At a time of international conflict two centuries ago, did Britain assassinate an enemy agent while the world was looking the other way? Matthew Teller delves into a story of intrigue and possible skulduggery in Persia.
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September 1805. Britain and France are at war. Napoleon is massing an army at Boulogne, ready to invade England. Nelson harries the French fleet in the Mediterranean.
Amid the tension, a letter lands on the desk of William Bruce, Britain’s Resident in Bushire, on the Persian Gulf.
“There is a French officer of the name of Romieu, whose destination is suspected to be the East,” it warns.
“Romieu has the reputation of being a man of talents, of having a considerable sum of money at his disposal, and of being a great proficient in the science of intrigue.”
The letter, written by Alexander Stratton, British ambassador in Constantinople, had been forwarded to Bruce by Harford Jones, a British official in Baghdad.
It was dated 14 June, three months earlier. In the same delivery, Jones had included another despatch dated 25 July – Romieu had been spotted in Aleppo changing money into gold, with the intention of making his way to Persia.
Bruce acted fast. The next day he wrote to his subordinate in Muscat, alerting him to Romieu’s presence, and sent word to ports all along the Gulf to keep watch.
Who was Romieu? What was he up to?
Antoine-Alexandre Romieu was an adventurer. He had been an army officer and then a junior diplomat in Corfu – and in 1804, aged 40, he had returned to Paris to seek a more challenging role, writes David Vinson of Montpellier University.
He obviously made an impression. Napoleon told his foreign minister, Talleyrand, to send Romieu to Persia, to “learn its situation and its strength”, and added: “I want to make an alliance with the Shah.”
Napoleon was not only fighting Britain. He was also facing the Russians and the Austrians, and his invasion of Egypt had caused a rift with Ottoman Turkey. Persia would have been a useful ally – a bulwark against Russian power, and a bridgehead from which to attack British interests in India.
Romieu arrived in Constantinople on 20 May, setting off alarm bells among the British – and a tide of diplomatic correspondence, including the letters to Bruce.
But by the time the letters reached Bruce on 27 September it was already too late.
Romieu had arrived in Tehran two days previously, having successfully evaded an assassin, hired – the French alleged – by Britain’s consul in Aleppo. Britain rejected the accusation, and a diplomatic row ensued.
Meanwhile on 30 September, Romieu was granted an audience with the Shah, Fat’h Ali, who received the idea of forming an alliance against Russia favourably.
But then Romieu suddenly took sick. After “constantly vomiting for three days and suffering from shivers and great heat,” he died, writes historian Iradj Amini.
Almost immediately, rumours began to circulate that he had been poisoned.
The French accused the British ambassador. Britain denied involvement. Fat’h Ali buried Romieu with the case unresolved.
Less than 10 days later, the British fleet under Nelson defeated the French and Spanish at Trafalgar.
France and Persia signed their alliance on 4 May 1807, but it came to nothing – within weeks, Napoleon had joined with Russia to attack Britain closer to home.
Nineteenth-century French travellers reported visiting Romieu’s domed mausoleum in Tehran. But the reports peter out. Today, nobody is sure where the “man of talents” lies.