Asian and African studies blog

40 posts categorized "Qatar"

28 August 2022

Translating Piracy: On the origin of the Arabic words qurṣān/qarṣanah

The terms pirate(s) and piracy feature heavily in India Office Records relating to the Persian Gulf during the nineteenth century. Many of these records have now been digitised through the British Library / Qatar Foundation partnership and can be accessed on the Qatar Digital Library accompanied by catalogue descriptions in English and Arabic. In these records, “piracy” was used to justify British naval presence in the Gulf, forming the basis of the early agreements signed with local tribal leaders. However, the Arabic versions of these agreements indicate that the Arab inhabitants of the region did not have an equivalent concept in their lexicon. So where did today’s Standard Arabic word for piracy come from? And why wasn’t it used in these agreements?

Text in Latin script followed by Arabic script in black ink on cream-coloured paper with a Latin-script title centred at the top of the image.
Article 1 of the English (IOR/L/PS/10/606, p. 131r) and Arabic (IOR/L/PS/10/606, p. 146v) versions of the 1820 treaty between Britain and the Arab tribes of the Persian Gulf. The word piracy is translated as ghārāt [raids].


Tracing the Etymology

Modern Arabic dictionaries list the terms qurṣān (pirate) and qarṣanah (piracy) under the trilateral root Q-R-Ṣ, giving the impression that this is a true Arabic word derived from this root (which generally means ‘to pinch/sting’). In fact, some Arabic sources devoted to the subject of piracy define qarṣanah as a derivative of that root (see for example, Hamid 2016: 22). However, this is a common misattribution.

The term is actually a relatively recent addition to the Arabic language, and is a cognate of the English term ‘corsair’ from the Latin cursarius. The earliest Arabic dictionary to include qurṣān to mean ‘sea thief’ is al-Bustānī’s Muḥīṭ al-Muḥīṭ (1870), where it is listed as a plural noun and marked as ‘foreign’ (إفرنجية). Further clues can be found in Reinhart Dozy’s Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes (1877-1881) which includes colloquialisms and foreign borrowings in Arabic. Dozy lists قرصل ( qurṣul), قرصال (qurṣāl) and كرسالي (kursālī) in addition to qurṣān to mean both ‘pirate’ and ‘warship’, and he links them to Spanish (corsario) and Italian (corsale). Also listed are the now common forms qarāṣinah (pirates) and qarṣanah (piracy).

Black text in Latin and Arabic scripts in spaced lines on cream-coloured paper
The entries for قرصل (qarṣala) and قرصن (qarṣana ) in Dozy’s Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes (1881, p. 329). Public Domain. Image taken by author.

As a Semitic language, Arabic has a root-and-pattern morphology. Words are formed by casting (typically 3-letter) roots into a variety of templates to produce different meanings. In the case of the borrowed word for piracy, it was a happy coincidence that it could be filed under the existing root Q-R-Ṣ.


Early Use

All this confirms that the words qurṣān and qarṣanah are of foreign origin, and that their meanings did not stabilise until modern times. One of the earliest attested uses of qurṣān in Arabic comes from a 1767 maritime treaty between the Sultan of Marrakesh, Muḥammad V (1710-1790) and the King of France, Louis XV (1710-1774).

Colour image of two manuscript pages with handwritten cramped text in Latin script on the top two thirds of the left page, and spaced Arabic script in Maghribi style on the right above and below a stylized floral seal
Image of the 1767 treaty signed between the Sultan of Marrakesh and the King of France. Public Domain.

Article 17 of the Arabic version begins:

إذا دخل قرصان من قراصين الفرنسيس لمرسى من مراسي الإيالة المولوية فإن القونصوا الحاضر في الوقت بالبلد يخبر حاكمها بذلك ليتحفظ على الأسارى الذين بالبلاد لئلا يهربوا للسفينة المذكورة...

Translation: If a qurṣān (of the qarāṣīn) of the French enters one of the harbours of the Mawlawī territory, the attending [French] Consul in the town must inform its governor so that he may take precautions over prisoners in the country to prevent them from fleeing to the aforementioned ship…

There is no doubt that qurṣān and qarāṣīn (pl.) refer to a type of ship in this context. Other parts of the treaty mention qarāṣīn flying the French flag and carrying French passports. While we can assume that qarāṣīn here means military rather than pirate ships, the line between piracy and naval warfare had been blurred in the Mediterranean for centuries. This is particularly clear in accounts of Ottoman Berber “pirates”, or the infamous “Barbary corsairs”.

Colour image of a painting of naval battle with a ship with many full sails topped by flags in the middle of a rough sea, and a smaller ship with sails in the left foreground.
‘A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs’ (after 1681) by Flemish painter Laureys a Castro. Public Domain.


Transmission and Popularisation

Given these encounters, it is not surprising that the term qurṣān entered the Arabic language through North Africa. The Arab tribes of the Persian Gulf lived on the other side of the Arabic-speaking world, so this neologism would have taken time to reach them. When they entered into maritime treaties with Britain in the nineteenth century, there was no distinct word in their vocabulary to denote ‘piracy’ as something that is exclusively perpetrated at sea.

The final step in the accession of the term into Arabic came with the language standardisation efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period known as the Arabic nahḍah. This period saw a flurry of production of dictionaries that standardised the term qurṣān as a singular form meaning ‘sea thief’. Advancements in education, media, and transport networks across the Arabic-speaking world ensured the establishment and transmission of the term.

Along with the term itself, a stereotypical Western image of the pirate also spread into modern Arab culture. Ironically, this Western image was influenced by contact with Ottoman and Arab “pirates”. For instance, the character of Redbeard is based on the Ottoman “corsair” Baba Oruç (Barbarossa), while the characteristic eye-patch is inspired by the Qāsimī “pirate” Raḥmah bin Jābir al-Jalhamī.

Black and white sketch of a man in Arabian-style robes with his face covered, and a brief textual description in Latin script at the bottom.
Sketch of Raḥmah bin Jābir al-Jalhamī from Ellms’ (1837) The Pirate’s own Book. Public Domain.

The British narrative of piracy has been challenged by writers from the region in recent years. Two notable examples are The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf by scholar and ruler of Sharjah, Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Qāsimī, and The Corsair by Qatari journalist and novelist Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud. The latter is a fictionalised account of the exploits of Raḥmah bin Jābir al-Jalhamī from an anti-imperial point of view. Its original Arabic title is al-Qurṣān. Even where the narrative is challenged, its language has stuck.


Modern Use

In the modern world, the term “piracy” has come to stand for so much more than aggression at sea, and the Arabic term qarṣanah has evolved in tandem. An example of this is the now commonly used expression ‘pirated films’ and its Arabic equivalent alflām muqarṣanah أفلام مُقَرْصَنَة.

White page with black text in two columns, with Latin script on the left and Arabic script on the right, and some words highlighted in yellow.
Screenshot of concordance results for the term piracy and its translation in memoQ, the translation management system used by BL/QFP translators.

As BL/QFP translators, wherever the English term piracy appears in catalogue descriptions, we translate it using the now established Modern Arabic word qarṣanah. However, this does not reflect historical usage and it is unlikely that the nineteenth-century Arab inhabitants of the Gulf would have heard this word, let alone used it.

Mariam Aboelezz, Arabic Translator
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership
CCBY Image


al-Bustānī, Buṭrus (1870) Muḥīṭ al-Muḥīṭ: qāmūs muṭawwal li-l-lughah al-ʿArabīyah. Beirut (OIE 492.73)

Al-Mahmoud, Abdulaziz (2011) al-Qurṣān. Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing

Al-Mahmoud, Abdulaziz (2013) The Corsair. Noweira, Amira (trans.). Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (H.2015/.9446)

al-Qāsimī, Sulṭān Muḥammad (2016) The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf. London: Routledge (DRT ELD.DS.562531)

Majmaʿ al-Lughah al-ʿArabīyah (1961). al-Muʿjam al-Wasīṭ (1961). Cairo (14589.c.21)

Dozy, Reinhart P. A. (1881). Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes, Vol II. Leiden: Brill (X.985/73)

Ellms, Charles (2004[1837]) The Pirate’s own Book. Project Gutenberg [accessed 23 June 2022]

Ḥāmid, Ḥāmid S. M. (2016) al-Qarṣanah al-Baḥariyyah: bayn al-asbāb wa-l-tadā‘iyāt wa-l-ru’á al-istrātījiyyah . Cairo: al-Markaz al-Qawmī li-l-Iṣdārāt al-Qānūnīyah

London, British Library, 'File 2902/1916 ‘Treaties and Engagements between the British Government and the Chiefs of the Arabian Coast of the Persian Gulf’' IOR/L/PS/10/606. Qatar Digital Library [accessed 23 June 2022]

Riḍā, Muḥammad R. (1904) Kitāb al-Muṣālaḥah al-Muntaẓimah bayn Ṣulṭān Marākish wa Luwīz al-Khāmis ‘ashr Malik Faransá. Majallat al-Manār, 7, pp. 783-791. Al-Maktabah al-Shāmilah [accessed 23 June 2022]

Woodbridge, David, Aboelezz, Mariam and Abu Shaban, Tahani (2021) “Piracy” in the India Office Records: some historical context . Qatar Digital Library [accessed 23 June 2022]

04 July 2022

A Historical Narrative of the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season Reflecting on the Visual Materials Found in the IOR

The India Office Records (IOR) contain some fascinating visual materials, mainly photographs capturing the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season (pilgrimage) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These visual materials are provided with short descriptions without any further elaboration on the history of the places or people captured. Displaying a number of those photographs along with some external materials, this blog presents a historical narrative of the Kaʿba, its physical features, and the development of its religious status before becoming the site of Muslim pilgrimage.

The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season in the 1880s
The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season, 1888. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar  (British Library, X463/1)

The Kaʿba is the holiest site in Islam. It is known as al-Bayt al-Haram (the Sacred House), and the second qibla (direction). It is located at the centre of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Although other Kaʿbas existed in the pre-Islamic period, such as the Kaʿba of Petra and the Kaʿba of Najran, the Kaʿba of Mecca was the most popular, hence taking over the name without the need to specify its location (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 380).

The city of Mecca
The city of Mecca. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, Photo 174/3

Muslims in general believe that the Kaʿba was the first structure on earth. Behind its majestic cubic shape hides an interesting story of its construction. Its foundation is believed to go back to the Day of Creation, when Prophet Adam built it as a house of worship.

إنّ أولَ بيتٍ وُضعَ للنّاسِ للَّذي ببكَّة مباركاً وهدىً للعالمين
The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka [Mecca] full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings. (Qurʼan 3:96)

It was, however, during the time of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) that the Kaʿba acquired its current shape and characteristics. Following God’s instructions, Ibrahim and his son Ismaʿil (Ishmael) raised the walls of the building on the foundations that were already in place since Adam’s time. The first Kaʿba was without a roof and there are different traditions concerning the number of its doorways.

وإذْ يَرفَعُ ابراهيمُ القواعدَ منَ البيتِ واسماعيلُ ربَّنا تقبلْ منّا إنكَ أنتَ السميعُ العليمُ
And remember Abraham and Ismail raised the foundations of the House (with this prayer): “Our Lord! accept (this service) from us for thou art the All-Hearing and the All-Knowing” (Qurʼan 2:127)

The significance of Ibrahim’s Kaʿba is in establishing of most of the features present in today’s Kaʿba. These are, al-Hajar al-Aswad (the Black Stone), Maqam Ibrahim (the Station of Ibrahim), Hijr Ismaʿil (the Lap of Ismaʿil), Biʾr Zamzam (the Well of Zamzam), and al-Mataf (the circular space around the Kaʿba).

Situated in the eastern corner of the Kaʿba, al-Hajar al-Aswad is believed to have descended to Ibrahim from heaven. He then set the stone as the starting point of tawaf (circumambulation) around the Kaʿba. When pilgrims pass by the stone, they know they have completed one round. Maqam Ibrahim on the other hand, is named after the place that is believed to have “miraculously” preserved the marks of Ibrahim’s feet when standing at the spot to build the Kaʿba. Today, the Maqam is in a multilateral structure made of glass and brass bars.

Main physical features of the Kaʿba
A photograph showing the main features of the Kaʿba (British Library, 1781.b.6/2)

Hijr Ismaʿil refers to the place where Ibrahim left his wife and son in Mecca. The Hijr is situated on the north-western side of the Kaʿba, and is marked by a wall surrounding it. Biʾr Zamzam, on the other hand, is believed to have sprung in the place where Ismaʿil stood, thirsty, while his mother engaged in finding water for him. Although it was subject to periods of dryness, the well continues to provide pilgrims with water until today. Al-Mataf refers to the courtyard around the Kaʿba and starts from a fixed point: al-Hajar al-Aswad.

Kaʿba during the Hajj season
Kaʿba during the Hajj season. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, 174/5)

Announcing the Kaʿba as the House of One God, Ibrahim is considered the founder of tawhid (monotheism) in Mecca, and the one who set up the pilgrimage ritual. It is believed that, pilgrimage performed by Muslims today is very similar to the one practiced during Ibrahim’s time. The Kaʿba continued its status as a place of monotheistic religion under its new guardians, the Yemenite tribe of Jurhum. The Jurhum claimed ‘they were related to Ismaʿil by intermarriage, hence their right to the guardianship’ (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 100 and 222). They were powerful in the region and greatly contributed to the prosperity of Mecca. Pilgrims brought expensive gifts to present to the Kaʿba, which eventually became full of treasure.

Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s
Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar, 1886-9 (British Library, X463/8)

The major change to the Kaʿba occurred when the head of the Khuzaʿa tribe, ʿAmr bin Luhayy al-Khuzaʿi, took over the guardianship from the Jurhum. During his trading expeditions, al-Khuzaʿi came across numerous idols (assnam); worshipped by the locals. He brought some of those with him to Mecca and placed them inside and around the Kaʿba. Al-Khuzaʻi was thus the first to introduce paganism to the region (Ibn al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Assnam, 8-9). Eventually, each of the region’s tribes began to install its own idol in the courtyard of the Kaʿba, which housed over three hundred of them (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 366). The most popular of these were Hubal, Manat, Allat, and al-ʿUzza.

Relief_of_the_Arabian_goddess_Al-Lat _Manat_and_al-Uzza_from_Hatra._Iraq_Museum
Manat, Allat and al-ʿUzza, from the 5th temple at Hatra, Ninawa Governorate, Iraq. Parthian period, 1st to 3rd century CE. Iraq Museum, Baghdad
Wikimedia Commons

Another exterior addition to the Kaʿba under the Khuzaʿa was the tradition of hanging poems on its walls. These were chosen during literary ceremonies usually performed during the pilgrimage seasons. One of these poems was the muʿallaqa of Zuhair bin Abi Sulma, which has a reference to the Quraysh and the Jurhum tribes performing pilgrimage:

فأقسمتُ بالبيتِ الذي طافَ حولَهُ         رجالٌ بنوهُ من قريشٍ وجرهم
And I swore by the House, men of Quraysh and Jurhum built it and performed circumambulation around it

Later on, a new tradition was instituted, namely, the covering of the Kaʿba called Kiswa (also Kuswa). There are different accounts about the first person who put the Kiswa on the Kaʿba, the majority of which agree on the name of the King of Himyar, Tubbaʿ al-Himyari. During his pilgrimage, al-Himyari brought the first Kiswa made of the finest of cloths from Yemen as a gift to the Kaʿba. This influenced many tribes to follow his example up until the time of Qussay bin Kilab of the Quraysh tribe.

Kiswa fragment
Kiswa fragment. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6/32)

When Qussay bin Kilab, the Prophet Muhammad’s fourth grandfather, came to power he announced himself the new guardian of the Kaʿba, and established the Quraysh power in Mecca. Qussay rebuilt the Kaʿba with stronger walls and for the first time in its history, the Kaʿba was roofed. He allowed the Kiswa to be placed over the Kaʿba only by the head of a tribe, and each year by a different tribe. The covering of the Kaʿba with a Kiswa continues to be a significant custom today.

Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca
Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/5)

Qussay was also the holder of the key to the Kaʿba, which was transferred to his descendants until it reached its final destination in the hands of a Meccan family called, the Banu Shayba who are still the key holders today.

Sons of Banu Shayba
Sons of Banu Shayba. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/22)

A few years before the advent of Islam, between 600 and 607 CE, Quraysh decided to rebuild the Kaʿba, adding more facilities to the building. According to the Sira (Prophet’s biography), when the Quraysh tribes rebuilt the Kaʿba, there was a debate on who would replace the Black Stone back on its wall. Muhammad bin ʿAbd Allah (later Prophet Muhammad) was chosen to do so. He placed the stone in the middle of a robe and asked for one man of each tribe to hold onto the robe while he placed the stone to the wall. This way all the tribes participated in placing it into the wall (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 33-35).

Muhammad and the black stone. Eul.Or.MS.20.f45r
Muhammad helping in placing the Black Stone. From Jamiʻ al-tawarikh by Rashid al-Din.Iran, c.1314 (Edinburgh University Library Or.MS.20, f. 45r)
©The University of Edinburgh

During the ascent of Islam, Prophet Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca and captured the Kaʿba in the eighth year of the Hijra (629-30 CE). The Prophet’s first mission was to revive the function Ibrahim built the Kaʿba for. He himself broke the idols inside and around it (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 234-235 and Kitab al-Assnam, 31). As the Kaʿba was recently built, the Prophet decided to keep the old building, announcing the Kaʿba as the House of the One God, where Muslims are to perform their annual pilgrimage. One of the Prophet’s companions, Bilal bin Rabah, was the first to raise the adhan (the call for prayer) from the roof of the Kaʿba.

From that day on, the Kaʿba continues to be Islam’s holiest place of worship. Today, over two million Muslim worshippers from all over the world, gather around the Kaʿba to perform their annual ritual of Hajj during the month of Dhul-Hijja of the Islamic Hijri calendar.

Zanzibar pilgrimsPilgrimsPilgrims
PilgrimsPilgrimsZanzibar pilgrims
Pilgrims from Morocco, Malaysia, Java, Sumbawa, Baghdad, and Zanzibar. From ‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka.’ Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6)

To mark the conclusion of the ritual, pilgrims sacrifice animals in the name of God and start their celebration of ʿEid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice), which this year falls on Saturday July 9th.

Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration
Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration (British Library, Photo 174/6)

Primary Sources
Album of 'Views of Mecca and Medina' by H. A. Mirza & Sons, Photographers ‎ (c. 1907). Photo 174
‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje ‎ (1888). 1781.b.6
‘Bilder aus Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1889). X463
Ibn Hisham, Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham: al-Sira al-Nabawiyya. Ed. Muhammad ʿAfif al-Zuʻbi. Beirut: Dar al-Nafaʼis, 1987.
Ibn al-Kalbi. Kitab al-Assnam. Ed. Ahmad Zaki Pasha. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya, 1995.
The Holy Quran translated by A. Yusuf Ali

Secondary Sources
Ahmed Hebbo. Tarikh al-ʿArab qabla al-Islam. Hims: Manshurat Jamiʿat al-Baʿth, 1991.

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist Arabic Language and Gulf History/ British Library Qatar Foundation Project



13 June 2022

‘I wish to be made free and to remain in this country’: Testimony of liberated enslaved women, girls and boys

On 19 November 1847, Gregor Grant, Senior Magistrate of Police at Bombay (Mumbai), sent depositions of forty-seven women and girls and twelve boys to the Government of Bombay. These individuals had been on board five baghlahs (sailing vessels) captured in the Persian Gulf in September 1847 by the East India Company’s Indian Navy and brought into Bombay Harbour. The five baghlahs (and six other vessels which were also seized), belonged to subjects of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman and Zanzibar, Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd. The vessels were seized for carrying enslaved people, in contravention of the 1845 treaty between the United Kingdom and the Sultan, which prohibited the export of enslaved people from his East African dominions and the import of enslaved African people into his Omani territory (but still allowed the transport of enslaved people in the area between Lamu and Kilwa, including Zanzibar). The treaty was effective from 1 January 1847, and this was the first instance of the terms of the treaty being carried out by British authorities.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin scriptWhite paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin scriptWhite paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Copy of the treaty of 2 October 1845 between Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and the Sultan of Muscat and Oman and Zanzibar, Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd, IOR/L/PS/5/452, ff 318-19. Copyright status unknown.

The correspondence concerning the five baghlahs and the people on board can be found in the India Office Records file IOR/L/PS/5/452, which has been digitised and can be accessed through the Qatar Digital Library.

The depositions generally consist of brief statements on the same subjects, indicating that the individuals concerned were each asked the same or similar questions orally, the responses to which were translated into English and recorded in writing, or paraphrased, since the same or similar phrases tend to be used in different depositions. However, although they are in a mediated form and should therefore be treated with some caution, the depositions do provide access to the voices of enslaved women, girls and boys. This post will focus on their testimony, and what happened to them subsequently in Bombay.

The women, girls and boys were declared liberated by the British authorities in Bombay, but were placed under Grant’s charge and initially detained in a police hulk. Three of the women stated that they were actually the wives of three of the nakhudas (captains or masters) of the baghlahs, to whom they wanted to return. Grant informed the Government of Bombay that one of these women, ‘Absheree’, was ‘perfectly inconsolable under the separation’ and he was satisfied from the testimony of ‘the whole of her companions’ and of the women themselves that they were indeed the nakhudas’ wives, so he sent them back to their husbands.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Absheree’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 380v. Crown copyright.

Grant reported that the remaining individuals appeared to be ‘Gallas or Abyssinians’ (Oromo or Habesha people), except three or four individuals who appeared to be natives of Zanzibar. The majority of the individuals stated in their depositions that they remembered where they were born or where their parents were from, with the most frequently named places including Gurage and Jimma in Ethiopia.

A map of Ethiopia with names in Latin script written in black ink in various directions; roads indicated with red or black lines; yellow colouring for coasts, and bluish colouring for water
‘Sketch delineative of the ROUTES OF SLAVE-CARAVANS through Abyssinia to the shores of ARABIA.’, c 1842, IOR/L/PS/5/413, f 517. Crown copyright.

Most of the individuals stated that they did not know how old they were, although one woman, ‘Boutie’, said she was ‘under twenty years of age’. Grant reported that their ages ‘appear to vary generally from 8 or 10, to 18 or 20 – but there are one or two girls beyond the former age and one or two women who appear considerably older than 20 years of age’. There is plenty of evidence that purchasers of enslaved people in the western Indian Ocean region (including East Africa and Madagascar, North-Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and the western coast of the Indian subcontinent) preferred children and young people, and it was rare for enslaved people over thirty years’ old to be sold. Children and young people were more easily captured and subdued than adults. Young people were also more able to assimilate with their owners through learning a new language and adopting unfamiliar manners and customs, and they were valued for their potential upon reaching physical maturity. The gender ratio of the enslaved people on board the baghlahs, most of them being female, supports the conventional view that the majority of enslaved people traded in the Indian Ocean World were female (although Hideaki Suzuki argues that a number of contemporary records from East Africa challenge this view). Gwyn Campbell states that girls and young women were valued particularly for sexual attractiveness and reproductive capability. Some female enslaved people in the Indian Ocean World were employed as water carriers and in agriculture, textile production, and mining, but most were absorbed into wealthy households, mainly to provide domestic and sexual services, as servants, secondary wives, concubines, wet nurses, or entertainers.

Nearly half of the individuals deposed that they had been taken captive when very young and sold into slavery, but others stated that they had been captured and enslaved as recently as a year ago. Whilst several individuals stated that they remembered their parents, nearly half stated that they could not remember them. Several of the women and girls said that they had been made captive during a war or by a ‘hostile tribe’.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Hulkakesh’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 377v. Crown copyright.

Some of the depositions refer to the individuals ‘passing through several hands’ after being sold into slavery. Many enslaved people in the western Indian Ocean region experienced short periods of possession and frequent resale by owners. The main reasons for this were that enslaved people were at risk of illness or death from the repeated serious epidemics of diseases the region experienced, and British naval attempts to suppress the trade in enslaved people meant that holding and trading in enslaved people was a dangerous activity. Thus there was less risk involved in short-term possession of enslaved people and owners were more likely to be able to sell them on for a profit.

Of the individuals who knew the name of or remembered the place where they were put on board the vessels captured by the Indian Navy, seventeen stated that this had been at Sur in Oman, five at Muscat, and three at Berbera. They deposed that the nakhudas were ordered to take them to Basra to be sold.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Futaleh’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 375. Crown copyright.

The depositions of the majority of the individuals state either that they wished to remain in Bombay or that they were willing to do so, with many stating that they had no desire to return to their country of birth. One woman, ‘Futaleh’, stated: ‘I wish to be made free and go to my own country – but if “Belilla” remain in this country I shall be very glad to stay also’. Several other women and girls stated that they wished to remain in Bombay if a particular woman or girl, or the other women they were with, also stayed there.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Uttegoollee’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 371v. Crown copyright.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Tomasha’, IOR/L/PS/5/413, f 372. Crown copyright.

Grant wrote to the Government of Bombay that the twelve boys ‘seem very fine intelligent lads’. He reported that two boys, ‘Amber’ and ‘Roba’: ‘positively deny that they are, or ever were slaves [enslaved people], and they are most anxious to be permitted to return to their master, who they state, is instructing them as seamen’ (although Roba’s deposition actually states that he was his master’s ‘household slave’). Therefore these two boys were allowed to return to their master, the nakhuda of one of the baghlahs. Grant subsequently reported that in accordance with the Government’s instructions, the remaining ten boys had been made over to the Superintendent of the Indian Navy, Commodore Sir Robert Oliver, for ‘care and naval education’.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Depositions of ‘Amber’ and ‘Roba’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 381. Crown copyright.

White paper with handwritten text in black ink in lines in Latin script
Deposition of ‘Songoee’, IOR/L/PS/5/452, f 373. Crown copyright.

Grant had also been instructed to invite applications from ‘respectable persons’ to take the women and girls on as servants, with preference to be given to Christian families. He informed the Government of Bombay on 30 December 1847 that there had been many applicants, mostly ‘Mahomedans’ [Muslims], and also ‘a few respectable Portuguese Gentlemen’. He met the applicants at the house where the women and girls were being accommodated and ‘did all in [his] power to induce some of them’ to accompany the Portuguese applicants to their homes. Grant had previously reported that the women and girls ‘have been taught nothing whatever of Religion beyond the fact that there is a God – and on this score consequently no difficulties present themselves as regards their disposal’. However, he now reported that:

‘on the very mention of their taking service with Christian families, they became most violent, declaring that they would rather lose their lives than enter the families of the “Frank” and the “Kafir” [non-believers]. – as they designated all who had not on the Mahomedan garb’.

Only one woman, ‘Zaide’, agreed to take service with one of the Portuguese applicants. Grant wrote that he ultimately persuaded ‘the greater number of the girls’ to accompany ‘some respectable Mahomedan Gentlemen’ to their houses, but they:

‘divided themselves into parties of four or five each, and absolutely refused to be separated. They were, therefore, made over according to their own selection to the most respectable of the applicants, who promised to take care of them in their families till they should have acquired such knowledge of the language and the people among whom they have been brought to live as to enable them to act for themselves. They were most capricious in fixing on the individuals to accompany; those whose dress approximated to that worn by Arabs seemed to be preferred; and there was no alternative but to let them have their choice’.

Grant went on to state that he would communicate the manner in which the remaining girls ‘may be disposed of’, but this is the last reference to them in this file.

The Government of Bombay instructed Oliver to direct the naval officers in the Persian Gulf to make the seizures of the baghlahs widely known, so that ‘all may see the firm purpose of Government to suppress slavery’. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had transformed Britain from a nation prolific in the trade in enslaved people (including involvement in the Indian Ocean trade between the 1620s and the late eighteenth century), to the world’s leading campaigner against the trade. The British naval campaign against the trade in enslaved people in the western Indian Ocean was active from the 1840s, following a series a legal agreements to suppress the trade with Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd and rulers on the Arabian coast of the Gulf. Naval suppression measures up to 1860 were insufficient though, and by the 1850s only a relatively small number of enslaved people had been liberated. In 1873, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Barghash bin Sa‘īd Āl Bū Sa‘īd, signed a treaty banning the trade in enslaved people in his territory. This treaty did not actually end the trade in the western Indian Ocean, but it meant it was illegal and clandestine, and the treaty was followed by conventions between the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire in 1880 and Persia (Iran) in 1882 which aided suppression efforts in the Red Sea and the Gulf.

Susannah Gillard, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
CCBY Image

Further reading


Richard B. Allen, ‘Satisfying the "Want for Labouring People": European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850’ Journal of World History, 21 (2010), 45-73.

Gwyn Campbell (ed.), Abolition and its Aftermath in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, London: Routledge, 2005. (YC.2007.a.1041)

Gwyn Campbell (ed.), The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia, London: Frank Cass, 2003. (YC.2005.a.4903)

Robert Harms, Bernard K. Freamon, and David W. Blight (eds.), Indian Ocean Slavery in the Age of Abolition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. (YC.2014.a.11288)

Hideaki Suzuki, Slave Trade Profiteers in the Western Indian Ocean: Suppression and Resistance in the Nineteenth Century , Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. (DRT ELD.DS.342900)

29 December 2021

Situations of Delicacy and Embarrassment: Ill-considered Favours in 1830s Persia

If you have ever started a new job, you may have found it difficult to catch up with the incomplete affairs in which your predecessor had been involved. You may be able to empathise then with James Morison, who took over as Resident in the Persian Gulf in September 1835. On Morison’s first inspection of the Residency treasury, he was taken aback by the large amount of money and valuable objects contained therein. Furthermore, Morison was alarmed that many of the items apparently belonged to individuals with no political or official connection to the East India Company; as a public office, the Residency treasury should normally only have been used to hold public money and valuables. Moreover, Morison was conscious that Bushehr, where the Residency was based, was in an unsettled and vulnerable state. If violence erupted in the area, the treasury would be an enticing and obvious target for thieves taking advantage of any disruption. Such was Morison’s unease about the contents of the treasury that he wrote to the Government of Bombay on 6 November 1835, seeking advice.

'Entrance to Bushire Residency', c 1870, author unknown
Photograph captioned 'Entrance to Bushire Residency', c 1870, author unknown. Photo 355/1/34.  Public Domain

In his letter, Morison highlighted the most conspicuous items that he had discovered during his inspection: three packages, sealed with the mark of Rizā Qulī Mīrzā Nā'ib al-Īyālah, a member of the Persian [Iranian] ruling family and former Governor of Bushehr. As well as having a royal owner, these packages were notable for three reasons. Firstly, they were by far the most valuable articles in the treasury. Morison’s research lead him to believe that the packages were valued at 5-13,000 Persian tomans or 30-60,000 Bombay rupees – which translates to hundreds of thousands of pounds in today’s money. Secondly, the packages bore an inscription which stated that they should only be handed over either to Rizā Qulī, or someone who possessed a document signed by Lieutenant Samuel Hennell, Morison’s predecessor, permitting their release. This confirmed that the articles had been placed in the treasury with the knowledge of the previous Resident, although the question of this being a public or private transaction remained. Thirdly – and most worryingly – tumultuous events arising from the death of Fatḥ ‘Alī Shāh, Shāh of Persia, meant that the discovery of these articles within the Residency treasury could potentially be damaging to British-Persian relations.

diamonds, rubies and emeralds.
Extract of the list of contents of Rizā Qulī’s treasure, including weapons and jewellery set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. IOR/F/4/1596/64626, f. 534r. Crown copyright, used under terms of Open Government License

Rizā Qulī was the son of the late Ḥusayn ‘Alī Mīrzā Farmānfarmā, Prince Governor of Fars, who had died in captivity following his failed attempt to claim the throne of Persia from his nephew, Muḥammad. When Ḥusayn ‘Alī had been captured, Rizā Qulī and two of his brothers had fled Shiraz. As Morison emphasised in his letter to Bombay, there was currently an extensive search being carried out by Manūchihr Khān Gurjī, the new Governor of Fars, to obtain the missing treasure and property of the late Ḥusayn ‘Alī. If reports were true, Morison was sure that Manūchihr Khān would already be aware of the extent and location of the packages currently held in the treasury. The situation, Morison feared, might lead to much misunderstanding and could place himself and the Ambassador at Tehran in a situation ‘of some delicacy and embarrassment’.

Ḥusayn ‘Alī Mīrzā Farmānfarmā, attributed to Mihr ‘Alī in the early 19th century
Ḥusayn ‘Alī Mīrzā Farmānfarmā, attributed to Mihr ‘Alī in the early 19th century. Wikimedia Commons

In response to Morison’s letter, the Government of Bombay instructed him to send the packages on board one of the East India Company’s ships of war for safekeeping until a decision could be made. They wrote to Hennell, the Acting Resident when the articles had been deposited in the treasury and who had been in Bombay on sick leave since July 1835. He replied to the Government on 11 February 1836, admitting that he had reluctantly agreed to hold Rizā Qulī’s private property in the treasury towards the end of 1834. He had felt obliged to do so due to the ‘intimate footing’ between Rizā Qulī and the British authorities in the Gulf, as well as the former’s kind treatment of all Residency members. With Rizā Qulī now on the run, it was unclear if or when he would return to Bushehr, and so Hennell suggested that the packages be sent to Basra and held securely on board a ship of war there, until Rizā Qulī could send an agent to collect them.

As for the diplomatic sensitivities, Hennell clarified that an agent of Manūchihr Khān had already made enquiries about missing treasure in July 1835. Hennell had been transparent with the agent, who seemed satisfied by Hennell's responses and made no further enquiries. The Government of Bombay criticised Hennell’s poor judgement in accepting Rizā Qulī’s private property, but focused on returning the packages to the fugitive prince as quickly as possible.

Morison's problem was solved. However, the incident perhaps served as an appropriate introduction to the role of Resident and the balancing act he would be required to perform when dealing with ruling families in the Gulf. Whilst beneficial to cultivate relationships with powerful elites, this could lead to difficulties when their power diminished and other individuals emerged as frontrunners to the throne. The favourable treatment shown to the British by Rizā Qulī had resulted in Hennell feeling somewhat obliged to agree to Rizā Qulī’s request, and to consequently bend the rules with regard to appropriate use of the Residency’s treasury.

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

Further reading

London, British Library, ‘Vol: 1. Affairs of the Persian Gulf’, IOR/F/4/1596/64625
London, British Library, ‘Vol: 2. Affairs of the Persian Gulf’, IOR/F/4/1596/64626
Gavin R G Hambly, ‘Farmanfarma, Hosayn Ali Mirza’, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 1999
The Political Residency, Bushire’, Qatar Digital Library

19 July 2021

The Term 'Shater' and its Use in the India Office Records

1 Entry of Shah of Persia  Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar  into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters
Entry of the Shah of Persia, Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar, into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters. Morier, A Second Journey..., after p. 386. Public domain

As part of cataloguing the India Office Records (IOR), we occasionally come across unfamiliar terms that make us question their origin and how they relate to the way they are used in the records. The case under consideration here is the term shater (pl. shaters), used in the IOR to refer to foot messengers. Shaters were employed to travel long distances, usually within Persia [Iran], in short periods of time to deliver letters to and from local governors, merchants, or the East India Company’s representatives. This post traces the possible roots of the term shater, and its development throughout history to bear the meaning of a foot messenger.

2 Two shotters carrying letters to Isfahan Nov 1708
Two shotters [shaters] carrying letters to Isfahan, Nov 1708 (IOR/G/29/2, f. 2r). Public domain

Arabic language dictionaries indicate that the term shater (Ar. shāṭir pl. shuṭṭar) has its origins in the root sh-ta-ra, which primarily means to distance oneself from family or tribe; someone who is shrewd at finding ways to do things, or overcoming obstacles. These meanings relate directly to a group known in Pre-Islamic Arabic literature as al-Sa‘alik [Brigands]. Members of this group were exiled by their tribes, and sometimes they chose to distance themselves. As they grew up alone, they developed their own life-style, and adopted certain characteristics that distinguished them from others. They were said to be ‘sharp, brave and as agile as horses’ (Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, pp. 375-378). An Arabic proverb indicates how agile a person is by comparing him to one of the Sa‘alik, who was also a famed poet, called al-Shanfara. The proverb says:

أعدى من الشنفرى
Swifter than al-Shanfara
(Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, p. 375)

Some Sa‘alik were also known to be crafty thieves and sometimes noble robbers who stole from the wealthy to feed the poor:

وعيّابةٌ للجودِ لم تدرِ أنني       بإنهابِ مالِ الباخلينَ موكَّلُ
And the critics of munificence are unaware that I am in charge of ripping misers off what they possess
(In the words of a thief, in Al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, p. 116)

The Sa‘alik’s lifestyle helped them to become familiar with trade routes, and some of them began to earn their living by protecting trade caravans instead of raiding them. Merchants recruited some of the Sa‘alik to walk ahead and protect them from possible attacks.

Several groups that were similar in nature to the Sa‘alik emerged in the early ‘Abbasid period (750-1258) under various names and characteristics. Among them were the shuttar. These were often associated with another group known as al-‘Ayyarin, vagabonds who appeared to drift aimlessly from one place to another. Besides sharing the Sa‘alik’s characteristics, the shuttar were well-organised, and worked collectively under an elected leader. They possessed a revolutionary spirit, leading popular resistance against corruption and social norms. Although some considered the shuttar to be anarchists (fawdawiyyin), the group was actually a socialist movement engaging in class struggle (al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 135 and 396). The shuttar were even condemned as ‘trouble makers’ by the authorities of medieval Baghdad (Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 126-127).

Nonetheless, the group became particularly popular during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), who won them over to use their strength to put down disorder in his capital. Reportedly, a large group of shuttar played a crucial role in the fitna ('dispute') of 811-812 CE, between al-Rashid’s two sons al-Amin (r. 809-813) and al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833). The shuttar’s rebellious nature enabled them to impose new laws where existing ones were unpopular, something which earned many of them public admiration and they eventually became more accepted by the authorities.

By the mid-ninth century, the role of a shater had evolved from being a trouble-maker to someone who worked closely with the authorities. Governors arranged festivals, where they enjoyed watching the shuttar engage in ritual combat where the winner would be offered a silk kaftan and join the governor’s special guards. Henceforth, the shuttar were recruited as soldiers with a distinctive uniform. Under their own leadership, they marched ahead of the royal army. Some shuttar, however, continued to work as paid guards of trade caravans in much the same way as the Sa‘alik of the pre-Islamic period.

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the shuttar became familiar with landscapes, languages and dialects, which perhaps helped them to be recruited as foot messengers. This was particularly true of the Persian Court shaters, who in addition to their role as the Shah’s special guards, also worked as foot messengers. One of the foremost Arabic lexicons that defines the term shater as foot messenger is the Taj al-‘Arus by al-Zabidi (d. 1790/1). In addition to the usual meanings of the term shater, al-Zabidi equates the term with a courier who delivers mail over long distances in a short period of time.

It is most likely that al-Zabidi was influenced by how the term shater was used in Persia at the time. Derived from the same Arabic root, in Persian the term shater means someone who is shrewd, fast, and fearless. In Safavid Iran (1501-1736), and probably before, the shater was said to act as a ‘bridge’, who ran before the horses of kings and other great men, opening the way for them to pass through the people. This continued to be the case in the Qajar period (1785-1925). Shaters were also appointed to the post of foot messengers during a special ceremony set for the occasion. References to shaters holding official positions as foot messengers in Safavid and Qajar Iran appear regularly in the IOR. One of the records gives a description of shaters, wearing special garments, during a special election ceremony as swift runners, who preceded the Shah of Persia’s retinue. 

Shaters’ outfit and their election ceremony
’ outfit and their election ceremony (IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1, pp. 332-3). Public domain

While some Arabic dictionaries from the 18th century onwards described the term shater as a foot messenger, this was not how it was used by Arabic speakers. Instead, the term kept its initial meaning and developed an additional complimentary one. Today, describing someone as shater is considered a compliment. When translated into Persian, the term was first used with reference to a special guard who preceded the Shah’s army. However, the characteristics of a shater led to the development of a new position as part of an already well-established Persian postal system. Although the office of a shater seems very similar in nature to that of a chapar (horse-mounted messenger), the former would have differed by travelling on foot for most of his journey. Whether shaters had to occasionally use horses during their journey or not, a detailed study of the Persian postal system could answer this, something which is beyond the parameters of the present article.

5 Shotter delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory  Nov 1726
'Shotter' delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory, Nov 1726 (IOR/G/29/3, f. 4v). Public domain

6 Shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory  Nov 1732
The shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory, Nov 1732 (IOR/G/29/16, f. 131r). Public domain

It would be difficult to establish exactly when the term shater was first used to refer to a foot messenger, yet it can be assumed that this was the case at least since the early Safavid period. Although it originates from Arabic, the term shater with its new meaning became a particularity of Iranian culture. Similar to the Sa‘alik, and ‘Abbasid Baghdad’s shuttar, the Persian shaters were swift runners; brave; familiar with the landscapes and the languages of the people they met on their journeys; and above all, they were trusted by the ruling power who appointed them as foot messengers.

Primary Sources
James Morier, A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816... (London: Longman, Hurst, etc, 1818)
Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-ʿArab. (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1981)
IOR/G/29/2 ‘Diary and Consultations of Mr Eaton Dodsworth…’
IOR/G/29/3 ‘Diary and Consultation Book of Thomas Waters…’
IOR/G/29/16 ‘Letters and Enclosures etc., Received from Gombroon’
IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1 ‘Persia and the Persian Question by the Hon. George Nathaniel Curzon, M.P.
IOR/R/15/5/397 John Richardson, A Dictionary, Persian, Arabic, and English; with a Dissertation on the Languages, Literature, and Manners of Eastern Nations
al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-A‘sha fi Kitabat al-Insha, vol 2 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Amiriyya, 1913)
al-Zabidi, Taj al-‘Arus min Jawahir al-Qamus, vol 3 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Wahbiyya, undated)

Secondary Sources
Muhammad Rajab al-Najjar, Hikayat al-Shuttar wa al-‘Ayyarin (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-ʿAmma li-Qusur al-Thaqafa, 2002)
Shawqi Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi: al-‘Asr al-Jahili (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1960).

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist-Arabic Languages/ Britih Library Qatar Foundation Project

27 May 2021

Fragments of Abbasid Sciences: From Desert Monastery to Digital Reunion

As the Qatar Digital Library (QDL) uploads its two millionth image this week, we’d like to celebrate the nearly 80,000 images of British Library Arabic scientific manuscripts that contribute to this achievement.

One of the most fascinating of these manuscripts and one of the oldest is a thousand-year-old fragment of a Christian Arabic miscellany in Or. 8857. Enhanced cataloguing facilitated by the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership has provided a glimpse of the scientific interests and texts available to readers in the monasteries of the Near East around AD1000 and also of the diverse communities that produced these manuscripts in monastic scriptoria. Creating a digital surrogate of this fragment for the QDL has also allowed us to virtually reorder its folios and even remotely reunite it with another, larger fragment from the same manuscript held in another collection.


Acquisition and condition

On 30 May 1921, the British Museum acquired five folios of a Syriac manuscript along with thirty-three folios of a very ancient Arabic manuscript from F.W. Bickel, an antiquities dealer in Zürich specialising in Christian oriental manuscripts.

Off-white paper with two lines of cursive text in the Latin alphabet
Acquisition note: ‘Bought of F. W. Bickel. 30 May, 1921.’ (British Library, Or. 8857, endleaf verso [ii-v])
CC Public Domain Image

When this purchase was recorded in the British Museum acquisition register, the fragmentary Arabic manuscript was given the shelfmark Or. 8857 along with a typically brief description: ‘Or. 8857. A fragment of a work on the calendar, followed by some prescriptions. 33ff. XIth. cent. 8o Arabic’. Clearly the manuscript was old – 5thAH/11th AD century according to the acquisition register. But details about its contents were scanty, and nothing was said about its provenance.

Off-white paper divided into three with small boxes on left and right and large one in the centre, all of which are filled with cursive text in the Latin alphabet in black ink
Entry for Or. 8857 in the British Museum acquisition register ( List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034, p. 275 [British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7])
CC Public Domain Image

When the thirty-three paper folios that comprise Or. 8857 entered the British Museum, they were evidently in disarray. Not only is there no evidence to suggest that the folios arrived with a binding, but worse – the sewing that held the quires had disintegrated and the loose bifolia had broken apart along their spine-folds to become individual folios. At some point, probably shortly after their acquisition, all thirty-three folios were mounted on paper guards and sewn into a new binding with little regard to their original order but perhaps preserving the order in which they had arrived at the British Museum.

Off white manuscript folio with two columns of text in black ink in the Arabic script and red stamp with British Museum seal at bottom
The first folio, according to the manuscript’s present arrangement, is not what it seems. Its layout suggests either poetry or two columns of prose but, in fact, it is a list of the planets that rule each hour of the day, and it runs horizontally across the page despite the columns. What appears to be an eastern Arabic five (٥) in the upper left corner – perhaps explaining the western Arabic five in the lower right-hand corner – is actually a Coptic seventy (𐋰), which indicate that this is really not the first but the penultimate folio (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 1r)
CC Public Domain Image

After this conservation work, the manuscript seems to have rested unnoticed until a more complete list of its contents was prepared for the Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library (pp. 353, 357, 385 and 389). But it was not catalogued in detail until it was selected for digitisation for the QDL.


Date and context of production

The manuscript is written in a squat and angular script that has been described as ‘Kufic’. This script is now considered one of a loosely defined group of scripts generically called Abbasid Bookhand because they were developed in the early Abbasid chancery and employed for copying books on both sacred and secular topics from roughly the 3rd/9th to 5th/11th century. They were then replaced by the maghribī script in the extreme west of the Islamic world and by the naskh script almost everywhere else.

Apart from the manuscript’s archaic script and paper, other features help to define the time and place it was copied. Chief amongst these are its quire signatures, numbers that tell the bookbinder the correct order in which to bind the quires that make up a manuscript. In this manuscript two sets of quire signatures are found on the first and last folio of each quire. These quire signatures are written using two separate systems of alphabetic numerical notation: Greek and Georgian. The use of these two numeral systems alongside an Arabic text written in Abbasid Bookhand and featuring the distinctive punctuation marks displayed in this manuscript all attest to the collaboration of multi-ethnic and multilingual artisans in the Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian monastic scriptoria of the early Abbasid period. The particular combination of quire signatures found here, however, is most typical of the scriptorium of the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, especially during the late-4th/10th and early-5th/11th century.

Double page spread of manuscript on off-white paper with writing in Arabic script in black ink, with several features highlighted by red, green and blue circles placed over the text
Opening from the Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azmina), which displays a variety of punctuation and space-filling marks as well as Greek quire signatures (circled in green, Η = 8 right and Θ = 9 left), Georgian quire signatures (circled in red, Ⴆ = 7 lower right and Ⴇ = 9 upper right) and Coptic folio number (circled in blue, 𐋯𐋩 = 69) (British Library, Or. 8857, ff. 10v and 17r)

Or. 8857, ff. 10v:
Or. 8857, ff. 17r:
CC Public Domain Image


Reordering the folios

The quire marks demonstrate that Or. 8857 is a fragment containing the remains of quires 5–9 of a larger original manuscript. But without putting the folios back in their original order, it would be impossible to know how much of each quire has survived. Luckily, each folio also has a number in its head margin. Although these folio numbers are likely to have been added somewhat after the quire signatures, they are early and they also attest to the multilingual context in which the manuscript was produced and consumed since they are written using the Coptic epact alphabetic numerals. The use of these numerals was not restricted to the Coptic community, and they are commonly referred to as ‘register letters’ (ḥurūf al-zimām) since they were favoured by merchants and administrators for use in their registers and account books.

Like the Arabic alphabetic numerals (ḥurūf al-jumal, commonly called abjad) – the numerical values of which happen to be explained on ff. 1v–2r of this manuscript – the Greek, Georgian and Coptic (zimām) alphabetic numeral systems all have a base of ten (unlike Roman numerals, which also have a sub-base of five) and they are additive (unlike Roman numerals, which also subtractive) rather than positional (like Arabic numerals). This means that to write the number 123 in alphabetic numerals, one does not write the letter representing 1 in the hundreds place, 2 in the tens place and 3 in the ones place as done with Arabic numerals. Rather, one writes the letters representing 100 (+) 20 (+) 3.

Table with first column and row in grey background with Greek letters in the central cells
Greek majuscule alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Georgian letters in the central cells
Georgian majuscule (Asomtavruli) alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Coptic letters in the central cells
Coptic epact or zimām numerals 1–900

Reading the Coptic (zimām) foliation along with the quire signatures, it becomes clear that Or. 8857 is a fragment of five quaternions (quires 5–9) comprising folios 37–71 of a larger manuscript of unknown extent. Quires 5, 6 and 8 are still complete with eight folios each, while quire 7 is missing the two folios of its inner bifolium, and only the first three folios from quire 9 are preserved.

Five schematic diagrams of thick or hatched blue lines forming concentric c-shaped items flipped so that they are open to the left
Visualisation of the original quire arrangement of the folios in Or. 8857. Historic Coptic (zimām) foliation at left and modern British Museum foliation in brackets at right. Note that the Georgian signatures for quires 7 and 8 are erroneously reversed. (Visualisation produced with Viscodex)
CC Public Domain Image


Diverse monastic reading material

Once we know the original order of the folios, we can see that Or. 8857 contains a variety of texts on subjects more or less obviously suited to the monks of Monastery of St Catherine.

1) Fragment of a Christian prayer (f. 37r–37v [British Museum f. 18r–18v]);

2) Prayer Taken from the Book of the Prophet David (Duʿā mustakhraj min Kitāb Dāwūd al-nabī, ff. 37v–41r [BM ff. 18v–22r]);

3) Prayer Composed by One of the Righteous Christian Believers (Duʿā allafahu baʿḍ al-muʾminīn al-muḥiqqīn min al-Naṣārá, ff. 41r–47v [BM ff. 22r–28v]);

4) Three recipes for incense (ff. 47v–49v [BM ff. 28v–30v]);

5) The Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azminah, ff. 49v–70v, ff. 56–57 missing [BM ff. 30v–33v, 11r–16v, 3r–10v, 17r–17v, 1r and 1v]);

6) Fragment of an astrological text (ff. 70v-71v [BM ff. 1v-2v]).

The prayers that occupy the first eleven folios are clearly appropriate in a monastic context although certain features may seem jarring to the modern eye. One prayer ends with the invocation ‘O Lord of the Worlds!’ ( yā Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn, f. 18v), for example, and another is preceded by the basmala ( bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, f. 22r), both phrases which occur in the Qurʿān and appear distinctly Islamic today. But during this early period, and for centuries after Or. 8857 was copied, these phrases were used in common by the Arabic-speaking adherents of all the Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand, although incense does not necessarily imply church ritual, the Trinitarian formula ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (bi-sm al-Ab wa-al-Ibn wa-rūḥ al-qudus, f. 28v) at the beginning of the incense recipes attests to their Christian context.

The last two texts in the fragment, however, seem less typical of a monastic library. The Book of Seasons is a sort of almanac containing information about the calendar, the heavens, weather phenomena, human illness and health and agricultural matters as they pertain to the twelve months of the year. This genre of literature, in which titles like the Book of Seasons or the Book of Asterisms ( Kitāb al-anwāʾ) are common, provided important guides for living in harmony with the natural rhythms of the year – especially useful for monastic communities surviving in often harsh and semi-isolated conditions. Indeed, one of the earliest authors of this genre was Abū Zakarīyā Yūḥannā ibn Māsawayh (d. 243/857), a Nestorian Christian hospital director at Baghdad, personal physician to the Abbasid caliphs and teacher of the Nestorian physician and translator Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 260/873).

Single page of Arabic-script text in black ink with several words in red ink on off-white paper
Information on the names of the months in Syriac, Greek and Persian from the beginning of the Book of Seasons, preceded by the basmala (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 30v)
CC Public Domain Image

The fragment ends with an anonymous introductory text on astrology, which includes an unusual method for determining a person’s ascendant not by observing their natal horoscope chart, but through numerological analysis of their name and that of their mother. While this text may seem the least appropriate in a monastery, there was considerable legal and theological disagreement about which of the various astrological practices were licit or illicit, and knowledge of the planets' influences on the environment and the human body was generally considered an important part of maintaining good health and wellbeing.


Fragments reunited

A much larger fragment of the same manuscript of which Or. 8857 is also a fragment is now held at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan under the shelfmark X 201 sup. According to a note by Mons. Enrico Rodolfo Galbiati (Doctor of the Ambrosiana 1953–84, Prefect of the Ambrosiana 1984–89) written in the margin of the Ambrosiana’s copy of Löfgren and Traini’s Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (vol. 1, p. 33), X 201 sup. was amongst a lot purchased in 1910 from an unknown dealer in Munich by Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, then Prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (1907-14), but soon to lead the Catholic Church as Pope Pius XI (1922–39).

X 201 sup. has also been digitised and is now available on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, where I stumbled upon it, immediately recognising its similarity to Or. 8857. Like Or. 8857, the Milan manuscript is a miscellany combining Christian material with texts on herbal remedies, medicine, astrology and related topics. Likewise, the same Abbasid Bookhand and number of lines per page are found in both manuscripts. But it is the Greek and Georgian quire signatures alongside Coptic foliation found in both manuscripts that prove they are two pieces of the same puzzle.

According to the Coptic foliation and bilingual quire signatures, Or. 8857 contains ff. 37–71 (ff. 56 and 57 are missing) of the original manuscript, and its last quire signature is 9 on f. 17r (f. 69r of the Coptic foliation). The Milan manuscript contains 227 folios (beginning at ff. 97 and ending at f. 337 of the Coptic foliation, with some gaps), and its first quire signature is 13 on f. 101r (f. 5r of the modern Ambrosiana foliation).

We know that the quires in Or. 8857 were quaternions, which have eight folios each, so we would expect the Milan manuscript to be composed of quaternions too – although it should be pointed out that irregular quires are not unusual in manuscripts. Between the beginning of quire 9 (the last in Or. 8857) and the beginning of quire 13 (the first to begin in the Milan manuscript) there were four quires, which if they were all regular quaternions, should equal thirty-two folios (4 quires x 8 folios in each quire = 32 folios). When we count from the beginning of quire 9 on f. 69 of the Coptic foliation and to the end of quire 12 on f. 100 there are, indeed, exactly thirty-two folios, confirming that the two manuscripts are fragments from the same original manuscript.

Even though 77 folios have been lost from the original manuscript (ff. 1–36, 56–57 and 72–96 of the Coptic foliation, plus another 14 within the body of X 201 sup.), a very substantial 260 folios have now been identified, and this will no doubt form the basis for future studies into Abbasid scientific traditions amongst Christian monastic communities.

Thanks to international digitisation projects, the magic of IIIF, and the Mirador viewer there are fewer barriers than ever before to studies of this kind. In fact, anyone with a computer and access to the internet can virtually reunite the two fragments of this manuscript by following the steps below.

1) Navigate to X 201 sup. on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, and click on the words ‘Visualizza la copia digitale’. The images will open in the Mirador viewer via your web browser. Open the dropdown menu at the top left corner of the viewer window and choose a location in the viewer window at which to display Or. 8857.

A screen shot showing the cover of a book with a red binding, with thumbnails of pages on the bottom, and the file menu in the top left hand corner dropped down and highlighted in a red box with rounded edges

2) You will now see that a blank canvas has opened at your chosen location.

Screen shot with a book with a red binding atop thumbnails of pages on the left-hand side and a dark grey area with a red-outlined oval on the right-hand side

3) In another browser window, navigate to any page on the QDL displaying images of Or. 8857 and expand the tab marked ‘Use and Share this Record’.

Screen shot showing a white page with thumbnails of book spines in the centre and text on the bottom third, some of which is on a grey background. The lowest grey background is inside an oval outlined in red

4) Under the heading ‘IIIF details’, locate the IIIF logo next to the IIIF manifest for Or. 8857, drag the logo to the Mirador window in your web browser and drop it anywhere on the blank canvas (see step 2).

Screen shot with a black banner at the top and text with a grey background in the middle, with some of the text highlighted by lines and hollow boxes in red and light blue

5) Alternatively, you can copy the IIIF manifest ( located next to the IIIF logo on the screen in step 4 and click on the blank canvas in the Mirador viewer (see step 2). This will open the screen below, where you can paste the IIIF manifest into the field marked ‘Add new object from URL’ and click ‘Load’.

Screen shot showing a primarily white screen with a series of thumbnails of manuscript pages on the top third of the screen

6) You can now use the dropdown menus to choose how you would like to view each of the manuscripts and even repeat the steps above to add more canvases and view other IIIF compliant objects at the same time.

Screen shot of a black background with a matrix of thumbnails showing various pages of manuscripts

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
CCBY Image

Thanks to Dr Adrien de Fouchier, OP (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) and Dr Stefano Serventi (Biblioteca Ambrosiana) for their generous help and advice with my research for this blog.


Chrisomalis, Stephen, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 135–37, table 5.1 (Greek and Georgian); 139, table 5.3 (Greek); 150, table 5.5 (Coptic/ zimām, the numerals for 600 [𐋸] and 700 [𐋹] are erroneously reversed) and 178, table 5.20 (Georgian)

Ifrah, Georges, The Universal History of Numbers from Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer , trans. by D. Bellos, E.F. Harding, S. Wood and I. Monk (New York–Chichester–Weinheim–Brisbane–Singapore–Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), pp. 220 (Greek), 225 (Georgian), and 545 (Coptic/zimām),

Kawatoko, Mutsuo, ‘On the Use of Coptic Numerals in Egypt in the 16th Century’, Orient 28 (1992) 71, fig. 3 (helpfully, gives variant forms for most numerals)

List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034 (British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7)

Löfgren, Oscar and Renato Traini,Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, 3 vols, Fontes Ambrosiani LI, LXVI and Nuova Serie II (Vicenza: Neri Pozza Editore, 1975–95) vol. 1, item 33, pp. 33–35

Pataridze, Tamara, ‘Les Signatures des cahiers unilingues et bilingues dans les manuscrits Sinaïtiques (Georgiens, Arabes et Syriaques)’, Manuscripta Orientalia 18.1 (2012) 15–35

Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library, compiled by Peter Stocks, ed. by Colin Baker (London: British Library, 2001)

Varisco, Daniel, ‘The Origin of the Anwāʾ in Arab Tradition’, Studia Islamica 74 (1991) 5–28

24 May 2021

The Qatar Digital Library’s Two Millionth Image: ‘Isa bin Tarif returns to Qatar

This week the Qatar Digital Library (QDL) reached a milestone: the upload of its two millionth image. The image comes from IOR/F/4/2050/93539 'Vol 7 Persian Gulf Affairs of-'. It joins a wealth of material already available, with descriptions in both Arabic and English, digitised as part of a partnership between the British Library and Qatar Foundation. The QDL, part of the Qatar National Library, contains audio-visual material, India Office records, maps, private papers, Arabic scientific manuscripts, photographs and drawings, all free to access and download.

Selected files from IOR/F/4 Boards Papers (1796-1858) are being digitised during Phase Three of the Partnership. Each file covers a specific topic and contains copies of letters sent from the British governments of Bombay, Madras, and Bengal in India to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London. These copies went to the Board of Control, which oversaw the business operations of the East India Company.

Letter from Captain Samuel Hennell about ‘Isa bin Tarif settling at al-Bid
A letter from Captain Samuel Hennell about ‘Isa bin Tarif settling at al-Bid’, (British Library: IOR/F/4/2050/93539, f 751r)

Most common are letters from the British Resident in the Persian Gulf but the files also contain correspondence received from local rulers, merchants and other British military and administrative personnel. They provide evidence of the British perspective on events in the Gulf, as well as the Company’s decision-making and internal discussions.

The highlighted file contains a letter from Captain Samuel Hennell, British Resident in the Persian Gulf, to the Government of Bombay [Mumbai] dated 7 December 1843. It reports the arrival of Shaikh ‘Isa bin Tarif Al Bin ‘Ali al-‘Utbi (referred to in the letter as ‘Esa bin Tarif’) at al-Bid’ (‘Biddah’ in the text) on the Qatar Peninsula, a settlement that now forms part of the capital Doha. This was a significant move: Shaikh ‘Isa had been a dominant presence in the Gulf for some years, and the British had been keeping an eye on him because of his independence, ability, and alliances with powerful figures around the region. His move to al-Bid’ brought his years of protracted wandering to an end.

View from the anchorage of al-Bid’  from a plan of the harbour of al-Bid’ by J M Guy and G B Brucks  drawn by M Houghton
View from the anchorage of al-Bid’, from a plan of the harbour of al-Bid’ by J M Guy and G B Brucks, drawn by M Houghton (British Library: IOR/X/3694)

Shaikh ‘Isa was chief of the Al Bin ‘Ali tribe formerly based at al-Huwailah, a town on the coast of Qatar. His strength had grown steadily until 1835 when it threatened the Shaikh of Bahrain, ‘Abdullah bin Ahmad Al Khalifah, who nominally ruled the peninsula. Shaikh ‘Isa enjoyed the support of his own tribe and that of the neighbouring Wahhabi forces. They combined to present a formidable challenge to Shaikh ‘Abdullah.

Riffa Fort  Bahrain  in 1870
Riffa Fort, Bahrain, in 1870 (British Library: Visual Arts, Photo 355/1/40)

Eventually both sides agreed to the mediation of the Imam of Muscat, Sayyid Saʻid bin Sultan Al Bu Saʻid. He proposed that the Al Bin ‘Ali leave al-Huwailah for Bahrain, where their safety would be guaranteed. However, before this agreement was put into effect a dependent of Shaikh ‘Isa was killed. When Shaikh ‘Abdullah refused to pay reparations, Shaikh ‘Isa and his followers moved to Abu Dhabi.

It was at this point that the British became interested in Shaikh ‘Isa’s movements and activities. Their chief concern was to limit naval warfare in the Gulf, thereby protecting maritime trade routes. Hostilities between the Ali Bin ‘Ali and the Shaikh of Bahrain continued to threaten merchant shipping. When Shaikh ‘Isa requested permission to lead an expedition against Bahrain, the British refused. Shaikh ‘Abdullah’s request that he be allowed to force Shaikh ‘Isa and his followers to return to his control was similarly rejected.

While in Abu Dhabi Shaikh ‘Isa cultivated an alliance with the Imam of Muscat, Britain’s foremost ally in the region. In 1837 the British noted that ‘Isa had played a key role in the Imam’s capture of Mombasa. Also during this time, despite the British prohibition on attacking Shaikh ‘Abdullah, Shaikh ‘Isa conspired (unsuccessfully) to overthrow him with the cooperation of the Governor of Egypt, Khurshid Pasha.

In 1839 Shaikh ‘Isa left Abu Dhabi, partly due to the scarcity of resources for his tribe. He initially planned to move to Wakra on the Qatar Peninsula. Both the British and Shaikh ‘Abdullah were happy with this arrangement but the British were unwilling to guarantee that Bahrain would not attack Wakra. Consequently Shaikh ‘Isa moved instead to the island of Kish (Qais, referred to as ‘Kenn’ in British records) on the opposite northern coast of the Gulf.

Sketch of Kish Island by Captain Thomas Remo
Sketch of Kish Island by Captain Thomas Remon (British Library: IOR/R/15/1/732, p 45A)

The British had previously drawn a ‘restrictive line’ along the length of the Gulf. This created a ‘neutral zone’ to the north, in which no armed vessels would be tolerated, thereby protecting commercial shipping in that area. Kish is located north of this line; the Qatar Peninsula is to the south. Meanwhile, the British were increasingly concerned by the power vacuum developing in the Qatar Peninsula. They were unconvinced that the most powerful man on the Peninsula, Salmin bin Nasir al-Suwaidi from the Sudan tribe, was strong enough to keep the peace or deter individuals from aggression against ships in the Gulf.

Shaikh ‘Isa was not content to remain at Kish indefinitely. He saw an opportunity of returning to the Qatar Peninsula by helping Shaikh Muhammed bin Khalifah Al Khalifah overthrow his great-uncle ‘Abdullah in Bahrain. The takeover was successful. In a letter dated 18 July 1843, the British Resident referred to Shaikh Muhammed and Shaikh ‘Isa as the ‘de-facto Rulers of Bahrein’.

Shaikh Muhammed and Shaikh ‘Isa are referred to as de-facto Rulers of Bahrein
Shaikh Muhammed and Shaikh ‘Isa are referred to as ‘de-facto Rulers of Bahrein’ (British Library: IOR/F/4/2050/93533, f 254)

The British were unconvinced that the alliance between the two rulers would last. They knew that Shaikh ‘Isa was also cultivating an alliance with the ruler of Abu Dhabi. His move to al-Bid’ in December thus led the British to welcome a new era of stability for the region. The move brought him south of the ‘restrictive line’, which meant that any aggression between him and Bahrain would not affect shipping in the Gulf.

Survey of the southern side of the Gulf and the Qatar Peninsula
Survey of the southern side of the Gulf, including the Qatar Peninsula, (British Library: IOR/X/3630/20/5)

He did not have long to enjoy his return. As before, his success on the Peninsula was the envy of Bahrain and Shaikh Muhammed wanted to bring him firmly under his control. In November 1847 a battle near Fuwairit (local accounts say Umm al-Suwayyah, near Al-Khor) ended in Shaikh ‘Isa’s death. ‘Isa showed firmly that Bahrain’s control over Qatar was unsustainable, and laid the foundation for the recognition of Qatar as an independent country. After Shaikh ‘Isa’s death, the power vacuum in the Peninsula was filled by the Al Thani family who had been the dominant family in Fuwairit.

Anne Courtney, Gulf History Cataloguer, BL/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading

Primary Sources
IOR/F/4/2050/93533, ‘Vol 1 Affairs of the Persian Gulf’
IOR/F/4/2050/93539, ‘Vol 7 Persian Gulf Affairs of -’
Both these items mainly concern disputes between the shaikhs of the Gulf and their movements, as well as details of other minor items which the Resident in the Persian Gulf was involved in.
IOR/R/15/1/732, ‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’, 1856

Secondary Sources
Morton, M. Q., Masters of the Pearl: A History of Qatar (London: Reaktion Books, 2020)
Rahman, H., The Emergence of Qatar: the turbulent years, 1627-1916 (London: K. Paul, 2005)
Said Zahlan, R., The Creation of Qatar. (London: Routledge, 1979)
Tuson, P., Records of Qatar: primary documents 1820-1960 (Slough: Archive Editions, 1991)

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.

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.

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.

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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