26 April 2021
The View from a Hill: Making Sense of Ras Dharbat Ali in the Archive
On 20 November 1933, John Gilbert Laithwaite, a civil servant at the India Office, received a letter from Trenchard Craven William Fowle, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, in response to Laithwaite’s request for clarification on the spelling of a landmark in Dhofar known as ‘Ras Dharbat Ali’. In his letter, Fowle defers the matter to the Political Agent in Muscat, Major Claude Bremner, and encloses a note from him that is interesting for its moderate digressions.
Extract of a letter from Major Claude Bremner, Political Agent at Muscat, to Trenchard Craven William Fowle, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, dated 18 October 1933 (IOR/L/PS/12/2962, f 61r)
Bremner’s note gives some background detail to the spelling, discussing the pronunciation and grammar of the Arabic name as well as different methods of transliteration. He continues by examining in detail the translation of the name, too, which he renders as ‘The Cape of the Blow of Ali’. Significantly, Bremner continues, going further than this and delving into the meaning behind the name. By doing so he allows us, by way of a rocky hill on the south Arabian coast, a view of the world that is strikingly unusual within the India Office Records:
In the early days of Islam the Imam ‘Ali, with a devoted band, was wandering in the vicinity of Ras Dharbat Ali, where he encountered a local chieftain whom he wished to proselytize. This individual refused to embrace Islam whereupon the Imam ‘Ali fell upon the chief and his tribe and, chasing the former up to the top of the headland, he hewed him in two with a blow of his sword. This mighty blow cleaved not only the victim but the hill also. From thence onward the headland was known as the “Cape of the Blow of Ali”
Imam ʻAli and his followers leading the army of Islam against Khavar and his army of sorcerers, from the Khavaran namah by Ibn Husam (d.ca.1470). North India, 17th century (IO Islamic 3443, f. 136r)
Laithwaite’s interest in Ras Dharbat Ali and its spelling did not derive from any linguistic curiosity on his part, at least not solely, but was tied up with matters of administrative and political boundaries. In 1930, the Air Ministry had been keen to establish a secure air route along the South Arabian coast from Aden as part of the flight to India, and this had given rise to questions of territorial sovereignty and administrative jurisdiction. Travelling eastwards, where did the Sultan of Qishn and Socotra’s authority end and that of the Sultan of Muscat begin? How did that match up with the boundary between the spheres of responsibility of the Aden Residency (which answered to the Colonial Office) on the one side, and the Persian Gulf Residency (under the India Office) on the other?
The matter spawned a great deal of consideration and correspondence between the Colonial Office, India Office, Air Ministry, Admiralty, and the Government of India, as well as the political offices in the region. Reference is frequently made to maps of the area and surveys carried out in recent decades. Even in July 1933, after the boundary between the jurisdiction of the two residencies had been officially changed and set at Ras Dharbat Ali, investigation into the exact line of the boundary continued into 1935 and beyond.
Extract of a map showing a proposed RAF air route between the UK and India, via Southern Arabia (IOR/L/PS/12/2054, f 134r)
While the question of sovereignty was too often trivialised by British officials as the inconvenience of ‘personal squabbles’ among ‘chiefs’, the two rulers whose sovereignty was in question in this case were not ignored. From the beginning their claims concerning where their authority lay were sought. Bertram Thomas, explorer and political officer, had warned that ‘dotted lines on maps [are of] little interest to Arab rulers’, arguing that it was the ports that mattered more to them, and divisions beyond these ports fluctuated with relations between tribal groups and centred around watering holes.
While sweeping and somewhat dismissive, Thomas’ theory held some truth. Both the Sultan of Muscat and that of Qishn and Socotra were reported to be ‘rather vague’ about the exact line of the boundary but were much more assured about the allegiances of the inhabitants of the area. The response of Ahmad ibn `Abd Allah Afrar al-Mahri, Sultan of Qishn and Socotra, to the Aden Resident’s probing on the subject are revealing, not only of this confidence but also of the sometimes limited understanding the British had about such matters. When asked about the Mehri people, historically loyal to the Sultan, who inhabited places to the east of the proposed boundary and outside of his territory, the Sultan observed wryly: ‘I understand that many English people live in the south of France, but that the British Government nevertheless does not claim that territory.’
The Sultan’s concern was less to do with drawing a line through the landscape in order to define relationships between people and land, and more about the fluid, ever-changing network of such relationships that run through a landscape, defying such static notions as hard physical boundaries. As such, the hill at Ras Dharbat Ali was of no great significance to the Sultan in terms of administration or sovereignty, though when pushed by the British both he and the Sultan of Muscat were happy to accept it as the boundary between their territories.
Bremner’s note on the history behind the name of the hill offers an alternative significance, one of religion with a moral message embedded within. It also places the hill, and the land that surrounds it, within the larger story of Islam, making it part of the whole. Bremner goes on to write that ‘there are many spots in the countryside connected with [Imam ‘Ali’s] fabled presence at them.’ The hills ‘Qabb ‘Ali’ and ‘Musallah ‘Ali’ are both mentioned, translated by Bremner as ‘The Stick of ‘Ali’ and ‘The Praying Place of ‘Ali’, respectively. It becomes possible to imagine a map very different to those produced by the British.
Imam ʻAli attacking the dragon of the Kuh Billaur, from the Khavaran namah by Ibn Husam (d.ca.1470). North India, 17th century (IO Islamic 3443, f. 180r)
The British themselves were not done with defining terms within the landscape. The question of the exact line of the boundary was raised again in 1947, this time in light of oil exploration. Petroleum Concessions Limited (PCL), a subsidiary of the multinational Iraq Petroleum Company, were keen to explore southern Arabia in search of oil. Travel in remote areas required guarantees of a degree of security, and so the question of whose authority held sway where was an important one. The extractive nature of what the oil companies wanted to do also meant that mapping with precision was essential: who needs paying for the natural resources extracted?
A 1947 geological report on the Dhofar region by Cyril Sankey Fox, a consultant mining geologist employed by the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, Said bin Taimur, epitomises this perspective. When discussing the findings of the report in a letter to Rupert Hay, then the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, he effuses about the potential of Dhofar, which he found ‘astonishingly attractive’, advising that ‘enterprising people’ were needed. Such people, he regrettably adds, ‘the Arabs are not’. This sort of racism was not a universal part of this way of understanding the land, but it was not uncommon, and it fitted nicely within the dominant colonial perspective that viewed the ‘West’ as technologically, intellectually, and, often, morally more advanced and thus superior.
Fox goes on to state his belief that, apart from oil, cement, chemicals, and sugar ‘are obviously possible industries’, and that the cultivation of ‘olives, etc.’ could also be worthwhile. He advises that ‘a detailed map is necessary’, noting that none are available on a scale larger than even four miles to an inch, which, he adds, ‘is a little on the small side for geological details’. The land is seen for its economic potential, and a specific way of representing the land is required to facilitate the extraction of that potential. The hill at Ras Dharbat Ali becomes a point at which the terms of that extraction can be defined.
By reading the archive from one place such as Ras Dharbat Ali, we are able to see and better understand the different interpretations, meanings, and stories that are connected to that place, and the land around it. The India Office Record reveals one particular way of viewing the world, one guided and reinforced by maps and the process of map-making, and concerned with matters of imperial strategy and administration or with economic exploitation. This view demands a certain kind of precision and a representation of the world that works to impose a set of relations on the land it represents, rather than working with those that are already implicated within it.
Every now and then, however, alternative ways of thinking about the land are glimpsed at, such as in the reported responses of the Sultans to the question of boundary definition. Rarer still do we find narratives like those of Bremner’s translation work, in which Ras Dharbat Ali speaks of a religious history, a moral matter, and ties itself and the people around it into the community of Islam. These narratives, dismissed by the British and swamped by the dominant colonial discourse, become quiet, significant notes of resistance.
IOR/L/PS/12/2962, Coll 20/10 'Muscat: S. W. Boundary of (Muscat-Aden): Spheres of Responsibility of the Air Authorities in Iraq and Aden'
IOR/R/15/6/439, 'File 14/5 Mineral deposits in Dhufar'
IOR/L/PS/12/1422, Pol Ext 8303/49 'Geology and mineral resources of Dhofar: request for reports of A L von Krafft and R P Oldham 1900-01'
IOR/L/PS/12/3838, Coll 30/110(4) 'Trucial Coast Oil Concession: Muscat Oil Concession. Hinterland Exploration & Survey.'
IOR/L/PS/12/2054, Coll 5/87S ‘United States: Request for Military Air Transit Rights in India and Burma.’
Barbara Bender, ‘Subverting the Western Gaze: mapping alternative worlds’. In The Archaeology and Anthropology of Landscape: Shaping Your Landscape by Robert Layton and Peter Ucko (eds), London, 1999.
Matthew Edney, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843, London, 1990.