Islamic history, Profiteering: war & invasion, Syrian history, Western Colonisation

The Journey of the Pashas: Trade and Power Struggles in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Sand, sea and silk

Whatever you might think about the Pasha dynasty, its family members were busy and certainly kept the Ottomans, as well as Britain and France on their toes. If you remember the entry about the defeat of the Wahabiiz by Ibrahim Pasha and his army, in the early 19th century, then you will be interested to know that, eventually Pasha proceeded through Saudi to the Yemen, in the Persian gulf (now called the Arabian gulf, a region that is repeatedly in the news).

This gave Britain a jolt, as their interest in India was going well and Indian nationals even staffed the British consulates in Baghdad and Persia (Iran now); but lets backtrack a little.

In the mid 18th century, there was fun and games in the Arabian gulf. The British, merchant venturers were vying for commercial power with Russia, in the Balkans. Their first goal was to build ships in the Caspian ports; to maintain and expedite trade. A prospect that didn’t please Russia, who laid claim to the territory.

The ultimate goal was to gain economic control and transport goods, including silk, from India and Iran to Britain. There is a fascinating account of the struggle for Caspian domination in ‘Britain and the Middle East’ by Sir Reader Bullard (no link but you could try Hutchinson’s University, the publisher). Sir Reader was an ambassador in Tehran (capital of Iran), from 1939-1946.

By the late 19th century the Caspian sea was of interest for a different reason. OIL!

Just as a point of interest, the first invasion of Afghanistan, by Britain, in 1834, was about maintaining trade routes to China and to prevent Russia from controlling India; a huge concern at the time.

The first invasion of Afghanistan was in support and the attempted reinstatement of, a deposed Pashtun leader, Shah Shuja, from the Ghilzai tribe and an ancestor of current leader, President Kharzai. Even if this note is a little out of context, it is important as Afghanistan is part of the Islamic world and it’s good to emphasise how, the search for financial gain dominates every event.

Impact on the Syrian economy

If you think all the above is a bit removed from Syrian history you would be wrong, because the establishment of a maritime route to the gulf, was detrimental to the Levant countries, which include Syria who, grew its own silk and cotton for export.

Sir Reader describes how it was cheaper to bring Persian silk to Britain via the Caspian route and export it back to Syria, than to import it through the middle east from Persia. The situation was a lot more complex as the power struggles continued but in short, competition was tough and a trade war was raging between Britain, France, Russia and the Ottomans.

Syria had a cotton trade in 2005, still; I saw some cotton pickers on the banks of the Syrian side of the river Tigress when I was there, I was puzzled at first then recognised the crop. The Tigress only runs at the top of Syria but you could easily swim or even paddle over to Turkey at some points. Not now though. Here is a couple of pictures of the Tigress.



The land mass in the picture is Turkey but I think the tree is Syrian

Can anybody provide information on the history of the Syrian silk and cotton trades please?

The search for new and improved trade routes continued through the 19th century but many projects failed due to geography and disagreements among western powers, as to whether the building of railways or canals was more viable. These differences were, of course, fuelled by attempted land grabs, whether by the pen or combat.

An example was when, Muhammed Ali Pasha proposed a scheme for a railway network, which was rejected by the English prime minister, Palmerston, because of a mistrust of the French.  In 1858, Palmerston did okay a railway line from Suez to Alexandria, in the North or Lower Egypt. After much intrigue it was Napoleon who suggested the building of the Suez canal, a fact I mentioned in a previous entry. I speak of this because it is useful to reinforce the knowledge that it was the west who controlled the purse strings by then.

The journey of the Pasha dynasty continued:Mohammed Ali Pasha and the seeds of Arab nationalism

As I said above Mohammed Ali Pasha and his family kept the west and the Ottomans on their toes, he was powerful and as ambitious as Britain and his Ottoman masters. Mohammed Ali was sent to Egypt in 1799 as an Ottoman officer and became vice-roi in 1805 with the sanction of the Ottoman sultan and the Egyptian ulama (see the entry before last). He completely reformed the education system, particularly in order to provide adequate training for the military, he also sent students to Europe and employed European trainers and experts in industry and engineering but, as Peter Mansfield points out, never allowed them to exceed their remit.

He maintained connections with France, as they had paved the way for his accession and had a good relationship with the Ottomans. Though Mansfield takes pains to point out that at this time Arab nationalism was unheard of and more importantly, Mohammed Ali did not even speak Arabic; ostensibly though, he made Egypt a force to be reckoned with and laid the foundations for a strong Arabic bloc.



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