Pol­i­tics and piracy

What role did piracy play in the for­ma­tion of the Gulf states? Nick Leech looks at the on­go­ing de­bate about the 19th-cen­tury con­flict be­tween Ras Al Khaimah and the Bri­tish em­pire

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Nick Leech is a fea­tures writer at The Na­tional.

‘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, 5,000page 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 two­day 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.”

For Lay­ton, In­dia be­came a ful­crum for Bri­tish anti-piracy ac­tiv­i­ties that ex­tended east into South­East 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 (The Birth 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.’”

Whether or not the tribes from Ras Al Khaimah were pi­rat­i­cal or not didn’t re­ally mat­ter be­cause they were scape­goats of em­pire Guillemette Crouzet his­to­rian and au­thor of Ge­ne­ses du Moyen-Ori­ent (Ge­n­e­sis of the Mod­ern Ori­ent)

This coloured etch­ing by R Tem­ple of HM 65th Reg­i­ment (1813) de­picts the de­struc­tion of Qawasim strongholds in Ras Al Khaimah by Bri­tish troops in 1809.

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