Quetta to Sistan: The Development of a Strategic Trade Route
‘Such Central Asian trade as of old [that] drew its goods from British sources has slowly drifted into the hands of Russia, which on its part has not been backward in putting in motion every engine that ingenuity could devise, and its paramount position in Central Asia afforded to popularize its Asian and Persian trade at the expense of ours.’
Drawing of a telegraph station along the Quetta-Sistan Road (Mss Eur F111/386, f.137)
Thus wrote Lieutenant Frank Webb Ware, Political Assistant at Chagai, in his first report on the trade route being opened up between Quetta, in British Indian territory, and Sistan, on the Persian frontier. Such fears of Russian dominance in Persia were the very reason for the British plan to revive what was an ancient road. Russian influence had been growing in Persia since the Napoleonic era and their presence felt in Sistan since at least the 1860s. Being on the doorstep of the Indian Empire, any interference in Sistan could not be tolerated by the British, and their efforts to assert their own power over the region was a part of the ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Britain for predominance in Central Asia.
Photograph of the ‘Mil-i-Nadir, or Pillar of Nadir’, probably taken by H A Armstrong, Assistant Superintendent, Indian Telegraph Department (Mss Eur F111/377, f.46)
To counter Russian activities in Sistan, Webb Ware was appointed at Chagai and tasked by the Government of India to establish wells, guard houses, and levy posts along the new route from Quetta. Trade was seen as an important way of gaining influence and protecting British interests. After travelling the route himself in the early part of the year, Webb Ware submitted his first report on the subject in the summer of 1897, remarking that he was ‘disagreeably astonished’ at the ascendancy that Russia had already gained in Sistan.
Photograph of the landscape near the trade route, close to Dehbakri, Iran, probably taken by H A Armstrong (Mss Eur F111/377, f.30)
In the following years more reports would be submitted and progress made on the development of the route. Recommendations were made to extend the railway from Quetta along the same road, largely for military purposes. The project was of such significance that Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India at the time, kept copies of all the relative documents. It is from his papers that these images are taken.
Drawing of the landscape near Kirtaka, Pakistan (Mss Eur F111/386, f.141)
Military intelligence was gathered and a telegraph line proposed. The resulting surveys produced photographs and sketches of a region little-known to the British. The line drawings are reminiscent of those of the Lake District by Alfred Wainwright, albeit they were made for very different purposes. These, along with Webb Ware’s reports, are being digitised as part of the Qatar Foundation-British Library Partnership Programme and are available on the Qatar Digital Library.
Gulf History Specialist
'Report of Khan Bahadur Maula Bakhsh, Attaché to the Agent to the Governor General of India and Her Britannic Majesty's Consul-General for Khurasan and Sistan, on His Journey from Meshed to Quetta via Turbat-i-Haidari, Kain, Sistan, Kuh-i-Malik Siah and Nushki (7th April to 28th July 1898)' - Mss Eur F111/363
'Report on the Nushki, Chagai and Western Sinjerani Districts for the year 1897-98 and on the Development of The Quetta-Seistan [Sistan] Trade Route' - Mss Eur F111/364
'Report on the Development of the Baluch-Persian Caravan Route and on the Nushki, Chagai and Western Sinjerani Districts, for the year 1899-1900' - Mss Eur F111/374
'Military Report on Persian Seistan' - Mss Eur F111/378
'Notes on Persian Seistan' - Mss Eur F111/382