It is well known in modern Britain that the country of our ancestors, who forged an empire that spread across a quarter of the entire planet, took over much of the Middle East, installing puppet rulers and dynasties and completely redrawing the borders, with the help of the smaller, but nonetheless powerful, French empire. Those borders are now blamed for many of the troubles that exist in the region.

The borders were decided and designed arbitrarily by aristocrats and bureaucrats thousands of miles away in London and Paris, and the straight lines ignored much of the complicated and nuanced local politics, culture, history, religion, and tribal warfare. This has led to states based on fragile, forced truces between groups who are historic enemies, cultures that share little common history, and religions and philosophies that have long struggled to coexist peacefully.

There are some aspects of this period of British imperial history that are better known the modern British, and wider global, public than others. T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” has become an almost legendary figures, subject of numerous films, for his exploits in the First World War, and afterwards, in working with Middle Eastern governments and people. But there is one woman far more influential in the politics of the contemporary British Empire and it’s Arabian dominions, and of the modern Middle East, who has been all but written out of history.

Who was Gertrude Bell?

That woman was Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire, and she had a huge hand in the creation of the modern state of Iraq as we know it. Many of that nation’s modern troubles have her finger prints on them, as she sought to create a state that was both prosperous, and too weak to be independent of Britain which was then, as now, a major supplier of crude petroleum - or oil - to Britain.

She was an archeologist who travelled extensively through the Middle East, collecting a vast amount of local knowledge and trust from local people and officials. Although she started out as a traveller with an interest in local history and culture, and was seen with suspicion by many Arabs, she would eventually become an integral part of local politics.

She utilised the unique perspective she garnered from her travels and relations with tribal leaders throughout the Middle East to help establish the Kingdom of Iraq and in her heyday, after much work, she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and exerted an immense amount of power. She has been described as "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection".

Much of her story is told by the huge collection of letter she penned throughout her life, journeys, and career, and reflect much of her personal experience, the work she did, and her early optimism about the country she helped create. Much of her later writing became far more melancholic, reflecting fear, and providing much foresight about the later troubles she helped create, stating “We rushed into this business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme.” It’s fair to say that her legacy is a deeply complex one, but one that history must once again recognise.

Author's Bio: 

Morgan Franklin is a freelance writer, editor and designer who works across various sectors and largely online. His work covers everything from business and politics to the environment, ethics and entertainment.