Racism in the India Office Arab Reports
Content Warning: The following post contains discussion of colonial history and racist descriptions and depictions that may cause distress.
This blog post provides examples of racist attitudes documented in one of the India Office’s Political and Secret Department files. The examples illustrate how these attitudes formed part of intelligence gathering by the British in the Middle East during World War One, and how they fed into discussions and decision making. British policy in the Middle East was formulated and implemented by the same people gathering intelligence, producing these reports and commenting on them. To understand this history, it is important to acknowledge the variety of motives and attitudes held by the people involved, including attitudes of racial superiority.
In February 1916 the Intelligence Division of the British Admiralty sent a report to the India Office Political and Secret Department detailing the military and political situation in Arabia, Mesopotamia, the Western Desert, Syria and Sinai. This was the first of 27 reports, initially called Arabian Report then the Arab Report, ending in January 1917.
In June 1916 an uprising began in Mecca, led by Sharif Hussein and backed by the British. The revolt succeeded in ejecting the Ottomans from Mecca. But the subsequent loss of momentum left the British unsure whether they should continue to support Hussein with troops. The situation was complicated by pacts with the French contradicting promises made to Hussein, and by the need to win the war.
The opening section of the first Arabian Report focused on the attitude and activities of the Sharif of Mecca, particularly ‘his present aim [of reconciling] all the Arab powers in Arabia by persuading them to abandon all side issues, and assist him in hunting the Turks from the country’. The other sections dealt with the war, specifically transport, troop movements, armoury, and the outcome of battles or skirmishes.
The reports rely on a mixture of official and unofficial accounts, and rumour. There is a general anxiety regarding the veracity, and thus usefulness, of the information presented. The authors balance this ambiguity with personal judgements about the reliability of a source or accuracy of material. From June 1916, the reports are accompanied by an ‘Appreciation’ by Sir Mark Sykes, highlighting sections and adding his own thoughts. Senior members of the Political and Secret Department wrote their comments in ‘Minutes’ attached to each report.
These comments and observations provide evidence of the attitudes and racial prejudices of the writers. For example, the Arabia Report XVII contains a statement on Sayed Idrisi. After noting an unconfirmed rumour that Idrisi has ‘made peace with the Turkish Governor of Yemen’, the author remarks that, although ‘this is improbable… it must not be forgotten that Idrisi is an Arab’. The implication is that he cannot be trusted to keep faith with the British.
Section of a report on ‘Idrisi’ contained in Arabia Report XVII IOR/L/PS/10/5876, folio 345r [Crown Copyright]
A similar sentiment appears in Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arabian Report XXA. Referring to the ‘hostility of the Arabs at Rabej’, Sykes is dismissive of the event and describes the participants as ‘probably…wild, suspicious and excited’, noting that ‘The incident is an excellent example of the difficulties with which we shall have to contend in dealing with what a well-known writer described as a “fox-hearted elfin people”.’.
Sir Mark Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arabian Report XXA IOR/L/PS/10/586, folio 246v [Crown Copyright]
Similar examples of racial derision are scattered through Sykes’ ‘Appreciations’ and the reports. Friction between Idrisi and the Sharif of Mecca is ascribed in part by Sykes to ‘difficulties which…Arab racial peculiarities have laid in their path’.
Sir Mark Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arab Report IV IOR/L/PS/10/586, folio 209r [Crown Copyright]
Sykes’ racist implication that Arabs are predisposed to arguments and divisions is repeated elsewhere, by Sykes and others. The author of the first Arabian Report notes his belief that ‘The Arab is essentially unstable’.
Section of report on ‘Asir’ from Arabian Report XVIII IOR/L/PS/10/586, folio 455r [Crown Copyright]
While discussing the representation of different peoples in the press, Sykes presents his own opinion that ‘The aboriginal inhabitant of the Mesopotamian swamps is equally truly a wild, treacherous, lawless savage, while the mixed riparian tribes of Irak are congenital Anarchists for geographical and historical reasons’.
Sir Mark Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arabian Report XXVII IOR/L/PS/10/586, folio 4r [Crown Copyright]
Sir Mark Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arabian Report XXVII IOR/L/PS/10/586, folio 4v [Crown Copyright]
Together with the official reports, the racial prejudices held by the authors of these accompanying documents helped shape British policy in the Middle East.
Head of Curatorial Operations, BL Qatar Partnership
IOR/L/PS/10/586 Arab Reports
James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (London, Simon & Schuster, 2011)
Priya Satia, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008)
Details on the British Library’s Anti-Racism Project can be found here:
Towards and Action Plan on Anti-Racism
Living Knowledge Blog, 10 March 2021