THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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9 posts categorized "Modern history"

12 December 2018

Bombay satire: Rudolf von Leyden's political cartoons in India in the 1930s and 40s

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This guest blog post is by Mollie Arbuthnot, the Visual Arts section's doctoral placement. Her project focuses on political cartoons during the early 20th century.

 

It's not easy being a satirist. Rudolf von Leyden (1908-1983), a German-born cartoonist who lived most of his life in Bombay, is the main figure in this cartoon self-portrait.

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'Denley in search of happiness' by Rudolf von Leyden, 1946. British Library, P2349(146). Copyright held by Rudolf von Leyden, first published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 24 March 1946. 

Surrounded by discarded drafts and piles of newspapers with depressing and terrifying headlines, he desperately searches for inspiration. Meanwhile his editor pokes his head round the door demanding "something really funny this week."

This is just one of a collection of von Leyden's satirical cartoons at the British Library. They were made in the 1930s and 40s, and the library has both original drawings (WD4491) and a set of the cartoons (P2349) as they were published in Bombay newspapers at the time.

The cartoon series in The Illustrated Weekly of India ran from the mid-30s to the late 40s, a tumultuous time in Indian and world history. Both von Leyden's personal life and the cartoons themselves give a fascinating insight into this period.

Life and times of Rudolf von Leyden

It’s not entirely clear why von Leyden moved to India in 1933. He was born in 1908 in Berlin to a middle-class family, the younger of two sons, and lived in Germany throughout his youth. Of course, as a man of Jewish descent and with leftist political interests, it would have been dangerous for him to have stayed in the country for long after the rise of Nazism, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that that was his main motivation for choosing India, or that he was fleeing persecution at the time that he left.

Rudolf’s elder brother, Albrecht, had been living and working in Bombay since 1927. Rudolf had just finished his studies (he received his PhD in geology from the University of Göttingen in 1932) and was looking to embark on his own career. Perhaps it just seemed an opportune moment to start a new adventure. Whatever the reasons, Rudolf arrived in Bombay in 1933.

He swiftly left geology behind, and began working in publicity a textiles firm, but also soon showed his interest in visual art. He set up the Leyden Commercial Art Studio, produced watercolour scenes on his travels around India, and began working on his series of political cartoons.

He was a central figure in the art scene in Bombay, working as the main art critic of The Times of India, collecting Indian artworks from various periods, organising exhibitions, and actively promoting young, contemporary artists. He was a contributing editor of the leading art review MARG from 1946 and served as an adviser for the acquisitions and art commissions of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which owned one of the most important collections of post-independence Indian art.[1]

He also became a collector of, and later an authority on, antique board games and Indian playing cards. It was, however, as an art critic that he was probably best known in his lifetime.

Von Leyden was clearly a man of great energy and full of enthusiasm for his new life in India. Krishen Khanna, one of the artists who had been supported by von Leyden as a young man, reminisced: ‘[His] wanderlust was something everybody knew about. [He] thought nothing of going to the most inaccessible of places to see an old sculpture or a disused and ruined temple. Sleeping under an open sky and eating what the local population would provide with relish. […] [He] seemed to take it all so blithely. “While Lolly and I were trekking in Kashmir, we spent a day climbing Hara Kukh” as if that was some little hillock on [their] way. So when I expressed my surprise at [his] prowess for climbing, [he] came out with a long list of places which [he] said [he] had to traverse as a part of [his] doctorate in geology. My goodness, I’d always thought [he] had a doctorate in art history.’[2]

Wartime tensions

The position of a German national in British India was somewhat precarious, even before the outbreak of the war. Many were arrested as enemy aliens from 1939. Von Leyden had managed to acquire a British passport by that time, and used his contacts to help other German-speaking emigres to navigate the British authorities.

One fellow cartoonist, Walter Langhammer, and his wife Käthe were rescued from exile and arrest when von Leyden sent Langhammer’s cartoons to several influential people in Bombay, to prove his political disposition and loyalty to the British government. It worked, and both Walter and Käthe were able to return to Bombay, where Käthe worked as a censor for the British Army for the remainder of the war.[3]

It seems that von Leyden himself may have been able to use his own cartoons and position at The Times of India to protect himself from suspicion in a similar way.

All of von Leyden’s own cartoons were signed with the pseudonym ‘Denley,’ and were vehemently anti-German during the war. The gallery owner Kekoo Gandhy, a personal friend of von Leyden’s, attributed his use of a pseudonym to modesty. [4] But, the specific choice of the very English-sounding Denley must have been partially motivated by the desire to fit in at the Times and to distance his cartoons from his German roots. (Denley is, of course, also an anagram of Leyden.)

This all goes to highlight von Leyden’s unusual position, straddling several worlds: he was a European in a colonial space, but nonetheless with an ambivalent relationship to British colonial powers due to his German roots; a political émigré, part of a small but significant community of European Jews in cosmopolitan Bombay during the war; and a man deeply interested and invested in Indian culture and especially the flowering of Indian contemporary art.

The cartoons

His cartoons are characteristic for their freshness and sense of urgency, which is especially evident in the artist proofs. You can imagine von Leyden finishing his latest effort and cycling pell-mell across Bombay (as he apparently often did to get his work to the newspaper office in time to go to press) with the ink still wet.

They all share a signature style, featuring a bold black outline, minimal colouration, and a gentle political wit that poked fun at local government as well as heads of state, military leaders, and the ‘resident foreigner’ in India, including himself.

During the war years, the cartoons were jingoistically anti-German, albeit with an irreverent eye on international affairs. One example is captioned ‘Moscow Ballet’ and features Anthony Eden, Viacheslav Molotov, and US Secretary of State Cordell Hull as three ballerinas performing for their allied leaders (you can make out Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt in the front row), while a disgruntled Hitler turns to Goebbels, saying: “I thought you told me they could not keep in step…?”

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'Moscow ballet' by Rudolf von Leyden, 1943. Copyright held by Rudolf von Leyden, first published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 14 November 1943. British Library, P2349(37) 

This fragile corps de ballet didn’t last long, of course, and von Leyden’s post-war cartoons show the beginnings of Cold War tensions. One casts Stalin in the role of Zeus, depicted as a huge moustached bull, carrying Europa off eastwards on his back (to the despair of the other Grecian maidens, Truman, Atlee, and de Gaulle).

Another major theme from this period was Indian independence. Von Leyden was unsparing in his depictions of the divides in Indian society, with several images focussing on the conflicts and unwillingness to compromise between different groups.

A 1946 cartoon shows ‘The House of India’s Freedom’ precariously balanced on scaffolding as construction work grinds to a halt, the two builders, Hindu and Muslim, refusing to speak to one another, and the solid foundation stones of unity, compromise, and goodwill languishing unused. Another pokes fun at the state bureaucracy, depicting politicians feverishly drafting plans and proposals by candlelight, as a larger-than-life Clive of India muses: ‘Fancy having so much trouble giving it back…’

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'The freedom of India' by Rudolf von Leyden, 1946. Copyright held by Rudolf von Leyden, first published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 2 June 1946. British Library, P2349(166) 

 In the family

In the late 30s, von Leyden’s parents also moved to Bombay to join their two sons, fleeing the worsening situation in Nazi Germany. It turns out that this was a whole family of amateur artists.

After the war, in 1948, the four of them held a joint charity exhibition. Their father exhibited his sculptures, their mother watercolours, Albrecht, who was apparently the best painter of the lot, showed oil paintings and Rudolf sent his cartoons.

The Times carried an exhibition review, which claimed:

‘All four of the Leydens are amateurs. In Bombay one has become so accustomed to seeing professionals putting on shows of amateurish merit that it is refreshing to come across a family of amateurs presenting an exhibition of professional standard’.[5]

On Rudolf’s cartoons, and making reference to his fame as an art critic, the reviewer wrote:

‘Of the many inherent injustices of life in our civilisation some of the most galling are that pupils cannot give marks to their teachers, that motorists cannot summon the traffic constable, and that artists do not get a chance to criticise the art critic. Once in a lifetime there comes this chance but – alas – paradoxically, the victim at hand is not the sort of fellow one would relish running down.

R.V. Leyden’s cartoons are outstanding for their political wit. In the execution of the actual drawings he works so hard to overcome his lack of training that, in the end, most of his cartoons are better drawn than the average “professionals”.’[6]

 

By Mollie Arbuthnot, doctoral candidate at University of Manchester, department of Russian and East European Studies. She is currently at the British Library as a doctoral placement in autumn 2018.

 

 

[1] Devika Singh, ‘German-speaking exiles and the writing of Indian art history’ in Journal of Art Historiography no.17 (December 2017), https://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/singh.pdf, accessed 5/11/2018, p.15.

[2] Krishen Khanna, ‘To Rudolf von Leyden: A Letter out of Season’ in Anil Bhatti and Johannes H. Voigt eds. Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945 (New Delhi: Max Mueller Bhavan, 1999), pp.186-189 (p.188).

[3] Margit Franz, ‘Transnationale & transkulturelle Ansätze in der Exilforschung am Beispiel der Erforschung einer kunstpolitischen Biographie von Walter Langhammer,’ in Margit Franz et al. Mapping Contemporary History: Zeitgeschichten im Diskurs (Vienna, Köln, Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 2008), p.251.

[4] Kekoo Gandhy, ‘Some Personal Reminiscences of Rudi von Leyden,’ in Rudolf von Leyden: Cartoons (exhibition catalogue), p.3.

[5] ‘Leyden Family’s Art Works: Bombay Exhibition’ in The Times of India, 22 May 1948, p.9.

[6] Ibid.

21 October 2018

A Photographic Tour of the Persian Gulf and Iraq, 1906

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House of the dragoman [translator] of British Consulate Basra’, 1906 (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 27)
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In November 1906, Wilfrid Malleson, a British military intelligence officer, departed from Simla in British India on an intelligence-gathering tour of the Persian Gulf and what British officials then termed ‘Turkish Arabia’ (the south of modern Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire). Britain was already the dominant imperial power in the Gulf and was keen to ascertain the situation in those territories to its north that remained under the sway of the Ottomans. Malleson’s report of his journey – that included stops in Muscat, Kuwait, Basra, Baghdad and Mohammerah – provides a fascinating snapshot of the region at this time.

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‘Mosque and minaret of coloured tiles at Basra’. Malleson described it as: “a brick building with a minaret ornamented with some pretty blue tiles, but, on the whole, a squalid and sorry structure which in India one would hardly turn aside to look at” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 25)
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In addition to Malleson’s narrative, the report also contains a series of photographs of the places that he visited, foremost amongst them, Basra and Baghdad. Although Malleson apologised for their poor quality in the preface to his official report, over a hundred years later they provide an evocative glimpse of locations that have changed dramatically since and in some cases, came under British military occupation less than a decade after his visit. Indeed, Malleson made notes regarding the military defences (or lack thereof) of the places that he visited including Basra, of which he remarked, “[t]here are no defences and a landing could easily be covered from ships in the river”. Malleson also speculated that “judicious treatment [by Britain] could easily succeed in turning the local Arab against the much-hated Turk”. Eight years later – perhaps using intelligence supplied by Malleson – the British army invaded and conquered Basra as a part of the Mesopotamian Campaign of the First World War, events that eventually led to the establishment of the modern nation state of Iraq. In 2003, almost a hundred years after Malleson’s visit, the British Army invaded and occupied Basra again.

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‘The British Consulate and Messrs Lynch’s offices Basra; Showing 4,000 tons of merchandise awaiting shipment to Bagdad’. Malleson noted that Basra’s shops were “full of Manchester goods of a florid and ornate pattern suited to the local taste”. The workmen or “coolies” on Basra’s wharfs were said by Malleson to be “Arabs and Chaldeans” that “are of fine physique and can lift great weights. They work from sunrise to sunset, but refuse to work when it is wet and knock off when they feel inclined” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 25)
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In addition to military matters, the report discusses a wide range of other topics including trade, agriculture, history, transport infrastructure and religious communities, as well as the activities of rival powers, notably the German and Ottoman Empires. As Malleson noted apologetically in its preface, the report contains much “not of immediate military interest”.

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‘Bahreini pilgrims on board the Khalifa’. Malleson took the Khalifa upriver to Baghdad and commented “[m]ore interesting than the country passed through were the pilgrims we took along with us. They were of every type, coming from all parts of the Muhammadan world in order to make the pilgrimage to the sacred cities of Kerbela and Nejef” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 33)
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Malleson also recorded the various characters that he met during the course of his journey including a German trader on the boat to Muscat and a pair of hospitable “Cosmopolitan Jews” in Basra’s quarantine station. The two men, father and son, were merchants and the latter was re-locating his business to Manchester in the north of England. Malleson commented that the dominance of Manchester in Baghdad’s trade “became apparent to us later”. He also encountered an explorer who was willing to share his findings with British intelligence and believed that “a strong British policy in the Gulf would mean progress and the spread of civilisation, and would, therefore, further the interests of the world in general”.

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‘Cafe and mosque near the North Gate, Bagdad’. Malleson remarked that “[t]he cafes are largely frequented by the Turkish soldiery who, for the most part slouching and out-at-elbows, seem to have little enough to do” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 38)
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‘View in Baghdad’. Malleson was struck by Baghdad’s diversity stating that “[i]n addition to a large population of Arabs…and representatives of most of the peoples of Asia there are some 35,000 Jews, and a great number of queer Christian sects, such as Armenians, Nestorians, and Neo-Nestorians, Chaldeans, Sabaeans, Arians, Jacbobites and Manichaeans. Most of them wear some distinguishing garments and the varied hues and shapes of these make a very striking effect” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 35)
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The report, though engagingly written, is replete with the lamentable orientalist and misogynistic attitudes that characterised the stance of many British imperial officials in this period. In perhaps the most unpleasant instance of racist language in the report – and as testament to the ongoing existence of slavery in the region during this period – when discussing the women that he saw in Baghdad, Malleson wrote that they “of course go veiled when abroad, even those of the numerous Christian sects and the Jewesses. The latter wear extraordinarily gorgeous silken garments, and the really smart thing is to possess a white donkey tended by the blackest and ugliest of negro slaves”.

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‘Near the big mosque, Bagdad’ Medieval Baghdad, Malleson noted, had flourished while “the greater part of Europe had hardly emerged from the primitive barbarism it had sunk with the fall of the Roman Empire, or from which it had never emerged” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 37)
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‘A Street in Bagdad’. The reality of modern Baghdad was underwhelming however, Malleson believed “[t]he traveller who, attracted merely by the glamour of a name, expects to find in Bagdad the wondrous city of his dreams is doomed to disappointment”(IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 38)
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As well as visiting modern settlements while in Iraq, Malleson also visited historical ruins including the remains of ancient Babylon and Ctesiphon, the former capital of the Sassanian Empire.

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‘The arch of Ctesiphon’. Although Malleson reported that “[l]ocal experts are of opinion that this majestic ruin cannot much longer stand”, over a hundred years later, in spite of repeated invasions and wars, the arch still stands (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 48)
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‘Our conveyance across the desert to Babylon’. In Malleson’s words, “[i]t was a queer looking shandridan, half bathing-machine and half grocer’s cart, with very narrow and uncomfortable seats, and drawn by a team of four, and sometimes five, mules harnessed abreast and driven by a wild-looking son of the desert” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 43)
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‘The only arch so far discovered in Babylon’. Discussing his visit to Babylon, Malleson wrote “Here, too ‘midst the ashes of dead empires and the havoc wrought by man, the philosopher may muse on the mutability of mundane things, the fleeting character of fame, the mockery of riches and the vanity of power”(IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 47)
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Concluding his report, Malleson wrote: “[a]nd so, with a heightened interest in the problems of the Middle East, and with, perhaps, some increase of knowledge; with friendships made with useful people, and numerous promises of help and correspondence, we turn our backs on Turkish Arabia and shape a course for Bushire and Karachi”. Just eight years later, Britain would return to Basra as an invading force and when the its flag was raised over the town, the Daily Mail proudly proclaimed “Another Red Patch on the Map”.


Further reading:
For details on the connection between Manchester and Middle Eastern trade see: Fred Halliday, “The millet of Manchester: Arab merchants and cotton trade”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies   19:2 (1992), pp. 159-176.

An illustrated account of a tour of the same region in 1886-87: Turkish Arabia: Being an Account of an Official Tour in Babylonia, Assyria, and Mesopotamia, 1886-87 (India Office Records and Private Papers, Mss Eur F112/384).

A photographic album of a tour of the same region in 1916-18: Album of tour of the Persian Gulf. Photographer: Rev. Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox (India Office Records and Private Papers, Photo 496/6).

An official account of Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign during the First World War: ‘HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR BASED ON OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS. THE CAMPAIGN IN MESOPOTAMIA 1914-1918. VOLUME I’ (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/66/1).

For more on Britain’s invasion and occupation of Basra in the First World War see: Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “1914: The Battle of Basra”, Hurst publishers Blog, 21 November 2014.

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
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19 September 2018

‘South Asia Series’, Autumn/Winter 2018

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Asia and African Collections at the British Library (BL) are pleased to announce an exciting line-up of talks in their new 'South Asia Series', October-December 2018, featuring a diverse array of subjects from 'Theosophy and Bengali spirituality' to 'Miyan Himmat Khan and the last Mughal emperors'! This is a series of talks based around the British Library’s project ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ and its South Asian collections. The speakers include scholars and academics from the UK and elsewhere who will share their original research followed by an open discussion. The presentations will take place on Mondays at the Foyle Learning Centre at the British Library, between 5.30-7.00pm.

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The Bhagavad Gita translated by Mohini Mohun Chatterji (1887) (BL 14065.e.25)
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On 1st October 2018, Mriganka Mukhpadhyay from the University of Amsterdam will talk on theosophy and Bengali spirituality, focusing on the works of Mohini Mohun Chatterji (1858-1936), a member of the Bengal Theosophical Society (from 1882) and a significant member of the Theosophical Movement. His talk 'Theosophy and Bengali Spirituality: Mohini Mohun Chatterji’s Works' will discuss how Chatterji’s translations of Sanskrit philosophical texts, original essays and his public lectures shaped the Western world’s understanding of oriental spirituality. More importantly, as a Bengali theosophist and philosopher, he became a major figure in the history of transcultural spirituality in the modern world. This talk will discuss how Chatterji’s publications created a distinctive identity for modern Hindu spirituality in the Western intellectual world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

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Indian Music and Rabindranath Tagore by Arnold Bake (1932?) (BL P/V 2339)
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Moushumi Bhowmik, a singer, writer and music researcher based in Kolkata who works in India, Bangladesh and the UK, will talk about the Bake-in-Bengal archives. In her talk 'The Bake-in-Bengal Archives, and Beyond' on 8th October 2018 she will focus on the works of Arnold Bake both in the British Library Sound archives as well as from her fieldwork experiences in Bengal in collaboration with audiographer Sukanta Majumdar. In this presentation Moushumi will talk about the fascinating sonic maps of Bengal, their process of map-making, tracing contour lines from listening and recording, to listening to recordings, and to recording the act of listening. The talk addresses several questions including what was at the source of the motion: the Bake-in Bengal archives scattered in many places, or what lies beyond?

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A European, probably Sir David Ochterlony, British Resident to the Mughal court 1803–06 and 1818–25, watching a nautch in his house in Delhi (c. 1820) (BL Add. Or. 2)
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On 22nd October 2018, Katherine Butler Schofield, a historian of music and listening in Mughal India and the colonial Indian Ocean based in King’s College London will take us through the financial accounts of the East India Company that are alive with details of music and dance in Jaipur state in nineteenth century India.  Her talk 'Mayalee Dancing Girl versus the East India Company' will focus on a particular musician who stands out in these accounts as an exceptional, Mayalee “dancing girl”, an important courtesan. Little exculpatory notes in the margins of successive accounts reveal that Mayalee successfully resisted the Company’s attempt to force her to give up her salt stipend in exchange for cash. This talk looks at what official British records yield about Indian musicians and especially courtesans.

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I Spy with My Little Eye by Humphry House, Calcutta 1937 (BL P/T 2530)

On 5th November 2018 we have Supriya Chaudhuri, Professor Emerita, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, who will talk about a modernist community in 1930s Calcutta formed around the literary journal Parichay. The Parichay group included not only writers and artists, but also scientists, historians, politicians, philosophers, and spies. Its contacts extended to a number of disaffected colonialists in Calcutta: the geologist John Bicknell Auden, brother of the poet Wystan, the Dickens and Hopkins scholar Humphry House, the colonial official Michael Carritt, ICS, and Michael Scott, Chaplain to the Bishop of Calcutta, the last two being spies for the Communist Party of Great Britain. In this talk entitled 'Modernist Communities in 1930s Calcutta: Print, Politics and Surveillance', she will trace the network of connections through the Parichay archives, through other digitized records held at Jadavpur University, and through British Library holdings (for example Michael Carritt’s papers).

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(Secret) Government of Bengal: Home Department Political: District Officer’s Chronicle of Events of Disturbances, August 1942-March 1943 (BL IOR/R/3/1/358: 1943)
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Anwesha Roy, Marie Curie Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of History, King’s College London will focus on the years 1940-1942 before the Quit India Movement in Bengal in her talk 'Prelude to Quit India in Bengal: War Rumours and Revolutionary Parties, 1940-42' on 12th November 2018. She will discuss how war-time colonial state policies created annoying disruptions and intrusions in various ways in the day-to-day lives of the people of Bengal, building up mass discontent up to the edge, which, coupled with war rumours, reconfigured the image of the colonial state in Bengal. This talk taps into the psyche of the colonised mind, which was increasingly and collectively coming to see the hoax of British invincibility in the face of serious reverses in the Eastern Front and Japanese victories.

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Bodhan by Kazi Nazrul Islam in the periodical Moslem Bharat (1920) (BL 14133.k.2)
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On 20th November 2018, Ahona Panda, doctoral candidate, University of Chicago, will focus on the National Poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam in her talk 'Kazi Nazrul Islam and the Partition of Bengal: A Language of Unity, a Language of Loss'. This talk will explore how Nazrul tried to create a new Bengali language single-handedly. Using a large number of periodicals from the British Library’s collection, and drawing from extensive research in Bangladesh, this talk reconstructs Nazrul’s early years in journalism in which as writer and editor, he forged a new literary register for the Bengali Muslim community and crafted a political language that was anti-separatist, socialist whilw referring to a philological landscape including centuries of Islamic and Hindu literary traditions. The talk will conclude with how Nazrul found new life in the language movement in East Pakistan in the 1950s, in the years leading up to the Liberation War of 1971.

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Miyan Himmat Khan kalāwant, chief hereditary musician to the last of the Mughal emperors Akbar Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar. From James Skinner’s Tashrīh al-Aqwām, Hansi (near Delhi) (1825) (BL Add. 27,255, f. 134v)
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We end our autumn/winter talks for 2018 with Katherine Butler Schofield from King’s College London talking about musicians in the Mughal court in her talk 'Miyan Himmat Khan and the Last Mughal Emperors' on 3rd December 2018. This talk focusses on contemporary Indian writings on and a portrait of Miyan Himmat Khan kalāwant (d.c.1845), chief hereditary musician to the last Mughal emperors Akbar Shah (r. 1806–37) and Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1837–58). In this talk she will also make sense of the divergence of these competing lineages of musical knowledge in Persian, Urdu and English c. 1780–1850, by considering them side by side. It will show how viewing proto-ethnographic paintings and writings against a remarkable new wave of music treatises c. 1793–1853 reveal an incipient indigenous modernity running in parallel with colonial knowledge in the most authoritative centres of Hindustani music production, Delhi and Lucknow.

No advance booking is required, and the sessions are free to attend. Please do come along, listen and participate!

Priyanka Basu, Project Cataloguer of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’
http://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad35bc1f1200c-pi

 

11 July 2018

‘An inexperienced and incompetent chauffeur’: the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran

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At dawn on 25th August 1941, the people of Iran awoke to a full-scale invasion of their country by the combined forces of Britain and the Soviet Union. Within three weeks the Iranian military had been overwhelmed, Tehran had fallen under foreign occupation for the first time in its history, and the Shah had been forced into exile and replaced with his 21-year-old son Mohammad Reza. Operation Countenance, as the invasion was codenamed, was one of the most successful Allied campaigns of the war and it was carried out against a neutral nation. Although British troops had occupied parts of Iran during the First World War, that occupation had been characterised as a response to direct German and Ottoman aggression in the region and they had neither entered the capital nor disrupted the government. There were a complex array of factors that provoked the far more extreme manoeuvres of 1941, some of which are revealed within certain India Office Record files held at the British Library.

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Detail from a map of Iran (1912) showing the unofficial demarcation line between the British and Soviet spheres of influence (British Library, India Office Records IOR/L/MIL/17/15/5, f 230)
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The reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi had been marked by his large-scale modernisation projects, not least in terms of Iranian military power. Even before his elevation to the throne, as Minister of War under his predecessor Ahmad Shah Qajar, he had created the country’s first unified standing army. As Shah he continued to build on this, making significant arms purchases from various countries. “We have been viewing with a certain amount of concern Persia’s large orders in the arms markets of Europe and America” wrote Hastings Ismay in the introduction to a War Office report of 1933 estimating that in the previous two years Iran had purchased 119 aircraft, 1,400 machine-guns, nearly 200,000 rifles and over 16 million rounds of ammunition, among much else.

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Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shah of Iran (1925-1941)
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However, not everyone in the British Government agreed that these purchases were a cause for concern. “All these highly technical appliances are of little value unless the best can be got out of them” a Foreign Office official wrote in reply to Ismay’s report, “I have not noticed anywhere that the Persian Army is considered either highly trained or high in morale.” A report from 1936 agreed with this assessment that the Iranian military were ill equipped to make use of their newly acquired equipment, comparing them to “an inexperienced and incompetent chauffeur placed in sole charge of a fleet of expensive motor cars of intricate design.” The British Government certainly never made any serious attempt to limit Iranian arms purchases. As late as 14th July 1941, less than six weeks prior to the invasion, a Foreign Office telegram sent to the UK Ambassador in Iran stated that the Government would “continue to permit the export to Iran of aircraft material.”

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Telegram from the Government of India to the War Office, 28th June 1941, suggesting an end to military exports to Iran (British Library, India Office Records IOR/L/PS/12/551)
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Taken more seriously as a threat than Iran’s military strength was the perceived growth of German influence in the region. A small number of German engineers employed in Iran as industrial consultants were suspected not just of promoting their country’s cause to those in positions of power, but also of secretly stirring up anti-British sentiment among the native population. Although Iran may have favoured the Allies at the outbreak of the war, wrote the British Envoy to Tehran Sir Reader Bullard in March of 1940, “recently there has been a slight change in the other direction.” A telegram from the Government of India to the India Office sent on 6th July 1941 described Iran as the “centre of German intrigue in Asia [which] now harbours important Arab revolutionaries,” and suggested that the removal of German nationals “could not fail to add to military security and upset the German plans.” In the months leading up to the invasion both the British and Soviet governments put increasing pressure on the Shah to expel all Germans from Iran and his failure to comply was cited as justification for their intervention.

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British officers inspecting a Soviet tank during the invasion, 31st August 1941
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Soviet concerns over German influence were initially kept in check by their non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On 22nd June 1941 the pact was suddenly demolished by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, which created drastic implications for the situation in Iran. “German attack on Russia has introduced entirely new element into situation,” wrote India Secretary Leo Amery three days later, “which affects our whole policy in Central Asia.” He classified Iran as being in “immediate danger from a German victory.”

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Sir Reader Bullard, British Minister in Tehran, outlines British justification for the invasion in his annual report issued at the end of 1941 (British Library, India Office Records IOR/L/PS/12/3472A)
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In the weeks following Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, British and Soviet considerations over Iran escalated quickly. Of particular concern was the sudden vulnerability of Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus region. Should these fall to Germany, Iran would then become a vital component of the Allied war effort, meaning that securing their position there was of the utmost importance. Sir Stafford Cripps, the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, reported on 8th July that Stalin felt that “the Germans and the Italians will try to carry out a coup against Baku oilfields, and against us in Persia and that it is urgently necessary that something should be done about it.” Far from perceiving Iran’s increased military strength as a threat, the Allies were now worried that Iran was too weak to resist German influence and potential invasion. Furthermore the supposedly neutral Shah was considered to be uncontrollable at best, a Nazi sympathiser at worst. The British and Soviet governments reached the conclusion that trying to influence Iran would not be enough. Slightly over two months after Operation Barbarossa, Operation Countenance was launched.

Primary sources
IOR/L/PS/12/87 ‘Persia: Persian armaments’
IOR/L/PS/12/551 ‘Persia: situation leading up to, and after, the Allied occupation’
IOR/L/PS/12/553 ‘Persia – General Situation (Sept. & Oct. 1941)’
IOR/L/PS/12/3472A ‘Persia: Annual Reports, 1932- ’

Further reading
Amin Banani, The Modernization of Iran, 1921-1941. Stanford University Press, 1961
Mohammad Gholi Majd, August 1941: The Anglo-Russian Occupation of Iran and Change of Shahs. University Press of America, 2012
Ursula Sims-Williams, ‘The New Age (Ruzgar-i naw): World War II cultural propaganda in Persian’ , Asian and African Studies Blog 12 May 2014


Matt Griffin, Cataloguer, Gulf History, BL/QF Partnership
 ccownwork

19 January 2018

“The Hero’s Rock”- When the Kurds Rebelled

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Along the road from the oil-rich multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk towards the modern cosmopolitan Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, there sits a rather large boulder. For the most part this boulder is unremarkable, probably shaken from the mountain above it by an earthquake in times past. Yet, to the inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan this boulder has become a symbol of the injustices they have faced in the 20th century and their on-going struggle for Kurdish self-governance and independence. The Kurds of Iraq have nicknamed the boulder “Barda Qaraman” or the “The Hero’s Rock”.

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Monument to the Barda Qaraman or “The Hero’s Rock” (back central) and Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji between Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. Photo: General Board of Tourism of Kurdistan Iraq

It was behind this boulder, at the end of the First World War, that the leader of the first Kurdish nationalist uprising, Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, personally took on the British Empire in the name of Kurdish statehood. This is the untold story of the first Kurdish rebellion by the self-proclaimed ‘King of Kurdistan’ against British rule as preserved within the India Office Records at the British Library.

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Map: ‘Kurds and Kurdistan,’ 1919, showing the road from Kirkuk to Sulaymaniyah (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 117 noc

As the grip of the Ottoman Empire eased at the end of the First World War the British found it difficult to establish control over the rugged and mountainous terrain of the Kurdish provinces of the old Empire that now became into their sphere of influence. The Kurdish people are often quoted saying they “have no friends but the mountains” and for the early years of engagement with the British the mountains served them well. The lack of a railway line into Kurdistan and the inhospitable terrain made communication and the movement of troops difficult. Moreover, mounting economic pressure on the British treasury to reduce spending on imperial projects meant the need for a railway in Kurdistan was never met. This allowed the Kurds a much needed political space to contemplate their post-war future.

At the end of the First World War, the Kurds had initially asked for British rule and protection on account of their impoverished state. Previous Turkish and Russian rule had left many villages desolate and in a state of famine. Needing to remedy their inability to hold Kurdistan the British agreed to Kurdish requests and installed a colonial system of indirect rule. They worked to reinforce Kurdistan’s feudal and tribal structures by giving tribal elders the ability to feed their people, and rebuild their villages.

To have some semblance of control the British also decided to appoint a local Kurdish notable Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji as governor of lower Kurdistan in 1918 to act as their regional representative. To support Sheikh Mahmud’s governance and in some part to pacify his known rebellious nature, British officials travelled to the west and north of Sulaymaniyah to garner support for the new system of British rule. They replaced Arab and Turkish officials with Kurdish ones, in effect giving the Kurds their first taste of self-rule.

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Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, 1920s  noc

At the end of 1918 doubts began to arise about the wisdom of allowing Sheikh Mahmud to increase his power in the region. This excerpt from a Military Report of 1919 titled ‘The Kurds and Kurdistan’ documents the changing British attitude towards him (p. 81):

Unfortunately, he is a mere child as regards intellect and breadth of view, but a child possessed by considerable cunning and undoubtedly inspired by an inordinate ambition. Moreover, he was surrounded by a class of sycophants who filled his head with extravagant and silly notions, leading him to style himself ruler of all Kurdistan and encouraging him to interfere in affairs far beyond the borders of the sphere allotted to him.

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ʻKurds and Kurdistanʼ, 1919 (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 81)  noc

Realising that giving Sheikh Mahmud more power and broadening his rule could be dangerous the British decided to restrict his authority. They prevented the incorporation of the Iraqi towns of Kifri and Kirkuk into his jurisdiction and removed the powerful Jaff tribe from under his rule, deciding instead to deal with them directly. This influenced other tribes to seek direct contact with the British and thus support for Sheikh Mahmud quickly waned retracting his zone of influence to the immediate vicinity of Sulaymaniyah city. Responding to this challenge and in an attempt to force the creation of separate southern Kurdistan under his rule he rebelled against the British on 22nd May 1919.  

With the support of a tribal coalition of men and horses Sheikh Mahmud defeated a small group of Kurdish levies and imprisoned the British officers and their staff in their houses in the city of Sulaymaniyah. He then appointed his own mayor, seized the government archives and money from the treasury. He also cut the telegraph-line between Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, essentially annexing southern Kurdistan from British rule. The next day a British aerial reconnaissance of the area in revolt noted that the city of Sulaymaniyah was filled with armed men. What is more, the imprisoned British officers made themselves known to the aviators by signalling to them from their houses.

After rounds of heavy RAF bombing and machine-gunning of Sulaymaniyah city and the surrounding villages, Sheikh Mahmud’s rebellion was forced out of the city towards the surrounding hills and valleys. According to accounts, it quickly became clear that Sheikh Mahmud’s Kurdish forces were by and large ill-prepared to face trained soldiers on the battlefield let alone a sustained RAF air bombardment that resulting in heavy casualties and the gutting of entire villages and neighbourhoods. With the Sheikh’s ammunition supplies running low many of his allies began to lose faith, some switching sides as the battle went on. The rebellion culminated in the standoff at the ‘Bazian Pass’.

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‘Bazian Pass. Road leading from Kirkuk to Sulaimani’, Edwin Newman Collection, 23 May 2012 (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Newman Collection, Album AL4-B, p 32, no. 1)  noc

The ‘Bazian Pass’ is a gap between the Sulaymaniyah valleys and the Garmian plains, that is hemmed in by mountains. In the hope of stopping the British advance Sheikh Mahmud’s forces constructed a stone wall across the pass. However, a British pilot spotted that the wall was not effectively constructed and on the 8th of June 1919 pilots bombed the pass and its surrounding areas weakening the defences and hitting Sheikh Mahmud’s troops hard. This was followed on the 18th of June by a further attack which brought down the wall. Sheikh Mahmud’s men were then easily routed. Some were killed, but the majority were wounded and imprisoned. Sheikh Mahmud himself was found injured taking cover behind the large boulder on the east of the pass. Once they had control of the pass the British quickly returned to Sulaymaniyah and disarmed the local population freeing the imprisoned British officers. Sheikh Mahmud himself was tried, and imprisoned in India only to be released a few years later.

Primary sources
‘Kurds and Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers’, 1919, IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22
‘Mesopotamia: British relations with Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 27 Aug 1919, IOR/L/PS/18/B332
‘Persia: operations against Sirdar Rashid and Sheikh Mahmoud’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 23 May 1923-2 Aug 1923, IOR/L/PS/11/235, P 2756/1923

Shkow Sharif, Asian and African Collections
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04 October 2017

The Establishment of BBC Arabic & Egyptian 'Nahwy'

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On January 3rd 1938, the BBC’s first ever foreign language radio station – BBC Arabic – made its inaugural broadcast. The station was launched in almost direct response to Radio Bari, the Arabic-language radio station of the Italian Government that had been broadcast to the Arab world since 1934. Radio Bari’s broadcasts consisted of a mixture of popular Arabic music, cultural propaganda intended to encourage pro-fascist sentiment in the Arab world and news bulletins with a strongly anti-British slant. British officials had initially been largely unperturbed by Italy’s efforts, but from 1935 onwards as Radio Bari’s output became more overtly anti-British and specifically attacked British policy in Palestine, they became concerned and began to discuss how Britain ought to respond.

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Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941, a supplementary magazine produced by Radio Bari with details of its Arabic broadcasts (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

It was soon decided that Britain needed to establish its own Arabic radio station in order to counter Italy’s broadcasts. As the Secretary of State for the Colonies remarked in August 1937, “the time has come when it is essential to ensure the full and forcible presentation of the British view of events in a region of such vital Imperial importance”. Detailed discussions began over what form the station should take. In addition to logistical issues concerning content and where it should be based, British officials were concerned as to what type of Arabic should be used in its broadcasts. There was a keen awareness that in order for the proposed broadcasts to be both widely understood and taken seriously, making the appropriate choice linguistically was crucial. The Cabinet Committee that was formed to discuss the issue reported that the Arabic used in Radio Bari’s broadcasts in the past – speculated to be that of a cleric of Libyan origin – had been “open to criticism as being pedantic and classical in style and…excited the ridicule of listeners”. The potential for ridicule, in addition to the fact that many uneducated Arabs would struggle to understand it, made classical Arabic an undesirable choice. Yet given the significant variation in regional dialects that exists throughout the Arab world, the choice of a single dialect was equally problematic. British officials in the region possessed strong and sometimes divergent opinions about what course of action should be taken.

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Details of Radio Bari’s broadcast schedule as contained in Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

Britain’s Political Agent in Kuwait, Gerald de Gaury, believed that Nejdi Arabic was the ideal choice, arguing in March 1937 that the “Nejdi accent and vocabulary are accepted by all unprejudiced persons as the finest in Arabia” and form “the common denominator of the whole Arabic language”. He supported this assertion by providing quotations from the 19th century travelogues of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, 1831) and Charles Montagu Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1888), both of whom stressed the supposedly uncorrupted nature of Nejdi Bedouin Arabic in comparison with – in Burckhardt’s words – “the low language of the Syrian and Egyptian mob”. De Gaury emphasised the importance of getting the decision right, noting that the Ruler of Kuwait – “who regretted the absence of an Arabic broadcast from London” – had commented to him on the poor grammar of the announcer used by Radio Bari. He argued therefore that there was “an excellent opportunity to be taken up by the British Arabic Broadcast Station of having a really first class man much more welcome than those of other foreign Arabic broadcasters”. In a further display of his simplistic understanding De Gaury concluded his argument by stating that “the Arab is far more language conscious than any other race”. De Gaury’s stance was more a reflection of a racist attitude then rife amongst British officials regarding the ostensible purity of Bedouin Arabs than of reality.

A more nuanced proposal was put forward by Robin Furness, a Professor of English at King Fuad University in Cairo who had been approached by the Foreign Office for his expert opinion. Furness had previously served as Deputy Director General of Egyptian State Broadcasting, as a Press Censor for the Government of the Mandate of Palestine and later served as Deputy Chief Censor in Egypt. He too stressed the importance of making the right decision, commenting that Radio Bari now employed a broadcaster who spoke "ungrammatical Arabic with a marked Levanese [sic] accent…those Palestinian Arabs who spoke to me about these broadcasts ridiculed the accent of the broadcaster: Egyptians…would have ridiculed it even more”.

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Programme of the inaugural BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4132) ©BBC

While Furness concurred with De Gaury regarding the importance of the decision, he did not agree as to what form of Arabic should be used. Furness explained that on Cairene radio, classical Arabic was generally used only for broadcasts that were related to religion, literature and history and that colloquial Egyptian was used only occasionally for stories or broadcasts intended for children. Otherwise, what Furness terms “Egyptian Nahwy” was generally used. Nahwy (literally ‘grammatical’) is a term used in Egypt to refer to classical Arabic (i.e. fusha), but it is clear that at this time it referred to something distinct. Furness elaborates on what he meant describing it as the way “an educated Egyptian would read prose, endeavouring to avoid grammatical errors, not indulging in what would be regarded as classical preciosities, and using so far as he can an accent which would be called ‘Egyptian’ but not e.g. ‘Cairene’, ‘Alexandrian’ or ‘Saudi’ [Sa’idi or Upper Egyptian]”. Furness gives the specific example of the pronunciation of ثلاثة أيام (three days) which, in Nahwy, would not be pronounced in the classical way as “thalāthatu ayāmin” nor in the fully colloquial Egyptian way of “talat ayām” but rather as “thalāthat ayām”. Furness argued that the announcer chosen for the British broadcasts should avoid colloquial dialects, eschew classical Arabic except for such purposes as Cairo radio used it (“otherwise he would generally be regarded as absurdly pedantic”), avoid grammatical mistakes as much as possible and use Egyptian Nahwy. He reasoned that as Egypt was “the largest and most advanced of the countries affected, and the centre of Islamic education. A broadcaster will be best understood by the most of the listeners, and least criticised, if he uses Egyptian Nahwy”. Aside from classical Arabic, he concluded, “it is the nearest approach to a common language”.

At this time, Britain already operated a local Arabic language radio station in the Mandate of Palestine and for this it utilised what the Cabinet Committee on Arabic Broadcasting referred to as Palestinian Nahwy. This committee acknowledged that although the type of Arabic to be used in the broadcasts for the Arab world as a whole “presents certain difficulties…these are not considered to be insuperable”. Through constructive comments on style and pronunciation it was believed that a “type of Arabic may gradually be evolved which would be palatable to the largest Arabic-speaking audience”. This succinct description brings to mind a form of Arabic that emerged in the 20th Century and is now usually referred to as Educated Spoken Arabic (ESA) or Formal Spoken Arabic (FSA).

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Details of BBC Arabic broadcasts for Sunday 23rd January – Thursday 27th January 1938. (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214) ©BBC

Sir Miles Lampson, Britain’s Ambassador in Cairo, was receptive to Furness’ argument regarding the use of Nahwy but believed that there could “be a conflict of opinion between him and those who advocate the use of classical Arabic, except in the exceptional cases of broadcasts for children, popular stories, humorous items etc”. Lampson also feared that although Egyptian Nahwy “approximates very closely to classical Arabic minus the inflectional terminations, there may be many who hold the view that to give an Egyptian flavour to material which was intended for general consumption in the Arabic-speaking countries might well detract from its wider effectiveness”.

Notwithstanding Lampson’s concerns, it appears that Furness’ argument was influential, for the first chief announcer appointed by BBC Arabic was an Egyptian named Ahmad Kamal Suroor who had previously worked for Egyptian radio. The first ever broadcast of BBC Arabic, that was announced by Suroor, can be listened to here. After its launch, BBC Arabic quickly became popular, Suroor in particular, who was praised by listeners as having “forcible and clear delivery”.

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Ahmad Kamal Suroor delivering the first ever BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938. Copyright BBC

By September 1938, a secret report produced by the BBC was able to report that “[n]ative opinion” unanimously approved of both the type of Arabic used and the quality of the announcing in BBC Arabic broadcasts, which were said to “compare favourably with the performance of other stations broadcasting in Arabic”. Interestingly, the only adverse comments reported had come from Europeans, criticism which the BBC report argued could largely be discounted as it was “based on hasty impressions and incorrect information”. For instance, the report claimed that the specific criticism by some Europeans that the Egyptian accent of the announcers was “displeasing outside Egypt” was “not endorsed by native opinion”. The report quoted at length the thoughts of a “well-informed Englishman in Baghdad” who stated:

A friend told me the other day that he and his friends really enjoy listening to an Egyptian talking correctly in contrast to the best of the announcers from the local Baghdad broadcast, who was always getting his (vowel) points wrong.

One of the Europeans highly critical of BBC Arabic’s broadcasts was James Heyworth-Dunne, a senior lecturer in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who attacked the technique of the announcers. The report commented that although Heyworth-Dunne claimed to voice the opinion of “every Arab to whom he has spoken on the subject”, his view directly conflicted with a large volume of evidence gathered from all parts of the Arab world. The report argued that since modern literary Arabic was an “artificial and bookish language” with no universally accepted fixed standards, discussions on disputed questions of grammar and style were to be expected and that few “achieve unquestioned correctness”.

Debates around the appropriate use of classical and colloquial Arabic – often heated – continue to this day, but it is fascinating to consider whether BBC Arabic, that remains widely listened to throughout the Arab world, may have played a part in the development of media Arabic throughout the 20th century and the emergence of Educated Spoken Arabic as distinct from both classical Arabic and the numerous regional and national dialects that exist throughout the Arab world.


Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
@Louis_Allday
 ccownwork

 

Primary documents:
(These are all due to be digitised as part of the  Qatar Digital Library)

India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4131-4134
India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214

Further reading:
Louis Allday An A-Z of Arabic Propaganda: The British Government's Arabic-Language Output during WWII Jadaliyya (May 2016).

Callum A. MacDonald “Radio Bari: Italian Wireless Propaganda in the Middle East and British Countermeasures 1934-38” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 195-207.

F. Mitchell “What is educated Spoken Arabic?” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 61 (1986), pp. 7-32.

Andrea L. Stanton “This is Jerusalem Calling” State Radio in Mandate Palestine (Texas, University of Texas Press, 2013).

Kees Versteegh “The Emergence of Modern Standard Arabic” (Edinburgh University Press, 1997).

Manuela A. Williams Mussolini’s Propaganda Abroad, Subversion in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, 1935-1940 (London/New York: Routledge, 2006).

 

25 August 2017

New Online Resources on the History of Kuwait

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A series of archival documents that contain a wealth of information about Kuwait during the 1930s and 1940s have recently been digitized and uploaded on to the Qatar Digital Library. These documents are preserved in a file from the archive of the British Political Agency in Kuwait (now a part of the India Office Records) and consist of several reports covering a broad range of topics including Kuwait’s geography, history, flora and fauna, climate, leading personalities and political structure. In addition to what the files themselves discuss, as colonial records, they also illustrate the extent of British influence in Kuwait at this time, as well as provide a rich illustration of how Kuwait was conceptualised and recorded by British officials that were based in the country

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'File 4/1 General Information regarding Kuwait and Hinterland'
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The majority of the reports in the file are written by Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Richard Patrick Dickson (1881-1959), who served as Britain’s Political Agent in Kuwait from 1929 until 1936. Dickson continued living in Kuwait after serving as Political Agent (a role he held again temporarily in 1941) and stayed in the country until his death in 1959. During this time, Dickson wrote two books about Kuwait and the surrounding area, the encyclopaedic – if shamelessly Orientalist – work The Arab of the Desert: a Glimpse into Badawin [Bedouin] Life in Kuwait and Sau'di Arabia (George Allen & Unwin, 1949) and the later Kuwait & Her Neighbours (George Allen & Unwin, 1956) that was edited by the writer Clifford Witting. Both books, notably the former, reveal Dickson’s near obsessive interest in the minutiae of the history, culture and everyday life of the people of Kuwait and Gulf region, with a particular interest in the customs and traditions of the Bedouin.

Dickson’s wife, Violet Dickson (1896-1991), commonly known as Umm Saud (Mother of Saud) in Kuwait, shared many of her husband’s interests and also wrote about Kuwait, authoring both The Wild Flowers of Kuwait and Bahrain (George Allen & Unwin, 1955) and Forty Years in Kuwait (George Allen & Unwin, 1971). She stayed in the country after Dickson’s death, living in the couple’s long-term residence (that formerly served as Britain’s Political Agency) for many decades until she was forced to leave due to the Iraqi invasion of 1990. The building is now open to the public as the Dickson House Cultural Centre in Kuwait City. The couple’s daughter, Zahra Freeth (1925-2015), also wrote a number of books on Kuwait including Kuwait Was My Home (George Allen & Unwin, 1956) and A New Look at Kuwait (George Allen & Unwin, 1972).

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Dickson House Cultural Centre, Kuwait City
© Louis Allday, 2015

The reports written by Dickson in 1933 contain a diverse range of detailed information including descriptions of car routes between Kuwait and various other settlements in the region (including Basrah, Riyadh, Hasa and Qatif), insightful and frequently scathing character assessments of prominent figures in the country, as well as sketches of the different types of boat used in the country and lists of the species of fish in its waters. It is likely that the information contained in these notes was used by Dickson at a later date to compile his published works. For instance, The Arab of the Desert contains drawings of the different types of sailing vessel in Kuwait that are very similar to the aforementioned sketches contained in Dickson’s notes from almost two decades before.

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Examples of boats used in Kuwait, 1933
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In addition to Dickson’s reports, the recently digitised file contains a secret report on Kuwait that the Australian explorer, Alan Villiers – author of the well-known study of Arab sailors, Sons of Sinbad – was commissioned by the British authorities to write in 1939 (folios 160-183). The file also contains reports written by two of Dickson’s successors as Political Agent in Kuwait in the 1940s, Major Tom Hickinbotham (folios 187-198) and Major Maurice O’Connor Tandy (folios 226-228) as well as a Who’s Who of the leading personalities in Muscat (Oman) written by Captain J B Howes, the Political Agent in Muscat in 1942 (folios 199-209).

The full contents of this fascinating file – all written by Dickson unless stated otherwise – are as follows:

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
@Louis_Allday
 ccownwork

03 July 2017

Photographic Portraits of Tribal Leaders of the Trucial Coast c. 1939

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In 1939, the Trucial Coast States – the present day United Arab Emirates – were part of Britain’s Informal Empire in the Persian Gulf. Britain had effectively controlled this region since the early 19th century after it destroyed the fleet of its primary naval power, the Qawasim tribal confederation, and then concluded a series of treaties with its rulers. Although these agreements were in some ways beneficial to the ruling Shaikhs that signed them, they were often enforced by a mixture of coercion and intimidation. If a ruler was perceived to not be sufficiently cooperative or subservient, the British authorities had few qualms with ordering a bombardment of his fort or engineering the appointment of a replacement deemed more appropriate. As Britain's most senior official in the region remarked in 1929, the Royal Navy was "an efficacious and prompt weapon to deal with any recalcitrance."

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Left: Shaikh Ahmad as-Salf of Hafit [Jabal Hafeet], Na’im
Right: Shaikh Obaid bin Juma’, Beni Ka’ab
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However, on the eve of the Second World War, this long-standing arrangement was beginning to become unsettled. Colonial officials started to worry whether the combination of Britain’s treaties with the region’s rulers and the threat of the Royal Navy was enough to ensure that its status as the hegemonic power in the region would last. As such, they began to debate between themselves how Britain’s policy in the area – including the Trucial Coast specifically – should proceed and how its dominance could be maintained. Many files that discuss this issue in detail are held in the India Office Records (IOR) at the British Library.

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Left: Shaikh Sultan bin Saqr of Buraimi, Na’im
Right: Shaikh Mohamed bin Rahmah bin Salman of Sumaini, Al Bu Shams (Left) and Mudhaffar, Wali of Sohar (Right)
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One such file from 1939 (IOR/L/PS/12/3747) contains a series of photographic portraits of a number of tribal leaders from this period. Unfortunately, no context or details of the photographs are given in the file; regardless they offer a fascinating glimpse into the appearance and dress of the region’s inhabitants at this time and reveal the extent to which these have both changed to the present day. Each photograph gives the subject’s name and in some cases their position and/or tribal affiliation. It is interesting to note that most of the subjects are not from the most prominent ruling families of the region (who remain in power today), but rather from slightly less well-known branches and locations, including places that now form part of Oman. The final photograph in the series includes an image of slaves that were part of a Shaikh’s retinue, lamentably a widespread phenomenon in the region at the time.

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Left: Shaikh Ahmad al-Haiya’i of Dhank, Al Bu Shams (left) and his son (right)
Right: Shaikh Ibrahim bin Uthman, Abu Dhabi Wali (Centre)
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Left: Shaikh Mohammed bin Sultan of Dhank, Na’im
Right: Sultan ad-Damaki of Gatarah [?] (Left)
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This file is in the process of being digitized by the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership and these photos, as well as the rest of the file’s contents regarding British policy in the region, will appear online in high resolution on the Qatar Digital Library later this year.

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Rashid bin Hamad of Hamasah, Al Bu Shams (Centre); Shaikh Mohamed bin Hamad, younger brother of above (Left Centre); Son of Shaikh Rashid (Right Centre); Shaikh Ibrahim bin Uthman, Abu Dhabi Wali (Right)
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Primary Sources:
British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/3747, ‘Persian Gulf, Trucial Coast: Police of H.M.G., List of Trucial Sheikhs’

Secondary Sources:
Charles E. Davies, An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy, 1797-1820 (University of Exeter Press, 1997)
Rosemarie Said Zahlan, The Origins of the United Arab Emirates: a Political and Social History of the Trucial States (Macmillan, 1978)

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist, British Library
 ccownwork