THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

99 posts categorized "Conflict"

27 November 2018

A policeman's lot in Bahrain - not a happy one

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Bahrain’s first British Inspector of Police resigned from his post after only three months, and was then accused of racial prejudice towards Arabs.

By 1945 hundreds of oil workers – European and American - had flooded into Bahrain, and the local Bahrain State Police could not cope.  The British Government’s solution was to second a contingent of serving British Police Officers to work in the country.  Advertisements were placed, and applications came in from members of Constabularies across Britain.

Colonial Police starBritish Colonial Police style five pointed star considered for use in Bahrain IOR/L/PS/12/3951A, f 483 (detail) .

Unusually for the era, the positions involved working directly for an independent Arab government.  Candidates at Sergeant and Police Constable level were therefore asked by India Office interviewers whether they had any ‘colour prejudice’.  Perhaps unwisely, two admitted to having ‘some prejudice’ - one man stating that he didn’t like saluting Arab officers.  Both were dismissed from the process.  However, there is no evidence that the same question was put to candidates at Inspector level.
Some of the successful applicants were helped by having language skills acquired in the course of wartime military service in the Middle East.

The most important appointment was that of Inspector, who was to command the detachment.  The choice fell eventually on Charles Henry Crowe, who was based at Tower Bridge Police Station, London.  Crowe had experience of plain clothes work in the detection of betting and gaming offences, and had received a number of commendations.

Uniforms and equipment having been selected and paid for by the India Office, the detachment (one Inspector, one Sergeant, and six Constables) arrived in Bahrain in August 1945 – the hottest part of the year.

Inspector Crowe’s resignation letterInspector Crowe’s resignation letter: IOR/L/PS/12/3951A, f 9 (detail)

Three months later, Crowe resigned.  His resignation letter lists a number of grievances: a promised refrigerator failed to materialise; he had often been kept waiting by the Arab Superintendent, Sheikh Khalifah, for up to fifteen minutes, sometimes standing, while the Sheikh conversed in Arabic with visitors; the same official appropriated a car intended for the Inspector; the accommodation was not up to scratch; and the uniforms were inadequate: by November, the detachment were still wearing pith helmets in the evenings, which was ‘a source of amusement to Europeans’.  Crowe was also critical of Charles Belgrave, the Sheikh of Bahrain’s British-born Adviser, who was in overall charge of the country’s police.

Inspector Crowe’s resignation letter (conclusion)Inspector Crowe’s resignation letter (conclusion): IOR/L/PS/12/3951A, f 9v (detail)

Belgrave responded by claiming that Crowe had been entirely unsuitable for the post.  He had not liked the cut of the uniform with which he was provided, had objected strongly to shaking hands with ‘natives’ (Arab Police Officers), and had been overly conscious of his rank and social position.  Without authority, he had paid a visit to the brothel area, and lectured a number of ladies of the town through an interpreter, which ‘caused a considerable commotion’ next day, and had been ‘associating with various undesirable members of the community’.  For all these reasons, the decision was taken to dismiss him from his post, and Crowe only resigned after being tipped off by friends at the Cable & Wireless office that a telegram had come ordering his dismissal.

Letter from Charles BelgraveLetter from Charles Belgrave, Adviser to the Government of Bahrain, concerning Inspector Crowe’s resignation: IOR/L/PS/12/3951B, f 30 (detail)
The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Letter from Charles Belgrave 2Letter from Charles Belgrave, Adviser to the Government of Bahrain, concerning Inspector Crowe’s resignation (conclusion): IOR/L/PS/12/3951B, f 34 (detail)
The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Belgrave’s lengthy response probably had more to do with avoiding criticism from London over his role in the affair, but clearly the post-war oil-era Gulf wasn’t for everyone.

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

Further reading:
London, British Library, Coll 30/210(2) 'Bahrein Oil: Employment of U.S.Provost Personnel for Control of American labour.' IOR/L/PS/12/3951A
London, British Library, Coll 30/210(2/1) 'Bahrain: appointments to Bahrain State Police'  IOR/L/PS/12/3951B
Digitised versions of both these files are published in the Qatar Digital Library.

 

 

20 November 2018

A case for the Society for the Protection of Women and Children

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On 29 August 1864 Henry Wilkinson was brought before the magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court charged with the wilful murder of his wife Eliza who had died the previous night.  Henry was a stonemason’s labourer aged 29 and he lodged with 28-year-old Eliza and their three children at 9 Cross Street in the Hatton Garden area of London.  Relations between the married couple were not always happy because of Henry’s jealousy and heavy drinking.

  Quarrel - temperanceFrom T. S. Arthur Temperance Tales vol. 1 (1848)

The Wilkinsons had visitors on Sunday 28 August, going to the station in the evening to see them off on a train.  One of the friends kissed Eliza.  Henry flew into a rage, and he cursed and threatened his wife before striking her very hard.  At 10pm Eliza arrived at home and spoke to Sarah Collier who lodged in the same house.  Eliza was afraid her husband would beat her, so she was sent to sleep in the same bed as Mrs Collier’s aunt.   At midnight Henry came home drunk.  He went looking for Eliza, pulled her out of bed, and punched and kicked her as she lay on the floor.  She began to vomit blood, saying ‘Oh mistress, he has given me my death blow!’  Henry immediately began to help his wife, carrying her to her own bed, giving her brandy, and going to fetch a doctor.  But poor Eliza died about an hour later.

Sarah Collier testified that she had seen Henry ill-treating his wife before this, adding that he was very kind to Eliza when sober and also treated his children well.  The case was then remanded to allow a post mortem to take place.  Bail was refused.

An inquest into Eliza's death opened on 2 September 1864 at the Three Tuns Tavern in Cross Street.  Henry was brought up in custody under a warrant from the Home Secretary.  Large crowds, mostly women, gathered in the street, and the windows of neighbouring houses were thronged with spectators.   The Marquis of Townshend, chairman of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children, sat at the coroner’s side.  Several witnesses were questioned and Dr Thomas Clark who had conducted the post mortem examination gave the cause of death as a ruptured diseased spleen.  Clark said that the condition of Eliza’s spleen might have been aggravated by ill-treatment by Henry, but the slightest blow would have caused death.

  Clerkenwell News - Society for Protection of WomenClerkenwell News 3 September 1864 British Newspaper Archive

In summing up, the coroner said the case showed the importance of the work of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children.  Whenever a man ill-used his family, the women and children should apply to the Society and steps would be taken to prevent such calamities.

The inquest jury decided that Henry did not intend to kill his wife and therefore their verdict was manslaughter.  However, after hearing the evidence, the magistrate at Clerkenwell decided Henry should be tried for wilful murder rather than manslaughter.  At Henry’s trial at the Old Bailey on 19 September 1864, he 'received a most excellent character, amongst others, from the father, brother, and sister of the deceased'.  He was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to twelve months in prison.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Clerkenwell News 3 & 5 September 1864; Holborn Journal 10 September 1864.

 

01 November 2018

Souling on All Hallows’ Day

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On the evening of Saturday 1 November 1873, a group of young men were drinking in the Blue Cap public house at Sandiway Head, Cheshire.  They could not have foreseen the dramatic turn of events that was about to unfold.

It was All Hallows’ Day.  In Cheshire there was a custom known as souling when groups would go about singing outside houses, receiving gifts of money or food.  Our young men left the Blue Cap about 11pm and began souling. 

Corbet  Henry ReginaldHenry Reginald Corbet by Sir Leslie Ward published in Vanity Fair 20 October 1883 © National Portrait Gallery NPG D44143

At about 11.30pm they arrived at at Dale Ford, the house used as a hunting lodge by Henry Reginald Corbet, a Shropshire magistrate and master of the Cheshire Hounds.  They sang The gentlemen of England and rang the bell.  As nobody answered, they started another song, Now pray we for our country.  The bell was rung again.  There was movement inside, then Corbet and a number of others rushed out. Corbet was holding a shotgun.  Someone shouted ‘Go at them!’ and two of the soulers were knocked over, one suffering a broken tooth.  Thomas Hodgkinson protested that they were doing no harm, only souling.

The soulers made off down the long drive of the house as quickly as they could.  Corbet followed, telling them to stop.  He fired his gun, hitting John Tomlinson in the legs.  Some of the soulers stopped and returned with Corbet and Tomlinson to the house.  Their names were taken before they were allowed to leave. 

When Tomlinson arrived home, nineteen shots were found in his left calf and two in the right.  When Corbet heard about this, he visited Tomlinson, gave instructions for his own doctor to attend, and gave him £25.  However that was not the end of the matter.  Corbet was brought before magistrates, charged with unlawful and malicious wounding, grievous bodily harm, and common assault.

The trial attracted a good deal of interest and proceedings lasted seven and a half hours.  Several of the young soulers gave evidence.  In his defence, Corbet said that he had recently dismissed some stable hands who had threatened him.  When he heard noises he thought they had returned.  He had never heard of the custom of souling.  Although he admitted firing the gun, he said he did not take aim and only meant to frighten the visitors.

The jury decided their verdict in the space of twenty minutes – Corbet was found guilty of common assault.  This was greeted with a ripple of applause.  Mr Addison for the prosecution stated that he did not wish to press hard on a gentleman in Mr Corbet’s position.  The act for which he was convicted was a hasty one provoked by what he perceived to be howling outside his door.  The unpleasantness of having to stand in the dock was already a considerable punishment.

The magistrates decided that Corbet should pay a fine of £100, and enter into a recognisance of good behaviour for twelve months.  The case attracted considerable press coverage.  Some newspapers expressed the belief that Corbet had got off lightly: the Nottingham Journal contrasted the case with a man sent to prison for six weeks for pointing his gun at a pheasant.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive, for example Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press 15 November 1873, Cheshire Observer 29 November 1873, Nottingham Journal 2 December 1873.

 

18 October 2018

Propaganda Portraits of Muslim Rulers during WW2

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The Ministry of Information was the British Government department responsible for publicity and propaganda during the Second World War. On 22 August 1940, Arthur John Arberry at the Ministry of Information wrote to Roland Tennyson Peel at the India Office, enclosing colour portraits of Emir Abdullah of Transjordan (ʿAbdullāh bin Ḥusayn al-Hāshimī), the Sultan of Muscat and Oman (Sa‘īd bin Taymūr Āl Bū Sa‘īd), and the Shaikh of Bahrain (Shaikh Ḥamad bin ‘Īsá Āl Khalīfah, erroneously referred to as the Shaikh of Kuwait in the letter).

Arberry wrote that the Ministry’s Far Eastern Section had ordered a large quantity of these portraits for distribution in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and that a caption would be added ‘indicating that these Muslim rulers support Britain in the present war’, in an attempt to foster support for the Allies amongst the predominantly Muslim population. He went on to request Peel’s advice ‘as to whether these portraits could appropriately be used for distribution on a large scale in the Middle East, especially in Hadhramaut and the Persian Gulf’, as propaganda.

This letter and the portraits, below, are included in the file IOR/L/PS/12/3942, which has been digitised and will soon be available to view on the Qatar Digital Library

Iorlps123942f19

Letter from Arthur John Arberry of the Ministry of Information, to Roland Tennyson Peel of the India Office, 22 August 1940. Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 19. 

Ogl-symbol-41px-retina-black

EmirAbdullahPortrait of Emir Abdullah of Transjordan (ʿAbdullāh bin Ḥusayn al-Hāshimī), c 22 Aug 1940. Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 21.

The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

SultanMuscat&OmanPortrait of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman (Sa‘īd bin Taymūr Āl Bū Sa‘īd), c. 22 August 1940. Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 22.

The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

  HakimBahrain
Portrait of the Hakim of Bahrain (Shaikh Ḥamad bin ‘Īsá Āl Khalīfah), c. 22 August 1940 . Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 23.

The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Arberry was sent a reply from John Percival Gibson of the India Office, advising him that ‘we think it undesirable to make any use for publicity purposes of the Sultan of Muscat’s portrait, chiefly for the reason given in Peel’s letter to Rushbrook Williams of the 23rd January [1940]’. The letter referred to is not included in this file, however a draft copy of it can be found in file IOR/L/PS/12/2995, f 9. In this letter, Peel informs Laurence Frederic Rushbrook Williams of the Ministry of Information that ‘the Sultan of Muscat has asked that steps might be taken to prevent publicity being given…to Muscat. Apparently the Sultan is apprehensive that such publicity might draw unwanted attention to his country in German & Italian quarters’, and ‘We have promised to respect his wishes’. 

In Gibson’s reply to Arberry, he also stated that provided the Sultan of Muscat’s portrait was omitted, he did not think there would be any objection to distribution of the other portraits in the Middle East generally, but that this was more a matter for the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office. However, he added that ‘I doubt it would be worth the expense to make any distribution in the Persian Gulf, where the attitude of the Sheikhs is well enough known’.

Arberry further consulted the India Office about whether it would be politically acceptable to include a portrait of the Shaikh of Kuwait (Shaikh Aḥmad al-Jābir Āl Ṣabāḥ), to which Peel responded that there was no objection.

Before the portraits were finally approved, Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, Adviser to the Secretary of State for India, was asked for his opinion on them. Suhrawardy approved the green border of the portraits, but thought that it should be an olive shade instead. He also advised the Ministry of Information that the star and crescent symbol should be omitted from the border, for the reasons stated in the letter below.

Iorlps123942_f11

Copy of a letter from Sir Hassan Suhrawardy to E J Embleton, Studio Manger at the Ministry of Information, 5 November 1940. Reference: IOR/L/PS/12/3942, f 11.

Ogl-symbol-41px-retina-black

 

Susannah Gillard,

Content Specialist, Archivist

British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership

 

Further reading

British Library, Coll 30/202 ‘Persian Gulf. Photographs of Notabilities (Sheikhs &c) (used for propaganda purposes)’ IOR/L/PS/12/3942

British Library, Coll 20/35 'Sultan of Muscat's desire to avoid wireless and press publicity during wartime' IOR/L/PS/12/2995

11 October 2018

An Irish soldier in India

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In July 1859 Gunner Richard Scott wrote a letter to his father from Poona.  Scott was about to return to Britain after fighting with the Bombay Horse Artillery in the Indian Mutiny or Rebellion.  He wrote of his military experiences and asked for help in finding employment.

  Poona 1871Street scene in Poona by John Frederick Lester (1825-1915) c.1871 WD3549 No. 18

Richard Scott enlisted at his home town of Dublin on 24 August 1857 for twelve years’ service with the East India Company.  Scott was 5 feet 7⅛ inches tall, with brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. His age is given as twenty but records point to him being just seventeen, suggesting that he was joining the army without parental consent.  This is borne out by his letter home.

  Scott letter L MIL 5 365IOR/L/MIL/5/365 no.473 Noc

 ‘Dear Father
Altho I never wrote to let you know of it I suppose you are aware that I am a soldier in the East India Company’s forces.  I would have written long since to let you know how I was getting on, but from the time I landed in the Country up to the present I could not be shure if I wrote would I ever live to receive an answer.  All the fiting is now over and we are just returned to quarters after being out on field service for nearly 18 months.  The Troop to which I belong has been engaged several times with the rebels but I came off unhurt through it all and strang to say, altho we often were obliged to take the field against overwhelming numbers, our small forse always came off victorios.

Dear Father I suppose you are aware that by a late Act of parliment the East India Company’s Troops are disbanded that is all that wish to take their discharge can have it and all those who wish to stop in the country can Remain as they are, their former service will count for them.   I have taken my discharg & come what will of it for I do not like the country, And perhaps I would never get the chace of leaving it again. Dear Father I cannot expect that you will do any thing for me when I go home again, but I will be in a very poor condition when I land, I will be left in London without one penny in my pocket and who have I to look to except you, if you can spare it Dear Father send me a few pounds that will keep me some time an buy me a suit of clothes And shurly you have interst enough to get me a situation with some Gentleman.  I would go as a groom, I have been Riding horses since I joined the service both in the Military style and the other way.’
 

Lucknow after Mutiny IWMAftermath of the Siege of Lucknow by Felix Beato  © IWM (Q 69821)

 Scott was given a certificate of discharge from the Bombay Regiment of Artillery on 1 October 1859 ‘being unwilling to serve in HM Indian forces’ after the disbandment of the East India Company armies.  Sadly he died of dysentery on 26 October 1859 at sea on board the Hope on his way home.  His father John sent his letter to the India Office in 1863 with an application for payment of Lucknow Prize Money.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MIL/9/23 Recruitment register Dublin 1855-1858
IOR/L/MIL/12/282 f.1369 Discharge certificate for Richard Scott 1859
IOR/L/MIL/5/365 nos.473, 1793, 2491 – enquiries about soldiers

17 July 2018

The mysterious death of Captain Archibald Anderson

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Captain Archibald Anderson was in command of the East India Company ship Nottingham when he disappeared in May 1790.  Accident?  Suicide?  Or something more sinister?

Archibald Anderson (c. 1751-1790) started his career as an apprentice in the Scottish coastal trade in the mid-1760s.  He joined the East India Company’s service as a midshipman in 1770.  By 1786 he had risen through the ranks to be appointed Captain of the Nottingham and in 1790 was returning to England from his second season in command of the vessel.

East Indiaman from Betwixt the Forelands'East Indiaman' from William Clark Russel, Betwixt the Foreland (London,1889) BL flickr  Noc

On 23 May 1790 the Nottingham arrived back in England at the Downs having sailed from Portsmouth in February 1789 for Madras and China.  The following morning the Captain's servants discovered that Anderson was not in his quarters, his clothes for the day were still laid out on his sofa, and he was nowhere to be found on board ship.

The Chief Mate George Max states in his journal:
“The servants missing Captain Anderson, a search was made throughout the ship not finding him, supposed he had fell overboard out of the Stern Gallery, as his clothes laid all on the sopha”.

A second ship’s journal tells a very similar story:
“Am. the Servants missing Capt. Anderson a first search was made thro the ship not finding himself found he had fell overboard in the Night out of the stern gallery as his cloathes was left on the Sopha”.

The general consensus from the ship’s officers and crew was that he must have fallen out of the stern gallery during the night and that they therefore considered his death to be accidental.  Newspaper reports of the incident published on 4 June 1790 however shed two very different lights on what they believed had occurred.

The Hereford Chronicle reported that there had been confrontations throughout the voyage between the Captain and his officers and that he had intended reporting their conduct on his return.  Although not explicitly stated, the tone of the article implies that he may have been pushed to prevent the poor conduct charges from being pressed.

Hereford Journal 4 June 1790Hereford Chronicle 4 June 1790 British Newspaper Archive

The Chelmsford Chronicle however claims his death as a suicide.  It also references the poor conduct and relations between Captain and Officers, but claims that the Captain had in the days leading up to his death apologised for his conduct and stated his intention not to pursue any conduct charges and to leave it be.  He allegedly even dined with the officers two successive evenings, including the evening prior to his death.  The newspaper also alleges he had written a report to the Board of Directors of the East India Company, dismissed his purser and then written and sealed a letter to a friend before throwing himself out of the window.

Chelmsford Chronicle 4 June 1790Chelmsford Chronicle 4 June 1790 British Newspaper Archive

If Captain Anderson did write a report to the Board of Directors and sent it to them prior to his death, it sadly appears that it no longer survives, and his death therefore will forever be shrouded in mystery. 

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/287H, Journal of George Max, Chief Mate, 27 Nov 1788-12 Jul 1790
IOR/L/MAR/B/287-H, Ship’s Journal 27 Nov 1788-12 Jul 1790 (unknown author)
Hereford Chronicle 4 June 1790,  and Chelmsford Chronicle 4 June 1790 accessed via the British Newspaper Archive

 

13 July 2018

Tyau mate oee – My friends, I am dying

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On 9 November 1770, a Tahitian boy about twelve years of age died, probably of tuberculosis, in Batavia, now Jakarta.  In the 18th century Batavia was a Dutch East India Company base, and so plagued by disease that it acquired a reputation as a ‘cemetery’. 

Taiato ‘The Lad Taiyota, native of Otaheite, in the dress of his country.’ from A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty's Ship the Endeavour (London, 1784). 10497.ff.6, plate IX Images Online

Taiato is among those in the shadows on our historical stage; sadly not unusual for indigenous people.  He made nine appearances in the records, between 13  July, when he joined Captain Cook’s Endeavour with the Tahitian navigator and priest Tupaia, and 26 December 1770, when Cook noted his death alongside others.  He burst into the limelight in one of these appearances which took place off the coast of New Zealand on 15 October 1769.  The Endeavour had only sighted land a few days before, but already a great deal had happened. Banks described  9 October as ‘the most disagreable day My life has yet seen’.  An estimated nine Māori had already been shot dead, and the Endeavour had acquired virtually no fresh supplies of food and water in the nearly two months since they left the Society Islands.

As the crew started to trade for fish with Māori in canoes alongside the ship, a many-layered event unfolded.  Cook tried to trade some red cloth for a Māori cloak, but no sooner was the cloth in the trader’s hand, than he sat down in the canoe, which calmly withdrew.  After a brief discussion amongst themselves, the Māori approached again.  This time however they had other ambitions.  As the ship’s surgeon Monkhouse recorded: ‘we were attending to the coming up of the great war Canoe when all on a sudden an Alarm was given that one of the fishermen had pulled Tupaia’s boy into the boat – they instantly put off, and the great Canoe, as if the scheme had been preconcerted, immediately put themselves in a fighting posture ready to defend the other boat and stood ready to receive the boy from them.  Our astonishment at so unexpected a trick is not to be described’.  The Endeavour’s crew, and particularly Tupaia, were outraged and shots were immediately fired at the Māori, fatally wounding several, and securing Taiato’s escape.

This brief moment in the limelight hints at significant relationships, clearly between Tupaia and Taiato, but also between Taiato and others on the Endeavour.  This invites speculation as to what happened off-stage in the shadows.  According to Druett among others, Taiato was popular with many of the crew. His last, painful, dying words were addressed to his friends, and we have some reason to believe that they were genuine friendships.

Huw Rowlands
Project Manager, Modern Maps

Further reading:
Beaglehole, J. C., 1955-1969. The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery. Cambridge: Published for the Hakluyt Society at the University Press. (For Monkhouse's account.)
Druett, J., 2011. Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator. Oxford: ABC-CLIO, LLC.
South Seas Voyaging Accounts   

 

Visit our exhibition James Cook: The Voyages
Open until 28 August 2018

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26 June 2018

British-US rivalry in the race to discover oil in Iraq

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How the race to discover ‘the biggest remaining oil possibilities in the world’ led to the British Government’s belief that an American oil company had helped secretly fund the Iraqi revolt against British occupation in 1920.

  Hobbs Oil 1Map of Turkey in Asia, illustrating the ‘spheres of influence’ agreed between the Allied powers, 1916. IOR/L/PS/18/D228, f 141

In the aftermath of the First World War, much of the defeated Ottoman Empire’s dominions were carved up between the War’s victors. In the case of Mesopotamia [Iraq], this meant military occupation and administration by the British.

The British Government saw great strategic and commercial value in Mesopotamia, thanks in part to the significant oil reserves they believed it to possess. Britain already had an effective monopoly on oil exploration and production in neighbouring Persia [Iran], through the operations of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. But at the end of the First World War, foreign oil companies were also eager to discover oil reserves in Mesopotamia.

The two major players in Mesopotamia in 1919 were the British Anglo-Saxon Oil Company (ASOC, now part of Royal Dutch Shell) and the American Standard Oil Company of New York (SONY). The stakes were high. In a letter intercepted by British censors, one of the two geologists sent by SONY to explore Mesopotamia reported to a relative that he was on his way to find ‘the biggest remaining oil possibilities in the world’.

Naturally the British Government favoured British interests over American, but could not be seen to be giving preference to one over the other. The solution was to request that both companies halt their exploration work, explaining that while Mesopotamia remained under military occupation, oil exploration could be conducted for military purposes only. In the meantime, ASOC’s geologists were retained by the military, and their work paid for by British military funds.

Hobbs Oil 2Extract of telegram from the Foreign Secretary to the Civil Commissioner in Mesopotamia, 10 November 1919. IOR/L/PS/10/556, f 147

The frustrations of the two SONY geologists, stuck in Baghdad and unable to carry out their work, is made clear in another intercepted letter, written in June 1920 by one of the geologists to his fiancé. ‘If you know the inside history of this you will find that the British have held up […] American firms from doing business in places conquered by the British while we were doing their fighting in France’ he wrote.

  Hobbs Oil 3Extract of a telegram sent by the British Civil Commissioner in Baghdad, to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 3 August 1920. IOR/L/PS/10/556, f 29

By this time angry Iraqis were on the streets, protesting against Britain’s continued occupation of their country, two years after the end of the War. The intercepted geologist’s letter affirmed the Civil Commissioner in Mesopotamia’s belief that SONY were financing the anti-British movement in Mesopotamia. In a secret telegram sent to Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon in August 1920, the Commissioner further wrote it was ‘clear that [the] United States Consul has frequent conversation of an intimate nature with extremists to such an extent that in recent meetings in mosques, cries have been raised by extremists “long live America and her Consul”’.

Hobbs Oil 4Extract of a letter sent from the Foreign Office, 1 March 1921. IOR/L/PS/10/556, f 4

The British officials involved conceded that they had no concrete proof to back up any of their suspicions and accusations. Nevertheless, Curzon felt it ‘desirable that any avenue that might lead to proof, should be kept open’.

Mark Hobbs
Content Specialist: Gulf History, Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme

Further reading:
British Library, London, ‘File 2249/1915 Pt 2 ‘Oil: Mesopotamia and Persia: oil; Sir J Cowan's deputation & Standard Oil Co.’ (IOR/L/PS/10/556)