Socialist Worker

The female adventurer who loved Iraq helped the empires carve it up

Letters from Baghdad examines Gertrude Bell known as the female Lawrence of Arabia—but it glosses over Britain’s bloody conquests, writes Eleanor Claxton-Mayer

Issue No. 2550

Gertrude Bell helped the British state divide up the Middle East and establish the king of Iraq

Gertrude Bell helped the British state divide up the Middle East and establish the king of Iraq

This new documentary film is an interesting insight into the life of Gertrude Bell—the “most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day” the film’s producers say.

Bell was an independent woman and without doubt went against the grain.

She has been described as the female Lawrence of Arabia and was a very significant figure in the imperialist carve-up of the Middle East after the First World War.

The film paints her as an intrepid explorer and adventurer, while also being a British spy.

It tries to give a sense of the person that Bell was but at many points it feels slow moving.

The first part focuses on her early life but puts too much emphasis on her personal relationships.


Bell’s knowledge of the area that would become Iraq was indispensable to the British state.

Lord Cromer, who led the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, recommended her for work with intelligence and Bell became an assistant political officer in the colonial administration.

We hear Bell speak about General Stanley Maude, commander of British forces when they invaded and occupied Iraq in 1917, and his claim that the British came “as liberators”.

As she travels to Baghdad she notes all the “tragic places” of British slaughter.

Western powers divided up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire and signed the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. It formalised a border Bell helped draw up. Bell thought, “I think I have compiled a very reasonable border.”

She played a key role in establishing Amir Faisal, a leader of the Arab rebellion against the Ottomans, to become king of Iraq.


“It’s not all smooth yet,” she wrote in August 1920 as the rebellion against the British grew.

“We get reports about the lower Euphrates tribes preparing monstrous petitions in favour of a republic. I don’t believe half of them are true but they keep one in anxiety.”

Letters and diaries show her becoming disillusioned with the king and British influence.

She is painted as focused on the idea of Iraq being ruled by those in Iraq and as sympathetic to the protests against British rule.

The documentary showed a side to Gertrude Bell that I had not been aware of before, namely her seemingly genuine interest in the cultures of the Middle East.

All in all the documentary only gives a taste of the events around the division of the Middle East that Gertrude Bell was directly involved in.

The primary sources used as the script are fascinating.

But you are not given the whole picture. It is a glossed over view of colonialism and the role Gertrude Bell played for the British state.

Letters from Baghdad is in cinemas from Friday 21 April

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