A Tribute to Gertrude Bell
THE FOLLOWERS OF GERTRUDE BELL’S STORY can only admire the enormous energy and sense of purpose that she possessed throughout her life and political career. In Iraq, her name evokes contrasting reactions and thoughts, from being seen as the founder of the modern Iraqi state and its constitutional monarchy, to the more nationalistic view of her as simply part of the establishment of British colonial rule in Iraq. However, her great love for Iraq and its people cannot be denied. While she never lost sight of the fact that she was part of the British colonial establishment, she was devoted to the cause of the Arab people in seeking to achieve self-determination and to be in charge of their own destiny. Her fascination with the east and admiration of past Arab culture were overwhelming. From a young age she travelled extensively in Arabia, Iran and the Ottoman Empire – travels that are well documented in her books, letters and diaries.
For myself, as an independent scholar, interested in the history of Iraq and specifically in the life and politics of Gertrude Bell, an opportunity arose to visit Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, the college that Gertrude Bell had attended when studying Modern History at the University from 1886 to 1888. I was kindly met by the librarian and the archivist of the College (and later met the College Principal at the London Conference in 2013). I am indebted to them for introducing me to the entry in the College’s Brown Book for the year 1926 (the year of Gertrude Bell’s death).
The entry is an obituary written by Bell’s friend and Lady Margaret Hall contemporary, the feminist author Janet E. Courtney (née Hogarth), whose brother David G. Hogarth was sent to Cairo in 1915 to help establish the Arab Bureau (he became President of the Royal Geographical Society and also was the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford). The Arab Bureau included people such as T. E. Lawrence, Kinnahan Cornwallis and Aubrey Herbert. David Hogarth had asked Gertrude Bell for assistance in mapping northern (p.290) Arabia and in documenting tribal matters, as well as in helping to persuade the Arabs to support the British in the war against the Ottoman Empire. On 25 November 1915, she arrived in Egypt to begin her eventful and turbulent Arab journey. After a few months in Cairo working for the Arab Bureau, she was sent to India to meet the Viceroy of India to discuss the war situation in Arabia and particularly in Mesopotamia. On her return journey, on 3 March 1916, she landed in Basra to begin her life in Iraq. During the 10 years that she spent in Iraq and until her death in 1926, she witnessed the defeat of the Ottoman army in Mesopotamia and the establishment of British colonial rule in the country. She was the only woman participant in her own right at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, as a member of the Mesopotamian delegation. Her contribution at the Cairo Conference in 1921 led to the momentous decision to establish a constitutional monarchy in Iraq, with Emir Faisal as its first king. Working as Oriental Secretary to the Civil Administrator Sir Percy Cox, she played a significant role in the establishment of the first Iraqi government. Her efforts in the crowning of King Faisal on 23 August 1921 are well documented and earned her the titles of ‘uncrowned Queen of Iraq’ and ‘King Maker’. Gertrude Bell’s commitment to the future of Iraq was unparalleled; in one of her letters from Iraq to her father, she wrote ‘We shall, I trust, make it [Iraq] a great centre of Arab civilization and prosperity’.1 She worked tirelessly to establish the Iraqi Museum, and her work in antiquities and in the archaeology of the country was remarkable. The King decreed that the main wing of the Museum be named after her.
Lady Margaret Hall has kindly given permission to republish the entry in the Brown Book for 1926,2 for which I am indebted and grateful. The obituary is a moving and beautifully written passage spanning the life and politics of Gertrude Bell. It is a fitting addition to the collection of historical notes and documents that enable us to study and to understand the life and work of a remarkable lady.
(1) Gertrude Bell, letter to her father, 10 March 1917. Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University, www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk/letter_details.php?letter_id=228 (accessed 4 August 2016).
(2) Janet Courtney (née Hogarth), ‘Tribute to Gertrude Lowthian Bell’, The Brown Book: Lady Margaret Hall Chronicle, Oxford, Lady Margaret Hall Association, December, 1926. Reproduced by kind permission of the Principal and Fellows of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.