IN THE LATE nineteenth century a quarter of the world was ruled by Britain. Yet Britain's power extended far beyond the formal empire that was coloured pink on the map. For example, until the First World War Argentina was largely controlled by British companies and financial institutions. The southern and eastern regions of Persia effectively constituted another informal province of the British Empire. The northern part of Persia was under Russian control, and British and Russian proconsuls and officers dictated to the weak shahs who pretended to rule from Tehran. The British Government was not particularly interested in Persia in its own right; British representatives were there because the Russians were. The fear in some quarters was that the Russians might build on their ascendancy in Persia to bully and fight their way to the Indian Ocean and threaten the British possession of India. Most senior officials in London and Delhi seem to have thought the danger exaggerated and therefore advocated a policy of masterly inactivity: the British should sit on their hands while the Russians wasted their resources on a futile attempt to control turbulent mullahs, tribesmen and bandits. However, there were some energetic and powerful promoters of mischievous activity and of a forward British policy in Persia.
George Nathaniel Curzon, Marquess of Kedleston and Viceroy of India, was the most important figure to argue that the British should have a presence in Persia and use it to dish the Russians. Curzon, like most of his subordinates, had a low opinion of the Persians: 'they are consummate hypocrites,