THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

173 posts categorized "Politics"

29 January 2019

The shooting of the British Consul General at Isfahan and Sowar Chowdri Khan

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Persia (Iran) declared its neutrality in the First World War on 1 November 1914.  Nevertheless, owing to its oil deposits and proximity to British-ruled India, Persia became a battleground for the Great Powers during the War.  In January 1915, the Germans launched a major infiltration campaign in British occupied southern Persia.  German agents sought to instigate popular rebellion amongst the local population against Allied forces, and to sabotage and destroy British installations and interests.

IOR L PS 10 332 f77Map of ‘Persia & Afghanistan’, April 1908 (IOR/L/PS/10/332, f 77) Open Government Licence

On 2 September 1915, Thomas George Grahame, British Consul General at Isfahan, and Chowdri Khan, one of the Indian sowars (cavalry soldiers) composing his escort, were attacked in a lane after riding out on horseback from the Consulate.  This attack resulted in the wounding of Grahame and the death of Khan.  The incident was viewed by Charles Murray Marling, HM Minister to Tehran, as being part of a German campaign of assassinations.
 

IOR R 15 1 710 f10Map of British consular jurisdictions in Persia, 1907 (IOR/R/15/1/710, f 10) Open Government Licence

Grahame sent an account of the incident to Marling.  He recounted that he saw a man walking in front of him in the lane, who suddenly turned around and stepped to the side of the path.  Grahame ‘saw his arm raised, heard a shot and felt a twinge under [his] left arm’.  He saw the man moving in the direction of Chowdri Khan, as Grahame’s frightened horse broke into a canter.  He then saw another man, who ‘raised both arms as if to give a signal to some one unseen’ as Grahame passed him.  As Grahame galloped away he ‘heard three shots fired – presumably on Chowdri Khan’.

IOR L PS 10 490 f249

IOR L PS 10 490 f250 Copy of statement by Thomas George Grahame, British Consul General at Isfahan, 2 September 1915 (IOR/L/PS/10/490, f 249-250) Open Government Licence

Grahame wrote that he sought help for Chowdri Khan from two policemen and another Indian Sowar he passed on his way back to the Consulate, from where orders were given to find and assist Chowdri Khan.

Resaidar Malik Rab Nawaz Khan, of the 11th King Edward’s Own Lancers, Native Officer in charge of the Isfahan Consulate General Guard, stated that Sowar Khan Mohamed Khan was the first to be ready to search for Chowdri Khan.  He left the Consulate alone, ‘regardless of dangers’, and found Chowdri Khan, ‘wounded, but still alive’.

Khan Mohamed Khan tried to carry Chowdri Khan to the nearby Church Missionary Society Hospital, but after going 200 yards his strength failed him.  Some Persians came to his assistance and Chowdri Khan was carried to the Hospital, but after a few minutes, he died.

The Resaidar stated that he hoped that Khan Mohamed Khan’s ‘promptitude and bravery’ would be ‘recognised in a fitting manner’.

IOR L PS 10 490 f252

IOR L PS 10 490 f253 Copy of statement by Resaidar Malik Rab Nawaz Khan, 11th King Edward’s Own Lancers, 6 September 1915 (IOR/L/PS/10/490, f 252-253) Open Government Licence

Grahame learnt that seven shots in total had been heard from the CMS Hospital.  The first was the one fired at Grahame, but the rest appeared to have been fired by two other men ‘lurking about in the lane’.  According to one informant, ‘two of these three men were wearing German badges’. 

This incident was soon followed by the British Vice-Consul at Shiraz being shot and killed in the street on 7 September.  By the end of 1915, the situation in southern Persia had deteriorated so badly for the British that they decided they needed to raise ‘a force for the restoration of law and order’, the South Persia Rifles.

Susannah Gillard
Content Specialist, Archivist
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
India Office Records files which can be viewed on the Qatar Digital Library:
British Library, File 3516/1914 Pt 14 'German War: Persia; general situation' IOR/L/PS/10/490
British Library, File 3516/1914 Pt 9 'German War: Persia' IOR/L/PS/10/486
Touraj Atabaki, ‘Persia/Iran’, 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson (Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin, 2016).
Touraj Atabaki (ed.), Iran and the First World War: Battleground of the Great Powers (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006).
Donald M. McKale, War by Revolution: Germany and Great Britain in the Middle East in the Era of World War I (Kent, Ohio; London: Kent State University Press, 1998).
Denis Wright, The English Amongst the Persians During the Qajar period, 1787-1921 (London: Heinemann, 1977).

 

24 January 2019

‘Methods of barbarism’: how Emily Hobhouse exposed the humanitarian crisis of the Boer War

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On 24 January 1901 Emily Hobhouse arrived in Bloemfontein, South Africa, bringing with her a large consignment of supplies for the women and children of the refugee camp there.  The inhabitants of the camp were fleeing the fighting and destruction caused by the Second Anglo-Boer War.  The Bloemfontein camp was home to thousands of displaced Boer civilians who were confined in the camp in temporary shelter without the facilities needed to sustain such large numbers.  The appalling conditions that Hobhouse witnessed would motivate her to challenge the British authorities at the highest level.

Hobhouse brought to light the conditions of the camp, as well as the extreme military tactics being utilised against the Boer in South Africa under General Kitchener.  After visiting the camp in Bloemfontein Hobhouse visited a number of other camps to survey the wider situation and found conditions much the same.

Image 1Add MS 42848 A: example of admittance card for the Camp Hospital at Mafeking

Determined to change the situation, she resolved to take it up with the authorities on her return to England.  One of the Parliamentarians she met was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who was leader of the opposition.  The report of what Hobhouse had encountered in Bloemfontein is recorded in Campbell-Bannerman’s papers at the British Library (Add MS 41252, ff.244-245).

Image 2Add MS 41252 Campbell-Bannerman Papers

On hearing Hobhouse’s account of the camps in South Africa, Campbell-Bannerman was shocked by such ‘methods of barbarism’.  As well describing as the condition of the people in the camps, Hobhouse lamented how British military tactics were the source of this misery.  She explained that the British Army, wherever they went, took care to destroy all means of subsistence.  They did this by burning farms, grains and livestock.  Such tactics intentionally left the women and children with little choice but to move to the British camps or face starvation.  Her meeting with Campbell-Bannerman led him to make a famed speech on the matter at Holborn in June 1901.  He then took forward her complaints to Parliament, as outlined in Campbell-Bannerman’s ‘Notes on South Africa’ (Add MS 41243 A).

Image 3Add MS 41243 Campbell-Bannerman Papers

Hobhouse’s protest did not end there.  She sent her report to another Liberal politician, George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon, as recorded in the Ripon Papers (Add MS 43638), and continued to expose the camps in her book The Brunt of the War (1902) which gave testimonies of those who were there.  The book also recorded the number of deaths in the camps, counting them in the tens of thousands and included estimates of the deaths of non-white refugees.  Through this book, knowledge of the squalor of the camps was communicated to the wider public.

Emily Hobhouse and her reports from Bloemfontein gave the British authorities a different perspective on the Boer War and made the camps – which became known as concentration camps – a national scandal.  Her persistence ensured that the conditions of the camps were relayed to Parliament, which was eventually forced to establish the Fawcett commission to investigate.

Iamge 4The signature of Emily Hobhouse on one of her letters to Ripon,Add MS 43638 f.76.


Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts


Further Reading:
Hobhouse, E. The Brunt of the War, (London: Methuen & Co, 1902)
Add MS 41243 A, Campbell-Bannerman Papers, ff.36-37, On Methods of Barbarism. 1901-1902.
Add MS 41252, Campbell-Bannerman Papers, ff. 234-243; (f) reminiscences by Emily Hobhouse relating to South Africa, 1901.
Add MS 43638, The Ripon Papers, ff. 36, 54, 75, 93, 97 Emily Hobhouse, social reformer in South Africa: Correspondence with Lord Ripon: 1901-1906.

 

13 December 2018

The Red Sea to India non-stop: Amelia Earhart, Southern Arabia, and British Obstructionism

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On 15 June 1937, Amelia Earhart, the pioneering aviator, and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed at Karachi airport in their specially modified Lockheed Model 10 Electra plane.  They had been flying for over thirteen hours and travelled more than 1800 miles from Assab, in Eritrea.  By doing so they’d completed the first ever non-stop flight from the Red Sea to India, as Karachi was a part of then.

Amelia_Earhart_standing_under_nose_of_her_Lockheed_Model_10-E_Electra _smallAmelia Earhart standing under the nose of her Lockheed Model 10 Electra plane via Wikipedia

Earhart had flown from Assab that morning and had used Aden as a checkpoint along the way.  Permission had also been given to land at the British enclave should it be necessary.  From Aden, however, the Americans were restricted to flying a course along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.  This restriction has often been attributed to Saudi refusal to grant permission to fly over its territory, but the region in question was not, and still is not, part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The flight would have passed over the Hadhramaut, at the time under a loose British protectorate, and the territories of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, where British influence and control was strong.  In December of the previous year, the United States Embassy in London had written to the Foreign Office giving details of Earhart’s plans for a round-the-world flight and requesting permission to fly through and land in British territories along the way.  The matter was passed on to the Government of India, who agreed to the flight, with certain restrictions, but envisaged complications with the stretch along the South Arabian coast.

IOR_L_PS_12_1981_0592

IOR_L_PS_12_1981_0594 Extracts from a letter from the US Ambassador to London to the British Foreign Secretary, IOR/L/PS/12/1981, ff. 296-297

Civil aviation was in its infancy at the time and the British had been developing an air route along the Arab side of the Persian Gulf from Baghdad.  For various strategic and pragmatic reasons the British had gone to some lengths to establish control over the air space in the region, securing agreements with the Arab Sheikhs that gave them a good deal of authority over the management of air traffic.

IOR_L_PS_12_2054_0271Map showing some of the Royal Air Force routes from the United Kingdom to Far East Asia, via the Arabian Peninsula and India, IOR/L/PS/12/2054, f. 134

The Sheikhs of Bahrain and Sharjah had agreed to delegate to the British the authority to refuse private aviators permission to fly through or land within their territories.  The British had so far failed to obtain the same from the Sultan of Muscat.  Earhart’s requested flight was seen as an opportunity to gain this further degree of control in the region.

The attempts of the Political Agent in Muscat, Major Ralph Watts, to secure the Sultan’s agreement to delegate such authority to the British were unsuccessful, however, and instead efforts were made by the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf and the Government of India to try to dissuade the Americans from looking to fly through or land in the Sultan’s territories.  They were told that there was little hope of obtaining permission from the Sultan and the country in question was described as “desolate, inaccessible and entirely unsuitable for any emergency landings”.  Those that did land risked death or injury at the hands of “wild tribesmen”.

T 11308_0015Al-Hawtah, capital of the district of Lahej, part of the “desolate” and “inaccessible” country the British warned of, part of 'An Account of the British Settlement of Aden in Arabia, compiled by Captain F.M. Hunter

It was this obstructionism from the British, rather than Saudi refusal, which compelled Earhart to follow a line just off the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, rather than over land.  An obstructionism given in response to the Sultan of Muscat’s refusal to relinquish yet more power to the British.

John Hayhurst
Content Specialist, Gulf History – BL/Qatar Foundation Partnership

13 September 2018

A day in the life of an East India Company Director

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Every April the stockholders of the East India Company elected 24 men to serve as directors for the following year.  Two were then chosen by the directors to be Chairman and Deputy.  These ‘merchant- statesmen’ had responsibility for governing a vast overseas empire as well as dealing with administrative minutiae such as petitions from home staff.  What was a typical working day for an East India Company director in the early 19th century? 

East India HouseJoseph C Stadler, East India House 1817 - P1389 Images Online

The Court of Directors met at East India House in Leadenhall Street in the City of London to take ‘cognizance of all matters of record relating to the Company’.  Thirteen directors had to be present to form a quorum.  One Court had to be held every week, but the directors often met two, three, or more times.  Proceedings generally started at 11am or midday, sometimes at 10am.  They usually broke up between 6pm and 7pm, although sittings might go on until 10pm. There were fines for non-attendance. During a sitting, some directors might go off to other parts of East India House whilst unimportant matters were being dealt with, but if something was brought forward for discussion, all directors were recalled to the Court before business continued.

  EIC Court RoomThomas Hosmer Shepherd, The Court Room, East India House c.1820  - WD 2465 Images Online

Court meetings started with the reading of all papers received since the last session. Dispatches from India were read in Court before being sent to the different departments at East India House, but the vast body of consultations copied back to London were merely referred to and read as necessary. Lengthy debates often took place. Matters were either dealt with immediately or referred to one of the specialised committees of directors. There were sixteen committees in 1813: Buying, College, Correspondence, Government Troops and Stores, House, Law Suits, Library, Military Fund, Military Seminary, Preventing the Growth of Private Trade, Private Trade, Secrecy, Secret, Shipping, Treasury, and Warehouses.

The Court then adjourned and the committees of directors convened.  About 5pm the Court came back together to consider reports from the committees and make final decisions. The Court also swore in captains and officers of Company ships, and saw civil and military servants returning to India.

EIC chairChair used by the Chairman of the Court of Directors manufactured c.1730 - Foster 905 Images Online

Directors took turns at presiding over sales at East India House, and committees often sat on days when the Court was not meeting.  With very few exceptions, the Chairman and Deputy attended East India House every morning, and frequently were there until late in the day: ‘their constant attention is indispensable, from the frequent communication with Ministers and the Government Offices’. They often had to go to the west end of town on government business.  

General Court Room 013355Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, General Court Room, East India House, c.1820 - WD 2466 Images Online

In return for their services, directors enjoyed patronage rights over certain civil and military appointments as well as a salary, fixed in 1793 at £300 per annum for directors and £500 each for the Chairman and Deputy.  In 1814, the General Court of Proprietors voted an increase: £1200 for the Chairman, £1000 for his Deputy, and £500 for directors (£700 for those on the Secret Committee or Committee of Correspondence).  Not all stockholders approved of the pay rise: the vote was 51 in favour, 21 against.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Proceedings of the Select Committee appointed by the General Court of Proprietors, on the 6th October 1813, to consider and report upon the expediency of augmenting the allowances to the Directors for their attendance upon the business of the Company … (London, 1814)

 

 

06 July 2018

New black Britain and Asian Britain web pages launched

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The British Library holds rich resources for the study of black Britain and Asian Britain. A new suite of web pages highlights the wide variety of material available, including printed, archival, visual, music and oral history collections.  The development of these web pages is discussed in the Asian and African studies blog.

The collections of the former India Office Library and Records, which are held at the British Library, illuminate the long history of South Asian people in Britain.  They document the stories of people from all walks of life including Indian seamen, known as lascars, soldiers and others providing vital support during both world wars, workers, servants such as ayahs (nannies), entrepreneurs, campaigners, students, lawyers and doctors, politicians, sportsmen and Indian royalty.  The people featured below are just a small sample of those whose lives are recorded in the collections at the British Library. 

  Dean MahomedPortrait of Sake Dean Mahomed , 1826 (T 12646)

Sake Dean Mahomed started his varied career in the East India Company’s Bengal Army.  He left for Ireland in 1782 with a Captain Godfrey Baker. After marrying an Irish woman in 1786, he wrote a book about his travels.  His next venture was the Hindoostanee Coffee House which he set up in London.  When that failed, he moved to Brighton where he created a thriving business as a ‘shampooing surgeon’.  Dean Mahomed’s children lived in Britain and pursued successful careers.

 

Dadabhai Naoroji was the first Indian MP in Britain.  NaorojiDadabhai Naoroji -- Mirror of British Merchandise, 1892 (14119.f.37)

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was born in 1876 in Suffolk, the sixth child of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the deposed ruler of the Punjab. Proud of her Indian ancestry, Princess Sophia was a generous patron of causes which helped Indian people in Britain. Today, she is best remembered as a passionate suffragette campaigning for women’s right to vote.

Sophia Duleep SinghSophia Duleep Singh - The Suffragette, 18 April 1913 IOR/L/PS/11/52, P1608, f.273

The photograph shows Princess Sophia selling The Suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace, where she lived in an apartment. 

The Bevin Training Scheme was established in 1941 with the support of the British Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin. The Second World War increased demand for skilled engineers in the Indian industries engaged in war-related work. The scheme aimed to provide practical training for young Indians who otherwise would not have the means to travel to Britain. This booklet was produced by the Indian Government as part of an essay competition for Bevin trainees to stimulate public interest in the scheme.

Ambassadors of Goodwill IOR-L-I-1-978Ambassadors of Goodwill - Essays by Bevin Trainees, 1940s IOR/L/I/1/978 f.30

We hope that you will be inspired to look at the new web pages and discover more about our collections relating to the history of black and Asian Britain.

Penny Brook and John O'Brien
India Office Records

Further reading
Asians in Britain
Paper bag reveals forgotten history
Award of Victoria Cross to Khudadad Khan
A tribute to forgotten heroes of the seven seas 
Indian princess in suffragette march
Bevin Indian trainees during the Second World War

 

04 July 2018

James Cook and Benjamin Franklin

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James Cook departed on his last voyage eight days after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776).  The official account of that voyage was published on 4 June 1784, less than a month after the final ratification of the Treaty of Paris (12 May 1784), which concluded the American War of Independence.

The coincidence of these two historic events converged in the public sphere on 10 March 1779 with the publication of Benjamin Franklin’s open letter ordering American sea captains, if they happened to encounter him, to treat Cook and his crew ‘with all civility and kindness … as common friends to mankind’.

  Franklin 1 Franklin 1ACopy of pass by Benjamin Franklin, 10 March 1779 State Library New South Wales, Dixson Library, MSQ140

The letter received considerable press coverage at the time.  Opinions about it were sharply divided. On 26 May 1779, after summarizing its contents, Lloyd’s Evening Post ends with a quotation from Swift: ‘See, Brothers, how we Apples swim’.  The line, spoken by a ball of ‘horse’s dung’, clearly implies that Franklin’s support for Cook’s voyage is nothing but a vain attempt to share in its glory.

The Whig-leaning Public Advertiser, in contrast, used the letter to voice anti-war sentiments.  On 7 June 1779 a whimsical article imagines Cook being captured by an American ship.  On discovering his identity, the Americans follow Franklin’s orders and present him with ‘Half a hundred Weight of right Virginia Tobacco, three Bags of Rice’, and other produce plundered from ‘a Portugueze Vessel’.  In referencing their highly profitable trading relations and their shared enemy, the ‘Portugueze’, the article stresses the economic and political importance of the relationship between Britain and America.

  Franklin 2
Public Advertiser [London, England], 7 June 1779; Issue 13935

A similar note is struck by the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser’s response to news of Cook’s death, communicated in a letter from Charles Clerke from Kamchatka, a place that in the 18th century was used as a metaphor for distance and coldness:

‘Had we been born in an island in the South-Seas, we should perhaps have called [Cook] an invader, a pirate. …The most striking circumstance surely is, that Captain Clerke should sit down in the Bay of St. Peter and Paul at Kamschatka, and write a letter to Mr. Stephens, at Charing-cross, which, in about half a year, reaches him as safely, as if it had been put into a penny-post-office… This is civilization; nor should we forget the friendly assistance of the Russians, any more than the French order, respecting Captain Cook’.

The greatest achievements of the voyage, the article suggests, were not so much Cook’s discoveries but the co-operation and free lines of communication between potentially warring powers that enabled these discoveries to happen and to be so promptly reported on.

As a counterpoint to the hostilities between Britain, France and America in the Atlantic, therefore, Cook’s voyages in the Pacific were seen, by some at least, as a way of promoting unity between so-called ‘Enlightened’ countries – les états bien policés (well-governed states) – whose destinies were presented as increasingly more entwined by commercial links and shared mœurs or ‘polite manners’.

Ben Pollitt
PhD Candidate, Department of History of Art, University College London

Further reading:
Copy of pass by Benjamin Franklin, 10 March 1779, State Library New South Wales, Dixson Library, MSQ140
Lloyd's Evening Post (London, England), 26 May- 28 May 1779; Issue 3421
Jonathan Swift, ‘On the words Brother-Protestants, and Fellow-Christians, so familiarly used by the advocates for the Repeal of the Test Act in Ireland,’ [1733] in The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift, Vol. VII, London: T. Osborne et al., 1766, p. 206
Public Advertiser (London, England), 7 June 1779; Issue 13935
Sophie Forgan, ‘A note on the ‘Afterlife of Kamchatka,’ in Smoking Coasts and Ice-Bound Seas: Cook’s Voyage to the Arctic, Whitby: Captain Cook Memorial Museum, 2008, pp. 33-40
Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser (London, England), 17 January 1780; Issue 3327

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

BL_Cook_737x451-quote

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)

 

20 June 2018

Seeking Wartime Employment: Bertram Thomas and Frank Smythe

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On 27 August 1939, the explorer Bertram Thomas sent a telegram to John Charles Walton of the India Office, offering his services to the Government of India in the event of war, in the Persian Gulf ‘or wherever my Arab experience may be of use’.

  IOR L PS 12 300 f.72Telegram from Bertram Thomas to John Charles Walton at the India Office, 27 August 1939 (IOR/L/PS/12/300, f 72). The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. 

In 1931, Thomas had become the first European to cross the ‘empty quarter’ (the Rub' al Khali desert) of Arabia.  He had also served in Mesopotamia (Iraq) during the First World War, and had held offices in the Middle East including that of Financial Adviser to the Sultan of Muscat and Oman.

 
IOR L PS 12 2137 f.308'ARABIA. Route Traverse across the RUB' AL KHALI from DHUFAR TO DOHA by BERTRAM THOMAS 1930-31' map (IOR/L/PS/12/2137, f 308) Noc

After the declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939, Thomas wrote to the Foreign Office enquiring whether he could be of use to them in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East, in case the Government of India could not find a suitable role for him.  He stated ‘I want to serve the country’ and ‘I should feel wretched to be idling when I ought to be helping somewhere’.  He suggested that ‘I might be the sort of man the new Department of Propaganda has a use for, collecting information on the spot, or disseminating it there’.  Herbert Lacy Baggallay of the Foreign Office passed on Thomas’s letter to the Ministry of Information, remarking that Thomas’s ‘knowledge of Arabic and of Arab countries is, of course, very considerable’.

On 30 July 1941 the Ministry of Information offered Thomas the role of Publicity Officer in the Persian Gulf, responsible for the preparation and co-ordination of pro-British and Allied propaganda in the Gulf.  Thomas served in this role until he became first Director of the new Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, a centre for training British personnel in the Middle East.  He held this post from 1944 to 1948.

Other individuals offered their services to the India Office and the Foreign Office during the Second World War including the mountaineer and author Frank Symthe (Francis Sydney Smythe).  Smythe had led the 1931 expedition which conquered the Himalayan mountain Kamet, the first summit over 25,000 feet (7,620 metres) to be climbed.  He had also taken part in Everest expeditions, including the 1933 expedition which equalled the height record (c 28,000 feet or 8,534 metres) established by Edward Felix Norton in 1924.

Symthe wrote to Walton at the India Office on 23 September 1939 that he was ‘anxious to undertake some work in which any special qualifications I may possess would be of the most use’.  In a further letter of 11 August 1941, he stated that ‘since the German attack on Russia the Indian frontier again becomes important’, and he suggested that he could train a corps of mountain scouts drawn from Gurkhas and Sherpas.
 

IOR L PS 12 300 f.66Letter from Frank Smythe to John Charles Walton of the India Office Political Department, 23 September 1939 (IOR/L/PS/12/300, f 66) © Frank S. Smyth (Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence)

It appears that Smythe never served on the Indian frontier, but he did spend part of the Second World War training troops in mountain warfare and spent time in the Rockies with the Lovat Scouts.

Susannah Gillard
Content Specialist, Archivist
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
India Office Records files which can be viewed on the Qatar Digital Library:
British Library, PZ 5277/1939 'War - Offers of service in the event of -' IOR/L/PS/12/300
British Library, ‘File 28/7 I War: Propaganda: local opinion’ IOR/R/15/2/687
British Library, ‘File 28/7 II War: Propaganda – Local Opinion’ IOR/R/15/2/688
British Library, 'File 1/44 Publicity Officer, Bahrain' IOR/R/15/2/1040
British Library, 'File 4/12 (1.a/52) Publicity Officer, Persian Gulf' IOR/R/15/2/933
British Library, Ext 5050/43 ‘Formation of an Arab Centre in the Middle East for providing selected British officers with knowledge of Arabic, Arab countries and Middle East problems’ IOR/L/PS/12/857

Francis Owtram (2015) Preparation Pays Off: Bertram Thomas and the Crossing of the Empty Quarter
Francis Owtram (2016) Dhofar, Doha and a ‘Road Trip’ to Riyadh: Bertram Thomas’ sojourns in Arabia
John Ure (2008) ‘Thomas, Bertram Sidney (1892–1950)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Harry Calvert, Symthe’s Mountains: The Climbs of F. S. Smythe (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1985).
Arnold Lunn, revised by A. M. Snodgrass (2011) ‘Smythe, Francis Sydney (1900–1949)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.