Untold lives blog

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21 May 2024

Across the Great Desert: an unlikely rescue on the coast of Oman

In late July 1892, a ship from the Seychelles wrecked on the coast of Oman.  Its two surviving crewmen- brothers named Melicourt and Despilly Savy- were stranded without food or water.

One month later, the pair walked into the British Consulate at Muscat, accompanied by the man who had saved their lives and guided them across 230 miles of harsh terrain; Salim-bin-Said-bin-Khatir [Sālim bin Sa‘īd bin Khāṭir], a Bedouin ‘of the Yal Wahibah tribe’.

This remarkable story, told through correspondence between British officials in the Gulf region, provides an insight into how those officials sought to encourage the protection of British subjects, and thereby reinforce imperial prestige.

On 24 June 1892, a sailing boat named Venice left ‘the Isle of Vaches’- most likely Bird Island- with a crew of six men and a cargo of eggs.  The ship was left crippled by ‘a very heavy sea and stormy weather’ and drifted north for almost a month.  Two men died aboard the ship, while another two died just after it had wrecked on the Omani coast.

Melicourt and Despilly likely would have met the same fate, if they had not been found by Sālim bin Sa‘īd.  The Bedouin took them to a nearby hut and hosted them ‘with great kindness and hospitality’ for eight days as they regained their strength.

Once the brothers had recovered sufficiently, the intrepid Bedouin led them on a lengthy journey across Oman to Muscat, where they could expect assistance from the British Consulate:
‘...he took them through the great desert of Oman to Mideibee [Al-Mudhaibi] in the Sharkiyyeh [Ash Sharqiyah], thence through the Baldan-al-Awamir [Buldan-al-Awmir] to Oman proper and through the Wadi Beni Ruhah [Wadi Bani Rwahah] to Semail [Samail], whence he has brought them safely to Muskat [Muscat]’.

Approximate route taken by the sailors and their rescuer from Ras Sarab to MuscatThe approximate route taken by the sailors and their rescuer from Ras Sarab [Ra’s Sirab] to Muscat. Image created by Hannah Nagle, Content Specialist Archivist. Map data ©2024 Google.

The journey took about 20 days, and they arrived in Muscat on 31 August 1892.  Sālim bin Sa‘īd seems to have gone to considerable expense to escort these sailors.  One of his camels died during the journey, and he even sold his dagger to pay for food.

The British Political Agent at Muscat decided to reward the kindness and risk-taking shown by Sālim bin Sa‘īd; his expenses were reimbursed, plus a 100 rupee present.  The Bedouin left Muscat wealthier than he had arrived, while the two sailors were sent home to the Seychelles via Bombay [Mumbai].

Photograph of the British Consulate at Muscat  taken in the 1870sA photograph of the British Consulate at Muscat, taken in the 1870s. 'Muscat Consulate & Agency' [‎22r-b] (1/1), British Library: Visual Arts, Photo 355/1/43, in Qatar Digital Library 

The Agent noted that the reward given to Sālim bin Sa‘īd was intended to ‘act as a stimulus to himself and others of his countrymen to exert themselves in a like manner in protecting British subjects’.  The Political Resident in the Persian Gulf went further than this, suggesting that ‘some special present’ should be sent from the Government of India to Sālim bin Sa‘īd.  He even proposed that the HMS Sphinx should be used to deliver this gift in Sālim bin Sa‘īd’s ‘own country’- ‘The wider the recognition given to actions so creditable... the greater is the prospect of the kind treatment of any who may be unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked hereafter’.  This proposal does not seem to have been taken further, primarily due to the difficulty of finding the Bedouin again.

Dan McKee
Content Specialist Archivist
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
IOR/P/4185 ‘INDIA. FOREIGN PROCEEDINGS. (External) Sep. to Dec. 1892.’


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