The Land Law of 1858

The Land Law of 1858

Under the Ottomans, the area of south-central Iraq, known in Islamic history as al-Sawad, had become the home of many displaced tribes of Najdi origin, such as the Shammar and the Bani Lam, who had migrated from Arabia to Iraq from as early as the 17th century. Throughout the 18th to the last part of the 19th centuries, Ottoman governors tried several different strategies to tame the nomadic and semipastoralist tribes.

Because the usual tactics of attacking tribal camps and suppressing select tribal leaders proved to be short-lived policies, Ottoman pashas and military commanders were eventually drawn to the strategy of tribal settlement on collectively held tribal lands. The notion was that sedentarization would produce stability, and stability would equal peace and prosperity.

The story of reform is usually associated with the arrival in Baghdad of the vali, or governor, Midhat Pasha in 1869. However, even earlier reformist valis introduced, for example, river steamers in 1855 (preceding those of British fi rms) and augmented the fl eet in 1869. Evidence also suggests that governors had already begun reviewing and attempting to overhaul the land system in Iraq before Midhat’s arrival. With his accession to power in Iraq, however, the review and overhaul began in earnest.

Iraqi governments in Baghdad, Basra, and, to a lesser extent, Mosul faced large problems with regard to the agricultural sector throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. First was the problem of the instability of revenue collection; although tribal lands were theoretically administered for the collective benefi t of the tribe, the paramount shaykh had wide latitude in the use and disbursement of agricultural revenue.

Throughout the period in question, tribal shaykhs were sometimes patronized by the state but more often warred upon. This was because in order to secure revenue for the state, either the shaykh paid out taxes willingly or was forced to do so through military coercion. Because of the erratic nature of revenue collection, therefore, the state never became truly solvent.

A second problem, alluded to earlier, was the fact that by the middle of the 18th century, “whatever the formal title of the land—miri [state lands], mulk [land privately owned], or waqf [endowments]—much of it was in fact under private control [and] much of the miri-land was treated as the private property of high offi cials or of members of infl uential families” (Nieuwenhuis 1982, 112–113). Thus, the second factor inhibiting the state’s economic well-being was the permanent alienation of lands formally under state title.

As a result of these two factors, both of which undercut the state’s income, government reform of land tenure and production became an urgent proposition.Midhat Pasha’s fi rst act was “to replace the piecemeal policies of his predecessors with a program of land registration and tax reform which, he hoped, would increase production, encourage nomadic settlement, raise revenues, and destroy the power of the tax farmers and tribal sheikhs all in one go” (Owen 1981, 185).

The goal of the Land Law, promulgated in 1858 in Istanbul but applied only much later in Iraq, was to secure the land for those who actually cultivated it, but the tribal peasants for whom it was legislated attached no importance to private property and the greater majority even suspected that land registration schemes were a government ploy intended to list conscripts for the new army.

Many shaykhs and urban merchants were more perspicacious, however, and registered formerly communal lands under their own names; after Midhat’s departure in 1871, some sanads, or title deeds, were even auctioned off to the paramount shaykh’s own family and allies (this happened in the Muntafi q districts of south-central Iraq), reversing Midhat’s original intent to reward the cultivator and not his patron with title deeds.

Land registration failed its original constituency because it was undertaken with little cognizance of the facts on the ground; the idea that lands were communally held yet subject to the infl uence of the paramount shaykh was not something that had been anticipated in the law. Moreover, as time went on, the whole registration scheme became politicized; because registration brought with it economic power, the local governments began to use it in ways to further their political agendas.

Thus, they awarded title deeds to tribal leaders who did their bidding, and disenfranchised those with whom they had complaints. Also, the drawing of new borders around tribal districts by administrative fi at caused turmoil in the districts themselves; so many title deeds were sloppily recorded that they became the cause for litigation later on.

But perhaps the most important development of the new reordering of land and property ownership in late 19th-century Iraq was the rise of a new landed class of tribal shaykhs and urban merchants and moneylenders. This last, loosely defi ned strata was to become the new elite of the early 20th century, with whom the Ottomans and, later on, the British had to deal and, more important, placate at various critical junctures of the country’s history.

Trade and Transport: The British Dimension in Local Affairs

The Tanzimat reforms were not the only factors to reshape Iraq in the 19th century. By the 1830s, a number of developments, both internal and external, had combined to radically affect Iraqi trade. In 1811–12, the Ottoman-Egyptian army under Ibrahim Pasha, son of the viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, had begun its Arabian campaign; eventually, it was to defeat the remnants of the once powerful Saudi state that had kept much of the Gulf, Arabia, and southern Iraq in its thrall.

No longer threatened by the Saudi monopoly on regional trade, whether on land or by sea, merchants from the area were able to jump back into the fray, their networks revitalized, their prospects bright. In the early 1830s, however, the British had begun to make important inroads in the Gulf region. After the 1821 truce with the local principalities on the Arab side of the Gulf and their even more assured control of the sea route to India, the British became the unchallenged masters of Indian Ocean trade.

Henceforth, regional merchants, whether Indian, Persian, or Arab, had to tread softly with the new power in their region; as a result of this new state of affairs, the more clever merchants made their peace early with the British presence in Iraq and the Gulf and became mediators between the latter and local society.In Iraq proper, this meant that although foreign trade became the chief monopoly of British ships and British-affi liated merchants, local trade—the trade carried on in small boats on the twin rivers and camel caravan in the interior—remained under local hands.

This made for a risky enterprise for the British. The British shipping company of Lynch Bros., for example, fi nally introduced its two steamers on the Tigris in 1862–65 but required the services of a soldier to make the journey from Baghdad to Basra, and from there to Bombay, in complete security.

Still, a small but gradual increase in Iraq’s seaborne trade to India occurred at that time, and Iraqi goods—dates, wheat, barley, and even live horses—were transported in greater numbers to India and Europe. It was only with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, however, that there was an exponential growth in Iraqi trade. From 1870 to 1880, for instance, the value of exports rose from £206,000 to £1,275,000 (Owen 1981, 182).

Between 1900 and 1913, Britain accounted for nearly half of Iraq’s imports and a quarter of its exports (Owen 1981, 276). Based on the tonnage of ships alone, it was also by far the most important shipping power in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, reaching 137,000 tons a year, whereas local craft only carried 12,500 tons. Finally, it is calculated that in 1913, 163 British steamers arrived yearly in Iraq (Owen 1981, 276).

This raft of fi gures would be impressive on its own were it not for the fact that British supremacy was not only based on commercial power but on military infl uence as well. By 1914, at the start of World War I, Britain was the most important naval power in the world, a fact underlined in the Gulf and Iraq by its unstated supremacy on these shores.