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Chapter 33

Isfahan the commercial heart of Persia--Dangers of maps in
argument--Bandar Abbas--The possibility of a Russian railway to
Bandar Abbas--Bandar Abbas as a harbour--The caravan road to
Bandar Abbas--Rates of transport--Trade--British and Russian
influence--Shipping--A Russian line of steamers--Customs under
Belgian officials--Lingah--Its exports and imports.

Isfahan is for England the most important city, politically and commercially, in Western Persia. It is the central point from which roads radiate to all parts of the Shah's Empire. It is the commercial heart, as it were, of Persia, and the future preponderance of Russian or British influence in Isfahan will settle the balance in favour of one or the other of the two countries and the eventual preponderance in the whole of Western Iran.

Khorassan and Sistan stand on quite a different footing, being severed from the West by the great Salt Desert, and must be set apart for the moment and dealt with specially.

A reliable map ought to be consulted in order to understand the question properly, but it should be remembered that it is ever dangerous to base arguments on maps alone in discussing either political or commercial matters. Worse still is the case when astoundingly incorrect maps such as are generally manufactured in England are in the hands of people unfamiliar with the real topography and resources of a country.

To those who have travelled it is quite extraordinary what an appalling mass of nonsensical rubbish can be supplied to the public by politicians, by newspaper penny-a-liners, and by home royal geographo-parasites at large, who base their arguments on such unsteady foundation. It is quite sufficient for some people to open an atlas and place their fingers on a surface of cobalt blue paint in order to select strategical harbours, point out roads upon which foreign armies can invade India, trade routes which ought to be adopted in preference to others, and so on, regardless of sea-depth, currents, winds, shelter, and climatic conditions. In the case of roads for invading armies, such small trifles as hundreds of miles of desert, impassable mountain ranges, lack of water, and no fuel, are never considered! These are only small trifles that do not signify--as they are not marked on the maps--the special fancy of the cartographer for larger or smaller type in the nomenclature making cities and villages more or less important to the student, or the excess of ink upon one river course rather than another, according to the cartographer's humour, making that river quite navigable, notwithstanding that in reality there may not be a river nor a city nor village at all. We have flaming examples of this in our Government maps of Persia.

I myself have had an amusing controversy in some of the London leading papers with no less a person than the Secretary of a prominent Geographical Society, who assured the public that certain well-known peaks did not exist because he could not find them (they happened to be there all the same) on his map!

Such other trifles as the connecting of lakes by imaginary rivers to maintain the reputation of a scientific impostor, or the building of accurate maps (sic) from badly-taken photographs--the direction of which was not even recorded by the distinguished photographers--are frauds too commonly perpetrated on the innocent public by certain so-called scientific societies, to be here referred to. Although these frauds are treated lightly, the harm they do to those who take them seriously and to the public at large, who are always ready blindly to follow anybody with sufficient bounce, is enormous.

Without going into minor details, let us take the burning question of the fast-expanding Russian influence in the south of Persia. We are assured that Russia wishes an outlet in the Persian Gulf, and suspicions are strong that her eye is set on Bandar Abbas. On the map it certainly appears a most heavenly spot for a harbour, and we hear from scribblers that it can be made into a strong naval base and turned into a formidable position. The trade from Meshed and Khorassan and Teheran, Isfahan, Yezd, and Kerman is with equal theoretical facility switched on to this place. Even allowing that Russia should obtain a concession of this place--a most unlikely thing to be asked for or conceded while Persia remains an independent country--matters would not be as simple for Russia as the man in the street takes them to be.

It would first of all be necessary to construct a railway connecting the Trans-Caspian line with Bandar Abbas, a matter of enormous expense and difficulty, and likely enough never to be a profitable financial enterprise. The political importance is dubious. A long railway line unguarded in a foreign country could but be of little practical value. It must be remembered that Persia is a very thinly populated country, with vast tracts of land, such as the Salt Desert, almost absolutely uninhabited, and where the construction of such a railway would involve serious difficulties, owing to the lack of water for several months of the year, intense heat, shifting sands, and in some parts sudden inundations during the short rainy season.

Moreover, Bandar Abbas itself, although ideally situated on the maps, is far from being an ideal harbour. The water is shallow, and there is no safe shelter; the heat unbearable and unhealthy. At enormous expense, of course, this spot, like almost any other spot on any coast, could be turned into a fair artificial harbour. The native town itself--if it can be honoured with such a name--consists of a few miserable mud houses, with streets in which one sinks in filth and mud. The inhabitants are the most miserable and worst ruffians in Persia, together with some Hindoos. There is a European community of less than half-a-dozen souls.

The British India and other coasting steamers touch here, and therefore this has been made the starting-point for caravans to Kerman and Yezd and Sistan via Bam. But for Isfahan and Teheran the more direct and shorter route via Bushire is selected. The caravan road from Bandar Abbas to Kerman and Yezd is extremely bad and unsafe. Several times of late the track has been blocked, and caravans robbed. During 1900, and since that date, the risk of travelling on the road seems to have increased, and as it is useless for Persians to try and obtain protection or compensation from their own Government the traffic not only has been diverted when possible to other routes, principally Bushire, but the rates for transport of goods inland had at one time become almost prohibitive. In the summer of 1900, it cost 18 tomans (about £3 9s.) to convey 900 lbs. weight as far as Yezd, but in the autumn the charges rose to 56 tomans (about £10 13s.) or more than three times as much for the same weight of goods. Eventually the rates were brought down to 22 tomans, but only for a short time, after which they fluctuated again up to 28 tomans. It was with the greatest difficulty that loading camels could be obtained at all, owing to the deficiency of exports, and this partly accounted for the extortionate prices demanded. An English gentleman whom I met in Kerman told me that it was only at great expense and trouble that he was able to procure camels to proceed from Bandar Abbas to Kerman, and even then he had to leave all his luggage behind to follow when other animals could be obtained.

According to statistics furnished by the British Vice-Consul, the exports of 1900 were half those of 1899, the exact figures being £202,232 for 1899; £102,671 for 1900. Opium, which had had the lead by far in previous years, fell from £48,367 to £4,440. Raw cotton, however, not only held its own but rose to a value of £18,692 from £6,159 the previous year. In the years 1888, 1889, 1890, and 1891 the exports of raw cotton were abnormal, and rose to about £35,000 in 1890, the highest record during the decade from 1888 to 1897.

Large quantities of henna and opium are also exported from this spot, as it is the principal outlet of the Kerman and Yezd districts, but the trade may be said to be almost entirely in British hands at present, and Russian influence so far is infinitesimal.

We find that, next to opium, fruit and vegetables, especially dates, constitute a large part of the export, then wool, drugs and spices, salt, carpets and woollen fabrics, piece goods, silk (woven), seeds, skins and tanned leather, wheat and cereals, and cotton raw and manufactured. Perfumery--rose-water--was largely exported from 1891 to 1896. The exportation of tobacco seems to decrease, although it is now beginning to look up again a little. Dyes and colouring substances are also exported.

The value of imports is very nearly double that of the exports. Cotton goods have the lead by a long way, then come tea, and piece goods, loaf-sugar, powdered sugar, indigo, metals, wheat and cereals, spices, drugs, wool and woollen fabrics, jute fabrics, cheap cutlery, coffee, tobacco, mules, horses, donkeys, etc., in the succession enumerated.

It is pleasant to find that the shipping increases yearly at Bandar Abbas, and that, second only to Persian vessels, the number of British sailing vessels entering Bandar Abbas in 1900 was nearly double (48) of the previous year (28). Steamers were in the proportion of 101 to 64. Although in number of sailing vessels the Persians have the priority, because of the great number of small crafts, the total tonnage of the Persian vessels was 5,320 tons against 75,440 tons in 1899, and 139,164 tons in 1900 British.

Turkish steamers occasionally ply to Bandar Abbas and Muscat and also Arab small sailing crafts.

It is rather curious to note that in 1899 the imports into Bandar Abbas came entirely from India, Great Britain and France, and in a small measure from Muscat, Zanzibar, the Arab Coast, Bahrain and Persian ports, whereas the following year, 1900, the imports from India fell to less than half their previous value, from £435,261 to £204,306, and from the United Kingdom there was a diminution from £86,197 to £69,597; whereas France doubled hers in 1900 and other countries entered into competition. The Chinese Empire, curiously enough, was the strongest, to the value of £18,419, presumably with teas, and Austria-Hungary £10,509. Germany and Turkey imported to the value of some £2,174 and £2,147 respectively. Belgium £2,254, Java £7,819, Mauritius £3,564, Muscat £692, the Canaries £637, America £600, and Arabia £494. Japan contributed to the amount of £305, Sweden £273, Italy £82, and Switzerland the modest sum of £8.

A most significant point is that Russia, with all her alleged aims and designs, only contributed to the small amount of £572. Nothing was exported from Bandar Abbas to Russia. It would appear from this that at least commercially Russia's position at Bandar Abbas was not much to be feared as late as 1900. Since then a Russian line of steamers has been established from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf ports, but I have no accurate statistics at hand. It is said not to be a financial success.

The establishment of Customs under Belgian officials in 1900 caused some trouble at first, and may have been responsible for a portion of the falling-off in trade, but it is now agreed by everybody that the system is carried on in a fair and honest manner, preferable to the extortionate fashion employed by the former speculators who farmed out the Customs.

I rather doubt whether Russia's aim is even directed towards Lingah, to the south-west of Bandar Abbas, as has been supposed by others. Although this port would afford a deeper and better anchorage and a breakwater, it has the same difficulties of approach by land from Russia as Bandar Abbas--in fact, greater ones, being further south.

Lingah is a more prosperous port than Bandar Abbas, its exports being roughly two-thirds larger than those of Bandar Abbas, and its imports one-third in excess. In value the export and import of pearls form the chief item, next come wheat and cotton. Very little tea is disembarked at Lingah, but dates and firearms were landed in considerable quantities, especially in 1897. Coffee and tobacco were more in demand here than at Bandar Abbas, and metals were largely imported. White sea-shells found their way in huge quantities to Beluchistan, where the women use them for decorating their persons. Bangles and necklaces are made with them, and neck-bands for the camels, horses and mules, as well as ornamentations on the saddle bags. With these two exceptions the imports and exports of Lingah are made up of larger quantities of articles similar to those brought to and from Bandar Abbas.