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Antony Wynn


Sir Percy Sykes: Explorer, Consul, Soldier, Spy

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

The "Great Game" referred to in the title is the rivalry for power in Central Asia that took place between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century. The main focus of interest was on India but Persia had a role as well. (Antony Wynn is right to use "Persia" to denote the country here, rather than "Iran", because this is how it was known to Europeans at the relevant time.)

When I was living in Iran in the 1960s it was widely believed that any kind of political disturbance in the country was due to the machinations of either the British or the Russians (the Americans were regarded as too inept to manage such intrigues), and this book goes a long way to explaining why such a belief should have become so deeply ingrained in the popular psyche. It is a history, written for a general audience, of the manoeuvring of foreign powers in Iran in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it centres on the career of Sir Percy Sykes, whose name is still remembered there today.

Sykes went to Sandhurst and then joined a cavalry regiment in India. He spent as much time as possible exploring the mountains of Kashmir and Ladakh in pursuit of big game, and this brought him to the attention of Army Intelligence, who sent him in disguise on a mission into Russian Turkistan. After a series of journeys in eastern Persia he was ordered to found a consulate in Kerman, in south-eastern Persia, with the aim of countering Russian moves southward. He spent ten years there, first with his sister and later with his wife, making many friends and learning a vast amount about the people, language, history, geography, religion, archaeology, and folklore of Persia. He received no salary at all during this time.

In 1905 he was sent north, to take over the consulate at Meshed, in north-eastern Persia, close to the Russian border. He stayed there for eight years, during which the infamous Anglo-Russian Convention was set up to divide Persia into zones of British and Russian influence. There followed a revolutionary period which the Russians attempted to use to turn the north of Persia into a Russian province, hoping to advance into India. Sykes was largely responsible for frustrating this plan.

The situation changed after the outbreak of the First World War, since Russia and Britain now made common cause against Germany, Austria and Turkey. Sykes at this time was Consul-General at Kashgar, in Chinese Turkistan, but now he was sent back to Persia to counteract the danger posed by German agents who were inciting the southern tribes against Britain, thus threatening the oilfields on which the Royal Navy depended; they were also trying to foment Muslim rebellion against the British in India. Sykes, backed by only a small force of Indians, responded by recruiting a local force which came to be known as the South Persia Rifles. This displeased the nationalists but despite opposition from the Persian government Sykes succeeded in countering the German threat. He also neutralized local tribes whose plundering had put a stop to trade in the south.

The book ends with the fall of the Qajar dynasty and the coming to power of Reza Shah. Some Iranians believe that this was yet another British conspiracy, but Wynn discounts this idea.

At the end of the war Sykes fell out with Lord Curzon, who made a misconceived plan to take over Persia as a British protectorate, and Curzon's hostility meant that he was never offered another job. Having by now a large family and little income Sykes found it difficult to make ends meet; he lived for a time on the Continent, where life was cheaper. He wrote a good deal, to make money and keep himself occupied. He also lectured, and on one occasion, when he was speaking to the Royal Asiatic Society at the Caxton Hall, an Indian nationalist fired a revolver, killing one of the people on the stage and wounding others. Sykes, now aged 73, overpowered the man and held him down until the police arrived.

Wynn writes with a pleasantly light touch and the book is never dull. He provides a rounded picture of Sykes, who was a remarkable man but had his faults. Iran is attracting increasing international attention today and people who know little of the country may sometimes be surprised by Iranian opinions and attitudes to the outer world. A historical awareness of events that occurred in the early twentieth century is needed to set such things in their proper context.

17 December 2004

%T Persia in the Great Game
%S Sir Percy Sykes: Explorer, Consul, Soldier, Spy
%A Antony Wynn
%I John Murray
%C London
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-7195-6415-8
%P xii +346 pp
%K history
%O illustrated
%O paperback edition

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