RAK's sacking still reverberates

Britain sacked Ras al Khaimah two centuries ago this week, breaking the power of the Qawasim seafaring tribe.

One of the lithographs depicting the sacking of Ras al Khaimah by a British fleet in November 1809. The town was devastated and the attack led to British control of the Gulf.
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RAS AL KHAIMAH // Two hundred years ago, Ras al Khaimah was burnt to the ground. Today, experts say, that sacking by a British fleet has directly affected the shape of the UAE.

Thirteen lithographs on a wall of the Sharjah Art Museum show each grisly scene of the British attack on Ras al Khaimah on November 13 1809. Black smoke rises about a town engulfed in flames as soldiers fight door-to-door through the streets of 19th-century RAK. The battle was the beginning of a new era in the Gulf: that of British control. It led to the General Treaty of 1820 that brought 150 years of peace and trade to the Gulf under the British and ensured a maritime truce between independent emirates that later formed the UAE.

But so brutal was the massacre of 1809 that its violence is still remembered in song and story two centuries later. Mention of the battle still brings pain to those from the area. Yet if it had not been for the battle of 1809 and the resulting treaty in 1820, most historians agree, the UAE of 2009 would be a very different place. "Because of that treaty, we have independent emirates," said Dr Hasan al Naboodha, a history professor at UAE University. "It was divide and rule. Just imagine if the British didn't come and attack the Qawasim, would you hear today about the emirate of Ajman or Umm al Qaiwain?"

The cause of the battle between the British and the Qawasim, the seafaring tribe that ruled coastal areas on the Eastern, Persian and Arabian coasts, is still hotly disputed among historians today. "The British accused the Qawasim of being pirates and attacking ships but we don't know exactly what went on because we don't have local sources from this time," said Dr al Naboodha. Contemporary British accounts depicted the Qawasim tribe as an unruly and ruthless group of plunderers and pirates.

Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, Ruler of Sharjah, challenged this in his 1986 book The Myth of Arab Piracy, which argued that the British were foreign intruders who sought to expand their power in the Gulf for the East India Company. Until late in the 18th century, skirmishes between the Qawasim and British were rare. In 1797, however, the Viper, a British ship, was attacked by Qawasim dhows while anchored in Bushire an attack for which Sheikh Saqr bin Rashid, then of Ras al Khaimah, apologised and offered settlement.

In 1804 the British ships Trimmer and Shannon were attacked by Sheikh Qadhib al Qasimi of Lingeh. In 1806, a treaty was agreed upon by the Qawasim, the British and the British-backed Omanis, long-standing rivals of the Qawasim. Within a few months, relations became strained between the Omanis and the Qawasim over territorial disputes at Qishm and the treaty fell apart. In October 1808 the Qawasim were held responsible for an attack on the Sylph, an eight-gun British schooner, that killed 30.

The next May, the Qawasim seized the Minerva and took it to Ras al Khaimah with an officer's wife on board. She was held for ransom. One survivor claimed that the Minerva was attacked by more than 50 dhows in a two-day battle that ended in the deaths of 45 of the 77 on board. The event fuelled British anger against the Qawasim and a larger confrontation loomed. Such events were popular in the British media, which, according to Dr Sheikh Sultan, exaggerated the numbers of those killed and vilified the Qawasim.

"It was the power of this saga to stir the imagination, as piracy still does, which ensured it would not be forgotten," wrote Charles Davies in his 1997 book The Red Arab Flag: An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy, 1797-1820. "Contemporary newspapers, travellers, officers and others all felt moved to write about the Qawasim and British measures taken against them." But even before the Minerva incident, the Supreme Government in Calcutta had already made a decision to attack Ras al Khaimah.

A British fleet of 16 ships and more than 1,300 troops sailed from Bombay, now known as Mumbai, on September 14 1809, headed by HMS Chiffone and commanded by Capt Wainwright. The fleet reached Muscat, a British outpost, on the evening of November 11 and reached RAK within a day. The Qawasim had no way of knowing which of their ports the British would attack. By the time they realised that the target was Ras al Khaimah, it was too late to call for assistance from their ships in Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Qaiwain or Hamriyah.

Dawn on November 12 brought the first assault from the British in the form of a naval bombardment that pummelled the town's defences and homes. The bombardment lasted until dusk. At nightfall, Ras al Khaimah's leaders held a majlis and decided that they could not abandon their town. A thousand civilians, mostly women and children, were evacuated during the night and the men who remained prepared for battle.

In the early morning of November 13, 600 men from the British fleet landed near the town's main defences. Forced to leave their boats several metres from the shore, the British struggled through chest-high water to reach the beach where they were greeted with musket fire by the Qawasim. But numbers were on the side of the British. By midmorning, they had breached Ras al Khaimah's defences and advanced on the town.

"There was no comparison between the two [forces]," said Dr al Naboodha. "The Qawasim had very, very old weapons that they used to take from other ships they had attacked." Although heavily outnumbered, the Qawasim fought the British in the narrow streets, house to house. The battle lasted for hours before the British decided to set the town's houses alight. At 10am, the Qawasim began a retreat; men swam across the creek to safety, under the cover of smoke from their burning homes.

The next day, the British fleet left to attack remaining Qawasim ports across the Gulf. Over a month and a half, more than 100 Qawasim ships were destroyed. The British campaign lasted until 1810 but for years afterwards the Royal Navy hunted vessels from the Qawasim ports, fearing that they would rebuild and challenge British naval power again. They also placed an embargo against the export of Indian teak to the Qawasim in an effort to stop them from rebuilding their fleets.

But by 1812, the Qawasim had rebuilt their ships with wood imported from Africa and, before long, were in maritime disputes with the British once more. In December 1819, Britain resolved to stop the Qawasim expansion once and for all. More than 200 ships were destroyed and towns along the coast, from Rams to Abu Hail, were demolished. The town of Ras al Khaimah was razed to the ground. These events led to the General Treaty of 1820, putting the Gulf firmly under British control and bringing maritime peace, trade and economic growth.

From then on, Ras al Khaimah, no longer focused on naval expansion, became a trade centre between Persia, India and the bedu-controlled interior. The treaty of 1820 secured the autonomy of small emirates by splintering Qawasim control and led to 150 years of British governance in the Gulf. And yet, local historians say that it came at a heavy cost. "It's a very sad history, everybody would say that," said Dr Hamad bin Seray, an associate professor at the department of history and archaeology at UAE University. "People lost their independence.

"It made peace in the Gulf itself but not on the land; there was still a lot of killing and kidnapping inland. The British government wanted peace so its connection with south Iraq and India would be safe. We have a lot of documents from that period and I think a lot was British propaganda that said they came here to develop the area." Dr bin Seray, like many from Ras al Khaimah, believes the British response to alleged piracy was disproportionate, considering the suffering visited on the people of RAK.

"Even the excuse of the British government for the attack on RAK was that the Qawasim and people of RAK were pirates, but what did they do? They attacked a couple of British ships, nothing else," he said. "And they [the British] attacked and killed a lot of people in RAK. The British destroyed all the forts, all the ruins, even the ships, everything was destroyed. They didn't leave anything." Brig Saeed Laha, who runs his own museum in RAK and has spent years collecting the correspondence between the British and the Emirati rulers of the time, said 1809 was a tragedy that must be remembered.

"The people are defending themselves and their country," said Brig Laha. "By sword, by old rifles, they fought one by one." Of course, he added, we may never know which version of history to trust. "There are many stories and many songs about 1809 but you can't believe everything," he said. "The history is different from man to man." azacharias@thenational.ae