey to Wady Moosa; a Maltese, named Giovanni Fiamingo, who, besides other services, filled, when necessary, the honourable place of cook; and his Cousin Giuseppe, a fine lad of eighteen or nineteen, who served under us as a kind of volunteer. All three spoke Arabic so very well that we were sure, during the whole journey, of having a good interpreter always at hand; and in the first of them, a very general knowledge of modern languages was united with much tact in the management of the natives, much zeal and personal courage, and a strong spirit of adventure. ’

Waddington and Hanbury also acquired ‘a black slave belonging to the first physician of Ismael Pasha, and on his way to join his master’ and ‘a young setter .. whom we had duly named Anubis.’ They were only able to acquire five camels so ‘James began the journey on foot, as he was fated to end it.’ After an adventurous journey to the Fourth Cataract in the wake of Ismail’s invasion of the Sudan, they returned to the Second Cataract 31 Jan 1821 where the narrative ends.

We lose sight of James for a short period, but his relationship with the Belzonis was not at an end. He may have rejoined them on his return from Egypt, presumably sometime in 1821 (Waddington arrived in Rome in August). The Belzonis’ first London exhibition ended with the auction of June 1822. Later that year, the casts and paintings of the tomb of ‘Psammis’ (Sety I) were on display in Paris, and by the time that Giovanni Belzoni set out on the ill-fated expedition to Benin in 1823, James Curtin was in charge of the Paris exhibition. He is referred to by James Smithson, in an article – ‘An Examination of some Egyptian Colours’ – published in The Annals of Philosophy (n.s. vol. VII Jan-Jun 1824, London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, Paternoster-Row, pp.115-117). Smithson, an illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland, was a physicist and mineralogist, and the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington: he carried out some experiments to determine what pigments the Egyptians had used. Dated 2 January 1824, Smithson’s article tells us that he had ‘received from Mr. Curtin, who travelled in Egypt with Mr. Belzoni, a small fragment of the tomb of King Psammis. It was sculptured in basso relievo which were painted. The colours were white, red, black, and blue.’

An article in The Times (Saturday, 11 Dec, 1824; pg. 3) and advertisements in The Morning Post (e.g. Tuesday, 12 April, 1825; pg. [1]; Issue 16945. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.) announce the new exhibition, which was held at 28 Leicester Square and opened on Easter Day (3 April) 1825. They tell us that it was ‘erected under direction of Mr Curtin’ or ‘Mr James Courtine’ (Times) ‘to whom the care of the tomb at Paris was entrusted’. But the next month James was dead.

Finati (but probably Bankes who clearly added much to the memoir) writing in 1830 of the Petra expedition tells us that ‘this young man [Curtin] died afterwards in London’. The circumstances are not recorded in any newspaper article I have yet seen. It is clear that the exhibition had not attracted as much attention as had been hoped, and that the expenses of removing it from Paris had been considerable. An article in The Times of Monday 28 Nov 1825, reprinted from the Cambridge Chronicle, is part of a lengthy series on the financial distress of Sarah Belzoni, but it also states: ‘we cannot help lamenting the apathy which prevailed in London with regard to the Exhibition in Leicester-square. If the public had but evinced a liberal feeling for the success of an undertaking which had cost the life of one of the party (James Courtine, Mr. Belzoni’s assistant)…’ Whether James’s death was caused by stress or accident is not stated. His funeral took place at the nearby church of St Martin-in-the-Fields on 26 May 1825. The registers record him as Henry James Curtin, aged 29, and his residence Leicester Square [Bishop’s Transcript of registers of St Martin the Fields London: Metropolitan archives DL/T/093/044].

James Curtin had an adventurous life: joining Belzoni in Ireland as a teenager, he accompanied him from England to Spain and on to Egypt, where he worked for some three years before the long journey back to England via Palestine, Syria, Turkey and across Europe with Legh. He was one of the first Europeans to visit Petra in modern times, and amongst the first to reach Gebel Barkal and other sites of the Nubian Nile. Yet, for all this, he is, like so many other ‘dragomans’, interpreters, and ‘servants’, relegated to a secondary place in the narratives. At least in the references to him during those last two years of his life he had been referred to as ‘Mr. Curtin’ rather than dismissed as merely ‘the Irish lad’ or ‘my servant’.