Wild and Wealthy: the Past and Future of the Caspian Sea

I have been advertised that the chief trade of Persia is into Syria, and so transported into the Levant Sea [Mediterranean]. The few ships upon the Caspian Seas, the want of mart and port towns, the poverty of the people and the ice, maketh that trade not.

So commented Anthony Jenkinson, intrepid representative of the English Muscovy Company during his epic journey through Russia and Central Asia in 1558-1560.

In search of new trading partners and an overland route to the wealth of China, Jenkinson’s explorations were not only a remarkable feat of adventurism but they also allowed for some of the first English-language accounts of a region still oft-overlooked thanks to their inclusion in Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation.

The land encompassing the Caspian Sea – a still controversial designation for this massive landlocked body of water – rarely makes the headlines, only momentarily garnering attention for a recent agreement hashed out Aktau between Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran.

The five heads of state celebrate the deal in Aktau

After decades of dispute, the five littoral states bordering the Caspian have agreed to share its resources and work together to prevent outside powers from setting up military bases on its shores. Rich in oil and gas, it is a prudent step to douse this particular geopolitical flame.

When Jenkinson – a native of the quiet Leicestershire town of Market Harborough – travelled the region in the mid-1500s, he encountered a wild land of nomads and bandits, whose conceptions of commerce differed widely from his own ‘sophisticated’ notion.

From the Caspian Sea unto the castle of Sellizure aforesaid, and all the countries about the said sea, the people live without town or habitation in the wild fields, removing from one place to another in great companies with their cattle, whereof they have great store, as camels, horses, and sheep both tame and wild.

Yet if the Caspian of the 16th century was beyond his comprehension, imagine what the merchant would think of today’s Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, with its sparkling modern facades and nouveau-riche adornments.

Baku’s elite status has been confirmed by its hosting of a grand prix on the Formula 1 calendar

Not that the oil wealth of the Sea was completely unknown to Jenkinson’s contemporaries. Thomas Bannister and Jeffrey Duckett (also English traders) commented that the area was:

a strange thing to behold, for there issueth out of the ground a marvelous quantity of oil, which serveth all the country to burn in their houses. This oil is black and is called nefte. There is also by the town of Baku, another kind of oil which is white [petroleum] and very precious.

Indeed the modern petroleum industry threatens to wreak environmental disaster on the Caspian, with oil run-off and chemical disposal poisoning its waters at an alarming rate. If the five signatories do not take action soon, then the Caspian threatens to follow the Aral Sea into ecological oblivion.

Oil wells near Baku: with great wealth comes environmental responsibility

Jenkinson thought that the Aral ran into the Caspian, yet today the former is barely recognisable as a water body, its desiccated plains more reminiscent of a desert.

What was, and remains, true about his observations, however, is the ‘wildness’ of the Caspian. Beyond the oil wealth there is impoverishment and turmoil. Iran sits on the Sea’s southern border, scheming to bend the region to its will. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan remain mired in post-Soviet decay to the east, whilst to the north is the restive Russian province of Dagestan, long a source of discontent that Moscow has sought to quell.

This Astracan is the furthest hold that this Emperor of Russia hath conquered of the Tartars towards the Caspian Sea, which he keepeth very strong, sending thither every year provisions of men and victuals, and timber to build the castle.

Jenkinson could almost be writing about Vladimir Putin and his determination to ensure the loyalty of his southern lands (many Muslim-dominated), albeit substituting the castles for tanks and modern artillery.

A map based on Jenkinson’s descriptions: note the misshapen Caspian

Central Asia is imbued with huge economic and political potential, yet few seem to realise it. A massive disparity in wealth and opportunity exists between the elite and the citizenship, whose ambitions have been thwarted by dictatorial and repressive regimes.

Whether the ground-breaking achievement of this month will make a difference to the lives of ordinary citizens remains to be seen. Will the state-level sharing trickle down to the poor and needy? Without international attention, their governments may not see the immediate value in concession. A desire to protect the Caspian’s precious sturgeon population (the caviar conduit) may be a stronger incentive to clean-up the lake than the wants of those who rely on its waters for sustenance.

Successful fisherman in the Caspian Sea in 1949, before the oil boom

On his return across the Caspian from the fabled Silk Road town of Bukhara, Jenkinson and his men were buffeted by a storm during which they were:

driven far into the sea, and had much ado to keep our bark from sinking, the billow was so great: but at the last, having fair weather, we took the sun, and knowing how the land lay from us, we fell with the river Iaic, according to our desire, whereof the Tartars were very glad, fearing that we should have been driven to the coast of Persia, whose people were unto them great enemies.

With the agreement of Aktau, it should no longer matter which way the winds blow.

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Iran Plays Powerful with Control Over Hormuz Strait; 500 Years on from Afonso de Albuquerque

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most strategically important waterways in the world today.  Providing the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the open ocean, it is used to transport approximately 20% of international petroleum requirements from the Middle Eastern oil fields.

The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance
The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance

At its narrowest, the Strait flows between Iran to the north and the Omanian exclave of Musandam to the south.  It has been the scene of diplomatic incidents, military clashes and maritime collisions but to Tehran, in particular, it is a chokepoint of great potential.

The Iranians periodically threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz and have, indeed, made the potential for such a scenario central to their belligerent foreign policy.  It is the United States, unsurprisingly, that is typically the target of such threats and whilst Iran would suffer from halting oil shipments out of the Persian Gulf, its control over the Strait is an undoubted bargaining tool.

It is 500 years since the great Portuguese explorer, conqueror and administrator Afonso de Albuquerque perished in Goa, that strategic gateway to India whose capture secured a foothold for Lisbon in Asia. Eight years prior to his death, Albuquerque had sailed into the Strait of Hormuz on the orders of his patron, King Manuel I of the House of Aviz.

Ever since Vasco da Gama had landed at Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese had been in competition for dominance over the lucrative Indian Ocean trade with Muslim merchants, whose own commercial routes stretched all the way to Egypt and the Mamluk Sultanate, Manuel’s rival in the Mediterranean.  Capturing Ormuz Island on what is today Iran’s southern coast would be a major step in thwarting Muslim ambitions.

Da Gama's famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest
Da Gama’s famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest

With little effort, Albuquerque and his men captured their target in October 1507, only for their joy to be short-lived.  In a harsh climate without sufficient supplies, Albuquerque’s aim to build a garrison to hold the island led to resentment amongst his subordinate captains and provoked resistance from the local population.  A mutiny of the Portuguese ensued, whereby all bar Albuquerque’s ship returned to Portuguese India and Ormuz was lost.

Not to be deterred – and after securing Goa and Malacca in a series of brilliantly daring raids – Albuquerque returned to Ormuz again in 1515 with more than 1,000 men in 27 heavily-armed vessels.  This time the conquest led to the establishment of a permanent garrison, effectively cutting off the Indian Ocean to the Muslim merchants and securing the first overseas empire by a European power.  Indeed, it would not be until 1622 that the Portuguese presence at Ormuz was ended by the British.

Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade
Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade

There are few men as ‘great’ as Albuquerque today – and this term refers to his military and administrative achievements not his propensity to dispense brutal justice to those who dared cross him – nor as pioneering as his predecessors da Gama and Francisco da Almeida.  Indeed, we live in a world where such personalities are discouraged and any sense of individualism is often treated with noted scepticism.

Albuquerque was a formidable character...so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)
Albuquerque was a formidable character…so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)

The 16th century was characterised by the disproportionate achievements of the few against the many.  Nowadays it often appears as if thousands upon thousands of faceless diplomats and bureaucrats are incapable of creating the slightest change.  The Iran nuclear deal took the involvement of hundreds of such characters and, whilst driven by a select few global ‘leaders’, time is likely to prove how ineffective this venture has been.

Iran’s threats ring hollow; closing the Strait of Hormuz would hurt its enemies but also itself.  Sometimes it is hard not to pine after the dashing era of Albuquerque and his bloody-minded cohorts, who could ride roughshod over the barricades and penetrate the enemy heartland, safe in the knowledge that their technological and martial superiority would grant them passage.

Alas; timid diplomacy, bureaucratic gridlock and unadventurous leaders are all we can hope for in our tormented world of scrutiny, cynicism and obstinacy.

Source

Crowley, R (2015), Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire