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Anglo-Persian War - 1856-1857

The Persians had never forgiven England for abandoning them in 1828, and for thwarting them in ersia' 1838. In ordinary circumstances, indeed, they would have hardly ventured to provoke the opposition of the British nation. But, though they yielded a nominal deference to British counsels, they secretly resented the restraint which the British Embassy at Teheran placed upon them. For Persian policy was radically opposed to British policy. The British had been educated into the belief that Herat was the key of India; they were alarmed at the possibility of Persia becoming at any moment the creature of Russia; and they concluded, therefore, that Herat should never be allowed to pass into Persian hands; and that "the key of India" should be entrusted to other keeping. In 1856 the Anglo-Persian War broke out and the Qajar Dynasty took Herat back into its control.

British statesmen would not place Herat in the hands of a powerful nation for fear that the watch-dog might be bribed and pass over to the enemy. And so Herat was left in weak hands, a prey to the first Power who had courage to attack it; and the two nations, who might have held it with British aid against the armed strength of Russia, were alternately bullied and coerced into hostility. Persia was driven from Herat by Auckland and Pottinger; and the most competent ruler in Central AsiaDost Mahommedwas converted into an enemy.

If the British were determined that Herat should never pass into Persian hands, the Persians in their turn never ceased to covet the famous city. And, though their army retreated from its battlements in 1838, their agents succeeded in practically effecting their policy. The ablest man in Herat, who had Yar Mahom- stood at Pottinger's side and seconded his efforts, was med Khan. Yar Mahommed Khan, its ruler's minister. Some time after the siege, Yar Mahommed succeeded in grasping the power which Kamram nominally held. A bold, able, and unscrupulous chief, he retained his position till his death in 1851, leaning on Persia for support, and on some occasions lending the Persians valuable aid. Through Yar Mahommed's policy, Herat practically became a Persian city. Yar Mahommed coined money in the Shah of Persia's name, and "considered himself a servant of the Shah, and Governor of Herat on the part of his Majesty."

In 1851 Yar Mahommed died; his son Syed succeeded to his rule. Devoid, however, of his father's ability, Syed was evidently unable to maintain the independence of his territory. Disorder soon prevailed, and neighboring potentates were naturally tempted to look with covetous eyes on the envied city. Persian troops, under the command of a Persian prince, were manuvering in the neighbourhood, and, under the pretext of suppressing risings in the Shah's dominions, were hovering in dangerous proximity to Herat. The British envoy at the Persian Court, Colonel Sheil, impregnated with the views which had been adopted by his employers, asked for an explanation of this movement from the Persian Court, and succeeded in obtaining from the Persian Prime Minister a distinct assurance that the Persian Government had not "the slightest intention of sending troops to Herat."

This assurance, however, was accompanied with a very natural stipulation. Persia would leave Herat alone if other Powers would exercise similar forbearance. But if either Dost Mahommed, the Ameer of Cabul, or Kohendil Khan, his brother and representative at Candahar, should approach the city, it might be necessary for Persia to interfere and prevent the annexation of Herat either to Candahar or to Cabul. And, before two months were over, the contingency which the Prime Minister foresaw actually occurred. Kohendil Khan marched a force on Herat.2 Syed Mahommed, surrounded by disorder at home, and threatened with invasion from abroad, applied to Persia for protection; and the occupation Persians, with the double object of assisting an ally and of checking disorder in territories contiguous to their own, temporarily occupied the city."

Critics may approve or disapprove the policy which Persia thus pursued. But no fair person can doubt that the Court of Teheran acted on this occasion exactly as a British Governor-General would have acted. The President of the Board of Control had the good sense to see that, however much he might have preferred the independence of Herat, the ruler of Herat was accepting the presence of Persia as a lesser evil than the presence of the Afghans.4 But the Foreign Office, unfortunately, was unprepared to abandon so easily its old traditions. Though the Indian Government could not see "any possible danger" to India in the occurrence, though there was "no apprehension of any hostile movement on the part of Russia," it could not shake off its old forebodings.

Two successive British envoys at the Persian Court took a step which was certain to be offensive to him. In 1854, Mr. Thomson, the British representative at Teheran, appointed as his Persian secretary one Meerza Hashem Khan, a man who had been in Persian service, who had not been officially removed from it, and whose "family" had for a long time been at enmity with that of the Persian Prime Minister. Mr. Murray, who had now become British Minister in Persia, chose Meerza Hashem, the man whom he knew to be offensive to the Persian Prime Minister, for the post of British agent at Shiraz. Some diplomatists, like some statesmen, delight in building walls for the purpose of knocking their heads against them. Only one result could follow from Murray's proceeding. The Persian minister declared that, if Meerza Hashem left the Embassy to take up his duties, he would be arrested. Murray retorted that, if Meerza Hashem were either seized or molested, the minister well knew the consequences which would ensue. Not venturing to carry out his threat, the minister laid hands on Meerza Hashem's wife.

The Persian Government decided, if quarrel were before it, to act in the way most distasteful to England. The Persian Britain and Russia were still locked in a deadly struggle, and the British Government would be sure to take alarm at a fresh advance on Herat. Persia accordingly issued a manifesto, declaring that Dost Manbmmed was moving from Cabul on Candahar; that he was ultimately intending to march upon Herat; and that, as it was unwilling to tolerate such a movement, it was determined to send well-equipped troops to Herat to prevent the place falling into Dost Mahommed's hands.

A Persian advance on Herat was always attended with the same consequences. In July 1856 the Government of India was instructed to prepare a force at Bombay for the occupation of the island of Karrack and the city of Bushire. It was assumed that a pressure which had proved sufficient in 1838 would again induce the Shah of Persia to withdraw his army from before the gate of India.

Indirectly, however, still stronger pressure was brought on the Persian Government. The ground on which it mainly relied crumbled beneath its feet. So long as the Crimean war continued, it assumed, rightly or wrongly, that England had no troops to spare for other expeditions; and that Persia might venture, therefore, to repay the British representative's indiscretion with insulting contumely.

But, before the summer of 1856 had well begun, peace between Russia and England was assured, and Persia found herself alone in her quarrel. She had no hope of success in a single-handed combat, and she accordingly made a serious effort for the removal of the misunderstanding. A special ambassador was sent from Teheran to Paris, with instructions to endeavour to arrange terms. The terms which Stratford de Redcliffe was instructed to ask included the withdrawal of Persia from Herat and the dismissal of the Persian minister. On the first of these points Stratford de Redcliffe met with unexpected success. News of the capture of Herat by Persia arrived at Constantinople while the negotiation was in progress. But the Persian envoy nevertheless consented to the evacuation of the town. On the other point he was much more resolute. He had either no power or no will to consent to the dismissal of the Persian minister.

If the Persian envoy were unwilling to give way, the British Government was equally firm. It had already resolved on war; it had directed the Indian Government to prepare for war; and it had persuaded Outram, seeking health in England, to return to the East and assume command of the expedition. Yet the declaration of war involved a curious inconsistency. The Governor-General rested the case for the war on the expedition to Herat, and the Persian envoy had already offered full satisfaction on this point. The British Government, on the contrary, was breaking off the negotiations on its demand for the dismissal of the Persian minister, and the Governor-General was silent on this part of the question.

On the war which thereupon ensued it is not necessary to say much. Karrack was occupied, Bushire was taken, the Persian army was defeated, and British troops proved their capacity and power to overthrow the feeble empire of the Shah. But the war was not decided by the army. Its declaration was unpopular in England; a grave constitutional question arose on the conduct of the ministry in declaring and prosecuting a war without calling Parliament together; and the Government, finding its authority decreasing, was almost as anxious to conclude peace in the beginning of 1857 as it had seemed resolute for war at the end of 1856.

An opportunity was still open to it to terminate hostilities. The Persian envoy, after his abortive negotiation with Stratford de Redcliffe, had travelled on to Paris, and was just as ready to make terms with the British ambassador at the Court of France as with the British ambassador at the Porte. The British Government consented to accept an apology from the Persian minister, instead of insisting on his dismissal; and on these terms, on which peace might in all probability have been secured in the autumn, the war was concluded in the spring.

War is so great an evil, peace is so unmixed a blessing, that most men hesitate to criticise the terms on which the one is terminated and the other concluded. Yet it is difficult to find any instance in which the terms of peace more completely condemn the inception of hostilities. If nothing but the removal of the Persian Prime Minister could atone for Murray's outraged dignity in the autumn of 1856, why should minor terms have been exacted after armies had been moved, towns had been taken, and skirmishes had been fought and won? But the fact is that the insulting language which Shah and minister applied to the diplomatist was due to the diplomatist's own errors.

In selecting for employment a Persian whom he knew to be offensive to the Persian Government, in insisting on his retention in a post to which the British had no right to make any appointment, and in throwing the shield of the Embassy not only over Meerza Hashem, but over Meerza Hashem's wife, Murray was guilty of grave indiscretions. Great Governments must, perhaps, support their agents at barbarous Courts; but, if true justice had been done in 1856, the British Ministry would have recalled its own agent instead of insisting on the dismissal of the Persian Minister.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 19:22:48 ZULU