Untold lives blog

59 posts categorized "Middle East"

30 March 2021

An Alternative to the Suez Canal?

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1868 created a new trade route between Europe and Asia as an alternative to the long sea journey around the Cape of Good Hope, but a different route had also been given serious consideration.

Isthmus of Suez and the River Euphrates in a detail from a map of ArabiaThe Isthmus of Suez and the River Euphrates in a detail from a map of Arabia by William Henry Plate (1847), IOR/X/3205, India Office Records, British Library
 

A survey of the Isthmus of Suez in 1798 had incorrectly shown the Red Sea to be 8.5m higher than the Mediterranean, an idea finally put to rest by a more accurate survey carried out by British army officer Captain Francis Rawdon Chesney in 1830.  Chesney’s recommendation however was for the establishment of a permanent steam-boat service on the Euphrates River as part of an overland route linking the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and in 1834 the UK Parliament voted a grant of £20,000 towards determining the navigability of the Euphrates during the winter months.

Opening of report recommending the Euphrates Expedition by the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Steam NavigationReport recommending the Euphrates Expedition by the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Steam Navigation (1834), IOR/L/MAR/C/573, India Office Records, British Library

The crew of the Euphrates Expedition, commanded by Chesney, departed England on 31 January 1835.  Also on board, in pieces that could be assembled when needed, were the two iron steam vessels the expedition would use, named Tigris and Euphrates in honour of the rivers they would be traversing.  The expedition arrived at Sowedich [Samandağ, modern-day Turkey] in April and then travelled overland to Bir [Birecik, Turkey] on the Euphrates, where the steamers were assembled and the survey commenced.

Dimensions and crew of each of the steam vessels  from Chesney’s official report of the expeditionDimensions and crew of each of the steam vessels, from Chesney’s official report of the expedition (1850), IOL.1947.c.142, India Office Records, British Library

The expedition was not without problems, including an initial reluctance by the East India Company to be involved in a project which had been planned “without [their] participation or concurrence” (IOR/L/MAR/C/573, f. 29).  There were also various delays caused by vital passage or supplies being denied by Ottoman officials, despite permission having been obtained from the Government of the Ottoman Empire, which the British suspected to be intentional obstructionism with possible Russian influence.  But the most tragic setback came when the steamers were caught in a storm that, in the words of one of the officers, “came hurling on towards us with the most fearful rapidity” (IOR/L/MAR/C/574, ff. 183-85).  The crew of the Euphrates were able to secure her to the bank, but the Tigris was blown back into the centre of the river and sank within minutes, with the loss of 20 men.

Drawing of the Tigris immediately before her sinkingDrawing of the Tigris immediately before her sinking, by Captain James Bucknall Estcourt (1836)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The expedition was completed in June 1836 and the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society proclaimed it a success, stating that “everything which could reasonably have been looked for, has been accomplished” (The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 7 (1837), p. 411), while the Resident in the Persian Gulf wrote that the establishment of a permanent steam service on the Euphrates was “worthy of the deepest consideration” and suggested ways in which it could strengthen Britain’s already dominant position in the Gulf (IOR/L/MAR/C/574, ff. 342-44).  Further explorations were carried out in the 1840s, but in 1854 preparations began for the building of the Suez Canal and an official overland route between the Mediterranean and the Gulf never became a reality.

Matt Griffin
Content Specialist, Gulf History, British Library Qatar Foundation partnership

Further reading:
The Euphrates Expedition of 1836: Ingenuity and Tragedy in Mesopotamia
Papers of Edward Philips Charlewood, Officer on the Euphrates Expedition
Dr Johann Helfer and the curious case of an unexplained footnote

08 March 2021

Mūzah bint Aḥmad Āl Bū Sa‘īd - The Protector of Muscat

In early 19th century Oman, one of the Imam of Muscat’s trusted advisors was a woman – his paternal aunt, Mūzah bint Aḥmad Āl Bū Sa‘īd.

9 April 1832: Muscat was in disarray.  Reuben Aslan, the East India Company’s agent in the city, wrote to his superior, Samuel Hennell, Resident in the Persian Gulf, that citizens on the city’s outskirts had retreated inside its walls for protection, the markets had closed and the people were ‘in the greatest terror’ (IOR/F/4/1435/56726, f. 242v).  The Imam of Muscat, Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd, was in East Africa furthering his colonial projects in Zanzibar.  He had left three relatives in charge.  One of them – Sa‘ūd bin ‘Alī bin Sa‘īd, Shaikh of Barka – had imprisoned the other two in his fort at Barka.  Together with the Shaikh of Al Suwayq, Shaikh Sa‘ūd then launched an attempted takeover of the Imam’s territories along the Al Bāţinah coast, situated to the west of Muscat.

The town of Muscat photographed in the late 19th centuryThe town of Muscat photographed in the late 19th century. Photo 355/1(44) [Public Domain] 

Amongst this chaos, the Imam’s respected and influential aunt, Mūzah, took charge as interim leader.  On receiving the news of her great nephews’ imprisonment, Mūzah took action, requesting British support and writing an urgent letter to the Imam.  She began recruiting troops and reinforcing Muscat’s defences by distributing gunpowder and shot to the city’s fortresses.  She dispatched three envoys to Barka to find out more information on Shaikh Sa‘ūd’s plans and sent reinforcements to Muḥammad bin Sālim Āl Bū Sa‘īd’s fort at Masnaah, against which Shaikh Sa‘ūd and the Shaikh of Al Suwayq had launched a siege.

Letter written by Muzā to the Governor of BombayHeading to the letter written by Muzā to the Governor of Bombay [Mumbai] requesting support, 8 April 1832. IOR/F/4/1435/56726, f. 235v [Crown copyright]

Within a few weeks, Mūzah’s actions bore fruit.  The EIC’s agent in Muscat provided updates in further letters on 24 and 27 April, writing that Shaikh Sa‘ūd’s siege at Masnaah had proved unsuccessful and that, thanks to ‘…the courage of the Imaum’s [sic] aunt, Muscat is in perfect peace’ (IOR/F/4/1435/56727, f 545v).

Whilst the eventful spring of 1832 is recorded in the IOR/F/4 papers, further research shows that this was not Mūzah’s first time defending her family’s territory and control.  Mūzah first became well known thanks to her role in helping to secure power for Sayyid Sa‘īd and his brother Salim in 1806 (Ibn Ruzayq, Arab.D.490, pp. 266-283).  Emilie Ruete, Sayyid Sa‘īd’s daughter, went further and referred to Mūzah as his regent for the first few years of his reign (Ruete, pp. 159-162).  In fact, Ruete claimed that Sayyid Sa‘īd was able to develop his colonies in East Africa because of the peaceful realm in Oman which Mūzah handed over to him (Ruete, p. 162).  The revenue from East Africa, including the Indian Ocean Slave Trade, formed a significant part of Sayyid Sa‘īd’s wealth and power.

Primary sources which mention Mūzah are sparse and, to date, little else has been written about her in English or Arabic.  Projects, like the BLQFP, which provide the time and resources for cataloguing to an intermediate level, help influential women who operated in patriarchal societies, such as Mūzah, to be brought to light.

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

Further reading:
London, British Library, 'Affairs of the Persian Gulf. Vol: 3'. IOR/F/4/1399/55442
London, British Library, ‘Affairs of the Persian Gulf. Vol:I’. IOR/F/4/1435/56726
Emilie Ruete, Memoirs of an Arabian princess, an autobiography (New York: D. Appleton and company, 1888) 
The Runaway Princess
Hamid ibn Muhammad ibn Ruzayq, History of the imams and seyyids of ‘Oman by Salil-ibn-Razik, from A.D. 661-1856; translated from the original Arabic, and edited with notes, appendices, and an introduction, continuing the history down to 1870, trans. by George Percy Badger F.R.G.S. (London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1871) Arab.D.490

 

04 March 2021

The Garden of Aden: The Experimental Vegetable Garden at Aden

Ill-health plagued the East India Company Army in the 19th century.  Army rations consisted of bread and meat, supplemented by other items which the soldiers bought for themselves.  Despite the work of Dr James Lind on scurvy a century before, malnutrition was common in the army.  At Aden, this diet was even more unsuitable owing  to a lack of fresh water, which was needed to render the salt meat provided palatable.

Army review on Woolwich Common 1841 showing soldiers, horses and cannons
Army review on Woolwich Common by the Queen, 1841 in The Records of the Woolwich District Volume II by William Vincent, (Woolwich: J. R. Jackson, [1888-90])

It was in these conditions that the Executive Engineer at Aden, Lieutenant John Adee Curtis, created an experimental vegetable garden in 1841.  Curtis’s aim for his garden was to supply the hospital and the troops stationed at Aden.  He calculated that, when it was fully productive, it would even be able to supply a small surplus which could be distributed to the prisoners who would tend the garden, helping to prevent scurvy in jails.  This would also cut down on labour costs, although Curtis claimed that ‘the garden has been almost entirely watered by the wastage which occurs in drawing water for the public works from the well situated at one angle of the enclosure’, reducing the work involved.

Water tanks at AdenWater tanks at Aden, mid 1870s. Photographer unknown, British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, T.11308/3 

The troops did not derive any benefit from its produce in the first year, as most of the vegetables were cut down and buried in the soil to rot, improving it for the following year.  However, between October 1841 and January 1842 the roads were closed and the hospitals lacked supplies.  During that time, the garden supplied them with 1943½ lbs of vegetables. 
In his letter asking for an extension of the scheme and the garden, which was 100 square feet, Curtis is enthusiastic about the future.  He does not mention what types of vegetables were grown, but he is confident that ‘with good seeds all Indian vegetables may be produced in Aden throughout the year’, and that in a few years, the soil may be improved enough to grow European vegetables.  Not all of his seeds germinated, but he attributes this to faulty seed, as he claims that all the plants which germinated produced vegetables.

The British also moved away from a reliance on salt and tinned meat at Aden, and negotiated for fresh meat.  This not just provided a healthier diet for those stationed at Aden, but also improved relations between the East India Company and the local citizens.

No more is heard of the experimental vegetable garden after 1842, but the military board’s continued funding of the garden in 1842 and the creation of another similar garden at Karachi a year or so later suggests that the project was continued for at least a short time.

Toy British soldiers dressed in red uniforms standing in a line
Toy British soldiers from Funny Books for Boys and Girls. Struwelpeter. Good-for-nothing Boys and Girls. Troublesome Children. King Nutcracker and Poor Reinhold (London: David Bogue, [1856]). Images Online

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer

Further Reading:
The experimental vegetable garden at Aden appears in IOR/F/4/1930/82915 and IOR/F/4/1998/88694.

 

17 December 2020

Her Majesty’s Steamer Berenice destroyed by fire

On 31 October 1866 Major Lewis Pelly, East India Company Resident in the Persian Gulf, was on the steamer Berenice, making its way south from Bushire [Bushehr] to Muscat, when the vessel was destroyed by a fire which started on board.

The ship’s company and passengers escaped in life boats.  Unable to make it to the mainland before nightfall, they stopped on the shore of Shaik Shaib Island [Sheikh Shoeyb or Lavan Island].  Having obtained some dates and water from a nearby hamlet, they bedded down for the night on the beach.

Over the next six days Pelly and the ship’s captain Lieutenant Edwin Dawes organised the rescue of 170 men, 5 women and 3 children.  The party made its way by ‘native craft’ to Nakhilu [Nokhaylo] on the mainland Persian coast opposite Shaik Shaab island, and from there to the British naval and coaling station at Bassidore [Basaidu] on the island of Qeshm.  Stopping at Khen [Kish Island], Charrack [Bandar-e-Charak] and Lingeh [Bandar-e-Lengeh], clothes, food, water and provisions were acquired along the way.

Map of Oman and the Persian Gulf 1871 by Reverend George Percy Badger

'A revised map of Omân and the Persian Gulf, in which an attempt has been made to give a correct transliteration of the Arabic names. By the Rev. George Percy Badger, F.R.G.S.’ 1871  IOR/X/3210, f 1

Unfortunately Pelly did not describe the distress and shock of the jettisoned crew and passengers, nor provide any account of the night spent on the beach.  He did, however, leave a fairly evocative account of the events of 31 October in a letter to Sir Henry Bartle Frere, then Governor of Bombay, written at Bassidore on 16 November 1866:
'I had just come on deck on the morning of the 31st Oct when the alarm was given.  The ship must have been on fire some time the smoke from the hatches was stifling immediately they were opened'.

When the crew had to resort to buckets to put out the fire, the case became hopeless.
'By nine the flames were coming up the hatches & to the awning ridges & through the scuttles.  We took to the boats & shortly afterwards she was in flames from the stem to the stern. The shell went off in about 40 minutes. We were able to take no provisions save a couple of bags of bread & about a pint of water per man... I thank God all hands are saved. But I am cleared out of all my clothes, linen, plate, crockery.'

Telegram from Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis Pelly  Bassidore  to Sir Bartle Frere 9 November 1866Telegram from Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis Pelly, Bassidore, to Sir Bartle Frere, 9 November 1866 - Mss Eur F126/43, f 53

So what caused Berenice to catch fire?  Built in Glasgow for the East India Company and launched in 1837, Berenice was a naval sloop, wood paddle-steamer, which could function under sail, steam or both.  It was the Company’s first steam warship.

Berenice standing out of Bombay Harbour 1837Painting of East India Company steamer Berenice standing out of  Bombay harbour, 1837 - Image courtesy of Royal Museums Greenwich PAH8849

Low’s History of the Indian Navy, 1613-1863 records that the vessel saw service in numerous military conflicts, including the First Anglo-Burmese War, 1852-1853, Anglo-Persian War 1856-1857, and Second Opium War 1856-1860.  Countless troop transports, sea battles and substandard repairs must have taken their toll on her sea-worthiness.  However on 19 November Pelly wrote to Frere on the actual cause of the fire:
'...from some facts which came out in statements made by my own servants I infer that the burning of Berenice was attributable to the stewards using naked lights in the orlop deck, if not in the hold'.

One can only imagine how Pelly must have felt watching Berenice go up (and down) in flames.

Amanda Engineer
Content Specialist, Archivist British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership

 

04 December 2020

The curious case of Jean Robbio

At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, a mysterious French agent was picked up by the British at Bushire, Persia, dressed in disguise and carrying a map and secret letters.

On 29 July 1810, Stephen Babington, in charge of the British Residency at Bushire, wrote to the Government of India’s Envoy to Persia, John Malcolm, reporting the arrival of a Frenchman ‘in an Arab dress’ at Bushire.  The man was confirmed to be a courier for the Governor-General of Isle de France (Mauritius), General Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen.

Rough sketch of Bushire and its vicinity  c 1800

Rough sketch of Bushire and its vicinity, c 1800 (IOR/X/3111, f 1r

Babington had acted swiftly, arresting the courier.  He was pleased to report that his men ‘effected his seizure so completely that every article about him has been secured, and at the same time the most favorable impressions have been left upon his mind, of the mild and kind treatment, which Englishmen always shew to their Enemies’.

The courier was revealed to be one Jean Robbio.  Genoese by birth, Robbio had worked for the military and diplomatic mission of General Claude-Matthieu de Gardane to Tehran of 1807-1809.  In the context of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars, Gardane’s mission had been of great concern to the British, and Babington had acted in this atmosphere of heightened tension and suspicion.  Prior to his arrest, Robbio had been stranded in Muscat for two years.  Following his capture, Robbio made ‘no secret of his hostile intentions towards the English’, and Babington had him imprisoned at the Residency.  It appears that Robbio was however a model prisoner, and Babington subsequently allowed him to go out on parole in Bushire.

Robbio had a number of papers in his possession, including a map of navigation routes around Zanzibar, an intelligence report detailing the political situation in Baghdad, and a letter detailing Robbio’s audience with the Sultan of Muscat.

Map of the routes of navigation at the port of Zanzibar, part of Jean Robbio’s captured papersA map of the routes of navigation at the port of Zanzibar, part of Jean Robbio’s captured papers (IOR/L/PS/9/68/67, f. 1) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Another mysterious letter seized from Robbio was from an unknown correspondent in Muscat, possibly Robbio himself, to an unknown recipient in India.  The letter makes a plea for help, offering a reward and the services of an experienced French navigator based in Muscat in return.

Mysterious letter from Muscat making a plea for help A mysterious letter from Muscat making a plea for help (IOR/L/PS/9/68/66, f. 1r) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The episode came to an abrupt end when HM Envoy Extraordinary to Persia, Sir Harford Jones, intervened.  He wrote to Babington on 9 September admonishing him for unilaterally arresting Robbio.  He warned ‘that no public functionary in a foreign State possesses any right or authority to seize or possess himself of the person or papers of an Enemy entering or being in that State, without the permission and sanction of the Sovereign’. 

Jones wrote again on 14 September indicating that the Persian Government were ‘very little pleased’ with his handling of the affair, ordering Babington to release Robbio at once.  To add insult to injury, Babington was told to pay for Robbio to stay at the Residency if he so pleased.  In a final admonishment, Jones declared that ‘there is not any Paper found on this Gentleman which I have seen that it is at the present moment of any great Importance to us to be acquainted with’.

John Casey
Gulf History Cataloguer

Further reading:
The story of Jean Robbio and the documents captured by Babington can be found in the India Office Records, shelfmarks IOR/L/PS/9/68/60-67
Iradj Amini, Napoleon and Persia: Franco-Persian relations under the First Empire, (Richmond: Curzon, 1999)

 

24 September 2020

Bringing the children home

In the 19th century, the East India Company made increasing efforts to bring the trade in enslaved people in the Gulf to an end.  The majority of the people imported into the Gulf came from the East Coast of Africa and Zanzibar, but some also came from India.  These were usually women and children who had been kidnapped from their homes to be sold in the Gulf.  It was one of the responsibilities of British Agents in the Gulf to discover and rescue these children.

This was not always easy.  The local rulers could be uncooperative, and the merchants and traders would disguise the origins of the children to avoid detection.  The Native Agent at Muscat complained that his efforts to emancipate children had turned the population against him.  Even after they had tracked down the children, the Agents faced further difficulties in freeing them; the British Government stipulated that they must avoid force, but also directed that no money should be handed over, to avoid stimulating the market.  The Native Agent would look after the children at the British Government’s expense until he was able to place them on a ship to Bombay [Mumbai].  The Senior Magistrate of Police at Bombay was responsible for reuniting children with their parents or finding an alternative situation for them.

Photograph of the buildings of the Muscat Consulate and Agency on a waterfront

The Muscat Consulate and Agency, c. 1870 (Photo 355/1/43)

Mahomed Unwur [Muhammed Anwar] lived with his brother, Mirza Abdulla [‘Abd Allah], in Butcher Street, Bombay, when he was twelve.  One morning his brother sent him to the bazaar where he met a man who enticed him on board a ship with sweets.  Two weeks later, he arrived at Muscat and lived there for six or seven months with the man who had kidnapped him.  He was offered for sale privately at different houses during this time, until one day, when he was gathering dates at the Customs House, he was taken to the house of the Native Agent.  He finally returned to Bombay in November 1843, where he was reunited with his brother and returned to live with him.  This happy ending was sadly fairly unusual for kidnapped children.  On the same ship returning to India as Mahomed Unwur was another child, a girl.

Painting of a street in Bombay busy with people, 1867‘A street in Bombay’, chromolithograph by William Simpson, from India Ancient and Modern, 1867. BL Online Gallery 

Eleven-year-old Auzeemah [‘Azimah] knew that she had been born in a village near Moradabad.  She was kidnapped and lived in Moradabad for three or four years.  A man then took her to Muscat and tried to exchange her for a boy, but while at Muscat she was discovered and taken to live with the Native Agent until she could be sent home.  Unfortunately, she remembered so little about her parents or her village that, despite lengthy enquiries by the Government of Agra, her parents were not found.   Auzeemah was instead placed with a family in Bombay who would bring her up.

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer

Further reading:
The stories of Mahomed and Auzeemah can be found in IOR/F/4/2034/98123.

 

28 July 2020

The Trial of Prince Najaf ʿAlī Khān Zand

The Zand dynasty ruled in Persia [Iran] from 1751 to 1794.  The young Prince Najaf ʿAlī Khān Zand, brother of the last ruler of the Zand dynasty, survived his family’s defeat at the hands of the new ruling family, the Qājārs.  At some point in the early 19th century, he left Persia and made his way to Bombay [Mumbai].  There, he was looked after by the East India Company’s Government of Bombay, receiving a pension of 400 rupees per month.

Painting showing the defeat of Prince Najaf’s brother, Loṭf-ʿAli Khan, the last Zand ruler, with the city of Shiraz in the backgroundI.O. Islamic 3442, f.218v showing the defeat of Prince Najaf’s brother, Loṭf-ʿAli Khan, the last Zand ruler: ‘Defeat of Lutf ‘Ali Khan Zand by (Agha) Muhammad Shah; the city of Shiraz in the background’ -  BL Images Online

This relationship was put to the test under dramatic circumstances in 1828-29.  A dispute between Prince Najaf’s entourage and a group of men from the Custom House escalated and the Prince fired his gun, killing two of the Custom House men.   The Prince was arrested and the case referred to the highest level of authority in the Government of Bombay – the Council.

Copies of letters sent from the Government of Bombay to the Court of Directors reveal an intense debate which broke out amongst the Council.  On one side, Council member John Romer argued that, due to the seriousness of the charges against him, the Prince must be tried as normal in the Circuit Court at Tannah [Thane].  On the other side, the Governor in Council, Sir John Malcolm, argued that the Prince must not be treated as a ‘common criminal’, as this would be a great insult to the Court of Persia.  As the debate intensified, Romer’s language became more and more dramatic. He argued that there were no political considerations which justified withdrawing the Prince from the hands of justice.

Extract of Minute by John Romer at Government of Bombay Judicial Consultation  25 April 1829IOR/F/4/1266/50907, ff. 334v-335r: Extract of Minute by John Romer at Government of Bombay Judicial Consultation, 25 April 1829, arguing that ‘I do not think that any political considerations [justify] withdrawing him [Prince Najaf] from the hands of justice.’  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Meanwhile, Malcolm attempted to pick holes in the accusations levied at the Prince, questioning the witnesses’ accounts and concluding that the Prince had only fired his pistol after being physically assaulted by the Custom House men.

Ultimately, Malcolm revealed that in addition to appeasing the Court of Persia, a trial must be avoided in order to preserve favour with the southern tribes in Persia, from which Prince Najaf’s family had originated.  According to Malcolm, these tribes continued to hold Prince Najaf’s brother and his great-uncle, Karīm Khān Zand (founder of the Zand dynasty), in such high regard that subjecting Prince Najaf to a ‘degrading’ common trial would have serious consequences.  Most pressingly, Malcolm argued that if Anglo-Russian relations were to deteriorate, the Russians might persuade the Court of Persia to allow them access to British India through Persia.  In this scenario, the best line of defence would be for the British to incite the southern tribes in Persia to rise up against the Qājārs.  However, their support could not be counted on if a trial of Prince Najaf were to go ahead. 

Portrait of Sir John MalcolmP616: Portrait of Sir John Malcolm, 1832 - BL Images Online

Despite Romer’s pleas to respect the pursuit of justice in order to preserve the rule of law, no trial ever went ahead.  Prince Najaf was held in comfort at the Company’s Fort at Thane before being sent to Bussorah [Basra] with his family, free to continue with his life.

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

Further reading:
IOR/F/4/1266/50907 ‘Removal of Nujif Ali Khan (a Prince of Persia) to Bussorah, in preference to his being tried for murder of which he was accused – His pen[sion] of Rs 400 discontinued from 30th November the allowance of Rs 120 per mo[nth] to the Mother of […] Prince made payable at Bussorah’ 
John Perry, ‘ZAND DYNASTY’, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016 

 

23 July 2020

The lesser-known early years of Sultan Qaboos

Fifty years ago today, on 23 July 1970, the late Sultan Qaboos overthrew his father, Sa’id bin Taimur, in a British-supported palace coup in the monsoon soaked southern province of Dhofar to become ruler of the Sultanate of Oman.  He was to go on to become the Middle East’s longest ruling monarch until his death in January 2020.

Qaboos’ role in facilitating dialogue such as that which led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is now well known but perhaps lesser-known are the circumstances of his early years.  It is said that the first seven years are the formative years of a person’s life, thus the information on Qaboos gleaned from digitised India Office Records,  although sparse and seemingly incidental may be of quite some significance.

In October 1940 the British Political Agent, Muscat, recorded a conversation with Sultan Sa’id concerning succession in Muscat that should anything happen to him ‘at present he has no male heir and has no particular affection for any single member of his family’.  Further, he would prefer a British officer to fill the post of Regent rather than any other members of his family.

Qaboos was born a month later in November 1940 to Sultan Sa’id bin Taimur, Sultan of Muscat and Oman, and Mazoon Al-Mashani, ‘a Dhufari women of good family’.  Sultan Sa’id received the news from Dhofar in Muscat.

Letter from Sultan Sa’id bin Taimur to Political Agent  MuscatIOR/R/15/6/216, f 44 Sultan Sa’id bin Taimur to Political Agent, Muscat


As the child was legitimate congratulations were sent by the King of England and the Viceroy.

Text of telegram from Political Resident at Kuwait  to Secretary of State for India  LondonIOR/R/15/6/216, f 51, Political Resident at Kuwait, to Secretary of State for India, London

Sa’id bin Taimur treated Dhofar as his private estate avoiding ‘the tedium of Muscat weather and Muscat politics’.

British briefing note about Sultan Sa’id bin Taimur

IOR/L/PS/12/3720A, f 413 British briefing note on Sa’id bin Taimur  

Interestingly, Taimur bin Faisal, Qaboos’ grandfather, who had been allowed by the British to abdicate after many years of imploring British officials, kept his grandson in mind as he lived out his life in India and Japan under the name of Al Said, ending a telegram in 1943 with ‘MY BEST WISHES TO QABOOS’.

Telegram from Taimur bin FaisalIOR/R/15/6/217, f 21 Telegram from Taimur bin Faisal

In 1945 the Political Agent, Muscat informed Colonel Galloway, the Resident in Bushire, that he had inquired to Sultan Sa’id about the education of Qaboos.  It seemed Sa’id was considering an elementary education in Egypt from the age of eight and indeed had discussed this with King Farook.

Question of Qaboos's education in letter from Political Agent  Muscat  to the Political Resident in the Persian GulfIOR/R/15/6/216, f 190 Political Agent, Muscat, to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf

The Annual Muscat Administration Report for 1950-51 notes the isolation of the Heir Apparent.  Qaboos, now aged ten, had still not started education in Egypt but was kept ‘strictly under constant supervision and guard’ rarely meeting anyone outside of the palace.

Note on Qaboos in Annual Muscat Administration Report  1950-51IOR/R/15/6/343, f 11 Annual Muscat Administration Report, 1950-51 

Qaboos’ education was eventually to take place in the UK in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk and at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.  From here he returned to Salalah where he was kept as a virtual prisoner by his father forbidden to meet anyone apart from the Sultan’s trusted advisors.  Sultan Sa’id’s ‘personal estate’ with its myriad petty restrictions had become intolerable for its inhabitants and in 1965 a rebellion had started.  It was in the Sultan’s palace, Salalah on 23 July 1970 at the height of the Dhofar War that with the help of his Sandhurst classmate, Tim Landon, that a British-supported coup took place, and Qaboos became the Sultan of Oman.

It was often noted by commentators that in contrast to other Gulf states, Qaboos was ‘alone on the throne’, ruling in isolation from other family members.  Perhaps these glimpses into his early years shed light on this behaviour in his later life.

Dr Francis Owtram
Gulf History Specialist
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


Further reading:
The archival extracts in this article are from IOR/L/PS/12/3720A, IOR/R/15/6/216, IOR/R/15/6/217 and IOR/R/15/6/343 and are all available on the Qatar Digital Library.
A finding aid to the records of the Muscat Agency, IOR/R/15/6 has been written by Ula Zeir.
Francis Owtram, A Modern History of Oman: Formation of the State since 1920 (London: IB Tauris, 2004)
Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans and Empires in Oman, 1965–1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Marc Valeri, Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State, (London: Hurst, 2017)

 

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