Making Abadan an Oil Town: 1911-1921

Photograph Credit: LIFE
Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]

Khuzestan was one of the most impoverished and least urbanized areas of Iran, itself a desperately poor country at the turn of the 20th century. “In 1900 Iran was a fairly primitive, almost isolated state, barely distinguishable as an economic entity. About one fifth of the population lived in small towns; another quarter consisted of nomadic tribes, while the rest eked out an existence in poor villages”[105]. Historical cities of Shushtar, Dezful, Ramhormoz, Hoveyzeh, and Behbahan, had small populations ranging between 7 and 25 thousand. Ahvaz was initially a large village, but it had been turning into a fast growing market town following the opening of Karun in 1880s to steamship commerce and the construction of the mule transport “Lynch Road” from there through Zagros to Esfahan[106]. Later on in the 1920s the selection of Ahvaz as the new provincial capital as well as an administrative headquarter for APOC made the town expand further. Ahvaz’ commercial growth as an intermediary city between the Iranian interior and the global market was briefly thwarted in the early 1930s when the commercial river traffic effectively ended by the imposition of a government monopoly of foreign trade. However, the trend accelerated again with the growing rail traffic once the trans Iranian railroad project and a major road connecting Tehran to Khuzestan had been completed[107]. On the other hand it is accurate to say that prior to the advent of oil capitalism there had been no urban life to speak of (although there had been plenty of other forms of social life, as discussed in the previous section) in what were fast becoming established oil cities of Masjed Soleyman and Abadan. These oil boomtowns began to be flooded by a constant flow of migrants generated by the dismantling of customary and collective economies of pastoral nomadism and agrarian historical social and political networks. “Our unskilled labour came first from local Arab and ‘Persian’ villages. When word of employment and good wages spread from all over came “tribesmen”, from areas as distant as Luristan, the Bakhtiyari country, Kurdistan, found their way to Abadan. These men were more robust than locals, and were welcomed[108]”. These migrants had little option but to begin adapting permanently to the new urban order increasingly regulated and shaped by bureaucratic rules, sanitary regulations, industrial discipline, wage labor, and an economy based on money and market exchange[109].
When oil was discovered in 1908 the entire population bordering the Persian Gulf was estimated no more than 2.5 million and Khuzestan, one of the most povertystricken areas in Iran, had a population probably no more than two hundred thousand[110]. Mohammareh (Khorramshar) was a town of five thousand, mostly Arab fishermen, farmers growing dates and grain, and tending sheep and buffalo[111]. There were some merchants and craftsmen, like ship builders, reed weavers, shopkeepers, and jewelers (Nestorians and Jews), but in general, Southern Khuzestan was an overwhelmingly rural and agrarian economy. While in the Zagros region and northern Khuzestan the Bakhtiyari khans held sway, eastern Khuzestan was the domain of the Lur tribes of Kohkiluyeh, Bahmayi, and Mamsani[112]. In southern and western parts of the province Sheikh Khaz’al was the paramount ruler, and his alliance with Britain had become close enough that Mohammereh effectively had turned into a British protectorate by the time APOC had made the decision in 1911 to build a refinery in Abadan by leasing land from him. Britain’s commitment to Khaz’al were long standing and primarily strategic: Until the discovery of oil in 1908 the Persian Gulf, and especially its northernwestern coast region was perceived by the British as a pivotal defensive frontline against hostile designs by rival powers to threaten India via the sea routes (chapter 2). In addition, Khaz’al’s dominance in the province helped assure the growing flow of commerce, which by 1900 had doubled to nearly half a million Pounds Sterling most of which benefited British commerce[113]. To reward his loyalty and consolidate the alliance Khaz’al was knighted in 1910 (KCIE) by the British Government of India, thus cementing a special relationship that assured British commitment to his autonomy and the continued rule of his dynasty, until they chose to abandon him in 1925, in favor of a new alliance with the emerging central government[114].
The separate British alliances with the Bakhtiyari and Khaz’al caused a great stir in Tehran, an unease that was reflected in the flurry of telegraphic correspondence between the Foreign Ministry in Tehran and its local agent in Mohammareh (called
Kargozar), the ambassador in London, and a few other officials. The bureaucratic and diplomatic chatter reflected the mounting anxiety among Iranian statesmen over APOC’s schemes and actions in the distant province, its recruiting policies, and the liberties it seemed to be taking in controlling the movements of the population, the importing of goods, and the construction of facilities, all without any concrete knowledge or seeking the approval of the central state[115]. The daily press, limited as it was, also picked up the story, especially in 1915 when word of Khaz’al rapprochement and meetings with the Sheikhs of Kuwait and Basra reached Tehran. Given the current of political developments leading to the dismemberment of the Ottoman territories in the Najd, Mesopotamia, and the Persian Gulf; the Tehran newspaper Asr-e Jadid claimed that the meeting that had taken place between these British protected potentates was aiming to carve out a separate state from Iran and the Ottoman Empire[116]. This paranoia was not farfetched, as Wilson later admitted that at the time British policymakers had drawn a map of an independent Mohammareh, but due to the circumstances it [the map!] hadd not survived[117]. Amidst the armed conflagrations of WWI, the effective collapse of central governmental authority in Tehran, due in no small part to the interference of rival imperial powers as well as mounting calls for autonomy and a greater share of power by various segments of the Iranian society, a nationalist discourse was shaped among urban population and especially the elite, that was deeply antagonistic to the local autonomy of provincial centers of power. Nowhere was this elite nationalist anxiety more pronounced than Khuzestan, and especially the areas under APOC’s effective jurisdiction. By the end of this period in 1921, Abadan was an overcrowded boomtown, badly congested, and a seat bed of social frictions and concentrated poverty. In large part as a result of this situation, and the unavailability of infrastructure and adequate material supplies for construction on such a massive scale, there were serious debates within the Oil Company about relocating all technical refinery operations outside Iran[118]. The general circumstances surrounding the decision against this move became the basis of an emergent paternalism that is the subject of chapters 5 and 6. Meanwhile, most observers have noted some of the distinct features of these industrial cities:
“Their inhabitants who come from the most isolated and abandoned corners of the country without any experience of urban life, find themselves in contact suddenly with a 20th Century industrial city. Thus the nomads of the Zagros and fishermen of the Persian Gulf made up the population of Abadan without having lived through any prolonged phase of transition. These new elements which have so recently arrived on the demographic map of Iran, as on that of other underdeveloped countries, are the portents of fundamental changes in the Iranian Society.”[119]
This story has often been told from the perspective of the Oil Company, the Iranian central state, and political activists championing labor rights and interests, but seldom from the perspective and the lived experiences of the ordinary local population[120] who were also integral to this encounter. This silence is partly a result of the historical sources used as well as the narrators’ perspective. Thus, the historical analyses relying solely on the archives of the Oil Company or the British Foreign Office tend to produce a narrative where the APOC is effectively the sole agent of transformative modernization[121]. On the other hand, state-centered historiography tends to produce an anti-colonial and nationalist narrative that outlines and highlights the Company’s exploitative and abusive practices, and juxtaposes these against a narrow interpretation of ‘national interests’ that are taken to be the same as the interests of the state[122]. In chapter 6 I will rely on a range of archival material, pertaining to the legal petitions and collective challenges by the local population of Abadan challenging the Oil Company’s claims to property, its imposed land use patterns, and its segregated and planned urban order, as a means to investigate whether and how ordinary people of varying social and economic standings attempted to insert their claims in shaping the built environment of oil in Abadan. Looking at the oil encounter through the lens of the physical world it created reveals that in spite of significantly uneven relations of power the local population of Abadan were an integral part of the new political economy of oil, and not marginal and accidental to it.


Notes :
105. Julian Bharier, Economic Development in Iran 1900-1970 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 19.

106. Lynch, “Notes on the Present State of the Karun River, between Shuster and Teh Shatel-Arab”; Curzon, “The Karun River and the Commercial Geography of Southwest Persia”; Shahnavaz, Britain and the Opening of South-West Persia 1880-1914.

107. Paul Vieille, La Féodalité et l’Etat en Iran( Paris:A nthropos,1 975);K asravi, Zendegani eM an.

108. George Thompson, “Abadan in its Early Days”, Naft 4 (1931): 14-18

109. This was a long-drawn out process, with significant ups and downs.

110. Richard Lawless and Ian Seccombe, “Impact of Oil Industry on Urbanization in the Persian Gulf Region,” in Urban Development in the Muslim World, ed. Hooshang Amirahmadi and Salah el Shakhs (New Brunswick: Center for Urban Policy Research, 1993), 183–212; Lorimer, GPG.

111. Louis Massignon, “Mohammerah,” Revue Du Monde Musulman 2, no. 11 (1908): 385–409.

112. Provincial boundaries were redrawn in the 1930s, when aerial mapping and military geographers collected more detailed cartographic information, adding it to the much more detailed spatial information that had been gathered by Europeans. Present day Khuzestan contains areas in the east that had been part of Fars, and in the north and northeast, which had been part of the Bakhtiyari territories. Western boundaries, bordering the then Mesopotamia/now Iraq, were drawn finally drawn after decades of drawn out intrigue, by a joint transnational boundary commission, in the midst of the WWI. The Commission was led by Arnold Wilson (after the initial head was taken ill), and a number of prominent Russian, Ottoman, and Iranian members rounded the commissioners who travelled from Mohammareh to Ararat. The tale of the commission is told in Keith McLachlan, ed., The Boundaries of Modern Iran (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914; John Marlowe, Late Victorian: The Life of Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson (London: Cresset, 1967).

113. Ansari, “History of Khuzistan,” 172–201.

114. The terms of the 1910 Knighthood, and the British guarantees to and agreement with Khaz’al were as follows:
“I am authorize to inform your Excellency (Khaz’al) that whatever change may take place in the form of the government of Persia- whether it be Royalist or nationalist- His Majesty’s Government will be able to afford you the support necessary for obtaining a satisfactory solution in the event of any encroachment by the Persian Government on your jurisdiction and recognized rights or on your property in Persia… These assurances are given for yourself and are intended to extend to your male descendants so long as you or they shall not have failed to observe your obligations toward the central government, and shall continue to be acceptable to your tribesmen, to be guided by the advise of His Majesty’s Government, and to maintain an attitude satisfactory to them”.
The diplomatic report goes on to state: “the document to be handed to His Escellency [Khaz’al] for the information of his tribesmen would only differ in that in the last paragraph there would be omitted the words ‘to be acceptable to your tribesmen’”. Persia Annual Report 1910, Burrell, IPD, Vol.5, 114– 115.

115. These telegraph reports are an un-numbered file available at the Iran National Archives (INA). The originals, which I have studied, were perishable thin telegraphic papers that had not been filed yet. The INA at my request typed the content into a 29-page document, and provided me with a copy in 2006. The reports contain the serial numbers of each telegraph and the date. INA, “Official Telegraphic Correspondence Regarding Labor Relations and Other Issues Concerning the Anglo Iranian Oil Company’s Operations in the Province of Khuzestan (1908-1937)” (Iran National Archives, 1937 1908).

116. “Arabestan va Jonoub-e Iran; Haqiqat-e Owza’e Gozashteh va Tashri-he Pishamad-e Hazereh” Asre Jadid, May 14, 1915; and “Arabistan va Jonoub-e Iran”, May 7, 1915; “Raje’ beh Maqale-ye Arabistan va Jonoub-e Iran”, May 21, 1915

117. Wilson, Southwest Persia, 420

118. Ferrier, History of BP, vol.1, 430, 432-433, 436-437

119. Behnam, “The Population”, CHI vol.1, 476

120. My use of the term ‘local populations’ is awkward, but unavoidable. I do not intend to imply that whoever lived in the local geography experienced similar trajectories and therefore bonded as a unit. However, once Abadan began to take shape more as an urban built environment it became the site of many different life trajectories coming together and participating in its urban process. My use of ‘local population’ here is meant to lay the ground for a discussion of that urban process in the following chapters.

121. This has often been the case in the literature, with the result that whichever of these major social actors are the subject of analysis they may appear as autonomous monads. For example, the architectural historian Mark Crinson, in his history of Abadan argues that Abadan was a company town that was a conglomeration of four distinct spaces: the European neighborhood, the town/bazaar where the local population lived, the professionally planned residential neighborhood that started to be built from the 1930’s, and the refinery that dominated it all. Although the physical space changes according to events and architectural plans, this portrayal is curiously a-historical in that the city is conceptualized as purely the child of the company; local actors, adjoining society, even the Iranian state have only subsidiary roles and little voice in this narrative. This is also the case in other scholarly analyses that rely exclusively on British and oil company sources to construct this history. See Mark Crinson, “Abadan: Planning and Architecture under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company,” Planning Perspectives 12 (1997): 341–59. See also Bamberg, History of the British Oil Company.

122. Abolfazl Lesani, Talay-e Siah ya Bala-ye Iran (Tehran: AmirKabir, 1978); Mostafa Elm, Oil, Power, and Principle (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992); Cyrus Ghani, Iran and the Rise of the Reza Shah: From Qajar Collapse to Pahlavi Power (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998).


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