Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



From Cairo to Baghdad

British Travellers in Arabia


James Canton


London: I.B. Tauris, 2011

Hardcover. xiii+297 pp. ISBN 978 1848856967. £56.50


Reviewed by Claire Gallien

Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3



James Canton’s From Cairo to Baghdad is a critical analysis of British travel literature to the Middle East from Britain’s occupation of Egypt in 1882 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Contrary to what the title and chronological boundaries suggest, Canton’s focus is placed on the Arabian Peninsula, to which he includes Iraq, and more particularly southern Iraq. Caught in-between these two military interventions, Canton’s study covers a wide range of texts, from the spy account to the female traveller journal, from the anthropological survey to the adventure story bestseller. He also highlights patterns common to these narratives, such as the much debated link between travel, travel writing and imperial control, while emphasising – and this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of his work – the complex and often unpredictable relations that travellers and their narratives established with the Empire. If, as Canton notes, all travellers wrote in relation to “a wider imperial project”, it should be remembered that most of them held “complex personal and political views”, and that their relationships “with the British government was not always a rosy one” [8-9]. The critic’s aim is to achieve a “gentle untying of the entanglement of travel writing and British imperial history” [2] and to analyse the impact of politics on travel and travel literature: “as the British Empire in Arabia expanded so travellers’ tales proliferated, and, later, when British rule receded so the travelogues dried up” [2]. In terms of theoretical framework, Canton borrows from Edward Said’s analysis of the collusion between empire and literature and from the post-saidian approach of critics such as Homi Bhabha, Ali Behdad and Lisa Lowe, who depict “Orientalism” as a non-homogeneous and non-monolithic form of knowledge, and emphasise discursive points of tension, ambivalences, or ruptures.

Surveying the narratives of famous travellers, such as T.E. Lawrence, Freya Stark, Wilfred Thesiger, Gertrude Bell, or Harry St John Philby, as well as bringing to light accounts which have been long forgotten, such as the ones of Gerard Leachman or Captain Shakespear, Canton takes us through the history of British imperial and post-imperial relations with Arabia, by which the critic means Saudi Arabia, of course, but also the Aden Protectorates, Oman, and Iraq. The amount of material covered is quite impressive but the analysis so well structured that the reader never feels at a loss in this truly daunting web of interconnected stories and histories. Canton’s pointillist approach and close readings enabled him to keep a large corpus without frustrating his readers with summary treatments. Following Auerbach’s model in Mimesis, Canton introduces each chapter of his book with a lengthy extract, which serves as leitmotif encapsulating the main critical points the author then develops in the chapter, and then constantly returns to the texts.

The monograph contains two maps, one of the Middle East in 1926 and the other of the Arabian Peninsula, and five pictures of the British travellers. The ten-page introduction is followed by the main contents, which are organised in 8 chapters, and then the notes, appendix, bibliography and index. The appendix contains a series of three interviews conducted by James Canton with contemporary travellers to the Middle East, i.e. William Dalrymple, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, and Jonathan Raban.

Canton distinguishes between three phases within the historical period considered. From the occupation of Egypt in 1882 down to the end of the First World War in the region in 1917, Canton notices an interest for Arabia. Railway company owners, bankers, and traders invested in the region, travellers were granted access to conquered or protected territories, in exchange of which they would collect and publish geographical and anthropological data. The second period, from 1917 to the loss of the Suez Canal in 1956, was the heyday of the British presence in the Middle East, bringing an ever-growing number of British businessmen, military and diplomatic personnel, missionaries, travellers and tourists. This increasing presence translated into a growing output of travelogues and an extension of the readership. Canton talks of “a steady stream of books” “catching the public imagination” [6]. The third phase from 1956 to 2003 is a period of nostalgia and scarcity. The high tide of British imperialism then ebbing away with the withdrawal from Suez in 1956 and from Aden in 1967, the number of travellers and travel accounts dwindled. Canton examines the common features of the “post-imperial travelogue” – the “excited exploration of the modern Arab world” flooded with petrodollars, nostalgia for the wild desert, and a greater space given to the voices of native inhabitants.

The framing chapters follow a chronological organisation, with the first chapter focusing on missionaries and pilgrims at the beginning of the period, and the last chapter entitled “After Empire”. In each of the other chapters, Canton also follows chronological lines, but the general organisation is thematic – chapter 2 focuses on a region in Saudi Arabia called “The Empty Quarter”, chapter 3 on “Imperial Wars”, chapter 4 on “Modernising Arabia”, chapter 5 on “Women in Arabia”, 6 on “Baghdad and beyond” and 7 on “Southern Arabia”. Canton’s sense of organisation, his sharp analyses, and his literary qualities are remarkable. The reader knows from the start where the chapter is going to lead him/her and is reminded at the end of each chapter of the main points outlined in the course of the survey. However, as we shall see in the course of this review, what constitutes a real strength soon becomes a flaw – the organisation and the treatment of texts become systematic, the theoretical frame constricting, and little room is left for surprise or discovery.


In the first chapter, “Missionaries and Pilgrims”, Canton focuses on the contrasted narratives of Marmaduke Pickthall in Oriental Encounters [1918] and of Charles Doughty Montagu in Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888). Both were fervent Christians travelling through Muslim territories, but Pickthall ended up converting to Islam upon his return to Suffolk in 1917, while Doughty regarded conversion as anathema. However, as Canton points out, religion is only part of their identities. Turning Muslim does not mean that Pickthall became particularly receptive to the cries of Egyptian nationalists. However, his condoning of Egyptian nationalism did not prevent him from extolling the Young Turk revolution. For security and practical reasons, Doughty travels as a Christian Arab and has others call him “Khalil”. Despite the Arab dress and name, Doughty’s anti-Islamic sentiments remained the same. Indeed, Doughty the narrator refers to Doughty the traveller in the third person, detaching himself from his former travelling persona. In this chapter, Canton analyses not only the works of travellers whose voyage through Arabia was guided by religion, and who experienced their travels through Arabia as pilgrimages, but also the texts of missionaries. He underlines the fact that British imperial control over Egypt opened a new phase of missionary zeal, which resulted in an increase of publications of missionary travel narratives. Accounts were enthusiastic, as in The Reproach of Islam by Reverend Gairdner in 1909, or less so, as in S.H. Leeder’s Veiled Mysteries of Egypt and the Religion of Islam. They were also more or less serious. For instance, Canton remarks that Reverend Haskett Smith’s Patrollers of Palestine (1906) “offered a lighter version of the Christian travelogue” and that for some missionaries the incentives for writing about the Holy Land were more financial than spiritual. This was clearly the case with the best-selling religious travelogue written by H.V. Morton in 1934 and entitled In the Steps of the Master. There were also a number of narratives dealing with the holy places of Islam. Although, the travellers were not permitted around the Kaaba, they would gladly detail, in particularly voyeuristic moves, the emotional atmosphere prevailing there and focus on the dangers of discovery for the British travellers. Canton quotes Augustus Ralli writing in Christians in Mecca (1908) about “hard-won knowledge out the “lions’ den of Islam.”

In the following chapter, “The Empty Quarter”, Canton focuses on the accounts of two British explorers, Bertram Thomas and Harry St John Philby, who, in the 1930s, chartered territories yet unknown to the British government and to the public. Indeed, the main motivation for British occupation of the region was to secure the maritime route to the East Indies. Thus, the occupation of Aden in 1839 signalled British entrance into southern Arabia, but the British presence was always directed seaward. Thomas and Philby vied against each other to become the first European to cross the expanse of desert located in the south of the Arabian Peninsula and called “the Empty Quarter” or “Rub’ al-Khali” in Arabic. The challenge was also a political one. Indeed, the British government were hoping to glean information on the geography of the region and on tribal relations from these accounts. Furthermore, the press following these expeditions on close heels reflected a glorious imperial image to their readers at home. Canton analyses the different narrative strategies put in place in these texts. Thomas’s account owes much to the romanticised spy story, but he also inserts passages on the anthropological data collected during his travel. Within one text, generic shifts from adventure story to scientific investigation are initiated. Compared to Thomas’s text, Philby’s seems drier as the narrator lingers on geological descriptions of the desert. No matter how scientific his relation may sound, Canton reminds us that texts such as Philby’s were later used for oil exploration and for the first drillings. Canton’s pages on Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959) are particularly rewarding. Less than thirty years separate Thesiger from Thomas and Philby. However, as Thesiger was writing about the scientific accounts of his two predecessors in the Empty Quarter, his narrative took on impressionistic hues and his description of the modernisation of the region, for a traveller who insisted to travel on the back of mules and camels, and with tribes who had been in minimum contact with the outside world, gave a tinge of nostalgia to his narratives and expressed a sense of belatedness.

In the third chapter “Imperial Wars”, Canton deals with the depiction of three imperial wars, from the heroic image of the British military traveller and spy agent of the First World War, in the like figure of Captain Shakespear, Douglas Carruthers, Gertrude Bell, Gerard Leachman, and, of course, T.E. Lawrence, whose Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1922 and the abridged version Revolt in the Desert in 1927 sparked the Lawrence of Arabia phenomenon, to the Second World War marked with new images of tanks and airplanes crisscrossing the lands and skies of the desert, as in Robin Maugham’s Nomad (1947) and Keith Douglas’s Alamein to Zem Zem (1946). Finally, the last major military engagement was the Suez War of 1956, when control of the region decisively slipped away from British hands. This last moment is also crucial as far as the development of travel writing is concerned with the introduction of the reporter and special envoy. James Morris’s The Market of Seleukia (1957) is representative of this point of departure. Sticking to his initial promise, Canton supplies us with close readings of the texts and offers stimulating developments, particularly when he discuses George Rodger’s shocking chronicles of the Second World War in the desert.

In the fourth chapter “Modernising Arabia”, Canton details the impact of the arrival of the train and of the motorcar in the desert and how these new modes of transportation modified the conditions of travel and the perceptions of landscapes as recorded by the travellers. The extracts picked up by Canton both record the modernisation of the Arabian Peninsula, while reiterating Orientalist clichés of a backward people and of a landscape averse to the progress of civilisation. In Sykes’s vision of the chaotic scene at Rayak railway station, in Lebanon, or in Donald Maxwell’s description of travelling by car, the reader is presented with the ludicrousness of the encounter between Arabia and the modern world and the inhospitality of the landscape to modern means of transportation. In these texts, the introduction of “mechanised beasts” is related in a comic mode. However, a deeper questioning of the appropriateness of such an introduction, and a reflection on its disastrous consequences on the desert, surface in later texts, for instance in S.C. Roll’s Steel Chariots in the Desert (1937). The introduction of cars made the journeys safer, enabled larger distances to be covered in less time, and gave British female travellers and tourists easier access to the desert. Another aspect of the modernisation of the Arabian Peninsula was the drilling of oil. Here, Canton outlines the role played by travellers, such as Philby, as intermediaries between British oil investors and local rulers. He also outlines the distinct nostalgic tint of British travel narratives, which celebrated unspoiled landscapes and ancient Bedouin lifestyles, while the Bedouins themselves never dreamt of returning to past hardships.

The fifth chapter “Women in Arabia”, is particularly stimulating for its articulation of imperialism with gender. The works of various female travel writers and their relations to the British Empire in Arabia are scrutinised. Canton not only invokes the well-known figures of the travellers-cum-spy agents, such as Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, he also argues that editorial policies served the imperial recuperation of the works of seemingly independent female travellers. For instance, By Desert Ways to Baghdad, written by Jebb and Buxton – two women who firmly rejected the imperial presence in Arabia – was republished by Nelson in 1912 as a pocket edition and proved a popular read for the British soldiers stationed in the region during the First World War. Canton also analyses the works of the wives of colonial administrators in Arabia, whose publications have received very little critical attention but were particularly useful to the Foreign Office in the collection of information. Canton ends his chapter with an examination of the various depictions of harems and women’s environment as seen through British female gazes, and with a view on the unique perspective of James/Jan Morris who travelled to the region both as man and woman.  Again, Canton’s aim in this chapter is to emphasise multiplicity, complexity, ambivalence and chronological modulations.

However, these last two sections are disappointing. They are very short and do not provide any new insight into the topics covered in them. Canton seems to comply here with the expectation that he should be dealing with issues, such as the harem or cross-gender, and the result is disappointing because too predictable. This general impression of a systematic approach on the part of the critic is confirmed as the reader further advances in the book. It is as though the texts were made to fit into the box of his initial argument and have nothing else to provide than a further confirmation of the latter. This may be only a problem of rhetorical strategy, of laying down your cards too early, but it clearly does disservice to the cogency of his critical position by giving the impression that he indiscriminately imposed the same reading to all the texts considered – i.e. the collusion of imperial control and travel writing and the need to read them by using the post-Saidian deconstruction of binary structures.

“Baghdad and Beyond” revolves around the contrast and parallels Canton sets between Baghdad, the capital city of today’s Iraq revisited by travellers through the fabulous prism of the Arabian Nights, and its beyond, the land of the marshes of southern Iraq, recorded by Wilfred Thesiger, Gavin Maxwell and Gavin Young, and which, following Saddam Hussein’s decision to flood this region inhabited by Shia Iraqi, has now largely disappeared. The long and perceptively analysed extracts from early and late travellers enable us to reconstruct lines of filiation, persistence, as well as the modulations of tropes over time. Thus, while always paying due attention to differing perceptions – for instance here, Canton contrasts Stuart and Monica Hedgcock’s colonial gothic narrative of the lives of Marsh Arabs in the 1920s with the ethnographic garb of Thesiger’s depiction of Madan society in his book, The Marsh Arabs, published in 1964 – Canton manages to unveil permanent patterns, recording “the rhetoric of imperial nostalgia” in its various articulations.

In “Southern Arabia”, Canton examines the accounts of travellers who left the seaport of Aden and looked inward to explore the confines of southern Arabia. Whether commissioned by colonial authorities or not, the data they collected was often turned into intelligence recording when falling in the hands of the same authorities. Canton explores a number of cases, from the 1890s to the 1940s, of British travellers who wittingly, as in the case of Mabel and Theodore Bent in the 1890s or the Ingrams in the 1930s, or unwittingly, as with Hugh Scott and his fellow entomologist, Everard Britton, in the 1940s, turned British agents. He details the complex web of interactions that these individuals had with British intelligence and with local tribes and uses a variety of sources, including telegrams from the Foreign Office. Furthermore, he underlines: “As British control fell away so did the British travellers […] It would not be until the final decade of the twentieth century that a British travelogue would return reader’s gazes to a post-imperial southern Arabia” [182], by which the author means the book Yemen published in 1997 by Tim Mackintosh-Smith.

Post-imperial Arabia is precisely where Canton’s narrative stops. Indeed, in “After Empire”, the critic explores the travel literature written once the tide of empire ebbed away until 2003 and the invasion of Iraq by a coalition of troops, of which Britain was part, and which the critic interprets as a form of post-imperial domination. Considering the public outcry that followed Blair’s government decision to go to war, Canton’s focus on 2003 constitutes both a political gesture and a rhetorical move to underline one major difference in the ways in which contemporary British travel writers relate to post-imperial forms of domination. Indeed, if there existed collusions between travelling and Empire, travel writers of the post-imperial phase are much more unanimous in the rejection of old and new forms of domination.

Canton revisits the travelogues of Colin Thubron, Jonathan Raban, William Dalrymple and Tim Mackintosh-Smith by looking at the impact that the dismantling of imperial structures had on their narratives, by trying to define the forms that post-imperial travelogues took, and by examining the influence of earlier British imperial travelogues on the region, as well as the impact of Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism. Canton outlines irony, wit, redefinition and polyphony as the new key elements structuring travel narratives. Thus, he seems to advocate postmodernity as the way out of Empire. Canton is surprisingly less critical here and does not really question the travellers’ capacity to record native voices or to escape new structures of domination. Thubron’s claim to “attempted sympathy” goes unquestioned as Canton uses it to aver that “the removal of imperial rule has ensured that those British writers who venture into the lands of Arabia, are now keen to portray not only their own impressions of that world, but the thoughts, fears and hopes of those who call that place home” [214].


Canton’s monograph is thus extremely clear – it is well written and well organised. It also provides us with close-readings of texts, which, for most of them, have long been forgotten, even if, at the time they were first published, they proved very popular. The articulation he proposes between literature and politics, between travelling, travel-writing and Empire, is very cogent, all the more so since he remains attentive to the complexities and ambivalences of these relations and does take into consideration the gender factor. This reading is post-Saidian in essence and borrows a lot from postcolonial and postmodern theory (especially in the last chapter on “After Empire”). However, the omnipresence of theory, as a frame in which all the texts may be analysed, undermines the exploratory function of critical writing and produces an impression of déjà vu in the reader.

The other reservation that can be made concerning Canton’s book has to do with recontextualisation. Indeed, one of its difficulties lies in the nature of the texts and in Canton’s take on them. From the first page to the last one, Canton stresses the need to articulate travelling and travel writing with Empire, which in itself, is not particularly new. Indeed, by doing so, he revisits Edward Said’s appeal, which dates back to 1978. The reader finds elements of recontextualisation, generally linked to the biography of the travellers, but the general historical picture of the British presence in Arabia is missing. So that, for instance, the heterogeneity of Empire, especially in that region, is not properly addressed. This is somehow perplexing considering Canton’s design to make this very articulation of literature and politics the keystone of his work. This missing in-depth historical analysis produces a distorted representation of a region that would have been crossed and mapped by British travellers only. Not one word is said of the presence of other European powers in the region, of other European travellers, and of the roles these may have played in their experiences of travel and in their modes of writing. Can the patriotic ring of some early British travel narratives be understood without a reference to potential European and, later, American rivals? Similarly, the focus on Arabia rules out any points of comparison with travelling in other corners of the Empire and leaves out key question, such as the reception of these texts back home.


Cercles © 2012

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.