No Partnership: the case of the Abadan township in the 1920s


By Reidar Visser

Gibraltar That Never Was!

Paper presented to the British World conference, Bristol, 11–14 July 2007

originally titled “A Rigid Conception of Britishness: Imperialism, Local Regionalism and Transnational Links among the British of Basra and Abadan, 1890–1940”

Aerial photo of Abadan 1950's
Aerial photo of Abadan 1950’s

The factor of self-identity was to prove even more decisive for the fate of British relations with a local population seeking autonomy on the other side or the river, in Abadan in Persia. There were many similarities between Basra and Abadan after the First World War: both were areas of chief strategic concern for the British, and both fostered local political movements that favoured the creation of formal imperial enclaves in order to seal their partnerships with London. But there were also some differences. In particular, the economic zone of immediate interest to the British seemed more finite in the case of Abadan, bordered as it was by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company oil refinery at Abadan and the oilfields themselves further north at Masjid-i Sulayman, and with its political seat at Muhammara. In a sense, the potential for an overlap of interests was even stronger on the Persian side of the Shatt al-Arab.
And yet also this attempt at developing close ties between Britain and local notables came to nought. In 1925, the central Persian government made an astonishing return to an area hitherto completely outside its control, and London did nothing to support Britain’s long-standing ally, the local shaykh. Khaz‘al was promptly removed to Tehran, where he remained under house arrest until his death in 1936; subsequent attempts by relatives and tribal allies to restore the semi-autonomous Arab principality all faltered and failed to receive British support. The greatest oil refinery in the world and, by 1945, the home of a British community of 4,500 individuals, Abadan had to be evacuated in 1951 when nationalists came to power in Tehran – the capital which Britain had chosen to back, at the expense of local elites in the area around the oil installations.(20)
The failed attempt to transform Abadan to a “company island” between 1920 and 1930 epitomises the paradoxes of British policy. After its establishment between 1909 and 1913, the Abadan refinery had soon expanded beyond all expectations, thanks not least to the First World War and the growing importance of an oil-fired naval fleet. Originally designed to house 2,000 refinery workers, APOC’s “village” on the island had rapidly become overcrowded as numbers of employees had risen sharply, reaching 9,000 by the end of the decade – in addition to some 5,000 sub-contracted workers. By 1920, Abadan was therefore becoming increasingly chaotic. To the north of the refinery, Western staff resided in a “Bungalow” area of purpose-built accommodation. To the south, there were two small centres of population: the “company’s village”, leased by APOC from the island’s owner – Shaykh Khaz‘al – where the original housing with a capacity of 2,000 had been erected and subsequently occupied mostly by Indian staff; and then “the shaykh’s bazaar” (also known as “the native village”), under Khaz‘al’s full control and inhabited by Arabs and Persians not directly employed by APOC but involved in the island’s economic boom. The total population around the refinery site was now estimated at 30,000, including an Indian contingent strong enough to make the celebration of Ramakrishna’s birthday a major local event.(21) To APOC managers this island community presented a golden opportunity for “reform”. There was even talk of a creating “model village”.(22)

Refinery and Braim housing quarters above Boat Club

But APOC did not approach the ethnic chaos of Abadan as nation-builders: their approach to “town planning” was that of the epidemiologist. Variously described as “the real plague spot”,(23) “insanitary beyond imagination”(24) and with “ground [which is] sodden and impregnated with disease germs”, the “Shaykh’s village” was seen as a problem almost impossible to rectify. Accordingly, priority was accorded to solutions that emphasised relocation to new, “untouched” ground.(25) In general, the focus was on “healthiness” and “order”, although each APOC ideologue had his own idiosyncrasies and pet projects. One project focused on the “opening up” of the village, with the aim of getting “the openings straight and even uniform” and as far as possible eradicating alleys and “tortuous and ill-ventilated gulleys”.(26) Others were particularly concerned with population density and proper “light and air”.(27) The local population was never treated as prospective partners; they were approached as an altogether different species: in a discussion of various options for the installation of running water (and the dangers that the natives would destroy the new equipment), APOC advisers concluded that “up to the present Hughes’ Rotary is far the best waste preventer for Eastern people”. Sometimes there appeared to be signs of benevolent paternalism: “The sterilization of water by sedimentation and chlorination should be carried to the Native quarter as well, where some 5,000 water use water direct from the river…” But even here the ulterior motives had more to do with company interests: “It is here where epidemics are liable to occur, and, from the natives, spread to Europeans – a point which should not escape attention when dealing with preventive measures at Abadan.”(28)

Ideally, the British had hoped to buy out Khaz‘al and thereby become the sole owner of the refinery site(29)– with a “rent-free” company village, without any need for troublesome municipal institutions, and with the possibility to eject tenants at will on the completion of their service to the company. However, the bazaar on the island and the rent it generated were valuable to the shaykh, and after repeated efforts in the early 1920s, APOC gave up, opting instead for a shared scheme in which they would design the changes in urban structure – primarily by shifting the focus of the village to a new “planned” area to which it was hoped the centre would gravitate – with Khaz‘al providing financial support. But bureaucratic delays and hesitancy with regard to financial outlay meant that little was actually achieved in the crucial years of transition from 1918 to 1925. Grand visions of a “model village” soon degenerated into heated debates about the number of billiard tables and pianos to be provided for the projected new social clubs for the “Europeans”.(30)
While the British wasted valuable time, new competitors entered the scene. Shortly after shopkeepers in the projected reconstruction area in 1924 had been served six months’ notices to evacuate their premises (which were due to be demolished), Persian central government officials began voicing an interest in their cause. They soon emerged as an attractive source of redress for Abadan inhabitants frustrated with the harsh “compensation” terms offered by APOC. Letters of complaint began to appear in Tehran newspapers. However, still as late as in 1924, APOC bosses were primarily afraid of incurring the local shaykh’s “ill-feeling”; in March 1925, while describing him as “a broken reed”, they continued to view Khaz‘al as someone who had to be placated.(31) In May 1925 they voiced exasperation about the central government’s intervention in the reconstruction scheme.(32) Nevertheless, policy changes did materialise, and in this case it seems impossible to divorce official British policy from that of APOC. Despite support for Khaz‘al among many British administrators and consuls in southern Persia (who themselves often had a background from British India),(33) London in 1925 decisively switched its allegiance to the central government. And soon after Khaz‘al’s removal by force to Tehran, APOC seemed to toe the London line. In 1925, the official APOC journal published a euphemistic postscript to the whole Arabistan affair: “The province of Khuzistan is so remote and difficult to access from the capital at Tehran that the scene of the Company’s quarters there has never before been visited by anyone of high authority in the Persian government.” The change of regime in Muhammara and Abadan was referred to as “the reorganisation of the government’s control in Southern Persia”.(34)
These dramatic changes brought further delays to APOC’s plans for a “model Abadan”. By 1927 only demolition work had been completed.(35) In Abadan, no efforts were made towards a more pro-active contribution, for instance in the field of education – even though APOC did spend a small sum supporting existing schools, and in the inland (oilfield) areas took more specific steps to recruit the sort of employee candidates they were looking for.(36) In fact, in this sphere, the surrender to the central government appeared total and emerged as a stark and sudden antithesis to the previous decades of supporting Khaz‘al at almost any cost: “the primary importance”, said T.L. Jacks in January 1926, “is that the sympathy and appreciation of Persian government be secured … We are only too pleased that any schools in which we were interested should be under supervision of the Director of Education, who would thus be able to satisfy himself that these schools were being administered on lines which were in conformity with the views of the Ministry of Education and the Central Government”.(37) Not until the 1930s – following serious labour disturbances at Abadan in 1929 – did some new urban structures finally emerge in Abadan, in the shape of the Bawarda suburb. This was designed by the British architect James Mollison Wilson but catered only for higher-ranking clerks and thus fell short of the original vision of an integrated company society.(38) By that time, the potential for partnership between Britain and the local population had all but vanished.



20 On Abadan in the post-war period and during the 1951 crisis, see Wm. Roger Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945–1951, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 686–89.
21 Basrah Times, 6 March 1925.
22 BP 72138, Greenwood to H.E. Nichols, 7 June 1920 (BP archives at the University of Warwick).
23 BP 70209, note by John Cadman dated 19 February 1924
24 BP 70209, report by Dr. Young, 1 October 1923.
25 BP 70209, Jas Jameson to APOC London, 7 January 1924.
26 BP 68723, undated APOC office note, circa 1921.
27 BP 68723, Abadan Town Planning Report, by G. Wittett and F.C. Temple.
28 BP 68723, M.Y. Young to Strick & Co., 3 March 1921.
29 BP 72138, H.E. Nichols to H.A. Walpole, 8 April 1920.
30 BP 72138, R.G. Neilson to Greenwood, 21 April 1920.
31 BP 70640, memo to the management committee by H.E. Nichols, 6 March 1925.
32 BP 68723, N.A. Gass to APOC headquarters, 25 May 1925.
33 Houshang Sabahi, British Policy in Persia, 1918–1925, London: Frank Cass, 1990, p. 174.
34 APOC Magazine, vol. 1 no. 4, 1925.
35 BP 68723, APOC Abadan to London, 21 September 1927.
36 BP 71183, Education in Khuzistan: “Note on the present activities of the company”, undated note, circa February 1926.
37 BP 71183, “Notes taken at a conference on education held at Abadan on 15 January 1926”.
38 On this project, see Mark Crinson, “Abadan: Planning and Architecture under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company”, Planning Perspectives, vol. 12, 1997, pp. 341–59.

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