In November 1906, Wilfrid Malleson, a British military intelligence officer, departed from Simla in British India on an intelligence-gathering tour of the Persian Gulf and what British officials then termed “Turkish Arabia” (the south of modern Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire). Britain was already the dominant imperial power in the Gulf and was keen to ascertain the situation in those territories to its north that remained under the sway of the Ottomans. Malleson’s report of his journey – that included stops in Muscat, Kuwait, Basra, Baghdad and Mohammerah – provides a fascinating snapshot of the region at this time.
In addition to Malleson’s narrative, the report also contains a series of photographs of the places that he visited, foremost amongst them Basra and Baghdad. Although Malleson apologised for their poor quality in the preface to his official report, over a hundred years later they provide an evocative glimpse of locations that have changed dramatically since and in some cases, came under British military occupation less than a decade after his visit.
Indeed, Malleson made notes regarding the military defences (or lack thereof) of the places that he visited including Basra, of which he remarked, “[t]here are no defences and a landing could easily be covered from ships in the river”. Malleson also speculated that “judicious treatment [by Britain] could easily succeed in turning the local Arab against the much-hated Turk”. Eight years later – perhaps using intelligence supplied by Malleson – the British army invaded and conquered Basra as a part of the Mesopotamian Campaign of the First World War, events that eventually led to the establishment of the modern nation state of Iraq. In 2003, almost a hundred years after Malleson’s visit, the British Army invaded and occupied Basra again.
In addition to military matters, the report discusses a wide range of other topics including trade, agriculture, history, transport infrastructure and religious communities, as well as the activities of rival powers, notably the German and Ottoman Empires. As Malleson noted apologetically in its preface, the report contains much “not of immediate military interest”.
Malleson also recorded the various characters that he met during the course of his journey including a German trader on the boat to Muscat and a pair of hospitable “Cosmopolitan Jews” in Basra’s quarantine station. The two men, father and son, were merchants and the latter was re-locating his business to Manchester in the north of England. Malleson commented that the dominance of Manchester in Baghdad’s trade “became apparent to us later”. He also encountered an explorer who was willing to share his findings with British intelligence and believed that “a strong British policy in the Gulf would mean progress and the spread of civilisation, and would, therefore, further the interests of the world in general”.
The report, though engagingly written, is replete with the lamentable orientalist and misogynistic attitudes that characterised the stance of many British imperial officials in this period. In perhaps the most unpleasant instance of racist language in the report – and as testament to the ongoing existence of slavery in the region during this period – when discussing the women that he saw in Baghdad, Malleson wrote that they “of course go veiled when abroad, even those of the numerous Christian sects and the Jewesses. The latter wear extraordinarily gorgeous silken garments, and the really smart thing is to possess a white donkey tended by the blackest and ugliest of negro slaves”.
As well as visiting modern settlements while in Iraq, Malleson also visited historical ruins including the remains of ancient Babylon and Ctesiphon, the former capital of the Sassanian Empire.
Concluding his report, Malleson wrote: “[a]nd so, with a heightened interest in the problems of the Middle East, and with, perhaps, some increase of knowledge; with friendships made with useful people, and numerous promises of help and correspondence, we turn our backs on Turkish Arabia and shape a course for Bushire and Karachi”.
This article first appeared on British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.