The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf

In reading books on Qatar (see this section for the list), many of the criticisms I have made of contemporary scholarship is a continuation of colonial attitudes and perspectives. On that note, I was glad to come across the gem of a book, "The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf" (1986), by Sultan Muhammad Al-Qasimi. The book has been re-printed by Routledge. The book comes out of a thesis, and reads that way, but is nonetheless a great resource on the colonial representations of history. The author deconstructs and corrects the colonial record. In the process, the author heavily quotes original source material (which is a great resource for other researchers, but at times overwhelming for readers). What is missing is the important "so what?" chapter, which one might hope would be the concluding chapter. Recommended nonetheless. Some (more lengthy than normal) notes:

"For three quarters of a century, since J. G. Lorimer compiled his magnum opus, his deliberate misrepresentation of the history of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf has prevailed, and has never been challenged." (p. xiii)

"The indigenous people of the Gulf were normal people with normal human ambitions. Although poor, they were skillful. They were people practising normal human activities, in particular trade, in which they had been involved for millennia. The only abnormal factor was the introduction of a foreign people whose aim was to dominate and exploit. The intruders were the forces of British imperialism, who knew very well and often testified that the indigenous people of the Gulf were only interested in the peaceful pursuits of pearl diving and trade." (p. xiv)

"The Company did not protect Tipu Sultan; instead it attacked and defeated him, putting an end to his imaginative enterprises. The Company did not protect the 'country' trade of Mysore; it destroyed it. While ignoring all these developments, Kelly states that 'the burden of protecting the 'country' trade was borne principally by the Bombay Marine, the armed branch of the Company's maritime service.' It is now clear that the Company has no intention of protecting anybody's trade. Its obvious intention, in the face of increasing competition, was to use 'protection' as an excuse to employ the force of the Bombay Marine to squash the competitors. Instead of peaceful trade, it became gun-boat trade." (p. 27-28)

"…the British seem to have introduced a new element into this competition. Their eventual demand that all ships trading in the Gulf should have British 'passes' suggests that they considered themselves the masters of the G ulf waters and were of the opinion that trade should be conducted there solely for their benefit and that nobody else had the right to trade there without their approval. Indeed, to the British the French ships that attempted to approach the Gulf were 'privateers', while the Arabs there were 'pirates' whose ships could only be involved in acts of 'piracy' even if they were simply floating in the Gulf waters." (p. 31)

"The British who were involved in this incident would appear to have been lending their colours to cover what obviously amounted to smuggling. They knew it and so did Sultan b. Saqr, but his behaviour was certainly more honourable than theirs. Unlike them, he did not take advantage of the treaty of 1806 but stretched himself beyond the call of duty to protect anything that could possibly be British in order to maintain and observe the letter and the spirit of the treaty. Nevertheless, he was accused of being a pirate, and by the British of all people." (p. 88)

"Taking this report at its face value, it seems that the British commanding officers sailing the Gulf, even close to straits and islands, considered that they and they alone had the right to be sailing there. Any other ship simply had to steer away from their path as quickly as possible. The sailors must also stop singing, otherwise they might offend British eyes and ears with what might seem like war dances. It should be noted that Arab sailors in the Gulf never engaged in war dances, or any dances at all, for that matter; they were usually too busy and too exhausted with their assigned tasks on board ship to have the time or energy to dance. Furthermore, Arab sailors were supposed to hide their spears when a British ship appeared, because they might be considered a threat to British personnel and thus might provoke them to fire on innocent passing Arab ships. The arrogance of these presumptions is beyond comprehension." (p. 100)

"Up to this point it has been seen that British policy-makers in India were deter­ mined to destroy the naval power of the Qawäsim in the Gulf. Although the war was obviously a trade war, the British had managed to convince themselves that it was a war waged to rid the Gulf of piracy. They were in no doubt, with or without reason, that the pirates were the Qawäsim, whom they accused of every possible evil deed in the seas around them. As we have seen, many of these accusations were proved to be false; nevertheless such lies continued to be circulated in the reports of British agents and Indian brokers alike." (p. 151) 

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