Piracy in the Persian Gulf
Piracy in the Persian Gulf was prevalent prior to the 20th century. It was perceived as one of the primary threats to global maritime trade routes, particularly those with significance to British India and Iraq. Many of the most notable historical instances of piracy, referred to as 'resistance' by modern Emirati historians, were perpetrated by the Al Qasimi tribe. This led to the British mounting the Persian Gulf campaign of 1809, a major maritime action launched by the British to bombard Ras Al Khaimah, Lingeh and other Al Qasimi ports. The current ruler of Sharjah, Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi argues in his book The Myth of Piracy in the Gulf that the allegations of piracy were simply excuses used by the British to impose imperialism.
Piratical activities were common in the Persian Gulf from the late 18th century to the mid 19th century, particularly in the area known as the Pirate Coast which spanned from modern-day Qatar to Oman. Piracy was alleviated from 1820 with the signing of the General Maritime Treaty, cemented in 1853 by the Treaty of Maritime Peace in Perpetuity, after which the Pirate Coast began to be known by the British as the Trucial Coast (present-day United Arab Emirates).
It is suggested in the historical literature of the Chronicle of Seert that piracy interfered with the trade network of the Sasanians around the 5th century. The works mention ships en route from India being targeted for attacks along the coast of Fars during the reign of Yazdegerd II.
Ibn Hawqal, a 10th-century history chronicler, alludes to piracy in the Persian Gulf in his book The Renaissance Of Islam. He describes it as such:
From Ibn Hawqal's book, "The Renaissance Of Islam": —
- As early as about the year 815 the people of Basrah had undertaken an unsuccessful expedition against the pirates in Bahrain; 2 in the 10th century. People could not venture to sail the Bed Sea except with soldiers and especially artillery-men (naffatin) on board. The island Socotra in particular was regarded as a dangerous nest of pirates, at which people trembled as they passed it. It was the point d'appui of the Indian pirates who ambushed the Believers there. Piracy was never regarded as a disgraceful practice for a civilian, nor even as a curious or remarkable one. Arabic has formed no special term for it; Estakhri (p. 33) does not even call them "sea-robbers," but designates them by the far milder expression "the predatory." Otherwise the Indian term the barques is used for them.
In Richard Hodges' commentary on the increase of trade in the Persian Gulf around 825, he makes references to Bahraini pirate attacks on ships on ships from China, India and Iran. He believes the pirates were attacking ships travelling from Siraf to Basra.
Marco Polo made observations of piracy in the Persian Gulf. He states that in the seventh century, the islands of Bahrain were held by the piratical tribe of Abd-ul-Kais, and in the ninth century, the seas were so disturbed that the Chinese ships navigating the Persian Gulf carried 400 to 500 armed men and supplies to beat off the pirates. Towards the end of the 13th century, Socotra was still frequented by pirates who encamped there and offered their plunder for sale.
Following the expulsion the Portuguese from Bahrain in 1602, the Al Qasimi (called by the British at the time Joasmee or Jawasmi1 ) – the tribes extending from the Qatari Peninsula to the Ras Musandam – adopted maritime raiding as a way of life due to the lack of any maritime authority in the area.
European piracy in the Persian Gulf was frequent in the 16th and 17th century, targeting mainly Indian vessels en route to Mecca.
Edward Balfour asserts that the Muscat Arabs were "highly predatory" from 1694 to 1736, but it was not until 1787 that the Bombay records made mention to the systemic recurrence of piracy in the Persian Gulf.
One of the earliest mentions of piracy by the British comes from a letter written by William Bowyear dated in 1767. It describes a Persian pirate named Mīr Muhannā. The letter states "In his day, he was a major source of concern for all those who traded along the Persian Gulf and his exploits were an early factor, beyond purely commercial concerns, that led the East India Company to first become entangled in the politics of the region".
Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah was the most notorious pirate to have exploited the Persian Gulf during this era. He was described by the English traveller and author, James Silk Buckingham, as ‘the most successful and the most generally tolerated pirate, perhaps, that ever infest any sea.’ He moved to Khor Hassan in Qatar around 1785. In 1810, the Wahhabis attempted to strengthen their position in the Persian Gulf region by aligning themselves with him as he was the most influential parsonage in Qatar at the time. He ruled Qatar for a short period and the British considered him to be the leading pirate of the Pirate Coast.
In his book Blood-Red Arab Flag, Charles E. Davies alleges that the issue of piracy in the Persian Gulf appeared to have escalated in 1797. This date corresponds with some of the most prominent acts of piracy committed against the British by the Al Qasimi tribe, eventually giving rise to the Persian Gulf campaign of 1809.
Organized piracy under the Wahhabis
Around 1805, the Wahhabis maintained an unsteady suzerainty over parts of the southern Persian coast. They implemented of a system of organized raids on foreign shipping. The vice-gerent of the Pirate Coast, Husain bin Ali, compelled the Al Qasimi chiefs to send their vessels to plunder all the trade ships of the Persian Gulf without exception. He kept one-fifth of the loot for himself. Arnold Wilson suggests that the Al Qasimi tribe members acted against their will so as not to incur the vengeance of the Wahhabis. However, upon remarking on the rampant increase in piracy starting in 1805, J. G. Lorimer, a British chronicler, perceives this view as extreme, and believes the Al Qasimi acted within their volition.
Persian Gulf campaign
In the aftermath of a series of attacks in 1808 off the coast Sindh involving 50 Qasimi raiders and following the 1809 monsoon season, the British authorities in India decided to make a significant show of force against the Al Qasimi, in an effort not only to destroy their larger bases and as many ships as could be found, but also to counteract French encouragement of them from their embassies in Persia and Oman. By the morning of 14 November, the military expedition was over and the British forces returned to their ships, having suffered light casualties of five killed and 34 wounded. Arab losses are unknown, but were probably significant, while the damage done to the Al Qasimi fleets was severe: a significant portion of their vessels had been destroyed at Ras al-Khaimah.
While the British claim that acts of piracy disrupted maritime trade in the Persian Gulf, Mohammed Al Qasimi, author of The Myth of Piracy in the Gulf, dismisses this as an excuse used by the British to further their agendas in the Persian Gulf. Indian historian Sugata Bose maintains that while he believes the British colonial accounts of piracy were self-serving, he disagrees with Al Qasimi's thesis that piracy was not widespread in the Persian Gulf region. Davies argues that the motives of the Al Qasimi tribe in particular may have been misunderstood and that it cannot be definitively stated that they were pirates due to issues of semantics. J.B. Kelly, a historian, comments in his treatise on Britain and the Persian Gulf that the Qasimi are undeserving of their reputation as pirates, and goes on to state that it was largely earned as a result of successive naval incidents with the rulers of Muscat.
There were numerous outrages expressed by the British, who were dismayed with the acts of piracy committed against them after an arrangement between them and the Al Qasimi broke down in 1815. J.G. Lorimer contends that after the dissolution of the arrangement, the Al Qasimi "now indulged in a carnival of maritime lawlessness, to which even their own previous record presented no parallel". Select instances are given:
- In 1815 a British Indian vessel was captured by the Jawasmi near Muscat, the majority of the crew being put to death and the rest being held for ransom.
- On the 6th of January 1816, the H.E.I. Company's armed pattamar "Deriah Dowlut," manned entirely by natives of India, was attacked by Jawasmi off Dwarka, and eventually taken by boarding. Out of 38 individuals on board, 17 were killed or murdered, 8 were carried prisoners to Ras-al-Khaimah, and the remainder, being wounded, were landed on the Indian coast. The entire armament of the Deriah Dowlut consisted of two 12-pounder and three 2-pounder iron guns; whereas each of the pirate vessels, three in number, carried six 9-pounders and was manned by 100 to 200 Arabs, fully armed.
- Matters were at length brought to a head by the capture in the Red Sea, in 1816, of three Indian merchant vessels from Surat, which were making the passage to Mocha under the British flags; of the crew only a few survivors remained to tell the tale, and the pecuniary loss was estimated at Rs. 12,00,000.
- The piratical enterprises of the Joasmi [Al Qasimi] tribes and other Arab tribes in the Persian Gulf region had become so extensive and attended by so many atrocities on peaceful traders, that the Government of India at last determined that an expedition on a much larger and comprehensive scale than ever done before, should be undertaken for the destruction of the maritime force of these piratical tribes on the Gulf and that a new policy of bringing the tribes under British rule should be inaugurated.
In November of that year, the British embarked on an expedition against the Al Qasimi, voyaging to the Pirate Coast capital of Ras Al Khaimah with a platoon of 3,000 soldiers. The British extended an offer to Said bin Sultan of Muscat in which he would be made ruler of the Pirate Coast if he agreed to assist the British in their expedition. Obligingly, he sent a force of 600 men and two ships. By December, the allied forces had secured a decisive victory, with the British posting only 5 casualties as opposed to the 400 to 1000 casualties reportedly suffered by the Al Qasimi.
After seizing the Pirate Coast capital, the British went on to sack the cities of Lingeh and Doha. They also took counter measures to suppress piracy in the region by relocating their troops from Ras Al Khaimah to the island of Qeshm. They eventually withdrew from the island around 1823 after protests by the Persian government.
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In 1820, a number of Sheikhdoms on the southern Persian Gulf coast and the British government signed a maritime peace treaty. The treaty only granted protection to British vessels and did not prevent coastal wars between tribes. As a result, piratical raids continued intermittently until 1835, when the sheikhs agreed not to engage in hostilities at sea for a period of one year. The truce was renewed every year until 1853, when a treaty was signed with the United Kingdom under which the sheikhs (the Trucial Sheikhdoms) agreed to a "perpetual maritime truce". It was enforced by the United Kingdom, and disputes among sheikhs were referred to the British for settlement. Bahrain subscribed to the treaty in 1861.
Despite the treaties, piracy remained a problem until the coming of steamships capable of outrunning piratical sail ships. Much of the piracy in the late nineteenth century was triggered by religious upheavals in central Arabia. In 1860, the British opted to concentrate its forces on suppressing the slave trade in adjacent East Africa. This decision left its trade vessels and steamers in the Persian Gulf vulnerable to piracy, prompting some to take their business elsewhere.
Kuwait signed protective treaties with Britain in 1899 and 1914 and Qatar signed a treaty in 1916. These treaties, in addition to the earlier treaties signed by the Trucial States and Bahrain, were aimed suppressing piracy and slave trade in the region. Acts of piracy in the Persian Gulf desisted during this period. By the 20th century, piracy had become a marginal activity, mainly due to the increasingly widespread use of steamships which were too expensive for freebooters to finance.
Iraq experienced a rise in piracy since the start of the century. There were 70 incidents of piracy reported from June to December 2004, and 25 incidents from January to June 2005. It is usually perpetrated by small groups of three to eight people using small boats. From July to October 2006, there were four reported piracy incidents in the northern Persian Gulf, which targeted mainly Iraqi fishermen.
The Pirate Coast
The designation Pirate Coast was first used by the British around the 17th century and acquired its name from the raiding activities that the local Arab inhabitants pursued. Edward Balfour proclaims that the Pirate Coast was comprehended to have encompassed the area between Khasab to Bahrain, an area circumscribing 350 miles. It is also claimed that the principal stronghold was in Ras al-Khaimah.
Hermann Burchardt, a 19th-century German explorer and photographer, surmised that the Pirate Coast deserved its designation, and goes on to claim that piracy was the main occupation of the inhabitants who were infamous for their fanatacism and bloodthirstiness. A British customs official named John Malcolm who served in the Persian Gulf area from the 18th century to the 19th century wrote that when he questioned an Arab servant named Khudádád about the Jawasmi (the main pirate tribe in the Persian Gulf), Khudádád professed that "their occupation is piracy, and their delight murder; and to make it worse, they give you the most pious reasons for every villainy they commit".
The Pirate Coast was later called the Trucial Coast by the British after the Treaty of Maritime Peace in Perpetuity was signed in 1853 and the 'Exclusive Agreement' of 1892 cemented this by ceding control of foreign relations to the British. During the late 19th and early 20th-century a number of changes occurred to the status of various emirates, for instance emirates such as Rams (now part of Ras Al Khaimah) were signatories to the original 1819 treaty but not recognised as trucial states, while the emirate of Fujairah, today one of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates, was not recognised as a Trucial State until 1952. Kalba, recognised as a Trucial State by the British in 1936 is today part of the emirate of Sharjah.
1. Al Qasimi were also referred to as Joasmi, Jawasmi, Qawasim and Qawasmi in various records and books.
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Media related to Piracy in the Persian Gulf at Wikimedia Commons
- Qatar Digital Library - an online portal providing access to British Library archive materials relating to piracy in the Persian Gulf, including public domain resources