Gertrude Bell, Kingmaker? – January 2020

Newcastle University Special Collections and Archives holds over 1,800 letters written by Gertrude Bell to her family. One in particular was written on the 12th January 1920, where Gertrude Bell writes to her stepmother describing her concerns about the delicate political situation in the Middle East, her hopes for resolution and how she seeks to contribute. Through this and her other writing she demonstrates a depth of knowledge and involvement which contributes significantly to our understanding of early 20th Century politics in the region.

Gertrude’s journey to becoming an important figure in Middle Eastern politics began when she was born into a wealthy family at Washington New Hall in 1868 where she also spent her childhood. After studying at and graduating from Oxford University she was able to travel widely in the first years of the 20th century and developed a deep interest in the Arab region and people. Her knowledge of the region led to her being involved with the British Intelligence Service during the First World War and by 1920 she had been appointed as Oriental Secretary to the British High Commission in Iraq.

Throughout her time in the Middle East she regularly corresponded with her family in Britain, updating them on her life, travels, and thoughts about her work and the political situation in the Middle East. She wrote one such letter on the 12th of January 1920 to her stepmother, Florence Bell.

A transcript of part of this letter is below:

You say that when you open the papers the world seems tempestuous – one does not need to open the papers to realize that here. The Turks to the north of us, exasperated and embracing Bolshevik propaganda, destructive Bolshevism which is all the Turks are capable of – or the Russians either, for that matter, up to the present; the Kurds ready to anyone who holds out the hope that the massacres of Christians shall go unpunished, as in justice they should not, but we’re powerless to enforce justice; the Arab Syrian state to the east of us, feeble and angry, bound to founder in financial deeps, if not in any other, and yet determined not to accept the only European help offered, namely that of France. And then Egypt, turned into a second Ireland largely by our own stupidity; and this country, which way will it go with all these agents of unrest to tempt it? I pray that the people at home may be rightly guided and realize that the only chance here is to recognize political ambitions from the first, not to try to squeeze the Arabs into our mould and have our hands forced in a year – who knows? perhaps less, the world is moving so fast – with the result that the chaos to north and east overwhelms Mesopotamia also. I wish I carried more weight. I’ve written to Edwin and this week I’m writing to Sir A. Hirtzel. But the truth is I’m in a minority of one in the Mesopotamian political service – or nearly – and yet I’m so sure I’m right that I would go to the stake for it – or perhaps just a little less painful form of testimony if they wish for it! But they must see, they must know at home. They can’t be so blind as not to read such gigantic writing on the wall as the world at large is sitting before their eyes.

Well there! I rather wish I were at Paris this week.

I’ve telegraphed to Father saying I hope he’ll come. I would love to show him my world here and I know if he saw if he would understand why I can’t come back to England this year. If they will keep me, I must stay. I can do something, even if it is very little to preach wisdom and restraint among the young Baghdadis whose chief fault is that they are ready to take on the creation of the world tomorrow without winking and don’t realize for a moment that even the creator himself made a poor job of it.

I’ll go to Blanche for a month or 6 weeks in the middle of the summer.

We have no news yet who our new G.O.C. in C. is to be. It’s rather a disaster at this juncture to have a new man who does not know the country, but I expect that’s what it will be.

In this letter she describes the political situation in the region, her concerns and hopes about how the British Government might seek to resolve the situation and details how she hopes to play a part in setting the future direction for the Middle East.

Pages from a letter from Gertrude Bell to her step mother, Florence Bell, written on the 12th January 1920
Pages from a letter from Gertrude Bell to her step mother, Florence Bell, written on the 12th of January 1920
Letter from Gertrude Bell to her step mother, Florence Bell, written on the 12th of January 1920, a full transcript of the letter can be viewed online. Ref: GB/LETT/370

The following year she was present at the conference held at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo in March 1921 alongside others including T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill. Here, the British Government met to discuss the future political shape of the Arab region and it was decided that the choice that Gertrude advocated, Faisal I bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi, would become the first king of the newly formed Kingdom of Iraq. The events of the Cairo Conference are also documented in the letters she sent to her family in Britain and are part of the archive.

The Gertrude Bell Archive is one of the most important and widely accessed within Newcastle University Library’s Special Collections and Archives. It contains over 1,800 letters, 8,000 photographs, diaries and other papers including lecture notes, reports and newspaper cuttings. Together they document her life and travels and form an important record of the archaeology, culture and political landscape of the Middle East in the early decades of the 20th Century. The archive has been recognised for its significance, including the insight it gives into political developments in the Middle East and the formation of Iraq in 1921, through its inclusion on UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Register (a press release regarding UNESCO’s recognition of the archive in 2017 can be found here).

Most of her letters have been fully transcribed and can be browsed and searched on our dedicated Gertrude Bell website. Additionally the photographs she took can also be seen on the website. These photographs, digitised in the 1990s, document many of the archaeological sites that particularly interested her, as well as the people and places she encountered on her earlier travels.

As the photographs are now over 100 years old, and the historic negatives are now unstable and fragile, a project is currently underway to re-digitise the collection to bring it up to current day standards, revealing hitherto unseen detail, and preserving the photographs for future generations.

Pioneers: Photographs from the Spence Watson/Weiss Archive (SW 11) – January 2009

The Spence Watson/Weiss Archive consists, for the most part, of letters they received, which are evidence of their involvement in both local and national matters of politics, education and society. They were visited by politicians, reformers, artists, writers and diplomats.

Included amongst the papers are a box of photographs of well-known figures such as William Morris, David Lloyd George and Myles Birket Foster. The images featured below are part of that collection and have been selected as representing some of the pioneers of the Nineteenth Century.

Sir John Herschel (1792-1871)

Photograph of Sir John Herschel
Sir John Herschel [English Mathematician and Astronomer] (Spence Watson/Weiss Archive, SW/11/18)

Herschel began his career as a distinguished mathematician who also worked in the fields of chemistry, botany and, like his father Sir William Herschel, he applied himself in the field of astronomy. In 1834, surveying the sky from the Cape of Good Hope, he mapped and catalogued the southern skies, discovered thousands of new celestial objects, discovered 525 nebulae and clusters and named seven of Saturn’s satellites (MimasEnceladusTethysDioneRheaTitan and Iapetus) and four moons of Uranus (ArielUmbrielTitania and Oberon).

Furthermore, he wrote many papers on such subjects as meteorology and physical geography. However, he actually made a large impact in the field of photography: one of the original researchers of celestial photography not only did he make significant improvements to photographic processes, discovering the cyanotype (blueprint) process in 1842, but he went on to research photo-active chemicals and the wave theory of light. He coined the term photography and was the first to apply negative and positive to it.

His son, Alexander, would become Professor of Physics at Armstrong College (now Newcastle University) in 1871 where he continued pioneering work in meteor spectroscopy.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Photograph of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin [English Naturalist] (Spence Watson/Weiss Archive, SW/11/6)

Darwin’s is, even today, a household name – made famous by his theory of evolution which completely revolutionised our approach to the natural world. Against the tide of belief in the biblical description of a world created by God, Darwin turned instead to Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830) which argued that the Earth’s geological history and the progressive development of life could be explained as gradual changes and that fossils were evidence that animals had lived millions of years ago.

Darwin’s scientific expedition on board the HMS Beagle (1831-35) impressed upon him the rich variety of animal life and geological features and he spent the next twenty years solving the question of how animals evolve. In 1859 he published his ground-breaking On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a first edition of which is held in the Pybus Collection. The Church, seeing the prevailing orthodoxy threatened, attacked Darwin and the idea that homo sapiens could have evolved from apes caused a backlash with satirists of the day lampooning Darwin in simian caricatures.

Dr. Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930)

Photograph of Dr Fridtjof Nansen on skiis
Dr Fridtjof Nansen [Norwegian Polar Explorer] (Spence Watson/Weiss Archive, SW/11/33)

Nansen was a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate whose devotion to humanitarian causes such as refugees, prisoners of war and famine victims had saved many lives after World War I. First and foremost he was a scientist and explorer. In 1888 he crossed the Greenland icecap by ski and man-hauled sledge during which expedition he and his team of six collected scientific and meteorological data.

However, he became one of the pioneers of oceanography after sailing from Christiania (Oslo) to the New Siberian Islands on board the Fram in 1893. The boat froze into the ice and drifted until it was able to sail south in August 1897, following a strong east-west current that Nansen had argued must flow from Siberia towards the North Pole and Greenland. Although Nansen had not stayed with the boat, having instead made an unsuccessful bid for the Pole, his team collected information about currents, winds and temperatures and proved that there was no land near the Pole on the Eurasian side, but an ice-covered ocean. From this point, Nansen focused his research on oceanography, specifically compiling data from the Norwegian Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

The Spence Watson/Weiss Archive contains several letters from Nansen to Robert Spence Watson, and the extract given below complements the photograph of him on skis.

“… now I am again back in my dear country and am happy, one of the first days my wife and I will take to our ‘ski’ and go up in the mountains to live their [sic] for some time I must get some pure Norwegian mountain-air into my lungs again. It is a charming life to be in the mountains in the winter to feel oneself like a bird as one rushes over the snowfields undisturbed by human foot and then when the night comes to sleep in the snow with the sky as a tent. Oh you are so free, we both enjoy it immensely.”

Letter to Robert Spence Watson: Lysaker, 7 March 1892 (SW/1/13/3)

Professor Richard Owen (1804-1892)

Photograph of Sir Richard Owen
Sir Richard Owen [Biologist and Palaeontologist] (Spence Watson/Weiss Archive, SW/11/35)

Owen, an anatomist and palaeontologist, had a long and distinguished career in museums and created a name for himself as a controversial but brilliant scientist. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, designed the life-sized dinosaur exhibits for the Great Exhibition (1851) and his Hunterian Lectures were well-attended but his successful campaign for a dedicated natural history museum, thereby founding the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, was one of his greatest achievements.

Furthermore, although Owen rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution, being convinced of the immutability of species, he nevertheless published notable works on fossils and it was he who, building on the work of others, first classified dinosaurs and coined the term. (Owen came to revise his ideas on transmutation but maintained his belief in a divinely-created species model.)

Goldwin Smith (1823-1910)

Photograph of Goldwin Smith
Goldwin Smith [Historian and Journalist] (Spence Watson/Weiss Archive, SW/11/45)

Smith’s roles were many and varied: historian, journalist, poet and translator to list a few. He was well-known as a writer on religious and political issues and was an early advocate of colonial emancipation, House of Lords reform and the separation of Church and State.

However, it is his work as a university reformer which stands out. Smith had demanded a Royal Commission of inquiry into the administration of Oxford University and its report (1852) suggested that religious tests should be relaxed, and that a teaching professoriate should be created. He also sat on the Popular Education Commission of 1858, chaired by the Duke of Newcastle. In his pamphlet, The Reorganization of the University of Oxford (1868), his recommendations included the abolition of celibacy as a condition of the tenure of fellowships and that the individual colleges merge for lecturing.

That same year, he left England for the professorship of English and Constitutional History at Cornell University – the institution to which he would later gift his private library and a $14, 000 endowment. He moved to Toronto in 1871 (where he lived out his remaining years). Here he sat on the Council of Public Instruction and wrote about the place and function of universities in Canada.

Throughout his life he argued that men of all classes should be afforded the opportunity of university education, that universities should be free from political domination and called for the raising of standards and the establishment of provincial universities.