Affair of the Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase

11 January 2016

Area Studies | History

Published this week, Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981 contains full runs of Foreign Office files stored at The National Archives. The resource spans an extraordinary number of topics and events, addressing the policies, economies, political relationships and significant events of every major Middle East power. Conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli War are examined in detail, as are commercial interests and oil policies. 

All very important and often grave stuff. Occasionally, however, one gets the impression that the British diplomats responsible for creating these dispatches, minutes, summaries and profiles didn‚Äôt take everything as seriously as they should. These documents are frequently laced with sarcastic notes and childish cartoons. Dry wit infused with playful and often scurrilous commentary is characteristic of these documents, providing a number of laugh-out-loud moments for the production team. Below is one such snigger triggering moment: 

Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Another particularly outrageous dispatch is the subject of my blog today: The Affair of the Spanish Ambassador‚Äôs Suitcase. Written by Ronald Burroughs, the British Ambassador to Algeria from 1971-1973, this story passed into diplomatic legend. It proved so popular that a copy even made it into the hands of the Queen! 

Every year in June, the Algerian government staged celebrations for events in the nation’s Struggle for Independence. The presence of every foreign diplomat was required, and it’s fair to say that Burroughs was not looking forward to it:

‚ÄúThe way these affairs are organised may be not the result of inefficiency but rather of fiendishly clever planning designed to torture the bloody foreigners. The previous year was, by all accounts, of such prolonged horror that it could only have been effected by design.‚ÄĚ

That year, 1971, these celebrations were taking place at Hassi Messaoud in the Sahara, and included an overnight stay. Most of the ambassadors brought along the bare necessities, with essentials like toothbrushes and whisky stuffed into briefcases. Not so the Spanish Ambassador:

Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Burroughs goes on to describe the trip in entertaining (though often rude) detail, but it‚Äôs the contents of the Spanish Ambassador‚Äôs ludicrously over-sized suitcase that captures the imagination of the delegation. Some speculate that it was full of ‚Äúgold braided uniforms and loads and loads of medals‚ÄĚ, as the ambassador was a proud military man. Others wondered if he had bought a white tie and tails, whilst the incorrigible Greek Ambassador suggested that perhaps the suitcase contained the Spanish Ambassador‚Äôs wife. 

Waiting eagerly for him to appear for their evening‚Äôs activities and expecting a dramatic costume change, the Bulgarian Ambassador suggests that ‚Äúhe ‚Äėave great trouble with his corsets‚Ķno soldier will give the pull‚ÄĚ. However, the Spanish Ambassador finally appears unchanged, confounding them all. The mystery continues the next day as they depart the Sahara, with the poor Spanish Ambassador dragging his enormous suitcase through the desert sands. The whole affair is clearly still amusing the delegation, particularly the Saudi Arabian Ambassador:

Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Burroughs completes his dispatch with more speculation, and with obvious disappointment that the truth was not discovered:

‚ÄúThe Spanish Ambassador left immediately thereafter for leave in Spain. He has only returned within the last few days and no-one has seen his wife. Was the Greek Ambassador‚Äôs theory perhaps right and has the Spanish Ambassador lost the keys of his expensive suitcase? It is clearly a highly-prized object, and it must have given him great pains to bore air-holes through that expensively grained leather.‚ÄĚ

Dispatches such as these are essentially created to entertain, but it continues to be useful as a historical document. It gives us an interesting insight into Burroughs’ cultural values and the stereotypes he perceives, and an insight into his attitude towards Algeria and his diplomatic peers. Burroughs is also satirical about the diplomatic process, particularly upon finding the Greek Ambassador (that cad again!) in his hut:

Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

More importantly, it does show that a group of very different people from utterly polarised cultures are able to come together; if only to tease the beleaguered Spanish Ambassador. 

To see this document (FCO 39/799) in full, please click the images above. The dispatch starts on image 15.

Available now, Middle East 1971-1974: The Arab-Israeli War and the 1973 Oil Crisis is the first module of the Archives Direct Resource, Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981. Full access to this resource is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a licence.

For more information about Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981, including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


About the Author

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 has given me the chance to work with exciting and diverse material, from photographs and dispatches for Migration to New Worlds, to British diplomatic papers for our forthcoming project on the Middle East - perfect fodder for a history geek!

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