Institute of Archaeology


A surveillance sensibility?

14 March 2019, 6:00 pm–7:30 pm

A surveillance sensibility

A surveillance sensibility? The imperial security state and the ‘amateur’ films of Sir C. P. Skrine, Government of India diplomat in Iran

Event Information

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Amara Thornton – Institute of Archaeology


Institute of Archaeology
31-34 Gordon Square
United Kingdom

A diplomat in the Indian Civil Service, between 1915 and 1948, Sir Clarmont Percival Skrine held Government of India political appointments in Iran, India and Chinese Central Asia. His career illustrates the ways in which the Government of India sought to manage its geostrategic interests on the borders of British India. A skilled Persianist, his first posting was as British vice-Consul in Kerman, Iran (1915-1919). The Middle East in WW1 saw both the British and Germans use archaeology as cover for intelligence gathering and Skrine was involved in the hunt for German agent-provocateurs in Persia. He subsequently became Political Agent in Baluchistan (1921-1922), a province that bordered Afghanistan and extended into the Persian Sarhad region with further postings in the region as British Consul at Sistan, Iran (1927-1928), the Political Agent Baluchistan (1928-1931), and the Political Agent of the Kalat State (1932-1934). Between 1922 and 1924 he became His Britanic Majesty’s Consul General in Kashgar, Xinjiang, a key diplomatic posting at the junction of the British, Russian and Chinese empires. An accomplished photographer, his photographs of Chinese Turkestan appeared in his first book, Chinese Central Asia (1926), including some technically advanced photo-panoramas of the Mustagh Ata and Kongur massif and the Qaratash Alps. His cartographic surveys of the same ranges were incorporated into maps of the region by the Survey of India.

Skrine became British Resident of the Madras States (1936-1939) and the Punjab States (1939-1941). He completed his diplomatic career in Iran as British Consul General in Meshed (1942-1946) under the Soviet occupation and Counsellor for Indian Affairs, Tehran (1946-1948). An early devotee of 16mm film, Skrine left a legacy of amateur film that has now been digitized and made available by the Royal Geographical Society and the BFI. His films encompass footage as diverse as images of travel on Imperial Airways flying boats, Indian cultural scenes and journeys through Afghanistan, to unique footage of Tehran and Meshed under the Allied-Soviet occupation. These films present us with several ‘ways of seeing’ the region, both touristic and ethnographic. At the same time these films were taken by an agent of the British Imperial security state in India who was trained in both surveying and surveillance techniques. These films need to be understood within the wider context of Imperial intelligence and knowledge-gathering practices, calling into question their designation as ‘amateur film’. Skrine’s films, showing Iranian archaeology and antiquities, were used as part of the British propaganda effort in Allied occupied Iran, part of a cultural front aimed at countering Soviet propaganda amongst Iranian elites. Many of Skrine’s films were confiscated and destroyed by the Soviet occupying forces when they focussed too much on military subjects. This seminar will focus on a surviving film of a journey Skrine undertook in 1942 following the East Persian Corridor to take up his post as Consul General in Mashad, which ends with covert footage of Soviet Turkmenistan.

About the Speaker

Jonthan Westaway

Jonathan Westaway (University of Central Lancashire) will present a film screening organised by the History of Archaeology Research Network at the UCL Institute of Archaeology on 14 March.