Robert Barkley Shaw

Birth: 1839


Robert Barkley Shaw (1839-1879), traveller, son of Robert Grant Shaw, and his wife, Martha Barkley, was born at Upper Clapton on 12 July 1839, and was educated at schools on the continent, at Marlborough College, and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Unable to recover his health after an attack of rheumatic fever, he gave up the idea of entering the army, and in 1859 he went to Kangra in the Himalayas, where he settled as a tea-planter.

An adventurous spirit, stimulated by study and unabated by the delicacy of his constitution, inspired him with a desire to penetrate the then almost unknown country north of the Karakoram; and, after one or two tentative excursions, he started in May 1868 for Eastern Turkestan, traveling as a merchant, but taking with him, besides such goods as seemed likely to find purchasers in Central Asia, a prismatic compass and Rawlinson's 'Herodotus.'

He reached Yarkund on 8 Dec., Kashgar on 11 Jan. 1869; being the first Englishman to visit those places. At Kashgar, though not allowed to enter the city, he was treated with marked civility by Yakub Beg, the ruler of the country who, mainly in consequence of the advice given him by Shaw, despatched an envoy to India asking that a British officer might be sent to arrange a treaty. Shaw returned by the Karakoram Pass, and proceeded to England.

While preparing an account of his journey for the press, he heard that Lord Mayo had decided to send an official mission to Eastern Turkestan. He at once telegraphed an offer of his services, which being accepted, he accompanied Mr. (afterward Sir Douglas) Forsyth on his first mission. Yakub Beg, when they arrived at Yarkund (3 Aug. 1870), was in another part of his dominions, and the mission came back with its principal object unachieved.

Shaw returned to England, where in 1872 the Royal Geographical Society awarded him the patron's gold medal, Sir Henry Rawlinson stating that this distinction was given him 'for the services he had rendered to the cause of geography in exploring Eastern Turkestan; and above all for his very valuable astronomical observations.'

In recognition of his service to government, Lord Mayo appointed him to the political department, and he was made British joint commissioner in Ladak. In 1875 he went to Yarkund in charge of the ratified treaty made by Sir Douglas Forsyth in 1874. In 1878 he was appointed resident at Mandalay in Upper Burma. During the troubles that ensued on the death of the king Mengdun (October 1878), his position at the residency was one of great danger; but throughout the crisis he acted with courage and discretion.

He wrote to the king Thebaw, who was massacring kinsfolk and rivals wholesale, that if any further murders took place he should, without waiting for orders from Calcutta, at once haul down the British flag; and he sent at the same time his assistant to explain the consequences such a measure would involve. He died at Mandalay on 15 June 1879.

He published:

1. 'A Visit to High Tartary, Yarkund, and Kashgar,' London, 1871.

2. 'A Sketch of the Turki Language as spoken in Eastern Turkestan,' Lahore, 1875, 8vo.

3. 'The Ghalchah Languages,' Calcutta, 1876.

He also contributed to the Royal Geographical Society's 'Proceedings' 'The Position of Pein, Charchand, and Lob Nor' (xvi. 242); and 'A Prince of Kashgar (Mirza Haidar, Doghlat) on the Geography of Turkistan' (xx. 482); and to the Royal Asiatic Society's 'Transactions' 'On the Hill Canton of Salar, the most easterly Settlement of the Turki Race' (x. 305, new series).

[Obituary notice by Lord Northbrook in R.G.S. Proceedings (new series), i. 523; Parliamentary Papers, Burma, 1886; information supplied by Shaw's nephew, Major G. J. Younghusband, Queen's own corps of Guides.]


Stephen Edward Wheeler, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51. pgs. 443-444.

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