Free-trade imperialism

Mike macnair reviews Promised lands: the British and the Ottoman Middle East by Jonathan Parry (Princeton University Press 2022, 453pp)

Problems of imperialist policy in the Middle East can easily be imagined, by the recipients of late 20th-early 21st century British or US school ‘education’, to be something new to our times. History teaching in England effectively excludes most of the history of the British empire, while US political culture is ideologically reluctant to recognise US imperial history.1 The left has its own equivalent: the common idea that imperialism is to be defined by reference to VI Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.

According to Lenin’s account, imperialism starts with monopoly capitalism and appears in the 1880s. In spite of the work of ‘world systems’ theorists and other authors showing antecedents going back to the early modern period, leftists keep using Lenin’s schema to decide whether China, or Russia, is an ‘imperialist’ power. By doing so they in effect reiterate the fantasy of a previous period of free-trade competitive capitalism.2

Jonathan Parry is not concerned with these issues. He tells us (pp405-06) that he started with a vague idea of work on 19th century British attitudes to the Ottoman empire (14th century-1918), then a biography of Henry Layard (1817-1984, chiefly famous for excavating ancient Assyrian cities), then an undergraduate course on British relations to the Ottoman empire 1830-70, the last finally evolving into the present book, which covers 1798-1854, but with 1856-1918 given an outline run-through in the conclusion (pp391-404). But in spite of the fact that Parry is not concerned with the illusion of the ‘recent’ character of imperialist policy and problems in the Middle East, his book is highly illuminating in dispelling this illusion.

The book is not a history of the events in the Ottoman Middle East that it discusses, or even of European policy, but specifically of British policy, written from British archival sources and narratives. Parry is explicit on this point in his introduction (pp12-13).

He is equally explicit that this is a Tory history, though he does not use the party identifier (Tory historians generally do not): “this is a story of individuals much more than it is of abstract economic forces” (p8); and “I have made no attempt to explore the effects of British activities on local societies. My instinct is that usually they were not very significant …” (p13) - a statement followed by opposition to “generalisations about the impact of European interventions …” and by a paragraph which attempts to marginalise the arguments of Edward Said without directly polemicising against them. These are versions of general Conservative Party historical principles of ‘government of men and not of laws’ and of the underlying triviality of historical causation. They are taught to undergraduates in history faculties as mandatory principles of historical method,3 so that they are commonly shared by historians whose personal politics are not Conservative, which makes it unnecessary to attribute Parry’s assumptions of this sort to the fact that he was, in his youth, a student at Peterhouse, Cambridge of the famous Tory historian, Maurice Cowling.

National method

There is one aspect in which Tory methodology weakens the book. This is not the explicitly stated methodological individualism noted above, but the methodological nationalism which is also a fundamental element of the Tory interpretation of history - and its impact on the focus of the book and the chapter structure.

The focus aspect consists in the emphasis on the Ottoman Middle East: ie, the territories of the Ottoman empire in Egypt and points eastward of Egypt and south of what is now Turkey (although the empire’s Balkan possessions periodically unavoidably enter the picture, its Caucasus conflicts with Russia, and British policy towards these, do not make an appearance). But a looming shadow which reappears repeatedly in the book is the question of British, Ottoman, Russian and local relations with the Qajar dynasty in Iran. Iran surfaces so frequently in the book that it is not clear that British policy in relation to the Ottoman empire and its Middle East territories could be defined independently of policy in relation to Iran.

The chapter structure aspect consists in the fact that this is organised through a combination of the boundaries established in the region by later formal colonialism with the chronology. Thus chapters one and two cover issues in relation to Egypt in 1798-1801, and Egypt and the Red Sea in 1801-30. Chapter three deals with policy towards Iraq in 1798-1828. Chapter four is about the 1830s, focussed partly on steamships as an instrument of power, partly on Iraq, the Gulf and the Red Sea. Chapter five, still on the 1830s, moves to Ottoman Syria (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel/Palestine) and the 1831 intervention there of the semi-independent ‘modernising’ Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali - which Parry characterises, without interrogation, as an “invasion”. Chapter six is again on Syria and the “Eastern Crisis” of 1839-40 leading to British military intervention against Mehmet Ali.

Chapters seven and eight move sideways to focus on “religious sectarianism”, meaning Christian lobby groups and their advocacy for mission activities and for alliances with local religious groupings, in Syria and Kurdistan, starting back in the 1790s and going down to 1850. Chapter nine is another shift sideways, this time to Stratford Canning (1786-1880), British ambassador to the Ottoman government in 1825-28 and 1841-58, and Canning’s protégé Henry Layard, and the influence of ideas about religious liberalism and illiberalism on Canning’s policy towards the Ottoman regime and on Layard’s writings about Assyria.

Chapter 10 moves back to British policy in Iraq in the 1840s, the British seizure of Aden in 1839 and its implications, and the Red Sea. Chapter 11 is on British policy in relation to Egypt and the Egyptian regime in the 1840s and into the 1850s. Chapter 12 returns to Syria, but in fact to larger geopolitics, with ‘Jerusalem and the Crimean war’. The conclusion attempts to draw the threads together before (as already indicated) looking forward to later developments.

The trouble with this structure is that the developments in the different areas covered are not independent of one another, with British policy towards Mehmet Ali’s regime relevant not only to Egypt between 1805 and 1849, but also to the Red Sea, Arabia and the Gulf, and to Syria. The geographical division of the chapters in the first instance then certainly makes for a confusing read in which cross-referring is very frequently necessary, but also probably obscures the chronology and the connections between policy debates and choices being made at different points in time. I do not mean to say that Parry does not pay attention to these interrelations; it is, rather, that the geographical division of the chapters itself tends to obscure them.


In spite of what I have just said, Parry’s book is not driven by his ideological methodological commitments, but by curiosity. This is clear from the narrative of its origins which he gives in the acknowledgments (pp405‑06, noted above).

It is also clear from the character of the multiple stories it tells: from “Sidney Smith’s egocentric, swashbuckling, and well-publicised activity in the eastern Mediterranean” in 1799‑1801 (pp27‑36), through Harford Jones’s unsuccessful diplomatic manoeuvrings in Baghdad at the same period (pp82‑88), the “peace mission” from the East India Company in Bombay which seized Aden in 1839 (pp135‑36), the delusions of Anglican missionaries in potential religious unity with Lebanese Druze and Nestorians in Kurdistan and the idea of converting the Jews resident in Jerusalem in the 1820s-40s (chapter 7), the development of tourism to Egyptian antiquities in the 1840s-50s (pp335‑40), down to the role of religious disputes about Jerusalem in the origins of the Crimean war (more fundamentally concerned with the Balkans and general diplomatic influence at Constantinople) (pp358‑60). A good deal of the book can be read as a set of “rattling good yarns”: indeed, at one point Parry notes that one of his characters might have been the inspiration of the Orientalist spy “Sandy Arbuthnot” in John Buchan’s ‘Hannay’ novels (pp120‑21, note29).

One of Parry’s fundamental conclusions, which is certainly correct, is that British policy decisions in relation to Middle Eastern affairs were primarily driven by geopolitics. British intervention in Egypt and in Mesopotamia in the 1790s-1800s were driven in the first place by fear of the French finding a route to attack British dominance in India (recently acquired in the third and fourth Anglo-Mysore wars in 1790-92 and 1798-99, and still not stable). Fears of French rivalry, and later fears of Russian threats to British India, continued to inform British policy choices throughout the period. The ‘eastern crisis’ of 1839-40 was about preventing Egypt from getting too strong - and also about opposition to Mehmet Ali’s regime’s policy of state monopolies, which adversely affected British trading interests.

Most of the time the Ottoman empire was seen as a weak state, so that preserving its territorial integrity was a British interest, against the periodic surfacing of French or Russian schemes to partition it. But there was episodic ideological concern about Ottoman imperialism - and British concerns to preserve Ottoman territorial integrity did not prevent the British from carving off bits, running gunboats on the Euphrates, etc.

Capitalist market economy is supposed to be a positive-sum game - ie, at the end of the day total wealth increases and new technology ‘trickles down’. This is a slight oversimplification, since capitalism actually cycles between positive-sum games (boom) and negative-sum games (slumps), with the long-run positive-sum game emerging to the extent that losses in the slump phase fall on capital values, so clearing the way for new development. Capitalism emerges, however, into a world of “many states” and hence geopolitics. And geopolitics is necessarily zero-sum: if the East India Company is not to be subordinated to the Mughal Empire, it must subordinate the Mughals to itself; if Britain is not to be subordinated to France, it must subordinate France. And so on. In spite of illusions in a “law-governed world order”, the same is true today.

Commercial interests were certainly also present in decision-making - more commonly, though, not in the form of absolute imperatives, but in illusions in the commercial prospects: if the steamboats could only reach Baghdad, if Britain could get full control of the Red Sea, if Mehmet Ali’s modernisation project could succeed, if the Ottoman central government could be persuaded to go for liberalisation …


The “rattling good yarns” and the self-deceptions are in a sense part of Tory methodology. Just as an over-enlarged image dissolves into meaningless pixels, so micro-attention to the details of the narrative and the individual motivations - personal ambition, ideas drawn from ancient history, religious beliefs - tends to dissolve all explanatory generalisations and produce the Tory idea of the underlying triviality of historical causation.

But we only need to pull back from the picture a little to see a pattern. The British, with all their diverse beliefs, throughout the period assumed that Britain was entitled to be able to dictate to local actors in the Ottoman empire and bend them to British (perceived) interests. They may not have consciously wished to govern the Middle East. But the geopolitical zero-sum game pulled them, once they had begun to engage in ‘armed trade’ with the East India Company back in the 1600s, into progressively deeper entanglements - to end in making Egypt into a protectorate in 1882, and in partitioning the Ottoman empire after 1918. Commercial interests may not have been decisive in the later stages of this process, but it had begun with commercial interests; and beliefs, often delusive, in commercial opportunities remained a significant ‘pull factor’ - as it did, even more absurdly, in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

On the other hand, the kaleidoscope of self-deceptive ideologies which form the pixels in Parry’s pixelated picture are significant because they reappear in different forms at different stages of the history: Christian Zionism, and the idea of the conversion of the Jews in the end times (no longer a big deal in Britain, but still important in the US); illusions in the virtuous and free mountaineers of Kurdistan, or illusions in Wahabism as a pure form of Islam (or TE Lawrence’s illusions in the desert Arabs in 1914-18 and after), as opposed to the corruptions of the Middle Eastern city; or the potential for ‘modernisation’ (just backed with enough force, whether it is to be by Mehmet Ali’s modernised army, or colonial intervention); or, in the 1950s-60s, US support for military regimes, to create ‘good governance’ or ‘modernity’ - ie, modernity for the benefit of British (today US) capitals, not to create powerful states which might compete with Britain (today the US) or impose inconvenient regulations.

Such self-deceptive ideologies help state actors today, just like the early 19th century guys Parry studies, to imagine that they are something more than goons for their employers and to salve their consciences. It is for this reason that old ones can resurface - because they are more decorative than operative. Seeing them at work in 1798-1854 illuminates the longue durée persistence of both capitalist imperialist dynamics, and the superficial ideologies which from time to time cover for these.

Mike Macnair

  1. On the general point, too much journalistic and ‘academic’ garbage of this sort is in circulation to be worth citation. On the marginalisation of the empire in school history, see J Elledge’s ‘The history of the British empire is not being taught’ (New Statesman June 12 2020). The underlying problem is that it remains a topic of live controversy, with anti-racists hoping to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, and the Conservative press, on the other hand, pursuing a culture-wars policy of defence of the ‘good features’ of the empire; teachers, as a result, are naturally inclined to ‘play it safe’ by doing the bare minimum.↩︎

  2. Eg, Minqi Li, ‘China: imperialism or semi-periphery?’ Monthly Review July 1 2021: monthlyreview.org/2021/07/01/china-imperialism-or-semi-periphery; or the debate in the Morning Star and Communist Review on whether Russia is to be characterised as imperialist, outlined with references in my ‘Imperialist Russia?’ Weekly Worker Sept 8 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1409/imperialist-russia).↩︎

  3. Discussion in M Macnair ‘The Tory interpretation’ Weekly Worker January 31 2019 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1236/the-tory-interpretation).↩︎