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The Amazing Life of Gertrude Bell

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In her day, which was the early years of the 20th century, she was famous and given nicknames such as “The Queen of the Desert” or “The Female Lawrence of Arabia.”

Gertrude Bell.

Gertrude Bell.

Gertrude Bell's Early Life

As a woman born in the Victorian era, her destiny was planned out for her. But, she didn't care for the role of child-bearer, household manager, and subservience to a husband so she decided the create her own destiny.

She arrived in the world in July 1868 at Washington New Hall in northern England. Her family had made a large fortune in the iron business so a comfortable life and a good education were guaranteed.

Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was a progressive and, unlike many industrialists of the time, paid his employees well and was concerned about their welfare.

He was an important influence on her life as was her stepmother, Florence Bell, who cultivated “Gertrude’s ideas of social responsibility, something that would feature later in her dealings in modern-day Iraq” (Jessica Brain, historic-uk.com).

At the age of 17, Gertrude was admitted to Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University, one of the very few colleges that allowed entry to women. She studied modern history, one of the small number of subjects women were permitted to take. She earned a first-class honours degree in just two years.

Gertrude Bell: Mountaineer

Gertrude Bell developed a keen interest in mountaineering, something that Victorian ladies just did not do. She took on the Engelhörner range in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland and one of the peaks, Gertrudspitze, was named in her honour.

In 1902, she tackled the Finsteraarhorn (4,274 – 14,022 ft) and it almost cost her her life. During the climb a blizzard struck, stranding her and her guides on the mountain for two days. She suffered frostbite in the ordeal but this did not stop her from climbing the Matterhorn (4,478 m – 14,692 ft) two years later.

She wrote to a friend about the adventure: “It was beautiful climbing, never seriously difficult, but never easy, and most of the time on a great steep face which was splendid to go upon.”

However, climbing was a hobby, and Gertrude Bell aimed to do bigger things with her life.

"Never seriously difficult." Right.

The Lure of Travel and Adventure

Her first trip to the Middle East had been made in 1892 to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, who was the British ambassador to Persia (today's Iran). She had studied Persian to prepare for the trip and then decided to learn Arabic. These she added to her ability to speak fluently in Italian, German, and French.

That first visit to the Middle East resulted in her 1894 book Safar Nameh: Persia Pictures.

Along with her study of languages, she developed a passion for archaeology, working on digs with leading archaeologists.

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Over the next several years, Bell travelled extensively in the Middle East—Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Arabia—all the time learning about Arab and Persian culture.

She travelled alone, that is in the sense of without any European companions, but she had a considerable retinue of camel drivers, cooks, and servants.

She had been raised in luxury and she was not about to rough it in her journeys: “She was said to travel with candlesticks, a Wedgwood dinner service, and fashionable garments for the evening” (Jessica Brain). However, she was aware she was moving in dangerous places so she kept a gun concealed in her clothing.

She wrote several books about her experiences leading her to become very famous in her native land and elsewhere. Her knowledge of the culture and the people of the region brought her to the attention of the British government, which hired her as the only woman working in intelligence in the region.

Gertrude Bell in 1909 on an archaeological dig.

Gertrude Bell in 1909 on an archaeological dig.

Gertrude Bell's Political Influence

As the British Chief Political Officer in Baghdad, she was the go-to person for colonial officials needing information about tribal allegiances; necessary intelligence in Britain's effort to recruit Arabs in the battles with the Ottoman Empire. She worked with T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) in this endeavour.

With Arab help, the Turkish domination of the region was crushed; the allies were left with the problem of how to administer what had been the Ottoman Empire. (The colonial powers had granted themselves the right to determine the future of the region).

Gertrude Bell advocated for Arabs to have control of their own affairs and she was instrumental in guiding the Cairo Conference of 1921 towards that end. The conference led to the creation of Iraq as an independent sovereign nation under a U.K.-friendly monarch, Faisal I, and a democratically elected parliament.

Bell argued that this newly established Iraq would bring stability to the region, which interested Britain only to the extent that it created a favourable climate for the exploitation of Iraq's vast oil reserves.

Biography.com notes that “For her work on their behalf, Bell earned the respect of the peoples of Mesopotamia (Iraq). She was often addressed as 'khutan,' which means 'queen' in Persian and 'respected lady' in Arabic.”

Not everybody was a fan. There were plenty of imperialists in Britain who could not tolerate the thought of handing self-determination to Arabs. One such was Sir Mark Sykes who wanted Britain and France to carve up the Middle East for their own benefit. In a misogynistic rant, he wrote of Bell that “she’s a 'bitch,' 'an infernal liar,' and a 'silly, chattering windbag of conceited gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”

There's an image of the 40 conference attendees at the Cairo Conference. Front and centre is Winston Churchill, at the time Britain's Colonial Secretary and the man in charge. He called the group the “forty thieves.”

There are two Iraqis in the photograph and one woman, Gertrude Bell. Of the remaining 37 men, 17 are in military kit and 24 are sporting moustaches (the significance of so many men adorned with facial hair is, perhaps, a subject worthy of further study).

In the left front of the photograph are two lion cubs apparently play-fighting. Take out the word “word” and they seem to be a prescient metaphor for the region's future.

Churchill's “Forty thieves.”

Churchill's “Forty thieves.”

The National Museum of Iraq

After the Cairo Conference, Gertrude Bell stayed on in Iraq and she was entrusted by King Faisal with curating antiquities for the National Museum of Iraq. She worked to ensure that artifacts of historical significance weren't spirited away to European museums as so often happened with the priceless treasures of other countries.

On July 12, 1926, Bell was found dead in her bed. She had taken a fatal overdose of sleeping pills, whether accidentally or on purpose was never determined, although her letters to family show she was suffering from depression. She was just 57 years old.

King Faisal ordered a grand military funeral for her that was attended by a large crowd; she was buried in Baghdad's British Cemetery.

Bonus Factoids

  • When Gertrude Bell worked for British intelligence, the army struggled to find a rank for the only woman in the service, so they called her “Major Miss Bell.”
  • Mary Henrietta Kingsley was a Victorian woman who defied conventions. Brilliant and completely self taught she conducted important studies in Africa. You can read more about her here.
  • Lady Anne Blunt (1837 – 1917) travelled extensively in the Middle East when it was not fashionable for women to do so. She bought Arabian horses from Bedouin tribesmen and established the Crabbet Arabian Stud in England. Most pure Arabian horses today can trace their blood lines to the Crabbet Stud.
  • Lady Hester Stanhope was another extraordinary British traveller in the Middle East who wielded considerable politic influence in the region. You can read more about her here.

Sources

  • “Gertrude Bell.” Jessica Brain, historic-uk.com, November 3, 2020.
  • “Gertrude Bell: 7 Facts About Her Fascinating Life.” Wendy Mead, biography.com, September 30, 2020.
  • “Gertrude Bell and the Birth of Iraq.” Chris Calder, Anderson Valley Advertiser, May 26, 2004.
  • “Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia.” Janet Wallach, Random House, 1996.
  • “Miss Bell's Lines in the Sand.” James Buchan, The Guardian, March 12, 2003.
  • “The First Time” Reuel Marc Gerecht, The New Republic, June 15, 2011.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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