Mehmet Ali, 1769-1849, proclaimed as Viceroy of Egypt in 1805. Watercolour by the French painter Jean-Adolphe Beaucé

High politics and unholy power plays

British policy in the Ottoman Empire was not driven by Orientalism, but self-interest and self-deception


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Promised Lands: The British and the Ottoman Middle East, Jonathan Parry (Princeton, £35)

The British involvement in the Middle East began with triumph and disaster. After a hard-fought landing at Aboukir Bay in March 1801, General Abercromby’s troops and their Ottoman allies took Alexandria and Cairo before joining forces with Indian sepoys who had landed at Suez and compelling a French army to surrender. One exuberant officer shinned up an Alexandrian obelisk, unfurled the Union Jack and ate a beefsteak.

Six years later, British troops once more seized Alexandria to preempt another French invasion. This time the Ottomans made them unwelcome: their Albanian troops ambushed them outside Rosetta and beheaded their wounded captives in full view of the survivors. The British army scuttled out of Egypt and the Albanian commander Mehmet Ali sent a hundred severed heads to Cairo.

Jonathan Parry’s magisterial history of Britain’s arrival in Ottoman lands relates these lurches from masterstroke to misadventure with mordant precision, while insisting on their gradual success in establishing Britain as a Eurasian power. Once Mehmet Ali had become Pasha of Egypt, the British alternately courted and threatened him for decades.

Ignoring charges that he ruled its peasantry with Pharaonic cruelty, they worked together to turn Egypt into a secure “thoroughfare” from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and so onto India. P&O’s mass firing of its workers has recently made it an icon of British decline, but in its early years it scored a publicity coup by inviting William Thackeray to write up the almost European comforts of the routes it superintended.

The British exorcised nightmares about their security east of Suez

Egypt is central to Parry’s story because it encapsulated Britain’s geopolitical stake in Ottoman lands: the security of British India. Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt had jolted the complacency of successive ministries about Ottoman affairs. If Napoleon controlled Suez, he could menace India’s trade. Or he might emulate Alexander the Great and march to the Persian Gulf by way of Syria and Mesopotamia. In the decades after his defeat, British ministers teamed up with the French to press reforms on the Ottomans, but disquiet over their intentions never totally faded.

They were joined by concern about Russia, France’s rival as a patron of the Empire’s Christian minorities, which might creep through Kurdistan and then surge down the rivers of Mesopotamia to the Gulf. Many British opinion formers were more relaxed about Russian interventionism than we are today.

Churchy Tories trusted the Tsar’s claims to care for venerable Christian sects. Pacific radicals calmly imagined the Russians turning Constantinople into a “splendid and substantial European city”. Yet spasms of fear about Russia could still have huge consequences. In 1854 the Tsar’s merciless bullying of the Turks caused Britain to stumble into the Crimean War.

The British exorcised nightmares about their security east of Suez by identifying and dominating the pathways to India that ran through the Ottoman Middle East, paying no more than lip service to the Sultan’s sovereignty as they did so. Turkish baths might have been popular in Britain, but “Turcophilism” was not. Though fearing the dangerous chaos that would have followed an abrupt partition of the Ottoman Empire, British officials believed that its rule over Balkan and Middle Eastern Christians was enervated, cruel and doomed.

A stamp celebrating the capture of Aden in 1839

When its end arrived, it was vital that Britain stood ready to defend its interests. This sometimes meant taking territory at the Empire’s fraying edges, as when in 1839 troops from Bombay seized Aden from the Sultan of Lahej before Mehmet Ali could acquire it, establishing a vital coaling station on the way to India.

More commonly, Britain befriended regional strongmen nominally answering to the Sultan, such as Mehmet Ali, or tried to build up independent players in the region. Britain’s ambassadors in Constantinople opposed this stealthy attenuation of Ottoman sovereignty, but they were an unimpressive bunch, isolated in their embassy and dependent on their dragoman translators. Worst of all was Stratford Canning, a nepotistic blowhard who treated Constantinople as a springboard for a European career that never sprung.

Having sent Austen Henry Layard to dig up ancient Nineveh and claim its winged bulls for Britain, Canning was livid when they made his underling famous rather than himself. His egotism persuaded him that he had pressured the Sultan into strengthening his empire by embracing religious liberalism, but this achievement never existed outside Canning’s thundering dispatches.

Diplomatic dysfunction at the Ottoman centre often allowed men on the spot to sway London in its choice of allies. The historiography of imperial expansion has always recognised that these people exploited time lags in communication with the metropole to gain an outside influence over policy. What Parry brings to the analysis is his pedigree as a historian of what Maurice Cowling called “high politics”.

Without denying the importance of ideas or values, a high political approach sceptically asks how the necessarily small cadre of people who exercise power in any society advance their individual or group interests by professing them. Parry uses reams of consular correspondence to uncover a gamey high politics of geopolitics. Having fled a homosexual scandal to scout the Red Sea and name a bit of it after himself, an Irish peer successfully urged that it was just as important a route to India as the Persian Gulf.

The agent who first suggested making the Euphrates navigable to steamships had a brother who would have made a lot of money trading from them — had Yazidi highwaymen not killed him as he surveyed the river. The main enemy these adventurers faced in seeking to guide British force projection was one another.

Agents who profitably ran the East India Company’s trading posts in the Persian Gulf naturally opposed those who wanted Britain to defend India from the banks of the Tigris. Samuel Manesty, who had married into an Armenian date-trading dynasty and was the Company’s agent at Basra, initially sabotaged plans to make Baghdad into a thriving entrepôt and bulwark against French or Russian penetration of the region. He did not enjoy his victory for long, cutting his own throat after his enemies forced his retirement to England.

British policy was not inspired by Orientalism

Harrassed by these rivalries and oppressed by the climate — maddened by the sun, one explorer shot himself in the mouth at Muscat — these geopolitical impresarios also faced the chronic insecurity of the region’s powerbrokers. Heads repeatedly rolled as promising pashas were decapitated by sultans or were killed by their own men. It took London four years to honour one request to send surplus muskets to an Abyssinian prince. By the time they did so, topping up the gift with some dental pliers, rebels had beheaded him.

Mehmet Ali, the most important of Britain’s clients, often disturbed its plans with his restless ambition. Promising favourites, such as the clans of mountainous Kurdistan, who gratifyingly resembled Scottish Highlanders, often succumbed to infighting. So intricate is the landscape of feuding pashas and imams charted in this book that readers will often emulate its protagonists in spending a lot of time staring at its admittedly excellent maps.

Parry is most provocative in suggesting what these promised lands were not. British policy was not inspired by Orientalism: the scholarly enterprise vilified by Edward Said, which found in the unchanging archaism of eastern cultures the justification for their subjugation by the West. British officials sketched monuments, dug up palaces and wrote up the quaint manners of the locals.

But this antiquarianism followed power plays or was a consolation for their failure, rather than being their driver. Illusions about Ottoman lands abounded, but they expressed not Orientalism but a classicising progressivism: the hope that canals or railways would revive the prosperity of Alexander’s empire or Rome’s lost provinces.

Nor did Christian zeal distort British policy in what were Bible lands. After chequered efforts to proselytise the Druzes of Lebanon or to turn Jerusalem into a hub for Protestant mission, the British preferred to restrain rather than to plunge into sectarian quarrels. They did not even think their gambits added up to “imperialism”, a word which was then an insult, not an aspiration.

Instead, they considered that they were protecting Ottoman populations against French Catholic or Russian Orthodox imperialism. This pious self-deception was harder to maintain after 1882, when the British occupied Egypt, nominally to support Mehmet Ali’s successors against a revolt, but actually to ensure that no European rival seized what had become the unrivalled thoroughfare to India: the Suez Canal.

This decisive territorialisation of Britain’s strategy entangled it in the Continental rivalries that caused the Great War. After Ottoman power collapsed in that conflict, the British came to run much of the Middle East. Their hubris in taking over Palestine and Iraq is in stark contrast with the self-interested but generally hard-headed manoeuvring vividly evoked in this authoritative book.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover