Despotism or anarchy? — Promised Lands: The British and the Ottoman Middle East by Jonathan Parry review

Parry chronicles Britain's tumultuous, sometimes comical, imperial efforts in the Middle East throughout the nineteenth century.

The advance of the Anglo Egyptian Force upon Omdurman, Battle of Omdurman 2 September 1898.
The advance of the Anglo Egyptian Force upon Omdurman, Battle of Omdurman 2 September 1898. Credit: Historical Images Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1834 the British Parliament voted the significant sum of £20,000 to fund an expedition to the river Euphrates. The task of its leader, a lovelorn, four-foot-nine-inch army officer named Francis Rawdon Chesney, was to discover whether the river was now navigable by steam boat. It wasn’t. Travelling downstream one of the two ships under his command capsized during a hurricane and sank, with the loss of twenty lives. The other made it to Baghdad, but not back upstream in October, when the river was at its lowest, which was the whole point of the exercise.

That did not stop Chesney, who made up with ego what he lacked in stature, from reporting that his craft had been received like ‘a new prophet’, and that its ‘noisy paddles’ were ‘moving like a vision of future glory through the very heart of the land of biblical history.’ The exploit seemed a complete failure and Chesney was eventually sacked after blowing his budget, yet it had established an important strategic fact: if Britain could not travel down the river, then neither could the Russians.

This story is one of many told entertainingly by Jon Parry in this new book. Its subject, which grew out of an undergraduate course he has been teaching at Cambridge for a decade, is the growth of British influence in the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century, an oddly ill-covered subject, until now. Parry’s pen-portraits of a range of British politicians, diplomats, merchants and men on the spot are marvellous; the book is so rich in detail that its story is sometimes hard to follow. But his main contention, that by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 Britain had staked a claim to everywhere it ended up ruling after 1918, stacks up. And this tale of how a rising trading power exploited greed to acquire insidious political influence is worth reading for its relevance today.

The book begins in 1801 with a friendless Britain fighting France. Napoleon had invaded Egypt almost three years earlier. Having been cut off by Nelson he was drawn into Syria but was unable to take Acre, which the crusaders had been forced to abandon just over five centuries before. He returned to Europe where the war went rather better. Britain, now isolated, needed peace but did not want to enter negotiations with France in charge in Cairo. This was why Britain invaded Egypt for the first time, opening an era that lasted until its departure from the Gulf in 1971.

Since the loss of the American colonies, India had become Britain’s most important imperial possession, governed, at that point, by the East India Company. Britain’s priority was to keep its rivals, France and Russia, as far from the subcontinent as possible. To do so required a much better understanding of the geography and the people of the Middle East, which managed to be familiar (from scripture lessons and classical education) and yet unknown at the same time. To complicate the challenge this territory belonged to the crumbling Ottoman Empire. By 1800 most Britons interested in the issue took the view that ‘Turkey is at its last gasp, and waits only for some potent state to put an end to its insignificance’, to quote one traveller. But they feared that too forward a policy might trigger a reaction from France or Russia. Although both rivals had reasons to prefer Ottoman weakness to collapse, the impossibility of knowing how the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire might play out inclined the British generally to be cautious. Parry is excellent on how British politicians and diplomats, East India Company officers, local proconsuls and military officers differed, often sharply, on policy.

The spread of British influence began from the Gulf. Before the advent of the steam ship and the telegraph, the fastest route for British communications with India went via a relay of cameleers who plied the roads between Aleppo, Baghdad and Basra. By the early 1800s, however, the onward journey down the Gulf by ship was threatened by pirates (at least, that’s what the British called them). When the wife of an East India Company agent was captured and narrowly escaped being sold into slavery, the British bombarded Ras al Khaymah. When the piracy resumed a decade later they obliterated the port again and then forced the sheikhs of the seaboard to sign treaties, establishing the Trucial system.

After guessing Napoleon’s aim was India, the British had put a resident in Baghdad to gather intelligence about the French. The most colourful of these was the well-named Claudius Rich. He tried to gain influence through lavish expenditure and offering himself as a mediator in a long-running tug-of-war between the Ottomans and Persians over the Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah. In a useful reminder that the explanations for the spread of British influence could be personal as much as strategic, Parry explains that Rich found Sulaymaniyah’s alpine climate far more congenial than Baghdad’s and reminded his Scottish wife of the Highlands.

Though the French loomed large in British politicians’ imaginations, by the end of the 1820s the immediate threat came from the Russians. In 1828 they attacked the Ottomans, who were reeling from the loss of Greece. Breaking through the Caucasus, the Russians got as far as Erzurum, near the source of the Euphrates. This thrust alarmed Lord Ellenborough, who, as president of the Board of Control, was effectively responsible for India. He described the Russians’ breakthrough as ‘a victory gained over me, as Asia is mine.’

Political reform, and the steam engine, began to weigh on British policy soon afterwards. The Reform Act created a new group of voters who wanted lower taxes. Steam offered a way to make budgetary cuts, because fewer soldiers would be needed if they could reach trouble-spots faster. It also caused a sea-change in the way the British viewed the Middle East, making the Red Sea more important. With steam, the adverse winds that had made this route hard for sailing ships to navigate were no longer a problem.

The Red Sea route led Britain to take over Aden as a coaling station and to rely on Egypt’s new ruler. Mehmet Ali was an energetic moderniser who reassured one visiting British official that there was ‘not a word said against steamers in the Koran’; his son Ibrahim ridiculed Ottoman military reforms: ‘it is not by giving epaulettes and tight trousers to a nation that you begin the task of regeneration.’ And yet the construction of a new canal linking Alexandria to the Nile had cost 25,000 lives. The fact was, Mehmet Ali was a despot who bought friendship abroad by giving European zoos giraffes.  

Was despotism better than anarchy? The question clearly exercised the British even before Mehmet Ali’s army invaded Syria in 1832. There, the imposition of higher taxes and conscription soon caused trouble, destroying the Egyptian ruler’s acceptability as a man whose ‘severe but equalizing’ approach was controversial, certainly, but brought order. The Liberal government in London changed tack. After Mehmet Ali’s forces routed an Ottoman army in 1839 Palmerston, then foreign secretary saw the possibility that the strongman might finally destroy the sultan, and declared him ‘as great a tyrant and oppressor as ever made a people wretched’. The British intervened, encouraging an uprising in Lebanon that helped force the Egyptians to leave.

Ironically the increased security of the Mehmet Ali era attracted tourists. ‘Damascus was safer than Oxford,’ reported one, but many of them found the squalor deeply shocking. ‘I have not spent one happy day in Jerusalem’, another wrote, ‘the distant view is all.’

Parry downplays the religious motives of the policymakers he writes about. He argues, convincingly I think, that Palmerston’s much-parsed instruction to the new British consul in Jerusalem ‘to afford protection to the Jews generally’ as less an early sign of the future British interest in Zionism, and more part of a mundane effort to gain influence through what the historian Abigail Green has dubbed ‘humanitarian imperialism’.

Certainly the Russians and the French were dab hands at exploiting Ottoman mistreatment of Orthodox and Catholic Christians to advance their own agendas. Like so much of what was going on in this era, the stupid spat that erupted over access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 1850s was (as Britain’s acting ambassador in Constantinople explained) ‘in reality … a vital struggle between France and Russia for political influence’ in the Ottoman capital. And that was how it led to the Crimean War.

While Palmerston’s own ambitions in supporting the Jews were limited, his evangelical son-in-law Lord Ashley saw promise in the dereliction of the Holy Land. Reviewing a book about the travels of a friend he hoped that the ‘vestiges of the ancient cultivation’, which were still visible, might enable the Jews to become ‘once more the husbandmen of Judaea and Galilee’ and for this land to ‘burst … into universal luxuriance — all that she ever was in the days of Solomon.’

In Parry’s words, ‘The Foreign Office batted away all these ideas.’ Yet they would smoulder away like incense, contributing to the heady atmosphere in which Arthur Balfour’s infamous Declaration was deemed a good idea. I do hope Parry might now tackle the intervening period between the Crimean, and the First World War. The book would certainly be as full of interest as this one.


Promised Lands: The British and the Ottoman Middle East by Jonathan Parry, Princeton University Press, pp. 480, £26.19


James Barr