An anthropocenic landscape? British imperialism and Abadan island in the early twentieth century

Located in south-west Persia, thirty miles from the Persian Gulf, Abadan belonged to the ecosystem of the Shatt-el-Arab in the early twentieth century. A flat and sandy island with marshes and numerous plantations of palm trees, Abadan was partly inhabited by the Bani Kaab tribe and governed by Sheik Khaz’al. In 1908, an antecedent of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company — the First Exploitation Company, headed by the British entrepreneur William Knox D'Arcy — struck oil in commercial quantity in south-west Persia in the Zagros mountains. For the Oil Company’s agents and British diplomats posted in Persia, Abadan was an ideal site to build a refinery for oil extracted in the Zagros mountains, which would then be exported. In 1909, after negotiations with British diplomats and the agents of the British oil company, Sheik Khaz’al agreed to a rental agreement for Abadan Island. In 1912, the Anglo-Persian Company opened the first refinery in the Middle East on Abadan island.

This paper combines, first, archival perspectives — notably a collection of photographs held in the British Petroleum archives — depicting Abadan Island at the beginning of the twentieth century; and, second, a literature focused on the development of oil concessions — above all the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, forerunner of British Petroleum (BP) — in precisely the same region in the decades before and after the first discovery of commercially-viable oilfields. Charting the development of the refinery of Abadan and the consequent environmental transformations of the island, this paper argues that the creation of a petroleum landscape was accompanied by an imperial-tinged ideology of development and modernisation. Both the refinery itself, but also the tanker port and other installations, as well as housing for labour staff, hospitals, and recreational sites such as cricket fields, tennis courts, and a cinema were all elements of this new petroleum landscape.