This week’s readings addressed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the corresponding power struggle between European actors in order to secure their interests in the region. I thought investigating the motives of these European nations, namely France and the British Empire was particularly interesting. The British Empire’s primary motivation came out of protecting the “crown jewel” of India, as noted early on by Kamrava in “From Territories to Independent States.” This in turn was the reason that the British sought to secure the Suez canal, as the quickest maritime route to India from continental Europe, and also their land presence in Iran. I wanted to understand more regarding precisely why the British were so obsessed with maintaining their colonization of India, so I found a very nice lecture from Gresham College in England, called “India: The Jewel in the Crown,” linked to below. What I understood as being the historical significance of India as a colony had to do entirely with trade. India allowed the British to participate in trade with China, as well as providing resources such as spices, textiles, porcelain, etc. And additionally the British could also capitalize on India’s superior man-power for military purposes. Also, considering the fact that the British had last their New World colony to the American Revolution, they probably needed to reaffirm to themselves that they were a successful empire by at least retaining India. This is all sort of silly, since I remember learning once that the Queen of England had never even set foot in India in the whole history of its colonization by the British. Oh, imperialism. France was just as guilty of this, however, and they attempt a similar self-affirmation in their claim to Morocco and Algeria and Tunisia.
So, it was not too surprising to find that the British Empire and France secretly drew up the Sykes-Picot agreement, without the consultation or consent of the Ottoman Empire, as to how they would split the remains of the collapsing empire. It was interesting to then read about the “local” nation builders who either rejected the influence of the Europeans, or strategically accepted their offerings of help.
*Terrible segue* The Balfour declaration also had an interesting history, and historical ramifications. As an American-Israeli Jew, I have a hard time looking at the issues regarding the creation/existence of the state of Israel objectively. That is pretty hard to do when your family and friends live in and are dependent on the security of the state! However, it is important to maintain objectivity in one’s historical perspective. Theodore Herzl is a celebrated historical figure for many Jews (those who believe that Israel should at all exist). I remember learning in school about how the initial proposition made was to establish a Jewish State in what is now Uganda or Argentina – a place where the Jewish people had little-to-no history or claim to. That is what makes the current, tiny plot of land that is Israel so contested. I know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of a 40-50 year lifespan – but that’s looking through the nation-builder lens of things. What *is* a conflict of thousands of years is the fact that many different people have historically laid claim to that tiny piece of land, and the really tricky question is, what or who determines rightful, sovereign ownership of contested territory? I certainly disagree with the right-wing rhetoric that is prevalent in Israel today, which is influences by the media’s agenda, as it is everywhere…but I do want to believe that there is a way to please every party and respect everyone’s humanity. That was an explicit requirement of the Balfour declaration, after all.
It is fascinating how the nations carved up in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire all saw different long-term outcomes, and although it is pointless to wonder, I’d be curious to see what would have become of the region if not for the British, French, Italian and Russian interference.
“India: The Jewel in the Crown.” http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/india-the-jewel-in-the-crown