Chapter 4: Russian and British interests in Western Asia
Of the seventeenth century empires in Western Asia, only the Russian remained strong. In the tradition of the great universal empires, Russia saw itself as a force for peace, order, and security. All peoples and all nations had their place in the Russian system and even once-rival empires were tolerated as long as they acknowledged the supremacy of the Russian Tsar. Russia's main concern in Western Asia was to keep the Ottoman and Persian empires in their place and to keep the whole frontier peaceful and quiet.
Russia decisively defeated the Ottoman empire in 1828-29 and the victory caused the Russians to revise their policy towards the Ottomans which heretofore had been very aggressive. The war opened up for the first time the possibility of a complete collapse of the Ottoman empire. Mohammed Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, was practically independent and almost as powerful as the Sultan himself. The Russian victory in 1829 convinced him that he either had to break away from the empire or be destroyed along with it. If he succeeded in that, the Ottoman empire would cease to exist and all Europe was fearful of the struggle that would ensue for the remains. In 1829 the Tsar decided that the dissolution of the Ottoman empire would be more dangerous to Russia than its continued existence and the disadvantages of such an event would far outweigh the benefits of any possible territorial gains. Russia would rather have a weak state that recognized its supremacy than to have it replaced by other, perhaps stronger or more dangerous powers. Russia therefore in 1829 committed itself to the maintenance of the Ottoman empire.
Russia's relationship with Persia was similar. The Persians had been defeated twice and they now recognized the supremacy of the Tsar and his claim to the Caucasus. Russia on its part realized that further aggression against Persia would cause the total collapse of Kajar rule and therefore was satisfied with the situation. The Murid revolt in the Caucasus showed that the tribal anarchy that would likely ensue would be much harder to deal with. Beginning in the 1820's a religious brother-hood, the Murids, led an anti-Russian crusade in the higher mountains. Russian efforts to crush the movement only increased its strength, and excellent leadership welded the tribes into an effective fighting force. Although the Murid revolt was confined to the mountain tribes, it constantly threatened Russian communications through the Caucasus and made the strategic situation vis a vis Persia and Turkey very precarious.
East of the Caspian Sea Russia faced the nomad Kazakhs. At times united and powerful, the Kazakhs had more often been divided into the Great, Middle, and Lesser Hordes. Serious defeats at the hands of the Kalmuk Mongols in the mid-eighteenth century led the Middle and Lesser Hordes to seek Russian protection. Control of the roving tribes was difficult however, and the Russians built a line of forts to protect their Siberian settlements from raids. The tribal leaders made a formal submission in 1822 but the tribesmen still evaded control. The insecurity of Russian rule and the resulting instability were problems which were solved only after years of minor but constant warfare, in which the Kazakhs were often supported by the Uzbeg Khanates to the south.
The wars of the 1820's established for Russia a position of predominance in Western Asia. Russia decisively defeated the Ottoman and Persian empires and made them acknowledge Russian supremacy, the Kazakhs had submitted, and only the Uzbeg and Afghan states and the Arabian deserts remained untouched by the Tsar's power. Russia had every reason to be satisfied with this situation but it was not to go unchallenged. The Russian position and the British challenge to it that developed during the 1830's were the conditions that made Mohammed Shah's march on Herat in 1837 an event of more than purely local importance.
The British East India Company, from small beginnings at trading stations along the coast in the seventeenth century, had come to dominate the entire Indian subcontinent. Because of poor communications links, the real rulers of India were the Governors-General and the bureaucracy that had grown up in India itself. The Governors-General were carefully selected and they cooperated closely with their colleagues in the British Government, but in the early nineteenth century, British policy in Western Asia was for the most part determined by the political and strategic needs of the Indian empire.
Like all great empires, British India was concerned with order, stability, and undisputed domination. It tolerated minor states on the frontiers or within India only if they recognized British supremacy. Yet whereas the Russians could not conceive of an alternative to their empire, and attempted to integrate all their dominions and convince their subjects of the principle of Autocracy, the British always doubted their ability to resist challenges in India, and they made little attempt to unify their possessions or provide an ideology for their rule. They lacked a sense of their imperial mission and their empire was insecure as a result.
Along with empire in India came the need to protect the frontiers. Historically most invaders of India have come by way of the passes in the northwest. Some like the Moguls founded great empires, others like the Afghans had little lasting impact. Nevertheless the image of armies pouring out of the Khyber pass was well established. It was the activity of Zaman Shah and the schemes of Napoleon that first fixed British attentions on the Northwest. Considering Napoleon's accomplishments by 1806, it seemed plausible that he could arouse the nations of Iran and Central Asia and lead them to India. The participation of Russia in these plans only made the danger more real. The British response to this threat was to set up several buffer states in the northwest to absorb the shock and perhaps block an invasion. In 1808 and 1809, at the height of the French threat, embassies were sent to Afghanistan, Persia, Sind, and the Sikhs to secure treaties of alliance against Napoleon.
The French threat was ephemeral and soon faded away but the buffer policy remained. The Sikh state of Ranjit Singh became the anchor of British policy in the northwest. Beginning in 1799, Ranjit Singh had put together a compact state out of the many Sikh clans that had dominated the Punjab after the death of Ahmad Shah in 1773. Ranjit Singh's treaty with the British in 1809 prevented him from expanding eastward and uniting all the Sikhs, but gave him a free hand in the west. The strength of the Sikh state was its army, which was the most effective force in India outside of the British. But he did not build an administration that could function without his personal supervision and that was his greatest weakness, placing all his other achievements in jeopardy.
The Sikh state was a good buffer, effectively shielding India from the disorders in Afghanistan, but Ranjit Singh's westward expansion caused other problems for the British. After the collapse of Afghanistan in 1818, the Sikhs annexed the provinces along the Indus river one by one. In 1823 Ranjit forced Peshawar to pay him tribute. The involvement of the Sikhs added a new dimension to the already complicated Afghan scene. British attempts to preserve peace on the Northwest between the Sikhs and their neighbors eventually drew the British into war in Afghanistan.
Important as India was however, other matters also figured in British considerations. The balance of power in Europe was the most important but the economy was also beginning to command some attention. The industrial revolution was just beginning to take hold and trade was essential to keep the industrial machine going. Great quantities of food and raw materials were needed and Britain in the early nineteenth century was the world's greatest market, buying about one third of all other countries exports. It was considered the duty of the Government to keep the sea lanes open and to ensure dependable supplies and markets. As time went on the economy assumed more and more importance in determining British policy around the world but during the 1830's political and military considerations came first.
Notes to Chapter 4
Robert G. Wesson, The Imperial Order (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1967), pp. 38-54.
Henry H. Dodwell, The Founder of Modern Egypt. A Study of Mohammed Ali (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1931), pp. 68-93; Daniel Thomson, Europe Since Napoleon (2nd ed.; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), pp. 115-120.
Robert J. Kerner, "Russia's New Policy in the Near East After the Peace of Adrianople ," Cambridge Historical Journal (1937), 280-86; Philip E. Mosely, Russian Diplomacy and the Opening of the Eastern Question (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1954), pp. 8-9.
Baddeley, Caucasus, pp. 230-250.
Gavin Hambly, ed., Central Asia (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969), pp. 140-148; Geoffry Wheeler, The Modern History of Soviet Central Asia (New York: Praeger, 1964), pp. 197-198.
Majumdar and K. K. Datta, "Administrative System," British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance, Vol. IX of The History and Culture of the Indian People (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1963), pp .313-319.
Wesson, The Imperial Order, pp. 10-11.
Alder, "Britain and the Defence of India," 15-22.
Alder, pp. 28-35; John H. Gleason, The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1950), pp. 40-41.
R. C. Majumdar, "The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Kingdom," British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance, p. 247; Kushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, I (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 228-229.
Ferrier, pp. 182-183; Kushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, I, pp. 251-254.
A. H. Imlah, Economic Elements of the Pax Brittanica (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958), pp. 40, 123-145, 186-191.