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De-exceptionalizing the Arabian Peninsula: Pirates, Pilgrims, Archives

Panel I-17, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • 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.
  • The annual Hajj and year-round Umrah pilgrimages represent essential religious rites for the global Muslim community. However, these massive movements of people became complicated in the early 20th century due to the competing sovereignties of multiple European imperial powers in the regions of South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. These imperial administrations implemented new economic and travel policies which affected the pilgrims voyaging in and through their territories to reach Mecca. Within this realm of shifting policies, irregular law enforcement, and the “frontier” status of the Arabian Peninsula to global empires, smugglers profited through their engagement with pilgrims. Concurrently, illegal traders smuggled pilgrims, smugglers pretended to be pilgrims while trafficking goods, and legitimate pilgrims trafficked items along the way to make additional income during the long travel period. This paper argues that the widespread overlap between goods smuggling and pilgrimage to Mecca reveals the gaps in European imperial authority to successfully implement customs, border enforcement, and maritime security in the Middle East in the early 20th century. Using British India Office Records, contemporaneous travel diaries, and secondary sources, this paper will predominantly study smuggling as it relates to pilgrimage in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Research on this subject is theoretically based on scholarship about imperial frontiers by Benjamin Hopkins and Peter Sluglett in conjunction with how borders in imperial systems were constructed and violated by Eric Tagliacozzo. The purpose of this paper is to examine the instances where pilgrims and smugglers worked in tandem to undertake Hajj and thus delegitimized the effectiveness of European colonial control. This paper seeks to answer questions such as how individual actors violated secular laws to comply with religious law and why religion is critical in the discourse surrounding anti-imperial criminality. Such work pushes back against the traditional narrative that smuggling is a purely economic practice to accrue capital or a political act of resistance against state power. In this example, smuggling and smugglers facilitate a religious rite that governments made challenging to complete. The conclusions derived from this research can extend to more modern examples of nation-states imposing travel restrictions on Muslims which hinder their ability to complete the Hajj or more widely to studies involving the overlap between religious practice and criminality.
  • 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.
  • Raḥmah bin Jābir (c. 1760-1826) is one of the most frequently cited persons in sources from the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf around the turn of the eighteenth century, yet he has received almost no scholarly attention, in English or in Arabic. Raḥmah was leader of the Āl Jalāhimah family, part of the Al-ʿUtūb, moving between the present-day states of Kuwait, Qatar, and Iran. When he is mentioned, he is always labeled a pirate. This article questions how historians might reimagine the Gulf through Raḥmah’s eyes in ways more closely attuned to local perspectives. I argue that, rather than a mere “pirate,” Raḥmah was a political entrepreneur whose life can be mapped against local, regional, and global transformations in which the Gulf became a globally connected space, one in which “global” is not a euphemism for British domination. Putting British archival sources in conversation with local Arabic chronicles and travel memoirs, this article highlights Raḥmah as a pivotal figure in the making of the modern Gulf and provides a more textured, horizontal depiction of the political and social landscape than has otherwise been portrayed. This paper contributes to broader historiographical debates centering on more fully incorporating the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf in Middle East studies, and incorporating both into the broader history of the Indian Ocean world.