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Turning the Persian Gulf into a British Lake:
British Domination in the Indian Ocean in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

G. Bondarevsky
from: Chandra, Satish (ed.), The Indian Ocean - Explorations in History, Commerce and Politics,
New Delhi: Sage Publications 1987.


The peoples and countries of the Persian Gulf played an important role in history for millenia. They provided a link between the ancient civilisations which had emerged in the basins of the Yangtze, Indus, Tigris, Euphrates and the Nile. They were incorporated in the dominions of the Sumerians and Babylonia, the Archmidean Empire, the state of Alexander the Great of Macedonia and the Khilafat of the Ommiads and Abbassids, the empire of the Suleiman the Magnificient and Abbas the First.

In the Middle Ages, Hormuz became a major political and economic centre of the Gulf. It was praised by Marco Polo, and subsequently by Camoens and Milton. In the early fourteenth century the Mongols futilely tried to establish their control over the strait, and in the beginning of the fifteenth century the Chinese made their appearance there. In the first half of the fifteenth century, seven level expeditions, more than a hundred big ships each, went to the Indian Ocean under the leadership of Admiral Zheng He. Out of them, four were ultimately bound for the Strait of Hormuz (Hulumusi in Chinese). These expeditions landed their troops on Java, actively fanned the strife between the Singhalese and Tamil feudatories in Ceylon, and reached Aden. Characteristically, their strategic mission was 'the formation of a military alliance with other countries in order to launch a surprise attack against the Tamcrlain empire from the rear and thus to stop its expansion eastward'.

Portrait of Afonso de Albuquerque in Goa, India.
16th century painting on wood, National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Portugal.


 
The squadron of Albuquerque appeared in the Persian Gulf in 1506. The formation of the first colonial empire in the modern time began with the consolidation of the Portuguese positions on the north-eastern coast of Africa, in the Gulf of Aden, and, especially, in the Persian Gulf.

The Portuguese colonial empire, formed in the sixteenth century with Goa as its centre, relied on the domination of its fleet in the ports of East Africa, the Persian Gulf, Goa and Malacca in the Indian Ocean. All subsequent colonial empires (save the Spanish one) could exist only as long as their fleets dominated the Indian Ocean, either its western or eastern parts. Characteristically, the founders of these colonial empires were primarily trying to gain control over the inlets and outlets of the Indian Ocean - the regions adjacent to the Cape of Good Hope, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the Red Sea, the Strait of Malacca, and then also the Western Coast of Australia. During the past five hundred years, the strategic significance of these regions was changing, depending on the level of the socio-economic development of the colonial powers and the Indian Ocean countries, as well as on the progress in navigation and in the military sphere. Tangible changes also took place after the Suez Canal had been dug.

It is only one region of the Indian Ocean - the Persian Gulf - that has not only preserved but also increased its importance over the last five hundred years. Its location on the approaches to the Middle and Near East, to the Ottoman Empire and Iran, on the remote passage to Russia, at the crossroads of the major commercial and military communications, had always attracted the attention of the empire-builders. The Dutch began to undermine the Portuguese domination in the Indian Ocean by trying to oust the Portuguese from the Gulf, which was subsequently done with much greater success by the British East India Company. Drafting plans for striking at the British possessions in India, Napolean was conducting talks not only with the rulers of the Ottoman Empire and Persia, but also with the Sultans of Muscat and Oman. In the late nineteenth century, relations between Britain and France had sharply deteriorated ovev the division of Africa and Southeast Asia, and the Fashoda conflict seemed to be about to turn into a spark kindling a conflict between them. At that time their bad relations were getting worse in view of the French attempts to get a base in the possessions of Sultan Muscat in Bendar-Issa.

When the Anglo-German contradictions in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century became the main contradictions of the imperialist era, Berlin launched the building of the Baghdad railway which was to end in Kuwait.

The British rulers of India realised the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf perfectly well. From the eighteenth century, the British ruling circles were going all-out to undermine the influence of their European rivals in the Gulf, and also to place under British control those areas of the Gulf Coast which were parts of the Ottoman Empire and Persia. The persistent onslaught of the East Indian Company, its diplomats, and agents against the Wahhabis was the struggle for the Western Coast of the Gulf. In tire Middle East crisis of the late 1830s, Britain managed to compel the Egyptian armies to leave Syria, Lebanon and the Arabian Peninsula, by threatening the ruler of Egypt, Muhammed Ali, and France which backed him with war. In so doing Britain was motivated by the desire not only to consolidate its positions in the eastern Mediterranean, but also to prevent at any cost the Egyptian armies from getting to the Gulf.

By the 1870s, Britain occupied a commanding position in the Persian Gulf. To reach this objective their agents had provoked border and religious conflicts between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and Shi'ite Persia, between the Wahhabis of Central Arabia and the Ibadids of Oman, between the Turkish Walis in Baghdad and Basra and the Istanbul government, between the Atabegs and Governors of Fars, Bushire, Bander-Abbas and the ruler of Mohammarehs on the one hand, and the Shah government in Tehran, on the other.

After long and intricate intrigues, East India Company's agents provoked the split of the ancient Oman state into the Imamate of Oman, the Sultanate of Muscat and the Coast of Jawassa, which was given the shameful name of 'Pirate's Coast'. It is well-known that the colonialists often dubbed the struggle waged by the population of many regions of North and East Africa and Southeast Asia against the Western shipping companies, which not infrequently deprived them of the only source of income - coastal trade and small-scale shipbuilding - as piracy, for conducting colonial expeditions on the pretext of combating pirates. Suffice to recall the United States' intervention in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, in 1801-13, which came to be known in American historiography as 'the wars against barbarian states', that is, the pirates. The Dutch also organised colonial expeditions under the same slogans in the coastal waters off Sumatra and Kalimantan. The struggle against 'piracy' was widely used by the British colonialists not only for dividing Oman and establishing control over the seven emirates of the Pirates' Coast, but also for imposing unfair agreements on the rulers of Bahrein and Qatar.


Modern map of Persian Gulf


In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the British began to strengthen their positions in the Persian Gulf under the slogan of 'the defence of India', which was growing more and more meaningful with each decade. The enemies changed (France, Germany, Russia), the 'lines of defence' moved further and further from the Hindukush, but the slogan remained the same.

At the turn of the century, this slogan was adopted by one of the most influential groups in the British ruling class, which can be described as 'the Middle East group'. It was composed of the circles most interested in exploiting India, marinist groups and companies interested in exploiting natural resources of Iran and Mesopotamia and, lastly, shareholders of shipping companies. The latter were a phenomenon typical of Britain.

The founding of shipping companies was becoming a very profitable form of capital investment. By the beginning of the century, share capital of Britain's leading shipping companies totalled more than £22 million, and the balance cost of big ships they owned came to almost £50 million. In 1912 they paid their shareholders as interest £1,726,000, or 7.79 per cent of sharecapital. Meanwhile, Britain's average income on overseas investments at that time was 5.2 per cent. Shipping companies were not only a profitable form of investment but they also assured Britain considerable profit. In 1900, it was estimated at £100 million, and in 1912 at £156 million.

Taking into account the specific features of the political and economic development of the British empire, transport companies operating in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean were of special importance for the British ruling classes. The largest among those companies were the peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O) and the British India Steam Navigation Co., which was closely linked with the first. Both the companies experienced a boom after the construction of the Suez Canal. There was a peculiar division of labour between them: the P&O carried the bulk of freight and passenger traffic from Britain to India, the Far East and Australia, though its ships called only at the biggest ports, such as Gibraltar, Alexandria, Port Said, Aden and Bombay.

The smaller Red Sea ports and all the ports in the Persian Gulf and on the East African coast were handled by British India Steam Navigation Co. ships. Cargoes were reloaded in Aden and Bombay. Using their monopoly in the western part of the Indian Ocean, these companies and the Euphrates and Tigris Navigation Company, which was closely linked with them, fixed arbitrary charter prices and made windfall profits. That monopoly was also used for political purposes. Transportation of one ton of freight by British ships from Baghdad to Basrah cost foreign traders a great deal more than the transportation of the same amount of freight from Baghdad to London. The transportation of one ton of cargo from Basrah to London was twice as cheap as from Basrah to Constantinople. This practice disrupted economic ties inside Mesopotamia and between Mesopotamia and the centre of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the ties with Britain grew stronger.

In 1912, both the companies owned a fleet of 197 ships with displacement of almost one million tons. That was more than the displacement of the entire French merchant fleet. The companies' large profits also resulted from the fact that the P&O and British India got a considerable government subsidy for carrying mail to India and the Persian Gulf, respectively.

No wonder then, that the two companies exerted very considerable influence on Britain's Eastern policy. In the 1880s, these companies merged, as it were, with the leading British companies in East Africa. William Mackinnon, the founder and President of British India, was head of a major trading company, Mackinnon, Mackenzie and Co., which dominated trade in the Persian Gulf countries and, concurrently, was a governing agency of many industrial plants in British India. By the early 1880s, William Mackinnon had secured large concessions in East Africa and in 1888 he became President of the British East Africa Company, which received a charter from Queen Victoria and turned vast territories of East Africa into a sanctuary for British capital.

James McKay succeeded Mackinnon as President of British India Steam Navigation Co. In the beginning of this century, McKay became President of the P&O, head of the Eastern and Australian Steamship Company, and of the Marine Insurance - one of the most influential insurance companies in Britain. Concurrently, McKay held the post of Vice-President of the Suez Canal Company and Directorship of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. McKay was a member of the Legislative Assembly under the Viceroy of India and the President of the Chamber of Commerce of Bengal.

II

The British shareholders of the Imperial Bank of Persia, led by influential colonial figures, Griffin, founder of the British oil enterprises in Persia; Cassel, a big banker, a personal friend of King Edward VII and founder and organiser of many British financial and transport enterprises in the Middle East; Lynch, head of the British Transport Company which had a monopoly of steamship transportation on the Tigris, Euphrates and Karun Rivers; the Sabsuns, bankers and textile manufacturers; the directors of the Morgan-Grenfell Banking Group; and the owners of the British-Indian firm Andrew Yule and Co., were vitally interested in monopoly exploitation of the countries and peoples of the Indian Ocean zone and the Near East.

The heads and shareholders of these transport, trade and industrial enterprises spared no effort to monopolise the domination over the markets, rivers and sea-routes of the vast area stretching from Alexandria, the Nile Basin and the Great African Lakes to Baghdad, Rangoon and Hong Kong, because it enabled them to make maximal profits on the extremely high freight rates, loans with excessive interest rates, and profitable concessions and trade operations. They earned money on each ship that passed through the Suez Canal (it is no mere chance that McKay represented the interests of this group of British capital in the board of the General Company of the Suez Canal), on each ton of coal which foreign ship-owners bought at excessive prices at the storages of the coal-supplying associations (which were also dominated by McKay) in Port Said and Aden, on each ton of dates carried by British ships to Europe from Basrah, and on each kilogram of coffee which went to Europe from Hodeida or Mocha. They profited from the transportation of British emigres to Australia and on Indian and Chinese coolies to South and East Africa and Mauritius, from the trade in Ugandan ivory and Bahraini pearls, from the sale of arms to the Arabian tribes, from the transportation of Moslem pilgrims from Egypt, India, Indonesia and Malaya to Mecca, and from the shipping of Indian cotton to Britain and British fabrics to India. They took British industrial goods to Iran and brought priceless kerman and shiraz carpets from there, and completely dominated the trade of southern Iran and Mesopotamia, the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they began to display increasing interest in Iranian and later Mesopotamian oil.

Seeking to preserve their hegemony in all of this immense region at all costs, the heads of the transport enterprises, and of the trade and industrial interests closely linked with them, mobilised every means to uphold the notorious theory that 'India's defensive borders' lay on the banks of the Euphrates, the Suez Canal and the Bosphorus. Such a stand brought them the all-round support of the British Government and, to a considerable extent, also of Parliament, in the contest against their numerous competitors in the Middle and Near East with a view to turning the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea into their domain. Their stand was also backed by the British shareholders of the Ottoman Bank, the British holders of Turkish securities and the shareholders of the British railways in the Middle East.

This 'theory' also won the support of the British colonial authorities in India and of the generals of the British-Indian army, though neither the British ruling class as a whole nor the colonial authorities seriously believed the hoax of a Russian threat to India and about the possibility of a Russian incursion into this most important British colony. But the British colonial authorities feared that the consolidation of Russian or German influence in the Persian Gulf area, the emergence of Russian, French or German bases on its banks, and the diminution of British influence in the countries bordering India would appear to the Indian public and the Indian national bourgeoisie as clear evidence of Great Britain's military and political weakness, with all the ensuing consequences, particularly dangerous for the colonialists at a time when Asia's awakening began.

Lord Curzon of Kedleston as Viceroy of India 1899-1905Lord Curzon of Kedleston as Viceroy of India 1899-1905


 
Such was the composition of that section of the British ruling class which, for different economic, financial, political and social reasons, was interested in an active, offensive British policy in the Middle and Near East, in turning the Red Sea, the western part of the Indian Ocean and, particularly, the Persian Gulf into a 'British Lake'. This 'Near Eastern Group' had immense influence on Britain's foreign and colonial policy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Curzon became its recognised leader from the end of the nineteenth century, and his main work Persia and the Persian Question, in which he substantiated the necessity of converting the Persian Gulf into a 'British Lake,' became the Bible of the entire 'Middle Eastern Group'. Under its strongest pressure Curzon was appointed Viceroy of India in 1898.

By that time, the British position in the Persian Gulf had strengthened further. In 1891, a secret treaty was forced upon Muscat, a treaty which turned the Sultanate into a British protectorate. But this was not enough for Curzon and his close associates, who were doing their utmost to establish their control also over the northern part of the Persian Gulf. In January 1899, a similar secret treaty was forced upon the ruler of Kuwait. At the same time, the ruler of Mohammareh which formed part of Persia also fell under British control. This marked the beginning of a breakthrough by the British corporations into oil-bearing Khuzistan.

The British statesmen and historiographers of that time and, to a considerable extent, the present-day ones explained the new stage of British expansion in the Persian Gulf area as a necessity for warding off the French design to acquire a base in Bander-Issa in Muscat, thwarting the German plan to get access to the Gulf through the construction of the Baghdad railway, and, what is more, foiling Russia's plan to obtain a coal-base at Bander-Abbas and to establish control over Kuwait. At the beginning of this century, when information about the 1899 secret British-Kuwait treaty leaked out, the British officially explained it as a necessity for 'defending Kuwait from Russia'. As for the claims about a plan of setting up a Russian coal-base at Bander-Abbas, they had, by that time, been disbelieved by the British press who dubbed it as a 'Bander-Abbas canard'. The two appeals of Kuwait's ruler, Mubarak, to the Russian authorities, dated 2 and 23 April 1901, for protection against the British threat, which I have found in the Moscow archives, graphically show the falsity of the claims by the British officials that the British-Kuwaiti agreement of 1899 allegedly protected the sheikhdom from Russia. In these appeals, Mubarak asked Russia for help to defend Kuwait from the British threat. In May 1901 the Russian Government turned down these proposals.

In 1903 a huge British naval force, led by Curzon, called at all the ports of the Persian Gulf. Official government statements, which in effect declared the conversion of the Persian Gulf into a 'British Lake,' were made in the British Parliament. In keeping with the British-Turkish convention, in July 1913 Turkey officially renounced its claims to the western coast of the Persian Gulf. In 1914, after the beginning of the first World War, British-Indian troops were landed in Basrah, and an offensive on Baghdad began. At that time, the Sheikh at Kuwait officially recognised the British protectorate. In 1915, Ibn Saud, Emir of Jejd, was drawn into 'special relations' with Great Britain. In 1916, Qatar was turned into a British protectorate.

At the same time, a special committee of the British government, chaired by Bunzen, prepared a plan for including a sizeable part of Mesopotamia into British India. The notorious detachments of 'Southern riflemen' occupied Southern Iran. It seems that the dreams, plans and schemes of the 'Middle Eastern Group' to turn the Persian Gulf into a 'British Lake' and simultaneously into a huge bridgehead for seizing a considerable part of Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia and Southern Persia, had materialised.

But the Great October Socialist Revolution and the beginning of the crisis of the colonial system frustrated these plans. As a result of the third British-Afghan war, Afghanistan won independence. The Soviet-Iranian treaty of 1921 strengthened Iran's position and led to the annulment of the fettering Anglo-Iranian agreement of 1919 and to the withdrawal of British troops from the country. The uprising of the Irani people in 1920 also foiled the predatory plans of the British colonialists in Iraq.

However, the 'Middle Eastern Group' did not lay down their arms in the 1920s and 1930s. The military and diplomatic intrigues in Arabian Peninsula continued, and everything possible was done to aggravate relations between Turkey, Iran and Iraq, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The last manifestations of the influence of the 'Middle Eastern Group' were observed in 1955 during the Anglo-Franco-Israeli aggression against Egypt. But in 1971 the 'Middle Eastern Group' had to capitulate as the result of a general change of the correlation of forces in the world. The unequal agreements with Qatar, Bahrain and the Trucial Oman states were annulled once and for all, and the British armed forces were pulled out from the Gulf area. The Persian Gulf ceased to be a 'British Lake'.






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