Captain William Henry Irvine Shakespear (29 October 1878 – 24 January 1915), was a British civil servant and explorer who mapped uncharted areas of Northern Arabia and made the first official British contact with Ibn Sa’ud, future king of Saudi Arabia. He was the military adviser to Ibn Saud from 1910 to 1915, when he was shot and killed in the Battle of Jarrab by one of Ibn Rashid’s men.
He was born in Bombay, the son of William Henry Sulivan Shakespeare and Annie Caroline Davidson and educated at Portsmouth Grammar School and King William’s College, Isle of Man. He entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst on 19 August 1896. He became a second lieutenant on 22 Jan 1898. In 1899, he joined the Devonshire Regiment, 17th Bengal Cavalry.
He then joined the Indian Political Department. In 1904, he joined the British Foreign Office and became the youngest vice-consul in British India. He was transferred to Kuwait. From 1909 on, he was the British Political Agent in Kuwait, subordinated to the respective agent in Bahrain. Shakespear was a great linguist who spoke Urdu, Pushtu, Persian and Arabic fluently.
While in Kuwait, Shakespear made seven separate expeditions into the Arabian interior, during which he became a close friend of Ibn Sa’ud, then the Emir of the Nejd. It was Shakespear who arranged for Ibn Sa’ud to be photographed for the first time. Ibn Sa’ud had never seen a camera before. In March 1914, Shakespear began a 2,900-kilometre (1,800 mi) journey from Kuwait to Riyadh and on to Aqaba via 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 Shakespear to secure Ibn Sa’ud’s support for the British-Indian Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, which had just taken Basra.
In January 1915, at the Battle of Jarrab, Ibn Sa’ud asked him to retreat to a place of safety before the fighting began. He declined to do so. He was struck by a bullet and killed. The victorious Rashidis cut off his head. His solar helmet was handed over to the Ottoman authorities and hung on one of the main gates of Medina as proof of the Al Sa’uds’ collaboration with the British. His grave can be found in downtown Kuwait City near the Al Hamra Tower.
It has been suggested by some authorities, notably St. John Philby, that the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire might have been very differently directed if Shakespear had survived, that the British would have supported and armed Ibn Sa’ud rather than Sherif Hussein ibn Ali.
“His death… was a great loss to his country, but it was a disaster to the Arab cause. It must certainly be reckoned in the small category of individual events which have changed the course of history. Had he survived to continue a work for which he was so eminently suited, it is extremely doubtful whether subsequent campaigns of Lawrence would ever have taken place in the west…”