Consular Legacies, Part One: Baghdad Consulate Records Document World War I and Post-War Conflicts and Tensions

The Near East Relief Historical Society welcomes contributions and collaborations from a wide variety of scholars that offer differing and unique insight into the incredible humanitarian work done by Near East Relief. With each of these contributions, we broaden our knowledge of such important topics and share stories, photographs, and memories of events that are often forgotten or ignored.

For our latest dispatch series, NERHS is excited to collaborate with James David to explore the activities of U.S. diplomats in Baghdad and Persia before, during, and after World War I, focusing on their voluminous reporting of the Armenian and Assyrian genocides and their extensive cooperation with Near East Relief and others to help the survivors.

James David is a curator and scholar with over 28 years experience currently living and working in the Washington D.C. area. Through this collaboration, we are excited to share consulate records uncovered by James David. These records provide a detailed account of the events leading up to the genocides, the massive death and destruction they caused, and the widespread efforts by individuals and organizations in the United States and Great Britain to provide relief and try to find a long-term solution.  Over the next two dispatches, NEHRS and Mr. David will share how these officials in Baghdad and Persia helped change history.

Mr. David is a second generation Assyrian descended from Assyrian refugees who fled to the United States to escape persecution. His paternal grandfather, Jacob David, was educated in Presbyterian mission schools in Urmia and sent by missionaries to America in the 1890s for higher education and became a minister, later returning to Urmia to teach in the schools. During the late summer of 1918, Jacob joined the mass exodus from Urmia while his wife Judith David stayed in Urmia with their three children and tried to ensure the safety of the few remaining Christians in the area. Along with the U.S. missionaries and a few other Assyrians, Jacob returned to Urmia in the spring of 1919. After a renewal of violence against the remaining Christians later that year, the American consul from Tabriz led them and the other Christians to safety in that city. 

The Davids found refuge in the British refugee camps around Hamadan.  With no prospect of returning to Urmia and because of Jacob David’s acquired American citizenship, the Davids decided to immigrate to America. At Basra, in southern Iraq they boarded the first of several ships that brought them to New York in 1921, where they later moved to Chicago and joined the large Assyrian-American community there.

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The State Department established the Baghdad consulate in 1894 as an additional U.S. diplomatic post in the Ottoman Empire.  As part of their duties, consular officials regularly reported on a wide range of military, political, economic, and social developments during the turbulent years of World War I and afterward.  In addition, consular officers had many other duties, including handling passport applications and other immigration matters, locating family members of U.S. citizens in the Middle East, distributing relief funds and supplies of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, later known as Near East Relief, and others, registering U.S. citizens, and promoting and protecting U.S. business interests in the area.

As a result of the nature of their work, diplomats maintained regular contact with a wide range of individuals in performing their duties.  These included officials of the host government, foreign diplomats posted in Baghdad, personnel at other U.S. posts in the Middle East, American missionaries and commercial representatives in the region, local political and religious leaders, and heads of the Jewish, Assyrian, and Armenian communities.

As one of the many venues for fighting in World War I, Turkish and British forces had been fighting in southern Mesopotamia since 1914.  In March 1917, British forces finally captured Baghdad, ending centuries of Ottoman rule in the region. Newly ousted, Turkish forces retreated north to Mosul where they attempted to establish a stronghold. Fighting continued but at a greatly reduced level.  After the October 1918 armistice between the Turks and British, the latter’s forces moved into Mosul. Conflict occasionally flared up between British/Iraqi and Kurdish forces thereafter. Turkey never abandoned its claim to the Mosul region, but a League of Nations decision in 1924 awarded it to the newly established country of Iraq

Image Left: August 1921 Baghdad Times article on the installation of Amir Faisal as Iraq’s king, which had been orchestrated by the British.  He was the son of the Grand Sharif of Mecca and had fought with T.E. Lawrence in World War I.  Faisal served as king until his death in 1933.     

Iraqis resisted British rule but their rebellion was crushed by 1920.  That same year, the British received a League of Nations mandate for the area, which was now designated Iraq.  Under British supervision, an Iraqi government with limited powers was established in 1921. The two nations quickly signed the first in a series of Anglo-Iraqi Treaties setting forth their respective rights and obligations.

With the capture of Baghdad by the British troops in March 1917, Assyrian and Armenian refugees soon began to flee to the British occupied area.  Most of the Assyrians originally came from the Urmia region in Azerbaijan province in Persia. They had initially fled south to British military lines around Hamadan when Turkish and Kurdish forces were in the final stages of their conquest of Urmia in late July 1918.   Housed in temporary refugee camps and unable to return to their homes, the refugees soon moved on to more permanent camps set up by the British military around Baghdad. Although some Armenians accompanied the Assyrians in this exodus, most came from various locations in the Ottoman Empire after being brutally evicted by Turkish forces.

Image Right: Great Britain established the position of High Commissioner under authority of the League of Nations mandate it received for Mesopotamia.  Sir Percy Cox served as the first High Commissioner from 1920-1923.  He led the successful political and military fight against the Arab revolt opposing British rule and was instrumental in the negotiation and signing of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. 

 

Assyrian and Armenian church leaders asked Great Britain and the other western powers for military protection and other assistance in returning to their homes, but these requests were turned down for a variety of reasons.  The refugees in the Baghdad area camps were destitute. The American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, later Near East Relief, and other organizations provided funds and supplies that sustained many. Family members in the United States also sent funds.  The consulate was frequently involved in facilitating this vast relief effort.

The consulate handled numerous requests from individuals in America for help in locating family members.  It worked closely with U.S. missionaries and Assyrian and Armenian leaders in trying to answer these inquiries.  The immigration workload of the consulate increased as growing numbers of refugees wanted to immigrate to America.  This was not a problem for those few individuals who had previously become U.S. citizens or had close relatives who were citizens.  However, for most refugees immigration was a distant prospect. This was particularly true after new laws took effect in the early 1920s that imposed strict quotas on immigration from Middle Eastern nations.  Still, the consulate did what it could with the resources at its disposal to help as many people as possible in whatever way it could.

Click the link below to look at more consulate records, as well as a finding aid that describes the fascinating and unique documents in the collection.