Within the last generation there has been a vast outpouring of scholarship on the characteristics of British imperial policy in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The older orthodoxy that the mid-Victorian years were dominated by a commitment to laissez faire and free trade has been demolished. In the new era scholars quarrel over how “imperial” was “informal empire.” This article is not intended to add to this controversy, but rather to provide insight into the character of British policy in one area, Persia, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with particular emphasis on American efforts to build railways and British responses to this attempted intrusion into an exclusive British-Russian sphere of influence.
For both Russia and Britain Persia had great strategic significance. Like Afghanistan, “the walls of the Indian garden,” Persia was important primarily in relation to the defense of the Indian Empire. Russian expansion to the borders of Persia, a weak state, posed the threat that the country would fall under Russian influence and what had been a buffer would become a menace.
British interest in Persia thus involved a strong strategic component which affected economic policy. Unlike Afghanistan it was seen as a promising market for British goods, particularly if transportation to the interior of Persia could be opened up on the Karun River and if British capital could be attracted to build a network of railways which could be a further basis for controlling the Persian economy and thus contributing to British influence at the Persian court. At the same time Britain was determined to thwart Russian plans for railways in the north which could be used to transport troops to the borders of Persia and eventually beyond. Each power assumed the malevolent intent of the other and each was determined to frustrate these foul plans.