British India and the Middle East

views updated

British India and the Middle East

India and the Middle East share a history that far predates the coming of the British Empire. Commercially, for over a millennium, the two had been linked by the overland caravan trade in silks, spices, and other commodities and by an Indian Ocean maritime trade in calicoes (a type of cotton cloth), coffee, specie (money in the form of coins), and slaves. Information traveled quickly around the Indian Ocean world, particularly from Arab merchants and explorers, such as the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (ca. 1304–1368).

By the thirteenth century, a great portion of North India was ruled by Muslim dynasties of Central Asian and Turkish origins: the Delhi Sultanate from 1210, followed by the Mughal Empire in 1526. The Mughal military relied heavily on irregulars and mercenaries, particularly horsemen, from Central Asia, and by the reign of the Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), the Mughal officers corps and nobility were dominated by Persian mansabdars (ranked nobles) and jagirdars (holders of revenue assignments). The Persian Empire could also be a threat to Mughal India, perhaps no more strikingly than when Nadir Shah (1688–1747) sacked Delhi in 1739, taking with him the Koh-i-noor diamond and the famed Peacock Throne.

Islam also bound South Asia, Arabia, and the Ottoman Empire through common laws, languages, scholarship, and, in theory, the spiritual leadership of the caliph, the head of the universal community of Islam. Though most commonly recognized to reside in the Ottoman sultan, the caliphate was also claimed by Mughal rulers after Akbar. Furthermore, the annual hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, provided for a direct and constant exchange between western India and the Arabian Peninsula.


Thus, when Britons first arrived in Asia in the later sixteenth century, they imagined southern and western Asia as encompassing a connected and unified commercial, if not political, system. The English East India Company, chartered by Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) in 1600, had a monopoly on all English trade and politics east of the Cape of Good Hope, and was therefore concerned with affairs in Asia broadly. Much of its early leadership and financing came from members and directors of the English Levant (or Turkey) Company, who envisioned the East India Company as an opportunity to circumvent the overland caravan route and to more directly access the raw silk markets in the eastern reaches of the Ottoman Empire and Persia.

The first factory (residence and trading post) the East India Company sought in India was in the western Gujarati town of Surat (1616), the most important overseas commercial port in Mughal India and its most direct connection to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The trade from Surat to Mokha and Jedda on the Arabian Peninsula became a principal part of company business, and the next factory the company established after Surat was at Isfahan in Persia (1617).

As it had been for the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, maritime strength in the Indian Ocean soon became central to English East India Company strategy and was a key component to its regional power. The company's first and perhaps most significant early aggressive move came in 1622, when it allied with the Persian shah to expel the Portuguese from Hormuz. As a term of the alliance, the company was given a share of the customs revenue and trading privileges at the port of Gombroon (Bandar 'Abbas), which became a base of its operations through the century. It also solidified the company's permanent presence in Persia.

The relationship between British activities in India and the Middle East intensified with the East India Company's acquisition of Bombay in 1668. The former Portuguese island off the West Indian coast was home to a cosmopolitan and maritime community of traders, sailors, and soldiers with deep connections to western Asia. By the 1680s, it had become the center of the company's Asian government, and the factories in western India and Persia, as well as all its commercial and military affairs in the Indian Ocean region, fell under the jurisdiction of Bombay's governor and council. As Bombay grew in importance to the company, so too did the correlation between company strategic and commercial interests in India and its affairs in western Asia.

Crises in one part of Asia could also have vast ramifications in other parts of Asia. In the late 1680s, for example, when a spate of pirates from Europe and America seized a number of Indian ships in the Red Sea, many important Surat merchants lost a great deal of money and blamed the English East India Company at Surat for the assaults. In 1696 a ship belonging to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707), carrying both a rich cargo as well as hajjis (Muslim pilgrims), fell to an assault from an English pirate, Henry Avery (d. 1728). The appearance on the western Indian coast a couple of years later of the New York privateer-turned-pirate, the infamous Captain William Kidd (ca. 1645–1701), only made matters worse. In both instances, company officials in Surat were arrested and all European trade stopped from the port. The crisis only abated when the English East India Company, along with the Dutch, agreed to various demands, including providing convoys for Mughal shipping to Arabia.

This late seventeenth-century crisis was important in reinforcing to the English East India Company the great interdependence between its affairs in the Middle East and India. It also profoundly affected the growth of the company's maritime power in the eighteenth century. The company had now become politically and martially committed to the eradication of piracy, which most directly led to the development of its western Indian naval force known as the Bombay Marine.

By the 1720s, American violence in the Indian Ocean had all but vanished. East India Company officials at Bombay then turned their attention to Indian "piracy," aiming most specifically at their greatest western Indian rival: the Maratha Confederacy and its maritime power, a coastal tributary state led by Kanhoji Angre (1669–1729). Whether Khanoji, or his successor, Tulaji, were pirates or commanders of a navy is a matter of perception. Still, under the banner of suppressing piracy, the English East India Company defeated the Angres by the 1750s, rendering British maritime supremacy in the eastern Indian Ocean unrivaled.

After defeating the Angres, Bombay again turned its attention back to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. The new "piratical threat" came from the so-called Muscat Arabs of the Persian Gulf coastal sultanates. In fact, the British even dubbed the region the "Pirate Coast." After more than a half-century of assault, the Bombay Marine and the British Royal Navy succeeded in forcing these coastal polities into submission. In 1820 a series of treaties imposed upon them transformed the Pirate Coast into the so-called Trucial Coast. The treaties declared the "cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea on the part of the Arabs," ended the Eastern African slave trade to Arabia, and firmly established British India's sphere of influence in the Gulf sultanates. Soon after, company trade in the region began to flourish.

Meanwhile, as the English East India Company's role as a territorial power in India grew, the company also began to design stronger commercial and financial ties with the Ottoman Empire. Its first governor-general in Bengal, Warren Hastings (1732–1818), attempted to encourage trade with Egypt in the early 1770s, primarily as a way to bolster the company's financial affairs at Calcutta. The volatility of Egyptian politics and the hostility of rulers in the Hejaz (a region along the Red Sea in present-day Saudi Arabia), particularly that of the sharif of Mecca towards Europeans traveling as far north as Suez, meant that these plans never came to fruition. The company's lucrative trade elsewhere in western Asia, particularly with Baghdad, was also on the wane.

Though still valuable to the Eurasian trade, Arabia and Mesopotamia were no longer commercial priorities for British India by the close of the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, British officials wanted very much to preclude other Europeans, particularly the French, from gaining a foothold there. Even worse than the commercial threat was the possibility that France could use these ties directly or indirectly to involve itself in British affairs in India, from which it had been largely expelled after the Seven Years' War (1756–1763).


Active French diplomacy and pressure in Egypt, Baghdad, Oman, Persia, and Sind (part of modern Pakistan) in the 1780s seemed threatening enough, but the rise of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and expansion of the French Empire brought these issues to the fore. Napoléon's alliance with Tipu Sultan (1750–1799), the sultan of Mysore, the English East India Company's South Indian rival, seemed evidence of France's renewed South Asian ambition. More importantly, Napoléon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 and Syria in 1799, though eventually repelled, made palpable the prospect of the French danger to India. The invasion was a watershed. For the nineteenth century, Britain's overriding concern in the Middle East would be to exclude European rivals and to buttress its influence in the region, all to protect India.

The English East India Company's defeat of the nawabs (provincial governors) of Bengal in eastern India (at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the Battle of Buxar in 1764), Tipu Sultan (1799), the Maratha Confederacy in western India (1818), and the coastal Arabian sultanates after 1820 confirmed the company as an expanding territorial sovereign power in India, led from Calcutta, with maritime power emanating from Bombay and radiating around the Indian Ocean littoral. Still, the British Indian government could never feel entirely secure, particularly at its borders. Under the governor-generalship of Marquis Wellesley (1798–1805), British India pursued a particularly aggressive policy for expanding and protecting its frontiers.

This was a crucial moment in the development of the British Indian government's own foreign and imperial policies. British policy, especially after the 1820s, was designed not necessarily to control formal colonies in western and Central Asia, but to keep other European powers out and to exert such influence as to create a buffer between Europe and British India, particularly in Turkey and Persia. The Middle East, particularly the three points of the northwestern Afghani town of Herat, the Red Sea port of Aden, and the island of Kishm in the Strait of Hormuz, was to become a buffer and frontier for the British Indian Empire. This so-called subimperialism—or what at least one historian has dubbed an "empire of the Raj"—consisted both in formal expansion as well as in the use of military, financial, and political influence to maintain "informal" or "subsidiary" alliances with key strategic polities and princes. Diplomacy in Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Arabia was considered an Indian problem to be conducted from Calcutta, not London.

While power in the Persian Gulf was important, it was the base at Aden that more or less secured British dominance of maritime western Asia. It became even more critical in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal. The canal cut in half the journey to India. Yet, what Britain gained in convenience and efficiency it lost in security. The English East India Company and the British Royal Navy had dominated the centuries-old maritime route around the southern tip of Africa since its acquisition of the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1815. The Suez Canal undercut this monopoly by giving both Britain and its European rivals access to the Red Sea from the Mediterranean. This route was also much more volatile. Political or military rivals in Europe, such as France or Russia, or instability in the Ottoman Empire could much more easily threaten British access to the Suez Canal, and thus to India.

Despite these concerns, the first actual crisis for British interests in the Suez Canal came from within Egypt itself. The efforts of Ismail Pasha (1830–1895), the Ottoman tributary ruler (khedive) of Egypt from 1863, through the 1870s to modernize Egypt left the country significantly indebted to European investors. Furthermore, in 1875 the British state became directly interested when it bought Ismail's 44 percent share in the Suez Canal Company. Nonetheless, Egypt went bankrupt the next year. Its Western creditors essentially foreclosed on the Egyptian government, replacing Ismail with a new khedive, his son Tewfik Pasha (1852–1892).

In 1881, dissatisfaction with Western intervention growing, Tewfik was overthrown by a nationalist rebellion led by the Egyptian military officer and nationalist Ahmad qUrabi Pasha (1839–1911). France, concerned for its financiers as well as its other colonial interests in North Africa, designed an invasion. The liberal British government, headed by William Gladstone (1809–1898), was more reluctant, but agreed to a joint expedition. The French Parliament refused to sanction the plan, withdrawing from the arrangement. By then, however, the revolt had grown in size and strength. In July 1882 the British Royal Navy began bombarding Alexandria, and soon after British forces occupied Egypt.


Perhaps an even greater concern for nineteenth-century British India than threats to the Suez Canal route was the perceived continental ambition in Central Asia of Britain's other great European rival: imperial Russia. The landlocked Herat proved much more difficult to control than the more southern maritime frontiers in the Indian Ocean. War, diplomatic intrigue, and political posturing with Russia over this region ensued through most of the nineteenth century.

Known as the "Great Game," perhaps exemplified most famously in British author Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim (1900), this century of conflict centered to a great extent on British efforts to unite and secure Afghanistan against rival Persian and Russian claims. Its first attempt came in the mid-1830s when the British Indian government moved to install Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk (1780–1842), who had been living in exile in India, as ruler of Afghanistan. In 1838 the British Indian army attempted to seize Kabul, leading to the First Anglo-Afghan War. This attempt to make Afghanistan into a British imperial puppet state ended in disaster and a humiliating retreat by 1842.

By the 1860s and 1870s, further Russian expansion and its rebounding from the Crimean War (1853–1856) again made an Afghan buffer seem to be an imperative. In 1878 the British Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) declared war. Though Gladstone's newly elected Liberal (and anti-imperial) government in 1880 withdrew from the war, this Second Anglo-Afghan War concluded with the establishment of a de facto protectorate over Afghanistan marked by British control over its foreign policy and defense.

Nonetheless, the Afghan issue remained unsettled until the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. In the wake of defeat at the hands of the Japanese (1905), Russia was forced to accept Britain's dominance in Afghanistan and a division of spheres of influence in Persia.

British India's Middle Eastern strategy by the beginning of the twentieth century still depended largely on "informal empire," particularly by buttressing the rule of its unstable and weakening allies in the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and the so-called Trucial states. Nonetheless, this impulse to jockey over the Middle East in defense of British India also led to the formal expansion of British India's borders. Often against orders from London, local military and civil officials in British India saw expansion as the only solution for instability at the frontier. The annexation of Sind (1843) and the Punjab (1849) directly resulted from the perceived need on the ground for security at the empire's western front. (The conflict between the "man on the spot" and the India and Foreign Offices in London was perhaps most infamously encapsulated in a cartoon in the British magazine Punch, which satirized Sir Charles Napier's [1782–1853] seizure of Sind with a single-word double-entendre for a caption: peccavi, Latin for "I have sinned.")

Russian attempts in the 1870s and 1880s at extending its railways to ports on the northern Persian Gulf only exacerbated the problem. The virtual annexation of Baluchistan, in present-day Pakistan, in the 1870s was designed primarily to buttress British India's position in the Arabian seas as well as to exert diplomatic pressure on Persia to repel Russian overtures.

The viceroyalty of George Curzon (1899–1905) marked perhaps the apogee of this aggressive independence on the part of the government of India. Though increasingly opposed by officials in the British Foreign Office (which he would later head), Curzon argued fervently—and mostly unsuccessfully—that the defense of India should continue to be the cornerstone for British policy in the Middle East, best achieved by expansion on India's northern, eastern, and western borders.


By the beginning of the twentieth century, the British had occupied Egypt, expanded its territory in Central Asia, and become financially and politically entangled in bolstering allied regimes in Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Arabian Peninsula. Much of this was done defensively and with the preservation of the British imperial system, with India at its center, always foremost in mind.

However, the "informal" empire in the Middle East became much more complex and volatile with the onset of World War I in 1914. While the Great War intensified the need to defend India's borders, it also drew the Middle East squarely to the center of the European conflict. The players in the game had also changed sides. Old British allies were now its rivals in the Middle East: a Prussian-led Germany, which had for a decade been provoking the British and French with an attempt to build a railway across Turkey to Basra, and the Ottoman Empire, which joined the Central Powers in 1914.

The war realigned India's relationship with the Middle East. Britain's declaration of war on the Ottomans, the occupation of Basra, and the subsequent campaign under the British Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force in the fall of 1914 animated British India's interests in the region. Indian troops were used extensively in campaigns around the world, including Turkey, Egypt, German East Africa, and Mesopotamia. Where the Middle East had once been envisioned as protection for India, now India found itself charged with defending British interests in the Middle East.

Furthermore, though officially agnostic on the future fate of the dismembered Ottoman Empire, the British government had been engaging in secret negotiations with France and Russia to carve out a vision for the postwar Middle East. The result was the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), made public by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution, which endorsed the creation of an Arab confederated state that would be independent but divided into "spheres of influence" between Britain and France. Both the British and the French believed that the promise of an independent state would inspire Arab revolts against the Ottoman Empire, a keystone to Middle Eastern strategy during the war. Importantly, this master plan for a pan-Arab revolt was orchestrated not from India but Egypt, where Britain had established a protectorate in 1914 under the diplomatic stewardship of Sir Henry McMahon (1862–1949), the high commissioner, and later the strategic designs of Gilbert Clayton (1875–1929), director of military intelligence at Cairo and head of the Arab Bureau (established in 1916), perhaps best known for its connections to T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia," 1888–1935) and his mission in the Hejaz.

The government of India continued to insist on the centrality of the Middle East in protecting its borders, but for Britain victory in Europe far outweighed the importance of Asia. The war also made clear the importance of the Middle East as a source for strategic resources, particularly oil. The very idea of the "Middle East" was created in this period; that the term itself is an early twentieth-century neologism stands as further evidence that Europe was beginning to consider its interests in the region as important in themselves.

While India agreed on the importance of protecting oil supplies and the much-needed alliances with the Gulf sultanates, British Indian officials thought the only way to accomplish this was to establish a formal empire in the region. Only a protectorate or colonial settlement, particularly in Iraq and its environs, under British guidance and control could prevent the emergence of an independent Arab state. After all, British India was home to eighty million Muslims, vastly more than the number in the Middle East and slightly less than one-third of India's population. The possibility of a large and powerful state emerging on its borders, with religious, historical, and political ties to India seemed even more menacing than the nineteenth-century threats of France and Russia.

Therefore, the coming of the war highlighted the growing divergence between the interests of British India and the British Empire as a whole. The resurgence of anticolonial nationalism in India after World War I only amplified this problem, making British Middle Eastern politics not just a foreign policy concern, but also bringing it firmly to the center of British Indian domestic politics.

The service of vast numbers of Indian troops in the war effort, amongst other places in the Middle East and North Africa, was rewarded not, as expected, with gestures towards home rule for India, but with an extension of wartime restrictions on assembly, speech, and print and a move away from prewar measures towards conciliation. Many Muslim nationalists responded hostilely to the perceived assault on Islam during the war, particularly in the toppling of the caliph and the Ottoman Empire. Indian Muslims had not heeded the sultan's call to wage a jihad (holy war) against the British, but postwar British expansion in the Middle East not controlled by Delhi threatened to exacerbate the perception that the British Empire was unconcerned with the protection of Muslim minorities in India.

This perception had its strongest articulation in the caliphate movement (1919–1924), a pan-Islamic Indian nationalism that rallied around the assault on Islam perceived in the toppling of the Ottoman Empire. The Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) soon allied his noncooperation and swaraj (self-rule) movements with the caliphate movement, making a pan-Indian, nationwide home-rule movement seem possible. These efforts were short-lived, however, undercut by a number of circumstances, including the related hijra, a protest and mass-exodus of almost thirty thousand Muslims from British India to Afghanistan.

World War II again put a good deal of focus on the key place the Middle East held in British geopolitical imperial strategy. Italy's entry into the war in 1940 put new pressures on protecting access to the Suez Canal, while German ambitions in Iraq and Iran, long the prevailing territorial Middle Eastern concerns of British India, again revealed the deep connections between British policies in both imperial theaters.


The rising power of Indian nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s and reforms in the British Indian government were making a greater degree of home rule in India an impending reality. This only further inspired officials in London to wrest the remaining control of Middle Eastern policy from the government of India and relocate it to London and Cairo. When independence did come to India in August 1947, it struck a blow to the material strength of British influence in the Middle East.

Even earlier, the Labour government that had come to power in Britain in 1945 seemed to be committed to development of its interests in the Middle East as an economic replacement for its desired withdrawal from formal empire, particularly in India. What was more, overshadowed by the loss of India, the anti-imperial Labour government was unlikely to endure great costs, both human and financial, in holding onto its interests in the Middle East, particularly in Palestine. Many commentators and statesmen, including Winston Churchill (1874–1965), warned that even the appearance that the British Empire was remaining tenacious in their hold on Palestine, in the face both of Jewish and Arab violence, would be taken as evidence of a Machiavellian attempt to hold on to its last vestige of power in the region. Ironically, the abandonment of Palestine and the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 only fueled the appearance that the British Empire was on the eve of its dissolution.

Thus, by the end of World War II, British imperial policy in the Middle East had been completely reoriented from where it stood just a half-century earlier. A policy that had been primarily a means for protecting India, and for much of its history conducted from India, had been dismantled. So, while Indian independence did not signal an immediate withdrawal of British concerns in the Middle East, it did perhaps imply its final fate.

Despite eleventh-hour attempts to strengthen its influence through the 1950s, the British Empire faced stiff opposition from nationalists across the region, as well as the new superpowers in the region: the United States and the Soviet Union. Soon, the old passageways to India were lost to the British, bookended perhaps by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser's (1918–1970) nationalization of, the Suez Canal Company and the failed joint British-French-Israeli invasion to topple him in 1956, and culminating in the final and formal abandonment of the Trucial system in the Persian Gulf states with the creation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.

see also 'Urabi Rebellion; Afghan Wars; British Colonialism, Middle East; World War I, Middle East.


Balfour-Paul, Glen. "Britain's Informal Empire in the Middle East." The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. 4: The Twentieth Century, edited by Judith M. Brown and William Roger Louis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Blyth, Robert J. The Empire of the Raj: India, Eastern Africa, and the Middle East, 1858–1947. Houndmills, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Chaudhuri, K. N. The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660–1760. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Darwin, John. Britain, Egypt, and the Middle East: Imperial Policy in the Aftermath of War, 1918–1922. London: Macmillan, 1981.

Davies, Charles E. The Blood-Red Arab Flag: An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy, 1797–1820. Exeter, U.K.: University of Exeter Press, 1997.

Fisher, John. Curzon and British Imperialism in the Middle East, 1916–19. London: Frank Cass, 1999.

Gallagher, John, and Ronald Robinson with Alice Denny. Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism. London: Macmillan and St. Martin's Press, 1961.

Ingram, Edward. In Defence of British India: Great Britain and the Middle East, 1775–1842. London: Frank Cass, 1984.

Jackson, William. The Pomp of Yesterday: The Defence of India and the Suez Canal, 1798–1918. London: Brassey's, 1995.

Kumar, Ravinder. India and the Persian Gulf Region, 1858–1907: A Study in British Imperial Policy. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1965.

Louis, William Roger. The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945–1951: Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Postwar Imperialism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Porter, Bernard. The Lion's Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850–2004, 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2004.

Risso, Patricia. "Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Piracy: Maritime Violence in the Western Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf Region during a Long Eighteenth Century." Journal of World History 12 (2) (2001): 293-319.

Ritchie, Robert C. Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Robinson, Francis. "The British Empire and the Muslim World." In The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. 4: The Twentieth Century, edited by Judith M. Brown and William Roger Louis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. "Un Grand Dérangement: Dreaming an Indo-Persian Empire in South Asia, 1740–1800." Journal of Early Modern History 4 (3-4) (2000): 337-378.

Yapp, M. E. Strategies of British India: Britain, Iran, and Afghanistan, 1798–1850. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

About this article

British India and the Middle East

Updated About content Print Article