Mahommerah--Where Russia's aims are directed--Advantages of
Mahommerah--The navigation of the Karun River--Traffic--Rates on
the Ahwaz-Isfahan track--The Government's
attitude--Wheat--Russian influence--Backhtiari Chiefs--Up and
down river trade--Gum--Cotton goods--Sugar--Caravan
route--Steamers--Disadvantages of a policy of drift--Russian
So much for Bandar Abbas and Lingah. I will not touch on Bushire, too well known to English people, but Mahommerah may have a special interest to us, and also to Russia. It is rather curious to note that it has never struck the British politician nor the newspaper writer that Russia's aims, based usually on sound and practical knowledge, might be focussed on this port, which occupies the most favourable position in the Persian Gulf for Russia's purposes. Even strategically it is certainly as good as Bandar Abbas, while commercially its advantages over the latter port are a thousandfold greater.
These advantages are a navigable river, through fertile country, instead of an almost impassable, waterless desert, and a distance as the crow flies from Russian territory to Mahommerah one-third shorter than from Bandar Abbas. A railway through the most populated and richest part of Persia could easily be constructed to Ahwaz. The climate is healthy though warm.
Another most curious fact which seems almost incredible is that the British Government, through ignorance or otherwise, by a policy of drift may probably be the cause of helping Russia to reap the benefit of British enterprise on the Karun River, in the development of which a considerable amount of British capital has already been sunk. The importance, political and commercial, of continuing the navigation of the Karun River until it does become a financial success--which it is bound to be as soon as the country all round it is fully developed--is too obvious for me to write at length upon it, but it cannot be expected that a private company should bear the burden and loss entirely for the good of the mother country without any assistance from the home Government.
The British firm, who run the steamers, with much insight and praiseworthy enterprise improved the existing caravan track from Isfahan to Ahwaz on the Karun River, the point up to which the river is navigable by steamers not drawing more than four feet. They built two fine suspension bridges, one over the Karun at Godar-i-Balutak and the other, the Pul-Amarat (or Built-bridge) constructed on the side of an ancient masonry bridge. The track has thus been rendered very easy and every assistance was offered to caravans, while a regular service of river steamers plied from Mahommerah to Ahwaz, to relieve the traffic by water. The s.s. Blosse Lynch, 250 tons, was sent up at first, but was too large, so the s.s. Malamir, 120 tons, was specially built for the Karun navigation.
Matters were very prosperous at first, until many obstacles came in the way. The road has been open to traffic some three years. The first year traffic was healthy and strong, but the second year, owing to famine in Arabistan, the traffic suddenly dropped and nothing would induce muleteers to travel by that route. Although they were offered as much as 100 (£2) to 110 krans (£2 4s.) per load from Isfahan to Ahwaz, a distance of 17 stages--277 miles--they preferred to take 70 krans (£1 9s. 2d.) to Bushire, a journey of about 30 stages, over a distance of 510 miles.
The caravan men in Persia are curious people to deal with, and it takes a very long time to imbue their minds with new ideas. In the case of the Ahwaz road it was partly conservatism and fear instigated by the Mullahs that prevented their taking loads to the steamers.
It was fully expected that the route could not pay its way for at least five years from its inauguration, and the British Government--which at that time seemed to understand the value of the undertaking--agreed to give in equal shares with the Government of India a collective guarantee against losses up to £3,000 for the first two years, then of £2,000 for five years. For some unaccountable reason the Government of India, which the scheme mostly concerned, dropped out, and the guarantee was further reduced to £1,000 payable by the home Government only. As a result of this the steamers have been run since at a considerable loss, and had it not been for the patriotism of Lynch Brothers, and the prospects to which they still cling of a successful issue, the navigation of the Karun would have already come to an untimely end.
The principal article of export of any importance was wheat, grown in enormous quantities in the fertile plains of Arabistan; and were its export legal, the export of grain would be infinitely greater than the whole of the present imports. But the Persian Government unfortunately prohibited the export of grain from Persia, nominally to allay and prevent famine in the country, in fact to enrich local governors by permitting illicit export. Consequently, the peasants could not sell their produce in the open market and had to sell it, accepting what they could get from speculators at about half the actual value. This led to the discontinuance of the cultivation of wheat. When for three years the exportation of grain was permitted, the acreage under cultivation was enormous and yielded very large returns, but as soon as the prohibition was set in force it dwindled year by year until it became approximately the fifth part of what it originally was. On the top of all this a severe drought occurred and a famine resulted.
It seems very likely that the British Government may now fall out also and stop the meagre guarantee of £1,000. This may have disastrous results, for it cannot be expected that a private firm will continue the navigation of the Karun at a great loss. This is, in a few words, what it may lead to. Should the British abandon the work already done, Russia will step in--she has had her eye upon the Karun more than upon any other spot in Persia--and reap the benefit of the money and labour that has been spent by us. In the plain of Arabistan Russian influence is not yet very far advanced, but among the Backhtiaris it is spreading fast. Intrigue is rampant. The Russian agents endeavour to get the tribesmen into disgrace with the Government and they succeed to a great extent in their aim.
Isphandiar Khan, who has the title of Sirdar Assad, is the head chief of the Backhtiaris, and with his cousin Sephadar keeps going the various branches of the family, but serious family squabbles are very frequent and may eventually cause division. The two above named men manage to keep all together except Hadji-Riza Kuli Khan, who is an opposing factor. He is an uncle of Isphandiar Khan, and his rancour arises from having been ousted from the chieftainship. He is said to have fallen very badly under Russian influence, and instigated his followers to rebellion, the cause being, however, put down not to family squabbles and jealousy--the true causes--but to disapproval of the new road and the influence exercised by it upon the Backhtiari country.
Only about one-fifth of foreign imports into Mahommerah find their way up the Karun River. It is certainly to be regretted that no articles direct from the United Kingdom are forced up the river. The trade with India in 1900 only amounted to some £43,062 against £30,149 the previous year, France, Turkey, and Egypt being the only other importers. The total imports into Mahommerah for transhipment to Karun ports amounted to £59,194 in 1900, and showed a considerable increase on 1899.
Piece goods find their way up the river in considerable quantities. Then loaf-sugar and soft sugar are the principal articles of import; dates, iron, and treacle come next; while various metals, tea and matches come last.
In regard to local commerce the river trade for 1900 was £100,437, showing an increase of £37,449 upon the trade of 1899. This ought to be regarded as satisfactory, considering the slowness of Oriental races in moving from their old grooves.
The down river trade falls very short of the up river commerce, and consists mostly of wheat, oil seeds, opium, wool, gum, flour, beans, cotton, rice, tobacco, piece goods, glue. In 1900 the decrease in the carriage of wheat was enormous, and also the trade in oil seeds. Although gum was carried down stream in much larger quantities, owing to the yield being unusually abundant, the price obtained was very poor, owing to the falling London market. Gum Tragacanth was conveyed principally by the Isfahan-Ahwaz route. Notwithstanding all this there was an increase of £17,000 in 1900 over the trade of 1899, which shows that the route is nevertheless progressing and is worth cultivating.
Cotton goods, which are reimported from India mostly by Parsee and Jewish firms, originally come from Manchester and are in great demand. They consist of grey shirtings, prints (soft finish), lappets, imitation Turkey red, Tanjibs and jaconets. Marseilles beetroot sugar is holding its own against other cheaper sugars imported lately and finds its way to Isfahan by the Ahwaz road.
Caravans usually employ twenty days on the Ahwaz-Isfahan journey, but the distance can easily be covered in fifteen days and even less. A fortnightly steamer is run by the Euphratis and Tigris Steam Navigation Company to Ahwaz.
Mahommerah exports chiefly to India, then to Turkey, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, the Persian Gulf ports, Egypt and France. In 1900 the exports were to the value of £115,359. The imports were similar to those of Bandar Abbas, viz.:--cotton goods, sugar, coffee, silk, iron, tea, manufactured metal, thread, spices, etc. They amounted to an aggregate sum of £281,570 in 1900, against £202,492 in 1899.
If I have gone into details it is to show the mistake made by the British Government in letting such a valuable position, of absolute vital importance to our interest, drift slowly but surely into Russian hands. Russia's aims in the Gulf are at present concentrated on the Karun River; our movements are closely watched, and nothing could be more probable than, that if we abandon the Karun, Russia will at once fill our place and turn the whole business into a formidable success.
The Russian Government have now granted a subsidy of £5,000 per round voyage to the Russian Steam Navigation to run three steamers a year from Odessa to Bussorah, touching at all the principal ports of the Persian Gulf. The s.s. Kornilof made two voyages in 1901, arriving in Bussorah in April and November. On her first voyage she landed most of her cargo in Bushire, and only conveyed 8,000 cases of petroleum and a quantity of wood for date boxes; but on her second journey 16,500 cases of petroleum were landed at Bussorah and a further supply of wood, besides a great number of samples of Russian products, such as flour, sugar and matches. On the second return journey the Kornilof took back to Odessa freight for two thousand pounds from Bussorah, principally dates, a cargo which had been previously carried by British steamers to Port Said and then transhipped for the Black Sea.
The appearance of the Russian boats excited considerable interest among the natives and merchants, both British and indigenous. Comments are superfluous on the grant given by the Russian Government to further Russian trade, and the wavering attitude of the British Government in safeguarding interests already acquired.
 See Diplomatic and Consular Reports, Trade of Persian Gulf for the
year 1900. Foreign Office. H.M. Stationery Office.