Untold lives blog

115 posts categorized "Qatar"

11 January 2022

The Spy Who Came in from the Circus: Haji Ali Germani

In 1915, a man was arrested near the Iranian port of Bandar Lengeh by levies in the pay of the British Consulate, accused of inciting the local population against British interests.  He was ‘fair, though now very sunburned’, with ‘fair hair and grey eyes’, spoke German, English, Farsi, and Arabic, and went by the name of Haji Ali Germani.

The arrest took place against a tumultuous backdrop.  To weaken Britain in Europe during the First World War, Germany and its allies were striking at the British imperial system in Asia.  German, Austrian, and Ottoman agents, along with Indian revolutionaries, were spreading across Iran, approaching Afghanistan and causing panic among the British occupying India.  The arrested Haji Ali was believed to be working with German agents, most prominently the feared Wilhelm Wassmuss, ‘the German Lawrence’, to weaken British influence over southern Iran, and thus the Persian Gulf and route to India.

Haji Ali told his captors that his mother was a German circus performer and his father a ‘Moor’ (North African).  He himself had started out as an acrobat, before joining the firm of Robert Wönckhaus, a former Zanzibar slave trader who had moved into business in the Gulf.

Letter about Haji Ali from the Vice-Consul in Bandar Lengeh to the Commanding Officer in Bushire 25 September 1915Letter from the Vice-Consul in Bandar Lengeh to the Commanding Officer in Bushire [Bushehr], 25 September 1915. IOR/L/PS/10/490 f 138r Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Haji Ali was already known, and distrusted, by British authorities.  He had been involved in Wönckhaus’s concession to mine red oxide on Abu Musa island, which hawkish British officers perceived as a threatening German intrusion into the jealously-guarded Gulf and quickly had shut down.

After his arrest Haji Ali was deported to India.  On reaching Bombay [Mumbai] in October 1915, he was sent into internment in Jutogh in the Himalayan foothills.  He was escorted on the long journey north by one Sub-Inspector Schiff, an Arabic speaker in Bombay’s colonial police, who coaxed information from him about Indian revolutionaries with the Germans in Iran.  After ‘a large glass of brandy (neat) and several glasses of beer at Delhi station’, Haji Ali revealed that German agents were planning to ship arms to Indian revolutionaries from Shanghai, taking advantage of relaxed checks on ships coming to India from the east.  After sobering up, he was ‘very much exercised at having said so much and bound Sub-Inspector Schiff to secrecy by all the oaths in the Arabic vocabulary’.

Letter from the Bombay Commissioner of Police to the Secretary of the Government of Bombay 14 October 1915Letter from the Bombay Commissioner of Police to the Secretary of the Government of Bombay, 14 October 1915. IOR/L/PS/10/490, f 39vPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Schiff judged that Haji Ali was not a ‘true [German] patriot’, and could be led to make further ‘revelations of interest’.  Thus, no sooner did Haji Ali reach Jutogh than he was sent back to Bombay for further interrogation.  There, he revealed the location of the keys to Wönckhaus’s safes, buried near Lengeh, among other fragments of information.

We hear little more of him.  In 1916, he was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Thayetmyo, Burma.  After the war he seems to have returned to Iran – a 1922 file mentions him back in Lengeh, working in Customs.

Extract from Persian Gulf Residency News Summary July 1922Persian Gulf Residency News Summary, July 1922. IOR/L/PS/10/977 f 143v Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It is not clear if Haji Ali really was actively involved in German wartime conspiracies, or simply a bystander.  Either way, he was a colourful bit-player in a tempestuous period in Iran.

Despite declaring itself neutral in the war, Iran became a battleground for rival powers, was occupied by British, Russian, and Ottoman troops, and was wracked by shortages, inflation, and famine, causing immense suffering among ordinary Iranians.  Theirs are among the truly untold lives of the First World War.

William Monk
Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
British Library, File 3443/1914 Pt 3 'German War: Afghanistan and Persia; German agents; British troops in East Persia', IOR/L/PS/10/474
British Library, File 3516/1914 Pt 14 'German War: Persia; general situation', IOR/L/PS/10/490
British Library, File 1749/1921 ‘Persian Gulf:- Residency news summaries 1921-25’ [‎143v] (301/494), IOR/L/PS/10/977
British Library, 'File 14/115 VIII B 15 Abu Musa. Red oxide concession.', IOR/R/15/1/260
Abrahamian, Ervand.  A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Staley, Eugene. ‘Business and Politics in the Persian Gulf: The Story of the Wönckhaus Firm.’ Political Science Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, 1933, pp. 367–385.

 

20 December 2021

The stork in fable and record

In September 1942, a flock of around 200 white storks (ciconia ciconia) arrived in Bahrain, as reported in the intelligence summaries from the country.  A ring on one of them showed that it had come from Lithuania.  They were shot at by the Bahrainis, who did not recognise the species, whereas elsewhere in the Middle East they were never harmed, suggesting that they were very infrequent visitors in Bahrain.  The report continues: ‘it was, no doubt, a coincidence that the same night a son was born to Mrs. Wakelin, wife of the Bahrain Government Director of Education’.

Painting of storks in a landscape surrounded by trees and flowersStorks (ciconia nigra) Or 3714, f 391r  - public domain

Stories about storks have circulated for millennia.  Their size makes them extremely visible and their habit of nesting on roofs of buildings, which also allowed their care of their chicks to be seen.  This, combined with their apparent care of the old and monogamous habits, led the Romans to believe that when they reached old age, they were transformed into human shape as a reward for their piety.

Storks have also been considered extremely lucky birds.  As travellers visited the Persian Empire and the Middle East, they frequently remarked on the presence of storks as the birds were common in mainland Europe, particularly the Netherlands and Eastern Europe, but almost unknown in Britain.  They were considered as generally bringing good luck to the house on which they nested, and therefore were never harmed.  In 1758 Edward Ives described the scene in Baghdad: ‘You generally see on the Minarets the Stork, a large bird called by the Arabs Leg-leg, a destroyer of serpents; the Turks never offer to molest it…those who own a house where Storks have nested, are supposed to receive great blessings from heaven'.

Painting of storks nesting on a building Storks nesting on a building Or 2265, f 15 - public domain

Some hints about the origin of this belief can be found in the name sometimes given to them, haji laqlaq, suggesting that they had made a pilgrimage to Mecca.  ‘Laklak’ has existed as a name for storks since the Akkadian period, and as the main noise that storks make is clapping their bills, it is may be imitative in origin.

In the late 17th century, John Fryer visited Persepolis and remarked on the storks present there ‘which may serve to contradict the received Opinion, of Storks abiding only where Commonwealths are; this always having been an Empire’.  One of strangest stories about storks current at the time was that they would not nest under a monarchy, which served to explain why they did not nest in England, while they did in Holland and other places in Europe.

In ‘The Frogs who asked for a King’, one of Aesop’s Fables, a group of frogs ask Jupiter for a king.  He sends a log, which they play with and make fun of, and ask Jupiter for a real king. He then sends a stork, which starts to eat them.  This tale was still used as a metaphor in 1905 for two different ideas of power: King Log and King Stork.

Extract from official document speaking of King Log and King Stork  in reference to the ruler of BahrainKing Log and King Stork, in reference to the ruler of Bahrain IOR/L/PS/10/81, f 105r   open government licence 

And as for the Director of Education’s son arriving with the storks?  Despite stories from Eastern Europe and Egypt of storks having human souls, it is perhaps more likely that the story that storks brought babies was an extension of the idea that storks were ‘lucky’: a baby being the ultimate blessing a house could have.

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer - British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
John Fryer’s visit to Persepolis is told in his account of his travels, W 3856 
The arrival of storks in Bahrain appears in IOR/R/15/2/314 ‘File 8/16 Bahrain Intelligence Reports’ 
Edward Ives describes seeing storks nesting, W 4137

 

15 December 2021

The story the India Office Records preserve about kasids

Within the India Office Records (IOR) catalogued for the British Library-Qatar Project, there are a number of references to local messengers called kasids (sing. kasid).  The term kasid (qasid: قاصد) originates from the Arabic verb qa sa da (قصد), ‘to aim at’, and qasid itself means someone who knows his direction and moves with a purpose.  In Persian, the term has been adapted to also refer to a messenger (Pr. پيغامبر، قاصد، رسول ). The East India Company (EIC) adopted the Persian term in reference to a certain type of messenger employed within its establishments in Persia [Iran].  This blog explores the available records on kasids and examines their role within the postal system of the EIC and the India Office afterwards.

Definition of kasid  based on its Arabic origin Definition of kasid, based on its Arabic origin, IOR/R/15/5/397, f 618r, Crown Copyright

 

Reference to kasid as a messenger in its Persian contextA reference to kasid as a messenger in its Persian context, V 3148, p 113, Crown Copyright

The earliest records showing the EIC employing kasids within its establishments in Persia are from the 18th century.  These records indicate that kasids were foot messengers whose main task was to deliver letters to and from the EIC’s representatives and local governors.  They are not to be confused with another type of messengers in Persia known as shaters.  It is most likely that the EIC employed kasids from the local population, taking advantage of their familiarity with the region, its people and landscapes.  These kasids were paid 30 rupees a month for their service.

Note of kasid’s paymentKasid’s payment, IOR/G/29/25, f 411v, Crown Copyright

Besides their main job as messengers, kasids also collected intelligence relating to certain people, incidents or events.  They wrote down their collected observations within reports that are referred to as akhbar.  In a number of fascinating folios dated 5 June 1799, the EIC’s Resident at Bushire, Mirza Mahdi Ali Khan, wrote to the Governor of Bombay, Jonathan Duncan, informing him of the akhbar he had received from his kasids.  This akhbar contained details of the French siege of Acre, and how the Governor of Sidon, Jezzar Pasha, and the British navy had responded to the siege.

Akhbar on the French siege of AcreAkhbar on the French siege of Acre, IOR/G/29/25, f 413r, Crown Copyright

The same akhbar included information about the encounters between the Governor of Baghdad Büyük Süleyman Pasha, the Wahhabis, and the Arab tribes of Iraq.  However, the records also indicate that the akhbar received from kasids were not always accurate.  And in cases where fake news had been conveyed, the kasids were simply dismissed from their positions.

Akhbar on the Governor of Baghdad  Wahhabis  and Arab tribesAkhbar on the Governor of Baghdad, Wahhabis, and Arab tribes, IOR/G/29/25, f 414r, Crown Copyright

In some other cases, kasids themselves quit their jobs, primarily due to the hardship they faced during their journeys.  In a couple of references to kasids in the early 20th century, we learn that the Indo-European telegraph system relied on kasids to deliver the post during bad weather conditions or military disturbances.  This was not an easy task, and many kasids were reportedly refusing to return to their jobs, something which often caused disruption to the postal service.

Extract from Shiraz News noting that kasids were part of the Indo-European telegraph systemKasids being part of the Indo-European telegraph system, IOR/L/PS/10/163, f 18r, Crown Copyright

Report of kasids quitting their jobsKasids quitting their jobs, IOR/L/PS/10/163, f 17v, Crown Copyright

The records also show that, during World War I, the kasids who were delivering post between Persian towns were accused of serving the British interest.  They were attacked and beaten, when caught on duty, by anti-British Persian Gendarmerie.  The concerns which the Government of India raised about this issue indicate how essential the kasids’ service was to the postal system.

News of Persian Gendarmerie attacking kasidsNews of Persian Gendarmerie attacking kasids, IOR/L/PS/10/484, f 96r, Crown Copyright

In summary, the story preserved about kasids, although brief, offers glimpses of the way they performed their job in Persia between the 18th and early 20th centuries.  Future cataloguing of India Office Records may bring to light more information about the kasids and the history of their attachment to the EIC and the India Office.

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist-Arabic Language
British Library/Qatar Foundation Project

Further reading:
Al-Zabidi, Taj al-‘Arus min Jawahir al-Qamus, vol. 9. (Ed. Abdul Sattar Ahmad Farraj), (Kuwait: Kuwait Government Press, 1971).
Dehkhoda Lexicon Institute & International Center for Persian Studies
IOR/G/29/25 ‘Various Papers Relating to the Work and Activities of the East India Company in the Gulf of Persia.’
IOR/L/PS/10/163 ‘File 948/1909 Persia: Situation in the South; Condition of the Roads. Attack on Mr Bill. Road Guard Scheme.’
IOR/L/PS/10/484 ‘File 3516/1914 Pt 7 German War: Persia’
IOR/R/15/5/397 ‘John Richardson, A Dictionary, Persian, Arabic, and English; with a Dissertation on the Languages, Literature, and Manners of Eastern Nations
V 3148Travels in Beloochistan and Sinde; accompanied by a geographical and historical account of those countries, with a map.’

 

09 September 2021

‘An unseemly squabble’ in Aden

An argument at a dinner party.  A guest drinking too much.  A brush with the law.   An evening which would end a 30-year friendship.

After Captain Robert Cogan retired from active service with the Indian Navy, he settled in Aden, working for a trading company.  Perhaps his choice of town was influenced by the presence of his friend Captain Stafford Bettesworth Haines, who was the British Political Agent there.

Head and shoulders portrait of Captain Stafford Bettesworth Haines with a full, dark beard and bow tieA portrait of Captain Stafford Bettesworth Haines from a lithograph at the British Embassy, Aden. 

On 27 October 1846, Cogan and Haines, together with Haines’ wife Mary, dined at the house of Captain George James Duncan Milne.  By the next day, that 30-year friendship would be in tatters.

After dinner, the gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing room, and Cogan took up the subject of society in Aden, focusing on Mrs Haines’ role and mentioning one occasion where he believed she had been negligent.  The rest of the party disagreed, and this led to a heated argument between Milne and Cogan.  At this point, Haines stepped in to de-escalate the dispute.  The argument continued between Haines and Cogan at Haines’ house, where Cogan called Haines ‘a cold blooded being’, and Haines tried to calm him down and persuade him to go home.

Captain Haines’ version of events from the East India Company archivesCaptain Haines’ version of events, IOR/F/4/2203/108123, f 329. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Meanwhile, Haines, acting as the local magistrate, directed a policeman to watch Cogan unobtrusively that night, giving orders that if he seemed about to leave his house to continue the quarrel, he was to be forced to remain at home.  Haines also required Milne to agree not to pursue an apology that night.

The next morning a message came to Cogan from Captain Milne, requiring him to retract his offensive expression.  Cogan readily agreed, and Milne also withdrew his language.  Cogan wrote to Mrs Milne to apologise, and to Captain Haines, regretting his bad taste and the ‘unhappy events…[which] have given me much pain’.  However, he also objected to Haines’ ‘irritating’ manner.  Haines was not satisfied, and replied that Cogan’s ‘conduct and singular expressions of last night preclude the continuance of our acquaintance’.  Cogan, upset, intended to consult friends about the dispute and was in the act of mounting his horse at his door, when ‘for the first time in my life, [I was] publicly arrested by a Police Constable’.

Cartoon entitled 'The Modest Couple' - a man turning away from a seated woman, with another older, cross-looking man between them gesturing towards her.'The Modest Couple' from The Bab Ballads, with which are included Songs of a Savoyard ... With 350 illustrations by the author by William Gilbert, (London, 1898).  BL flickr

This was a misunderstanding, as Haines had only ordered Cogan to be prevented from going out the previous night.  He was freed once Haines had been informed of what had happened.  However, Cogan was outraged to discover that he had been under police surveillance as being ‘likely to cause a breach of the Peace’.  To add to his outrage, Haines refused to forward his complaint about the arrest to his superiors in India, and he had to send it to the Governor of India himself.

The Government took this complaint of arrest on insufficient grounds seriously, although ignored the ‘unseemly squabble’, and asked Haines for his full explanation.  However, they decided that Haines had acted properly as he was motivated by his public duty, especially as Cogan had previously requested that a guest of his was placed under similar guardianship a few evenings before.  It is unclear whether their friendship ever recovered before Cogan died the following year.

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer -British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
The story of Cogan’s wrongful arrest appears in IOR/F/4/2203/108123.

 

07 September 2021

Personal Reflections on the Indian Political Service – Part Three: Travels between Britain and India

This is the third and final part in a series of blog posts about Mss Eur F226, a collection of 35 memoirs by former members of the Indian Political Service (IPS).  Here we step back again to look more generally at the collection and consider the subject of travel.  This is a dominant theme throughout all the memoirs.

Head and shoulders photographic portrait of Sir Tom Hickinbotham Sir Tom Hickinbotham. Photograph by Elliott & Fry, 7 December 1960. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x82837 National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Many IPS officers changed posts frequently during their careers, and these memoirs document a considerable amount of travelling by land, air and sea, not only from Britain to India (and back again) but also within the wider region.  Tom Hickinbotham shares his memories of a journey undertaken from Quetta to Europe via north Persia [Iran] in 1927, travelling in a Fiat Tourer, on what he claims to be the first trip taken by car from India to the Mediterranean.  Thomas Rogers recalls being appointed to the IPS in 1937 and deciding to travel from London to Bombay [Mumbai] by car, passing through Turkey, Syria, and Iran along the way, with three other recruits whom he had persuaded to join him.

There are many insights into the thrills and dangers of early commercial flights.  John Cotton recalls how passengers travelling on small planes were weighed at intermediate stops, along with their luggage.  Patrick Tandy remarks on how leisurely air travel seemed at the time, before recounting the trauma of descending in an unpressurised aircraft from a cruising height of several thousand feet to 1,600 feet below sea level, while flying over the Dead Sea.

Least fondly remembered are journeys by sea.  Cotton remembers the rather cramped conditions on board Royal Navy sloops, where he passed the time playing ‘interminable games of Monopoly’.  Michael Hadow describes the ‘appalling’ conditions on a voyage back to Britain in summer 1946, aboard a ship built for the cooler climes of the North Atlantic Ocean.  Hugh Rance shares a similar experience, albeit in the opposite direction, on a cockroach-infested ship that ‘may have been fine for the Atlantic run but was hellish in the Red Sea’.  Tandy writes of one of his voyages home: ‘we were four to a cabin, and the man in the bunk below me had about thirty years army service and appeared not to have changed his socks since the day he was recruited’.

Extract from Herbert Todd’s memoir, 1978.Extract from Herbert Todd’s memoir, 1978. Mss Eur F226/30, f. 80. The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item

Herbert Todd gives a detailed account of a perilous journey undertaken with his wife and family in September 1940, after a period of extended home leave.  Their initial attempt at a passage to India ended when their ship, SS Simla, was torpedoed in the Irish Sea.  Todd and his family were taken aboard the Guinean, a ‘lightly laden cargo boat’, which he later learned had disobeyed orders in leaving the convoy and coming to their rescue.

Simla steamshipSS Simla - image © Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte / Württembergische Landesbibliothek

There are numerous other travel anecdotes to be found in the memoirs, and many other stories besides.

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership

 

15 June 2021

Personal Reflections on the Indian Political Service – Part Two: Life in the Gulf

This is the second of three blogs on Mss Eur F226, a collection of memoirs written by former members of the Indian Political Service (IPS).

Ten officers’ memoirs from Mss Eur F226 document service in the Persian Gulf and were recently digitised for online publication by the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership.  Of these ten officers, all except Herbert Todd (1893-1977) were born between 1900 and 1915.  Naturally, they all served in the IPS, although several began their careers in the Indian Civil Service (ICS).  Some transferred to the British Diplomatic Service following Indian independence.  Their memoirs mainly cover the period 1920-47; a few officers also record their post-IPS careers and even their years spent in retirement.

It was common for an IPS officer to be posted to the Gulf for the first time at a relatively early stage in his career, usually to a junior position.  John ‘Jack’ Bazalgette, who arrived in Bushire [Bushehr] in the mid-1930s to take up the post of Under-Secretary at the Political Residency, remembers how a lack of work led to him being tasked with ‘sorting over the archives which dated back to before 1750 and were fascinating’.  It is intriguing to read of officers stumbling upon little-known details in the archives, much as cataloguers and researchers do today with the same material.

Contents page from John Bazalgette’s memoirContents page from John ‘Jack’ Bazalgette s memoir, 1984. Mss Eur F226/2, f. 2. © Estate of John Bazalgette

The tedious nature of imperial administration is well documented , and several memoirs describe a dearth of stimulating work, although perhaps this was a matter of opinion.  Hugh Rance, who was Assistant Political Agent in Bahrain just after the Second World War, found the work ‘interesting and extremely varied’, whereas his predecessor Michael Hadow describes it as ‘stultifying.’

In their spare time, many officers pursued the same leisure activities to which they were accustomed back home, albeit with notable differences.  Officers recall playing tennis and golf on ‘baked mud’ surfaces in Bushire.  While serving in Bahrain, Hugh Rance played in cricket matches against teams from the Royal Navy, the Bahrain Petroleum Company and the British Overseas Airways Corporation, on concrete or gravel pitches.

Some officers write of feeling isolated in their Gulf locations, whereas others describe active social lives.  According to Rance, Bahrain in the 1940s was ‘a great meeting place’, with many British officers and their families passing through, as well as British and United States expatriates arriving as oil company employees.  He remembers being out ‘nearly every night at some party or other’ when the weather was good.

Front cover of Hugh Rance’s memoir 'A Grandfather's Tale'Front cover of Hugh Rance’s memoir, 1984. Mss Eur F226/23, f. 1.  The copyright status is unknown.  Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Unsurprisingly, the memoirs discuss the weather and climate at length.  There are numerous accounts of sleeping on roofs and bathing in irrigation tanks in attempts to stay cool during the summer months.  Some found it too much, took extended leave and never returned.  Others stayed on, until replaced by their equivalents from the Foreign Office in 1948. 

In sum, these ten memoirs provide a unique insight into one generation’s experiences of living and working in the Gulf during the last years of British India.

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F226/2, 7, 10, 13, 22, 23, 26, 28, 30 and 34
Personal Reflections on the Indian Political Service – Part One: An Overview

 

20 May 2021

Personal Reflections on the Indian Political Service – Part One: An Overview

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the European Manuscripts section of the India Office Library and Records ran a project called the Indian Political Officers Scheme.  The project’s aim was to collect written accounts from ex-Indian Political Service (IPS) officers who had lived and served through the last decades of British India.  It followed on from an earlier successful project to collect the memoirs of ex-Indian Civil Service (ICS) members, which ran between 1974 and 1979.  A list was compiled of former IPS officers, and to each one a letter was sent outlining the project and soliciting contributions.

The resulting collection (Mss Eur F226) contains the memoirs of 35 former officers (or in some cases, their wives) who responded to the request, some of whom had enjoyed second careers in other spheres such as politics (e.g. Francis Pearson) and diplomacy (e.g. John Shattock and Michael Hadow).  Their memoirs mainly cover the period 1920-47, documenting service as political officers in the Indian States, the North-West Frontier Province, and Balochistan, as well as the Agencies, Residencies and Consulates in the Persian Gulf.  A few ex-officers also record their post-IPS careers and even their years in retirement.

Head and shoulders photographic portrait of Sir Francis Fenwick Pearson aged 58Sir Francis Fenwick Pearson, 1st Bt. (1911-1991). Photograph by Godfrey Argent, 26 November 1969. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x166029 National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

With the exception of Balraj Krishna Kapur, all the former officers were of British or Irish origin.  Some had family ties with British India; a few were also born there.  John Cotton writes of ‘a continuous connection with the Indian service in the direct line for more than one hundred and seventy years’, while Louis Pinhey notes that his great-grandfather was Surgeon-General of Madras [Chennai].  Both Hadow and Patrick Tandy were born in India, as was Charles Chenevix Trench (later a successful author), whose father also served in the IPS.  Many were from privileged families, although a few came from more humble beginnings, such as Thomas Rogers, the son of a shipbuilder, and Herbert Todd, who grew up on a farm in Kent.

Whilst the memoirs largely focus on experiences in the IPS, many of the authors also reflect on other aspects of their lives.  As a result, the memoirs abound with varied and often-amusing anecdotes of the kind that rarely surfaces in official correspondence.  There are stories of trips taken during leave, details of leisure pursuits, and glimpses into officers’ social lives.  Also mentioned are encounters with famous figures, some of which might be expected (e.g. Mahatma Gandhi), whereas others are rather surprising (e.g. Agatha Christie).

Head and shoulders photographic portrait of Sir Joseph Herbert Thompson aged 63Sir (Joseph) Herbert Thompson (1898-1984). Photograph by Godfrey Argent, 17 October 1961. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x171150 National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Most of the memoirs were written at least 30 years on from the events they describe, in response to the request. Inevitably, the authors are less reserved in their memoirs than in official records, and consequently a greater number of passages contain offensive descriptions of members of colonised populations.

The reflections on British India are mainly positive.  There is some criticism of how Britain handled the transfer of power in 1947, and a few negative remarks about certain senior British officers and politicians, but mostly the authors remember the Empire and their roles within it with fondness.

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F226 

 

13 May 2021

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 XVIISection 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”.’.

Mark Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arabian Report XXASir 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’.

Mark Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arab Report IVSir 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 XVIIISection 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’.

Extract from Mark Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arabian Report XXVII

Sir Mark Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arabian Report XXVII IOR/L/PS/10/586, folio 4r [Crown Copyright]

Snippet from Mark Sykes’ ‘Appreciation’ of Arabian Report XXVII 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.

Lynda Barraclough
Head of Curatorial Operations, BL Qatar Partnership

Further reading:
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

 

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