Asian and African studies blog

18 posts categorized "Gulf"

10 May 2021

The many names of the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf

Following the publication, in December 2020, of my blog ‘A cessation of plunder and piracy… for ever’, we received some interesting feedback from Dr James Onley, Director of Historical Research at the Qatar National Library, who are the British Library’s partners in producing the Qatar Digital Library. The blog discussed a particular treaty, which it referred to as the General Maritime Treaty, but Dr Onley suggested that this was not the historical name, and was instead of more recent provenance. This came as something of a surprise, as ‘General Maritime Treaty’ is also the name used in QDL catalogue descriptions. So I decided to investigate it further.

The treaty was produced in 1820 and was given the title, ‘General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf’. However, it is common for treaties to become known by a shorter, more memorable title. If this was the case for the treaty of 1820, then what was the short title that was used? A delve into the QDL shows that this is not a simple question to answer.

Letter from Major General William Grant Keir, to Captain William Bruce, Resident at Bushire
Letter from Major General William Grant Keir, to Captain William Bruce, Resident at Bushire, IOR/R/15/1/21, ff. 4-12.
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The image above shows part of a letter, dated 16 January 1820, from William Grant Keir, who signed the treaty on behalf of Britain. He wrote: ‘I have now the honour to transmit the accompanying copy of a General Treaty into which I have entered with certain Arab tribes’. He then added that ‘All matters of a temporary or individual nature have been included in Preliminary Treaties… with the several chiefs, that the General Treaty might be reserved exclusively for arrangements of a permanent nature or such as are common to the whole of the contracting tribes’.

Keir therefore called his treaty a ‘general treaty’ (the name is not consistently capitalised in the records) in order to distinguish it from the preliminary treaties he had concluded with individual rulers. In correspondence from the time it was sometimes referred to by this name, but also simply as ‘the treaty’.

By the 1830s, officials in the Gulf were also calling it the General Treaty of Peace, as the following extract shows:

‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’,
‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’, IOR/R/15/1/732, p. 314. This part is from a historical sketch covering the years 1819-1831 by Samuel Hennell, who was Assistant Resident in the Persian Gulf at this time.
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This title increasingly became the accepted one. It was used in volume one of Charles Rathbone Low’s History of the Indian Navy, published in 1844. And this is what it was called by John Gordon Lorimer in his Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, produced in two parts in 1908 and 1915.

However, around the same time, another long-form title for the treaty began to appear. Specifically, the second edition of Charles Umpherston Aitchison’s A Collection of Treaties, Engagements, and Sanads Relating to India and Neighbouring Countries, produced in 1876, contained a copy of the 1820 treaty, but referred to it in the contents page as: ‘General Treaty with the Arab Chiefs for the cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea’. This title would appear in subsequent editions of Aitchison’s Collection of Treaties, and would be replicated in other contexts as well.

From the contents of ‘A collection of treaties, engagements and sanads relating to India and neighbouring countries
From the contents of ‘A collection of treaties, engagements and sanads relating to India and neighbouring countries [...] Vol XI containing the treaties, & c., relating to Aden and the south western coast of Arabia, the Arab principalities in the Persian Gulf, Muscat (Oman), Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province’, compiled by C. U. Aitchison, IOR/L/PS/20/G3/12, f. 5v. This is from the fifth edition, published in 1933.
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Over the course of the twentieth century there was no consistent way of referring to the treaty, and individual writers would sometimes use more than one name. In 1970 Donald Hawley, a former British Political Agent in the Gulf, published a history, The Trucial States, in which he referred to the agreement variously as the General Treaty, the General Treaty of Peace, the 1820 treaty, the General Treaty for the Cessation of Plunder and Piracy, and the General Treaty of Peace for the Cessation of Plunder and Piracy. In fact, the only title Hawley didn’t use was the original one!

And what about General Maritime Treaty, the title used in my earlier blog post? Apart from one appearance in a historical memorandum produced in 1934, this title doesn’t seem to feature in the records or other material currently on the QDL. Furthermore, it seems to have come into wider use only after the turn of this century. It possibly has its origins in a Wikipedia article about the treaty which, according to the article’s history, was created in 2009.

It may be true, as this blog indicates, that there has never been a single, accepted way of referring to this treaty. However, the near absence of ‘General Maritime Treaty’ in the historical records means that we have taken the decision to remove it from our catalogue descriptions. Instead, as there is no consistently used short-form title, we have replaced it with the treaty’s original title, ‘General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf’. This is also what you’ll see now if you look at my earlier blog post.

But does this have any wider significance, beyond a cataloguer’s concern for getting a name right? Admittedly, it was unlikely to cause major confusion among users of the QDL. Nevertheless, I think this exercise has highlighted something important about the treaty, and about British imperialism in the Gulf more generally.

The treaty was created following a major British military intervention, and it reshaped the political map of the region in a way that is still evident today. Yet, from the start, the British were keen to downplay the extent and significance of their involvement. For example, just prior to the launch of the military campaign in 1819, the Government of India stated, ‘we are anxious to avoid all interference in the concerns of the Arab states beyond what may be necessary for effecting the suppression of piracy’ (IOR/F/4/650/17854, f. 386v - soon to be added to the QDL). Before and after this campaign, British officials insisted that their intervention was a limited one, aimed simply at restoring order and not at establishing British control in the region.

It is perhaps, then, no coincidence that the treaty created in 1820 was given an innocuous title, one that belied the force that lay behind it and the unbalanced relations it established with the rulers who signed it. It was, in fact, a watershed moment, marking the beginning of British imperial dominance of the Gulf. As this hegemony was strengthened over subsequent decades, it is telling that Britain’s preferred title for the agreement that formed its basis was the General Treaty of Peace.

The confusion, now and in the past, over the name of the 1820 treaty owes something to the indistinctiveness of its title. This, in turn, is a reminder of how Britain sought to frame its involvement in the Gulf, and of the need to look beyond this appearance to gain a more complete view of this history.

 

David Woodbridge, Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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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
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)
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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”

'Ali and his followers leading the army of Islam against Khavar and the sorcerers
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)
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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
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)
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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.’

A tracing of a map of the western boundary of Dhofar  Oman  originally drawn by Bertram Thomas  circa 1930
A tracing of a map of the western boundary of Dhofar, Oman, originally drawn by Bertram Thomas, circa 1930 (IOR/L/PS/12/3838, f 68r)
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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.

'Ali attacking the dragon of the Kuh Billaur watched by Zinhar
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)
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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.

The report on the geology and mineral resources of Dhofar  by Cyril Fox
The report on the geology and mineral resources of Dhofar, by Cyril Fox, published in March 1947 (IOR/L/PS/12/1422, f 6r)
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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.

Primary Sources

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.’

Further Reading

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.

John Hayhurst, Content Specialist, BL/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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21 December 2020

‘A cessation of plunder and piracy… for ever’: the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the signing of the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf of 1820. Though little-known today, this agreement between Britain and ten tribal rulers of the eastern Arabian coast was a decisive moment in the modern history of the Gulf, marking the beginning of 150 years of British hegemony over the region. Since 2014, the Qatar Digital Library has provided online access to a growing number of records from British Library collections that document this fascinating history. This anniversary year provides an opportune moment to consider the treaty that sits at the heart of this history, and has left a legacy that endures to the present day.

General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf
The opening to the treaty (British Library, IOR/L/PS/10/606, f. 131r)
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Background to the treaty

The treaty was the culmination of several decades of conflict between Britain and the Qawasim (singular Qasimi), an Arab tribe based around the port of Ra’s al-Khaymah. The Qawasim were at the head of a large network of tribes with an expanding influence on both shores of the Gulf. However, their rise brought them into conflict with other local powers, particularly Oman.

This was of serious concern to Britain, which had formed an alliance in 1798 with Oman’s ruler, the Imam of Muscat (Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmad Al Bu Sa‘id, reigned 1792-1804). The purpose of this alliance for Britain was to guarantee access to the Gulf. This was sought partly for its commercial potential, but primarily because the Gulf lay on the main line of communication between Britain and its expanding Indian empire. Official communications from India were regularly taken by ship up the Gulf to Basra, from where they were transported to Europe. Secure access to the Gulf was therefore vital for the British administration in India.

The rise of the Qawasim threatened to upset this arrangement, a fear articulated by British officials in the Gulf. For example, in July 1816 William Bruce, the British Resident at Bushire, reported on the Imam of Muscat’s efforts to challenge Qawasim power in Bahrain. Bruce observed that ‘if His Highness fails in reducing this island to obedience the acquisition of force to the piratical states [the Qawasim and their allies] will be such as to enable them to reduce Muscat if they please, and effectually to cut off all intercourse with the Gulph till such time as we are compelled to destroy them by fitting out an expedition to this quarter.’ (British Library, IOR/F/4/574/14024, f. 9v, soon to be added to the Qatar Digital Library). To officials like Bruce it was vital for Britain to maintain access to the Gulf, and he advocated the use of force to stop the further expansion of Qawasim power.

British expansion in India brought them into conflict with the Qawasim in other ways. The India Office Records contain many reports from this period of raids carried out by the Qawasim on shipping in the Indian Ocean. There was a long history of tensions between Arab and Indian trading communities, and it is far from clear that the attacks being attributed to the Qawasim were all carried out by them. Nevertheless, many Indian merchants began to appeal to the British authorities for assistance. In one petition, received on 5 February 1817, Siv-ji Govind-ji, a merchant writing from Bombay, claimed that his ship had been captured by four vessels owned by the Qawasim (spelled ‘Joasmee’ in the document, below) near its intended destination at Lakhpat in Gujarat, with the loss of most of the crew and cargo. Describing himself as ‘a subject dwelling under the British protection and colours’ he appealed to the British authorities in India for aid.

 Petition sent by Siv-ji Govind-ji to the Government of Bombay  5 February 1817  Petition to the Government of Bombay  5 February 1817
A copy of a petition sent by Siv-ji Govind-ji to the Government of Bombay, 5 February 1817 (British Library, IOR/F/4/649, ff. 26r-26v - soon to be added to the QDL)
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As the allegations against the Qawasim increased, officials in Bombay sensed an opportunity to finally bring their rivals in the Gulf to heel. In December 1819, with assistance from Oman, Britain sent a military expedition to the Gulf. The result was an overwhelming defeat for the Qawasim, leading to the capture of their fleet and the occupation of Ra’s al-Khaymah. It was in the aftermath of this crushing military campaign that the treaty was created. It was produced in English and Arabic and first signed on 8 January 1820, with more signatories added over the following weeks.

The contents of the treaty

What is striking in the treaty is how the defeated Arabs of the Gulf are addressed. The first article states: ‘There shall be a cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea on the part of the Arabs, who are parties to this contract, for ever.’ In describing the actions of the Qawasim as ‘piracy’, the treaty echoed the comment of Bruce, who above referred to them as the ‘piratical states’. Such references abound in the India Office Records. In British eyes, the seafaring Arabs did not represent a political entity with whom relations could be conducted as equals. Rather, they were pirates, seeking only to destroy and disrupt the maritime trade of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. If they continued in such behaviour, the treaty declared, they would be considered ‘an enemy of all mankind’.

The treaty went on to outline a new system of maritime conduct. From thenceforth, Arab ships were to carry a register and port clearance giving details of the vessel, its ownership and crew, and its ports of origin and destination. These ships were also to fly ‘the flag of the friendly Arabs’, a red rectangle in a white border, in order to signify their adherence to the terms of the treaty. Having complied with these demands, ‘the vessels of the friendly Arabs, bearing their flag above described, shall enter into all the British ports and into the ports of the allies of the British… and they shall buy and sell therein’. Through their adherence to the terms of the treaty, the Qawasim and their allies were to be weaned off their ‘piratical’ habits and integrated into the maritime trading system established by Britain in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.

Article 3 of the General Maritime Treaty
Article 3 of the treaty (British Library, IOR/L/PS/10/606, f. 131r)
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The legacies of the treaty

The treaty was therefore intended to establish a new order in the Gulf, and it marked the beginning of a deepening British involvement in the region. A naval force remained to police the new arrangements, and a series of subsequent treaties saw Britain adopting a role as enforcer of an ongoing truce between the different coastal tribes. By the start of the twentieth century, Britain had assumed responsibility for the defence and foreign policy of these tribes, and was increasingly intervening in the administration and development of their territories. In short, the Arabian coast of the Gulf had effectively become a British protectorate.

This position was maintained until 1971 when, with the British departure from the region, the states of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain came into being. These states are therefore a direct legacy of the treaty of 1820, and remain governed by many of those same ruling families with whom Britain entered into treaty relations two hundred years ago. Furthermore, the red and white national flags adopted by many of these states provide a striking reminder of this treaty, having their roots in the ‘flag of the friendly Arabs’ first imposed on them in 1820.

The General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf is therefore central to understanding the modern history of the Gulf and Britain’s role within it. To explore this history in more depth, visit the Qatar Digital Library.

Further reading

Charles E. Davies, The Blood-Red Arab Flag: An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy 1797-1820 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997).

James Onley, “Britain and the Gulf Shaikhdoms, 1820-1971: The Politics of Protection”, CIRS Occasional Paper no. 4 (Doha, Qatar: Center for International and Regional Studies, 2009).

Sultan Muhammad al-Qasimi, The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf (London: Croom Helm, 1986).

David Woodbridge, Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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12 October 2020

For your eyes only: Charles Masson’s observations on the Durrani states

Searching the name ‘Charles Masson’ online returns a healthy amount of results about a rather mysterious historical figure. Born in England with the name ‘James Lewis’, this enigmatic individual enjoyed several adventures in Asia during his relatively short life (1800-53). After deserting from the Bengal European Artillery in 1827, changing his name to Charles Masson, and travelling extensively throughout Afghanistan and modern-day Pakistan, he was hired by the East India Company to conduct antiquarian research in Afghanistan. He continued to travel and excavate sites until his true identity as a deserter was revealed in 1834, at which point he was forced to become an intelligence agent in Kabul in exchange for a royal pardon. He resigned in 1838 and continued to conduct archaeological work before returning to London in 1842.

View of Kabul by Charles Masson
View of Kabul, from Godfrey Thomas Vigne's A personal narrative of a visit to Ghuzni, Kabul, and Afghanistan, and of a residence at the Court of Dost Mohamed. London, 1840, p. 194 (British Library Digital Store 1046.e.17)
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It is his archaeological work for which Charles Masson is largely remembered today. Many of the objects that he took from Afghanistan and parts of modern-day Pakistan are now housed in the British Museum. Indeed, a substantial research project led by Dr Elizabeth Errington has provided a catalogue of material relating to Masson.

As well as the British Library’s Masson Collection , the Masson project catalogue points to traces of Masson’s story which can be found in less obvious sections of the India Office Records. As a cataloguer for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme, it was through an item from the Board’s Collections (IOR/F/4) that I was first introduced to the talented Mr Masson.

IOR/F/4/1399/55442A captures the beginning of Masson’s relationship with the East India Company. It starts with a letter from Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, David Wilson, who wrote excitedly to the Government of Bombay [Mumbai] in September 1830 to inform them of his encounter with a certain Charles Masson at Bushire [Būshehr]. Masson had made extensive observations on his travels through the Durrani states (parts of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan). Wilson enclosed these accounts in his letter, believing they would be of great value and interest to the Company.

Route map illustrating Massons journey in Baluchstan  Afghanistan and Panjab
Extract of map illustrating Masson's journey thorugh Baluchustan, Afghanistan and Panjab, appended to Volume 4 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalāt (Library of Congress DS377 .M4)
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Spanning nearly 514 pages, Masson’s accounts relate to the political status, culture, languages and religions of numerous states, provinces and tribes, and the routes taken during his travels. They include details of the people he encountered, caravan entourages, landscapes, climate, agriculture, villages and fortresses along the routes. In particular, Masson dedicates a significant space to describing ‘the Seicks’ [Sikhs] and Ranjeet Sing [Ranjit Singh, Ruler of the Sikh Empire].

Whilst the observations contain a lot of detail on a variety of subjects, it is possible to glean from Wilson’s letter the particular details that piqued his interest. He states that he queried Masson about the suitability of the routes taken for the conveyance of troops, and whether ‘vessels of considerable burthen’ could pass from Multan to the sea via the Ravee [Ravi] or Indus rivers. Wilson also notes Masson’s thoughts on whether Ranjit Singh planned to extend beyond Punjab, and if there was any concern amongst the Chiefs of Scinde [Sindh] about whether Singh intended to overthrow their power.

IOR_F_4_1399_55442A_f235_imageforMassonblog
Extract of a copy of a letter from David Wilson, Resident in the Persian Gulf, to the Government of Bombay, 11 September 1830, discussing the suitability of a ‘large body of troops traversing that country by the route [Masson] did’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A, f. 235v). Crown Copyright

The details highlighted by Wilson’s letter from September 1830 are significant because they hint at British activity in Sindh and Afghanistan. The 1830s saw large parts of Sindh annexed by the British, followed by an 1838 treaty between the Company and Ranjit Singh to restore Shah Shojāʿ to power in Kabul which led to the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-42). It is this context which reveals to us why Wilson thought Masson’s information was useful to the Company.

In his letter, Wilson also recommended that the Government of Bombay should consider employing Masson in some capacity. He wrote that he had sent Masson to Tabriz in July 1830, equipped with a letter for the British Envoy to Persia, asking the Envoy to ‘direct Mr Masson’s future enquiries to objects in these countries that require elucidation’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A, f 242r).

Whilst Wilson’s letter establishes the circumstances in which Masson was hired by the Company, it also touches on an important point which was to be addressed by Masson in later years – whether Masson had intended his observations to be used as intelligence.

Towards the end of his letter, Wilson wrote that, whilst he had not told Masson that he intended to send the accounts to the Government of Bombay, he argues that Masson ‘must have been aware, that a Public Officer situated as he knew me to be and making the enquiries I did, must have done so with a view to the good of the service.’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A, ff. 243r-243v).

However, whilst Masson later spoke highly of Wilson, he disputed the extent to which he had intended his accounts to be used as political information. Not long after his return to England, he published an account of his travels, entitled Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalāt. The preface to this work included the following passage (see image below):

Extract from Volume 1 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan  Afghanistan  the Panjab  and Kalat
Extract from Volume 1 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalāt, p. v (Library of Congress DS377 .M4)
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Therefore, it seems it was not made explicitly clear to Masson that Wilson was going to send the former’s observations to the British Government in Bombay. Taking into account that Masson was later forced to become an informant in exchange for his royal pardon, and that he went on to become a critic of the Company’s policy in Afghanistan in the late 1830s, this point adds an intriguing element to the question of how Masson viewed his relationship with the Company, both at the time and later. Did he naively assume that Wilson would not pass on his observations as intelligence, or was he fully aware of the ‘interesting schemes’ for which they might be used? Were his comments in the preface to his book a way of setting the record straight, or an attempt to portray his own past in a different light?

The relevant papers in IOR/F/4/1399/55442A form a small but significant part of the Masson project catalogue, as they reveal the interest that the East India Company had in Masson’s earlier explorations. In doing so, they serve as the opening chapter in the story of how Charles Masson became a British informant on Afghanistan, a role it is unclear he wanted to play.

Curstaidh Reid, Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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Further reading:

‘Report by Major Wilson, Resident at Bushire, dated 11th September 1830, with observations on the Political condition of the Dourannee & neighbouring states by Mr. C. Masson. Vol: 4’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A).

Charles Masson, Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, & Kalât, during a residence in those countries : to which is added an account of the insurrection at Kalat, and a memoir on Eastern Balochistan, 4 vols (London: Richard Bentley…, 1844).

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Anglo-Afghan Wars’, Encyclopaedia Britannica online, November 13 2019.

Elizabeth Errington, ‘MASSON, Charles’, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 16 June 2004.

Khushwant Singh, ‘Ranjit Singh’, Encyclopaedia Britannica online, June 23 2020.

21 October 2018

A Photographic Tour of the Persian Gulf and Iraq, 1906

‘House of the dragoman [translator] of British Consulate Basra’, 1906
House of the dragoman [translator] of British Consulate Basra’, 1906 (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 27)
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In November 1906, Wilfrid Malleson, a British military intelligence officer, departed from Simla in British India on an intelligence-gathering tour of the Persian Gulf and what British officials then termed ‘Turkish Arabia’ (the south of modern Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire). Britain was already the dominant imperial power in the Gulf and was keen to ascertain the situation in those territories to its north that remained under the sway of the Ottomans. Malleson’s report of his journey – that included stops in Muscat, Kuwait, Basra, Baghdad and Mohammerah – provides a fascinating snapshot of the region at this time.

Mosque and minaret of coloured tiles at Basra
‘Mosque and minaret of coloured tiles at Basra’. Malleson described it as: “a brick building with a minaret ornamented with some pretty blue tiles, but, on the whole, a squalid and sorry structure which in India one would hardly turn aside to look at” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 25)
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In addition to Malleson’s narrative, the report also contains a series of photographs of the places that he visited, foremost amongst them, Basra and Baghdad. Although Malleson apologised for their poor quality in the preface to his official report, over a hundred years later they provide an evocative glimpse of locations that have changed dramatically since and in some cases, came under British military occupation less than a decade after his visit. Indeed, Malleson made notes regarding the military defences (or lack thereof) of the places that he visited including Basra, of which he remarked, “[t]here are no defences and a landing could easily be covered from ships in the river”. Malleson also speculated that “judicious treatment [by Britain] could easily succeed in turning the local Arab against the much-hated Turk”. Eight years later – perhaps using intelligence supplied by Malleson – the British army invaded and conquered Basra as a part of the Mesopotamian Campaign of the First World War, events that eventually led to the establishment of the modern nation state of Iraq. In 2003, almost a hundred years after Malleson’s visit, the British Army invaded and occupied Basra again.

The British Consulate and Messrs Lynch’s offices Basra
‘The British Consulate and Messrs Lynch’s offices Basra; Showing 4,000 tons of merchandise awaiting shipment to Bagdad’. Malleson noted that Basra’s shops were “full of Manchester goods of a florid and ornate pattern suited to the local taste”. The workmen or “coolies” on Basra’s wharfs were said by Malleson to be “Arabs and Chaldeans” that “are of fine physique and can lift great weights. They work from sunrise to sunset, but refuse to work when it is wet and knock off when they feel inclined” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 25)
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In addition to military matters, the report discusses a wide range of other topics including trade, agriculture, history, transport infrastructure and religious communities, as well as the activities of rival powers, notably the German and Ottoman Empires. As Malleson noted apologetically in its preface, the report contains much “not of immediate military interest”.

Bahreini pilgrims on board the Khalifa
‘Bahreini pilgrims on board the Khalifa’. Malleson took the Khalifa upriver to Baghdad and commented “[m]ore interesting than the country passed through were the pilgrims we took along with us. They were of every type, coming from all parts of the Muhammadan world in order to make the pilgrimage to the sacred cities of Kerbela and Nejef” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 33)
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Malleson also recorded the various characters that he met during the course of his journey including a German trader on the boat to Muscat and a pair of hospitable “Cosmopolitan Jews” in Basra’s quarantine station. The two men, father and son, were merchants and the latter was re-locating his business to Manchester in the north of England. Malleson commented that the dominance of Manchester in Baghdad’s trade “became apparent to us later”. He also encountered an explorer who was willing to share his findings with British intelligence and believed that “a strong British policy in the Gulf would mean progress and the spread of civilisation, and would, therefore, further the interests of the world in general”.

Cafe and mosque near the North Gate, Bagdad
‘Cafe and mosque near the North Gate, Bagdad’. Malleson remarked that “[t]he cafes are largely frequented by the Turkish soldiery who, for the most part slouching and out-at-elbows, seem to have little enough to do” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 38)
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View in Baghdad
‘View in Baghdad’. Malleson was struck by Baghdad’s diversity stating that “[i]n addition to a large population of Arabs…and representatives of most of the peoples of Asia there are some 35,000 Jews, and a great number of queer Christian sects, such as Armenians, Nestorians, and Neo-Nestorians, Chaldeans, Sabaeans, Arians, Jacbobites and Manichaeans. Most of them wear some distinguishing garments and the varied hues and shapes of these make a very striking effect” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 35)
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The report, though engagingly written, is replete with the lamentable orientalist and misogynistic attitudes that characterised the stance of many British imperial officials in this period. In perhaps the most unpleasant instance of racist language in the report – and as testament to the ongoing existence of slavery in the region during this period – when discussing the women that he saw in Baghdad, Malleson wrote that they “of course go veiled when abroad, even those of the numerous Christian sects and the Jewesses. The latter wear extraordinarily gorgeous silken garments, and the really smart thing is to possess a white donkey tended by the blackest and ugliest of negro slaves”.

Near the big mosque, Bagdad
‘Near the big mosque, Bagdad’ Medieval Baghdad, Malleson noted, had flourished while “the greater part of Europe had hardly emerged from the primitive barbarism it had sunk with the fall of the Roman Empire, or from which it had never emerged” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 37)
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A Street in Bagdad’
‘A Street in Bagdad’. The reality of modern Baghdad was underwhelming however, Malleson believed “[t]he traveller who, attracted merely by the glamour of a name, expects to find in Bagdad the wondrous city of his dreams is doomed to disappointment”(IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 38)
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As well as visiting modern settlements while in Iraq, Malleson also visited historical ruins including the remains of ancient Babylon and Ctesiphon, the former capital of the Sassanian Empire.

The arch of Ctesiphon’
‘The arch of Ctesiphon’. Although Malleson reported that “[l]ocal experts are of opinion that this majestic ruin cannot much longer stand”, over a hundred years later, in spite of repeated invasions and wars, the arch still stands (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 48)
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Our conveyance across the desert to Babylon
‘Our conveyance across the desert to Babylon’. In Malleson’s words, “[i]t was a queer looking shandridan, half bathing-machine and half grocer’s cart, with very narrow and uncomfortable seats, and drawn by a team of four, and sometimes five, mules harnessed abreast and driven by a wild-looking son of the desert” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 43)
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The only arch so far discovered in Babylon
‘The only arch so far discovered in Babylon’. Discussing his visit to Babylon, Malleson wrote “Here, too ‘midst the ashes of dead empires and the havoc wrought by man, the philosopher may muse on the mutability of mundane things, the fleeting character of fame, the mockery of riches and the vanity of power”(IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 47)
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Concluding his report, Malleson wrote: “[a]nd so, with a heightened interest in the problems of the Middle East, and with, perhaps, some increase of knowledge; with friendships made with useful people, and numerous promises of help and correspondence, we turn our backs on Turkish Arabia and shape a course for Bushire and Karachi”. Just eight years later, Britain would return to Basra as an invading force and when the its flag was raised over the town, the Daily Mail proudly proclaimed “Another Red Patch on the Map”.


Further reading:
For details on the connection between Manchester and Middle Eastern trade see: Fred Halliday, “The millet of Manchester: Arab merchants and cotton trade”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies   19:2 (1992), pp. 159-176.

An illustrated account of a tour of the same region in 1886-87: Turkish Arabia: Being an Account of an Official Tour in Babylonia, Assyria, and Mesopotamia, 1886-87 (India Office Records and Private Papers, Mss Eur F112/384).

A photographic album of a tour of the same region in 1916-18: Album of tour of the Persian Gulf. Photographer: Rev. Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox (India Office Records and Private Papers, Photo 496/6).

An official account of Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign during the First World War: ‘HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR BASED ON OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS. THE CAMPAIGN IN MESOPOTAMIA 1914-1918. VOLUME I’ (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/66/1).

For more on Britain’s invasion and occupation of Basra in the First World War see: Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “1914: The Battle of Basra”, Hurst publishers Blog, 21 November 2014.

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
 ccownwork

25 August 2017

New Online Resources on the History of Kuwait

A series of archival documents that contain a wealth of information about Kuwait during the 1930s and 1940s have recently been digitized and uploaded on to the Qatar Digital Library. These documents are preserved in a file from the archive of the British Political Agency in Kuwait (now a part of the India Office Records) and consist of several reports covering a broad range of topics including Kuwait’s geography, history, flora and fauna, climate, leading personalities and political structure. In addition to what the files themselves discuss, as colonial records, they also illustrate the extent of British influence in Kuwait at this time, as well as provide a rich illustration of how Kuwait was conceptualised and recorded by British officials that were based in the country

'File 4/1 General Information regarding Kuwait and Hinterland'

'File 4/1 General Information regarding Kuwait and Hinterland'
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The majority of the reports in the file are written by Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Richard Patrick Dickson (1881-1959), who served as Britain’s Political Agent in Kuwait from 1929 until 1936. Dickson continued living in Kuwait after serving as Political Agent (a role he held again temporarily in 1941) and stayed in the country until his death in 1959. During this time, Dickson wrote two books about Kuwait and the surrounding area, the encyclopaedic – if shamelessly Orientalist – work The Arab of the Desert: a Glimpse into Badawin [Bedouin] Life in Kuwait and Sau'di Arabia (George Allen & Unwin, 1949) and the later Kuwait & Her Neighbours (George Allen & Unwin, 1956) that was edited by the writer Clifford Witting. Both books, notably the former, reveal Dickson’s near obsessive interest in the minutiae of the history, culture and everyday life of the people of Kuwait and Gulf region, with a particular interest in the customs and traditions of the Bedouin.

Dickson’s wife, Violet Dickson (1896-1991), commonly known as Umm Saud (Mother of Saud) in Kuwait, shared many of her husband’s interests and also wrote about Kuwait, authoring both The Wild Flowers of Kuwait and Bahrain (George Allen & Unwin, 1955) and Forty Years in Kuwait (George Allen & Unwin, 1971). She stayed in the country after Dickson’s death, living in the couple’s long-term residence (that formerly served as Britain’s Political Agency) for many decades until she was forced to leave due to the Iraqi invasion of 1990. The building is now open to the public as the Dickson House Cultural Centre in Kuwait City. The couple’s daughter, Zahra Freeth (1925-2015), also wrote a number of books on Kuwait including Kuwait Was My Home (George Allen & Unwin, 1956) and A New Look at Kuwait (George Allen & Unwin, 1972).

Dickson House Cultural Centre, Kuwait City © Louis Allday, 2015
Dickson House Cultural Centre, Kuwait City
© Louis Allday, 2015

The reports written by Dickson in 1933 contain a diverse range of detailed information including descriptions of car routes between Kuwait and various other settlements in the region (including Basrah, Riyadh, Hasa and Qatif), insightful and frequently scathing character assessments of prominent figures in the country, as well as sketches of the different types of boat used in the country and lists of the species of fish in its waters. It is likely that the information contained in these notes was used by Dickson at a later date to compile his published works. For instance, The Arab of the Desert contains drawings of the different types of sailing vessel in Kuwait that are very similar to the aforementioned sketches contained in Dickson’s notes from almost two decades before.

Examples of boats used in Kuwait, 1933
Examples of boats used in Kuwait, 1933
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In addition to Dickson’s reports, the recently digitised file contains a secret report on Kuwait that the Australian explorer, Alan Villiers – author of the well-known study of Arab sailors, Sons of Sinbad – was commissioned by the British authorities to write in 1939 (folios 160-183). The file also contains reports written by two of Dickson’s successors as Political Agent in Kuwait in the 1940s, Major Tom Hickinbotham (folios 187-198) and Major Maurice O’Connor Tandy (folios 226-228) as well as a Who’s Who of the leading personalities in Muscat (Oman) written by Captain J B Howes, the Political Agent in Muscat in 1942 (folios 199-209).

The full contents of this fascinating file – all written by Dickson unless stated otherwise – are as follows:

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
@Louis_Allday
 ccownwork

22 June 2017

The Flotilla Tour of 1933: a Demonstration of British Naval Power in the Gulf

On 29 August 1933 the acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, received a letter from the Political Agent at Kuwait, Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Dickson, informing him that there were strong rumours circulating in Kuwait that a Persian naval officer had hauled down the British flag at Basidu, the naval station for the British Persian Gulf Naval Squadron.

‘The Coast from Bushire to Basadore, in the Persian Gulf, Surveyed by Lieuts. G.B. Brucks & S.B. Haines, H.C. Marine 1828. Engraved by R. Bateman 43 Hart St. Bloomsbury’ (IOR/X/3630/27)
‘The Coast from Bushire to Basadore, in the Persian Gulf, Surveyed by Lieuts. G.B. Brucks & S.B. Haines, H.C. Marine 1828. Engraved by R. Bateman 43 Hart St. Bloomsbury’ (IOR/X/3630/27)
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On 7 September 1933 Loch sent a circular telegram – addressed to the Senior Naval Officer in the Persian Gulf and the British Political Agents at Bahrain, Kuwait and Muscat – confirming that the British flag had been hauled down by a Persian officer, but that only a few days later, as soon as it was made aware of the incident, HMS Bideford had landed an armed party at Basidu and the flag had been rehoisted. Loch’s telegram further stated that His Majesty’s Chargé d'Affaires to Persia had been informed by the Persian Government that the officer had acted without authority, and that it had issued stringent instructions to its Navy to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

In a second circular telegram, issued on the same day, Loch requested that his previous message be translated into Arabic and distributed to the Arabian coast rulers, ‘who should be requested to give copies to all their notables, and by all other possible means to make it public.’ Loch concluded this telegram by stating – for the Political Agents’ personal information only – that the Royal Navy’s First Destroyer Flotilla was expected to arrive at Henjam on 15 September, for the purpose of displaying the British flag along the Arabian coast of the Gulf. An amended version of the message intended for circulation was issued the following day. In further correspondence with Dickson, Loch stressed that care should be taken to avoid linking the arrival of the flotilla with the incident at Basidu, and to avoid any suggestion of it being a threat to Persia.

Message issued by acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, for public distribution, 7 September 1933 (IOR/R/15/5/173, f 52)

Message issued by acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, for public distribution, 7 September 1933 (IOR/R/15/5/173, f 52)
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The fact that the swiftly announced flotilla tour was a direct response by the British to the Basidu incident was tacitly acknowledged in a telegram from Dickson to Loch, dated 19 September 1933, which reported that the circular, followed by news of the flotilla, had had the ‘best possible effect’ on public opinion in Kuwait. The flotilla, consisting of one flotilla leader, HMS Duncan, and eight destroyers from the Mediterranean Fleet, spent nearly a month in the Gulf, visiting Basidu, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar along the way.

It was at Dubai, on 23 September 1933, where the rulers of the Trucial states were invited to a durbar (a public audience held by a British colonial ruler, deriving from the Persian and Urdu word for court), that the purpose of the flotilla’s tour was made very clear. In his address, Loch – alluding to a statement made at another durbar by George Curzon almost exactly thirty years earlier, during a tour of the Gulf as Viceroy of India – told the rulers that the British Navy’s intervention in the Gulf had ‘compelled peace and created order on the [s]eas’ and had saved them from extinction at the hands of their enemies. He reminded his audience that the various treaties between the British Government and the Trucial rulers (beginning with the General Maritime Treaty of 1820) had made the former the overlord and protector of the latter.

Extract from speech delivered by acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, 23 September 1933 (IOR/R/15/5/173, f 70)

Extract from speech delivered by acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, 23 September 1933 (IOR/R/15/5/173, f 70)
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Curzon’s tour of the Gulf in November 1903 (as discussed in an earlier blog post) was comprised of visits to Muscat, Sharjah, Bandar Abbas, Bahrain, Kuwait and Bushire, and was intended as a demonstration of British naval supremacy, in anticipation of perceived threats in the region from France, Russia and Germany. A photograph of the durbar that took place on board RIMS Argonaut, off the coast of Sharjah, on 21 November 1903, shows the Viceroy elevated on a stage while the Arab dignitaries sit or kneel to his right.

Lord Curzon’s Durbar aboard RIMS Argonaut, Sharjah (British Library, Photo 49/1(7))
Lord Curzon’s Durbar aboard RIMS Argonaut, Sharjah (British Library, Photo 49/1(7))
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Thirty years later, the British took a relatively minor act of dissent at Basidu as an opportunity to make a very public display of their continuing naval dominance in the Gulf, in order to make it clear to the Persian Navy and to the Arab rulers that the British Government would not ignore even the slightest affront to its reputation. Loch’s remarks at Dubai were intended to remind the Trucial rulers of their relationship with the British Government and of their treaty obligations, as he warned them that ‘[t]hese engagements are binding on every one of you’.

The flotilla tour and the durbar appeared to have the desired effect. In his intelligence summary for September 1933, dated 28 September 1933, Dickson informed Loch that in Kuwait ‘[t]he general attitude of His Majesty’s Government has been most favourably commented on.’ Dickson went on to report that ‘[t]he hope is now generally expressed that the flotilla will not be withdrawn too soon, and that once for all the Persian Navy will be given to understand that it must behave itself.’ In an express letter to the Government of India’s Foreign Department, dated 19 October 1933, Loch concluded that confidence in the British had returned following the sight of the flotilla and the use of an armed party at Basidu ‘and will remain so just so long as we show ourselves determined.’

Primary sources:
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, 'File 3/3 Persian Navy', IOR/R/15/5/173
British Library: India Office Select Materials, Dane Collection: ‘Photographs of Lord Curzon’s tour in the Persian Gulf, November, 1903’, India Office Records and Private Papers Photo 49/1

Secondary sources:
John F. Riddick, The History of British India: A Chronology (London: Westport, 2006)
Kristopher Radford, ‘Curzon’s Cruise: The Pomp and Circumstances of Indian Indirect Rule of the Persian Gulf’, The International History Review, 35 (2013), 884-904

David Fitzpatrick, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
 ccownwork

08 August 2016

Rivals past and present: Global powers converge on the Gulf of Aden

While media attention has focussed on the thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, a similar crisis has been taking place in the Gulf of Aden. Almost 90,000 Yemeni refugees have crossed the Gulf to the Horn of Africa in the past eighteen months, after a Saudi-led coalition of Arab air forces began strikes against rebel forces in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbour to the south. British-made cruise missiles and French-built Leclerc tanks have been deployed in the war effort, continuing a long history of involvement in the region for both countries.

A British political memorandum of 1897 (IOR/L/PS/18/B110), from the Political & Secret series of the India Office Records, documents British and French rivalry for influence over this part of the world over one hundred years ago.

1A satellite image showing the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea. Source: NASA, through Wikimedia Commons
A satellite image showing the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea. Source: NASA, through Wikimedia Commons

The Gulf of Aden first acquired global strategic significance in 1869, when the newly-opened Suez Canal created a fast shipping route that ran through the Gulf and connected Europe with the East. In anticipation of the Gulf’s new role, the European Powers took up strategic positions close to its narrowest point at the Bab el Mandeb Strait: in 1857 Great Britain occupied Perim Island, near the Arabian coast of the strait, and shortly afterwards France and Italy claimed territory on the African coast nearby.

IOR/L/PS/20/60, f. 25v (detail)
IOR/L/PS/20/60, f. 25v (detail)

In 1868 the French also acquired land from a local ruler on the Arabian side of the strait at Sheikh Said, a promontory lying immediately behind Perim Island. The purchase was repudiated a year later by the Ottoman Government, who considered that the territory was theirs, but the matter was taken up again in 1893 when a French politician urged his government ‘to press their never abandoned claim to this position’.

The renewed French interest in the place prompted Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Vincent Stace, First Assistant to the Resident at Aden, to visit Sheikh Said later that year, and his report and sketch map are reproduced in the memorandum along with a summary history of subsequent events.

IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 6 (detail)
IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 6 (detail)

IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 7
IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 7

Stace investigated a rumour that the French planned to dredge the lagoon that lay behind the tip of the promontory and dig a canal from there to the opposite side: ‘Thus a basin would be formed in which vessels of war could lie, having two entrances, one from the Red Sea and the other from the Gulf of Aden’. Stace confirmed that the works had not begun, but warned that, if completed, they would create ‘a very formidable position’.

IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 7 (detail)
IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 7 (detail)

The matter was taken seriously at the highest levels. Both the Secretary of State for India and the Director of Military Intelligence agreed that the French should be warned off, expressing concern for the security of coaling facilities on Perim Island, and fearing that once established, the French might supply ‘modern arms to the rebellious Arab tribes’, destabilising the region and gaining influence close to the British port and coaling station at Aden.

The British solution lay in confidentially alerting the Ottoman Government to this threat, and assurances were soon received that the French would not be allowed to take over any part of the Arabian coast.

However, the French continued to assert the ‘rights of France’, and refused to give formal recognition that Sheikh Said formed part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1885 they made an abortive attempt to land a gunboat on the promontory, and in 1897 they sought clarification on their side whether or not Sheikh Said, ‘the veritable Gibraltar of the Red Sea’, was occupied by the British – a rumour that Her Majesty’s Government was happy to deny, as it was to Britain’s advantage that the promontory remained in Ottoman hands.

Before closing, the memorandum reveals a new concern that Russia too might seek a foothold in the region, after a Russian gunboat was spotted on the African shores of the Red Sea, and the document ends with the suggestion to watch further movements there by both France and Russia.

IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 10 (detail)
IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 10 (detail)

Today around eight percent of global trade passes through the Bab el Mandeb Strait on its way to or from the Suez Canal, and the major powers continue to have a strong presence in the region. France maintains a large military base in Djibouti, on the African coast of the strait, in the company of the United States, Japan, and soon China, and Russia too has recently negotiated rights to deploy its navy there. After the recent outbreak of war in Yemen, Houthi rebels captured Sheikh Said and Perim Island, from where they commanded the Bab el Mandeb Strait with missiles and long-range cannon, but they were ousted by the British, French and US-backed Arab coalition six months later .

Further reading:

UNHCR. Yemen: Regional refugee and migrant response plan.

David Styan, Djibouti: changing influence in the Horn's strategic hub. Chatham House briefing paper, April 2013.

Nicholas Dykes  Ccownwork
Cataloguer, Gulf History, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

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