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39 posts categorized "Middle East"

09 April 2018

Bahrain is not in Ruritania: Colonel Prior and the ‘Royal’ Sheikh

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When the Ruler of Bahrain began to adopt a distinctly regal style in 1940, Britain’s senior official in the Gulf moved quickly to nip the development in the bud.

On 7 February 1940 Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah announced in an official decree, or alan, that he had decided to institute a new honour, the Order of the Khalifah.  The order was to have three classes: Star, Decoration, and Medal, and the Sheikh stated that the decree was issued ‘By our royal pleasure’.

Bahrain 1Alan issued by the Sheikh of Bahrain concerning the Order of the Khalifah, 7 February 1940. IOR/R/15/2/644, f 5


Three days later, the Political Agent in Bahrain, Hugh Weightman, reported ‘this rather silly idea’ to his boss, Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Prior, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf.  Prior was incensed.  He had complained to Weightman the previous November, following his last visit to the Sheikh, that he had been placed between two sofas, with the result that he found himself about a foot lower than the Sheikh.  He insisted then to Weightman that two seats of equal size should be arranged in future ‘as conversation between different planes is difficult’. 

He had also seen a picture in Weightman’s office of the Sheikh sitting ‘on a sort of Woolworth throne’, while the Political Officer, Cole, ‘sat somewhere down by his coat tails in an ordinary chair’. He hoped that no Political Officer would ever put himself in such a ridiculous position again.

Bahrain 2Colonel Prior writes to the Political Agent in Bahrain about the Sheikh of Bahrain’s ‘Woolworth throne’. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 25 (detail)

Prior suspected that the Sheikh’s regal pretensions came from Charles Belgrave, his British-born Adviser, and he told Weightman that the Sheikh needed to be reminded that ‘Bahrain is not in Ruritania’.

 The India Office in London was also concerned to ensure that there should only be one ‘fount of honour’ in the British Empire, and as such an Indian ruler had recently been refused permission to institute an order of his own.  However, they recognised that the Sheikh of Bahrain enjoyed a rather more independent position.

Nevertheless, Prior was in no doubt that the Sheikh’s regal tendencies should be suppressed, and he went to Bahrain in March 1940 to interview both Belgrave and the Sheikh.

Bahrain 3Colonel Prior administers a stern lecture to Charles Belgrave, the Sheikh of Bahrain’s Adviser. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 22 (detail)

He first carpeted Belgrave, informing him that the British ‘did not retain him in his position for his administrative experience or executive ability, but on account of his political gumption, and that he had failed us lamentably on this occasion’.  He then sent for the Sheikh, raised the issue of the ‘odd alan’, and, reading it out, asked who the king referred to was.  Prior continues: ‘The Shaikh giggled rather feebly at this and said that people wrote these titles on the letters sent him and that as for the order, people liked these things’.

Prior then told the Sheikh that orders of chivalry were for great states and that people would laugh at Bahrain for instituting one.  When the Sheikh mentioned that Egypt and Iraq had them, Prior pointed out that Egypt was fourteen times bigger than Bahrain.  The Sheikh then ‘relapsed into a sepia cloud of patriotic protestations’

Bahrain 4Colonel Prior administers a stern lecture to the Sheikh. IOR/L/PS/12/3927, f 23 (detail)

Prior’s recommendation to the India Office was that only the third class, or Medal, should be allowed to remain, and that the Sheikh’s decree should be allowed to die a natural death.


Bahrain achieved independence from Britain in 1971.  In 2002, the country’s Emir, also named Hamad bin Isa, and now at a safe distance from any risk of being ticked off by the British, declared himself King of Bahrain.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archives
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
London, British Library 'File 26/2 Bahrain Government Honours ("Order of the Al Khalifah")' IOR/R/15/2/644
London, British Library Coll 30/190 'Bahrein: Qn. of the institution of a Bahrein "Order".' IOR/L/PS/12/3927. (A digitised version of this file will appear in the Qatar Digital Library in the course of 2018).

 

08 March 2018

Colonel Jacob’s ill-fated mission and imprisonment

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After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, Imam Yahya became ruler of independent northern Yemen, following the Turkish withdrawal in 1918. In August 1919, Colonel Harold Fenton Jacob set off from Aden in command of a British Mission to negotiate with the Imam at Sana’a. The Imam had been aligned with the Turkish during the War, whilst the British had supported his arch-rival, Sayyid Idris. However, Jacob failed to reach the Imam at Sana’a. Instead, Jacob and his Mission were stopped at Bajil, and held virtual prisoners for more than three months by Shaikhs of the Quhra tribe of Tihamah.

News of Jacob’s ill-fated mission was reported by the British Political Resident at Aden in monthly News Letters to the British High Commissioner at Cairo, copies of which are included in the India Office file P 3300/1916 Pt 3 'Aden News-Letters: 1919-20' (IOR/L/PS/10/611/1).

The Political Resident at Aden, C H E Lees, reported on 4 September 1919 that Jacob had sent a telegraph on 27 August stating that he was ‘temporarily held up by the Quhra Shaikhs’. Lees reflected that ‘nearly all the tribes in the Shafiet Tehama are anti-Imam and they are under the impression that our chief aim is to advance the cause of the Imam to their own detriment’, hence the Quhra Shaikhs wanted to prevent British negotiations with the Imam from taking place. Lees reported that anxiety about the safety of the Mission was lessened by efforts of the Imam to secure their release, the Imam’s representative the ex-Vali Mahmud Nadim arriving in Bajil, and ‘the general sanguine tone of Colonel Jacob’s telegrams’.

IOR_L_PS_10_611_1129

IOR_L_PS_10_611_1131
Extract from Aden News Letter dated 9 October 1919, IOR/L/PS/10/611/1

However, on 9 October 1919, the Political Resident at Aden conceded that negotiations for the release of the Mission had made no progress. He grew suspicious of the intentions of Mahmud Nadim, and by 12th November he had come to the conclusion that ‘Everything appears to point to the Wali [Vali], with or without the knowledge of the Imam is uncertain, having engineered the detention of Colonel’s Jacob’s Mission’.

The Mission was finally released on 12th December 1919. This followed two British aeroplane flights over Bajil, which the Political Resident at Aden reported had ‘had an excellent effect and brought before the recalcitrant Shaikhs the fact that they and their villages are within reach of bombing raids’. It also followed the arrival in Bajil of a deputation from Sayyid Idris, demanding the release of the Mission on pain of assault on Bajil by the Idrisi force.

The historian R J Gavin asserts that ‘British impotence in the face of tribal hostility’ during Jacob’s imprisonment ‘amply demonstrated the dangers of a more ambitious policy in the Yemen’. The British reverted to the wartime policy of securing only what was strategically necessary and easy to defend in the Yemen. The British also continued their support of Sayyid Idris, and relations between the British and Imam Yahya deteriorated. Meanwhile, Jacob ‘returned utterly discredited in the sharper eyes of the men in Whitehall’ following the failure of his Mission.

Susannah Gillard

Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:

British Library, File 3300/1916 Pt 3 'Aden News-Letters: 1919-20' IOR/L/PS/10/611/1

J. Gavin, Aden Under British Rule, 1839-1967 (London: C. Hurst & Company, 1975)

01 March 2018

Papers of Edward Philips Charlewood, Officer on the Euphrates Expedition

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A new collection in the India Office Private Papers has recently been catalogued, and is available to the public for research.  The papers of Edward Philips Charlewood were acquired by the British Library in 2017.  The catalogue of the papers can be found online.

Charlewood's JournalsPapers of Edward Philips Charlewood Mss Eur F711  Noc

Edward Philips Charlewood was born on 14 November 1814 at Oak Hill in Staffordshire.  The son of the Rev C B Charlewood, he entered the Royal Naval College in 1827 and embarked on a long and successful career as a naval officer.  In 1834, Charlewood joined the Euphrates steamship as Acting Lieutenant as part of the expedition led by Francis Rawdon Chesney.  The purpose of the expedition was to explore the Euphrates River as a possible route to British India.  The story of that expedition is told in a previous posting on Untold Lives.

Euphrates expedition 2From Francis Rawdon Chesney, Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition  Noc


The collection of Charlewood’s papers includes five volumes of journals he kept from 23 November 1834 to 6 May 1837 recording his experiences during the expedition.  Additionally, there is a small collection of letters Chesney sent to Charlewood from 1834 to 1841, and 1862 to 1864.

Chesney's letter confirming Charlewood's appointmentChesney's letter confirming Charlewood's appointment 24 October 1834 Mss Eur F711  Noc

The collection also includes some papers relating to a project to establish a Euphrates Valley Railway Company. This was a project pursued by Chesney and Sir William Patrick Andrew, Chairman of the Scinde Railway Company, again for the purpose of establishing a quick and secure route to British India. The project failed because of the lack of a financial guarantee from the British Government.

Euphrates Railway AssociationPlan for Euphrates Railway Mss Eur F711  Noc

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Journals and papers of Edward Philips Charlewood (b 1814), naval officer, relating to the Euphrates Expedition of 1835 to 1837, the navigation of the river Euphrates and the Euphrates Railway [Reference - Mss Eur F711]

Passages from the Life of a Naval Officer by Edward Philips Charlewood [With a preface by Henry Charlewood] (Manchester: Cave & Sever, 1869)

Francis Rawdon Chesney, Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition carried on by Order of the British Government during the years 1835, 1836, and 1837 (London, 1868)

Untold Lives post - The Euphrates Expedition of 1836: Ingenuity and Tragedy in Mesopotamia

 

06 February 2018

It has to be Perfect!

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In May 1945 the Bahrain Petroleum Company Limited (BAPCO) wished to appoint a medical practitioner, and it believed that it had found the perfect candidate in a young Englishman.  His name, appropriately enough, was Dr Perfect (full name: Arthur John Strode Perfect).

BAPCO 

From advert in Birmingham Daily Post 17 September 1962 British Newspaper Archive


However, having provisionally selected Dr Perfect for the position, the company was informed by the War Medical Bureau that the matter would need to be placed before the Central Medical War Committee, which held control over the appointment of British medical professionals during wartime.  Prior to reaching a decision regarding Dr Perfect’s selection, the Central Medical War Committee enquired as to whether BAPCO had advertised the post so that medical officers returning from service in His Majesty’s forces would have the opportunity to apply.  BAPCO reluctantly agreed to place an advertisement in the British Medical Journal, but fearing that an extensive selection process would further delay the appointment of a suitable medical officer, the Company sought permission from the Committee for Dr Perfect to proceed to Bahrain as soon as possible.Having received no reply from the Central Medical War Committee, Hamilton R Ballantyne of BAPCO wrote to the India Office on 20 November 1945, asking for its assistance in the matter.  Ballantyne stated that the post was a young man’s task; he pointed out that the Company had gone to some trouble to select Dr Perfect, whom it felt would meet its requirements, and that it was unlikely that it would change its mind following applications from other practitioners.

The India Office responded quickly, for it had reasons of its own for ensuring the appointment of Dr Perfect.  There was in place a policy to maintain as large a proportion of British employees in the American-owned BAPCO as possible.  In a letter to the Secretary of the Central Medical War Committee, Francis Anthony Kitchener Harrison of the India Office stressed the urgency of the situation.  He warned that any further delay to the appointment could result in BAPCO seeking to secure a medical officer from somewhere other than Britain.  Harrison added that the Secretary of State for India was ‘anxious for political reasons to do what is possible to assist the Company to obtain a British Medical Practitioner for their hospital.’ He asked whether it would not be possible for the formalities relating to Dr Perfect’s appointment by BAPCO to be expedited so that he might be able to leave for Bahrain at an early date.

IOR_L_PS_12_384_f_790IOR/L/PS/12/384, f 790: draft letter from the India Office to the Secretary of the Central Medical War Committee, 23 November 1945 Noc

In a swift and brief reply to Harrison’s letter, the Deputy Secretary of the Central Medical War Committee stated that the case of Dr Perfect had been reconsidered and a decision had been made to withdraw the objection to his immediate appointment by BAPCO. Harrison informed Ballantyne of this decision, and Ballantyne replied, remarking that ‘Dr. Perfect is at last released’ and thanking Harrison for his intervention. Dr Perfect was appointed to the position and travelled to Bahrain, where he was later joined by his wife, Mrs Eleanor Perfect, a state registered nurse.

IOR_L_PS_12_384_f_787IOR/L/PS/12/384, f 787: draft letter from the India Office to Hamilton R Ballantyne, Bahrain Petroleum Company Limited Noc

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

 

Further reading:

PZ 3044/40(2) 'Oil. Persian Gulf. Bahrein. Personnel of Bahrein Petroleum Co. Roster of Employees 1941-', IOR/L/PS/12/384

 

30 January 2018

Getting into a pickle with translation

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Dr Johnson once remarked: ‘It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing'.

Cucumber_PNG_Clipart_Image-467Cucumber via Clipart

Cucumbers can still be dangerous, however: especially when translating into Arabic.

In 1936 the oil company Petroleum Concessions Limited was negotiating for an option on the right to explore for oil in the Kuwait Neutral Zone, an area on the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia over which the Sheikh of Kuwait and the King of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, exercised joint control.

As was usual on such occasions, a formal agreement was required between the ruler (in this case the Sheikh of Kuwait) and the oil company concerned, and the company’s draft version needed first to be translated from English into Arabic for the benefit of the Sheikh and his advisers. As was also usual, the agreement needed to be vetted by the British Government, acting as the overseeing colonial power in Kuwait.

To this end, Britain’s Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Lieutenant-Colonel Trenchard Fowle, asked the Political Agent in Kuwait, Captain Gerald de Gaury, to run his eye over the Arabic version of the agreement, to see that all was well with the translation.

  IOR L PS 12 3856  f 304Gerald de Gaury’s report on the translation of the Kuwait Neutral Zone option agreement, 22 May 1936: IOR/L/PS/12/3856, f 304

De Gaury wrote back on 22 May as follows: ‘I offer certain comments on the Arabic version of the Kuwait Neutral Zone Option […] ARTICLE 4: OPTION is translated as KHIAR which means cucumber. It is true that the dictionary gives KHIAR for both “choice” and “cucumber” but local usage hereabouts is for it to mean cucumber. Option should have been translated as “HAQQ AL IKHTIAR”, an expression in currency everywhere'.

De Gaury goes on: ‘His Excellency the shaikh [of Kuwait] has already pointed out to the negotiator that in parts the document appears to refer to “cucumber time” rather than “option period”’.

The Political Agent concludes with the words: ‘ARTICLE 15: Is correctly translated [...] I have no other comments.’
De Gaury, in addition to being Britain’s administrator in Kuwait, was a writer who published a number of books on Arabia. His deadpan report on the opening of Kuwait’s first oil well was featured on Untold Lives here.

IOR L PS 12 3856  f 303Colonel Fowle is amused: IOR/L/PS/12/3856, f 303

Even Colonel Fowle, Britain’s top official in Gulf, a man not generally noted in the archives for his sense of humour, was struck by de Gaury’s comments, stating in a letter of 30 May that ‘the “cucumber” touch’ was ‘amusing’.

So the cucumber is after all good for something.

I am grateful to my colleagues Louis Allday for confirming the Arabic translation of ‘KHIAR’ and Matt Griffin for pointing out that the Sheikh of Kuwait’s ‘cucumber time’ is used in a number of countries to mean the ‘silly season’.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archives
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
London, British Library Coll 30/124 'Koweit (Neutral Zone) Oil Concession: Negotiations with Petroleum Concessions, Ltd.' IOR/L/PS/12/3856. (A digitised version of this file will appear in the Qatar Digital Library in the course of 2018.)

  

21 November 2017

Arabic or English: the Education of a Future Sultan of Muscat and Oman

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Born 13 August 1910, Sa‘id bin Taymur bin Faysal al-Bu Sa‘idi was six years old when his father Taymur, the Sultan of Muscat and Oman set out the plan for his schooling. The Sultan sent a special request for Muhammad Rashid Rida in Cairo to help find a suitable tutor to come to Muscat and teach little Sa‘id.

IOR_R_15_6_55_f10IOR/R/15/6/55, f 10

British officials in Cairo and Muscat soon raised concerns regarding the Sultan's correspondence with Rashid Rida. Muhammad Rashid Rida was a well-known early twentieth century Syrian Muslim scholar who was based in Egypt. Editor of the religious paper al-Manar, he was well-known to British authorities for his anti-British sentiment. The British Government was therefore totally opposed to the idea of recruiting a tutor through Rashid Rida, who could easily influence the Sultan's only son and heir. Rashid Rida was quickly ruled out as an option.

IOR_R_15_6_55_f18IOR/R/15/6/55, f 18

The British Government raised further concerns related to the expense of bringing a teacher from Egypt, questioning whether the Sultan’s son should have an Egyptian teacher. The Sultan argued that an Egyptian teacher ‘would be more likely to speak and write Arabic, and to be in touch with Arab sentiment than a man from India’. The early twentieth century witnessed the spread of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, which had roots in Egypt and Syria, and the British Government feared the choice of a teacher who might influence the future Sultan with such ideologies. Therefore, they insisted that the choice of the tutor should be controlled by the “Egyptian authorities”. 

IOR_R_15_6_55_f14IOR/R/15/6/55, f 14

Owing to the war, correspondence regarding this issue was delayed until 1920 when the Political Agent at Muscat suggested that Sa‘id be sent to Mayo College at Ajmer in Rajasthan, India, accompanied by someone who knew both Arabic and English.  

IOR_R_15_6_55_f23IOR/R/15/6/55, f 23

Fearing a further delay to the boy’s schooling, the Sultan accepted the suggestion. In February 1922, twelve-year-old Sa‘id started at Mayo College. Ironically, while British officials raised their concerns about the expenses of bringing a teacher from Egypt, they actually paid 3000 Rupees per year in fees at the Mayo College.

  IOR_R_15_6_55_f38IOR/R/15/6/55, f 38

In 1926, the Sultan requested his son’s withdrawal from Mayo College expressing his desire that the boy should be educated in Arabic. The Sultan’s opinion was that, as his son would soon rule over an Arab country, he should learn Arabic at an Arabic school, in an Arab country, preferably Egypt.

IOR_R_15_6_55_f39IOR/R/15/6/55, f 39

British officials seemed to be finally convinced that Sa‘id should be instructed in Arabic, but were still opposed to his education in Egypt.

IOR_R_15_6_55_f41IOR/R/15/6/55, f 41

Suggestions were made to send Sa‘id to the American University of Beirut or the American School at Basra. The Sultan rejected the idea, asserting that he was absolutely not interested in sending his son to a school connected in any way with a mission. This time the Sultan won the battle, and in September 1927 Sa‘id bin Taymur bin Faysal al-Bu Sa‘idi started his studies at the Baghdad Secondary School in Iraq.

IOR_R_15_6_55_f48IOR/R/15/6/55, f 48

Ula Zeir

Content Specialist / Arabic Language

British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme

Further reading: 

IOR/R/15/6/55 'File XXXIII/12. EDUCATION of SAIYID SAID BIN TAIMUR 1916-1926.'

Mayo College https://mayocollege.com/  

07 November 2017

The Shaikh who lost his Shaikhdom, Khaz’al al-Ka‘bī of Mohammerah

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The Qatar Digital Library has digitized a number of sources concerning the life and times of Shaikh Khaz’al bin Jābir bin Mirdāw al-Ka‘bī (1861-1936), the Emir of Mohammerah and chief of the Banu Ka’b tribe.

1

Detail from a 1908 War Office map of Persia and Afghanistan that shows Mohammerah. British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/10/332, f 77.

Mohammerah, now named Khorramshahr, is a city located at the confluence of the Karun and Shatt al-Arab Rivers in the Khuzestan region of Iran (formerly known as Arabistan). This area was nominally a part of the Persian Qajar Empire, but for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries it was ruled as a semi-independent Shaikhdom by the Arab al-Ka‘bī family.

2

Shaikh Khaz’al bin Jābir bin Mirdāw al-Ka‘bī wearing military uniform and honours bestowed on him by both the British and Persian Governments. Public Domain

Throughout Khaz’al’s reign (1897-1925), he was one of the most important political figures in the Persian Gulf and a prominent supporter of Britain’s presence in the region. Although never formally a part of the British Empire, the Gulf had been effectively incorporated into the British imperial system since the early 19th century. The conclusion of treaties and agreements with the region’s various tribal rulers was one of the central means by which Britain enforced its hegemonic presence, and Khaz’al was no exception to this trend.

3

Shaikh Khaz'al's palace, Qasr al-Failiyah in Mohammerah, 1921. Public Domain.

Indeed, Khaz’al actively fostered close relations with Britain in an attempt to gain their assurance that in the event of the Qajar Empire collapsing or being overthrown, Mohammerah would be formally recognised by Britain as an independent state with him as its ruler.

  4

Mohammerah, May 1917 from Album of tour of the Persian Gulf (Photographer: Rev. Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox) which contains several images of the city in 1917-18.

After oil was discovered by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (the forerunner of BP) in Khuzestan in 1908, Britain strengthened its ties to Khaz’al further. In 1910 he was made a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire. Khaz’al sought to prove his loyalty to Britain in return and he acted as a key ally throughout the First World War during which – with British military assistance – he suppressed a pro-Ottoman tribal uprising in his domains.

5

Sheikh Khaz'al's yacht docked behind Qasr al-Failiyah, 1925 Public Domain

However, Khaz’al’s efforts to gain formal British recognition of his suzerainty over Mohammerah and achieve independence failed. Unlike the ruling families of the other Shaikhdoms in the Gulf – who remain in power today – ultimately Britain did not guarantee his rule. After the rise to power of Reza Khan (Shah from December 1925 onwards) and the fall of the Qajar dynasty, Khaz’al came under increasing pressure. The centralising and modernising programme of the new government in Tehran could not tolerate Mohammerah’s relative independence.

After leading an unsuccessful uprising, Khaz’al was taken to Tehran by force and detained by Reza Khan in April 1925. He remained in the capital under house arrest until his death in May 1936. After his fall from power, many of Khaz’al’s family members, including his son Abdullah, fled to Kuwait – where the Shaikh owned property – and many of his descendants remain living there until the present day.

6

A young Sheikh Abdullah seated (centre) and his elder brother Sheikh Chassib (third from right) with a number of their retainers, 1908. Public Domain

Those who wish to learn more about this intriguing historical figure and the broader political context in which he lived can do so using a number of India Office Records files about him that have recently been digitized and uploaded on to the Qatar Digital Library by the British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership as detailed below.

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist

@Louis_Allday

 

Primary Documents:

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/R/15/2/1747: 'File 29/6 British Relations with Khazal, Sheikh of Khorramshahr'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/20/70: 'A Précis of the Relations of the British Government with the Tribes and Shaikhs of 'Arabistan By Lieutenant A T Wilson, Acting Consul for Arabistan'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/R/15/1/388 'File 26/185 V (F 96) Shaikh of Mohammerah'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/18/B468: The Date Gardens in Iraq of the Sheikhs of Koweit [Kuwait] and Mohammerah. Scope of undertakings given by HM Government in 1914

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/R/15/1/384: 'File 26/94 (F 26) Mohammerah; Shaikh Khazal's offer re: building of Ahwaz Consulate'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/R/15/5/178: 'File 3/8 Affairs of Sh. Khaz`als sons.'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/R/15/1/528: 'File 53/75 (D 156) Shaikh Khazal's Claim against Kuwaiti Merchants'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/10/332: File 240/1913 'Mohammerah - Khoremabad Railway; the Khor Musa agreement'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/18/B301: 'Memorandum on British Commitments (during the War) to the Gulf Chiefs'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/10/606: File 2902/1916 ‘Treaties and Engagements between the British Government and the Chiefs of the Arabian Coast of the Persian Gulf’

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/10/144/1: File 1421/1908 Pt 3 'Persia: oil; negotiations between the Shaikh of Mohammerah and the Anglo-Persian Oil Co.'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/10/132: File 345/1908 Pt 1 'Mohammerah: situation. British assurances to Sheikh.'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/10/133: File 345/1908 Pt 2 'Mohammerah: situation. Sheikh's dispute with the Vali of Basra. decoration for Sheikh. renewed assurances to Sheikh.'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/18/B380: ‘Memorandum respecting the frontier between Mohammerah and Turkey.’

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/10/262: File 1247/1912 Pts 1-2 'KOWEIT & MOHAMMERAH ANGLO-TURKISH AGREEMENT'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/L/PS/10/262/2: File 1247/1912 Pt 2 'Anglo-Turkish Agreement. Acceptance by Sheikhs of Koweit and Mohammerah.'

British Library, India Office Records, IOR/R/15/5/199: 'File 4/14 Property in Kuwait of Late Shaikh of Muhammarah (Khorramshahr)'

23 May 2017

Milking Oil - the start of the Kuwait Oil Industry

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The Kuwait Investment Authority, the world’s fifth largest sovereign wealth fund, began life with the gift of two tins of condensed milk to the Sheikh of Kuwait in 1936.

Condensed milk

Tin of condensed milk (Wikimedia Commons)


Kuwait’s great prosperity rests on its oil industry, which started with the ceremonial opening of the Kuwait Oil Company’s first well on 30 May 1936. The occasion was captured in a picturesque report probably written by the British Political Agent in Kuwait (Gerald de Gaury).

Kuwait IOR R 15

Map of Kuwait (detail) c 1930, showing Bahra: IOR/R/15/1/621, f 132A

One hundred guests, including the Sheikh, local Notables, and Europeans had been invited by the joint British and US-owned Company to Bahra, the site of the well (known as ‘Bahra 1’).  The opening ceremony fell during the period of warm and strongish winds known as ‘Barih ath-Thuraiyah’, and the day was hot.

At 1.30pm a fleet of cars from Kuwait ‘most of them very fully laden with the Notables and their followers, set out at racing pace into the dust haze’.  ‘Strangely’ says the report, ‘there were no casualties reported’.

Kuwait L PS 12 -A

Extract from Kuwait Intelligence Summary No. 9 of 1936: the opening of the Kuwait Oil Company’s first well. IOR/L/PS/12/3824, f 365

On arrival the Company found that the weather had destroyed its arrangements, as the ‘flapping dust-filled tents were quite unsuitable as places of reception and were abandoned in favour of the garage’.  Speeches were then made by both the Company’s Manager and the Sheikh to ‘a very crowded audience only slightly revived by Sherbet [a cooling juice drink]’.

At 5pm the Sheikh pressed an electric button and ‘had the gratification of setting the rig, the first ever in Kuwait and the third only in all Arabia, to work’.  This was followed by some ‘shy applause’, before the Sheikh examined with attention the machinery both at the rig site and afterwards at the workshops.

The report then gives the following details of the Sheikh’s tour, adding a touch of pathos at the end: ‘Acetylene welding, in particular stirred his interest and he watched, through dark glasses, for some time the cutting of metal by an Indian welder who had already lost one eye through the pursuit of his trade’.

This was followed by the presentation of an unexpected gift: ‘Before leaving the Ruler was shown the Offices and storerooms where the Manager of the Company as a parting gift presented him with 2 tins of Nestle’s milk’.  The Sheikh then expressed very great satisfaction at everything he had seen, and the hope that oil production would not be far behind.  ‘As His Excellency entered his car’, states the report, perhaps somewhat sarcastically, ‘he was informed that the well had already reached a depth of eight feet’.

  Kuwait L PS 12 -BThe Kuwait Oil Company’s parting gift to the Sheikh of Kuwait: two tins of Nestlé’s milk. IOR/L/PS/12/3824, f 366

In the event, Bahra proved not to contain a commercial quantity of oil.  However, a second exploratory well, at Burgan in the southern part of Kuwait, was more encouraging, and a productive area of considerable size had been identified in the area before operations were suspended during the Second World War.

In the 1950s, the Kuwait Government prudently began investing the profits of its burgeoning oil industry in what is now the Kuwait Investment Authority. The fund today has assets in excess of $590 billion.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archives  British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
London, British Library, Coll 30/104(2) 'Koweit Oil Concession: Operations of the Koweit Oil Company. (Provision of Motor Vehicles & Spares for Sheik of Koweit)'. IOR/L/PS/12/3824. (A digitised version of this file will appear in the Qatar Digital Library in the course of 2017).
D I Milton, ‘Geology of the Arabian Peninsula: Kuwait’ Geological Survey Professional Paper 560-F, (United States Government Printing Office, Washington 1967) (via Google Books).
Film of the Kuwait oilfield in the late 1940s.