' Sultan Khan by Daniel King'- A granddaughter's review
Sultan Khan at Ramsgate, 1929, official tournament photograph. The caption describes him as a 'landowner in the Punjab'. Source: Ather Sultan, Khan's son

' Sultan Khan by Daniel King'- A granddaughter's review


Book Review

Sultan Khan- The Indian Servant who became Chess Champion of the British Empire by Daniel King


It is unfortunate that the life story of my late grandfather, Sultan Khan, has been misrepresented in recent years.  Daniel King’s publication is the first book in what was so far largely an online trend of sensational reporting. In this brief review, I feel compelled to correct some salient misconceptions emanating from King’s book.

At the outset it must be mentioned that most of the errors in King’s work emerge from the simple fact that he chose not to contact any of Sultan Khan’s family members, or sources in Pakistan (the country of Khan’s residence and death) while writing this book. Instead he has relied on secondary sources and online materials, which are unfortunately not that accurate. Here I would also acknowledge his diligence in collecting and analysing my grandfather’s chess games- those sections are clearly well worth reading.

There are three main misconceptions about Sultan Khan that I wish to focus on in this piece. The book has many more but correcting them all would require a complete re-write of the sections pertaining to biography.

First is the question of his nationality. King declares Khan to be an ‘Indian servant’ on the book cover and at several places throughout the narrative. This is problematic for several reasons. Formally speaking,  Sultan Khan was a British subject for the first 44 years of his life (1903-47) and then a very proud Pakistani citizen from 1947 till his demise in 1966. He had no connection with the country that is now India other than for transit during travel or to play tournament matches, something that he also did in England, Czech republic, Switzerland, etc. That does not make him a citizen of these countries any more than it makes him an Indian. Moreover, given the tense political realities of the region, King should have been careful and sensitive before proclaiming him as such, as he has denied a dead man his conscious decision of statehood. Khan chose to be resident in Pakistan and contrary to King’s assertion that he offered no political opinions, Khan was a patriot and believed firmly in Pakistan, a homeland created for South Asia’s Muslim population in 1947.  Muslim citizens of the sub-continent, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, fought hard to have an independent state of Pakistan and to deny their nationhood, as King has done for Khan, is akin to denying one of the biggest movements of self-determination of the twentieth century. Khan was born in Mitha Tiwana in the Khushab district of the Punjab, present-day Pakistan, and spent the entirety of his life (save domestic and international travel to play chess matches) in the same area. So classifying him as an ‘Indian’ is not only factually wrong but also a denial of Khan’s political inclinations and actions.


Secondly, King has cast Sultan Khan as a ‘servant’ who was dependent on the feudal Malik Umar Tiwana’s largesse to survive. This is based on various online and western accounts and is untrue. Sultan Khan belonged to the Awan tribe of the Punjab and hailed from a respected family of pirs (religious saints who are based at a shrine and have a devoted following) and landowners that traced their lineage to Mughal times. Khan’s family, locally known as the Mianas, were not only the religious leaders of their area but also the numberdaars and zaildaars (titles awarded to leading landlords of an area by the British). The Tiwanas themselves, on the other hand, derived their entire fortune from British patronage  as can be verified by colonial records as well as all major political histories of colonial Punjab. Sultan Khan’s  stay at Umar Tiwana’s estate was therefore not in a servile capacity, but because Tiwana requested him in 1926 to form a chess team there that he would then promote at home and abroad. Tiwana promised Khan a monthly stipend and board and lodging in return. Their relationship was one of mutual respect for Tiwana’s family also recognised Sultan’s family as their pirs or religious guides, and had done so for generations. Indeed the religious shrine in question, known as Mian Athar Sahib’s darbar, is extant and active to this day, passed on through primogeniture to various heirs of Khan’s father. (As a younger son, he did not inherit the status of pir himself). Interestingly, R.N. Coles’ biography of Khan (a far more accurate account of Khan’s life than King’s work) mentions that Khan’s father was the ‘religious leader of his village’ but fails to grasp the social and political influence such a role carried.

The assertion that Tiwana gifted a farmstead to Khan for subsistence is also untrue as the land had been in Khan’s family for generations. The property records for the same exist to this day and are easily verifiable. In fact, altogether Khan inherited 114 acres of land from his father in two separate locations and that is where he derived his livelihood from. Interestingly, even western accounts of Khan in 1929, the year of his first visit to England when he won the British Chess Championship at Ramsgate, describe him as a landlord and as a ‘gentleman of good family’ (Chess Amateur, Sept. 1929, p 265).  Please see a group photo taken at Ramsgate from my grandfather’s private papers, now in possession of my father, which also describes him as ‘a landowner in the Punjab’. It is only in later years that western commentators, perhaps owing to racism and perhaps envious of Khan’s success, sought to belittle him and reduce his status, a trend unfortunately repeated uncritically by King in his work.  

Finally, Sultan Khan was not illiterate or menial as King makes him out to be. It can be tempting for a certain class of writers to cast achievements of people of colour as extraordinary and miraculous and so they seek to dehumanize them as illiterate savages defying gravity, because the truth that they could beat white men purely on merit is too hard to bear. As a scholar of empire, I am only too familiar with such trends, neatly summed up by the Palestinian academic Edward Said in his seminal work Orientalism (1978). Khan was far from illiterate and we possess his notes and diaries to this day.  He spoke conversational English, read both Arabic and Urdu and was certainly not without thoughts and opinions, political or otherwise. In a group photograph from the Berne Tournament taken in 1932, he can also be seen intently reading some material (Author's note-Somehow the blog isn't allowing me to upload more photographs, looking into this.)  

These are just a few of the more salient misconceptions in King’s book that I have identified. Unfortunately, it contains many more inaccuracies, from the year of Sultan’s birth to the cause of his death. Frankly, it is unbelievable that such a historically inaccurate work has been published and, in all fairness, the author and publisher both owe Sultan’s family an apology as well as an immediate recall/revision of this book. Interested readers and chess aficionados, curious about Sultan Khan’s life and achievements, are always welcome to contact me, and the rest of his heirs, at atiyab.sultan@gmail.com


Author’s biography: Dr Atiyab Sultan is the granddaughter of Sultan Khan. She holds MPhil and PhD degrees from the University of Cambridge, UK where she trained as an economist and economic historian.  In writing this review, she acknowledges the assistance of her father, Ather Sultan, Sultan Khan’s eldest son.