“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

The Royal Central Asian Society & its Library – 1901-1975

Posted: March 9th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

I came across this plate in the front of a book the other day at The London Library in St James’s. However this plate is for the Royal Central Asian Society  – a brief history of which is below. They had nice digs over at 8 Clarges Street, just off Piccadilly (though the original building is sadly gone and replaced by a rather nondescript modern office thing). The Royal Central Asian Society (originally, The Central Asian Society) became The Royal Society for Asian Affairs (RSAA) around 1975. I can only assume they handed their library over to be Incorporated within the London Library’s extensive collections.


The Central Asian Society was established in 1901. In November of that year, Dr Cotterell Tupp, Captain Francis Younghusband, Colonel Algernon Durand, and General Sir Thomas Gordon convened at Younghusband’s house in Gilbert Street, Grosvenor Square, London, to discuss the response to an informal prospectus they had circulated amongst friends during the previous month. They agreed that sufficient interest had been aroused and decided to formally distribute their prospectus for a new Society. The prospectus (“A Proposal to Establish a Central Asian Society”) began: “At present there is in London no society or institution which is devoted entirely to the consideration of Central Asian questions from their political as well as from their geographical, commercial or scientific aspect, though Societies such as the Royal Geographical and Royal Asiatic Society discuss these subjects incidentally. It is therefore proposed to establish a society to be called the Central Asian Society, with rooms, where those who either have travelled in Central Asia, or are interested in Central Asian questions, could meet one another.”

The “Central Asian questions” to which the Proposal referred derived from the political and diplomatic confrontation between Britain and Russia that continued throughout most of the nineteenth century. The confrontation was played-out in the Central Asian territories that lay between British India and Russia, and came to be known, after Kipling, as the “great game”. Many of the founding members and key figures of the Central Asian Society were active participants in the latter stages of this “game” of empires, as much of the material in the archive reflects.

On 1 January, 1975, the Society changed its name to The Royal Society for Asian Affairs, reflecting a shift of emphasis from narrowly Central Asian matters to an embrace of Asia as a whole. The shift of emphasis had already been marked (in 1970) by the renaming of the Society’s Journal as Asian Affairs. Formerly, Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, the Society’s Journal has been published continuously since 1914. The present remit of the RSAA is the contemporary economic, political and social developments of every Asian country.

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