The Great Game in the Persian Gulf I

In the nineteenth century, the relative decline of the Persian Safavid Empire compared with the ascendancy of the West, the eclipse of Central Asian trade by maritime commerce, and the existence of small neighboring powers presented British strategists with a dilemma: how to protect Britain’s largest and most valuable possession, India, against landward threats when its primary arm for defense was the Royal Navy. It was relatively easy to secure maritime trade at sea and to deter attacks on its colonies with a large fleet, but there were greater challenges to Britain’s efforts to eradicate slavery and piracy in the Persian Gulf, to act in support of amphibious expeditionary warfare against Persia, or to deter the great powers from applying pressure on the British Empire, because there was always the risk that Britain could be drawn into costly occupations or unnecessary conflicts, or forced to fight in the interior of Asia where its naval power could not be brought to bear.

Britain’s preference was to project influence by other means—through diplomacy, consulates, financial services, infrastructural communications (railways, roads, and telegraph), and commercial concessions. However, specific crises sometimes forced Britain to demonstrate its power to Persia and Arab states, and to rival great powers like France, Russia, and Germany. There were amphibious operations against Persia in 1856–57, and there was a show of force in the Persian Gulf in 1903. In short, the methods of maintaining British interests were furthered by four approaches. First was diplomacy, using a system of residencies and consulates with allies amongst the local elites, supported by an intelligence network. This was augmented by agreements or the settlement of differences with other European powers and, in the case of Persia, with a specific Anglo-Russian convention. Second, there were spheres of influence, often through building relationships with local elites, financial services, building infrastructure, and military training teams. The contest for local support and the intrigue of the chief rival, Russia, was subsequently referred to as “The Great Game.” Third, buffer states were also required and Persia became the outwork in the landward defenses of India. The Ottoman Empire also served this function throughout the nineteenth century, acting as a bulwark to Russian annexations. Local rulers, including the shah of Persia and the amir of Afghanistan, were granted direct financial reward or military aid. Fourth, periodic military and naval interventions were used, such as the operations against piracy in the Gulf and against Persia in the mid-nineteenth century, and these became, in the twentieth century, periods of military occupation (as in post-1914 Iraq, and the Gulf states).

All these were cemented by the notion of prestige, which was important in diplomacy but also acted as a means of deterrence. It was an idea that had to be reinforced constantly: Britain had to assert its power and demonstrate that it was both capable and willing to exercise force. In the second half of the nineteenth century, British policy toward Persia had sometimes lacked consistency as strategic considerations in Europe and India came first. However, despite growing pressure from Russian intrigue and commercial rivalry, by the beginning of the twentieth century Britain had reasserted its exclusive control of the Persian Gulf, ringed the region with compliant or allied states, and rationalized its relationship with Persia.

“The Great Game”: Persia and the Russian Threat in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

The Russian threat to British India was the driving force behind the competitive intrigues known as the “Great Game” or the “Tournament of Shadows,” but even though an actual invasion of India was favored by only a handful of Russian officers and political figures in the Asiatic section of the Russian foreign ministry, both sides played the game earnestly enough. As far as many British statesmen and soldiers were concerned, each of the states on the periphery of India had to be considered part of the defense scheme—and that included Persia and Afghanistan. Today, it is generally thought that Russia was carrying out maskirovka: applying pressure in one strategic location to effect change elsewhere. The Russian newspaper Golos summed it up at the time: “The Indian Question is a simple one: Russia does not think of conquering India, but reserves to herself the power of restraining outbreaks of Russophobism among British statesmen, by possible diversions on the side of India.” In particular Russian sensitivities about the Black Sea and the Straits of Constantinople, worsened by their experiences in the Crimean War (1854–56), meant they needed to challenge the British somewhere, and the absence of a comparable fleet meant that they had to take advantage of a continental front: Persia, Afghanistan, and the Indian border provided that opportunity.

For the British, two locations stood out as particularly important—Persia’s northern Khorasan province and Herat, the westernmost city of Afghanistan. Herat had once been part of the Persian Empire, and in 1836 the shah tried to reassert his control of the city by force. To British alarm, Russian troops accompanied his army. When a Persian attempt was made to storm the city in June 1837, the British broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran. George Eden, the Earl of Auckland and the British governor general in India (1836–42), then ordered two steamers with troops to land at Karrack (Kharg) Island in the headwaters of the Gulf, which the Persians interpreted as a full-scale invasion. Consequently, an ultimatum delivered by Britain was accepted and the siege of Herat was abandoned. Nevertheless, the British were so concerned by this Russian-inspired intrigue, they moved to invade Afghanistan, precipitating the First Afghan War (1838–42).

The historian Garry Alder believed that the British obsession with Herat as the “Key to India” was wholly misguided. British officers at Tehran had argued that if Herat fell to a hostile Persia, Russia, its “ally,” would have secured for itself a base within Afghanistan from which to harass the Indian border. Dost Mohammed, the Afghan ruler in Kabul, remarked: “If the Persians once take Herat, all is open to them as far as Balkh, and neither Kandahar nor Kabul is secure.” The city was variously styled the “Gate of India” and the “Garden and Granary of Central Asia,” and even those who did not think it was likely to open up Afghanistan to occupation believed it would provide a means for Russia to dominate Persia. The debate about the city’s value continued throughout the nineteenth century, but one viceroy of India, Lord Charles Canning, reflecting on the fact that any Russian attack would have to cross five hundred miles of barren terrain inhabited by hostile Afghans, mused: “If Herat be the key to India, that is, if a power once in possession of it can command an entrance into India, our tenure of this great empire is indeed a feeble one.” He summed up the solution to the problem succinctly: “The country of Afghanistan rather than the fort of Herat is our first defense.”

Nevertheless, those who saw Herat as the vulnerable bastion on India’s glacis regarded every Russian advance across Central Asia and every annexation that followed as evidence of the growing magnitude of the czarist threat. The contemporary British liberal press took a more charitable view, and suggested that the destruction of the uncivilized khanates and the steady advance of Christian Russia would, eventually, ensure greater stability. However, the historian Edward Ingram has argued that Edward Law, the first Earl of Ellenborough and the governor general of India (1842–44) who advocated a proactive policy in Persia and Afghanistan, showed “the truer perception of the needs of a continental state,” which Britain now was through its possession of India. Ellenborough was especially worried about the complacency of the government in London as it was far removed from the concerns of Central Asia and the Indian frontier. The British government believed that naval power was sufficient to protect its imperial possessions, since, apart from India and Canada, the British Empire was still no more than an assemblage of littorals and had at its disposal a vast fleet. However, there was growing concern in many quarters about Russia’s grasping policy and her broader ambitions with regard to Asia. Ellenborough felt that, although Russia was still too distant to be an immediate threat, it was vital to seize advantages while there was still time.

The problem of the instability in buffer states was highlighted by a new period of unrest in Persia that flared up after the death of the shah in 1848. The new shah, Nasr-ud-din, took two years to crush the revolt in Mashhad and had to contend with three revolts by the movement known as the Babis. In 1852, the Babis came close to success in their attempt to assassinate the shah, and the regime reacted with savage reprisals. As predicted, the instability offered an opportunity for Russia to extend its influence in Tehran still further. It was against this background that the Herati ruler, Sa’id Mohammad, permitted Persian troops to enter Herat to crush discontent there. Fearing Russia was behind the move, the British protested to the shah. As a result a convention was negotiated in January 1853 where Persia agreed not to send troops into Herat unless it was invaded by a foreign enemy, clearly intending this to mean Russia. No permanent occupation was to be tolerated, and Persia was not to intrigue within the city. For its part, Britain pledged to keep foreign interests out. The convention was never ratified by the British government, largely because the British had clearly set out their wishes by the diplomatic exercise and the Persians were under no illusion about these intentions.

Yet within two years, Britain and Russia were at war in the Baltic and Crimea, and Herat would once again take on a new significance. At the outbreak of the conflict, Britain had insisted the shah remain neutral. However, soon after, the British Foreign Office representative took offence at an alleged slight at the Persian court and withdrew his negotiating party. This actually deprived Britain of a presence at a crucial moment in the diplomatic contest. In the absence of firsthand information, rumors grew that the shah would conclude a treaty with the Russians in order to regain lost possessions in the Caucasus, or perhaps elsewhere. As a precaution, Britain dispatched a warship to the Persian Gulf to send a clear warning. However, it was not the Caucasus that was the target of the shah’s ambitions, it was Herat, and plans to take the city were already well advanced. In Herat itself in September 1855 events played into the shah’s hands. Mohammad Yousaf, a member of the former Afghan royal family, led a revolt, killed the governor, and seized power. Meanwhile, Dost Mohammad of Kabul had launched an attack of his own on Kandahar as a first step in consolidating his rule in Afghanistan, and was thus in no position to resist any Persian attack.

The shah intended to exploit this unrest in Afghanistan, and immediately advanced on Herat. The city fell to the Persians on 25 October 1856. In London there was considerable anxiety that the Russians would open a consulate in Herat prior to the development of espionage aimed at the subversion of Afghanistan, Persia, and perhaps India. The idea of sending a British-Indian column across Afghanistan was rejected because of the recent memory of the difficulties of the First Afghan War and the possibility that this would simply offer an opportunity for the Russians to fight on Persia’s behalf. Instead, the British would make use of their naval strength and make an amphibious expedition to Bushire in the Persian Gulf. When their ultimatum to Tehran was rejected, the British declared war on 1 November 1856.

The Anglo-Persian War of 1856–1857

This short war was an amphibious operation with limited objectives. The Royal Navy first took Karrack Island as a forward operating base and a landing was made in Hallila Bay, twelve miles south of Bushire, on 7 December 1856. It took two days to assemble all the troops, horses, guns, and stores, but from then on rapid progress was made and the land force, led by Major General Foster Stalker, reached the old Dutch fort at Reshire soon after. There, the Persians were entrenched but this provided scant protection from British naval guns. Stalker’s force stormed the fort and local Dashti and Tungastani tribal irregulars were quickly overwhelmed.

At Bushire two hours of naval bombardment compelled the Persians to capitulate. The captured town was placed under martial law. The British declared that the traffic in slaves was to cease immediately, and all black captive men, women, and children were released. Coal stocks were brought in, while grain and cattle were procured from the region. However, while possession of the port was relatively easy, penetration of the interior would be more difficult. Moreover, the shah felt that the loss of Bushire, on the very periphery of his empire, was a manageable problem. Diverting forces from the south and central regions, he began to concentrate an army that could eject the British expeditionary force.

British reinforcements arrived at Bushire on 27 January 1857 under General Sir James Outram. He quickly organized his force into two divisions, one led by General Stalker, the other by Sir Henry Havelock, a veteran of the Afghan and Sikh Wars. He also sent a reconnaissance to Mohammerah where reports had been received that the Persians were fortifying themselves. However, his scouts discovered a large Persian army assembling at Burazjoon, forty-six miles inland from Bushire. To seize the initiative, Outram decided to take the war to the enemy, and make a bold offensive thrust against the Burazjoon force. Taking the Persians by surprise, the British destroyed stores and ammunition that had been concentrated there, and when the Persian general, Shujah ul-Mulk, tried to harass the British withdrawal at the village of Khoos-ab, the Persians were overmatched by the firepower and determination of the British force. The Persian formation collapsed leaving seven hundred dead, while the British had lost sixteen men. Outram’s army slogged back through deteriorating weather to Bushire, completing the battle and a march of forty-four miles in just fifty hours.

The Persians were not yet ready to seek terms. At Mohammerah, they had constructed strong field fortifications. Earth had been packed into walls some twenty feet high and eighteen feet deep, upon which were mounted artillery. The arcs of these guns were designed to cover not just the landward approaches but also the entrance to the Shatt al-Arab. The garrison, 13,000 strong with thirty guns, was commanded by Prince Khauler Mirza, and he was confident of being able to check the British. Outram decided on an amphibious attack. He packed 4,886 men into steamers and transports with fighting sloops in a fire-support role, and after a three-hour bombardment, the Persian bastions had been silenced. Landings were made and the infantry began systematically working through date groves, but the Persians retreated in disorder, leaving seventeen guns and most of their camp equipment behind. Outram kept up the pressure, sending a flotilla of three steamers, each with one hundred infantrymen on board, upriver in pursuit. Near Ahwaz, they encountered about seven thousand Persian troops, but Captain James Rennie, the British naval commander, decided to put his three hundred men ashore, deploying them to give the impression they were far more numerous. His ships’ guns were ranged against the Persian position and, as his small land force advanced toward Ahwaz, the Persian formation broke up, bringing all resistance to an end.

Peace was restored by the Treaty of Paris on 4 March 1857 and Persia agreed to withdraw all its forces and its territorial claims from Afghanistan. Britain got effective control of Persian foreign policy and agreed to withdraw its occupying troops. From the British perspective, the short campaign had been a great success. For a small cost, the British had used their naval guns to project their power against a littoral state, made amphibious landings, and destroyed the resistance of far greater numbers of entrenched forces. Perhaps more importantly, it persuaded the Persians that Britain’s wishes had to be taken seriously. Russia, it seemed, had been defeated by Britain in the Crimea, and Persia too had suffered reverses. With its prestige enhanced, Britain had no difficulty in persuading the Persians to accept a telegraph line across the country in 1862, linking India and London. In 1873, the British invited the shah to visit England, and there can be little doubt that this too was an attempt to remind him of British power. However, the shah maintained links with Russia to counterbalance British influence, while being careful not to make an alignment obvious either way. For their part, the British established a listening post at their consulate in Mashhad in 1874 to collect intelligence on Russian movements in Central Asia.

Persia in British Policy, 1877–1907

In the 1870s, Russia appeared to be advancing everywhere. It had taken territory from China in East Asia, seized khanates in Central Asia, captured the great Uzbek city of Khiva in 1873, and on 19 May 1877 a Russian force seized the village of Kizil Arvat on the Persian border, in modern day Turkmenistan. British concerns were highlighted when Ronald Thomson, the British chargé d’affaires in Tehran, obtained a report that detailed Russian plans for Persia and Afghanistan. The document was drawn up by Dmitri Miliutin, the Russian war minister, and it began with a condemnation of Britain, the “Despot of the Seas,” and called for an “advance towards the enemy” that would show “the patience of Russia is exhausted,” and “that she is ready to retaliate and to stretch her hand towards India.”

In July 1877, as the Russians fought the Ottomans in the Balkans, the British cabinet decided that any Russian attack on Constantinople would constitute a casus belli. When the Russians broke through and reached the outskirts of the city, the Royal Navy moved to within striking distance. As anticipated, the Russians prepared for war in the Southwest Asian theater. Miliutin aimed to keep Persia neutral, in case the British retaliated and contemplated an attack through Persia into the Caucasus, but he ordered that the Russian army should prepare a force of 20,000 men to move to the Afghan border. British intelligence sources suggested that the Russians were about to seize the Akhal Oasis on the Persian border, perhaps prior to a move on Herat. Eager to augment their salaries, Persian officials were actually preparing to support with supplies a Russian advance through Trans-Caspia, the region to the east of the Caspian Sea that approximately coincides with present-day Turkmenistan. Thomson urged the Persian government to stop the Russians, and, despite some protests, they agreed to lodge a complaint. Britain’s willingness to fight and Russia’s diplomatic isolation in Europe persuaded St. Petersburg not to make further advances in either the Balkans or Central Asia. However, the viceroy of India, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, first Earl of Lytton, was anxious about the vulnerability of Afghanistan and launched the Second Afghan War (1878–81) to control the buffer zone more firmly.

This British military action was noted in Tehran. In early 1879, the shah requested an alliance in return for British military support against Russia, but, eager to avoid long-term commitments, Britain refused, instead demanding that as a “friendly power” Persia should not offer any assistance to the czar’s forces or help them to annex territory en route to the Afghan border. The Persians, disappointed that the British would not commit themselves to defend Tehran as they had Constantinople, took the view that cooperation with Russia was still the only guarantee of survival. The British cabinet considered that, in the interests of India’s security, Herat might, in fact, be given to Persia. When this proposal was made to the shah, he was also informed that Britain would insist on closer military and commercial ties after all, but they would also demand that the Persians assert their historic claims to the Central Asian city of Merv against the Russians, who seemed poised to annex it. However, just at the moment when the shah approved, a Liberal government came to power in Britain and withdrew the alliance proposal.

This hasty change of British policy had been the result of a lack of useful intelligence on Russia and its true intentions toward India, Afghanistan, and Persia. The need for a screen of agents or consuls across Persia and Afghanistan to assess actual Russian capabilities was obvious. General Sir Archibald Alison, the quartermaster general of the Intelligence Division in London, noted: “Early and reliable information with regard to Russian or other military movements near the Northern Border of Persia therefore appears to be the most important, and this information can only be satisfactorily obtained on the spot.” He argued that the monitoring of Russian troop movements was the surest way to gauge Russian plans in Central Asia. The Intelligence Division recommended a permanent consulate at Astarabad, near the southeastern shore of the Caspian Sea, as well as the one at Mashhad: “If we were kept accurately informed about the state of affairs in those regions the government would be at once able to dispel the discreditable state of alarm into which this country is periodically thrown. . . . If knowledge is power, ignorance is weakness, and this weakness we constantly show by the undignified fear displayed at every report or threat of Russian movements.” The Liberal government at home was unmoved and informed the government of India that, in their view, the movements of Russia in Central Asia simply did not merit anxiety about an invasion of India.

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