A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, August 10, 2015

Gunboat Diplomacy: The British Occupy Bushehr (Bushire) and Move Against the Tangistanis, August 1915, Part I

Stamp of Ahmad Shah with Overprint
Back in July, I discussed the provocation that would lead to another sideshow of the First World War in Iran, the British occupation of the Iranian port of Bushehr (then usually spelled Bushire in English) and its hinterland. On July 12, 1915, Tangistani tribesmen under Ra'is ‘Ali Delvari, encouraged by German agents, attacked a small British garrison  stationed at the British Residency in Bushehr to protect the telegraph line along the Gulf coast. Two British Indian Army officers and a sepoy were killed in repelling the attack. As I noted at that time, the British demanded compensation from the Iranian government, but the late Qajar Shahs had little control over their tribal areas, and so the British resolved to occupy Bushehr (hereafter Bushire as I'm drawing from contemporary accounts), and punish the Tangistanis at Delvar, which the British routinely called Dilwar following the Arabic pronunciation, or Dilbar. It is "Dilbar" on the map below, some miles southeast of Bushire.

Who are the Tangistanis?
Tangistan (Persian  تنگستان) is described in J.G. Lorimer's great geographical opus on the British imperial era in the Gulf, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia (which I wrote about in 2012) treats Tangistan in Volume II ("Geographical and Statistical," Calcutta 1908), Part IIB, pp.1859-1871. He's the rare British source in this period to use the spelling Bushehr.) In his usual detail. He says the region along the coast consists, in his day, of a population of "various little known tribes [which he then lists] . . . but they are generally spoken of in the aggregate as Tangistanis." He details the characteristics of the tribes and notes all are Shi‘a and speak a dialect of Persian. He sys the tribal traditions trace several of their origins to central Persia or Afghanistan and one tribe claims an origin in central Arabia, "but are now completely Persianized." He discusses their fierce reputation (remember he is writing at the height of British Imperial power):
Notwithstanding their nearness to Bushehr Town, they still live in a rude and uncivilized state; blood-feuds flourish amongst them, and their name continues to be, in Bushehr Town, a synonym for lawlessness, brutality and ignorance. The houses in the villages are mostly date leaves plastered with mud, but some are built of stones. The people are poor in consequence of their perpetual wars There are about 2 rifles to every 3 houses.
Ra'is ‘Ali  Delvari with Tangistani fighters
In Iran today the resistance to the British is seen as a nationalist resistance to foreign colonialism, and Ra's ‘Ali Delvari is considered a nationalist hero and martyr. His home in Delvar now is the Delvar Ethnological Museum, and while I'll probably never see it, I'm guessing it offers a different narrative of the Tangistanis from that of Lorimer.

As for Dilwar/Delvar village itself Lorimer treats it [he spells it Dilbar (دلبار) and treats it together with the neighboring village of ‘Amari on pages 1864 and 1865 of the aforementioned volume of the Gazetteer], he describes the adjacent villages as having 70 houses,growing wheat and barley, grapes, and watermelons, and lists numbers of everything from date palms to donkeys in his day.He does not seem to have a count of people.

So these are the people, the Tangistanis, who pulled the tail of the British Lion on July 12 and were about to face invasion.

The Players

Gen. Sir John E. Nixon
Let's also review the Dramatis Personae. The British troops in the Gulf were Indian Army troops engaged in the Mesopotamian campaign. This being before the disaster at Kut, the British still were enjoying success in "Mespot," and felt they could flex muscles in the Gulf. The Commander of British Indian Forces in Mesopotamia and the Gulf was General Sir John Nixon, a Sandhurst graduate and Indian Army veteran of the Second Afghan and Second Boer Wars. The British garrison at Bushire that was attacked in July came from the 96th Berar Regiment of the Indian Army, and they would bear the brunt of the campaign.

Ra'is ‘Ali Delvari
 In my July post I introduced the Tangistani leader, Ra'is ‘Ali Delvari. Born around 1882 and thus in his 30s in 1915, his Wikipedia profile is obviously written by an Iranian nationalist admirer. (As near as my limited Persian allows me to judge, this is equally true of the Farsi version.)
Wassmuss in Persian Garb

When the British were not portraying the Tangistanis as mere brigands they saw them as instruments of Berlin. We also met the German diplomat/spy Wilhelm Wassmuss in my earlier post.

It is perhaps only fair to mention one of the players most conspicuous by his absence. Britain, Germany, and the Tangistanis were all playing the geopolitical games of the Great War, and they (and he Ottomans and the Russians as well) clearly with felt free to manipulate Iranian tribesmen and local sheikhs and khans with impunity.

All tended to forget that Iran was still technically a sovereign state and formally a neutral in the war. Ottomans and Russians fought on Iranian territory in the northwest; Britain occupied the south and the refineries at Abadan and were about to occupy Bushire, and Wassmuss had agents at work among the tribes.

Ahmad Shah Qajar
The man who wasn't there was Ahmad Shah Qajar. He had taken the throne in 1909 at the age of 12 after his father was deposed in the wake of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905. By the time he came of age and took the throne in his own right in 1914, he was virtually powerless. Eventually deposed while still in his 20s (and dying while still in his 30s), he is mostly remembered as the last of the Qajar Dynasty. The stamp at the top of this post, showing the very young Ahmad Shah overprinted with "Bushire under British Occupation," is a visual symbol of his weakness.

Part II will deal with the actual operations to occupy Bushire.

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