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On the trail of the elusive admiral
Admiral Sir Henry Felix Woods Pasha (KCVO, Grand Cordon of Mecidiye and Osmaniye and Knight of the Sax-Coburg Order).
Woods Pasha

I came across Woods Pasha, as he came to be known whilst serving in the Ottoman Empire, during my MPhil research. As an Englishmen in the service of the Sultan I hoped that he would have a unique insight in to the Ottoman Government and more importantly for the purposes of my thesis in to Sultan Abdül Hamid II. It is fair to say that I was not disappointed.

Much of this article is based on Woods Pasha’s own memoirs published Hutchinson 1924 and entitled ‘Spunyarn: From the strands of a sailors life afloat and ashore forty-seven years under the ensigns of Britain and Turkey’. It is a difficult book to find now but copies sometimes come up for sale with some specialist sellers:

I have found very little reference to Woods Pasha in any of the usual sources. He does not get an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of national Biography and there appear to be no web sites devoted to his memory. I would venture to state that this is a pity, as in my opinion he is a character who deserves more attention. I hope, at least in part, in this article to redress the lack of information about him.

According to ‘Who Was Who1’ Henry Felix Woods was born in 1843 to as he puts it “good old Yeomen stock” (Spunyarn Vol.1 p.11) on Jersey. His memoirs do not say much more on his origins apart from the fact that his farther was a Master mariner and had made provision for the young Henry to join the Upper Greenwich Hospital at the age of 10. He spent five years preparing to enter the Royal Navy. Again according to Woods he came top of his class each year that he was at Greenwich.

On leaving Greenwich he joined the training ship ‘Rollo’ where he was trained as a Masters Assistant. This training was intended to lead to Woods becoming a navigator. As important for Woods’ future was his meeting and friendship with the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Alfred who was also training on the ‘Rollo’ at the same time.

Between 1858 and 1867 Woods served on a variety of Royal Naval vessels in different parts of the world. One of the tasks assigned to Royal Naval vessels was the suppression of the slave trade. This was done through the monitoring of the routes traditionally taken by slave carrying ships. Any that were caught had their slave cargoes released. Woods learned a great deal from his involvement in this as it taught him a lot about the law of the sea. As well as this he navigated the difficult Naruto Passage and met an array of people from different backgrounds.

The navy at that time could be an unforgiving place. Woods refers to an occasion when due to a transgression he was ordered to the top of the mizzen-crosstrees and made to remain there during a tornado. Following this he was ordered to stand on the main-bitts (narrow columns of wood to either side of the mast) until he had dried. (Spunyarn Vol.1 pp. 20-21) Perhaps these sorts of punishments were designed to be character building? They don’t appear to have done Woods much harm.

In 1867 he was sent to Constantinople to take over as second in command of the British Ambassador’s dispatch boat the ‘Caradoc’. As well as this he was appointed to the commission which was tasked with improving the navigation of the Black Sea around its entrance to the Bosporus. Ships experienced great difficulties in locating the entrance as there were many places near to it which appeared to be the entrance. This led to a number of shipwrecks. Woods was responsible for the construction of a floating light-house called a Light-Ship and beacons just outside the entrance which was designed to make the location of the Bosporus strait easier to find. Woods seems to have been the one given the task of persuading the Ottoman authorities of the benefit of his proposals. It was the good impression left that presumably led to their request to have Woods transferred to Ottoman service.

Towards the end of 1869 Woods left the British service and entered the service of the Sultan. He had reached the rank of Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and entered the Ottoman service as a Kaymakam or Lieutenant Colonel. He was also given the title of ‘Bey’.

This maybe a convenient point to pause for a moment to provide a little background information. Woods Bey was by no means the first or the only Englishmen to take up service in a foreign country. He was not even the first to enter the service of the Ottoman government. Augustus Charles Hobart-Hampden, otherwise known as Hobart Pasha the third son of the Earl of Buckingham entered Ottoman service around the same time and there had been others prior to him. Woods is however different on a number of grounds. Firstly he served in the Ottoman Empire for the majority of his life, from 1869 to 1909. This gave him an extraordinary amount of experience with the empire and its peoples. It should be pointed out that he continued to live in the Ottoman Empire until the outbreak of war in 1914 and returned to it after the conclusion of peace remaining in Constantinople till his death. Secondly he rose to the rank of Admiral in the Ottoman fleet which says something for his own abilities and for the esteem in which he was held by his employers. However more significantly than that Sultan Abdül Hamid II (1876-1909) made Woods his Aide-De-Camp. One of his functions was to entertain English speaking visitors to the Friday Selamlık. The Selamlık was the occasion each week when the Sultan attended Friday prayers. He would visit one or other of the major Mosques in the capital and would do so in state. This was an opportunity for his subjects to see him. Foreign visitors would take the opportunity to also be present in order to see the Sultan’s procession. If a person was important enough and was able to gain a vantage point from which the Sultan might notice them, they might be granted an interview with the Sultan. One such individual was the Times correspondent Henry De Blowitz. It could be said that Woods was the Sultan’s PR man for the English speaking world.

The second and more intriguing role that Woods played was as an advisor to the Sultan. When he was used as such was dependant on Abdül Hamid. As has been pointed out by others the Sultan often used ad-hoc committees to make decisions and often sought advice from many different sources. Presumably the Ottoman archives would show documents written by Woods Pasha to the Sultan and Woods Pasha himself makes reference to a letter written by him and Hobart Pasha concerning Britain’s request to the Sultan to send Ottoman troops to Egypt. According to Woods the Sultan was hesitant due to French threats to sink any ships carrying Ottoman soldiers to Egypt. In this letter Woods and Hobart said that the threats from France were meaningless and that if they were given charge of the ships taking the Ottoman troops to Egypt they would arrive without any difficulties. I presume that there were more occasions when Woods Paşa’s advice was sought by the Sultan. If Woods kept a diary that would provide a unique source of information.

The Ottoman Empire at the time when Woods entered its service as a Lieutenant Colonel suffered from a number of difficulties. It was a territorially large state with borders that were difficult to defend, diverse and not always loyal populations, expansively minded neighbours: particularly Russia and not disinterested allies. Foreigners were employed by the Ottoman Government to assist in the process of modernising the empire and Woods Pasha began by training cadets for the Imperial Ottoman Navy.

He was initially based in the naval training school on Halki: Heybeliada, one of the Princes islands, still home to a naval school and later worked on 2 training ships the ‘Hundevendighiar’ and the ‘Mukbir Soroor’. He described the students at the school as: “…generally intelligent and eager to learn, though they were a little too much inclined to imagine that to have understood anything they were being taught, was to have acquired a full knowledge of it.” (Spunyarn V.2 p. 12). I insert this quotation because it is in direct contradiction to those who believed that Muslims were incapable of attaining the same standards as Christians and says a great deal about Woods’ own attitudes.

Woods was asked to demonstrate a sea mine for the Sultan and successfully blew up a test ship. Woods writes that as a result the Sultan never went on board another ship. During the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, Woods was placed in command of the coastal defences. As part of this role he placed mines and provided misleading information for the London papers on the location of these mines. At the same time he was appointed to the ‘Prize Court’ which dealt with ships that attempted to break the Ottoman blockade of Russian and Romanian ports. According to Woods after the first trial in which he was involved the practice stopped. Unfortunately he doesn’t tell us any of the names of the ships involved.

During an attempted attack on Hobart Pasha’s squadron located outside Batoum, a port city in the Eastern Black Sea, 2 intact Whitehead torpedoes were captured. Woods was able to gain a very advantageous deal with the Whitehead Company to supply both free training in the use of the torpedo, to provide the Ottoman government with 3 free torpedoes and to sell torpedoes to the Ottoman Empire at half the price they sold them to anyone else. Although Woods isn’t very clear on why the Whitehead Company agreed to this, it was probably because Woods knew how the torpedoes worked and would probably have been able to make a lot of money for his employers out of selling this information.

During the negotiations which culminated in the Treaty of Berlin (1878) Woods continued his journalistic pastime by writing articles in the London papers defending the right of the Ottoman Empire to maintain possession of Batoum due to its Muslim populace.

After the war Woods was promoted to Colonel and placed in charge of a torpedo school on the ‘Hundevendighiar’. He was then promoted to Liva Pasha (rear-admiral) and sometime between 1886-1889 was again promoted this time to the rank of General of Division or full Admiral and made Aide-De-Camp to Sultan Abdül Hamid II. Although Woods does not tell us the exact date it’s clear, by inference that it must have taken place either during or just after the visit of his friend the Duke of Edinburgh to Constantinople. By this time Prince Alfred had become Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet. Woods’ friendship with the Duke can’t have done him any harm and it may well have been a part of the Sultan’s thinking in favouring Woods.

Woods Pasha continued in his 2 main roles Admiral and adviser until 1908 and the Young Turk revolution after which he was effectively retired from his post as Admiral. After the deposition of the Sultan in 1909 Woods ceased to be Aide-De-Camp. He continued to live in the Ottoman capital until the outbreak of the First World War when along with the majority of the British community he left. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 he returned and remained in Constantinople till his death in 1929.

Woods was a firm believer in the necessity for Britain remaining close to the Ottoman Empire. He believed that Russia was Britain’s greatest enemy and that one way to exert pressure on Russia was through the Ottoman Empire at the Straits. He continued in this view even after it was no longer fashionable in Britain to do so. More than this he had a liking for the Turkish people themselves writing: “I will merely say that I love the Turks much more than I do any other of the races of the Near East, and that in my judgment, based on a long experience and intimate knowledge of past events, the Turk has been as much sinned against as sinning.” (Spunyarn Vol.2 p. 287)

Woods wore the Fez, visited Mosques, made friends with Ottoman officials and filled his memoirs with these recollections. He wrote a number of articles for different newspapers and journals supporting the Ottoman Empire and arguing the case of its Sultan. His Turkish must have become good over time as he refers to an altercation with a mounted Gendarme in Eastern Rumelia.

Woods clearly had considerable respect for Sultan Abdül Hamid which again sets him apart from most other British and Western people at the time.

Unfortunately there are gaps in Woods’ memoirs. He makes only brief references to the Armenian massacres of the 1890s, the problems of insurrections in Crete and Macedonia and the insanity and suspected recovery of Sultan Murad V. It maybe that Woods was trying to write an light hearted account of his life and experiences. It may also be that Woods was discrete. He also tells us very little about his personal circumstances.

He only tells us that he married a few months after his initial entry in to Ottoman service. He mentions that his daughter Lucy after being asked by her mother not to make so much noise because of the presence of a Pasha, responded by saying “That’s not a Pasha, that’s an English gentleman.” (Spunyarn Vol.2 pp. 13-14). From his memoirs we know that the family from which his wife came was the Whittalls, a prominent and established merchant family in the Levant. Woods’ brother-in-law was one of the directors of the Imperial Ottoman Bank. According to Woods Sultan Abdül Aziz spent the day in his farther-in-law, Charlton Whittall’s house at Smyrna during his return journey from Egypt. This was a signal honour paid to an important family.

According to Sir Andrew Ryan, as recorded in his book ‘The Last of the Dragomans’, who spent at least 1 weekend with Woods and his family, he was a good host to visitors. According to Dorina Neave, in her book or recollections, ‘Twenty-six years on the Bosphorus’ one of Woods Pasha’s sons, Harold, married a Greek Orthodox lady named Helene in her father’s house.

 Note: The ‘Genealogy of the Whittall family in Turkey’ book by Betty McKernan, 1996, gives the following information. Sarah Madeline Whittall (d. 1931), daughter of Charlton Arthur Whittall (1816-1866) merchant in Smyrna and Constantinople, and of Elise Icard of Smyrna, married in 1870 Admiral Sir Henry Felix Woods Pasha KCVO, KCSE Imperial Ottoman Navy ADC to HIM The Sultan; Grand Cordon of Osmaniyeh (1st class), Grand Cordon of Medjidieh, b. 1843. They had 4 children, Frederick Woods (d. unmarried), Colonel Harold Woods OBE, commercial secretary to HM Embassy Constantinople, Lucy Woods and Adela Percy Whittall Woods. The family tree doesn’t indicate which brother was connected with the Ottoman bank. There are descendants till today from the female lines. Lucy Woods married Albert Hotz, Consul General in Beirut, who according to fellow contributor Yolande Whittall was a Dutchman and a colourful character, an expert and a fan of Persia who wrote a book on his family’s history where Woods Pasha gets a mention.

I believe there is a lot more to be said of Sir Henry Woods Pasha, his impact on Anglo-Ottoman relations, his effect on the Ottoman Government and his relationship with Sultan Abdül Hamid II are all worthy of study. There are 2 booklets by Woods Pasha, held at the British Museum Library which I hope to access soon, published before ‘Spun Yarn: From the strands of a sailor’s life afloat and ashore’ - segment -, whose titles point to a robust defence of Ottoman interests: ‘Blackmailing the Sultan. Refutation of the calumnies in Osman Bey’s [i.e. F. Millingen’s] anonymous pamphlet [entitled: “The Armenian Question and the Rule of Abdul Hamid,” etc.], pp. 4. C. D. Collet: London, [1890]’ - segment - and ‘The Truth about Asia Minor - pp. 16. C. D. Collet: London, 1890’. As a final personal thought I hope to be his biographer and place him in the position to which his importance deserves.

In the near future I will visit and hope that the Naval Archives at Greenwich, The National Archives and the Royal Archives at Windsor will provide useful information on Woods. I also intend to research contemporaries of Woods Pasa who also entered Ottoman service e.g. Hobart Pasha (autobiographical book online - segment) and Blunt Pasha.

 Notes: 1- Further information can also be accessed from archival newspaper reports of these men, particularly in Turkey based newspapers such as ‘The Eastern Express’ - examples:
2- There are two books published on another prominent professional soldier in the service of the Ottoman Sultan, Valentine Baker, one of which is ‘Baker Pasha: Misconduct and Mischance - Dorothy Anderson - 1999’ - segment:
3- Further information on these professional soldiers can be accessed from British newspapers of the time, on Valentine Baker Pasha (wikipedia entry) and Hobart Pasha:
4- The daughter of Henry Woods Pasha, Lucy Helen Woods, married the Dutchman Albertus Hotz (1855-1930) who was instrumental in forging trade links between Iran and Holland, and his life story, photo of the couple, and work currently being done to catalogue the extension collection is dealt with in this article:
5- In December 2011 the researcher Osman Öndeş, currently working on a book entitled ‘Sultan II. Abdülhamid Devri Osmanli Donanmasi’ [The Ottoman Navy during the reign of Abdülhamid II] was able to provide information on another former foreign naval commander in the Ottoman navy, Ransford D. Bucknam, known as Bucknam Pasha, though the title doesn’t necessarily mean he was serving at that rank, but an honorary bestowing that was frequent back then - further details.

For information to assist the historical investigation of the author of this page, please contact:

Brief biography of author:
I was born in London in 1979 to Turkish Cypriot parents. I am therefore one of those children that straggles the boundary between nations, although I like to think of myself as a unique individual who is a member of a large number of communities. I went blind at the age of 5 and from then till 16 I attended a boarding school for visually impaired and blind children in Kent. I then took a year off and spent some time in Cyprus working for a charity. On my return to the UK I passed a Turkish GCSE. I then began a 3 year BA Hons in Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Manchester. I then took another year out to prepare to study in the US. I began studying at Harvard in September 2002 but due to ill health had to return to the UK in early 2003. I began studying for an MPhil entitled ‘The Images of Sultan Abdül Hamid II in Britain’ in September 2004 and I am currently working on the final revisions of my thesis.
I have been interested in Ottoman history for many years. During my A levels I was able to persuade my history teacher to do a module on Ottoman history because I felt it would bring a slightly different perspective to the usual European history that we studied. At university my knowledge of Middle Eastern history was increased and I was introduced to the debates and controversies within Ottoman history. It was in the final year of my undergraduate degree that I first began to be fascinated by Abdül Hamid and it was through studying him that I learned about his British employees including Woods Pasha.
I hope to go on to complete a PhD and research Ottoman history as a career. In April 2007 I was accepted by the School of Oriental and African Studies to study for a PhD, so my investigations will run deeper.

1. ‘Who Was Who’ entry - Title:
WOODS, Pasha, H. E. Admiral Sir Henry Felix (1843-1929)
Publication: Who Was Who
Date: January 2005
Publisher: A&C Black
WOODS Pasha, H. E. Admiral Sir Henry Felix, KCVO, 1902; Admiral (retired) in Imperial Ottoman Navy; born 18 July 1843; married 1870, Laura Sarah (died 1919) [incorrect Sarah Madeline, died 1931, source Whittall Family Tree], daughter of late Charlton Whittall of Smyrna; one son one daughter [incorrect 2 sons, 2 daughters, source W.F.T.].
Entered Royal Navy, 1858; served West Coast of Africa; present at operations in the Scarcies River, 1859; navigating lieutenant of the Cormorant, 1866; British delegate to the International Commission for the improvement of navigation in the Black Sea and Bosphorus, 1867; was permitted to enter the naval service of Turkey, 1870 [incorrect, 1869], and assisted the late Hobart Pasha in the reorganisation of the Turkish fleet; organised the torpedo and coast-defence services, and commanded them for several years; surveyed and buoyed the Dardanelles and its approaches; Knight-Commander of the Order of Saxe-Coburg; Pasha, 1883; Naval ADC to late Sultan; Grand Cordons of Osmanieh and Medjidie (brilliants), and Gold Medal of the Imtiaz.
Spunyarn, 1924.
8 rue Minaret, Pera, Constantinople. [That must have been his address after his return to Constantinople in 1918].
United Service.
18 February 1929.
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