Man from Khiva, Emir of Bukhara, Teke Turkmen, Girl from Samarkand, Police Soldier from Bukhara.


The Great Game, 1856-1907

One particularly audacious concession gave German-born British citizen Baron Julius de Reuters the exclusive right to build streetcar lines and railroads in all of Iran, the exclusive right to mine its minerals and log its forests, and the right to build and operate the country’s national bank. He got all this in exchange for a cash payment to the shah and the promise of some small future royalties paid to the national treasury. A storm of opposition erupted, which might have made no difference in itself except that Russia lined up with this opposition for reasons of its own. Under this pressure the shah buckled and canceled the deal. By the terms of the contract he had signed, however, Iran now had to pay Baron Reuters a forty-thousand-pound penalty. Fortunately (for the shah), this didn’t come out of his pocket but out of the Iranian treasury. Thus, the country (and its taxpayers) had to pay a British lord an immense sum to build nothing—and the deal did leave him with a controlling interest in the new Iranian national bank.

This sort of thing happened again and again, each deal putting cash in the pockets of a corrupt king and his relatives and giving a European company or government control over some aspect or other of the Iranian economy. If the deal was rescinded as it sometimes was, this always cost Iranian taxpayers some huge sum in penalties. Iranian citizens knew quite well what was happening, but could do nothing about it. Weak as they were, the Qajar kings had plenty of power over their own people: they could still put their subjects in prison, torture them, execute them.

From the European point of view, however, the country being sliced and diced and consumed was only the spoils: the great question was which European country would get to do the consuming and which would end up with a strategic advantage for further exploitation. Since the two chief adversaries were pretty evenly matched, Britain and Russia eventually divided Iran up into zones of influences, with Russia securing the right to dominate and plunder the north and Great Britain the right to do the same in the south. This agreement more or less solidified the country’s northern and southern borders and marked a line east of which all bets were off, a line that became Iran’s border with Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Great Game was playing out in that wild territory to the east as well, the Hindu Kush mountains and the plains north of them. Here, in the early eighteenth century, a tribal chieftain named Ahmad Shah Baba had united the unruly Afghan tribes and carved out one of those sprawling empires that unfurled periodically into India. Ahmad Shah’s empire was to be the last of these, however, because his successors had to deal with a new reality: the two mighty European imperial powers pressing in from north and south. The Russians kept sending spies and agents into Afghan territory to press for alliances with the king or with any of the rival chieftains who might overthrow him. The British did the same.

Twice, Great Britain invaded and tried to occupy Afghanistan, in order to block out the Russians, but each time the Afghans drove the British back out. The first Anglo-Afghan war ended in 1841 with the Afghans massacring the entire British community and its army as it tried to flee the country. (A British army came back briefly, however, to set fire to the Grand Bazaar in Kabul and burn up everyone in it.)

The British were still licking the wounds they had suffered from their first invasion of Afghanistan when a conflagration erupted in India. It began in 1857 with a revolt among the foot soldiers known as sepoys. British officers had ordered these men to grease their bullets with a mixture of beef tallow and pig lard, and the order didn’t sit well. The vast majority of sepoys were either Hindus or Muslims. To the Hindus, cows were sacred so greasing bullets with their tallow felt like sacrilege. To the Muslims, pigs were ritually unclean beasts, and greasing bullets with their fat felt repulsive.

One day a whole regiment of sepoys refused to load their guns. The officer in charge took decisive action: he put the whole lot of them in prison, whereupon riots exploded all over town. Apparently, it never occurred to the British that issuing bullet grease made of beef and pig fat might offend their sepoys. This cluelessness reflected the cultural gulf between the British officers and their foot soldiers, a gulf that had not existed before Europeans arrived, even though Indian armies were frequently composed of many different ethnic and religious groups jammed together, Muslim Turks fighting alongside Muslim Persians fighting alongside Hindi-speaking Hindus and others. These groups quarreled and bristled at each other, but each knew who the others were: they interacted. In Moghul military camps, their languages blended into Urdu, a single new language derived from Hindi, Persian, and Turkish (Urdu literally means something like “soldier-camp lingo” in Turkish). In the British-led Indian army, no new language emerged. English didn’t blend with any of the local languages because the British officers and their men moved in separate strata.

With their bullet-grease gaffe, the British achieved the goal that had eluded Akbar the Great: they united the Muslims and Hindus. The sepoy rebellion expanded into the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858, during which both Hindus and Muslims attacked British settlements all over India. Muslim activists called the mutiny a jihad, and their well-organized assaults suggested that the bullet-grease issue had merely been the spark: a great deal of preparation had gone into the mutiny.

A great deal of preparation and yet not nearly enough, because British troops crushed the rebellion quickly and then went on a rampage of their own, plundering Indian cities for about a month, hauling frightened locals out of their homes and massacring them in the streets. In at least one case, they had native prisoners line up along a pit and shot them in groups of ten so that when they died they would fall conveniently into the hole, which made burying them easier.6 British historian Sir Charles Crosthwaite depicted the victorious campaign as a British Iliad, calling it the “epic of the Race.”

Once the mutiny had been totally quelled, the British abandoned all pretense, sent the pitiful last Moghul monarch into exile, and relegated the East India Company to private status. The crown took charge of India directly. The ninety-year period of direct British rule that ensued was called “the Raj.”

British leaders regarded India as the “jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown” and guarded it even more jealously than before. In 1878, detecting new Russian interest in Afghanistan, they tried to occupy Kabul again. Once again, however, they miscalculated the difficulties of occupying a mountainous territory inhabited by so many hostile and mutually antagonistic tribes. It wasn’t that the land was hard to “conquer,” as Europeans understood the term conquest. Great Britain easily marched into the capital, put its own compliant nominee on the throne, and appointed an “envoy” to direct him. In most contexts, this would have been conquest. But the British found that bending Afghan leaders to their will did them little good. The leaders they bent simply broke off in their hands and ended up as their dependents, not their tools, while the tribal people they were supposedly the rulers of operated in the hills as leaderless guerillas. The second Anglo-Afghan War took a nasty turn when the British envoy Cavagnari was killed and ruinous urban battles broke out; in the end the British were forced to pull back to the subcontinent again.

In the wake of this second Anglo-Afghan war, the Russians and British decided the territory ruled by the Afghan tribes cost too much to occupy and agreed to make the whole place a buffer zone between their empires: the Russians would not come south of the Oxus River, if the British would agree not to push north of an arbitrary line in the desert drawn by British diplomat Mortimer Durand. The territory between these lines became Afghanistan. Afghan kings, who might have conquered widely in the past, now focused on conquering deeply instead—conquering each tribe, each little valley, until this no-man’s-land gradually came under the tenuous control of a central government headquartered in Kabul.

But of course, the Russians never really abandoned their hope of pushing on down to a port on the warm waters of the Indian Ocean; and the British never dropped their suspicion of Russian intentions; so the “Great Game” went on.

West of the Great Game, another drama unfolded throughout the nineteenth century, another extension of European politics playing out in the Muslim world. Here, the major players were Great Britain and France and the tokens they fought over were the provinces of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. To the Europeans, the core narrative was the struggle for power in Europe among the developed nation-states there. What happened in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, and the rest of North Africa was just the relatively unimportant eastern part of the greater drama—just . . . “the Eastern question.”

The Eastern question gained particular urgency in the wake of the French Revolution, a revolution that frightened all the royal families of Europe, since its ideas denied the legitimacy of them all. The monarchies therefore united to crush the revolutionaries. They assumed this would be easy since the revolution had thrown France into such turmoil, but to the shock of all concerned, revolutionary France proved about as easy to conquer as a nest of angry hornets.

To make matters worse, out of the revolution came Napoleon Bonaparte, whose leadership instantly vaulted France to world-conquering might. Great Britain led the forces arrayed against Napoleon, and one episode of the struggle between these two sides took place in Egypt.

Western histories report that Napoleon went to Egypt in 1798 with an army of thirty-four thousand, Lord Nelson followed him there, the French lost a naval battle to the British in the Nile, Napoleon abandoned his army and sneaked home to stage a coup d’etat that made him the sole ruler of France and stronger than ever; and the war went on.

But what about the Egyptians? Who were they? What part did they play? Did they welcome Napoleon? Help him? Did he have to conquer them? Did they play any part in the battle between France and Britain? Who did they side with? What happened after the Europeans left? Western histories don’t address these questions much, focusing mainly on the clash of Britain and France. It’s almost as if the Egyptians weren’t there.

But of course they were there. When Napoleon arrived, Egypt was nominally still a province of the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon, however, engaged the main Egyptian armies in the shadow of the pyramids and destroyed them in less than a day! All the rest was mop-up until the British arrived, whereupon the real battles began—and they were between Europeans. The British fleet sank most of Napoleon’s ships in the Nile. He held on as “ruler” of Egypt for a year, but the plague ravaged his troops and order dissolved in the country he ruled as rebels attacked not so much French troops as any local authority. The British sent in more expeditions and convinced the Turks to attack Egypt too. Napoleon responded by sweeping into Syria and massacring thousands of people in the city of Jaffa. Finally he went back to Europe, but Egypt was a shambles by then. An Ottoman army officer soon took advantage of the turmoil to seize power. This man Mohammed Ali, a Turk born in Albania, declared himself “governor” of Egypt, as if he were acting only on behalf of the sultan in Istanbul. Everyone knew, however, that he was no governor but an independent power, a new king whom no one could deny.

Mohammed Ali saw how easily Napoleon cut his way into Egypt, and he was impressed. He decided he had better bring Egypt into line with whatever Europeans and especially the French were doing so that no new Napoleon and no new Lord Nelson could march in like a bunch of gang-bangers and treat Egypt like a grade-school playground.

But what was Napoleon’s secret? Well, Ali knew that Napoleon had stripped the French clergy of power, shut down church schools, and built a secular school system to replace it. Mohammed Ali decided to do the same thing in Egypt. He cut state funding for the ulama. He cut funding for the charitable foundations, the religious schools, and the mosques. He ordered all religious foundations to produce titles for the lands they owned, and of course they couldn’t do it, since their ownership went back to early medieval times, three or four empires ago. So Ali’s state took their lands. Egypt still had a class of elite mamluks entrenched as the country’s tax farmers, but Ali saw that in Europe the state collected taxes directly. So Mohammed Ali invited the leading tax-farming mamluks to dinner and had them massacred. Then he launched a crash program to build modern roads, modern schools, and the like. This was all a foretaste of a pattern that was to be repeated many times in the next century.

All this sudden development bankrupted Egypt, and Mohammed Ali had to borrow money to keep his government afloat. He borrowed it from European bankers, of course, who insisted that European financial advisers be allowed to monitor the various agencies of Mohammed Ali’s government, just to oversee the work and make sure the money was not being misused.

Meanwhile, the Ottomans were getting nervous about Mohammed Ali, who was asserting some claims to Syria. They were already too weak to curb him on their own, so they asked the British for help. The British said they would lend a hand if the Ottomans would only sign a treaty allowing Europeans certain privileges on Turkish soil. They organized a consortium of European nations to come in on the treaty, a coalition of the willing, so to speak, and when the dust settled, Mohammed Ali was safely confined to Egypt, but Europeans were powerful players throughout the Levant. Now, only “the Eastern question” remained to resolve, the question being: which European nation would be responsible for “protecting” which part of the eastern Mediterranean?

Egypt was the richest prize, so both France and Britain cozied up to rulers here. Mohammed Ali legally established his family as dynastic rulers of Egypt, power passing to his sons, grandsons, and so on down, and in the next few decades, these governor-kings of Egypt, these khedives as they were called, gave Britain a concession to build a railroad in Egypt; then mollified France with a rich contract to build the Suez canal; then placated the indignant British by giving them the right to build and own the Egyptian national bank, squeezing kickbacks out of each transaction for themselves—you see where this is going.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Ali’s descendants decided Egypt’s future lay in cotton. Textile manufacturing was the first enterprise to be industrialized in Europe, so the market for cotton became voracious, and the Nile Valley grew excellent cotton. Around 1860, the price of cotton on the world market suddenly soared. The khedive of that moment, a spend-thrift playboy of the Eastern world named Ismail, got starry-eyed with dreams of wealth for himself and his country. He borrowed enormous sums of money from European bankers to industrialize Egypt’s cotton industry overnight: he bought cotton gins and other such machinery at enormous expense, money he figured Egypt could easily repay since it would be selling cotton forever.

But the rise in cotton prices was a mere blip caused by the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, which choked off cotton exports from the southern states there and forced English textile factories to look elsewhere for thread. As soon as the U.S. Civil War ended, the price of cotton dropped and Egypt was ruined. Now, the bankers and financial advisers flooded into the country in earnest. Every Egyptian government official ended up with a European adviser of his very own. The Eastern questions still remained—both France and Britain stood poised to achieve total dominance in Egypt.

Britain seemed to have the edge, however, which made France all the more determined not to lose the edge it had further west. In the period of France’s revolutionary turmoil, two Algerian Jewish families had sold 8 million francs’ worth of grain to France to feed its armies. When Napoleon fell and France reverted to monarchy, France disavowed that debt. The Ottoman governor of this province met with the French consul, Pierre Duval, to demand an explanation. Duval told him France did not discuss money with Arabs. The governor slapped Duval in the face with . . . a fly swatter. What a blow to French honor! L’Affaire de Mouche-Swatter (the “affair of the fly swatter”) made it into the French press, and nobody laughed. More insults were exchanged and tensions went on rising. As it happened, there was a struggle under way in France just then between monarchists and liberals. The monarchists who held power saw domestic political advantage in a quick, successful military adventure. Napoleon had proven how easily Arabs could be defeated in Egypt, and so, in 1830, France invaded Algeria.

The venture proved as quick and successful as any Frenchman might have hoped. The governor fled to Naples, leaving his fortune behind and his country leaderless. France hauled about 100 million francs out of Algeria, about half of which made it to the French treasury. The rest disappeared into the pockets of the soldiers and officers who invaded the country.

With its government gone, Algeria was a power vacuum, and you know how nature abhors those things. Instead of setting up a proxy or puppet, France decided to incorporate Algeria into its national structure as three new provinces. In other words, the French treated Algeria not as a colony but as part of France. A “joint stock” company was set up to sell land to French citizens who would immigrate to these new provinces and help “develop” them.

Even here in Algeria, which France out and out invaded, the foreigners flooding in as immigrants didn’t fight a war with the natives. They just bought up 80 percent of the land, fair and square, and set up a whole new economy that didn’t compete with the native economy so much as ignore it. Algerian Arabs remained free to plant what they wanted on whatever land they retained, ship what they grew to Algerian ports if they could afford the freight charges, and sell their products in world market if they could find any buyers, which they couldn’t. Or if they preferred, they could leave the land and move to the cities and start businesses, if they had the capital—which they didn’t—and if they could get a business license from French officials, which for various good and legal reasons, they often couldn’t.

So the Arabs of Algeria ended up buying and selling to each other in the old traditional ways while the bulk of the country, absorbed as it was into the European and world markets, did business in streamlined, super-productive modern ways.

If any Algerian had been asked whether he opposed or supported selling 80 percent of the country to French buyers, he would surely have said he opposed it. If anyone had been faced with that decision, he would almost certainly have decided no. But no one ever had a chance to decide whether to sell off 80 percent of the country. Each landowner who sold property to “the French” was only deciding whether to sell his one piece of land to this one buyer. It was quite possible to oppose selling 80 percent of the country to foreigners while seeing persuasive reasons to sell one particular bit of it to one particular foreigner.

Over the next century, the French community in Algeria grew to seven hundred thousand French citizens. They came to own most of the land and considered themselves native Algerians, since they were born on Algerian soil and most were the children of parents born there. Inconveniently, some 5 million Arabs happened to be living there as well and no one could fathom where they had come from or what they were doing there. They didn’t seem to have any function, and whatever they subsisted on, it was an almost completely separate economy from the one the French Algerians were involved in.

By 1850, Europeans controlled every part of the world that had once called itself Dar al-Islam. They lived in these countries as an upper class, they ruled them directly or decided who would rule, they controlled the resources, they dictated the policies, and they circumscribed the daily lives of their people. In places such as Egypt, Iran, and India, there were clubs that the native people could not enter because they were Egyptian or Iranian or Indian. Europeans had achieved this dominance without any grand war or broadscale assault. The Europeans were scarcely even aware that there had been a struggle and that they had won. But Muslims noticed, because it’s always harder to ignore a rock you’re under than a rock you’re on.

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