Gertrude Bell Was Victorian England's 'Female Lawrence of Arabia'

By: Michelle Konstantinovsky  | 

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell traveled the world and worked almost exclusively in the realm of men, defying gender norms and stereotypes of the feminine role in world affairs. Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images/Flickr/HowStuffWorks

It's safe to say the majority of women in Victorian-era England weren't afforded too many opportunities for adventure. In fact, most women from the 1830s through the turn of the century were expected to fall quietly into the social mold created by men, since they were regarded as "irrational, sensitive, and dutiful." Let's just say world traveler, skilled mountaineer and noted archaeologist Gertrude Bell was not your average Victorian woman.

Perhaps best known for the role she played in the creation of the country now known as Iraq, Bell has been called "Queen of the Desert" and the "female Lawrence of Arabia." It's also been said that Bell was "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection." But Bell's legacy is complicated, and as Mark Browns wrote for The Guardian in 2018, "there are also many uncomfortable truths in Bell's life that have been swept under the carpet." She fervently opposed women's right to vote, serving as the secretary of the northern branch of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage as well as being on its national executive committee. And according to some scholars, her role in the establishment of Iraq left an enduring painful mark on the country and its people.

Born Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell on July 14, 1868, the English native grew up in Washington New Hall – now known as Dame Margaret Hall – in Washington, County Durham. Bell's family was considered affluent and progressive, and after she lost her mother at a young age, she developed a close relationship with her father, Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet, a wealthy mill owner.

Bell's unique educational and professional path began at Oxford, where she became the first woman to earn first-class honors in modern history. Soon after graduation, she developed a passion for travel and accompanied her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles to Tehran, Persia, where he served as the British minister. Bell later went on to chronicle the journey in her book, "Persian Pictures." Over the next ten years, she traveled around the world and became fluent in French, German, Arabic and Persian.

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"Queen of the Desert"

But linguistics wasn't Bell's only passion — she was also uncharacteristically outdoorsy for the era and spent several summers mountaineering in the French region of the Alps. On one particularly treacherous journey in 1902, Bell was caught in a blizzard and spent more than 50 hours on a rope before she was able to head back to a local village with her guides. Despite the resulting frostbite on her hands and feet, Bell went on to scale the Matterhorn in 1904 and in her book, "A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert," she wrote of the harrowing experience, "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."

Gertrude Bell
Famed British diplomat and administrator Sir Percy Cox (second from left) and Gertrude Bell speaking with an Arab leader during a visit to Mesopotamia on March 1, 1917.
Mansell/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Bell was also passionate about archaeology, an interest she initially developed during a family trip to an excavation of the ancient Greek city of Melos, in 1899. In the years that followed, she went on several archaeology trips, including a trek across the Euphrates River in 1909, and a trip with archaeologist Sir William Mitchell Ramsey to Turkish archeological site Binbir Kilise.

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Bell's Middle East Diplomacy

But it was Bell's work with the British government in the Middle East that is perhaps the biggest part of her legacy. After her initial request for a Middle East posting was denied at the start of World War I, Bell began volunteering with the Red Cross in France. She eventually garnered a position working with T.E. Lawrence, otherwise known as "Lawrence of Arabia," in the Arab Bureau, a collection of British intelligence officers based in Cairo and tasked with coordinating imperial intelligence activities in the Middle East, as detailed in the book "The Arab Bureau: British Policy in the Middle East, 1916-1920," by Bruce Westrate. In response to several British military defeats, Lawrence devised a plan to recruit Arab people to oppose the Ottoman Empire; Bell helped him drum up support for the strategy. At the time, she was the only woman working for the British in the Middle East.

The British eventually defeated the Ottoman Empire and Bell played a significant role in the region's next steps. "After World War I, British policy makers were divided over how they could govern Iraq and other territories conquered from the Ottomans," Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt, Ph.D., associate professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus and author of "The Paranoid Style in American Diplomacy: Oil and Arab Nationalism in Iraq," writes via email. "One faction within the British government wanted direct colonial administration for Iraq on the model of India and actually run by the India Office. The other faction, which included Bell, favored indirect colonial rule through an Arab head of state."

According to Wolfe-Hunnicutt, British leaders attempted to follow through with direct colonial administration, but the resulting fallout resulted in a redirection. "Britain tried the first approach right after the war," he says. "But then Iraqis rose up in a national revolution and Britain was compelled to try the other approach — the one favored by Bell."

Bell went on to attend the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris and chronicled more of her political and social work in her 1920 book, "Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia." She was also involved in the 1921 Conference in Cairo with then-colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, that established the boundaries of Iraq. In her work after the war, Bell also played an instrumental role in bringing King Faisal to power in Iraq in 1922. For her efforts to preserve the region's cultural heritage, local people reportedly often addressed her as "khutan," which means "queen" in Persian and "respected lady" in Arabic. King Faisal later named Bell as the director of antiquities at the new National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell stands second from left in the second row, the only woman among the members of the Mesopotamia Commission, set up in 1921 to discuss the future of Mesopotamia at the Cairo Conference. Also pictured, T.E. Lawrence (fourth from right, second row) and Winston Churchill (center front row).
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

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Death and Subsequent Legacy

The museum was Bell's last passion project – in July 1926, she overdosed on sleeping pills and died in Baghdad. King Faisal arranged a military funeral for her and Bell was laid to rest in Baghdad's British Civil Cemetery. But while Bell is often celebrated for her efforts in the Middle East, she remains a complicated historical figure for many.

In Wolfe-Hunnicutt's opinion, Bell was a controversial figure who had a lasting impact on the Middle East — an impact that is still very much playing out in the modern era. "She was a British imperialist who was complicit in denying Iraqis a right to national self-determination," Wolfe-Hunnicutt says. "I think that the seeds of the chaos and violence that engulfed so much of Iraqi history in the 20th century were planted in the aftermath of World War I. I wish the British would have just let Iraqis manage their own affairs."

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