The McMahon–Hussein Correspondence, or the Hussein–McMahon Correspondence, was an exchange of letters (14 July 1915 to 30 January 1916) during World War I, between Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, concerning the political status of lands under the Ottoman Empire. Growing Arab nationalism had led to a desire for independence from the Ottoman Empire. In the letters Britain agreed to recognize Arab independence after WWI "in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca", not including areas in which France had interests. This was in exchange for Arab help in fighting the Ottomans, led by Hussein bin Ali. The correspondence directly refutes the much later Balfour declaration of 1917, in which Britain promised a Jewish National Homeland in Palestine.
Later, the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement between France and UK was exposed showing that the two countries were planning to split and occupy parts of the promised Arab country.
The matter is discussed in the Peel report of 1937.
Origins and ramifications
The Damascus Protocol
Main article: Damascus Protocol
On his return journey from Istanbul in 1915, where Faisal bin Hussein had confronted the Grand Vizier with evidence of an Ottoman plot to depose his father (Husayn bin Ali), he decided to visit Damascus to resume talks with the Arab secret societies al-Fatat and Al-'Ahd that he had met in March/April. On this occasion, Faisal joined their revolutionary movement. During this visit, on 23 May 1915, he was presented with the document that became known as the 'Damascus Protocol'. The documents declared that the Arabs would revolt in alliance with the United Kingdom, and in return the UK would recognize the Arab independence in an area running from the 37th parallel near the Taurus Mountains on the southern border of Turkey, to be bounded in the east by Persia and the Persian Gulf, in the west by the Mediterranean Sea and in the south by the Arabian Sea.
Early in April 1914 Abdullah I bin al-Hussein (the second of three sons of Sherif Hussein bin Ali) asked the British High Commissioner in Cairo what would be the British attitude if the Arab Ottomans revolted. The British response based on its traditional policy of preserving "the integrity of the Ottoman Empire" was negative. However, the entry of the Ottomans on Germany's side in World War I on 11 November 1914 brought about an abrupt shift in British political interests concerning an Arab revolt against the Ottomans.
Following deliberations at Ta'if between Hussein and his sons in June 1915, during which Faisal counselled caution, Sherif Husayn bin Ali argued against rebellion and Abdullah advocated action and encouraged his father to enter into correspondence with Sir Henry McMahon, the Sharif set a tentative date for armed revolt for June 1916 and commenced negotiations with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon.
The territorial reservations
The letter from McMahon to Hussein dated 24 October 1915 declared Britain's willingness to recognize the independence of the Arabs subject to certain exemptions:
Declassified British Cabinet Papers include a telegram dated 19 October 1915 from Sir Henry McMahon to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Grey, requesting instructions. McMahon said the clause had been suggested by a man named al Faroqi, a member of the Abd party, to satisfy the demands of the Syrian Nationalists for the independence of Arabia. Faroqi had said that the Arabs would fight if the French attempted to occupy the cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, but he thought they would accept some modification of the North-Western boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca. Faroqi suggested the language: "In so far as Britain was free to act without detriment to the interests of her present Allies, Great Britain accepts the principle of the independence of Arabia within limits propounded by the Sherif of Mecca." Lord Grey authorized McMahon to pledge the areas requested by the Sherif subject to the reserve for the Allies.
In the areas with Maronite, Orthodox, and Druze populations the Great Powers were still bound by an international agreement regarding non-intervention, the Reglement Organique Agreements of June 1861 and September 1864. During a War Cabinet meeting on policy regarding Syria and Palestine held on 5 December 1918, it was stated that Palestine had been included in the areas the United Kingdom had pledged would be Arab and independent in the future. The Chair, Lord Curzon, also noted that the rights that had been granted to the French under the terms of the Sykes–Picot Agreement violated the provisions of the Reglement Organique Agreements and the war aims of the other Allies. (The publication of the Sykes–Picot Agreement caused the resignation of Sir Henry McMahon.)
In a Cabinet analysis of diplomatic developments prepared in May 1917, W. Ormsby-Gore argued that:
The Arab Revolt
Main article: Arab Revolt
McMahon's promises were seen by the Arabs as a formal agreement between them and the United Kingdom. Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour represented the agreement as a treaty during the post war deliberations of the Council of Four. On this understanding the Arabs established a military force under the command of Hussein's son Faisal which fought, with inspiration from 'Lawrence of Arabia', against the Ottoman Empire during the Arab Revolt. In an intelligence memo written in January 1916 Lawrence described the Arab Revolt as
The Arab Revolt began in June 1916, when an Arab army of around 70,000 men moved against Ottoman forces. They participated in the capture of Aqabah and the severing of the Hejaz railway, a vital strategic link through the Arab peninsula which ran from Damascus to Medina. This enabled the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under the command of General Allenby to advance into the Ottoman territories of Palestine and Syria.
The British advance culminated in the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918 and the capitulation of Turkey on 31 October 1918.
The Hogarth Message
In January 1918 Commander David Hogarth, head of the Arab Bureau in Cairo, was dispatched to Jeddah to deliver a letter written by Sir Mark Sykes on behalf of the British Government to Hussein (now King of Hejaz). The message assured Hussein that
and with respect to Palestine and in the light of the Balfour Declaration that
The meaning of the Hogarth message, and in particular whether it modified the commitments made in the Balfour Declaration is still debated, although Hogarth reported that Hussein "would not accept an independent Jewish State in Palestine, nor was I instructed to warn him that such a state was contemplated by Great Britain".
The secret Sykes–Picot Agreement did not call for Arab sovereignty, but the French and British agreement did call for 'suzerainty of an Arab chief' and 'an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other allies, and the representatives of the sheriff of mecca. Under the terms of that agreement, the Zionist Organization needed to secure an agreement along the lines of the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement with the Sharif of Mecca.
Declaration to the Seven
Main article: Declaration to the Seven
In light of the existing McMahon–Hussein correspondence, but in the wake of the seemingly competing Balfour Declaration for the Zionists, as well as the publication weeks later by the Bolsheviks of the older and previously secret Sykes–Picot Agreement with the Russians and French, seven Syrian notables in Cairo, from the newly formed Party of Syrian Unity, issued a memorandum requesting some clarification from the British Government, including a "guarantee of the ultimate independence of Arabia". In response, issued on 16 June 1918, the Declaration to the Seven, stated the British policy that the future government of the regions of the Ottoman Empire occupied by Allied forces in World War I should be based on the consent of the governed.
Allenby's assurance to Faisal
On 19 October 1918, General Allenby reported to the British Government that he had given Faisal,
Anglo-French Declaration of 1918
Main article: Anglo-French Declaration
In the Anglo-French Declaration of 7 November 1918 the two governments stated that
According to civil servant Eyre Crowe who saw the original draft of the Declaration, "we had issued a definite statement against annexation in order (1) to quiet the Arabs and (2) to prevent the French annexing any part of Syria".
Following World War I
During the war, thousands of proclamations were dropped in all parts of Palestine, which carried a message from the Sharif Hussein on one side and a message from the British Command on the other, to the effect 'that an Anglo-Arab agreement had been arrived at securing the independence of the Arabs.'
It was a well known fact that France wanted a Syrian protectorate. At the Peace Conference in 1919, Prince Faisal, speaking on behalf of King Hussein, did not ask for immediate Arab independence. He recommended an Arab State under a British Mandate.
Independent Kingdom of Syria
On 6 January 1920 Prince Faisal initialed an agreement with French Prime Minister Clemenceau which acknowledged 'the right of the Syrians to unite to govern themselves as an independent nation'. A Pan-Syrian Congress, meeting in Damascus, declared an independent state of Syria on 8 March 1920. The new state included portions of Syria, Palestine, and northern Mesopotamia which had been set aside under the Sykes–Picot Agreement for an independent Arab state, or confederation of states. King Faisal was declared the head of State. The San Remo conference was hastily convened, and the United Kingdom and France both agreed to recognize the provisional independence of Syria and Mesopotamia, while 'reluctantly' claiming mandates to assist in their administration. Provisional recognition of Palestinian independence was not mentioned, despite the fact that it was designated a Class A Mandate.
France had decided to govern Syria directly, and took action to enforce the French Mandate of Syria before the terms had been accepted by the Council of the League of Nations. The French intervened militarily at the Battle of Maysalun in June 1920. They deposed the indigenous Arab government, and removed King Faisal from Damascus in August 1920. The United Kingdom also appointed a High Commissioner and established their own mandatory regime in Palestine, without first obtaining approval from the Council of the League of Nations.
The League of Nations Mandates
The Sykes–Picot Agreement between Britain, France and Russia of May 1916 (made public by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution) pre-dated the establishment of the League of Nations Mandate system. After the war, France and Britain continued to provide assurances of Arab independence, while planning to place the entire region under their own administration.
United States Secretary of State Robert Lansing was a member of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace at Paris in 1919. He explained that the system of mandates was simply a device created by the Great Powers to conceal their division of the spoils of war, under the color of international law. If the territories had been ceded directly, the value of the former German and Ottoman territories would have been applied to offset the Allies claims for war reparations. He also explained that Jan Smuts had been the author of the original concept.
At the Paris Peace Conference, US Secretary of State Lansing had asked Dr. Weizmann if the Jewish national home meant the establishment of an autonomous Jewish government. The head of the Zionist delegation had replied in the negative.
Lawrence's post-war advocacy
Lawrence became increasingly guilt-ridden by the knowledge that Britain did not intend to abide by the commitments made to the Sharif, but still managed to convince Faisal that it would be to the Arabs' advantage to go on fighting the Ottomans. At the Versailles peace conference in 1919 and the Cairo conference in 1921 Lawrence lobbied for Arab independence, but his belated attempts to maintain the territorial integrity of Arab lands, which he had promised to Hussein and Faisal, and in limiting France's influence in what later became Syria and Lebanon were fruitless. However, as Churchill's adviser on Arab affairs (1921–2) Lawrence was able to lobby for a considerable degree of autonomy for Mesopotamia and Transjordan. The British placed Palestine, promised to the Zionist Federation in 1917, under mandate with a civilian administration headed by Herbert Samuel, and divided their remaining territory in the Middle East into the kingdoms of Iraq and Transjordan, assigning them to Faisal and his brother Abdullah, respectively.
Debate about Palestine
About the McMahon letter
The debate regarding Palestine derived from the fact that it is not explicitly mentioned in the McMahon–Hussein Correspondence, but is included within the boundaries that were proposed by Hussein.
The Arab position was that "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo..." could not refer to Palestine since that lay well to the south of the named places. In particular, the Arabs argued that the vilayet (province) of Damascus did not exist and that the district (sanjak) of Damascus covered only the area surrounding the city itself and furthermore that Palestine was part of the vilayet of 'Syria A-Sham', which was not mentioned in the exchange of letters. The British position, which it held consistently at least from 1916, was that Palestine was intended to be included in the phrase. Each side produced supporting arguments for their positions based on fine details of the wording and the historical circumstances of the correspondence. For example, the Arab side argued that the phrase "cannot be said to be purely Arab" did not apply to Palestine, while the British pointed to the Jewish and Christian minorities in Palestine.
Balfour had come under criticism in the House of Commons, when the Liberals and Labor Socialists moved a resolution 'That secret treaties with the allied governments should be revised, since, in their present form, they are inconsistent with the object for which this country entered the war and are, therefore, a barrier to a democratic peace.'
In response to growing criticism arising from the mutually irreconcilable commitments undertaken by the United Kingdom in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, the Sykes–Picot Agreement and the Balfour declaration the 1922 Churchill White Paper stated that
In a 1922 letter to Sir John Shuckburgh of the British Colonial Office, McMahon wrote the following: "It was my intention to exclude Palestine from independent Arabia, and I hoped that I had so worded the letter as to make this sufficiently clear for all practical purposes. My reasons for restricting myself to specific mention of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo in that connection in my letter were: 1) that these were places to which the Arabs attached vital importance and 2) that there was no place I could think of at the time of sufficient importance for purposes of definition further South of the above. It was as fully my intention to exclude Palestine as it was to exclude the more Northern coastal tracts of Syria."
About contradictory promises
British Cabinet Eastern Committee
Historians and scholars searching through the declassified files in the National Archives discovered evidence that Palestine had been pledged to Hussein. The Eastern Committee of the Cabinet, previously known as the Middle Eastern Committee, had met on 5 December 1918 to discuss the government's commitments regarding Palestine. Lord Curzon chaired the meeting. General Jan Smuts, Lord Balfour, Lord Robert Cecil, General Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and representatives of the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Admiralty, the War Office, and the Treasury were present. T. E. Lawrence also attended. According to the minutes Lord Curzon explained:
Position of the British government
In subsequent decades the British government maintained that the Balfour Declaration was not inconsistent with the McMahon pledges. This position was based an examination of the correspondence made in 1920 by Major Hubert Young. He noted that in the original Arabic text (the correspondence was conducted in Arabic on both sides), the word translated as "districts" in English was "vilayets", a vilayet being the largest class of administrative district into which the Ottoman Empire was divided. He concluded that "district of Damascus", i.e., "vilayet of Damascus", must have referred to the vilayet of which Damascus was the capital, the Vilayet of Syria. This vilayet extended southward to the Gulf of Aqaba, but excluded most of Palestine. The weak points of the government's interpretation were nevertheless acknowledged in a memorandum by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax, in 1939:
The Foreign Secretary's analysis concluded "It may be possible to produce arguments designed to explain away some of these difficulties individually (although even this does not apply in the case of (iv)), but it is hardly possible to explain them away collectively. His Majesty's Government need not on this account abjure altogether the counter-argument based on the meaning of the word "district," which have been used publicly for many years, and the more obvious defects in which do not seem to have been noticed as yet by Arab critics."
However in 1919 the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office drafted a confidential memorandum on the issue for the use of Britain’s delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference. With reference to Palestine, the memorandum read: "H.M.G. [His Majesty’s Government] are committed by Sir Henry McMahon’s letter to the Sherif on 24 October 1915, to its inclusion in the boundaries of Arab independence."
The 1939 committee
A committee established by the British in 1939 to clarify the various arguments observed that many commitments had been made during and after the war - and that all of them would have to be studied together. The Arab representatives submitted a statement to the committee from Sir Michael McDonnell which explained that whatever McMahon had intended to mean was of no legal consequence, since it was his actual statements that constituted the pledge from His Majesty's Government. The Arab representatives also pointed out that McMahon had been acting as an intermediary for the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Grey. Speaking in the House of Lords on 27 March 1923, Lord Grey had made it clear that, for his part, he entertained serious doubts as to the validity of the Churchill White Paper's interpretation of the pledges which he, as Foreign Secretary, had caused to be given to the Sharif Husain in 1915. The Arab representatives suggested that a search for evidence in the files of the Foreign Office might throw light on the Secretary of State's intentions. In a speech delivered in the House of Lords on 27 March 1923, late Lord Grey had said:
The committee concluded:
العربية مراسلات الحسين – مكماهون ▪ বাংলা হুসাইন-ম্যাকমাহন চুক্তি ▪ Deutsch Hussein-McMahon-Korrespondenz ▪ Español Correspondencia Husayn-McMahon ▪ 한국어 후세인-맥마흔 서한 ▪ Հայերեն Մակ-Մահոն - Հուսեյն համաձայնագիր ▪ Italiano Corrispondenza Husayn-McMahon ▪ עברית מכתבי חוסיין-מקמהון ▪ Nederlands Hoessein-McMahoncorrespondentie ▪ 日本語 フサイン＝マクマホン協定 ▪ Norsk bokmål Hussein-McMahon-korrespondansen ▪ Português Correspondência Hussein-McMahon ▪ Svenska McMahon-Husain-korrespondensen ▪ Türkçe McMahon Antlaşması ▪
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