On the eastern side of the Black Sea the commercial interests of Britain were increasingly bound up with the port of Trebizond, in north-eastern Turkey, from which Greek and Armenian merchants imported large quantities of British manufactured goods for sale in the interior of Asia. The growing value of this trade to Britain, observed Karl Marx in the
New York Tribune
, ‘may be seen at the Manchester Exchange, where dark-complexioned Greek buyers are increasing in numbers and importance, and where Greek and South Slav dialects are heard along with German and English’. Until the 1840s, the Russians had a near-monopoly of trade in manufactured goods in this part of Asia. Russian textiles, rope and linen products dominated the bazaars of Bayburt, Baghdad and Basra. But steamships and railways made it possible to open up a shorter route to India – either through the Mediterranean to Cairo and then from Suez to the Red Sea, or via the Black Sea to Trebizond and the Euphrates river to the Persian Gulf (sailing ships could not readily cope with the high winds and monsoons of the Gulf of Suez or with the narrow waters of the Euphrates). The British favoured the Euphrates route, mainly because it ran through territories ruled by the Sultan (as opposed to Mehmet Ali); developing the route was seen as a way to increase British influence and check the growing power of Russia in this part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1834 Britain received permission from the Porte for General Francis Chesney to survey the Euphrates route. The survey was a failure, and British interest in the route declined. But plans for a Euphrates Valley Railway from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf via Aleppo and Baghdad were revived in the 1850s, when the British government was looking for a way to increase its presence in an area where they perceived a growing Russian threat to India (the railway was never developed by the British, for lack of financial guarantees, but the Baghdad Railway built by Germany from 1903 followed much of the same route).
The danger Russia posed to India was the
of British Russophobes. For some, this would become the underlying aim of the Crimean War: to stop a power bent not just on the conquest of Turkey but on the domination of the whole of Asia Minor right up to Afghanistan and India. In their alarmed imagination there were no bounds on the designs of Russia, the fastest growing empire in the world.
In truth, there was never any serious danger of the Russians reaching India in the years before the Crimean War. It was much too far and difficult to march an army all that way – though the Russian Emperor Paul I had once entertained a madcap scheme to send a combined French and Russian force there. The idea had been taken up again by Napoleon in his talks with Tsar Alexander in 1807. ‘The more unrealistic the expedition is,’ Napoleon explained, ‘the more it can be used to terrorize the Englishmen.’ The British government always knew that such an expedition was not feasible. One British intelligence officer thought that any Russian invasion of India ‘would amount to little more than the sending of a caravan’. But while few in official British circles thought that Russia was a serious threat to India, this did not prevent the Russophobic British press from whipping up that fear, emphasizing the potential danger posed by Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus and its ‘underhand activities’ in Persia and Afghanistan.
The theory made its first appearance in 1828, in a pamphlet,
On the Designs of Russia,
written by Colonel George de Lacy Evans (a general by the time he took up the command of the British army’s 2nd Infantry Division during the Crimean War). Speculating on the outcome of the Russo-Turkish war, de Lacy Evans conjured up a nightmare fantasy of Russian aggression and expansion, leading to the conquest of the whole of Asia Minor and the collapse of British trade with India. De Lacy’s working principle – that the rapid growth of the Russian Empire since the beginning of the eighteenth century proved the iron law that Russian expansion must continue until checked – reappeared in a second pamphlet he published, in 1829,
On the Practicality of an Invasion of British India
, in which he claimed, without any evidence of Russia’s actual intentions, that a Russian force could be built up on India’s north-west frontier. The pamphlet was widely read in official circles. Wellington took it as a warning and told Lord Ellenborough, the president of the Board of Control for India, that he was ‘ready to take up the question in Europe, if the Russians [should] move towards India with views of evident hostility’. After 1833, with Russia’s domination of the Ottoman Empire seemingly secured, these fears took on the force of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1834 Lieutenant Arthur Connolly (who coined the term ‘the Great Game’ to describe Anglo-Russian rivalry in Asia Minor) published a best-selling travelogue,
Journey to the North of India
, in which he argued that the Russians could attack the north-west frontier if they were supported by the Persians and Afghans.
The Russians had in fact been steadily increasing their presence in Asia Minor in line with their policy of keeping neighbours weak. Russian agents advised Persia on foreign policy and organized support for the Shah’s army. In 1837, when the Persians took the Afghan city of Herat, many British politicians had no doubt that it was part of Russia’s preparation for an invasion of India. ‘Herat, in the hands of Persia,’ wrote a former British ambassador to Tehran, ‘can never be considered in any other light than as an advanced
for the Russians toward India.’ The Russophobic press criticized the inactivity of British governments that had failed to see the ‘underhand’ and ‘nefarious’ activities of the Russians in Persia. ‘For several years,’ warned the
, ‘we have endeavoured to make them understand that the ambitious designs of Russia extended beyond Turkey and Circassia and Persia, even to our East Indian dependencies, which Russia has not lost sight of since Catherine threatened to march her armies in that direction, and rally the native Indian princes round the standard of the Great Mogul.’ The
called for more than watchful vigilance against Russia: ‘It is of little use to
Russia, if our care and exertion are to end with that exercise of vigilance. We have been
Russia during eight years, and within that time she has pushed her acquisitions and military posts nearly 2000 miles on the road to India.’
The view that Russia, by its very nature, was a threat to India became widespread among the British broadsheet-reading classes. It was expressed by the anonymous author of a widely read pamphlet of 1838 called
India, Great Britain, and Russia
, in a passage that is reminiscent of the domino theory of the Cold War:
The unparalleled aggressions of Russia in every direction must destroy all confidence in her pacific protestations, and ought to satisfy every reasonable inquirer that the only limit on her conquests will be found in the limitation of her power. On the West, Poland has been reduced to the state of a vassal province. In the South, the Ottoman sovereign has been plundered of part of his possessions, and holds the rest subject to the convenience of his conqueror. The Black Sea cannot be navigated but by permission of the Muscovite. The flag of England, which was wont to wave proudly over all the waters of the world, is insulted, and the commercial enterprise of her merchants crippled and defeated. In the East, Russia is systematically pursuing the same course: Circassia is to be crushed; Persia to be made first a partisan, then a dependent province, finally an integral part of the Russian Empire. Beyond Persia lies Afghanistan, a country prepared by many circumstances to furnish a ready path for the invader. The Indus crossed, what is to resist the flight of the Russian eagle into the heart of British India? It is thither that the eyes of Russia are directed. Let England look to it.
To counteract the perceived Russian threat, the British attempted to create buffer states in Asia Minor and the Caucasus. In 1838 they occupied Afghanistan. Officially, their aim was to reinstall the recently deposed Emir Shah Shuja on the Afghan throne, but after that had been achieved, in 1839, they maintained their occupation to support his puppet government – ultimately as a means of moving towards British rule – until they were forced to withdraw by tribal rebellions and disastrous military reverses in 1842. The British also stepped up their diplomatic presence in Tehran, attempting to wean the Persians off the Russians through a defensive alliance and promises of aid for their army. Under British pressure the Persians left Herat and signed a new commercial treaty with Britain in 1841. The British even considered the occupation of Baghdad, believing that it would be welcomed by the Arabs as a liberation from the Turks, or at least that any resistance would be undermined by the division between Sunni and Shia, who in the words of Henry Rawlinson, the British consul-general in Baghdad, ‘could always be played off against each other’. An army officer of the East India Company and a distinguished orientalist who first deciphered the ancient Persian cuneiform inscriptions of Behistun, Rawlinson was one of the most important figures arguing for an active British policy to check the expansion of Russia into Central Asia, Persia and Afghanistan. He thought that Britain should set up a Mesopotamian empire under European protection to act as a buffer against Russia’s growing presence in the Caucasus and prevent a Russian conquest of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys on the route to India. He even advocated sending the Indian army to attack the Russians in Georgia, Erivan and Nakhichevan, territories the British had never recognized as Russian, as the Turks had done through the Treaty of Adrianople.
Rawlinson was also instrumental in getting British aid to the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus, whose war against the Russians gained new force from the charismatic leadership of the Imam Shamil after 1834. To his followers Shamil seemed invincible: a warlord sent by God. There were stories of his legendary bravery, his famous victories against the Russians, and of his miraculous escapes from certain capture and defeat. Having such a leader gave new confidence to the Muslim tribes, uniting them around the imam’s call for a jihad against the Russian occupation of their lands. The strength of Shamil’s army derived from its close ties with the mountain villages: this enabled them to carry out the guerrilla-type operations which so confounded the Russians. With the support of the local population, Shamil’s army was ubiquitous and practically invisible. Villagers could become soldiers and soldiers villagers at a moment’s notice. The mountain people were the army’s ears and eyes – they served as scouts and spies – and everywhere the Russians were vulnerable to ambush. Shamil’s fighters literally ran circles around the tsarist army – launching sudden raids on exposed Russian troops, forts and supply lines before vanishing into the mountains or merging with the tribesmen in the villages. They seldom engaged with the Russians in the open, where they knew they ran the risk of being defeated by superior numbers and artillery. It was difficult to cope with such tactics, especially since none of the Russian commanders had ever come across anything like them before, and for a long time they simply threw in ever-growing numbers of their troops in a fruitless effort to defeat Shamil in his main base in Chechnya. By the end of the 1830s Shamil’s way of fighting had become so effective that he began to appear as invincible to the Russians as he did to the Muslim tribes. As one tsarist general lamented, Shamil’s rule had acquired a ‘religious-military character, the same by which at the beginning of Islam Muhammed’s sword shook three-quarters of the Universe’.
But it was in Turkey that the British sought to create their main buffer state against Russia. It did not take them long to realize that by ignoring the Sultan’s call for help against the Egyptian invasion they had missed a golden opportunity to secure their position as the dominant foreign power in the Ottoman Empire. Palmerston said it was ‘the greatest miscalculation in the field of foreign affairs ever made by a British cabinet’. Having missed that chance, they redoubled their efforts to influence the Porte and impose on it a series of reforms to resolve the problems of its Christian population which had given Russia cause to intervene on their behalf.
The British were believers in political reform and thought that with their gunboats in support they could export their liberal principles across the globe. In their view, the reform of the Ottoman Empire was the only real solution to the Eastern Question, which was rooted in the decay of the Sultan’s realm: cure the ‘sick man’ and the problem of the East would go away. But the motives of the British in promoting liberal reforms were not just to secure the independence of the Ottoman Empire against Russia. They were also to promote the influence of Britain in Turkey: to make the Turks dependent on the British for political advice and financial loans, and to bring them under the protection of the British military; to ‘civilize’ the Turks under British tutelage, teaching them the virtues of British liberal principles, religious toleration and administrative practices (though stopping short of parliaments and constitutions, for which the Turks were deemed to lack the necessary ‘European’ qualities); to promote British free-trade interests (which may have sounded splendid but was arguably damaging to the Ottoman Empire); and to secure the route to India (where Britain’s free-trade policies were not of course pursued).