Captain William Henry Shakespear
Shakespear in the
dress uniform of the Bengal Lancers
Born in India in 1871, Captain William Shakespear was one of the last Victorian explorers - nothing daunted him and the more difficult the task the more pleasure he derived from carrying it out.
Captain Shakespear was a talented linguist, fluent in six languages, a pioneeing explorer, accomplished photographer, negotiator, horseman and sailor - an all-round man of action. From 1898 he served in India with the Devonshire Regiment and Bengal Lancers, before moving to the Indian Political Department.
In 1904, Shakespear became Consul at Bandar Abbas, Iran; it was from here that he undertook his first major expedition, driving his Rover from the Persian Gulf to the UK in 1907 - an incredible accomplishment at a time when cars were in their infancy.
In 1909, Shakespear moved to Kuwait as Political Agent and it was here that his love of desert travel developed. He would take advantage of every opportunity available to him to explore and document the areas he found himself in and from 1909 Shakespear made seven expeditions into Eastern and Central Arabia, culminating in his 1914 crossing of the Arabian Peninsula from Kuwait to Suez via Riyadh. Over two-thirds of the distance travelled during Shakespear's final journey was through areas previously unexplored by westerners and we have Shakespear to thank for mapping large areas of the Arabian Peninsula.
Captain Shakespear was a keen photographer and would record his desert explorations - these are amongst the best known early images of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, part of an important collection of images from a bygone era including the first photograph of Abdul Aziz ibn Abdulrahman Al-Saud (Ibn Saud), who later became the King and founder of modern Saudi Arabia. .
In 1910, Shakespear was the first westerner to meet Ibn Saud and the two men formed an enduring friendship, with Shakespear providing an important link between Ibn Saud and the British Government and playing an significant role at a time when the political map of the Middle East was being shaped. Captain Shakespear was a keen supporter of the Arab cause and if history had followed a different course perhaps it would have been Shakespear and Ibn Saud who would have gone on to achieve what was left to Lawrence and the Hijaz Army to accomplish.
Captain Shakespear often combined political business with exploration and in the years following their first meeting he would meet with Ibn Saud to discuss the politics of the region and the role of the British Government. In late 1914, after a visit to the UK, Shakespear returned to Kuwait on special deputation to Ibn Saud - his orders to persuade Ibn Saud to become Britains ally. In 1915, Ibn Saud's army went into battle against the army of Ibn Rashid - Shakespear, despite Ibn Saud's protests, stayed as an observer and tragically met his death at the Battle of Jarab, Ibn Saud was deeply saddened by the loss of his friend's life and when asked later in life if he could name the greatest European he had ever met, he replied without hesitation 'Captain Shakespear'. Although virtually unknown in the UK, Shakespear is held in high regard in Saudi Arabia and his life is celebrated to this day. Undeniably, the friendship shared by Ibn Saud and Captain Shakespear benefited not only those who followed Shakespear into the deserts of Arabia but British Interests as a whole.