Category Archives: Middle East

Explorer Barth and Reader Cooley

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 211-213:

[Heinrich Barth] … began replies to his recent correspondents. One of them was William Desborough Cooley, the British historian and geographer. His book of 1841, The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained; or, An Inquiry into the Early History and Geography of Central Africa, attempted to re-create the history and geography of the western Sudan through rigorous engagement with old travelers’ accounts and Arabic sources such as Al-Idrisi and Al-Bakri. Cooley sifted these sources for verifiable facts and cross-checked them against modern European travel accounts. Comparing all these sources, he believed, would yield a strong facsimile of truth about Central Africa’s past as well as the location of historical places and landmarks.

He was able to demonstrate that the half-legendary empires of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai had been real, and he roughly positioned them geographically for the first time. From old and new sources he extracted a detailed, complex history of black Africa that contradicted hazy European assumptions about the continent’s savagery. Cooley also avoided most of the era’s racial and cultural biases. He reminded readers that bloody executions by African leaders weren’t so different from English laws that burned women at the stake for counterfeiting money or that hanged hundreds of people for minor crimes such as pilfering.

Cooley’s book was immediately influential among Europe’s Africanists, but met its greatest resistance in Britain. Barth admired it so much that he carried it to Africa and often consulted it. On April 1851, a few days after he first arrived in Kukawa, he wrote Cooley an introductory letter that began, “Sir, It is from a warm love of science that I quite a stranger to you take the liberty of addressing you the following lines.” He expressed his esteem for The Negroland of the Arabs, “sincere as it is without the least prejudice and going on with a firm step from point to point”—a perspective and method like Barth’s own. Rereading the book in Africa, he told Cooley, increased his appreciation. He thought Cooley would like to know that on-the-ground observations were confirming the accuracy of the old Arab historians and many of Cooley’s speculations. “I am able to put truth in the place of conjectures,” wrote Barth, “and to give life to vague accounts of former times.”

Cooley’s response, written in January 1852, reached Bagirmi with the packet of letters in July. His tiny handwriting in pale ink contrasted strongly with Barth’s bold dark penmanship. The letter was a peculiar mixture of praise, advice, querulousness, bruised egotism, and condescension. Cooley regretted not meeting Barth in London and welcomed Barth’s compliments about his book, “as it has been received here with discouraging coldness,” despite “the revolution effected by me in the comparative Geography of Africa.”

He swatted away several of Barth’s suggested corrections to his speculations. Barth was right, but Cooley’s reaction was typical of him. He ridiculed any new information by explorers that contradicted his armchair conjectures. For instance, he mocked all the eyewitness reports of snow on Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro because they clashed with his theory about possible temperatures at the equator. This habit eventually undermined his influence and earned him the nickname “the stormy petrel.”

Cooley praised Barth for sending back “a larger amount of valuable information, then [sic] has been as yet appended to the narrative of any African traveller, Burckhardt alone perhaps excepted; and doubtless you now possess much the loss of which would be deplorable.”

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Trans-Saharan Slave Trade, 1850

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 22-24:

THE MEDITERRANEAN SPLASHES ONE SIDE OF TRIPOLI, THE SAHARA rubs the other. The Phoenicians, with their keen eye for commercial real estate, founded the town in the seventh century B.C. It quickly became a trade hub. By 1850 it had absorbed twenty-five centuries of war, commerce, political intrigue, and forced occupation. Greeks were followed by Romans, Carthaginians, various Muslim regimes, Spaniards, the Christian Knights of St. John, and, most recently, the Ottoman Turks, who took control in the sixteenth century.

When Barth and Overweg arrived, the city’s population of about 15,000 was a stew of Berbers, Moors, Arabs, Jews, Turks, Maltese, Italians, and black Africans from various kingdoms and tribes in the south. Tripoli was a swinging door that connected the Mediterranean countries with the interior of Africa. Merchandise from Europe entered through the city’s busy port. Goods from Africa’s interior—ivory, gold, indigo, cotton cloth, animal skins, ostrich feathers, leather goods, kola nuts—left the city for Europe and the Ottoman countries. But the main export moving through Tripoli was slaves.

The amount of human flesh that passed through the slave markets of Barbary was a trickle compared to the torrent from Africa’s west coast. That torrent, directed at the New World, was industrial in scope and purpose, and favored strong young males. In the trans-Saharan trade, the majority of slaves were females—the younger and prettier, the higher the value. Most of them were bound for domestic duties in the houses and seraglios of Barbary, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant. Slave raiders in the Sudan often killed males because they were less docile on the slog to market and less profitable once there.

Some of the captured slaves were retained by the nobles of Islamic kingdoms in the south, but most were sold to Arab traders who took them north to the big markets on the Mediterranean. Many European travelers commented that slaves in Islamic lands were treated relatively well compared to slaves in the West. They had certain rights and privileges. For instance, though the Qur’an permitted masters to enjoy their female slaves sexually, children from such unions were born free and their mothers could not be sold. Once a female slave married, her master lost sexual privileges. The Qur’an encouraged masters to marry their slaves and free them, and forbade the separation of slave mothers from their children before age seven. Some slaves became wealthy landowners and high government officials with slaves of their own. In a few cases the children of royal slaves became kings.

Slaves bound for the markets of Barbary first had to survive the horror of being torn from their villages and marched in coffles across the desert to the sea. Crossing the Sahara on foot, even in the best circumstances, was brutal—choking sandstorms, extreme temperatures, awful thirst. But these conditions were infinitely more taxing for youths recently wrenched from their homes, fettered together, and terrified about their unknown fate. They were often whipped and deprived of sufficient food and water. Those who couldn’t keep up were abandoned. The caravan route between Bornu and Fezzan, in what is now southwestern Libya, was littered with their skeletons. Mortality rates are inexact but historians estimate at least 20 percent and often much higher. In 1849 the British vice-consul in Murzuk, an oasis town on the route between Bornu and Tripoli, reported to the Foreign Office that 1,600 slaves traveling from Bornu had died of thirst after attempting to survive by killing camels to drink their blood and the putrid water in their stomachs. Five months later the vice-consul sent a similar report: en route from Bornu, 795 of 1,770 slaves had perished of thirst.

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African Warlord vs. Arab Slavers, 1871

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~3170:

Mirambo was a handsome, powerful man who spoke in a quiet voice and was known for his generosity. He greeted visitors with a firm handshake and looked them directly in the eyes, inspiring confidence and a feeling of camaraderie. As a boy Mirambo had worked as a porter in the Arab caravans, and had adopted their manner of dress. The turban, cloth coat, and slippers he wore in his home gave him a cosmopolitan air.

The scimitar snug in the scabbard dangling from Mirambo’s waist was also Arab and hinted at the more ruthless side of the charismatic young leader’s personality. His date of birth was hard to pinpoint, but he was born the son of the Unyayembe region’s mightiest king, sometime in the days shortly after the Arabs opened the first Bagamoyo-to-Ujiji slave route in 1825. The Arabs had slowly stripped power from his father, stealing his lands and cutting him off from the ivory trade that ensured his wealth and kingdom. When his father passed on and Mirambo assumed the throne, the Arabs refused to recognize him as the premier African ruler of the region. Instead, they backed a puppet of their choosing named Mkasiwa.

To make matters worse, Mkasiwa was so emboldened by the recognition that he considered Mirambo to be a far-flung vassal. This made Mirambo furious. He didn’t immediately wage war on the Arabs, but expanded his kingdom among his own people, capturing village after village. He was a military genius and warred incessantly, excelling at the predawn surprise attack on an opponent’s weakest flank. His army of teenaged conscripts—married and older men were considered less aggressive and so were discouraged from fighting—would open fire with their single-shot muskets, then switch to spears as they overran villages in relentless waves. Once a village was conquered Mirambo celebrated the victory by looting the huts and splitting the booty with his army. The goats, chickens, women, and cloth were a reward for a job well done, and a fine enticement to wage war the next time Mirambo was in a warlike mood.

After the booty was split, Mirambo would round up the residents of the village and behead the village chief with his scimitar. Then he would anoint a favored and loyal warrior as the replacement. If, over the course of time, the new man failed to follow Mirambo’s directives to the letter, or attempted to rebel and form his own kingdom, a lesson was quickly taught. Mirambo would travel to the village and gather the citizens together. Then the warrior would be forced to kneel, and the scimitar would flash again. A new puppet would be installed, one who was more clear that Mirambo would tolerate no usurpation of his power. With this combination of battle, booty, and beheading, Mirambo rebuilt his father’s kingdom. The growth of his power slowly squeezed the lands surrounding Tabora, until the only corridor the Arabs controlled was the trade route between Tabora and Ujiji.

By the summer of 1871, just as Stanley arrived in Tabora, Mirambo’s strength was greater than ever—and still ascendant. Tabora was in a state of wartime preparedness as tension between Mirambo and the Arabs ratcheted upward. Both parties knew full well that the last African chieftain who’d confronted the Arabs, a man named Mnywa Sere, had been beheaded six years earlier. And with a lifetime of inequity to avenge, it made no difference to Mirambo that he was outnumbered three to one. The time had come to wage war. Mirambo began by harboring runaway slaves. It was a passive move, a taunt that got the attention of the Arabs. The second act of war, however, attacked the Arabs where it hurt them most: trade. Mirambo blocked the route from Tabora to Ujiji. Caravans trying to run the blockade would be plundered and murdered. Immediately, the Arabs called a council of war and made plans to attack. Fifteen days, they predicted, was all the time they would need to crush the infidel.

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Three Arab Enclaves in East Africa

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~3151:

Stanley finally reached Tabora almost three months to the day after departing from Bagamoyo. The sprawling village on the savannah, with its large houses and lavish gardens occupied by the wealthiest Arab residents, was one of three primary Arab enclaves in East Africa. The first was Zanzibar. The second was Tabora. The third was Ujiji. All had large Arab populations, harems, thousands of slaves, and existed solely for the purpose of exporting raw materials—mostly slaves and ivory—from Africa, while importing not just cloth and beads, but also coffee, tea, sugar, soap, and curry powder. Luxuries like butter were de rigeur for Tabora’s residents.

Of the three enclaves, Tabora was the crown jewel. Set among dun-colored hills in the heart of the East African countryside, refreshed by clear streams and pockets of forest, surrounded by fruit orchards and well-tended fields of wheat, onions, and cucumbers, it possessed a beauty and abundance of resources that made it the African equivalent of an oasis. Many Arabs came to Tabora to trade, then liked it so much they lived out their lives there. The only real drawback to life in Tabora was the enormous population of poisonous snakes—more varieties of serpents could be found in and around Tabora than anywhere else in the region.

Technically, it was Sultan Barghash in Zanzibar who ruled Tabora. He had sent a man named Said bin Salim to act as governor. But bin Salim was an ineffective leader who clashed repeatedly with local traders. Even the commander of Tabora’s three-thousand-man militia ignored bin Salim and deployed troops at his whim. As long as there was no war, however, the issue of troop mobilization was moot. Tabora was its tranquil self, a sanctuary of trade and sensual delights in a sea of dead grass and thirst.

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Livingstone Saved by Slave Traders

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~1100:

Then, just when things looked their worst, Livingstone’s life was saved by the people he despised most. On February 1, 1867, he encountered a band of Arab slave traders. They took pity on the destitute, failing traveler, and gave Livingstone food to restore his strength. He accepted it without a second thought about the compromise he was making. Before the Arabs could leave, Livingstone wrote to the British Consulate in Zanzibar, begging that a second packet of relief supplies be sent to Ujiji, where he would meet them. Livingstone’s supply list read like a starving man’s fantasy: coffee, French meats, cheeses, a bottle of port. With his original supplies so depleted, this additional shipment would be vital. The Arabs accepted his letters and promised to deliver them.

Livingstone’s compromise seemed relatively minor—accepting food for himself and his starving men, entrusting his mail to their care—but showed how greatly the search consumed him. Few men of his era spoke out as passionately against slavery as Livingstone. To eat food that was paid for with money earned from slavery was against everything for which he stood.

In his journal there was no attempt at rationalization, just a matter-of-fact admittance that he’d come across a caravan led by a slaver named Magaru Mafupi. The slaver was a “black Arab,” born of an Arab father and African mother.

The lineage might have confused the outside world, but Livingstone knew well the symbiotic relationship between Africans and Arabs. Although Europeans perceived the African continent to be an uncharted land populated by indigenous cultures, the truth was that Arabs had lived alongside Africans for over a thousand years. It was the seventh century A.D. when Arabian ships began trading beads for ivory with Bantu tribes along the East African coast. A mingling of their cultures began: The Arabs brought Islam; Swahili, meaning “coastal,” was formed by merging Arabic and Bantu; the financiers of India and Persia set up shop in Zanzibar to outfit caravans; African men found work hauling ivory, giving birth to the occupation of pagazi—porter. Little boys of the Nyamwezi tribe even carried small tusks around their village, training for the great day when they would join the mighty caravans.

That relationship between Arab and African had been corrupted, though, as slavery became lucrative in the sixteenth century. Losers in war were routinely enslaved, and children were often kidnapped as their parents worked the fields. As early as the seventh century, men, women, and children from subequatorial Africa were being captured by other African tribes and spirited north across the Sahara’s hot sands. Two-thirds of those surviving the epic walk were women and children about to become concubines or servants in North Africa or Turkey. The males comprising the remaining third were often pressed into military service.

That slave trade route—known as the Trans-Saharan—was augmented by the opening of the East African slave trade a century later. Instead of Africans, it was the Arabs driving this new market, focused mainly along the easily accessible coastal villages. They found that slaves were a more lucrative business than gold and ivory, and began capturing clusters of men and women for work as servants and concubines in India, Persia, and Arabia. Even with the second slave route open, slavery was still not a defining aspect of African life, but a gruesome daily footnote. When the Portuguese came to East Africa in 1498, however, and as other European colonial powers settled the Americas during the following century, that changed. Slavery became the continent’s pivotal force. By the end of the sixteenth century, England, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, and France had followed Portugal’s initial example, and pursued slavery as a source of cheap labor and greater national wealth. A third slave trade route—the transatlantic—opened on Africa’s west coast. Slaves bound for America, the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, and Europe were marched to the west coast ports of Luanda, Lagos, Goree, Bonny, and Saint Louis, then loaded on ships for the journey.

Great Britain’s economy became so dependent upon slavery that some maps of western Africa were divided by commodities: Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast. But as Britain began to see itself as a nation built on God and morality, and as it became savvy for politicians to align themselves with the growing Christian evangelical movement, slavery was abolished in all British colonies and protectorates in 1834. During his first trip to Africa in 1841, Livingstone was terribly unaccustomed to the sight of men, women, and children being bought and sold. As he insinuated himself into the fabric of African life over the years that followed—speaking with the natives in their native tongue wherever he went, sleeping in the villages during his travels, making friends as he shared meals and nights around the campfire—the barbarism of the practice incensed him even more. He grew determined to stop it.

Livingstone’s focus was on the east coast, where Portugal had supplanted the Arabs as the coastal region’s reigning power. Even as other nations slowly abandoned the practice on humanitarian grounds, slavery became the cornerstone of Portugal’s economy. The tiny nation exported African men and women by the hundreds of thousands from ports on both the east and west coasts of Africa. African tribes were raiding other tribes, then selling captives to the Arabs in exchange for firearms. The Arabs, in turn, marched the captives back to the east coast, where they were either sold to the Portuguese or auctioned in Zanzibar. The slaves were then shipped to Arabia, Persia, India, and even China.

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Indians, Turks, and Lawrence of Arabia

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 479-482:

On 28 September 1918, Lawrence, the Arab forces and their Pukhtun and Gurkha attachments joined up with the main body of Allenby’s Indian cavalry at the southern Syrian town of Dera, a Turkish railway junction between Amman and Damascus. Over the following four days, Lawrence had a series of personal run-ins with the Indian cavalry at Dera that were to leave him with a lifelong contempt for the Indian Army. Indeed, in his autobiographical masterpiece Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) he would belittle the Indian troops in Palestine as ‘not worthy of the privilege of space’ in the desert, being ‘something puny’ with minds ‘like slow sheep’.

The sourness started outside Dera when Lawrence, on horseback, trotted up to the advance guard of the 2nd Gardner’s Horse. Freshly shaved and in clean Arab robes with a white headdress, intending to impress as an authoritative Arab military leader, he called out, ‘I am Colonel Lawrence. Where is your General? Take me to him at once.’ The young British officer of the guard, Dysart Whitworth, had not slept for fifty hours on the march, and did not like Lawrence’s tone; he snapped back that he was commanding in action, was not a guide, and Lawrence was ‘a bloody fool’. A yelling impasse ensued which Lawrence backed down from, riding off in fury shouting, ‘I’ll have you court martialled!’ Shortly afterwards, while the robed Lawrence was driving in his Rolls-Royce with a Bedu escort, he came upon another Indian advance guard–this time of the 34th Poona Horse under their senior Indian officer Hamir Singh, a veteran of First Ypres. Mistaking Lawrence and his Bedu for Turkish irregulars, Hamir Singh’s guard charged mounted at them, driving off the Bedu and taking Lawrence prisoner as a suspected spy. Another heated argument broke out, with Hamir Singh refusing to let an apoplectic Lawrence go for some time.

On 1 October Lawrence drove into Damascus triumphantly in his Rolls-Royce with his Arab irregulars as liberators, just ahead of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force’s Indian and other Allied troops. The capture of the city, 120 miles north of Allenby’s Megiddo start line on 19 September, confirmed the crushing success of the offensive. In weighing up the contribution of Lawrence’s Arabs, George Barrow would always repeat what a captured Turkish divisional commander told him: ‘The Arabs gave us pin pricks; the British–blows with a sledge hammer.’ The Arabs had indeed been marginal, and the hammer blows had been struck most frequently by the Indian infantry and cavalry.

In the week leading up to Lawrence’s entry into Damascus, Indian cavalry regiments had been decisive in the pursuit of the retreating Turkish divisions and German Asia Corps all the way up from Megiddo. They had taken the majority of the Allies’ 75,000 predominantly Turkish prisoners, along with several towns–for instance, the Jodhpur Lancers had seized Haifa on 23 September with a mounted charge through the streets. The Indian cavalry’s feat of arms at Megiddo was in fact the last time in western military history mounted troops played a leading role.

The Turks’ own part in their downfall in Palestine was rooted not so much in their inferiority in numbers, guns or aircraft, all of which they had in good quantities for defence, as in their sapped spirit. This accounted for the large numbers of prisoners who surrendered easily. By mid-1918 the resolve of the Turkish Army was not what the Indians had seen at Gallipoli in 1915, on the Tigris in 1916 or at Gaza in 1917. The long war had gradually worn down them and their supply system, and by Megiddo they had little energy to carry on. Some of the Turkish troops there had fought hard, but many had lost heart, with no boots on their feet and almost no food to eat, at one with their artillery horses who were too under-nourished to pull back half their guns on the retreat. On account of the Turkish Army’s scrawny appearance and reduced fighting capacity at Megiddo compared to the well fed, trained and equipped Egyptian Expeditionary Force, one British staff officer remarked that Allenby’s offensive had ultimately been that of an Indian tiger against a Turkish tomcat.

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POW Death March from Kut, 1916

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 308-311:

In the last days of April and into early May in the desert outside Kut, the Turks gathered the 6th Indian Division’s prisoners for transportation into captivity. They separated all the British and Indian officers to travel ahead to camps in western Turkey. The officers’ journey northwards in the coming weeks was uncomfortable, by river boat, railway, mule cart, donkey and German motor lorry. Along the way they saw many dead Armenians strewn at the roadside or thrown down wells, grim signs of the Turkish government’s mass killings. The officers were treated respectfully by their Turkish guards and tolerably fed. But their Indian and British men had a very different experience from May to August. They underwent a horrific 600-mile death march from Kut through the Iraqi desert to labour camps in Ottoman Syria outside Aleppo and in the nearby Amanus and Taurus mountain ranges, which stretched into Turkey up the Mediterranean coast. ‘It was like one thing only,’ said an Austrian officer who encountered the prisoners of Kut on a mountain road at the end of their march as an army of walking skeletons driven on by Turkish rifle butts, ‘a scene from Dante’s Inferno.’

The march came about because the Turkish authorities did not have enough transport for the captive Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian ranks of the 6th Indian Division, having allocated what little was available to their officers. From Kut, day after day in searing heat and choking dust, the Indian and British ranks suffered horrific maltreatment from Turkish guards, both soldiers and policemen, and from local Iraqi civilians, who appeared from the villages they passed. They were beaten, whipped, knifed, stoned and shot, while their boots, clothes and water bottles were ripped off them. Some were also raped and infected with sexually transmitted diseases.

The prisoners were too weak to resist all the abuse, a consequence not just of their privations under siege but also of how poorly they were fed on the march. They initially had a small boatload of food sent upriver from Indian Expeditionary Force D, which they soon gobbled up outside Kut, the desperate Indian troops fighting each other for it. Thereon they had what the Turkish Army could spare them, chiefly old stocks of its staple biscuit ration–a rock-hard slab five inches long and three quarters of an inch thick, made of coarse flour and husks, sometimes with earth mixed in and often green with mould. Paltry rations of black bread and flour were also available. The Indian prisoners used the flour to make chapattis, which they heated over tiny fires fuelled by dried dung they picked off the desert floor or reeds they pulled from the Tigris. Otherwise they had to barter for food at high prices from their Turkish guards or Iraqis, usually in return for what few pieces of uniform they had left. To drink they had only gulps of the muddy Tigris water, or what they could scoop up in their hands from open village drains flowing with excrement.

The Indians’ diet on the march aggravated their existing intestinal infections from the months spent inside Kut. Many of them with gastro-enteritis passed bloody diarrhoea before dropping unconscious to die on the sand, filthy and emaciated. Others who collapsed in the desert crawled into the streets of villages to slump fly-covered in fetid corners, begging for scraps and slowly starving to death. Only a lucky few got any medical care, either from Turkish doctors or from a handful of convalescent Indian Medical Service officers who travelled up from Baghdad behind the main officer group.

The Indians who survived the march the best were regimental groups of old professionals who stuck together as teams to protect one another, bringing on the slowest and feeding the weakest. The men of the 7th Gurkhas did this, their pre-war NCOs filling the place of their officers, and refusing to let their companies break down. The youngest Punjabi wartime recruits fared the worst, lacking the pre-war professionals’ levels of training to work for each other. Their groups disintegrated more easily, stumbling on in isolated fragments that much reduced their chances. By August, across the desert between Kut and Aleppo, around 2000 of the marching Indian prisoners lay dead, along with a larger proportion of the British ranks. Some of their corpses were buried by regimental comrades in shallow graves excavated by hand, only to be dug up by jackals at night. Iraqi civilians cleared up a few other dead prisoners from around their villages by slinging them into ravines. But most of them remained where they had fallen in the desert.

From September, the Turks forced the surviving ranks of the 6th Indian Division into hard labour. Their task was to help construct the Ottoman Empire’s unfinished masterpiece of pre-war infrastructure, the Istanbul to Baghdad railway. Under the supervision of the railway’s German and Austrian engineers, the Hindu and Sikh prisoners were concentrated along the line in the Syrian desert east of Aleppo, in the locales of Ras al-Ayn and Nusaybin. ‘Their conditions were truly pitiful,’ wrote Percy Walter Long, an Urdu-speaking British sergeant of the Royal Artillery, who was put with them. He saw them daily on the construction sites, labouring from 4.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. in gangs, breaking and carrying stone to build embankments and lay track ballast …

The Muslim, Gurkha and most of the British prisoners from Kut laboured further west on the railway, in the Amanus Mountains in north-west Syria and the Taurus range in southern Turkey. They were the skeleton army the Austrian officer had seen as incarnations of hell on earth. ‘We were set to work at blasting and tunnelling,’ recalled Muhammad Qadir Khan, a Punjabi Muslim prisoner of the 120th Rajputana Infantry. ‘I was weak and not fit for much work, so I was beaten and told to work harder. Nearly all who were on the work were beaten and ill-treated.’

Throughout the winter of 1916–17, the labouring Indian prisoners of Kut were fed just enough to keep them working–bread, beans, meat now and then, and water they had to fetch from desert wells or mountain streams. Yet hundreds died of exposure, malnutrition and typhus. On newly completed sections of the railway, they occasionally saw what the Cabinet’s decision to capture Baghdad had ultimately led to for them: a part in strengthening enemy supply lines, plain to see as German rail trucks rattled by carrying artillery, machine guns and other weaponry for the Turkish Army in Iraq.

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