Imperialism by Stealth

Sean Sheehan reviews Promised Lands: The British and the Ottoman Middle East, by Jonathan Parry (Princeton 2022).

Promised Lands begins with a bombardment in 1799 against a town in what is now Israel, an opening salvo in the history of British involvement in parts of the Ottoman Empire. The intention of the bombardment was not to attack the Ottomans – their empire was a useful bulwark against Russia and France – but to prevent Napoleon blocking Britain’s access to India. The book ends with the coming of the Crimean War in 1853 and Britain’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire against Russia.

Napoleon’s invasion of Ottoman Egypt precipitated an enlargement of Britain’s imperial centre of gravity, widening to include the eastern Mediterranean. Since the loss of the thirteen American colonies in 1789, India acquired a new importance and Britain adopted a geopolitical perspective grounded on securing its business routes through Egypt and the Red Sea, or through Syria, Mesopotamia and the Gulf. It was, the author states, a mission largely accomplished by the time of the Crimean War. This is the background, framing Jonathan Parry’s study and what makes it a fascinating read is his granular attention to an imperialist-minded project that was generally carried out more by stealth than systematic violence. To a large extent this was dictated by the practical impossibility of directly governing the territories that mattered: the challenge and financial cost of confronting head-on the Ottoman Empire and other vested interests would have been unthinkable. Far better to try and manage the rulers and inhabitants by diplomacy, commercial and technological prowess and naval power in adjacent waters. Relationships were subject to mood changes on all sides and there were French and Russian influences at Constantinople complicating geopolitical equations. If the Ottomans felt their power was waning there would be a concomitant increase in reliance on Russia and there is a chapter, for instance, devoted to the crisis caused by the defeat in 1839 of the Sultan’s army in Syria by Mehmet Ali, the Ottoman governor and de facto ruler of Egypt. In this and other crises there were British officials in the region with their own career aspirations and Parry has delved into their agendas by scouring Foreign Office archives for the records of original correspondence with British representatives overseas.

In a region inseparable from three of the world’s major religions, Parry takes on the task of disentangling the consequent affiliations that wove complicated patterns into the fabric of the Ottoman Middle East. British troops did their bit early on by spreading the rumour that if Napoleon reached Jerusalem he would bury a French soldier in Christ’s tomb and plant the revolutionary tree of liberty where the cross of Cavalry had reputedly stood. Characteristic of the book’s cellular dissection of competing interests is a chapter on the various Christian denominations in Syria and neighbouring lands and how British evangelising Protestant bodies interfered with them in the late 1830s and ‘40s.

The author provides a tremendously readable synthesis of scholarly studies of this sectarian and arcane field while also, throughout the book, illuminating his study with cultural and social asides that bear tangentially on the main story. By winning favour with the Ottomans at the time of the French invasion of Egypt, the Earl of Elgin received rights over the Parthenon which he then used to persuade local officials in Athens to dismantle the marble sculptures adorning it; a navigation company (which became P&O) cashed in on steam travel by gaining government support for a luxury service from Southampton to Alexandria partly in exchange for a subsidised mail service from Suez to India; when the pyramids came into view on the Nile boat to Cairo, the novelist Thackeray wrote how ‘several of us tried to be impressed; but breakfast supervening, a rush was made at the coffee and cold pies’.

Sean Sheehan writes for various publications and is author of Jack’s World.