Most Secret Agent of Empire: Reginald Teague-Jones, Master Spy of the Great Game

By Wagner, Steven | International Journal of Turkish Studies, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Most Secret Agent of Empire: Reginald Teague-Jones, Master Spy of the Great Game


Wagner, Steven, International Journal of Turkish Studies


TALINE TER MINASSIAN, Most Secret Agent of Empire: Reginald Teague-Jones, Master Spy of the Great Game. Translated by Tom Rees (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Pp. 283 $29.95 Cloth

Taline Ter Minassian's biography of Reginald Teague-Jones, aka Ronald Sinclair, spans an enormous scope-both temporal and thematic-and offers an interesting survey of both the man and his time. The ambitious aims of the book outlined in the introduction are somewhat ambiguous. Minassian clearly aims to weigh into a debate which began in 1922, when Lenin and Stalin outed Teague-Jones as a British spy and publicly accused him of a leading role in the execution of 26 commissars on the Trans-Caspian railway in September 1918. The scholarly strengths of the book are found in this subject, especially. The book also aims reconstitute a biography of Teague-Jones as a British spy in the twilight of the Great Game-the geopolitical competition in Asia between Britain and Russia during the nineteenth century. The biography is framed in this other light until it comes to the affair of the 26 commissars which forced Teague-Jones to change his name to Ronald Sinclair in 1922. With reference to the 26 commissars, and especially in the examination of events during and just after the First World War, Minassian makes very good use of original sources, comparing personal papers found at the Imperial War Museum and British Library with state papers found at the latter and the National Archives at Kew. These parts of the book's argument are strongest, and the most illuminating.

Minassian's survey of Teague-Jones's life until and during the First World War is a helpful framework for understanding the affair of the 26 commissars. His social history is reconstructed using a variety of sources to trace his life from his birth and early childhood in working-class Liverpool, to his youth in St. Petersburg, where he witnessed the failed 1905 revolution. Once the book turns to his career as a political officer in India, the gaps in his life story become narrower, and the story of imperial spy takes clearer shape. Very typical of officers of his kind, he began his service in the police in Punjab, in the special branch on the North West Frontier. During the war he was transferred to the army reserve and then mysteriously found work in the Indian political department in an intelligence role. Later in his career, as in those of many other officers, work there led him to a more official connection to the British Security Service, or MI5. This section of the book makes for interesting reference and is a helpful case study of Indian security during the First World War simply because of the variety of roles played by Teague-Jones: in tribal warfare on the North West Frontier; hunting for German spies in Persia and the Gulf; assessing the Ottoman Jihad and the Bolshevik revolution; and finally his role in propping up the railway governments in Transcaspia against the Bolsheviks.

The most convincing and the best-documented part of the book, its examination of the Transcaspian episode and the affair of the 26 commissars, supports the argument, especially that of Brian Pearce, that the soviet version of this affair was a fabrication meant to create pro-Bolshevik and anti-British sentiment. The contradictions in the soviet version, the way in which their case emerged during 1918-22, and the evidence about Teague-Jones's actual role (he was miles away at the time) make for an interesting study of propaganda and of the messy war in Transcaspia and the Caucasus during this period. …

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