A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, September 25, 2009

J.B. Kelly, 84: The Last Imperial Briton

My last posting was about the last Ottoman prince born under the Empire passing on. In a strange sense of irony, or synchronicity, the last real enthusiast for the British Empire in the Gulf is now gone as well. Here's the Daily Telegraph obituary for J.B. Kelly, dead at 84. He apparently died August 29 but this obit appeared yesterday. With him an age passes, in a sense, not one that needs much mourning, I fear. He was the last of the true defenders of British Empire in the Gulf.

As is so often the case with last-ditch defenders of defunct empires, he was a colonial himself: a Kiwi born in Auckland, New Zealand, and a British scholar by choice until the Reagan-era US beckoned and he spent considerable time on this side of the water. Oxford had become too soft for him. I'll let the Telegraph obit cover the details of the man; my own comments follow.

I only met Kelly once, having lunch with him in Washington once in the mid-1980s sometime. I forget why he was in Washington, though the obituary says he did a lot of work in the National Archives. I also forget who got us together, a mutual friend if I recall correctly, who may have joined us, but in retrospect I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet a true anachronism.

While I hardly agreed with his nostalgia for imperial Britain, he was so much a relic of a different age (though not that old at the time) as to be fascinating in his own right. As the Telegraph obit notes, those who lump Kelly in with Elie Kedourie or Bernard Lewis miss the point, because he was no apologist for Israel either: in his view, none of these foreigners could govern themselves as well as they'd been governed by Britain. (Or at least with British advice: he himself advised some of the local rulers after independence, though they didn't publicize it over much.) Unlike Lewis or Kedourie, I'm sure he yearned for the Palestine Mandate. I politely listened and discussed some of his particular specialties — he understood the bizarre little border disputes of the Gulf better than anyone, knew the tribes and their marital alliances and feuds as well as the old record-keepers of the palaces — and I felt, in a way, as if I'd met Curzon or Churchill or Percy Cox or maybe Sykes and Picot together, but totally out of the proper time frame. This was already the age of the Islamic Republic in Iran.

Since Edward Said's Orientalism has been under discussion recently what with our recent publication on the subject and other works, it's worth noting that J.B. Kelly could have been the poster villain for the book, though in fact his most egregious declaration of his views actually appeared after Said's book, in his 1980 Arabia, the Gulf and the West, published just after the Iranian Revolution and the other events of 1979. In true classic orientalist fashion he was, of course, a solid scholar; he knew every dispute over every palm tree in the UAE, understood Buraimi and the other disputes of the 1950s better than anyone, but never let his profound knowledge undercut his conviction that the West needed to continue to exercise imperial supervision over the Gulf.

I don't know what he thought of the Iraqi adventure. I'm not sure he ever really believed Americans were up to what Britain had done: I also knew a few of the last British civil servants who served on secondment to Oman, the UAE or other Gulf states in the independent period (a class largely gone now), and never met a one of them who liked Americans very much. Too nouveau, you know.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum: he's gone now and I won't criticize him in death. (Although much of what I've said here seems critical to most of us today, I don't think he'd have objected to a word of it. He was straightforward in his beliefs.) He was indeed the last of a breed. I'll let him speak for himself. The concluding paragraph of Arabia, the Gulf and the West was something of a valedictory to empire, but a yearning for a renewed determination. (And let me note that while some modern Islamophobes may seem to say something similar, they never do it with the profound knowledge of the region the old Imperials had.) The last few words may be the most outrageous of the whole book. The paragraph is long, but here are the key parts:
How much time may be left to Western Europe in which to perceive or recover its strategic inheritance east of Suez is impossible to foretell. While the pax Brittanica endured, that is to say, from the fourth or fifth decade of the nineteenth century to the middle years of this century, tranquility reigned in the Eastern Seas and around the shores of the Western Indian Ocean. An ephemeral calm still lingers there, the vestigial shadow of the old imperial order. If the history of the past four or five hundred years indicates anything, however, it is that this fragile peace cannot last much longer. Most of Asia is fast lapsing back into despotism — most of Africa into barbarism — into the condition, in short, they were in when Vasco da Gama first doubled the Cape to lay the foundations of the Portuguese dominion in the East . . . Oman is still the key to command the Gulf and its seaward approaches, just as Aden remains the key to the passage of the Red Sea. The Western powers have already thrown away one of these keys; the other, however, is still within their reach. Whether, like the captains-general of Portugal long ago, they have the boldness to grasp it is yet to be seen.
The captains-general of Portugal long ago! RIP J.B. Kelly, and an era. With your passing, may we truly sound Last Post for Empire?

In fact, let's just play Last Post — the British equivalent of Taps, which they played every time they ran the flag down in a colonial outpost, right now, for those Yanks who don't recognize it, and for all the flags run up when the Union Jack was run down; it's also a suitable farewell for a man who treasured an Empire now gone:


Anonymous said...

One interesting aspect of Kelly's book Arabia the Gulf and the West is the way it describes the vacillations of British policy towards the Gulf states. In 1955, the British-led Trucial Oman Levies ejected the Saudis from Hamasa and Whitehall unilaterally declared the Riyadh line as the border. Yet a few years later officals of the Foreign Office were arm-twisting Sheikh Zayed to settle the borders in Saudi Arabia's favour, which in fact Zayed did after the British had gone. Kelly put up a good argument for Abu Dhabi on the border issue Buraimi but at the end of the day it was the exigencies of the situation which determined the outcome. Squeezed between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Zayed knew where his best interests lay. I think Kelly's views became anachronistic because they did not take account of a changing world.

Anonymous said...

While at least giving credit for his vast knowledge of the region, I felt this was a rather snippy and unbecoming post which betrays a real lack of understanding of Britain and its Empire. Times may have changed but there are still not only many ways in which Britain shapes the world not least its colonial legacy both good and ill. I read all of J.B. Kelly's work as part of my thesis research and it taught me far more than more recent literature. The old aphorism 'the past is another country, they do things differently there' is trite, perhaps now it is my turn to be snippy and say that country like the U.S. without any real history of global engagement pre-1941 and a desire to deny that it has an Empire at all after that date (and indeed the U.K. in its current desire to deny its colonial past) deserve to fall into the continual traps of those who ignore and scorn the lessons and knowledge of the past in the arrogant belief that liberal ideology and the ideals of the 'West' are the best and that we today are somehow more educated and enlightened that those in the not too distant past. It seems to me that it was actually the other way around and we could learn good lessons about how to run the kind of informal Empire which is so crucial to our prosperity and security than we have been so conspicuously failing to do in more recent decades.