Several years ago a broken piece of discarded marble was found in Basra, a port in southern Iraq. On it was engraved a brief legend commemorating a spectacular, if now forgotten, 19th-century adventure and 21 men whose only grave was a storm-roiled river in the Middle East. The legend, now mounted in the British Consulate General in Basra, reads: "This fountain commemorates tile awful event which visited the Euphrates Expedition, 21st of May, 1836, near Is-Jarls, about 85 miles above Ana."
The "Euphrates Expedition" was a direct result of 19th-century England's desire to find a Middle Eastern shortcut between English industry and India's raw materials and markets. According to some men the only possible shortcut was a canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Others insisted that an overland route front Alexandria to the Red Sea was the only way. To Captain Francis Rawdon Chesney, however, the most promising route led through the historic Euphrates river valley.
Captain Chesney was the son Englishman who had emigrated to of an South Carolina in 1772 and made the unfortunate choice of fighting on the British side during the American Revolution. He was taken prisoner by George Washington and returned penniless at war's end to Ireland, where young Chesney was born on March 16, 1785. Fortunately Lord Cornwallis (the same Cornwallis who lost the crucial Battle of Yorktown to Washington) remembered the elder Chesney's loyal service to the crown and offered the boy, a commission in the British Army. The boy accepted and became a distinguished soldier—so distinguished that in 1825 he was picked to go out to the Middle East to explore possible new routes to India.
Heading first to Egypt, Chesney meticulously surveyed the 80 miles of land separating the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and—despite the prevailing fear among supposedly able engineers that the Red Sea might drain into the Mediterranean—reported that a canal teas feasible. (Years later in Paris he was greeted by DeLesseps as "the father of the canal.") But then, in 1831, he made an amazing overland journey to the Euphrates and went down the valley by raft to the point where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers join and flow into the Arabian Gulf. Convinced that this was the real shortcut to India, he proposed an expedition to prove that steamships could navigate the Euphrates and provide a fast new link to the Orient.
His proposal immediately attracted the interest of King William IV. The King conferred his special patronage on Chesney, and assigned him to survey the northern part of Syria, explore the Tigris and the Euphrates river valleys, investigate the possibility of establishing railway or steamer connections with India, and keep an eye out for possible markets and investment opportunities.
It was an overwhelming challenge and the first stage of it seemed impossible: getting two special steamboats built, shipped to the Middle East, transported overland and launched on the river.
In retrospect, it seems incredible that they even dreamed that two huge paddle steamers, one 103 feet long, the other 70 feet long, could be moved 140 miles across a range of mountains, a swamp and a desert. But with the fantastic courage that seemed to inspire so many of the 19th-century explorers, Chesney and his men in the spring of 1835 landed at the mouth of the Orontes River set up a depot and began to plan the rest of the expedition.
In hopes that the ships could make their own way at least partly up the Orontes, Chesney's first decision was to rivet the dismantled Tigris back together again and launch it. The swift river was too much for the little steamer, however, and Chesney's band of engineers, boilermakes, ironworkers, carpenters, marines, sappers and seamen had to turn to the job of moving the boats overland.
As he wrote later, it was a "near-Herculean" challenge. To move the heavy, unwieldy iron plates of the paddle steamers, along with ponderous boilers, paddle wheels and masts, they had to construct a fleet of 27 sturdy wagons, sledges and carts. Then they had to round up the hundreds of oxen and mules they would need to haul the vehicles, and find workmen. More importantly they had to cut a road through the foothills that barred their way to the Syrian plains.
On top of the purely physical problems there were also political headaches. Egypt's Muhammad Ali, who ruled Syria at that time (much to the annoyance of the Ottoman Sultan) was not at all happy at the thought that the Euphrates route to India might lessen the value of the overland route across Egypt which Thomas Waghorn was then developing. (Aramco World Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1968) He could not, of course, openly oppose a British expedition, but he could and did make it as difficult as possible. Pood suddenly was scarce. Laborers drifted away. Precious draft animals were hastily diverted to other tasks.
Chesney, however, refused to be discouraged. By alternately invoking the influence of the British ambassadors in Cairo and Istanbul and stirring up the ready wrath of the Sultan, he foiled most of Ali's efforts, ignored the rest as best he could.
Through 1835, and into 1836, the work went forward. The road, such as it was, crawled up the slopes of the mountains, squirmed down and into the dreadful marshes near Aleppo, and struck out across the flat rocky deserts of what is now northern Syria and southern Turkey. And along the road, painfully dragged by weary men and straining animals, came the dismantled boilers, the paddle wheels, and all the other disassembled segments of the ungainly steamships.
It was brutal work. Despite masses of powerful oxen and well-muscled laborers the wagons and sledges often moved no farther than a half mile per day. When the road zigzagged sharply upwards, as it had to, Chesney's engineers had to use pulleys and jacks just to move the wagons a few inches, then, anchor them in place and rig the pulleys again. On the downward slopes they had to use chains to prevent the wagons from sliding downhill and tipping over. In the marshes the huge diving bell proved too heavy and sank out of sight; it was found by ingenious probing with long bamboo poles and hauled to firmer ground by teams of oxen. To get one very heavy boiler through the mud they built a road of planks. To replace a cracked beam on a sledge they went so far as to buy a house and use the roof beam. Once they even rigged a sail on a wagon, hoping the wind would help move the great load.
But if progress was slow it was also steady. On February 27, 1836, in one final magnificent effort, more than 100 straining oxen, with the last section of boiler in tow, lurched through a triumphal arch that had been built at the river to mark the success of the first stage. And on March 17, just 13 months after leaving England, the Euphrates backed into the river for a trial run.
With Bedouins and villagers gathered from miles around to watch, the crew unfurled the Turkish and British flags, fired a 21-gun salute in honor of the Ottoman Sultan, and steamed out into the river, black clouds of smoke pouring out of the tall funnels, and English voices shouting the typical, "Hip Hip Hurrah!" In the excitement a child fell from a nearby minaret and landed unhurt—which led to all sorts of conjecture as to what this implied for the future of the expedition. Shortly after they began to descend the river.
The two vessels carried an interesting complement of men. Aboard the Euphrates was a Dr. Heifer, a German botanist, and his wife who joined the expedition in Syria and later wrote a lively account of the journey. There were also 22 officers and scientists, 13 Arab seamen, an American Negro cook and an Iraqi interpreter called Mr. Rassam, who later became British consul in Mosul. On the smaller ship, the Tigris, were 20 officers and scientists, 12 Arab seamen and a certain Mr. John Bell who was later known as "Theodore's Englishman" after he went to Ethiopia, became Emperor Theodore's prime minister and confidential advisor and later died saving Theodore's life.
The northern stretches of the Euphrates are extremely treacherous waters. Until just recently the river was alternately drying up or overflowing its banks and the voyage downstream was a constant struggle with sand bars, rapids and sudden storms. The river would suddenly fork or turn in unexpected directions. Islands would appear from nowhere. With charts it would have been difficult; without, it was a nightmare.
Chesney had calculated that the distance from Birecik to Basra, near the head of the Gulf, was approximately 1,400 miles. He was dismayed, therefore, when, after 34 days, the boats had only covered 100 miles. At that rate it would take them well over a year to complete the voyage.
On the other hand, there was no help for it. The sounding boats had to go ahead to mark rocks and shoals before the Tigris and the Euphrates, traveling in eight-hour stretches, could proceed. Then the two steamers would have to tie up and wait for the clumsy barge on which they carried the three-ton diving bell and all their coal. Time also had to be found too for preparation of the day's charts. It did try their patience. Only the Heifers, by their own account at least, were pleased. They could always jump ashore and collect plant specimens and strange insects—of which there seemed to be an unlimited supply.
If they were impatient, however, they were never bored. Each turn in the river bank brought a new, fascinating sight. There were untold numbers of birds. There were wild boar, deer and ostriches. Once they even saw a lion ambling along the bank. As for the inhabitants, according to Dr. Heifer, they changed constantly. In the north there were peaceful river people who swam in the swollen river with inflated sheep skins but shied in fear from the thunder and smoke of the two paddle steamers. Further south there were nomads armed with swords and slings, and one day as they steamed around a bend in the river they saw nearly 1,000 Bedouin tents pitched on an open plain. There were always brigands in the hills and Chesney later confessed that his only comfort was a recollection of King William's final words: "Remember, Sir, that the success of England depends upon commerce, and that yours is a peaceful undertaking, provided with the means of opening trade. I do not desire war, but if you should be molested, due support shall not be wanting."
For all that, the first two months were not unpleasant. If changeable, the river was still navigable. Messengers came overland with mail and the latest English and European periodicals. Dr. Heifer, in fact, noted that he was always able to find the latest copy of some scientific journal aboard ship. In turn the expedition members could send letters and reports back to England.
Then, in April the barge hit a submerged rock and sank with 15 tons of coal. Even using the diving bell Chesney was unable to salvage anything. Grimly, he ordered four pontoon rafts built and lashed together as a replacement, and added wood cutting to the daily chores. The rafts worked, but progress thereafter was even slower because they had to stop periodically to gather firewood.
They went on. First south, then east. Past ancient castles. Past deserted fortresses. Past the ruined city of Raqqa, and the "harsh clacking of storks perched along its old walls".
Three hundred miles downstream from Birecik they came to the first settled dwellings at El Deir where Captain Chesney optimistically wrote in his diary, "Tomorrow we are to make 130 miles to Ana; we must make up for lost time."
They tried. Up early, they cast off lines and steamed downstream with even more than their usual determination. During the morning all went well. Then, at 1:20 on the afternoon of May 21, dark clouds boiled up in the northwest sky, forewarnings apparently of a heavy thunderstorm. The air became sultry, the sky darkened, and the masses of black clouds came nearer and nearer. Beneath them the yellow sand of the desert whirled into the air.
"The sky assumed an appearance such as we had never before witnessed, and which was awful and terrific in the extreme. A dense black arch enveloped the whole horizon, and the space beneath the arch was filled up with a body of dust of brownish, orange color, whirling around, and at the same time advancing at us with fearful rapidity ... At this moment the hurricane came on us—a warm, dry wind, laden with the fragrance of the aromatic plants of the wilderness, followed a few moments later by a tremendous blast of wind with some rain in large drops. The crash broke upon us like the boom of artillery, and the hurricane seemed as if bent upon hurling both steamers at once to the bottom of the foaming river."
Realizing that this was no ordinary storm—it was in fact a tornado—Chesney ordered both ships to make for the river bank and tie up, but the Tigris struck the bank with such force that the recoil prevented the sailors from making her fast. With the wind at her bows she swung back into the middle of the river and into the path of the oncoming Euphrates. The Euphrates avoided a collision by reversing paddles at full speed, but then backed four feet onto the bank. The crew scrambled ashore and with superhuman efforts managed to get an anchor into the ground. But as they did, Dr. Heifer and his wife, clinging to the mast on deck, heard a shout from below: "Water in the stern cabin!"
Rushing below, Heifer found water streaming in through a porthole. Jamming his feet against the opposite wall and heaving his back against the porthole shutter, he closed it. Back on deck with his wife, he found the river flooding over its bank and waves dashing over their heads. Through the rain and the whirling sand he caught a glimpse of the Tigris. The steamer was motionless and her tall funnel was bent to one side. Then she roiled over and sank.
In 25 minutes the storm was over. It had come, slashed across the river at the exact point where the ships were, and passed on. In minutes the sun emerged and Dr. Heifer and some of the officers jumped ashore and ran to where they had last seen the sister ship and began to search the riverbanks. They found Captain Chesney—who had miraculously been swept safely onto a field where he was presently joined by the sodden remains of his own Bible. But the Tigris had vanished with her captain and 20 men aboard. Several bodies washed ashore downstream, along with a few cases of Sheffield goods, and some casks of salted meat, but of the Tigris itself there was not a trace.
For all practical purposes the expedition was over, and a few days later the British government made it official: because of the delays, a tapering off of public interest in the Euphrates route and a shortage of funds, the expedition was to pack up and come home.
The survivors, however, unanimously decided to at least complete the survey of the river and on May 24 the Euphrates continued its journey. It arrived in Basra on June 18 having quickly completed the charting of the river which, ironically, offered no further challenges or major problems once it entered the broad plains of Iraq. But for Chesney his hopes of finding a shortcut to India were in ruins. The consensus in England was that a Euphrates river service was not practical, Chesney was reproached by both the British and Indian governments and it was to be 30 years before he would complete the official report of the expedition—finally doing so at the express wish of Queen Victoria herself. His only consolation was a gold medal awarded him by the Royal Geographical Society for his contribution to the scientific and geographical knowledge of western Asia.
As so often happens, others were more astute than the government. Following in Chesney's footsteps, merchants and traders did eventually establish a steamship service, and as a result of Chesney's vision England gained the initial influence in the area that would lead to construction of a railroad along the route that the Euphrates Expedition pioneered and for which so many gallant men gave their lives in that "awful event" of the 21st of May, 1836.
John Brinton, whose hobby is collecting old books, writes regularly on forgotten but fascinating fragments of Middle East history.