Historian Ian Rutledge on how European imperialism led to the First World War

Sea of Troubles takes a fresh approach by focusing on the war's little known origins

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Over the years, countless books and documentaries have been made about the First World War, with anything of substance presumably already covered on the topic.

But historian and economist Ian Rutledge’s new book, Sea of Troubles, manages to take a fresh approach by focusing on the war’s little-known origins in European Imperialism.

“The subject of the book is very original, it hasn’t really been explored satisfactorily before,” he tells The National.

One notable book that previously did argue the connection between imperialism and the great war was Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism by Vladimir Lenin. Rutledge says Lenin “wrote Imperialism while the First World War was actually happening. Although he talks in his pamphlet about this relationship, he never really explains it properly.”

Rutledge, an Arabist who lives in Chesterfield, England, has previously written two books on Iraq – the last one being about an armed uprising against British colonial rule in the country in the early 20th century. Despite being “very happy” with the book and its positive reviews, Rutledge says he felt he had written a book on a fairly narrow area of British imperialism, both in space and in time.

“I wasn’t satisfied with that in two ways,” he says. “First of all the book in a way perpetuated a tendency in the published work on imperialism, which concentrated almost entirely on the British empire. It is difficult to find anything really substantial outside that sort of genre of literature that dealt with imperialism in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and so on. I wanted to write a book that covered European imperialism.”

Rutledge certainly casts a wide net in Sea of Troubles, its 30 chapters exploring diverse themes and developments such as a comparative study between living standards in 18th century Ottoman empire and Europe, the lag in industrialisation within 19th century Ottoman territories, Russian military designs in the Mediterranean, Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, the occupations of Algeria, Morocco and Libya, and the imperial power play between major European powers in the Mediterranean region leading up to the great war.

“There is a path of violence which runs through, starting with the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then the Italian invasion of Libya – the Balkan wars which were connected with that – and then from that to the actual First World War,” he says.

For Rutledge, researching such a vast history wasn’t easy: “One of my reviews for my last book said it read like a novel, which is what I wanted to do with Sea of Troubles, but it is much more difficult. First of all, because it is a much longer period of time, and secondly, some of the major actors didn’t write their memoirs, or didn’t recall them.”

Often the voices of colonised subjects are not given enough weight in narratives on British imperialism. Rutledge says earlier accounts of British people “just were not interested” in what the colonised people thought.

Another reason was that “European colonialism has access to all the diaries, all the reports, whereas on the other side a large part of the area was illiterate, so there were not many reports that you can get hold of.

"I have had to deal with that by looking at the reports and the attitudes of some of the leading personalities who were wanting to make an argument against what was happening to their countries,” he says.

One such under-appreciated figure mentioned in Rutledge’s book is Abd al-Rahman Al-Jabarti, an Egyptian historian who witnessed and wrote three separate accounts of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. Al-Jabarti detailed everything from the personal habits of the French invaders to their military prowess, and seemed to have an understanding of the rivalry between France and Britain.

Another character who drew Rutledge’s attention was Hamdan ben Othman Khoja, a Kulogglu scholar, who wrote in defence of the Arabic people of Algeria when the French invaded. “He went to France to try to get the French people to listen to him in parliament. He is a character. The only way I discovered about Hamadan Khoja is from a book written by a Tunisian. But he wrote in French, so that was quite easy,” he says.

Rutledge is an Arabic speaker, learning the language over the past 25 years. “It is a very difficult language for a European to learn, I think,” he says.

With a PhD in Economic History from the University of Cambridge, Rutledge has a colourful resume. In the 1970s, he worked for three years in the coal mining industry after having a “big argument” at a university in London where he was employed.

“When you are young you do anything without thinking about it. I resigned, and then I found myself unemployed, and I had three children.”

He found work with a NGO, the Workers’ Educational Association, later also working at The University of Sheffield (who had a financial arrangement with the NGO) on educational programmes for coal miners.

“This course was quite successful, but as the coal mines began to close down, there were fewer students. We started a master's degree in energy studies at the University of Sheffield, and I was given the honorary appointment of senior researcher. That lasted until I retired from teaching,” he says.

His work into the energy sector was also a gateway into the Middle East. Rutledge says it's not possible to explain how the world energy system works, without looking at the Middle East.

“I started reading a lot about the history of the Middle East and the oil industry. Actually my previous book, Enemy on the Euphrates, a lot of that is about the oil industry in Persia and Iraq. That is one of the main motives for the invasion and occupation. So I felt like I ought to start learning Arabic.”

Rutledge, who is a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Medical Aid for Palestinians, says it’s more than ever important to know about European imperialism’s role in igniting the great war because of "the lack of understanding in the West about the history of the Palestinians".

While Sea of Troubles does not delve deep into the Palestinian question, it points to what Britain did there that contributed to what has happened since.

"There is so little understanding in the West among young people about why all this bloodshed is happening in the Middle East,” he says.

“We are in the middle of a terrible tragic situation."

Updated: October 16, 2023, 3:04 AM