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Omar Karmi

British Library sheds light on history of UK-Gulf relations

Mecca and Medina, 1907 (courtesy of the British Library)

Date of publication: 9 November, 2014

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A treasure trove of documents spanning over 200 years relating to the British empire’s administration of the Gulf is being made available online in cooperation with the Qatar National Library

Times were proving difficult for the man who was paid to be Britain’s eyes and ears in the tiny emirate of Sharjah.


Abused, threatened and beaten, he complained to Arnold Campbell, the political officer at the Gulf headquarters of the British government in Bushehr, in present-day Iran.


His situation was becoming precarious, the Arabic-speaking Armenian from Basra wrote in 1850. As one of Britain’s “native agents” – those living in major population centres in areas controlled by the British Crown – he was tasked with passing on information on anything from local customs to political gossip and trade. But locals had stormed his house, he wrote, accusing him of being an “agent of the Christians”.


What happened to Britain’s man in Sharjah is not clear. But his complaint is now housed at London’s British Library, among 14 kilometres of documents from Britain’s India Office – the imperial government department that oversaw

      The collection could transform our understanding of Middle East history 
– Richard Gibby, project leader

the administration of India and “provinces” such as the Gulf.


The whole archive is eventually set to be made available online from the British Library and Qatar National Library as part of a Qatar Foundation-sponsored project to digitise and make widely available a treasure trove of material relating to the Gulf - previously the exclusive preserve of those with approved access. The project was launched in October with a first tranche of documents made available online at the Qatar Digital Library.


The material includes some 25,000 pages of medieval Arabic manuscripts from the British Library collection, covering more than 900 years of scientific Arab thought. Among them are 40 Arabic science manuals and rare documents such as Arabic versions of Archimedes’ Book on the Construction of Water-Clocks from 1294AD and Description and Uses of Animals, also from the 13th century.


A rare and comprehensive window


The bulk of the archive is made up of around 475,000 pages from the India Office, however. These span 200 years covering the period from the mid-18th century to 1951. They comprise official correspondence, records of trade, maps, sketches, notes on the region’s flora and fauna - as well as personal dairies from Britain’s emissaries in the Gulf, though only one will be available online from October.


The material provides a rare and comprehensive window on Britain’s interests in the Gulf as they changed over time and circumstance. These interests began initially as a search for access to Asian markets especially to meet demand for cotton from India for light cloth. However, as the slave labour-based cotton cultivation in the North American colonies expanded, Indian hand weavers struggled to keep up and the Gulf – through which that trade was delivered – wound up part of the periphery of Britain’s Indian empire. 


America’s subsequent independence did not affect the cotton industry. It did affect the balance of power in the world and the Gulf was eventually to become a centre for American-British conflicts of interests. Documents being digitised record the passage of the American ship the Two Sons to Basra in 1802. They also trace an American presence that was to dramatically grow with the discovery of oil and then again after the Second World War as Britain’s empire declined.


Digitising such a quantity of material with commentary provided in both Arabic and English promises an unprecedented opportunity for researchers and historians worldwide, as well as the interested layman. It could “transform our understanding of Middle East history”, said project leader Richard Gibby.


“It is the first project to make this amount of material so freely available and will present an untarnished history of the region.”


There are plenty of nuggets here, not least from the one diary to be available from the outset. An avid diarist, Lewis Pelly, Britain’s political representative in the area in the 1860s, took a special interest in the geography of the region and became the first non-Arab to map part of the Arabian interior.


Mapping Arabia

Chart of the coast of Persia, 1829 (picture courtesy of the British Library - see also gallery)


The National Geographic Society in London had previously wondered whether this might ever happen due to the perceived danger of the “restive tribes” found away from the coastline. Pelly set out to prove the sceptics wrong. Through contacts with his close friend Sheikh Sabah in Kuwait, he managed to obtain an invitation from Imam Faisal Ibn Turki al-Saud to travel to Riyadh.


Not only did he make it back in one piece, he mapped the coordinates of Riyadh. He also established what was to become a crucial relationship with the Sauds in general and Faisal in particular - a man, he noted, with a “remarkable face… very calm and self-assured”.


Such personal notes are mixed with commerce-related communications and sometimes idiosyncratic accounts of official functions such as a 1914 letter detailing a dinner “in the Arab style”, where among 74 attendants were Sheikh Isa Ibn Ali al-Khalifa, the then-ruler of Bahrain, his sons, and senior British royal navy officers. 


The collection provides insight into how Britain’s role in the area deepened from one that existed mainly to secure safe passage for British trade enforced by Britain’s navy, through that of mediator between tribes and rulers of the area, to one directly micromanaging even seemingly trivial matters.


Two official letters in the collection, dated 1937, detail the curious case of a British restaurateur of Pashtun origin in Kuwait accused of serving up cat meat for his customers. The accusation was brought by local police who, during a visit to the man’s house observed “a herd of eight fat cats” and promptly arrested him. Since a Briton’s arrest by local authorities was prohibited under the agreement governing relations between the British government and Kuwait’s rulers, Britain’s representative Gerald Simpson de Gaury soon secured the man’s release, ensured that all charges were dropped, and received an apology from Sheikh Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, Kuwait’s ruler.


The man was deported, however – “with or without his eight cats” – under de Gaury’s instructions and to avoid any diplomatic fall-out. De Gaury speculated that the whole thing – dubbed the ‘Kuwait cat meat scandal’ – had been concocted by the local chief of police in order to take over the restaurant in question.




By then, oil had been discovered in the region, sparking an international scramble. A 1928 Red-Line agreement effectively geo-politicised oil concessions into two blocs. The British, and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, dominated the southern and northern shores of the Gulf, while the US carved out a sphere of influence, spearheaded by the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCAL), especially in the newly emergent state of Saudi Arabia. 


Sharpened competition with the US is evident in the later decades of the archive material. And Britain jealously guarded its interests. In Bahrain, where oil was first discovered in 1932 and the first oil refinery was built in 1936 with SOCAL investment, Britain long resisted US attempts to open a consulate. That didn’t stop the US from trying to influence Bahraini leaders, and the collection holds examples of American Second World War propaganda disseminated to the ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalifa bin Mohammad al-Khalifa, in 1946.


Charles Prior, the most senior British representative in the region, promptly blamed the US consul in Saudi Arabia, Parker T Hart. Prior reserved special contempt for Hart, having in a 1944 letter, also in the archive, derided him as someone with “no knowledge” of the region.

“As long as [the] United States are content to employ officers with these qualifications, the danger to our interests is minimised. When, however, they are able to post officers with experience of the Middle East and a fluent knowledge of Arabic the position will become entirely different.”


In all, the collection offers an unmatched and enormously varied window on a crucial time in the region’s history. Its free availability online should exercise the interested for decades, said Francis Owtram, historian and one of the project curators. The project, he said, will provide “unique insight” for researchers everywhere.

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