US President Donald Trump, by announcing that the American Embassy in Israel would move to Jerusalem, completes a journey that began when Britain opened the first modern Diplomatic office there in 1838

ONE DAY IN 1839, TWO YOUNG Englishmen set out from Brussels to travel overland to, Sri Lanka. One of them, the 32-year-old Edward Ledwich Osbaldeston Mitford, scion of a gentry family from Northumberland, ostensibly feared the long sea journey. However, having served in the British foreign service, its seemed more likely that he wanted to gather intelligence along the way. His companion Austen Henry Layard, ten years his junior, had links to Sri Lanka. His father, Henry Peter Layard, served the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) and his nephew, Charles Peter Layard, later became the first mayor of Colombo. However, he never completed the journey: at Jerusalem, he made a detour, and become enamoured with the Middle East.

At Hamadan, Layard stayed behind; gained fame by “discovering” the ruined city of Nineveh, the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire; and went on to be a diplomat and parliamentarian. Mitford continued his journey to Sri Lanka, and to a long and successful CCS career. Forty years later, he described his 7,000 mile (11,000km) horseback journey in ‘A Land March from England to Ceylon’.

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives in 1858, by Edward Lear (courtesy of Wikipedia)

At the time Mitford and Layard visited Palestine, there were hardly any Jewish people there. This posed a problem for Britain’s foreign policy mandarins for rather complex reasons. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in order to threaten the British position in India. Alarm bells began ringing in Whitehall, and British forces were dispatched, which defeated Napoleon. However, the Egyptians managed to expel the British shortly afterwards. Paranoid about other powers gaining control of India, British worries about Egypt revived following a Franco-Egyptian alliance in the late 1830s. In 1840, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) began mail and passenger services between Britain and her Asian possessions via a land crossing of Egypt. This meant that Palestine—then part of the Ottoman Empire—being adjacent to Egypt, became important to the British empire. This importance increased when the Russian empire began expanding southward into Caucasus and Central Asia. The British began playing what came to be known as the “Great Game”, to keep Russia at a safe distance from India’s borders.

Russia began intruding into the Ottoman Empire, and particularly into Palestine, as a “protector” of the Orthodox Christian minority. France also crept in to defend Roman Catholics. Britain, a Protestant country, found hardly any Protestants to protect in the Levant. Jewish people proved to be welcome candidates for protection under the British aegis.

Map of Jerusalem

Various British Christians and Jews had pushed for the settlement of European Jews in Palestine, with no success. Now, a top establishment figure, Earl of Shaftesbury Anthony Ashley-Cooper, a close relative of the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerstone, intervened. Although he considered Jews to be “stiff-necked, dark-hearted people, and sunk in moral degradation”, Shaftesbury strongly favoured establishing Jewish settlements in Palestine. He presented a plan for doing so to Palmerston. The foreign secretary now prevailed on the British Ambassador in Constantinople “to urge… the Turkish government to hold out every just encouragement to the Jews of Europe to return to Palestine.” He established a vice-consulate at Jerusalem in 1838, the first diplomatic representation in the city in modern times.

However, the small Jewish population (only 40,000 out of 300,000) remained a problem, and expanding it appeared vital to British interest. In 1845, Mitford wrote ‘An appeal on behalf of the Jewish Nation in Connection with the British Policy in the Levant’, wherein he laid out the British “road map” for Palestine for the next century. A cogent and prescient work, it proposed the establishment of a Jewish state, under British protection. The indigenous Palestinian population would be deported. The Jewish colony, he argued, “would retrieve our affairs in the Levant and place us in a commanding position… at the same time that it would place the management of our steam communications entirely in our hands.”

An able propagandist in the cause of a Jewish homeland, Mitford repeated his message indirectly in his 1866 novel, ‘An Arab’s Pledge’, in which he outlined Arab perfidy against Jews in Morocco – essentially a fictional account of some of the material in his “Appeal”.

The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 re-emphasised the importance of Palestine to Britain. James Finn, a British consul in Jerusalem, sent the foreign office a scheme “to persuade Jews in a large body to settle here as agriculturists on the soil.” Finn had already established training schools for Jewish farmers, funded by the Society for the Promotion of Jewish Agricultural Labour in the Holy Land—the members of which included Galle-born Captain Henry Lewis Layard (Austen Henry Layard’s cousin), a merchant at Darley Butler and Company; and Thomas Goodwin Hatchard, later Bishop of Mauritius, whose family published Mitford’s books.

In 1862, Prince Albert (later King Edward VII) visited the Holy Land, the first British Prince to do so since Edward the Black Prince in the 13th century, signalling to the world Britain’s intent in the Levant. Three years later, a quasi-military organisation, the Palestine Exploration Fund, came into being, which mapped the area and gathered intelligence. Layard, one of the founders, shaped the focus of the Fund’s research, pushing it in the direction of a specifically Jewish history. Benjamin Disraeli, a close friend of Layard’s maternal relatives, became British prime minister in 1874. He recognised the importance Govern Civil Service of the newly opened Suez Canal, and began an intrusive policy into Egypt. In order to bolster Britain’s position in the Levant, he appointed Layard as ambassador to Constantinople. Almost immediately, war broke out between Russia and the Ottoman empire, which went badly for the latter, despite covert British support. Layard warned that the Ottoman collapse would enable Russia and France to penetrate the region.

Jerusalem (also known as Zion) had more a mystical meaning, in the sense of the afterlife. Religious Jews believed that “Israel” would only be established after the coming of the Messiah

At this point, another Sri Lankan connection entered the Levantine equation. Laurence Oliphant, son of Sir Alexander Oliphant, Chief Justice of Ceylon, had been brought up in Sri Lanka. He served as Lord Elgin’s secretary during the Second Opium War and as a war correspondent, before being elected to Parliament. He set up an organisation called Christian Lovers of Zion, to lay the basis for Jewish immigration to Palestine and attempted to persuade Jewish organisations promoting migration to America to switch their focus to Palestine.

Austen Henry Layard

Following the Turkish defeat, he suggested planting a European Jewish population in Palestine to reinforce the Ottomans against the Russians. An enthusiastic supporter of Jewish settlement in Palestine, Disraeli jumped at the suggestion. In Constantinople, Layard backed Oliphant’s efforts to persuade the Ottoman sultan to back the creation of a Jewish colony, which however, did not meet with success.

After a tour of the region, Oliphant sent a report to the Foreign Office, setting out proposals for the settlement of Jews in the region, and for its economic and political growth, advocating industrial and agricultural development of the area, using Palestinians as cheap labour. He himself moved to Palestine and provided support for established Jewish settlements.

Despite all these efforts, as late as 1882, Jewish people comprised only 8% of Pales tine’s population: 24,000 people, compared to 80,000 in New York city alone. The biggest obstacle to Jewish settlement in Palestine remained Jewish reluctance, which Oliphant had found in his efforts to dissuade Jews from going to America. Many considered the US a “Promised Land”: by 1927, when the Johnson-Reed Law put a cap on Jewish immigration, nearly 4.3 million Jews lived there, up from 200,000 in 1870. Even Oliphant’s secretary, Naftali Herz Imber, who wrote the poem that became the Israeli anthem, moved from Palestine to the US.

Laurence Oliphant

Although Jewish people would say “next year in Jerusalem”, very few actually intended to go there. Jerusalem (also known as Zion) had more a mystical meaning, in the sense of the afterlife. Religious Jews believed that “Israel” would only be established after the coming of the Messiah. In 1845, a conference of Rabbis in Frankfurt deleted all prayers for a return to Zion and a restoration of a Jewish state from Judaic rituals.

A relative change came about after extensive pogroms in Russia beginning in 1880. Over the next 34 years, there would be 4,000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine, mainly from Russia. In this climate emerged a secular Jewish nationalism, which looked to the establishment of a Jewish state: Zionism.

A curious phenomenon, it remained non-religious, while depending on Judaism to define its basis; while at the same time, its primary aim of a Jewish homeland being at odds with the Judaic religion.

The Zionists looked for support from European governments. Only the Tsar of Russia responded, seeing them as a means for ridding Russia of its Jews. Disappointed, they experimented with schemes to create colonies in Argentina and East Africa.

EL Mitford

They faced a major problem: The British, formerly the sponsors of a “Jewish Homeland”, now did not feel any urgency. In 1882, they crushed Arabi Pasha, the leader of Egyptian patriots, and sent him to exile in Sri Lanka, so they now Egypt and Palestine held less importance. They did suggest a Jewish colony in the Sinai Peninsula – where it would serve as a buffer between the Ottomans and the Suez Canal – but this failed because of Egyptian objections.

This situation changed when, in 1905, Sri Lankan-born Admiral John Fisher converted the Royal Navy’s ships from coal to oil. The Middle East gained new importance as a source of petroleum. The establishment of a Jewish colony in Palestine returned to the British agenda, being articulated as official policy in the 1917 Balfour declaration. In December that year, the British captured Jerusalem, finally opening the road to a Jewish homeland.

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