Gertrude Bell’s 1920 Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia

Posted on | June 4, 2009

In 1920 the British Mandate power commissioned a report, written by Gertrude Bell of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia, covering the period of the British Military Occupation up to the summer of 1920. It was applauded by both houses of the British Parliament upon receipt.
She noted that “at various times modifications [had been] introduced by Turkish rulers in parts of the law, and in particular in the criminal law, but until the nineteenth century these were of small importance. During the nineteenth century the legal system was submitted to far-reaching reforms. The jurisdiction of the Mohammedan Law Courts was limited to questions of personal status and the like. A new system of Civil Courts, known as the Nizamiyah Courts, was established, with an organisation and procedure based on French models. Commercial and Penal Codes were adopted from the Napoleonic Codes and promulgated. And finally the judiciary was separated from the executive.”
“The procedure of the Nizamiyah Courts in civil matters was governed by the Code of Civil Procedure published in the year 1880, which follows in general the French Code of Civil Procedure of 1807. . . . The criminal procedure of the courts was regulated by the Criminal Code of Procedure, which was published in the year 1879, and which differs but little from the French Criminal Code of Procedure.”
She further notes the implementation by the British of the Baghdad Penal Code 1919, based upon the Egyptian Penal Code and the Baghdad Criminal Procedure Code 1919, based upon the Sudanese Criminal Procedure Code, recording the comment that “They will no doubt be replaced, after the conclusion of peace, by more finished and fully considered legislation”. In fact the Penal Code was not replaced until 1969 nor the Criminal Procedure Code until 1971.
She comments on the unfortunate prevalence of ‘honour killings’; the re-opening of the Baghdad School of Law in 1919 and that in the period between the departure of the Turkish forces and administration and the establishment of the British administration, riff-raff broke into government buildings and rifled their contents.
This document is available for download on the www.archive.org website.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) led an extraordinary life. Haing taken a first from Oxford, she campaigned against giving women the right to vote in Britain. In Iraq from 1916 to 1926, she won the affection of some Arab statesmen and the admiration of her superiors, founded a national museum, developed a deep knowledge of personalities and politics in the Middle East, and helped to design the constitution, select the leadership, and draw the borders of a new state. Her letters and some diaries can be found at the Gertrude Bell Project at the University of Newcastle. In one of her letters from 1920 she wrote of Iraq:

“. . . There’s no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don’t know.

No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.”

Queen of the Quagmire is an excellent piece about Gertrude Bell by the marvellous Rory Stewart in the New York Review of Books.