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Gulf History and Colonial Archives in Britain and India
The richest source of historical records on the Gulf region is to be found in the archives of the former British Indian Empire, of which Eastern Arabia formed a part: (1) The India Office Records in the British Library, (2) The Indian Foreign Department records in the National Archives of India, and (3) The Bombay Government records in the Maharashtra State Archives. This paper examines two key assumptions about British colonial knowledge production in the Persian Gulf: who were its authors and how accurate were their reports? While the discourse about colonial archives is well advanced in South Asian and African history, it is nearly absent in Gulf Studies. Many Gulf historians use records from British and Indian archives without questioning the nature of the knowledge they contain, while the few scholars who have analyzed these records from a colonial knowledge perspective tend to make assumptions about the records’ provenance and accuracy –– that they were written by British officials with a limited understanding of what they were reporting on and thus present a distorted view of reality –– without testing these assumptions. Such assumptions, when false, can themselves lead to distorted views of the Gulf. This paper examines the famous case of John Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf (1908, 1915), drawing upon the 110 files documenting its ten-year compilation (two in the British Library, the rest in the National Archives of India). It shows how, in fact, most of the information for Volume 2: Geographical and Statistical (1908) was gathered and written not by Lorimer, as historians have assumed, but by local Arab and Persian merchants working for him, which he and his assistants simply translated from Arabic or Persian into English, leaving out the names of the actual authors. This practice was, in fact, typical of British intelligence gathering in the Gulf and India –– their reports were not simple, top-down colonial productions, therefore, although British officials might still frame these reports in order to support their assumptions, perceptions, or bias. By examining this local/imperial interplay in colonial knowledge production, this paper argues for a more nuanced approach to British and Indian archives on the Gulf. It also restores agency to local intermediaries, providing a much-needed corrective to our understanding of how the British Empire operated in the Gulf and India.
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