How the British exploited piracy to rule the Arabian Gulf

Who were the real plunderers of the 18th and 19th centuries? Present-day historians say the vilification of the Qawasim expedited imperial dominance and subjugation. We look at the role of piracy in the formation of the Gulf states.

Illustration The National staff
Powered by automated translation

“Piracy, like beauty, often lies in the eyes of the beholder.” So said the historian Jon Mandaville, writing about the much-romanticised but very real Rahmah ibn Jabir Al Jalahimah, a piratical figure who, centuries after his death, continues to inhabit the folklore of the Gulf.

The most famous buccaneer ever to ply the waters between Qatar and Oman, a littoral that once featured on 19th century maps of the region as the Pirate Coast, Al Jalahimah’s reputation rests as much on the spectacular events surrounding his death as the adventures that defined his life.

A scion of one of the most powerful merchant adventurer clans of late-18th century Kuwait, Al Jalahimah eventually met his end in a sea battle off the coast of Bahrain in 1826 when, rather than be taken prisoner, he exploded his own gunpowder-packed ship with his eight-year-old son in his arms.

Mandaville may have written his words in 1975, but as the historian Dr Simon Layton revealed in a recent lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society in London, a more nuanced understanding of piracy is crucial to understanding the history of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf in the early 1800s, a time when the region became the focus of strategic rivalries that stretched all the way from London and Paris to Moscow and Tehran.

“It’s fundamentally important to how the Gulf developed and to the eventual emergence of the UAE,” the historian explains from his office at Queen Mary University of London.

Layton is currently working on a new book, Piratical States: British Imperialism in the Indian Ocean World, that develops a discourse about piracy that moves beyond the old imperial model, prevalent until the 1970s, that identified the region's indigenous populations as pirates and its European colonisers as the bringers of law and order.

“From the beginnings of European interventions in the Indian Ocean the Europeans, who had very little to trade, used piracy and their technological capacity for warfare to their best advantage,” Layton says, describing a model of extortion, first established by the Portuguese in the 16th century, that was still employed along the Malabar Coast by the British East India Company some 200 years later.

“It was a protection racket,” Layton explains. “They said ‘You hire us to protect you from piracy but if you don’t, we’ll call you pirates and protect everyone else.’”

Until the 1970s, the principal narrative about Gulf piracy was the one established by British imperial sources such as Charles Low's History of the Indian Navy: 1613-1863 (1877) and John Gordon Lorimer's encyclopaedic, 5,000-page Gazetteer (1908).

Focused on the exploits of the Qawasim, a maritime dynasty headquartered in Ras Al Khaimah but with outposts on both sides of the Strait of Hormuz, this history emphasised the increased belligerence of the Qawasim from the 1770s onwards, a period in which Lorimer says the Qawasim’s fleet “scoured the seas plundering all indiscriminately”.

The period certainly saw a series of raids against British ships such as the Viper, which was attacked in Bushire on the coast of present-day Iran in 1797; the Trimmer and the Shannon, which were attacked by Sheikh Qadhib Al Qasimi of Lingeh in 1804; the death of 30 crew members of the Sylph, an eight-gun British schooner in October, 1808; and the Minerva, captured in May 1809, after a two-day sea battle.

The Minerva's capture was followed in November 1809, by the first British assault against the Qawasim capital, Ras Al Khaimah, an attack that began with a naval bombardment and resulted in the town being burnt and razed to the ground.

Despite the brutality of the assault, which was followed by a Gulf-wide maritime campaign that is reported to have resulted in the destruction of more than 100 Qawasim ships, it took a second larger and even more sustained offensive in 1819 before the British were able to claim victory and enforce a treaty that committed the Qawasim to a “cessation of plunder and piracy”.

Later, in 1853, the rulers of the littoral sheikhdoms were pressured again into signing a second treaty (the Perpetual Maritime Truce) that established the Trucial States, the forerunner of the UAE.

If the basic facts and dates surrounding the establishment of the Trucial States are not in doubt, historians’ understanding of Gulf piracy and the violence that helped to establish Britain’s early domination in the region have long been a matter for debate.

In 1986, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi wrote The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf, in which he argued that the British had identified the Qawasim as pirates because of the threat they posed to trade, a position supported by the Kuwaiti sociologist Khaldoun Al Naqeeb, author of Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula (1987), who not only viewed the Qawasim's resistance to the British as lawful but saw their suppression as part of a wider pattern of British imperialism.

Building on this revisionism, Layton is part of younger generation of historians who have sought to understand piracy in the Gulf in a more strategic and conceptual context.

“I’m interested in how the concept of piracy has changed over time, especially when you compare the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds,” he says.

“In the Indian Ocean world the term stopped being internal to empire and started to be applied to external people, to the ‘Other’, and as such it became a very important tool in establishing Britain’s maritime empire there.”


Piracy in the Arabian Gulf

A memoir from the Ruler of Sharjah

The sacking of Ras Al Khaimah


For Layton, India became a fulcrum for British anti-piracy activities that extended east into South-East Asia and west into the Gulf where the Qawasim were unfortunate enough to find themselves caught between powers, such Oman and Persia, whose cause was supported by the British.

Layton's contemporaries include Guillemette Crouzet, a French historian whose prize-winning book Genèses du Moyen-Orient (Genesis of the Middle East) views the rise of the East India Company's Bombay presidency through the lens of political anxieties that are initially sparked by the fear of a French revival in West and South Asia.

“From the moment the French fleet arrived in the Bay of Alexandria on July 1, 1798, the prospect of a French invasion of India loomed large in the imaginations of Anglo-Indian and British diplomats,” she explains.

“What they feared was that Napoleon would establish a maritime corridor down the Red Sea and through the Indian Ocean that he would use to invade British India.”

Even once the threat of French invasion had passed, Crouzet insists, what she describes as British India’s “anxieties of empire” did not dissipate but instead revealed the absence of an adequate system of protection for the three presidencies, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, that comprised the East India Company’s presence in the subcontinent.

“Taking control of the Gulf is an act of protection and self-defence and whether or not the tribes from Ras Al Khaimah were piratical or not didn’t really matter because they were scapegoats of empire,” the historian explains.

“So the Bombay presidency attacks Ras Al Khaimah for a second time and signs treaties so that the Gulf can become a new buffer zone and whether those anxieties were exaggerated or not, they were powerful enough to fuel British resistance in the form of expansion.”

Like Layton, Crouzet situates the attacks against the Qawasim within a wider timeline of Anglo-Indian imperial expansion that takes place in a wide arc from Bengal in the east to the Gulf in the west.

“The presidencies are trying to expand on every front and while they are treating West Asia and the Gulf as their western flank they are also trying to secure the North-West Frontier and Burma at the same time,” she says.

“The second Anglo-Maratha War [between the British East India Company and the Indian Maratha Empire] occurs just before the first raid against Ras Al Khaimah and the first Anglo-Burmese War happens just five years after the second.”

For Crouzet, the Bombay presidency’s actions against the Qawasim mark a tipping point in the creation of a semi-independent and specifically Anglo-Indian empire in the Gulf, and like Layton she also identifies the use of piracy as a form of stigmatisation that paved the way for colonisation and the transformation of local populations into imperial subjects.

“The discourse of piracy emerges wherever the map is blank and pirates are the monsters at its edge. It marks a rolling frontier of expansion where they become a fundamentally irrational concept that needs to be extirpated,” Layton explains.

"Terrorism is something to which people apply a similar idiom. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter and it is entirely a matter of perspective and opinion," he says, using an argument reminscent of Noam Chomsky but summarised best by the Augustine of Hippo in his fifth century thesis The City of God.

“Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized,” the Christian philosopher and theologian wrote.

“For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, ‘What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.’”

Nick Leech is a feature writer at The National.