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Chapter 18

Sistan's state of transition--British Consul's tact--Advancing
Russian influence--Safety--A fight between Sistanis and
Afghans--The Sar-tip--Major Benn's pluck and personal
influence--Five Afghans seriously wounded--The city gates
closed--The Customs caravanserai--A British caravanserai
needed--Misstatements--Customs officials--Fair and just treatment
to all--Versatile Major Benn--A much needed assistant--More
Consulates wanted--Excellent British officials--Telegraph line
necessary--A much-talked-of railway--The salutary effect of a
garrison at Robat frontier post.

Sistan is in a state of rapid transition, and it is doubtful whether the position of the three or four Europeans on duty there is one of perfect safety. The natives are so far undoubtedly and absolutely favourable to British influence in preference to Russian, a state of affairs mainly due to the personal tact of Majors Trench and Benn rather than to instructions from home, but great caution should be exercised in the future if this prestige, now at its highest point, is to be maintained.

The Russians are advancing very fast, and their influence is already beginning to be felt in no slight degree. The Sistanis may or may not be relied upon. They are not perfectly Europeanised like peoples of certain parts of Western Persia, nor are they quite so amenable to reason as could be wished. They can easily be led, or misled, and bribed, and are by no means easy folks to deal with. For a few tomans one can have people assassinated, the Afghan frontier so close at hand being a guarantee of impunity for murderers, and fights between the townspeople and the Afghans or Beluch, in which many people are injured and killed, are not uncommon.

One of these fights, between Sistanis and Afghans (under British protection), took place when I was in Sistan, and I think it is only right that it should be related, as it proves very forcibly that, as I have continually urged in this book, calm and tact, gentleness and fairness, have a greater and more lasting control over Persians than outward pomp and red-tape.

The Consul and I, after calling on the Amir, proceeded to visit the Sar-tip, the Amir's first son by his legal wife. The Sar-tip is the head of a force of cavalry, and inhabits a country house, the Chahar Bagh, in a garden to the north outside the city. He is a bright and intelligent youth, who had travelled with Dr. Golam Jelami to India--from which country he had recently returned, and where he had gone to consult specialists about his sadly-failing eyesight.

The Sar-tip, of whom a portrait is here given, received us most kindly and detained us till dark. Being Ramzam-time we then bade him good-bye, and were riding home when, as we neared the Consulate gate, a man who seemed much excited rushed to the Consul and handed him a note from the Belgian Customs officer. As I was still convalescent--this was my first outing--and not allowed out after dusk, Major Benn asked me to go back to the Consulate as he was called to the Customs caravanserai on business. I suspected nothing until a messenger came to the Consulate with news. A crowd of some 300 Sistanis had attacked some fifteen Afghan camel men, who had come over with a caravan of tea from Quetta. These camel drivers had been paid several thousand rupees for their services on being dismissed, and some money quarrel had arisen.

On the arrival of the Consul the fight was in full swing, and he found a crowd of howling Sistanis throwing stones and bricks at the Afghans. At Major Benn's appearance, notwithstanding that their blood was up and their temper, one would think, beyond control, the Sistanis immediately opened a way for him, some even temporarily stopping fighting to make a courteous salaam. This will show in what respect our Consul is held.

The Afghans, having by this time realised that they had been insulted, and having, furthermore, discovered the loss of some money--which they only detected when they went for their rifles and swords, which they kept together in a safe place with their treasure--formed up in line and, with drawn swords, made a rush on the Sistanis.

Major Benn with considerable pluck dashed between the fighting men, seizing with his left hand the rifle of the leader--who had knelt down and was on the point of firing--and with his right hand got hold of the blade--fortunately blunt--of another Afghan's sword, who was slashing away at the Sistanis near him. The force of the blow caused quite a wound in the gallant Major's hand, but suddenly, as by magic owing to the respect he commanded on both sides, his action put a stop to the fight.

Seizing this opportunity he talked to them calmly in his usual quiet, jocular manner, and told the Afghans how, by behaving in this fashion, while under his protection, they were doing him harm in the eyes of the Persians in whose country they were guests, and that if they had any claim they must apply to him and not take the law into their own hands. With his keen sense of humour he even succeeded with some joke or other in raising a laugh from both belligerent parties, and requested them to sit down and give up their arms into his custody, which they willingly did.

The Afghans seated themselves at the further end of the caravanserai, while the Sistanis, whom he next addressed in the kindest way, were persuaded to desist from using further violence. He managed to turn the whole thing into a joke, and eventually the Sistanis dispersed laughing and retired within the wall of their city; but, indeed, there were five Afghans left on the ground severely wounded,--one with a fractured skull being carried to the Consulate Hospital in a dying condition.

The Afghans possessed some excellent Russian rifles, a great many of which find their way into Afghanistan from the north.

The Consul, when the row was over, proceeded to the Amir, who had the gates of the city instantly closed and promised the Consul that they should not be opened again until the Consul could go the next day to identify the ringleaders of the attacking Sistanis. The Amir received the Consul with more than usually marked respect, and showed himself greatly disturbed at the occurrence. He took personal charge of the keys of the city and undertook to mete out severe punishment upon the offenders.

The city gates, which are daily opened at sunrise, remained closed the greater portion of the day at the Consul's request, but for a consideration the doorkeepers let out occasional citizens,--in all probability those very ones that should have been kept in.

Unfortunately, being Ramzam-time, when Mussulmans sit up feasting the greater part of the night, as they are compelled to fast when the sun is above the horizon, his Excellency the Amir was unable to attend to even this important matter, which was left to slide from day to day. The Consul, however, although extremely patient, was the last man to let things go to the wall, and no doubt in the end the leaders were duly punished and compensation paid.

The illustration shows the Customs caravanserai, in front of which the fight took place. Two of the domed rooms shown in the picture are occupied by Mr. Miletor, the Belgian Customs officer, in Persian employ. The others are occupied by camel-men or native travellers, there being no other caravanserai of the kind in Sher-i-Nasrya.

It would be a very great addition to the British Consulate, now that so many Beluch and Afghans, all under British protection, travel through Sistan, if a British caravanserai could be built in which they, their goods and their camels, might enjoy comparative safety. The expense of putting it up would be very small, and it would avoid the constant friction which is bound to exist at present in a country where honesty is not the chief forte of the lower people, and where quarrels are ever rampant. Even during the short stay of Messrs. Clemenson and Marsh's caravan, several articles were stolen under their very eyes in the Consulate shelter, and at the time of my visit caravans, British or otherwise, were absolutely at the mercy of the natives. The goods were left out in the open in front of the caravanserai, and the Customs people had not sufficient men to protect them from interference at the hands of the lower people.

I have seen it stated by correspondents in leading London papers that "Russian" Customs officials were stationed in Sistan, and interfered greatly with British caravans. That is mere fiction from beginning to end. As I have already stated, there is not a single Russian in the Customs anywhere in Persia. In Sistan the only official--a Belgian--far from interfering with the caravans, is of great help to them and does all in his power within the limits of his duty to be of assistance to them. The Consul himself was full of praise of the extreme fairness and justice to all alike of the Belgian official. There never was the slightest trouble or hitch so long as traders were prepared to comply with Persian laws, and so long as people paid the duty on the goods entering the country no bother of any kind was given to anybody, either British or others.

On April 3rd, 1901, the Persian Government introduced a law abolishing all inland Customs Houses and transit dues, and substituting instead a rahdari tax of 6 annas per 240 pounds. This tax is payable on crossing the frontier, and is levied in addition to the 5 per cent. ad valorem duty to which the Persian Government is entitled under the existing International Customs Convention. The rate of duty levied (5 per cent.), is calculated on the actual value of goods, plus the cost of transport.

The Sistan Consul, as well as the officials of the Nushki Sistan route in Beluchistan, go to an immense deal of trouble to be of use to British traders and travellers, and everything is made as easy for them as is compatible with the nature of the country and existing laws.

A great deal of extra heavy work was thrown upon the shoulders of Major Benn, who acted in no less than three official capacities--Consul, Postmaster, and Banker--as well as, unofficially, as architect, house-builder, and general reference officer. It is very satisfactory to learn that this autumn (1902) an assistant is to be sent out to him from India, for the work seemed indeed too heavy for one man. Day and night's incessant work would in time have certainly told on even the cheerful disposition and abnormally wiry constitution of Major Benn, who, besides being a most loyal and careful official, takes a great deal of personal pride in fighting hard to win the severe race which will result in our eventually acquiring or losing Sistan and Eastern Persia commercially. Major Benn is most decidedly very far ahead in the race at present, and owing to him British prestige happens to be at its zenith, but greater support will be needed in the future if this advantageous race is to be continued up to the winning post.

Were a Vice-Consulate established at Birjand, as I have said before, the Sistan Consular work would be relieved of much unnecessary strain, the distance from Birjand to Sistan being too great under present conditions to allow the Consul to visit the place even yearly. The medical British Agent whom we have there at present is excellent, but the powers at his disposal are small, and a Consulate with an English officer in charge would most decidedly enhance British prestige in that important city, as well as being a useful connecting link between Sistan and Meshed, a distance of close upon 500 miles.

It was a most excellent step to select for the Consular work in Eastern and Southern Persia men from the Military Political Service, instead of the usual Foreign Office men, who are probably better adapted for countries already developed. The Political Service is a most perfect body of gentlemanly, sensible, active-minded, well-educated men of versatile talents, the pick of the healthiest and cleverest Englishmen in our Indian Service. They cannot help doing good wherever they are sent. Captain Trench, Major Benn, Major Phillott, Captain White, have all answered perfectly, and have all done and are doing excellent work.

What is most needed at present in Sistan is a telegraph line to Nushki. Should everybody in the Sistan Consulate be murdered, it would be the best part of a fortnight or three weeks before the news could reach India at the present rate of post going. If assistance were needed it could not reach Sistan from Quetta in less than a couple of months, by which time, I think, it would be of little use to those in danger. And the danger, mind you, does exist. It seems rather hard that we should leave men who work, and work hard and well, for their country absolutely at the mercy of destiny.

The next most important point would be to join Sistan, or at least Robat, on the Perso-Beluch frontier, with the long-talked-of railway to Quetta, but of this we shall have occasion to speak later. So far the line has been sanctioned to Nushki, but that point, it must be remembered, is still 500 miles distant from Sistan, a considerable distance across, what is for practical purposes, desert country.

The third point--the easiest of all, which would involve little expense, but would have a most salutary effect--would be to maintain a small garrison at the Perso-Beluch-Afghan frontier post of Robat. This, to my mind, would at the present moment strengthen the hands of our officials in Persia to a most extraordinary extent.

Something tangible, which the natives themselves could see and talk about, together with the knowledge that a smart body of soldiers could soon be on the spot if required, would not only assure the so far doubtful safety of the few but precious English lives in those parts, but would add enormously to our prestige and make us not only revered but feared.