2003 March 20 Thursday
Gertrude Bell In Iraq During the British 1920s Mandate

Gertrude Bell was an obviously upper class British woman who was involved in the British Mandate rule over Iraq during the 1920s. Her letters to her father (and perhaps to others as well?) can be found here. I've included some excerpts from a few of them below in hopes they will pique your interest. The letters give a sense of what the British approach was toward ruling Iraq.

From her 26 February 1922 letter to her father.

[26 February 1922] Baghdad Feb 26 Darling Father. I shall begin my fortnightly letter. The airmail is a week overdue but I believe it is in tomorrow. The outgoing mail also was delayed - we have had a good deal of wind, bad for travel by air. On the whole however it's wonderful that the service has been well maintained all through the winter. We have a motor party crossing the desert also, partly to remark the aerodromes and partly to collect data for a possible railway. For the latter purpose AT [Wilson] went with them. I haven't any belief in that desert railway as a business proposition, but if the APOC choose to take it up the 'Iraq wouldn't say them nay. The Co. is not in very good odour because of the immense charges they are making for kerosine in Baghdad. AT had an interview with the King on the subject - the first time he has seen him. I went up to photograph the King next day but he didn't seem to have been favourably impressed by AT. "Oh my sister!" said he "A perfect thief!" This was because he had offered to buy kerosine in Muhammarah and transport it himself (AT having objected that the high price was because of the cost of carriage.) AT said that couldn't be managed - I expect they have a private contract with Mesperse[?] for the transport of oil. Meantime rage and anger are gathering round them for the price of agricultural produce has fallen to pre-war rates and the petroleum being 30 times the pre-war cost the cultivators can't afford to work their pumps. The APOC is making gigantic profits, I believe, but I don't think it will pay them, if they want further concessions in 'Iraq to maintain a stiff attitude with regard to prices. Already there's a good deal of murmuring that the mineral wealth of the country should be worked in the interests of the country.

The King mentioned above was King Faisal who was then the King of Iraq and who had been installed on the throne by the British. His grandson Faisal II was overthrown and murdered in 1958. A timeline of Iraqi history can be found here.

1 March 1922, presumably to her father.

It was such a glorious day today. I went out riding in the afternoon through the green desert. The King has taken over the Dairy Farm and is busy planting trees down all the roads.

Oh and I must tell you (in private) that the Naqib has dug in his toes about the treaty and won't be responsible for it unless the mandate is specifically dropped. And what's more (but this is deeply secret) Sir Percy has advised that it should be and at his request I added a sentence or two to his otherwise admirable telegram pointing out (for this made his case so much stronger) that if we persist in claiming a mandate we shall unite against us in uneasy harness the extremists who will follow and outvie Faisal and the moderates who would find it almost impossible to go against the expressed opinion of the Naqib. So that we should arrive at a deadlock with the people who are most anxious for our continued presence here unable to advocate it on our silly terms. Which Heaven forbid! but all honour to Sir Percy for having boldly faced the problem.

Writing to her father 12 March 1922

Rabbi Kornfelder who is the newly appointed USA Minister at Tehran [(Teheran)] is here on his way to his post. I dined and met him on Friday and heard a great deal about the East. Incidentally I may mention that he has never before been east of Boston. All the same he is rather an interesting man. I had him to lunch today and a little party to meet him, including Col. Slater and Sasun Eff. Sasun and Dr Kornfelder agree in being anti-Zionists. I also had a dinner party last week of officers of the 'Iraq General Staff with Major Eadie and Major Murray to meet them. Very nice they were. - Sir Percy has just been in to give his advice on the question of parties, namely that if the two parties can't come to an agreement the moderates are bound to go ahead on their own lines. I'm now expecting (a) Nuri Pasha, (b) Fakhri and Majid Beg to discuss the same subject, the last two to tell me the developments of the day and hear Sir Percy's views. It's deeply interesting, but rather agonizing to be taking so decisive a share in all this. One feels that a wrong step may do a great deal of harm. But both Sir Percy and I think that the country as a whole is with the moderates if they will come forward boldly and also that the Naqib's influence is a very strong factor at present and that what he is known to back will win.

Isn't that a revelation? There was an American Rabbi serving as something equivalent to an ambassador to Persia in the 1920s. Note the passing reference to Zionism.

Writing to her father 30 March 1922

[30 March 1922] March 30 Baghdad. Darling Father. I'm writing to you in a great perturbation of spirit because we are in the middle of a terrific cabinet crisis brought on, I'm sorry to say, by very hasty and ill judged action on the part of the King. He took offence at the inaction of the Cabinet with regard to the Akhwan raid and without telling anyone or consulting anyone called up 5 of the Ministers and said he had lost confidence in them and would ask them to resign. This they have finally done after two days of indecision during which Mr Cornwallis and Sir Percy have tried to find ways for him to get out, all of which he has refused to take. Two of the 5 are very important people, Naji Suwaidi and the big Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] man, 'Abdul Latif Mandil, and on the top Sasun Eff has resigned also - I can't blame him, but I feel sure the King won't accept his resignation if he can help it. The Akhwan raid was a very bad business; our tribes lost over 200 killed and all their tents and animals, but there was absolutely nothing the Cabinet could do until we knew how far Ibn Sa'ud himself was implicated in the matter - and if he was implicated it was up to us to take action. Yesterday Sir Percy had a perfectly admirable telegram from Ibn Sa'ud - telegrams take some time because they go to Bahrain by camel and are telegraphed from there - saying he knew nothing whatever about the hostilities, expressing his deep regret and adding that he had sent instant orders to his people to come back. I won't say he is blameless in the matter but I feel convinced that Sir Percy can bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion for Ibn Sa'ud worships him {almost} only second to Allah. Meantime it's difficult to see how Faisal is going to right himself. If he climbs down he'll look very foolish and if he persists he will be very foolish. This is all private of course. Sir Percy, that great master of wiles, may yet find a way out. He and the King are flying to Ramadi [Ramadi, Ar] tomorrow to lunch with 'Ali Sulaiman - perhaps flight will bring counsel.

The Ibn Sa'ud referenced above is the now famous patriarch to the large clan of princes who currently rule Saudi Arabia.

The intrigue, tribal conflicts, and competition for influence and power in Iraq come across in the letters. At the same time, while tribal raiders could come out of the desert and kill hundreds it certainly was a slower moving, more genteel, and in some ways less complex time.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 March 20 01:53 PM  Mideast Iraq

Jacqui said at July 28, 2003 5:52 PM:

Is there any possibility you could send me some info on Gertrude Bell regarding the following
-Dangers she encountered while exploring the vast desert regions
-Her invovlement in Arabian affairs which include the 'establishment of King Faisal'
-Problems she experienced as a woman not typical of her time
I'm a year 12 student doing my VCE solo performance on these aspects of her life.
Thank you

Brittany said at November 29, 2004 5:58 PM:

I just have two questions for whoever can answer them:
Why did she never marry?, and why did she kill herself?
She was an extremely intelligent woman. Some articles I read say that she was just lonely. Others say that she felt that she had served her purpose & felt she could be of no more use to her people.
I also read in one web site that she was on the marriage market for 3 years and that she was in love at one time, but her father did not agree with the engagement so it did not happen. But that was all from one site & I did not find it anywhere else; so, I doubt it is true.
Ok, one more question: Is it true that she did not agree that women should have the right to vote?

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