The story begins with a bombardment, and it more or less ends with one too. In the spring of 1799, Admiral Sidney Smith’s naval squadron bombarded the coast at Acre, in what is now Israel, and effectively put an end to Napoleon’s dream of marching on to India in the wake of Alexander the Great. Two centuries later, another demonstration of ‘shock and awe’ lit up the night skies over Baghdad and started the latest and most ill-fated intervention by the Western allies into the territory of the old Ottoman Empire.
How curious the saga of the British connection (or disconnect) with the region seems now – such an on-off affair, so fractious, elusive, splattered with froideurs and reconciliations. Jonathan Parry, a specialist in the 19th century, finds that his fellow historians have taken astonishingly little interest in British tangles in the Middle East in the first half of that century, though the relationship was then at its most intense. In fact, the Ottoman territories scarcely seem to figure in general histories of the British Empire, and are seldom considered as a unit.
In the period Parry covers, from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt to the outbreak of the Crimean War, the same besetting anxieties, the same exaggerated responses to imagined threats or affronts, the same illusions, crop up again and again. He demonstrates, with great breadth of reference, that ‘a large proportion of the things that the British ever thought about the Middle East had already been thought by 1854.’ It was generally believed that the Ottoman Empire was effete and doomed and could hope to survive only if it was reformed from top to bottom. As early as 1833, Tsar Nicholas I diagnosed Turkey to Metternich as ‘the sick man’ (he doesn’t seem to have added ‘of Europe’). And the idea of stirring the Muslims into action on behalf of British interests had already occurred to enterprising British proconsuls such as Jonathan Duncan, the governor of Bombay, who in 1801 embarked on a fanciful scheme to incite an Arab revolt in Jeddah and Mecca, though against the French rather than the Ottomans.
In contrast to the Turks, who were often denounced for degeneracy – swords, slippers and sexual excess, as Richard Cobden put it – the Arabs were often admired for manly simplicity. David Urquhart, secretary at the embassy in Constantinople, wrote that Islam was not a false religion to be ridiculed: it taught no new dogmas, propounded no fanciful revelation and imposed no new priesthood; on the contrary, he argued in The Spirit of the East (1838), Muhammad had proposed a rational and coherent approach to life and politics, based on minimal government, equal law and free trade – Thatcherism avant la lettre. Urquhart’s view was mirrored 150 years later by Ernest Gellner in Plough, Sword and Book: ‘all these features seem highly congruent with an urban bourgeois lifestyle and with commercialism’; Islam was in fact ‘closer in many ways to the ideals and requirements of modernity than those of any other world religion’.
Parry does not mention Urquhart’s particular enthusiasm for the Turkish hammam: in The Pillars of Hercules (1850) he introduced a Western audience to the pleasures of the dry-heat bath, not seen since the Romans left. In Urquhart’s dithyrambs, you sense the beginning of a seismic change in the Western psyche: ‘The body has come forth shining like alabaster, fragrant as the cistus, sleek as satin and soft as velvet. The touch of your own skin is electric … There is an intoxication or dream that lifts you out of the flesh, and yet a sense of life or consciousness that spreads through every member.’ Here surely begins the revulsion against the asceticism of the Christian tradition, which had begun with St Jerome and his praise of alousia, the state of being unwashed: ‘He who has once bathed in Christ has no need of another bath.’ The practical result was that baths, variously described as Turkish, Roman and Irish, sprang up across Britain from the 1850s, promoted by Urquhart and his Irish collaborator Dr Richard Barter, who got the measure of cholera twenty years before the more famous physician John Snow.
The rising generation of British officials had a special reverence for the Arabs of the desert, with their ‘wild independence’ and ‘manly frankness’. Alliances with the Wahhabi were mooted seventy years before the explorer Captain William Shakespear’s momentous friendship with Ibn Saud, which began Britain’s long and dubious relationship with that dour autocracy and which ended for Shakespear with his death in 1915 while photographing the charge of Ibn Saud’s cavalry, making him possibly the first war photographer to be killed in action. He was one of the many forerunners of T.E. Lawrence (who greatly admired Shakespear), each of them convinced that an alliance with his preferred tribe could offer the key to Britain’s problems in the region.
Claudius Rich, the consul at Baghdad in the 1810s, deeply admired the Kurds and the more mysterious Yazidis. He remarked patronisingly of the Yazidis that ‘under the British government much might be made of them.’ Then as now, only the persecution of the Yazidis by their neighbours seemed to bring them to the attention of the West. Rich, probably the illegitimate son of an Irish officer, was born poor, made himself into an Arabic scholar at his local library and eventually parlayed himself into the Baghdad posting, where he spent and showed off outrageously, swaggering about with squadrons of gorgeously attired European Hussars and Indian sepoys, a string of greyhounds, a yacht and a stud of pedigree Arabs. He sought to make himself lord of Arabia by an alliance with the Wahhabi, which instantly flopped. Undaunted, he turned north to try his luck with ‘our Koordistan’, admiring the purity of their mountain lifestyle. The romanticising of the Kurds became less popular with the British public after the Kurds twice massacred their Nestorian neighbours. Palmerston told the Sublime Porte that ‘a general feeling of disgust will extend from one end of Europe to the other.’ But by then Rich was long dead, of cholera on his way to explore Persepolis, and with him died his dream of holding the ring between Ottomans, Arabs and Kurds.
By 1840 another dream was fascinating British policymakers: the resettlement of the Jews in ancient Palestine, which was 85 per cent Muslim. The philanthropist Moses Montefiore and Lord Ashley, the future Lord Shaftesbury, who also happened to be Palmerston’s son-in-law, were enthusiasts for Jewish settlement. Other zealots told Palmerston, then in one of his spells as foreign secretary, that if he re-established Judea as a buffer state between the sultan and Mehmet Ali, the Albanian adventurer who had seized Egypt and much of Arabia, he would be ‘calling a nation into existence’, throwing ‘a halo of glory’ around his foreign policy. The idea was batted away as wholly impractical and likely to cause international conflict, but the germ of the Balfour Declaration was lodged.
In parallel with this enthusiasm for the resettlement of the Jews, or at least their improved protection across the Middle East, came a far more intense fascination with the ancient Christian sects – Parry counts eleven of them – still entrenched across the region, and with the exciting possibilities of making millions of Muslim converts. Just as Sidney Smith was bombarding Acre, the Church Missionary Society was setting up shop around the Middle East, with American missionaries piling in behind them. Soon the region was awash with Bibles and prayer books, to the alarm of the Ottomans, who issued a firman forbidding their distribution. They need not have worried. For Muslims, the penalty for apostasy was death, and the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches were already too well established under the jealous patronage of Russia and France for Protestantism to have any impact. Cardinal Newman’s eccentric brother Francis – classicist, anti-vaxxer and pioneer vegetarian – was one of the many young idealists who failed to make a single convert in Syria. He returned home gloomily prophesying that ‘all the Christians of Turkey will become Romanist.’ But though the conversion rate was dismal, these incursions caught the imagination of Christians everywhere. The Holy Places became the Christian Mecca again, in a reawakening not experienced since the Crusades. Foreign policy was infused with renewed sectarian passions. And Christian tourism boomed.
So did classical tourism. On arriving in Constantinople in November 1799 as the first high-profile British ambassador there, Lord Elgin lost little time in extracting a firman from the sultan, giving him some sort of permission to excavate, make plaster casts and remove damaged sculptures from the citadel at Athens (the details remain ambiguous and the firman survives only in English translation). While he was exploiting this dubious permit, his secretary, William Hamilton, was voyaging up the Nile as far south as Aswan and Philae, having already secured the Rosetta Stone for the British Museum.
‘The East offers an ambitious man a vast field,’ Henry Layard, then aged 25, remarked in 1842 after nearly three years knocking about with the tribes of south-west Persia. Layard caught the fancy of Stratford Canning, who had just started his first stint as ambassador to the Sublime Porte and sent Layard to Mosul to investigate the enormous mounds which were rumoured to conceal the remains of ancient Nineveh. Canning awaited immortality as a result of discoveries which he claimed would throw the repeal of the Corn Laws into the shade. At the same moment, Charles Alison, another of Canning’s assistants, was in Bodrum superintending the acquisition of the reliefs from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, now in the BM, though the Assyrian reliefs that Layard procured are just as wonderful. By concentrating our fire on Elgin, we fail to notice that British ambassadors stripped the Ottoman Empire of many of its ancient treasures. It is a minor cause for satisfaction that Canning remained bitter for the rest of his life that Layard got all the glory.
Canning’s colleagues deplored his ‘constant bullying’ of Ottoman ministers and his determination to make them acknowledge British superiority. Grenville Murray, one of his attachés, anonymously published an attack on Canning in Dickens’s Household Words: Sir Hector Stubble ‘was haughty and stiff-necked beyond any man I have ever seen. He trampled on other men’s feelings as deliberately and unflinchingly as if they were wooden puppets made to work his will.’ Layard himself, though more generous and good-humoured, wasn’t without arrogance. His bestselling Nineveh and Its Remains (1849) was read as a story of British leadership transforming ill-disciplined Arabs into patient and persevering workmen. Stafford Haines, who turned Aden from a poor fishing village into the major port of call at the southern end of the Red Sea, stressed the importance of showing Arabs ‘that you perceive their intentions before they are prepared to carry them out and … that you are their superior in tact, intellect, judgment and activity of purpose, that their secret thoughts are known to you, that your information is sure, secret and correct’.
Even at this distance in time, the presumption of these proconsuls takes the breath away, and Parry gives lots of space to the most outrageous ones. By contrast, he offers only a fleeting discussion of Edward Said and the literature surrounding Orientalism. He explains that his perspective differs from the Said school because he sees it as the political historian’s task ‘to make distinctions across time, whereas many of these works, from Said onwards, have sought to underplay these distinctions in a search for general explanatory models’. In other words, they are lumpers rather than splitters; the risk, as Parry sees it, is that they may be offering only stereotypes of stereotypes. On the other hand, he shows us plenty of cases where the reality was even worse than the stereotype.
The swank and swagger began with Sidney Smith, who seems to have been the first British officer to grasp that the loose and devolved nature of Ottoman rule made it possible to strike deals with the local pasha, effectively to become the local pasha yourself, whatever the orders from the embassy or the Admiralty. What makes Promised Lands so absorbing is that Parry shows us how this looseness also enabled more sober British officials to follow an overall policy that was quite simple and, for a time anyway, successful.
The opening to the East was born of Britain’s double anxiety about India: the anxiety to secure a swifter route to its most precious possession than the weary traipse round the Cape and St Helena (where young Anglo-Indians on their way home to be reared Englishly might catch a glimpse of Napoleon); and the anxiety to deny its rivals any opening for their own forces to menace India. What Clarendon as foreign secretary said in 1855 could have been said at any time in the 19th century: the British ‘want no ascendancy, no territorial acquisition; they only want a thoroughfare, but a thoroughfare they must have, free and unmolested.’
Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt left its mark on the British political elite. He had made no secret of his ambition to supplant the British in India, and his brief campaign suggested that he might try either of the two obvious routes: via Suez and the Red Sea, or up through Syria, east to the Tigris and down through Baghdad to the Persian Gulf, as Alexander the Great had done. Long after Napoleon had fled from Smith’s bombardment, India seemed at once painfully exposed and terribly hard to get to. All available technological expertise and huge amounts of capital were to be invested to speed up the journey time. Stratford’s cousin George Canning and William Huskisson, president of the Board of Trade, along with the young Palmerston, were enthusiastic supporters of steamships and railways, the advent of which seemed somehow linked to the revival of Christianity. The young geologist-explorer William Ainsworth wrote that the steamer’s ‘noisy paddles’ were ‘moving like a vision of future glory through the very heart of the land of biblical history’. A vision not to be enjoyed by Huskisson, who like Captain Shakespear was a martyr to new technology, run over by Stephenson’s Rocket at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway in 1830.
Thomas Love Peacock, who found a pleasant berth at the India Board after writing Nightmare Abbey, began to investigate the possibilities of navigating the Euphrates from the Gulf to northern Syria – the India mail already went that way, but by land. James Mill, who joined East India House at the same time as Peacock, had written a history of India without ever having been there; Peacock had never been there either, and his knowledge of steamships was not all it might have been. The early ships tried on the route either broke down or ran aground in the mud of the upper Euphrates. But in the long run the dreamers were proved right.
By 1855, Clarendon’s thoroughfare was open for business. British passengers disembarked from a European steamer at Alexandria before going by land to Suez, where they caught an Indian one. Meanwhile, the first railway in the Middle East was being built across Egypt. The journey from London to Alexandria was cut from forty to fourteen days between 1834 and 1844 alone. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Britain sent more than five thousand troops to reinforce hard-pressed European regiments in India. Soon the Suez Canal would further shorten the journey times and hugely expand trade and passenger traffic. Oddly, Palmerston, normally such an enthusiast for progress, opposed the building of the canal on the grounds that it made India more vulnerable to a hostile power.
What stands out from Parry’s account is the fixedness of British political leadership throughout the period. For much of the time between 1828 until the end of the Crimean War, Aberdeen and Palmerston alternated in office, first as foreign secretary and then as prime minister. Posterity has tagged Aberdeen as the pro-Russian pacifist and Palmerston as the gung-ho gunboat merchant. Yet, by and large, British diplomacy was quite consistent. Aberdeen himself claimed in December 1852 that ‘the truth is that for the last thirty years the principles of the foreign policy of this country have never varied.’ Certainly, both men enjoyed the freedom of manoeuvre to withdraw from profitless cul-de-sacs as well as to push Britain’s case when they fancied it. Right up to the eve of the Crimean War, proconsuls such as General Sir Hugh Rose persisted with the restrained approach, not least in the settlement of the dispute over the Holy Places. Rose despaired of the childish animosity between France and Russia over access to the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. It was ridiculous that the peace of Europe seemed to depend on ‘the keys to a great door and a little door’.
The Ottoman regime allowed the British considerable latitude so long as they didn’t directly threaten Ottoman interests. The British themselves only slowly realised quite how lucky they were in having this vast, quiet buffer state to muffle the rivalries of the great powers. The Treaty of Paris of 1856 was a belated recognition that the Ottoman Empire was worth preserving for just this reason. The treaty not only brought an end to the Crimean War and made the Black Sea a neutral space closed to all warships but also admitted the Ottoman Empire to the Concert of Europe. The terms were no more welcome to Tsar Alexander II than they would have been to Vladimir Putin. All the same, the double shock of the Crimean War and the Indian Rebellion sharpened British anxieties. Clarendon’s thoroughfare became a military highway, with its security threatened on all sides. Paranoia culminated in Gladstone’s military occupation of Egypt in 1882, and the British became de facto rulers of the country – ‘what we all know, but never say’, as Edward Grey put it in 1906.
From the perspective of the British political elite, the first half of the century was a relatively blithe period, with its cockeyed enthusiasms and sense of possibility. In the second half, running the empire became a grim affair, and an expensive one. For the first time, people began to wonder whether India was a drain on Britain, rather than the other way about. A few dissenting voices dimly glimpsed what was ahead of them. By 1887, Lord Salisbury ‘heartily wished we had never gone into Egypt. Had we not done so, we could snap our fingers at all the world.’ Again and again, we see how swiftly Britain moved to pre-empt exaggerated or non-existent threats. The Great Game was often played against an opponent who had not even set out his pieces on the board. In Africa, the first hesitant trading ventures into Abyssinia had grown into a scramble for supposedly strategic territory, often of dubious commercial value. In his final chapter, Parry summarises the ratcheting up of British direct commitments which led to 1914 and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the disastrous mandates over Syria and Iraq, and the subsequent unhappy history of the Middle East – no happier when the Americans replaced the British as the regional superpower. ‘The English piously believe themselves to be a peaceful people,’ Gladstone said. ‘Nobody else is of the same belief.’