“The main way in which the effective birth of the term ‘Middle East’ tends to be understood, or at least assumed, remains in relation to the demise of the Ottoman empire during the First World War and the reshaping of its territories – and the creation of a new political map – by the victor states from that conflict…

But what I found really fascinating and intriguing during the course of my doctoral research was how a whole series of early invocations of the term ‘Middle East’ appearing in the years around 1900 defined it around the idea of the Gulf region being a kind of buffer zone safeguarding the western flank of British India.

So, this ‘Middle East’ was a label invented to describe a critical geopolitical space on the world map, a kind of nexus of different grids of power, and a crucible through which there ran a series of routes connecting London to British India. And this ‘Middle East’ label as coined around 1900 was also, crucially, a retrospective vision of how over the previous century the British had come effectively to dominate this area, with the region being part of a sphere of influence and even of ‘informal empire’.”

That’s Guillemette Crouzet, historian and author of Inventing the Middle East; Britain and the Persian Gulf in the Age of Global Imperialism.

As a “Gulf kid”, growing up in the 1990s when the image of Indians in the region tended to be that of labourers and a few middle-class migrant workers, it fascinated me to discover that just a few decades prior – until 1966! – the currency in use was the “Gulf rupee”. That little bit of trivia alone offered me a glimpse of the deep connections and influence that India once had over the region.

Earlier this month we spoke to Md Muddassir Quamar on India’s geopolitical connections to the Gulf and how those ties have soared over the past few decades. Today we go much further back to take a look at how British India began engaging with the Gulf, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond.

Crouzet’s book details how the British were deeply concerned about rival powers cutting off London’s access to India – first the French, with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, and then later, the Russians and the Germans – prompting them to develop the Gulf as a buffer zone and make it part of British India’s “extended neighbourhood”.

Inventing the Middle East takes us through this process, as British India debated how to extend its influence into a region it once derided as being the “pirate coast”, including eventually replicating elements of its “princely state” policy to incorporate the sheikhs of the region into its system. The book also features fascinating glimpses of the early date and pearl economies in the region and their close connections to India, which would eventually be “globalise” and supplanted by broader colonial interest from Europe.

Over e-mail, I spoke to Crouzet about writing an “aquatic and amphibious” history (rather than one focused on land), why the Gulf’s connections to British India are understudied and how the “pirate” narrative played a role in imagining this space.

Tell us a little bit about how you got into history in the first place. Did you always know you were going to study it and enter academia?
Growing up, I developed a taste for history. I come from a family of academics, and we talked a lot about history at home. Studying history felt like a natural choice when I went to university. And later, when the chance came to make a career out of it in academia, I felt very lucky. From my studies, I was always interested in the relationship between history and geography.

For example, I loved the work of what is called the “Annales” school in French historiography. “Annales” historians focus on studying geographical spaces like oceans, seas and mountains, and they are interested in exploring the broader timescales which stem from making such environments themselves the centre of analysis. While this kind of approach to history does place an emphasis on how people in the past interacted with the environment, it does this while still understanding the environment as having a kind of agency of its own. One of my favourite history books is Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean, which is a classic of this way of thinking and writing about history.

What made you focus on the British Empire and the Indian Ocean World? Is it a space that has always interested you?
From my studies and from some of my family history I found myself particularly interested in different aspects of British history. But meanwhile I also found myself interested in the history of somewhere quite different, namely the Middle East and its neighbouring regions. The topic I ended up working on brought these two interests together. The Gulf in particular looked like it could be a promising area of study for thinking about some of the kinds of history which particularly interested me – themes such as the relationship between geography, environment and different kinds of human activity.

The Gulf forms this incredible stage for upheavals, conflicts and exchange. For hundreds of years it has been a site of geopolitical competition for dominance by different groups, polities and empires. But it has also been a route and a place of trade, both by land and by water, and indeed a source place for commodities such as palm dates, pearls, and then ultimately of course oil products. So it has this rich history as a crossroads for different peoples and states, and also as a key site for globalisation. And there are lots of wonderful studies of the Indian Ocean exploring these kinds of themes, and which help to think about the connected but also distinctive case of the Gulf.

At what point during your research did it become clear that the question of the Gulf being turned into the Middle East by the British Empire was going to be your dissertation, and subsequently a book? Was there a moment at which it was concretised as an idea?
Anyone studying the history of the Middle East finds quite quickly that the actual term “Middle East” itself is quite a notably hazy one. Where exactly is this “Middle East”, and can it even be precisely delineated on a map? When did this geographical label come into vogue? Who pioneered it? Studying the British role in this part of the world brought up some new answers to these questions.

There has been a lot of excellent scholarship already on some aspects of British engagement with different places in the Gulf region – from Persia to the Arabian Peninsula and Oman – over the period running from the late 1700s and throughout the nineteenth century. But what I found really fascinating and intriguing during the course of my doctoral research was how a whole series of early invocations of the term “Middle East” appearing in the years around 1900 defined it around the idea of the Gulf region being a kind of buffer zone safeguarding the western flank of British India.

So, this “Middle East” was a label invented to describe a critical geopolitical space on the world map, a kind of nexus of different grids of power, and a crucible through which there ran a series of routes connecting London to British India. And this “Middle East” label as coined around 1900 was also, crucially, a retrospective vision of how over the previous century the British had come effectively to dominate this area, with the region being part of a sphere of influence and even of “informal empire”: this first iteration of the “Middle East” was centred on the Gulf, and its articulation was itself a symbol of how this region had become a critical intermediate space of danger but also of opportunity for imperial policymakers in London and in the Indian subcontinent.

Meanwhile, within this story, the British empire in India itself was in some ways its own player in the region, expanding its territories and impinging on its peripheral regions, with the Gulf being integral to this. Some of the accounts penned around the turn of the twentieth century were triumphalist colonial narratives celebrating the idea and the history of this “British” Gulf and Middle East. But, of course, the actual history was far more violent, uneven and self-interested than this kind of imperialist polemic suggested. In writing up my doctoral dissertation, and then in the resulting book, I wanted to explore all of these different aspects of this compelling story.

‘Inventing the Middle East; Britain and the Persian Gulf in the Age of Global Imperialism’ written by Guillemette Crouzet.

A behind-the-scenes question: Where around the world are the documents that you relied on for this work? Were they easy to access?
The documents I relied on most were “official” sources – so, records stemming from imperial policymaking and administration – which are now held in archival collections in Britain. Some of these documents were produced by the government in London itself or by its diplomatic and consular outposts in places like Persia or Iraq. But most originated in the colonial administrations in the Indian subcontinent: that is to say, before 1858, the various “presidencies” by which the East India Company governed territories it occupied in India, and then after that year the Government of India which superseded the so-called “Company state”. Much of this material in UK collections can be found in the India Office Records, which are part of the British Library in London. There is also a good deal held at the National Archives.

Not all the records from India ended up in Britain, though. The Maharastra State Archives in Bombay, for example, hold a wealth of material which I was able to draw upon to some extent. It is not always easy to be granted access to some of these holdings, and occasionally particular files are not in great condition and so, for conservation reasons, are not made available for consultation by researchers. Besides official sources relating to Britain and British India, I also drew on similar archival material relating to France, which allowed me to trace some of the aspects of inter-imperial competition over the Gulf region. Finally, going beyond documents produced by states and colonial administrations, I used a host of other records, including travel accounts, journalism and pamphlets, memoirs, maps, and other representations such as paintings, prints and photographic images. This kind of material can be found in research libraries, museums, galleries and other collections in Britain especially but also in many other places.

What was your understanding of the term “Middle East” before you began this project? What is the general understanding in academia? Is it entirely built on the post World War I idea?
The main way in which the effective birth of the term “Middle East” tends to be understood, or at least assumed, remains in relation to the demise of the Ottoman empire during the First World War and the reshaping of its territories – and the creation of a new political map – by the victor states from that conflict. But this understanding of the term tends to obscure how it had first been used in different ways before the First World War, and the different and longer-term histories – and, indeed, geographies – of the region to which this in turn relates. This is what my book seeks to reconstruct.

What do you mean when you point out that the term “Middle East” was defined by “geopolitics rather than by any particular cultural or religious identity”?
The cluster of early evocations of the term “Middle East” in the years around 1900 which effectively launched the term in the English language – and, ultimately, would put it on the world map – originated with a range of influential commentators on geopolitics. These included military figures and strategists such as the British former Army officer and imperial administrator Thomas E Gordon, the American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, and the British journalist Valentine Chirol. These various publicists deployed the term to highlight, in particular, how the region was a linchpin in defending the critical western of British India.

In doing so, they hinted at how the “Middle East” appellation was itself the culmination of a larger historical process which had set up that buffer zone, and they also tended to suggest that this period of British regional primacy was coming increasingly under threat. These incarnations of the term “Middle East” were symbolically echoed by a major maritime tour of the Gulf region undertaken in 1903 by the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, which laid out a similar narrative about the history of British India’s role in the region – while also seeking to reaffirm this at a moment of new inter-imperial competition.

The foundational terms of reference in defining the “Middle East” laid out by Gordon, Mahan and Chirol mostly put the Gulf itself at centre stage and tended to sidestep substantive reference to the peoples of the “Middle East” region itself, whereas later iterations of the term “Middle East” have emphasised often markedly different geographical spaces and the different cultures and identities of the peoples included therein.

View of the shoreline at Koweit [Kuwait]. At right, Lord Curzon and his staff are being carried ashore by Arab men from a small boat at far right. The Shaikh of Kuwait or his retainer stands at left alongside a horse waiting for the Europeans to come ashore. ‘Landing at Koweit.’ Credit: Unknown [‎21r] (1/1), British Library: Visual Arts, Photo 49/1/22, in Qatar Digital Library

For the reader: What makes this an “aquatic and amphibious history” (as well as one that focused on a maritime world and a terraqueous space)?
Shelves of scholarly studies have been filled with histories of the Middle East which trace the remaking of this region from the First World War onwards, and this has tended to enthrone a central narrative of how the territorial ruins of the Ottoman empire were transformed into a complex mosaic of territories with different administrative statuses. This vision tends to be rooted in the deserts and other landward spaces of Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.

In my book, conversely, there is nothing on the Sykes-Picot Agreement signed by France and Britain in 1916, on the system of League of Nations “mandates” whose borders were drawn in the aftermath of the war, or on the oil wells that became so coveted by Western powers. Inventing the Middle East instead tells the history of a Middle East focused around a maritime space, the Gulf – a warm-water expanse surrounded by rocky and sandy coasts, dotted with islands and shallows, and connected to the Indian Ocean world by the Strait of Hormuz and the Sea of Oman – and its hinterlands. It was this space, this “Middle East” in the making, which the British imagined in the nineteenth century as a fulcrum of their empire and as a bridge between Europe and the Mediterranean on the one hand, and India and the wider Indian Ocean world on the other.

You point out that the Gulf has been understudied in relation to British India. Why do you think that is?
That’s a great question! My sense of it is that perhaps this comes, ironically enough, from some of the longstanding strengths of historical study on British India as a particular bounded unit of focus. Many studies of British India have tended to take the subcontinent as the lodestone of analysis. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, and indeed it has paid rich dividends in the sense that there is now a luminous scholarship available to us on so many different aspects of British imperial activity in India. But perhaps a downside is that this sometimes comes at the cost of a certain tunnel vision. In my book, rather than making British India the starting point and end point of my investigation, I was also interested in thinking about the development of the Gulf as a space in its own right. And, it should also be said, there’s now a growing body of wider scholarship which seeks to examine different “peripheral” regions which fell to some extent under the sway of the “centre” formed by British India in ways which in some ways echo what I have sought to do with the Gulf.

What appears evident from the book is the British having constant concerns that their approach to India will be cut off, and the book posits the Gulf and this Middle East as essentially a buffer zone to protect its imperial prize…
That’s right. There is, for example, a moment of great fear in London and in British India in the aftermath of the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, led by Napoleon Bonaparte. This seems suddenly to transform the strategic calculus about the Ottoman empire as forming a reliable buffer state to protect British India from threats stemming from European rivals passing through its territories. This sense of threat returns again later in the 1800s and into the early 1900s, less in relation to France and more because of other rival powers such as Russia and above all Germany. The sense of threat from France after 1798 promotes British interventionism into the Gulf region in order better to protect the East India Company’s territorial interests in the Indian subcontinent, and the sense of new threats again in the later 1800s promotes efforts to reinforce further the British position in the Gulf.

All of this in turn implies some interesting questions. How far was British India ever veritably under threat in this Gulf and this Middle East? Or, as I tend to suggest in relation to the sense of a French threat in the wake of 1798, was just about any “defensive” pretext useful for the British in order to justify their encroachments and interventionism into the Gulf region?

This idea of “piracy” ruling the waters around the Gulf is so entrenched. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you questioned this narrative?
We only really have British sources on the idea of “piracy” stemming from port cities on the shores of the Gulf. Having the power to define regional norms – including the power to label particular people as “pirates”, and to intervene against them, or indeed to have implement a notion such as the freedom of the seas – was itself an important part of the British imperial agenda. Napoleon was also seen as something of a geopolitical pirate, and one who might lever the veritable “pirates” of the Gulf to further French interests in the region – so perhaps making the Gulf a stepping-stone for a French-led bid to attack British India.

At the same time, we don’t have to go full circle and celebrate the “pirates” and their violent raiding, whose victims were probably other inhabitants of the Gulf region in the first instance. We don’t know enough about the history of the populations of the Gulf littoral around this period. Part of the picture, though, would seem to be that the region’s population was booming, with the flourishing of some coastal communities being of relatively recent date, and with often bloody internecine competition for resources as the number of inhabitants rose. Meanwhile, the period also saw rising East India Company engagement with the region, with its merchant shipping also being subjected to ‘pirate’ depredations. To some extent, perhaps, we might say that British India was not the only relatively new and expanding force in the region: perhaps we can understand the “pirate” statelets as themselves being similarly placed.

John Clark after Richard Temple, ‘Ras ul Khymah from the SW and the Situation of the Troops,’ from Sixteen views of places in the Persian Gulph taken in the years 1809-’10: illustrative of the proceedings of the forces employ’d on the expedition sent from Bombay [...] against the Arabian pirates.

The Ras Al Khaima operation [a British attack on the Al Qasimi “pirates” of the town, now in the United Arab Emirates, that involved the destruction of the port, all nearby fortifications and all of its vessels], and the way you described it to me seems terribly reminiscent of many more recent interventions in the Middle East:

“In a way again comparable to the aftermath of the expedition a decade earlier, the troops sent by Bombay to the Gulf had received no clear instructions on how to deal with the aftermath of their military operations or how to find a lasting political settlement with the regional powers.” 

In writing the book, I did not want to overdraw the parallels with the history of recent interventions in the Middle East. But yes, absolutely, it was hard not to think of such parallels when drafting these sections of the book, in particular!

The economic portions of the book seem like page-turners that could be their own stories in themselves – how Europe replaced India as the key market for pearls, dates etc, how guns entered the scene, the complex history of slavery in the Gulf that long predated oil money. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
Thank you, it is very gratifying to hear that you found these sections to be a page-turning read! These parts of the book involved some particularly rich material, and they were especially interesting and enjoyable to research and write. So I am delighted that this came across to you as a reader. I think one of the things that is so stimulating here is how this economic angle captures two quite different dynamics.

First, it allows us to trace how the British contrived – initially, as much by accident as by design – to find a way of managing the Gulf which would satisfy the interests of local tribes and their chiefs, but while also safeguarding British primacy there. So, rather than a nest of “pirates”, the Gulf littoral would become a pacified region, policed at relatively little cost by British warships, and with its refurbished economy underpinned by trade in commodities from the region such as dates and pearls — both of which would enjoy notable booms during the 1800s.

Much of the labour for the date and pearl industries came from slavery, fostering a heightened trade in slaves which would itself become another element of this economic picture. In a sense, the political economy of this British informal empire in the Gulf was ultimately based on the slaves labouring in date plantations and pearl fishing operations. It was, I argue, on this account that efforts on the part of the authorities in British India to curb the slave trade in this region would remain limited.

The second element of the economic picture, though, highlights how the Gulf’s role in globalisation proceeded in ways which ultimately went beyond the ability of British officials to police it. Indeed, some of the commodities passing through this “pacific” Gulf by the decades around 1900, whether shipped through legal trade or smuggling, were deeply inimical to British interests in the Indian subcontinent. The Gulf became, in particular, a hub for gun running – and a final destination for much of the modern military equipment at stake was the tribal uprising on the North-West frontier of British India.

The Mesopotamian portions reminded me of Priya Satia’s writing about how the British conceived of the timeless Middle East. How did Imperial Britain see their actions in the region?
How the Middle East was marketed to and imagined by the public in imperial Britain over the 1800s is a fascinating subject. I try to explore a few strands of this in Inventing the Middle East. And, as you highlight, Priya Satia’s enthralling recent work pays close attention to how this played out in the realm of imperial ideology. Part of the distinctive fascination of this region was indeed tied up with a sense of it being a “timeless” land which was full of the material vestiges of once-glorious ancient empires. It was also to some extent religiously redolent terrain, given that its topography overlapped with that evoked in the Bible. And all this offered narrative possibilities which captivated British ideologues of and enthusiasts for empire – and which, among other things, helped to create the modern discipline of archaeology.

Could the British effective dominion over the Middle East region make them heirs to the promise of this hallowed and ancient terrain, with their sense of imperial mission here – catalysed by their mastery of world-conquering modern technologies such as steam power – allowing them to give new life to this cradle of civilisation and to so rescue it from its present state of aridness and ruin? And could therefore their empire not just supersede but also outshine those famous lost ancient empires, perhaps achieving a lasting staying power which had eluded them? Some of the most evocative representations to emerge from this juncture of British engagement with the Middle East, with representations of ancient Mesopotamia by artists such as Joseph Mallord William Turner. Turner and by archaeologists such as Austen Henry Layard, would grapple precisely with this beguiling fantasy of imaging the region’s semi-mythical past brought back to life, and would bring these ideas to a wider public in Britain and beyond.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the debates between London and Calcutta/Delhi/Bombay on how to deal with the Gulf? In what way do we see British India taking its own approach to international relations? Do you believe the British Indian views may have been influenced by pre-existing (i.e. “native”) connections and familiarity between these regions, or was it simply a question of different perspectives?
A fundamental fact of how relations between the government in London and the administration in British India operated is the sheer extent of the physical distances separating the two. This meant that considerable policymaking latitude was delegated to officials in the subcontinent, even if this was only because there was no realistic alternative: both the British government in London and the directors of the East India Company, also seated in the metropole, might only hear news from India months after the events had transpired. In a sense, there were multiple layers of substantive delegation around policy, first with the British imperial project in India being in effect farmed out to the East India Company (until 1858), and second with the emergent Company-state in India acting with scant reference to its nominal overseers in London.

A rich scholarship, notably the work of Christopher Bayly, has explored how all this tended to make the various “presidencies” which formed the Company administration in the subcontinent, and then even the Government of India which then superseded this in 1858, in many ways a semi-autonomous actor in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean world. The case in many ways represents a microcosm of this: there were sometimes parallel – and even competing – diplomatic efforts in the region, stemming from the government in London and from the Company in the subcontinent, and it tended to be the latter who drove forward key interventions and policy shifts.

Certainly, we tend to overlook how a “presidency” centre such as Bombay was not merely geared around the landward interests of the Company in the Indian subcontinent: its sense of its purview also stretched out westward along the coastline, and across the sea to the Gulf region. In that sense, a foundational moment such as the attack on the “pirate” port of Ras al-Khaimah, which was very much a Bombay-launched initiative, make sense given the regional specificities at play and, indeed, the longer-term maritime worlds and connections of the Western Indian Ocean.

Could you say that British India was in some ways responsible for the ‘globalisation’ of the Gulf
Historians debating the term “globalisation” often highlight how different and sometimes unexpected iterations of this phenomenon can be traced over time. A rich scholarship has highlighted how the Indian Ocean was already a markedly interconnected arena – including linking into onward links in the Gulf area and beyond – at the time of the arrival of European powers in the region around the early modern period. Still, the impact of British India in seeking to channel the economy of the Gulf region to its advantage over the 1800s was remarkable.

Four questions I like to put to everyone:

What misconceptions about your subject (the British Empire, the Gulf, the Indian Ocean world, the time period) do you find yourself constantly combating? What does everyone (including fellow scholars) get wrong?
Here, my main contention comes with the title of my book: the term “Middle East” arrives on the global map just not because of the conjuncture around the First World War, but rather the term has an important history running long before this, with the first uses of the term in English around 1900 evoking longstanding British imperialism centring on the Gulf region and geared around protecting the interests of British India. Putting this another way, the effective history of the “Middle East” is far more extensive – and far more interesting – than the conventional chronologically foreshortened focus on the term would imply.

This certainly helps understand better, for instance, how the oil boom of the early 1900s in the region did not start from a tabula rasa: in many ways early oil businesses in the Gulf, pursued under the auspices of British and other imperial actors, represents a reworking of the pre-existing informal-empire frameworks which had been developed in the Gulf over the previous century by British India. That said, attempts to channel globalisation in the interests of a particular power might succeed for a time, and yet the logics and vagaries of globalisation and capitalism more broadly also meant that such frameworks were fragile – all that is solid could sink into the Gulf’s waters, we might say.

What tools or areas of research would you encourage young scholars who are entering the field, and maybe even specifically your area, to use or focus on?
For studying the British role in the Middle East, one terrific electronic resource which has been gradually taking shape over the past several years is a collaboration between the British Library and the Qatar Digital Library, who together have been digitising a huge amount of archival material from the India Office Records and other collections. It’s an invaluable starting point for anyone who wants to start exploring this area of research.

What three works (books, papers, podcasts etc) would you recommend to those who are interested in this subject and period?
Sujit Sivansundaram’s new book Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire is an amazing piece of work, telling the history of the so-called “Age of Revolutions” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century from a fresh perspective, namely that of the worlds of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Using a strong environmental history perspective, his book considerably enhances our understanding of British imperialism in these terraqueous regions. I also am a big fan of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East by Priya Satia, a book which takes a cultural look at British imperialism in Iraq as this developed over the early twentieth century. Finally, The Birth of the Modern World by Christopher Bayly remains in my opinion one of the best books written about the global nineteenth century.

What are you working on next?
Building on my work in Inventing the Middle East, I continue to be fascinated by environmental history and how this relates to the histories of empire, technology, natural resource exploitation, and to the idea of the Anthropocene. Part of what interests me here is how this helps us to rethink the moment of the “discovery” of oil in commercially-viable quantities in the Middle East in the first decade of twentieth-century. That enterprise was conducted by global British business actors working hand-in-glove with the British imperial state. In some ways, it is a case of back to the future, with operations such as William Knox d’Arcy’s nascent oil company – the forebear of today’s British Petroleum – echoing some of the aspects of how the East India Company had established itself in the region back in early modern period. That early modern period of nascent English/British imperialism in the region also intrigues me greatly. So I find myself wanting to explore both the “after” but also the “before” of the story I tell in Inventing the Middle East.

This interview first appeared on India Inside Out by Rohan Venkat.