Journeys across Blankness

Jonathan Parry

  • Dislocating the Orient: British Maps and the Making of the Middle East, 1854-1921 by Daniel Foliard
    Chicago, 336 pp, £45.00, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 226 45133 6

On display in the Dutch House at Kew Gardens, the nursery of George III’s children, is a map copied by one of the royal infants from the jigsaws used by their governess, Lady Charlotte Finch, to teach them geography. It indicates, with affecting but spurious precision, the territorial boundaries of the 12 tribes of Israel, in what the children, like almost everyone else in the 18th and 19th centuries, called the Holy Land. When in 1856 the civil service tried to haul itself into the modern world by holding competitive entry examinations, candidates for junior clerkships in the education division were required to draw a map of old Palestine, ‘indicating the position of the Jewish tribes’.

Thomas Jervis’s map of the Crimean peninsula
Thomas Jervis’s map of the Crimean peninsula

Biblical Palestine loomed large in the teaching of geography for generations of British children: I can remember drawing maps of it at Sunday school in the 1960s, to accompany my own newspaper supplement featuring some of the more colourful Old Testament stories. In 1847 a government inspector noted that in some schools the only map available was of Palestine. In 1856 the Salisbury Diocesan Training College, which prepared young women to teach in Anglican schools, gave them a lesson plan on the Dead Sea which warned of the danger of being overwhelmed by sand or the salty sea. This was more than a decade before the intrepid Thomas Cook organised the first package tour of the Holy Land, at a cost way beyond the means of any young teacher. Also in 1856, A.P. Stanley published a thoughtful study, Sinai and Palestine in Connection with Their History, making him the natural choice to accompany the Prince of Wales on his educational tour of Palestine in 1862.

When the Palestine Exploration Fund was established in 1865 to promote archaeological and surveying work in the region, Archbishop Thomson of York, in his inaugural address, remarked that ‘Palestine belongs to you and to me … that land has been given to us … [it is] the land towards which we turn as the fountain of all our hopes.’ Just what the archbishop meant by this is one of the questions tackled by Daniel Foliard in his rich book on the history and meaning of the various mapping exercises undertaken by the British in the region that by 1920 was called the Middle East.

Foliard rightly criticises anyone who interprets Thomson’s address as imperialist. He wasn’t suggesting that the land should be conquered by Britain; he was invoking the Holy Land of the Protestant imagination, and Jerusalem as a heavenly city. He proclaimed that the task of the church at home was to help modern Britons towards a better realisation of the shining city on the hill in their daily lives. As the historian Eitan Bar-Yosef has shown, few Victorians thought it necessary to visit Palestine for the sake of their spirituality. They had no interest in colonising it, and not much curiosity about conditions there. But they were keen to know about the historic sites that might illuminate and verify the events described in the Bible.

The importance of the Bible story in British education raises the more general question of how the Victorians thought about the territories of western Asia and Egypt featured in it, particularly in light of the regrettable fact that they were now governed not by the hand of God but by the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople (as the British insisted on calling it). The great achievement of the first third of Foliard’s book is to describe the various British attempts in the mid-19th century to represent the region visually by means of maps and surveys, and to give an account of the diverse motivations for this. Some were inspired by the biblical or classical past, others by the hope of settlement and economic development. But Foliard’s main point is that there was no system to this, and that it would be wrong-headed to see it in terms of an imperial plan.

In particular he shows that the different government departments in London and India had their own quite different reasons for surveying the lands and seas of the region. The War Office, taken by surprise by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, had no map of the peninsula, and hired Thomas Jervis of the Bombay Engineers to compile one rapidly, mostly using non-British sources. It showed where ‘the celebrated Muscat grape is grown’ but its inaccuracies created problems for the army. Jervis was put in charge of a new topographical and statistical department within the War Office, but his death and the advent of peace led to its atrophy after 1857, at least as far as this region was concerned. The Admiralty had charted the eastern Mediterranean in the 1830s, but knowledge of the Syrian and Egyptian coasts was scanty until mapping of the latter was improved after pressure from merchants in the 1860s. Not until it moved into its new building in 1868 did the Foreign Office get a dedicated map room; half of its maps of the Ottoman Empire were foreign productions. It tended to favour the written word.

For most of the 19th century advances in geographical knowledge resulted from expeditions from India, usually naval, and from the journeys made by individual explorers supported by semi-official societies, most notably the Royal Geographical Society. The society published reports in its journals but the maps that accompanied them tended to plot journeys across vast tracts of blankness, which indicated the hardiness and fearlessness of the explorers as well as the limits of their knowledge. Those who travelled in Palestine had the additional problem of relying on Holy Land geographies written by scholars whose main source was the Bible. (The evangelical adventurer and self-publicist John MacGregor found this a problem on a canoe trip down the Jordan in 1868.) Aspirant surveyors quickly discovered that they needed the co-operation of local tribal leaders, some of whom collaborated in the hope that it would encourage a British force to invade and oust the Ottomans. More often, however, they were suspicious of foreigners seeking to spy out their land, and weren’t inclined to help.

The picture of the region built up by these surveys was inevitably partial and defective, and Foliard has fun exposing the wrong-headedness of the imperial school of geographers for whom all Western mapping of new territory was an exercise in power and control. Unfortunately he seeks to impose a simpler structure on his findings as he moves into the 20th century. His thesis is that the history of mapping shows the idea of the region changing and becoming more coherent, and that this process culminated in the emergence of a new name. The ‘Middle East’, a term occasionally used in the years before 1914, came into its own as a concept after the end of the First World War. It applied to a region no longer ‘described in terms of stagnation, ruins and biblical remnants’ but in terms of its ‘utility’. Primarily religious conceptions gave way to a new image based on the natural and physical resources it offered to the Western political, military and economic forces that sought to command it. This is a neat but simplistic and Whiggish formulation, which doesn’t reflect realities or do justice to the sophistication of Foliard’s research.

One of the problems with the argument is that it requires Foliard to overplay the haphazardness of the Victorian surveys of the region. In fact, the British were very often acting rationally enough. By the end of the 1830s a number of experienced Indian Navy officers had carried out a detailed survey of both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. This was designed to underpin the British naval dominance in the Gulf that had been established by the peace treaty negotiated between local sheikhs in 1820, and to work towards a similar outcome in the Red Sea, now that a regular mail steam service was running from Suez to Bombay. One of those officers, Stafford Haines, used the information he collected to persuade the Indian government – previously extremely hostile to territorial acquisitions in Arabia – to take control of Aden in 1839, and to appoint him its political agent there. Another, Felix Jones, commanded the armed steamer that the British used to patrol the Tigris and lower Euphrates in the 1840s and 1850s. Its size, engine power and regular gun and mortar practice had remarkable success in disciplining the Arab tribes on the riverbanks. During a dozen years on the river Jones cultivated the sheikhs to excellent effect and persuaded the local imams to allow him to use the minarets of Mosul for his topographical measurements. Britain’s regional influence depended primarily on its naval presence and its surveying was designed to strengthen that presence. Sometimes boundary surveys were inconclusive, as in the case of the painstaking attempt to establish the Ottoman-Persian border between the 1840s and 1860s. But this initiative too made sense: it provided a mechanism for Britain and Russia to quieten a potential regional flashpoint. In other words, British government surveys succeeded in their chief aim, which was not to acquire a deep sociological knowledge of native life but to keep the French and the Russians out.

Foliard’s notion that a coherent concept of the Middle East emerged through mapping in the early 20th century mixes together what were actually various separate processes. The first was the general increase in interest in maps. Geography became a part of the school curriculum from 1871, still with a focus on biblical Palestine. With the growth of compulsory schooling, there was a much greater need for school atlases, and Bartholomew, Philip and other firms stepped in to supply them. The Geographical Association, founded in 1893, urged that more attention be paid to human and economic geography, arguing that England’s grasp of the subject had fallen behind that of other countries; the Royal Geographical Society agreed. Eventually their ideas influenced the school curriculum. Newspapers made increasing use of special fold-out maps and panoramas, particularly when covering distant wars. The Foreign Office, steered by its librarian Edward Hertslet, began to see more importance in maps, while the War and India Offices and the Admiralty overhauled their intelligence departments in the 1870s and 1880s, impressed by the detailed maps used successfully by the Prussians to conquer France in 1870.

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The serial changes in regional nomenclature – Orient, east, near east, Middle East – are significant, but it’s risky to generalise about them. Until after the First World War western Asia had been part – and as the 19th century wore on an increasingly large and important proportion – of the Ottoman Empire. ‘Turkey in Europe’, ‘Turkey in Asia’ and similar such phrases had been available; suddenly new ones were needed. This is not a merely pedantic point. No Western country had wanted to treat the Middle East as a separate unit while the Ottomans survived. The ‘Eastern Question’ was the longest-running and most intractable diplomatic problem in the world. All the European powers had good reasons to keep the Ottoman regime intact across most of its sprawling, often only half-governed territories, even though some of them also had particular reasons for wanting to take over specific bits of that territory, mainly in the Balkans or North Africa. Those specific bits never included western Asia, which had no unitary coherence, from the West’s perspective, other than through its Ottoman rulers. The term ‘Middle East’ may have emerged after 1918, but that didn’t imply any confidence about how to shape it.

It is arguable that in 1914 the British idea of the region was less coherent than it had been a hundred years before. In the early 19th century most knowledge of it had been drawn from fairly uniform sources: the Bible and a few classics. If the Euphrates was navigable, it was because Herodotus had said so. The first-century Periplus was the usual source for discussions of the Red Sea. Little was known about the tribes other than that they were ‘nomads’ or ‘barbarians’. Very few travellers knew more than a few basic facts about Islamic religious practice. A hundred years later things were much more complicated.

For the British, there were at least two Middle Easts at the time the Ottoman regime fell. One part had been brought under some semblance of control over the years in order to protect the route to India from any Western rival. This area included the Gulf, the Red Sea and their ports, particularly Aden and Bahrain (which were British protectorates), and most important, after 1882, Egypt and its southern hinterland. Though British authority in these areas wasn’t always easy to negotiate, its freedom of manoeuvre was much greater than it was anywhere else in the region. There was nothing to prevent technically sophisticated mapping of these seas and most of these lands, assuming it was deemed sufficiently important to commit the necessary resources. The hydrographic survey of the Nile that began in 1889 prompted the development of an irrigation plan and the construction of the Aswan dam from 1898. Under Lord Cromer as consul-general, land surveys clarified ownership rights and enabled more regular taxation, and the Egyptian coast was explored for oil. In Aden in the 1880s, mapping provided clarity about British territorial rights in the hinterland, a matter of dispute since 1839.

This was progress of a sort unattainable elsewhere in the region, where the Ottomans still ruled. Here British influence was difficult to negotiate either at the centre or locally, was jealously regarded by other Western powers and was liable to be overridden at will. The Ottomans were impossible to deal with, but they had to be kept in place, and they knew it. Foliard gives rather random examples of British agents’ activities and uses them to justify particular stages of his Whiggish thesis but similar examples can easily be found for the years between 1800 and 1850. He cites a new interest in Kurdistan in 1905, but Claudius Rich had made accurate surveying measurements there in the 1810s. He says that Percy Sykes in 1899 used Persian geography to make the case for establishing a permanent British representative in eastern Persia, but Harford Jones had done something similar, slightly to the west, in the Napoleonic Wars. British interest in the Christians of Kurdistan had ebbed and flowed since the 1830s, while William Willcocks’s plans to regenerate Mesopotamia through irrigation in 1909-11 built on Henry Lynch’s utopian plans of 1837.

The Middle East became a unity after 1918 in that the fall of the Ottomans removed its old governing structure and exposed the new reality that the British, the French and the other powers could not escape responsibility for the region. It had to be divided into states and areas of influence: a new map would be needed. The hasty, error-strewn process that ensued was afflicted by great power rivalries. In Foliard’s phrase, it ‘dislocated’ the region. But it is significant that most of these errors applied to the parts that the British had never been able to dominate. Palestine belonged in that category, for all its superficial familiarity. It is questionable whether domestic attitudes to it had changed much since 1856 or indeed since the diplomatic crisis of 1840, when the main subject for correspondents to the Foreign Office was the glory that would redound to Palmerston’s name if only he would call into existence an independent buffer state between Turkey and Egypt – the state of Judea.