As the British Empire expanded its influence in the Persian Gulf in the late nineteenth century, its military and diplomatic activities in the Gulf were frequently justified in terms of combatting piracy. I argue that the ways in which British officials discussed and conceived of piracy intersected with imperial ambitions for uninterrupted trade and diplomatic supremacy in the Gulf. This discourse was therefore linked to a struggle for influence with the Ottoman Empire, which was itself attempting to consolidate its power in the Gulf region. I have sought to treat the category of “piracy” as politically constructed, as opposed to the way it has been reified by previous works on the subject.
In the years following the Ottoman invasion of Hasa in 1871, the British aimed to blunt further Ottoman expansion in the Gulf while promoting their own aims of political domination and free navigation. Reading against the grain of British archival sources shows that local tribal leaders who aligned themselves with the Ottomans were typically labeled pirates alongside common maritime robbers. Moreover, supposed Ottoman inability to combat “piratical” disorder was used to justify military incursions throughout the Gulf. One example found in the India Office Records is the deployment of British gunboats to the Ottoman-claimed settlements of Qatif and Zubarah in 1878 in order to combat piracy, causing diplomatic friction.
Official communications within the British and Indian governments show significant differences of opinion on how to confront “piracy” while managing relations with Istanbul. The debate essentially revolved around whether negotiations should be sought to settle the disputes over overlapping spheres of influence, or if British political interests would be better served by continuing ambiguity. Typically, this latter stance was taken by low-level political officers, open to employing extra-legal force, while those in London and India were more careful to avoid provoking the Ottoman government. Ultimately, those favoring caution and subversion won out.
For the Ottomans, mistrust of British involvement in the region led to reform proposals to curb the creep of British influence. There is evidence that the empire attempted to implement anti-piracy measures in the Gulf, despite British claims to the contrary. Ultimately, these measures were futile, as demonstrated by the continuous expansion of British political influence until the end of the Ottoman presence in the Gulf. The above examples show that British discourse concerning piracy not only obscured realities on the ground but had serious real-world ramifications.