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30 March 2015

The Defiance of Zaki Khan

In the middle of 1826, the British Resident at Bushire, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Ephraim Stannus received intelligence that the forces of the Imam of Muscat were threatening a seaborne attack on the Persian port of Bushire. Stannus communicated the news to Zaki Khan, the Persian Vizier at Shiraz.

The purport of the letter Stannus received in reply was clearly intended to reach the Imam himself. The version transcribed in the India Office Records letter book cited below is a translation prepared by the Assistant Resident, Samuel Hennell. However, Hennell was a good administrator who went on to be Resident himself for many years and the translation is more than likely to be reliable. The Vizier’s richly allusive, not to say menacing, words are worth considering in detail.


  Translation of a letter from Zekee Khan [Zaki Khan], Wazeer [Vizier] at Shiraz to Colonel Stannus
Translation of a letter from Zekee Khan [Zaki Khan], Wazeer [Vizier] at Shiraz to Colonel Stannus, received 11 July 1826: IOR/R/15/1/36, f 118.  Noc

Zaki Khan begins his letter with heavy irony:
‘The intentions of Syed Said [the Imam of Muscat] towards Bushire with which you made me acquainted are most excellent and proper’.

He then adds a suitable proverb:
‘It is a well known fact that the “Fated Bird runs towards the Fowler”.’

Moreover, in case the Imam didn’t know it, God was on the side of the Persians:
‘Numbers of individuals are anxiously looking forward to the Imam’s arrival at Bushire in order that they may display the power of the Almighty.’

At this point the gloves really come off:
‘He must be a mighty Chief that fears not to meet and encounter in war the hundred thousands of crocodiles belonging to the sea of this powerful Kingdom in order to display his courage'.

Although the allusion to crocodiles is difficult to justify in terms of the marine life of the Persian Gulf, the image is undeniably graphic. Clearly, if the Imam attacked, he would get the drubbing he deserved.

The Vizier then becomes somewhat mystic:
‘Should the Fates on his arrival pull his ears so severely [underlining in original] (punish him so) as to prevent any other person from entertaining similar intentions as long as the world may last, let him not be vexed'.

Zaki Khan would evidently like to pull the Imam’s ears himself, but failing that, he will allow the fates to do it.

And he had warned the Imam once before, as he points out, using a startling metaphor:
‘Before this intelligence arrived [. . .] I had the pleasure to address His Highness recommending him to give up his intentions and not to cast himself uselessly into the Whirlpool of reprehensions and disgrace’.

He then adds a further proverb, intimating that the Imam would do well not to learn a lesson the hard way:
‘for the Wise man saith “Shame produces no profit”’.

Zaki Khan ends the letter with a suitable crescendo:
‘Should however His Highness notwithstanding persevere in his purposes I can only add he is master of his own actions and is welcome to come up with his swift sailing vessels and to see into whose hands God will give the victory’.

Martin Woodward
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by

Further reading:
British Library, Outward Letters, Book No 42, 1 January 1826 to 31 July 1826. IOR/R/15/1/36



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