Captain William HI Shakespear was a British political agent, explorer and military advisor stationed in Kuwait from 1909 to 1914. Born in Bombay in the late 1800s to British parents, Shakespear joined the Indian Army, then controlled by the British, in 1899 and was appointed into the political office. He then made a series of visits to the Arabian Peninsula, developing ties with local leaders including Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah in Kuwait and Ibn Saud in the Arabia Peninsula (Saudi Arabia was not created as a state until 1926).
Captain Shakespear mapped much of the Arabian Peninsula for the British War Office and the intelligence branch of the Indian Army in the period of the First World War. Fluent in Arabic, a skilled horseman and intrepid explorer, Shakespear made many trips into the Arabian Peninsula interior at a time when the peninsula was mostly unmapped and unknown to foreigners.
He also took many photographs of the land and its people during the pre-oil era. In March, 1914, Shakespear made an 1,800 mile journey from Kuwait to Riyadh and Aqaba, traveling through the Nafud Desert, which he mapped and studied in great detail, the first European to do so.
In November, 1914, the British government in India asked him to secure Ibn Saud’s support for the British-Indian Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, which had just taken Basra. He was killed in January 1915 at the age of 36 while accompanying Al Saud forces at the Battle of Jarrab, a territorial battle between Al Saud and their long standing rivals, the Al Rashid tribe.
Al Saud, backed by the British, had long contested Al Rashid, backed by the Ottomans for control over the Arabian Peninsula. Shakespear’s body was buried in the desert and a headstone erected in the cemetery in Kuwait City used by the British Political Agency.
The headstone (pictured) can be found even today with the name and date of Captain Shakespear’s death in downtown Kuwait City.
The photo of Capt Shakespear is from IWM Collections.