The Famine of 1917–1918 and the British Attempt to Stifle Persian Foreign Trade

  August 25, 2021   Read time 9 min
The Famine of 1917–1918 and the British Attempt to Stifle Persian Foreign Trade
In the winter of 1917–18, severe famine swept Persia, primarily caused by the invading Russian and Turkish armies that occupied western Iran. The Russians, of all the invading forces, seem to have done the Persians most harm.

Along the Bagdad-Caspian line may still be seen many abandoned villages and demolished houses resulting from the Russian occupation. There is very little firewood in the country and the Russian troops are said to have taken for firewood the roofing, window and door frames, and other wooden parts of the huts of the Persian peasants. In doing this the house was, of course, made uninhabitable and as some of the destruction occurred in winter the peasants thus deprived of shelter had a very hard time of it and many died. The Russians are also said to have taken all the food to be found, to have killed domestic animals kept for breeding purposes, and to have eaten up the small stocks of seed grain in the winter of 1916–17, and in general to have been largely responsible in this way for the serious famine that occurred in that part of Persia last winter. The Russians in general seem to have behaved very badly in Persia. Southard further reports that grain was so scarce that the price of wheat exceeded 100 tomans ($200) per kharvar ($600 per ton), a substantial sum by the standards of the time. He relates that the benevolent British armies provided food to the famine victims in the spring of 1918 and gave them employment as day laborers engaged in road construction.

British benevolence was imaginary. The withholding of oil royalty payments by the British at this critical juncture will be discussed at length in chapter 9. At this point it should be pointed out that the most important source of revenue to the Persian government was tariff revenue derived from foreign commerce. With the outbreak of war in 1914, tariff revenue from the southern tariffs was greatly reduced due to the fall in commerce. Moreover, after the 1917 revolution in Russia, revenue from the northern tariffs completely dried up. With its revenues curtailed, the government was placed in great financial difficulty. To assist the Persian government, the British government gave it monthly advances of 350,000 tomans (about £70,000 at the usual exchange rate). However, while providing such assistance and food and employment for the famine victims, the British government, in addition to stopping oil payments, set about further curtailing Persia’s foreign trade by imposing a tariff on Persian exports to Mesopotamia. In addition, to Caldwell’s intense anger, the British did all they could to restrict Persian trade with the United States. The American consul in Baghdad reported on the imposition of duty on goods imported from Persia. It is clear that the regulation was intended not only to impose a 10 percent duty, but to completely discourage trade with Persia.

Most remarkable in Caldwell’s reports of British attempts to sabotage American trade with Persia was that at a time when Persia was about to plunge into a famine that claimed many victims, the British had prevented the importation of food from the United States: It is still necessary for practically all commercial shipments to enter Persia from the South, for the routes from Trans-Caucasia are not yet open for general freight, and of course practically nothing (except oil from Baku) is now being obtained here from Russia. Having no competition from the North gives Great Britain a great advantage in securing Persian trade. Two examples of British interference with American trade in South Persia may be cited. One case occurred during the war, in August 1917. It had to do with shipments of three thousand sacks of American sugar, the first shipment of this kind ever brought into this country. A representative of the American company accompanied the shipment and upon arrival at Bunder Abbas found that all transport animals coming into that port were commandeered by the British and were controlled by them, generally being used in connection with the then newly formed South Persia Rifles. The American in charge went to the British Vice Consul in the city (who practically is in control of the place) and after much discussion it was arranged that if the former could secure transport animals outside of Bunder Abbas they would be allowed to come into the city, load and depart without any molestation from the British military or Vice Consul. The man in charge of the shipment went out of the city about twenty-five miles and was finally able to secure a caravan of three hundred and fifty camels; but the owner, who wished to avoid the commandeering of his animals would not go to the city until he had the fullest assurances that they would not be seized.

He received an initial payment for the use of his animals and went to Bunder Abbas, where his caravan was commandeered and used by the British military. When the Vice Consul was appealed to he stated that even though he had given his word he could not give any assistance to the American or the owner of the caravan. Therefore the shipment of the sugar was forcibly held in Bunder Abbas five or six months and the American declares that meanwhile shipments of sugar by Hindus and British protégés were allowed to be sent inland. The British Vice Consul offered to pay him five hundred tomans (about one thousand dollars) if the shipper would give him a receipt stating that complete compensation had been received, but the Vice Consul was informed that ten thousand dollars would not fully compensate the loss suffered by this company, and the five hundred tomans was refused. In 1919 this same company again brought a shipment to Persia, this time to Mohammerah, and the representative states that the best freight rate he was able to secure from Bombay to Mohammerah was sixty five rupees per ton of forty cubic feet, whereas he knows that some British firms were at the same time able to secure a rate of forty-five rupees per ton.

Having sabotaged imports from the United States, the British also prevented Persian exports to the United States. By withholding payments and killing off Persian exports to the United States, the British intended to have Persia completely at their economic mercy. The other instance was in Kerman, where the representative of an American rug company was stationed. This man was an Armenian, a Turkish subject, who had been in America two years, long enough to know something of it and to grow to love it better than any other that he knew. He received American papers and magazines and often quoted passages from them in favor of America, and even went so far as to state that if America had not entered the war the Allies would not have won, and America therefore was the decisive factor and had won the war. The British consul in Kerman received reports of such matters and put a spy on the trail of the offender. The Kargozar, who has local authority over cases where foreign interests are involved with Persian interests, was informed that the British Consul was not in favor of this representative of the American company, and every case that came up involving this man or his company was decided in favor of the Persians. It was made so uncomfortable for the Armenian in Kerman that he wished to leave, but he dared not to go without getting permission from the British Consul (for fear of being arrested as soon as he got out of the city) so he went to the Consul and asked for permission, whereupon he was asked: “What assurance can you give that you will never come back here again?” The man felt so persecuted that after getting the permission he had requested he actually fled from Kerman, leaving no one in charge of the interests of the firm, and the company has, in consequence, suffered great loss in that district.

Through the Anglo-Persian Convention of August 1919, the British intended to turn Persia into a captive market to the exclusion of American products, as Caldwell’s account of the plan to purchase American automotive products illustrates. Evidently, the British had dreams of capturing the automotive market. Since the publishing of the Anglo-Persian Treaty, many hope for the promised establishment of motor transportation throughout the country, and as has been pointed out before, this is believed to be the temporary means of transportation best suited to Persia under present conditions. But much road construction is necessary before such transport can be put into general use. For instance, one cannot go by motor from Teheran to the important city of Meshed, nor from Teheran to Tabriz, and only with much difficulty to Shiraz and other cities of South Persia. It is therefore likely that the planned motor transport services, when put into operation, will be on long runs only and on such routes as Resht to Teheran and Bagdad to Teheran. As one example of the scores that might be cited showing the far-reaching intentions and effects of this [Anglo-Persian] convention, there is herewith submitted an extract from a letter just received at this Legation from Mr. H. Malcolm of Shiraz: “Regarding the proposed Motor Car Company, referred to in my previous communications, I beg to state for your information that several meetings have been he here since my last report, two of these being presided over by H.R.H. the Governor, Prince Farman Farma himself, and it was decided that the shareholders should select a competent person to go to the [United] States for the purchase of some forty cars and trucks as a start. The subscribers were notified that the first call would be made for the purpose shortly, but since then the matter has remained quite dormant, and it seems to me that the recent Anglo-Persian Treaty has altogether upset the arrangements and in such case, of course, I am sure the project will die a natural death.”

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