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13 March 2013, Gateway House

Historical Perspectives on Piracy: The British Empire in the Persian Gulf

Maritime piracy is one of the several grave security issues faced by today’s world. This problem, however, isn’t a new phenomenon, and nations have long-battled this issue. How did piracy manifest itself in the Indian Ocean in the 19th century, and what was the nature of counter-piracy efforts during that period?

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Readers of the M.E.R. (I) will not require any kind of introduction to the problem of piracy in the Indian Ocean Region. The Indian shipping community is well aware of the problem and its significance in maritime life today. This article examines piracy from a historical perspective. Piracy is not new, especially in the Indian Ocean Region. Historical references to piracy go back to antiquity, and we have scores of historical documentation referring to piracy from the last two-three hundred years. This article examines records discussing piracy from the nineteenth century. In particular, it explores some records of an anti-piracy operation from the early 19th century. As indicated by the title of this essay, the article studies an anti-piracy operation launched by the British Empire in the Persian Gulf region. Through this article, the author draws some conclusions on the nature of anti-piracy operations in the nineteenth century, and on the problem of piracy itself as manifested in the Indian Ocean in this period.

In the early 19th century, the directors of the English East India Company organized a massive naval campaign to “put an end to Piracy in the Persian Gulf.”[1] In November 1819 an expedition set sail from Bombay under the command of the British General William GrantKeir. Keir’s brief was clear; he was expected to sort out “the Arab chiefs of the pirate coast.”[2] The “pirate coast” in question was the stretch of coastline that runs alongside the Arabian Gulf from the Qatar Peninsula to Oman. The “Arab chiefs” in question were the Qawasim tribal confederacy (the present day Emirs of Sharjah) that controlled this region from their capital city of Ras al Khaymah (presently one of the United Arab Emirates, also governed by the descendants of the Qawasim tribal confederacy). The East India Company had run into the Qawasim earlier, dispatching a small naval armada against them in 1809, but the results had been most unsatisfactory. The Company forces had managed to inflict defeat on the Qawasim, but the effects of this victory had been temporary at best. The Qawasim had returned to their maritime activities soon enough, and had been harassing East India Company shipping throughout the region. The flotilla dispatched under the command of General William Grant Keir was the largest maritime expedition ever dispatched from India to the Persian Gulf. It consisted of three warships of the British navy: the HMS Liverpool, a fifty gun frigate; the HMS Curlew; an eighteen gun brig sloop; and the HMS Eden, a twenty four gun sixth rate warship. In addition, the flotilla consisted of nine cruisers of the East India Company navy. The expedition also included an armed force of approximately three thousand men, about half of this force consisted of British artillery units while the rest were composed of Indian infantrymen.[3]

The expedition arrived off the Arab coast in early December. The British-Indian forces engaged the Qawasim on the 3rd of December 1819. Captain Francis Loch, commander of the HMS Eden,kept a journal recording the events as he saw them. Loch wrote that the Qawasim were forced back “with great slaughter, taking care to carry with them the greater part of their dead and wounded, many of whom were females who had joined in the sortie.” Loch’s journal records “a loss of about 200 killed and wounded, including several officers” among the British and Indian troops. Loch claimed that the fighting was heavy, “the pirates neither giving nor expecting any quarter and, owing to their savage brutality, they received none from our troops.”[4] In less than a week, on the 9th of December 1819, the expedition overran the Qawasim citadel at Ras al Khayam. The victorious British Indian expedition forced the defeated chiefs to sign a “General Treaty of Peace.” In the British lexicon the “Pirate Coast” became a “Trucial Coast” i.e. a coast secured by treaty. The expeditionary force departed in July 1820 leaving behind a small garrison to enforce the terms of treaty.[5]

Thus far, it would appear that this was a rather straightforward story. The British faced a problem of piracy in the Persian Gulf. They identified the Qawasim tribe as the source of the problem. They dispatched a naval expeditionary force, defeated the Qawasim tribe, and departed after extracting a treaty ensuring peace in the region. British historians writing in the twentieth century certainly depicted the above events as such. J. G. Lorime and Charles Belgrave both wrote along similar lines describing a process of imperial policing and the consequent suppression of piracy.[6] There are however, two facts that serve to complicate this triumphalist narrative of British imperialism.

With hindsight, it appears that it would turn out to be much easier for the British to declare peace than to enforce it. The British struggled to maintain their position of superiority over this coast of Arabia over the next several decades. The garrison left behind was soon embroiled in conflict. Left under the command of General Keir’s translator, Captain Perronet Thompson, the troops found themselves fighting pitched battles against several of the region’s tribes. Thompson, as it turned out, was a Methodist Christian from Yorkshire, England. His parents were close friends of William Wilberforce, the indefatigable founder of the Anti-Slavery Society. Thompson subscribed to the Methodist Church’s position on slavery, and had inherited from his parents a strong commitment to abolition. Thompson had talked General Keirinto inserting an anti-slavery clause into his peace treaty with the Qawassim, and after the departure of the expeditionary force, began deploying his garrison to force the Qawassim to free their slaves. A better ideologue than a soldier, Thompson led his small force of British and Indian troops into a humiliating defeat at the hands of the BaniBu’Ali tribe. This necessitated the dispatch of another large expeditionary force from Bombay. The East India Company sent out more than 1,200 British soldiers and almost 1,700 Indian troops to bring the Bu’Ali tribe to heel. The British were also able to secure the assistance of the Sultanate of Oman with whose help the British were able to force a new treaty with the Bu’Ali confirming British suzerainty over the region. The British would end up signing six more such treaties with the Arab chiefs of the region over the next several decades. These included a “Maritime Truce” in 1839 that was periodically renewed till 1853, when the British concluded a much grander sounding “Treaty of Perpetual Peace.” After the suppression of the revolt of 1857 in India, the British Indian Government leased six warships from the British Royal navy for £70,000 a year. The ships were to be on “constant and exclusive service in the Persian Gulf, where they were to perform police duties and prevent the Arab chiefs from rendering navigation and commerce insecure by piratical expeditions.”[7] The costs of these operations were borne entirely by Indian taxpayers.[8]

The second complicating factor is the curious part played by a pirate by the name of Rahmah bin Jabbar. Rahmah bin Jabbar was possibly the most successful and well known pirate operating in the Persian Gulf at the time. A member of the Jalama tribe, Rahmah bin Jabbar had been born into a humble family from Qurain (modern day Kuwait). Rahmah bin Jabbar began his career as a lowly horse dealer, before moving on to piracy. He started with one small vessel and ten companions with whom he began running a protection racket along the coast of the Arabian Gulf. At the height of his power Rahmah bin Jabbar commanded an entire fleet of pirate vessels, and the loyalty of an estimated 2,000 pirates. The largest of his vessels was a 300 ton ship manned by 350 men. Rahmah bin Jabbar protected his fleet by building alliances, including an alliance with the Al-Saud dynasty (the current ruling family of Saudi Arabia). He later shifted his loyalties towards the Al Bu Sa’id dynasty of Oman. Riding the coattails of the expanding Omani maritime Empire,Rahmah bin Jabbar built a flourishing business based on piracy. In the early 19th century, the pirates of the Qawasim tribal confederacy were his only serious rivals.[9]

Rahmah bin Jabbar was in many ways the quintessential pirate. The British historian Charles Belgrave called him “one of the most vivid characters the Persian Gulf has produced, a daring freebooter without fear or mercy.”[10] The contemporary English traveler and writer James Silk Buckingham described him as “the most successful…pirate, perhaps, that ever infested any sea.”[11]He even wore an eye patch, having lost an eye in battle. Curiously, during the East India Company’s anti-piracy operations in the early nineteenth century, Rahmah bin Jabbar fought alongside the British. This was a truly remarkable state of affairs where a pirate fought alongside what was an avowedly anti-piracy mission. The key to the mystery lay in the fact that Rahmah bin Jabbar had identified the British as allies in his struggle against the Qawasim. Loch wrote in his diary, “He was as great a pirate as those of the [Qawasim] tribe with this exception:he protected British trade, and was at peace with [British allies] Basra and Bushire, but at war with every other part of the Gulf.”[12]Rahmah bin Jabbar, possibly in honor of this alliance named his own flagship the Al-Manowar (after the English ‘Man o’ War’).[13]

The records suggest two significant conclusions. First, the anti-piracy operations took very long to succeed, and were very expensive. The operations began in the 1800s and continued well into the second half of the nineteenth century. The operations involved warships as well as ground forces. The costs were substantial. Second, the curious case of the pirate Rahmah bin Jabbar throws into question the dividing lines between pirates and the British Empire. The alliance that brought Rahmah bin Jabbar and the British suggest that the East India Company was less interested in suppressing piracy in the Indian Ocean region than it was in protecting its own ships. The Company and perhaps the British in general were perfectly happy supporting piracy, as long as it did not affect British commercial interests. The evidence suggests that the evils of piracy, at least in this period, were very much in the eyes of the beholder.

Aniruddha Bose is a contributor to Gateway House. This backgrounder is part of the research for his Ph.D thesis.

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[1]John Gordon Lorrimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia (Farnsborough: Gregg, 1970), p. 197, cited in Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 46.


[3] Bose, A Hundred Horizons, p. 46.

[4]Charles Belgrave, The Pirate Coast (New York: Roy Publishers, 1966), p. 140, cited in ibid, p. 47.

[5] Bose, A Hundred Horizons, p. 47.

[6]Lorrimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, p. 2638; Charles Belgrave, The Pirate Coast (New York: Roy Publishers, 1966) cited in Bose, A Hundred Horizons, p. 43,44.

[7]Lorrimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, p. 250, 265, cited in Bose, A Hundred Horizons, p. 49.

[8] Bose, A Hundred Horizons, p. 47-49.

[9]For biographical information on Rahmah bin Jabbar see Belgrave, The Pirate Coast; James Silk Buckingham, Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia (London: H. Colburn, 1829).

[10]Belgrave, The Pirate Coast, p. 122.

[11]Buckingham,Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia, p. 366.

[12]Belgrave, The Pirate Coast, p. 129.

[13]Ibid, p. 122-129.

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