April 24 is commemorated as the official anniversary of the Armenian genocide, which began in April 1915 with the round-up of Armenian intellectuals, followed by massacres and forced exile of hundreds of thousands of Armenian people from Turkey.
Quakers at the time had long been concerned with the plight of the Armenian people, in part due to the work of individual Friends, and groups of Friends, in the area in preceding years.
The Library’s collections include records of Friends who, in official or unofficial capacities, observed the effects of persecution and massacres of Armenians in the decades leading up to the 1915 genocide or were involved in relief work with refugees, orphans and the dispossessed.
Besides the papers of the official Armenia Committee appointed by Meeting for Sufferings in 1924 (Library reference: YM/MFS/ARC), some of the most enlightening accounts appear in other printed and manuscript collections.
In 1881 Gabriel S. Dobrashian, an Armenian doctor who had married a British Quaker, Gertrude G. Gillett, established a medical mission for Armenians in Constantinople, with the help of a group of British Quakers. Armenians were already suffering persecution at the hands of the authorities, and the mission brought much needed relief. The papers of the Friends Armenian Mission (Library reference: TEMP MSS 997) are not yet fully catalogued, but are accessible to readers and offer a fascinating insight into the situation for Armenians in this period.
The work of the Mission was taken over by Ann Mary Burgess when Dr Dobrashian was forced to flee to England with his family in the 1890s. She steered it over the years into a flourishing philanthropic, educational and industrial mission. By 1922, its position in Constantinople had become untenable and it moved to relative safety in Corfu. The Friends Armenian Mission’s records include some vivid photographs of work there (Library reference: TEMP MSS 997 Photographs), showing refugees working at looms and making traditional Middle Eastern textiles, as in the photograph below.
Other photographs shed light on the suffering of the refugees – for example, the note on the back of the picture of the girl below:
“My little orphan whose mother was murdered while this child was sheltering herself in her mothers arms & she in it suffered the loss of one arm, she is a dear girl & does fine needle work. I must send you a piece to see. I thought she had a sister now I hear all her people were killed.”
In 1896, Helen Balkwill Harris (1841-1914), Quaker minister, and her husband, the Cambridge lecturer on palaeography and future director of studies at Woodbrooke J. Rendel Harris, travelled in Asia Minor, researching Syriac and other manuscripts, and at the same time working on behalf of the Friends Armenian Relief Committee set up by Meeting for Sufferings in January that year in response to the massacres of 1894-6.
The Harrises were forbidden to take photographs and were followed and intimidated, but managed to report back in a series of circulars (these and other accounts are among the Friends Armenian Relief Committee records, Library reference MS BOX T2), letters to newspapers and a book. The book, Letters from the scenes of the recent massacre in Armenia by Rendel Harris and Helen B. Harris (1897) (Library reference: 079.190 HAR), gives a detailed account of their work, with photographic illustrations and a map.There are insights into the situation for Armenian refugees after the 1915 genocide in an unpublished Account of the work with Armenian refugees compiled by Marshall Nathaniel Fox, former principal of Brummana Friends High School in Lebanon (Library reference MS VOL 216). It includes reports and correspondence from the 1920s about the influx of Armenian refugees to Lebanon and Syria, and the housing programmes for the refugees there. His collection also includes a photograph album with aerial shots of the refugee camps, and views of city life in Aleppo, made all the more poignant by the recent devastation of that city.
This post only touches on some of the material in the Library for researching this topic, but demonstrates the decades’ long interest and involvement of Friends in the plight of the Armenians stretching either side of the anniversary remembered today.