Within the India Office Records (IOR) and other materials catalogued for the British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership, there are many references to the term qafila, which appears in a variety of spellings across the records. These include caphila, caffalla, cafila, kafila, and kafilah. This post explores the meaning of the term qafila, and examines the way it is used within the records.
Meaning of qafila, IOR/R/15/5/384, f 91v, Crown Copyright
The term qafila (pl. qawafil) has its origin in the Arabic root qa fa la (قفل), which primarily means ‘to return’. The word itself is used to refer to a caravan; a train of travellers; or any large party of travellers such as pilgrims or merchants moving between distant destinations. However, beyond this common meaning of qafila, there is a literal meaning of the term, which is ‘the returning one’. Arabs named their parties of travellers, pilgrims or merchants, who were getting ready for travel, qafila as a sign of sanguinity that the travellers would reach their destination and make a safe and successful return.
Arabic meaning of qafila by al-Zabidi, public domain
People working for the East India Company often used the term qafila when corresponding about trading activities in India and the wider Gulf region. It is difficult though to know whether they were aware of its literal meaning or not. In their correspondence, the term was often associated with trade caravans carrying commodities such as coffee, spices, cotton, silk, wool, wine, and iron. The most numerous of these caravans was the wool qafila, which departed from Kerman (also known as Carmenia) and made its way to the port of Bander ‘Abbas (also known as Gombroon), from where the wool was shipped to the British market.
Carmenia wool qafila, IOR/L/PS/20/C227, f 79v, Crown Copyright
The ‘Gombroon Diaries (IOR/G/29/2-14)’, and ‘the letters and enclosures received from Bandar ‘Abbas (Gombroon) and Basra (IOR/G/29/15-24)’, are rich source materials reporting on the movement of the Kerman wool qafilas, as well as the qafilas carrying English woollen goods sent to the Persian market. These contain reports on the amount of woollen goods carried, including information about their prices, types and colours.
Woollen samples IOR/G/29/17, f 4, Crown Copyright
The records also indicate that the safety of the qafilas was a major concern, with cargoes from time to time being seized while en route to their destinations. There are also references to qafilas being delayed due to various circumstances including bad weather and internal military operations.
Circumstances affecting Caphila’s movement, IOR/G/29/16, f 192v, Crown Copyright
Caphila seized on way to Yazd, IOR/G/29/11, f 38r Crown Copyright
Other qafilas that appear in the records are the Hajj (pilgrimage) qafilas arriving from various parts of the Muslim world into the cities of Medina and Mecca during the Hajj season. The most popular of these are Qafilat al-Haj al-Shami (the pilgrimage qafila travelling from Bilad al-Sham or Greater Syria), and Qafilat al-Hajj al-Misri (a qafila which travelled from Egypt). These were usually received with great excitement and celebration. One fascinating example has been mentioned by Captain Richard F. Burton in his Personal Narrative of a pilgrimmage to al-Madinah and Meccah Vol. I describing the arrival of the qafilas on Sunday 23 Dhu al-Qi‘da 1269 AH/ 28 August 1853 CE:
Arrival of Hajj Cafila, W48/9840 vol. 1, , public domain
Many more examples of the various types of qafilas, and the records documenting them, can be found among the materials digitised and made available online on the Qatar Digital Library (QDL).
Content Specialist/ Arabic Language and Gulf History
IOR/G/29/11 ‘Diary and Consultations of Mr Alexander Douglas, Agent of the East India Company at Gombroon [Bandar-e ʻAbbās] in the Persian Gulf, commencing 1 August 1757 and ending 31 July 1758’
IOR/G/29/16 ‘Letters and Enclosures etc., Received from Gombroon’
IOR/G/29/17 ‘Letters and Enclosures etc., Received from Gombroon (Bandar-e ‘Abbas)’
IOR/L/PS/20/C227 ‘Selections from State Papers, Bombay, regarding the East India Company’s Connection with the Persian Gulf, with a Summary of Events, 1600-1800’
IOR/R/15/5/384 ‘Field Notes on Sa‘udi Arabia, 1935’
W48/9840 vol. I Personal Narrative of a pilgrimmage to al-Madinah and Meccah. Vol. I
Al-Zabidi, Taj al-‘Arus min Jawahir al-Qamus, vol 30 (Kuwait: Kuwait Government Press, 1997), 264. Accessed online
Ula Zeir, ‘Finding Aid: IOR/G/29/2-14 Gombroon (Bandar ‘Abbas) Diaries and Consultations (1708-1763)’, Qatar Digital Library