An Empty Land and a People Without History!?


The Neighborhood in Khorramshahr 1910's
The Neighborhood in Khorramshahr 1910’s
Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]

In chapter one the functional importance to the discourse and practice of modernization of depicting the targeted area for development as desolate and empty, and of its population as unproductive and obstacles to modernity, were discussed. This framing allows land (and nature) to be presented as a valuable but poorly treated, underused, and a wasted resource. Its emptiness invites claims of ownership and trusteeship in the name of improvement. Depicting the population as sparse and incognizant of the valuable asset they hold frames them as unproductive, lazy, and ignorant of the requirements of the forward march of history toward progress. In the process they become unworthy custodians of scarce resources that ought to be developed for the common good of the modern civilization[84]. These themes underlay the transformation of the built environment of Khuzestan throughout the 20th century, first by the advent of oil capitalism, and later on by the claims of the central state and of private capital and major transnational development institutions that implemented enormous and internationally prestigious projects commercial agribusiness, hydroelectric dams, and vast irrigation works, as well as petrochemicals and heavy manufacturing[85]. This section will unpack the operation of this discursive practice as APOC began to lay claim to the river island of Abadan. To facilitate its acts of enclosures, APOC’s narrative about Khuzestan was replete with images of empty land and infertile scrub, occasionally populated by ‘natives’ who were not industrious enough to make the desert bloom. At the time of the first discovery of oil Arnold Wilson was a young junior officer who had arrived in Khuzestan two years before in charge of twenty Indian mounted soldiers to protect the oil fields and pipelines from Bakhtiyari and Arab raids (chapter 1). He was then appointed in 1909 to survey the river Island of Abadan before a square mile of it was leased to APOC for jetties and the refinery. He reports an ancient shrine and recounts the historical lore about the place of pilgrimage. His detailed diplomatic analyses and reports contain only scattered mentions of the Island[86], which is regularly portrayed as a desolate stretch of sand: During the negotiations to lease the land from Khaz’al Sir Hugh Barnes, of the Council of the Government of India, wrote to Cox pressing him to obtain the lease on the cheap, “for if it was not only uncultivated, but uncultivable such land was free of all cost”. Barnes did acknowledge that, “It may be necessary to pay [Khaz’al] something to ensure his cordial cooperation but certainly not more than the ordinary market value”[87]. This begs the question of whether and to what extent land was generally treated locally at the time as a commodity , to be bought and sold in a property market. Archival sources, Company records, and historical studies do not support such a claim. It is fascinating that the official history of the Company (now British Petroleum) contains a picture on the opposite page to this statement of the ‘desolate’ “mudflats of Abadan in 1909”, showing a date grove, irrigation ditches stretching away, and a continuous line of date groves and trees in the distance![88]



Date groves were the cash crop of southern Khuzestan. Palm dates adapted better than grains and legumes to the sandy soil and the sparse windfall, especially as the sea tide raised the river water, allowing a simple but practical system of irrigation to feed the groves. Since the opening of Karun in late 19th century dates had become a major component of the cash crop economy of Southern Khuzestan[89]. Perhaps the newspaper “Asr-e Jadid’s” claim was an exaggeration that “Mohammareh and the Abadan Island have millions of date trees owned by small farmers, that are being turned into the personal and hereditary property of Sheikh Khaz’al”[90], nevertheless British diplomatic surveys as well as Company accounts did acknowledge, but then

conveniently overlooked and dismissed the significance of a poor but thriving rural community that already resided on the Island: “Maniuhi: [village and area in Abadan] A stretch of date plantations on the western shore of Abbadan [as it is spelled] Island extending fifteen miles along the Shatt al-Arab, and containing some 300 mud huts scattered here and there in small groups. Annual yield of these plantations is over 50 thousand baskets.”[91]

George Reynolds, the energetic Company chief engineer who had discovered oil in Masjed Soleyman, was skeptical about the valuation placed on land. He predicted that with proper mechanical drainage and irrigation the land would flourish, but at present “Arab apathy renders the ground waste, and Arab avarice will prevent you getting it at the price you quote” (see chapter 6)[92]. The recurring themes of “lazy native”, “fair market value of land”, and of “empty land”[93] ready to be planted and made productive by energetic European agents of industrial progress if only the stubborn obduracy of the “natives” was overcome made its dispossession justifiable. Getting right the terms and the signature on the “contract”, and paying the “fair market value” for the land; land that was “wasteland” and even “uncultiveable”, only proved the fairness, honesty, and the immense generosity of the British party of oilmen and colonial statesmen to themselves. The recurring image of the “empty” and “uncultivated” land was an important component of signing of the contracts with the Bakhtiyari Khans and Sheikh Khaz’al. For example, Masjed Soleyman was repeatedly portrayed as a harsh, arid, and desolate plateau, yet K.C.Scott, the surveyor who mapped the pipeline route from there to Abadan later reminisced that in 1910 when he was mapping 3000 square miles of territory, “when rain comes the whole country teems with people, animals, sowing, grazing, and migrating birds”[94]. Much like North America or eastern Eurasia, tropical south Americas, or most of coastal Africa, the terrain of pastoral and hunter gathering societies is used seasonally, and not permanently. Its geography is not one of permanent picket fences, barbed wires, registered deeds, and unambiguous and airtight legal contracts[95]. Its land use is selective and plural; as some of the features of the land are used only seasonally – such as grass, acorn, and brush – while others are left alone. This is in contradistinction to the monocrops of commercial industrial agriculture, which demands the permanent cultivation of land with the aid of chemical supplements (mostly petroleum based), and eradicates alternative fauna and flora as pests. However, the enclosure of this common and fluid land use, and its conversion to exclusive private property designated only for extraction of surplus capital, requires the legal fiction of the contract and its depiction as empty and worthless. In early 20th century Abadan was populated, sparsely like the rest of the province, by the Nassar Arabs, who were totally sedentary, cultivated dates, plus some cereals, flax, and fruits. They lived in adobe houses, and politically were under the dominion of Sheikh Khaz’al in nearby Mohammareh[96]. The copious intelligence reports of the General Staff of the British India’s diplomatic and military personnel posted in southern Iran provide some of the most detailed descriptions of the overall social and geographic setup in Abadan. In 1908 the island was described by the Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf in the following terms: “The center [of the island Abbadan [as it is spelled] is mostly desert, but the margins of the rivers, as far inland as the creeks extend, are cultivated and planted with dates; much land is now being reclaimed in the Ma’amareh neighborhood near the south end…The inhabitants are almost all Ka’b Arabs…the south coast of the island appears to be fairly firm and well marked, but there are no fixed villages on it. Total population is reported to be about 24,000. The two southern administrative divisions are Maniuhi and
Nassar. In each of the villages bearing these names there is a representative of the Shaikh of Muhammarah. [my emphasis]”[97].
There was also an important regional shrine, the putative tomb of the Prophet Khedhr, located on the island, which was a major center of local pilgrimage. The presumed “empty land” was in fact populated, sparsely like the rest of the province (by the contemporary European demographic standards). Khuzestan at the turn of the century was estimated to have had a population of 300,000[98], albeit within slightly different borders from the present, of mostly agrarian and pastoralist communities that made flexible and seasonal use of the land and available resources. British intelligence reports were detailed in providing information on livestock, agricultural production, and number of “rifles” (as well as ammunition and type of weapons) that any social unit could muster at various times: “The fighting strength of the southern province was calculated in 1902 to be 54,500 men…They are principally armed with a rifle of Martini pattern, of which there are computed to be at least 15,000. Cartridges are refilled locally with native power”[99]; but these were instrumental details and “no attempt [was] made to estimate the overall number of the population”[100] since the information by itself was of little practical use for political and commercial purposes.
The local social structures were tribal, in that real or imaginary kinship was the primary but not necessarily the exclusive basis of collective solidarity and action[101]. There was a constant movement in and out of the area of migrants and newcomers who worked the land by drawing agreements (contracts of a different kind) with the Sheikh, who embodied the corporate interests of the tribal confederacy. In the impoverished southern Khuzestan, date farming was a long-term investment of considerable risk and hard work. Date groves were not ‘owned’ as private domain, and there were a multitude of legal arrangements to take into account irrigation, the varying quality of land, its terms of ownership/possession, the contribution of various forms of labor (individual, collective, communal labor performed not directly on productive land, but on the means of improving yields, for example in drainage or maintenance of irrigation works) etc.[102].
Officially, land in southern Khuzestan was all crown land (khaleseh), but given the virtual absence of any real central government authority in the province since 1857, land in general was treated as tribal communal property, vested for specific purposes on individuals or collective groups, not permanently but for a specified time frame, by the living sheikh (so not in perpetuity), without conferring on him the right of private ownership or permanent alienation as private property. Of course, the boundaries of this form of control of land were rather fluid, and a powerful sheikh, like Khaz’al who had ruled for a long stretch (ruled 1897-1925), gradually accorded himself increasingly arbitrary powers that could undermine the customary limits set on his authority over land and the population. Tribal sections or clans were settled on fairly bounded territories, but the boundaries were rather fluid and porous. Much like the Bakhtiyari territories, individuals in the Arab Ashayeri areas of Khuzestan had no permanent claims to a given piece of land, but claimed shares in the collective tribal holdings, or obtained conditional contractual rights to plots, pastures, and groves. Access to productive pieces of land shifted as individuals and collective labor groups were assigned different plots. This was not a political economic system geared toward accumulation and constant growth based on technical input and capital investment[103].
Although commercial change had been affecting the social fabric of southern Khuzestan and Abadan, at least since 1857, it was the sudden appearance of oil capitalism in 1911 that radically and irreversibly transformed life on the Island. Within a short two decades immigration and the construction of the refinery and shipping facilities increased the population to sixty thousand and growing. By the middle of the century, according to the demographer Jamshid Behnam, Abadan was one of the five “leading cities” in the country, larger than Shiraz, but it was a new town “with no links to the past”[104]. In subsequent chapters I will argue that “history” is not such a limited concept as this statement suggests. Abadan certainly had a history, and as it became a boomtown, new layers were added to make it the heart of the oil complex. However, the constant reinforcement of the myth of “a land without people and a people without history” was essential to the processes of dispossession that paved the way for the primary accumulation of oil capitalism there.


83. Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907 1914,9 3.

84. Nancy Lee Peluso, “Whose Woods Are These? Counter-Mapping Forest Territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia,” Antipode. 27, no. 4 (1995): 383-406; Tania Murray Li, The Will to Improve (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “Natural Resources and Capitalist Frontiers,”
Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 48 (November 29, 2003): 5100–5106; Michael Cowen and Robert Shenton, Doctrines of Development (New York: Routledge, 1996), 23–25, 296–308; Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard, eds., International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), Introduction

85. Elsewhere I have discussed the history and social and geographic consequences of these modernization projects in Khuzestan, which have led me to label the province as “the laboratory of modernization in 20th century Iran”. In addition to oil, the province became the experimental ground for the World Bank for the development of the first major multipurpose hydroelectric and irrigated agribusinesses on the model of TVA in the global south after WW2. See Kaveh Ehsani, “Sweet Dreams; Sugarcane and the Politics of Development in Pre and Post- Revolution Iran” (Conference presented at the Development After Development, New York University, 2003); Ehsani, “Rural Society and Agricultural Development in Post-Revolution Iran: The First Two Decades”; Grace Goodell, Elementary Structures of Political Life: Rural Development in Pahlavi Iran (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Paul Vieille, “La Société Rurale et Le Dévelopment Agricole du Khouzistan,” L’Année Sociologique, no. 16 (1965): 85–112; Kashani-Sabet, Frontier Fictions.

86. Wilson, A Precis of the Relations of the British Government with the Tribes and Shaikhs of Arabistan, March 1911, filed as a rare document and archival material under Arnold.T. Wilson at the British Library

87. Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:123.

88. ibid.

89. Lambton, Landlord and Peasant in Persia, 327–328; Ansari, “History of Khuzistan,” 247–254; Reidar Visser, “The Gibraltar That Never Was,”, 2007,

90. Asr-e Jadid, May 14, 1915

91. “Ross, Persian Gulf Gazetteer 1908”, in Ludwig W. Adamec, Historical Gazetteer of Iran, vol. 3- Abadan (Graz: Akademische Drucku. Verlagsanstalt, 1976), 535.

92. Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:123.

93. “Abadan was an uninhabited mud flat, leased from Khaz’al in 1909 by Dr. Young”, Stephen Longrigg, Oil in the Middle East: Its Discovery and Development, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961),20 “Abadan was leased on July 1909. It was a mud flat, and without any resources…Within a few years it was transformed into a complex, industrial site, the creation of a single company in a remote part of the country”, Ronald Ferrier, “The Iranian Oil Industry,” in
Cambridge History of Iran, From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic, ed. Peter Avery, Gavin Hambly, and Chares Melville, vol. 7 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 641; “From the Khuzistan oilfields, APOC then constructed a 140 mi pipeline to Abadan, an uninhabited mudflat island in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway”, Roger Adelson, London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 1902-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 97.

94. G.B.Scott, “The First Surveys of the Persian Oil Fields”, Naft, 7 (1931): 6-12

95. Cronon, Changes in the Land.

96. Ansari, “History of Khuzistan,” 23–36.

97. “Ross; Persian Gulf Gazetteer, 1908” in Ludwig W. Adamec, Historical Gazetteer of Iran, vol. 3- Abadan (Graz: Akademische Drucku. Verlagsanstalt, 1976), 5, 525.

98. Ibid., 3- Abadan:55.

99. Ibid.

100. Ibid., 3- Abadan:52.

101. Ansari, “History of Khuzistan,” 37.

102. Ibid., 255; Lambton, Landlord and Peasant in Persia, 324–328; Najm al-Molk, Safarnameh Khuzesan beh Zamimeh Ketabcheh Dastour-e Ma’muriat-e Khouzestan va Gozaresh-e Barresiha-ye Ân Saman; Adamec, Historical Gazetteer of Iran, 3- Abadan:54–57 .

103. Ansari, “History of Khuzistan,” 255–257; Ehsani, “Rural Society and Agricultural Development in Post-Revolution Iran: The First Two Decades.”; Azkia and Ehsani, “Abiyari Dar Ramhormoz” Parts 1 and 2.
104. Jamshid Behnam, “The Population” Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 1, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968) 473, (hereafter CHI)

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