My Weekly Reader 13 October 2018.

Geography—like many other things—is Destiny.  The Middle East has been shaped by its location between the upper mill-stone and the lower millstone.  Greeks fought Persians; Romans fought Hellenistic Greeks, then fought Sassanids; Christians (Byzantine and Latin) fought Muslims (Arab and Turk); and Anglo-Americans fought Russians.

The last of these struggles centered on the region’s place in an increasingly globalized world economy.   Sea routes, then air, routes through the Middle East made it a vital link between Europe and Asia.  The rise of oil as the world’s industrial fuel made the Middle East a vital component of economic growth.  (As always before, the people of the region were disdained, not least because they habitually accommodated themselves to whoever held the whip-hand.  Their leaders “Medized,” “Hellenized,” “Romanized,” “Arabized,” “Ottomanized,” and “Westernized.”[1])

Through the Nineteenth Century, Britain supported the decrepit Ottoman Empire.  The Phil-Hellene British elite held the Ottomans in low regard, but they were determined never to allow Tsarist Russia to advance southward to dominate Britain’s line of communications with India and the China trade.  The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) intensified this determination.[2]  The outcome of the First World War in the Middle East appeared to finally relieve the danger.  Russia collapsed into revolution and emerged as a pariah state pre-occupied with its internal problems.  Britain and France parted-out the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire.[3]  Liberated from the Russian danger, the British and French fell to bickering among themselves.[4]

Then came the Second World War.  The war wrecked both Britain and France, while elevating the United States and the Soviet Union into global super-powers.  The unwilling Anglo-French retreat from the Middle East coupled with the renewed Russian threat to draw in the Americans.

The British were reluctant to release their grip.[5]  They had, after all, alone fought from the first day of the war to its last without suffering military conquest.  In the last stages of the war, British leaders began to plan new arrangements that would allow them to exert a guiding hand on Middle Eastern developments.  Britain’s lack of money and power quickly undermined these schemes.   Israel’s self-proclamation (1948), the rise of the charismatic Egyptian military dictator Gamal Nasser (1952) in place of the feeble King Farouk (1952), the American supplanting of Britain as the predominant power in Iran after the 1953 coup, Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal and America’s brutal intervention to halt the botched Anglo-French-Israeli Suez Campaign (1956) against Nasser, and the beginning of the Iraqi Revolution with the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy (1958) marked some of the Stations of the Cross on Britain’s painful imperial Via Dolorosa.

[1] It might be wondered if a recognition of this endless submissive adaptability on the part of unprincipled leaders is part of what fuels the rage of contemporary radical Islam.

[2] M.S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774-1923: A Study in International Relations (1966).

[3] Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), France got Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan.  It also sought a tighter grip on Egypt.

[4] See, most recently, James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (2011).

[5] James Barr, Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East (2018).

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The Perils of Adventure 2

Charles George “Chinese” Gordon had some odd helpers in extending the British Empire.

Romolo Gessi (1831-1881) had an exotic background (his father was an Italo-Armenian employed on the Levant in the British consular service) and an adventurous disposition.  He served as an interpreter with the British Army during the Crimean War (1854-55).  Here he first encountered Gordon.  In 1859 he fought as a volunteer with the Sardinian Army against the Austrians.  After the completion of the “Risorgimento” he started a business in Rumania, where he again met Gordon.  In 1873, when the khedive of Egypt appointed Gordon governor of the province of Equatoria in the Sudan, he invited Gessi to join him.  On Gordon’s orders Gessi circumnavigated Lake Albert.  Bent out of shape by perceived slights from the Egyptian government, Gessi resigned.  In 1877-1878 he tried to reach western Ethiopia from the valley of the Blue Nile.  This expedition came to nothing, so he answered a new call from Gordon who had been appointed governor-general of the whole of the Sudan.  He made Gessi governor of the Bahr al Ghazal province and ordered him to suppress the slave trade.  The leading figure in that trade was Suleiman al-Zubayr.  Gessi chased Suleiman, then killed him in battle.  Meanwhile, Gordon had been replaced by an Egyptian governor who dismissed Gessi.  Gessi had fallen ill and died at Suez on his way home.

Eduard Schnitzler (1840-1892) had a mundane background and an adventurous disposition.  He studied medicine, receiving his degree in 1866.  Unlike most doctors–German or otherwise, now or then–Schnitzler had no interest in a comfortable life, social respectability, and an early tee-time.  No sooner had he graduated from the University of Berlin than he signed up with the Turkish government.  From 1866 to 1875 Schnitzler was in Ottoman employment in the Balkans.  Not only did he kick over the traces by rejecting conventional employment, but he also took a Muslim name, Mehmed Emin.

In 1875 Gordon hired him as medical officer for Equatoria in the Sudan.  Emin impressed Gordon with his administrative abilities.  In 1878 the Khedive of Egypt appointed Emin as governor of Equatoria province when Gordon resigned.  In 1881 the Mahdist revolt began farther north.  This cut off Emin from all contact with the outside world.  Emin continued to rule Equatoria for the next seven years.  In 1888 Henry M. Stanley arrived to “save” Emin in the same way that he had “saved” Livingston.  Unlike Livingston, Emin went down to the coast with Stanley.  Then the German government, belatedly becoming interested in Africa, asked Emin to lead an expedition to establish German territorial claims around Lake Victoria.  The expedition did not work out well.  Eventually, Emin sent most of his caravan down to the coast to safety, while he remained behind to take care of those members of the expedition who had fallen ill.  Arab slave traders murdered him in Kanema.

Rudolf Slatin (1857-1932) just had an adventurous disposition.  He grew up in Vienna and studied business.  His father died when he was sixteen, so the boy got a job in a bookstore.  In Cairo, Egypt.  Cairo seemed exotic, but not exotic enough.  He went up the Nile to Khartoum with a German businessman, then to Kordofan with a German ornithologist, then back to Khartoum because of a rebellion.  He met Emin Pasha, who promised to recommend him to Gordon, but Slatin had just turned 21 so he had to go back to Austria for his army service.  After fighting in Bosnia, Slatin accepted an invitation from Gordon to come to the Sudan.  Slatin served as governor of Darfur (1879-1883), then was a prisoner of the Mahdists (1883-1895), then made a daring escape, then wrote a good book, then helped defeat the Mahdists (1898), and then helped govern the Sudan (1899-1914).  The rest of his life was quiet.  Comparatively.

The Perils of Adventure 1

John Nicholson (1822-1857) was the son of a Scotch-Irish Protestant doctor.  He went to a boarding school whose motto was “Perseverando” (Persevere, Winners Never Quit and Quitters Never Win).  Nicholson learned that part of the lesson, but he had an awful temper: he flipped-out when opposed by anyone and often became violent.  Now, he would be on meds.  Then, in 1839, his family got rid of the boy by getting him appointed as an officer in the “Indian Army”–a force defending the British East India Company’s possessions.  Indian troops under British officers.  He fought in the disastrous First Afghan War (1839-1842).  Here he came to the attention of Henry Lawrence, who was building a British Empire in India, regardless of what the clowns in London wanted.  Lawrence gave Nicholson command of a district in Afghanistan.  First the local Afghans hated him: he was a foreigner, not a Muslim, he was brutal and oppressive, and violent when crossed.  Then the Afghans loved him: although he was not a Muslim, he was brutal and oppressive, and violent when crossed.  Just like them.  He once chased a horse-thief for a week through hostile country while being shot at from hill-tops along the way, killed the thief and his companions, then stabled his horse in the dining room of a local inn that had earlier refused him a room, pulled the thatch off the roof to feed his horse, and then set fire to the place when he left.  He kept this up for a while.

When the Indian Mutiny broke out he left Afghanistan.  Many tribesmen followed him because they wanted to share in the plunder and, besides what would happen later if Nicholson decided you weren’t there because you didn’t like him?  He was killed storming the rebel city of Delhi.  For half a century afterward Afghan tribesmen built shrines to the local god “Nikal Seyn.”

William Stephen Raikes Hodson (1821-1858) was the son of an Anglican clergyman in Gloucestershire.  He got a good education and decided not to put it to any use.  All his life Hodson was aggressive and self-confident to an obnoxious degree.  Modern human relations staff would probably fire him for being a disruptive presence in the organization.  However, the British were building an empire, not holding a bake sale.  He became an officer in the “Indian Army.”

Hodson fought—bravely, ruthlessly–in the First (1845-1846) and Second (1848-1849) Sikh Wars.  Powerful men took a shine to Hodson, thinking “yeah, that’s the ticket.”  However, peace did not agree with Hodson so well as did war.  He was snotty to just about everyone above or below him, and he didn’t pay attention to his paperwork.  Between wars he sat around drinking brandy and fuming under the tropical sun.  This did nothing to improve his temperament.  Many people couldn’t stand him.  In 1854 and 1858 he was wrongfully accused of fraud.

“In case of emergency, break class and pull lever.”  When the “Indian Mutiny” broke out in 1857 Hodson played an important role in its bloody suppression.  In September 1857 he arrested the last of the Mogul emperors, Bahadur Shah II, the figurehead leader of the rebellion.  The rebels had talked much of creating a united India under the Mughals.  This was mostly talk, rather than reality.  However, Hodson was a soldier, not a historian.  The next day he arrested two of the emperor’s sons, then personally shot them, and a grandson as well.  In March 1858 he was shot storming the rebel city of Lucknow.  It was his thirty-seventh birthday.  He died the next day.