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Omani Royal Navy - History

By the early 19th Century the naval force of the Sultan of Muscat was about as large as that of the United States. This gave him entire control over all the ports in East Africa, the Red Sea, the coast of Abyssinia, and the Persian Gulf. This force consists, it seems, of between seventy and eighty sail of vessels, carrying from seventy-four guns to four. He possessed a more efficient naval force than all the native princes combined, from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. His possessions, in Africa, stretched from Cape Delagado to Cape Guardafur ; and from Cape Adra, in Arabia, to Ras el Haud ; and, from Ras el Haud, they extended along the northern coast of Arabia, or the coast of Aman, to the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and he claimed, also, the sea coast and islands within the Persian Gulf, including the Barhein islands, and the Pearl Fishery contiguous to them, with the northern coast of the Gulf, as low down as Scindy. The vessels of the sultan traded not only with his own ports in Africa, and the valuable islands of Monpoea, Zanzibar, Pemba, and Socotra, but also to Guzzerat, Surat, Demaun, Bombay, Bay of Bengal, Ceylon, Sumatra, Java, the Mauritis, the Comora islands, Madagascar, and the Portuguese possessions, bringing Indian, African, and European articles. About two thousand vessels were thus engaged in this trade, of which a very large proportion were small craft, to be sure.

Sea navigation is known to have been practiced by Omani sea farers since the most ancient ages, before the fourth millennium BC. Their efforts coincided with the prosperity of trade activity in the civilisations of Trigris & Euphrates Rivers and River Nile. Sumerians named Oman as Majan which was prosperous during the emergence of Assyrian state and during the era of second Babylonian regime. The Phoenicians on other hand shared ancient Omanis a great deal of similarities as both were great sea farers. It is claimed that the Phoenicians established the town of Sur on the eastern coast, and used it as a commercial port to receive vessels coming from Africa and India.

At the dawn of Islam, Omanis had already acquired fame as skillful capable seamen and greatly contributed in the widespread of Islam during its early conquests. Sohar and Daba; the two main ports at that time, became military supply bases, in addition to being points for launching campaigns by Muslim armies during Beni Omayyah Reign. Imam Ghassan Bin Abdullah (807-824 AD) is renowned for being the first Omani ruler who ordered ships being built particularly for naval wars against pirates sailing in barges in the Gulf.

Upon the arrival of Portuguese to Indian Ocean and the Gulf in the sixteenth century, Oman lost grip on the trade routes to the east after their towns were looted and sabotaged. However, Imam Nasser Bin Murshid, his cousin Sultan bin Saif and their successors of Al-Ya'ariba Imams managed to build a big strong naval force composed of modern warships of European designs. The force was strong enough to challenge the Portuguese and drive them out of their strongholds and away from Oman for good. After cleansing Oman, the naval force was deployed to the West of the Indian Ocean, Persia, the Gulf and East Africa to oust the Portuguese.

In 1749 AD, Imam Ahmed bin Said became the Imam (Ruler) of Oman and his first priority was to rebuild the Omani Navy that was gradually deteriorating over a period of time. The fleet consisted of 4 ships each equipped with 40 guns, in addition to 25 locally made boats.

In the nineteenth century, Sayyid Said bin Sultan managed to build the largest fleet ever in Oman. By 1805 there were 4 frigates, 4 corvettes, 2 single sail ships, 7 vast vessels and 20 merchandise armed ships. He also dispatched a number of ships on diplomatic and commercial missions to America and Europe, such as the Omani vessel Sultanah, which sailed to New York on 30 April 1804 carrying Ahmed bin Al-Noman; the first Arab envoy to America.

As the English power became paramount in India, somewhat more of law and order was introduced, and the safety of the seas became a matter of public concern to tho Government. A well armed fighting marine was organized with its head-quarters at Bombay, and for nearly a centuryas the "Bombay Marine," subsequently called tho "Indian Navy"did excellent, and often brilliant, service both in the Arabian waters and among the islands of the Eastern Archipelago. In the former seas community of interest gave the English useful allies in the Omani navy. The Imams protected trade, and the Indian merchants trading between India, Arabia, and Africa had ever found safe refuge and favour in the seaports of Oman.

The task of suppressing piracy would have been easier but for the support which tho pirates received from the Wahhabis. The southern shores of the Persian Gulf have always been the great stronghold of Arab piracy. The coast is most intricate and dangerous to approach, owing to numerous coral reefs, the channels between which offer no safe access save to the most experienced of local pilots. The inhabitants of the coast, separated into many independent tribes, divided their time between fighting and fishing, pearl-diving in its season and piracy, combining whenever they could all these occupations and uniting only for distant enterprises of sea roving, or to repel any stranger that might meddle with them.

The practical doctrine of the Muslim reformer that tho persons and goods of all unbelievers were the divinely-appointed lawful spoil of the faithful, and that all who had lapsed from the primitive purity of the faithSunnis, or Sbiaahs, and lb ad iy ah alike, all, in fact, except true Wahhabiswere worse than infidels, and were to be slaughtered, enslaved, and plundered as a religious duty this teaching found willing disciples on what is emphatically called the "pirate coast," and its effects were speedily visible in the increased ferocity with which the pirates fought and which they displayed in their treatment of the unhappy captives who fell into their hands.

Instigated by the Wahhabis, the Joasmees, or people of El Kaw&sim, a tribe on the south coast of the Persian Gulf, had been most daring in their piracies on the western coast of India. An expedition was sent by the English Government from Bombay to co-operate with Seyyid Sa'id in punishing them. The town of Ras-el-Khaimar was bombarded on the 12 th November, 1809, stormed the next day, the chief made prisoner, a large number of piratical vessels burnt, and much booty carried off. This was the first instance of armed intervention by the British in the affairs of Oman. The combined forces were equally successful in the following month in recapturing tho fort of Shinas, north of Muscat, which had fallen to the Wahhabis.

After this the English force was recalled. The Supreme Government of India was unwilling to be committed to an indefinite contest with the Wahhabis. Seyyid Sa'id appealed in vain for further aid, and was obliged to buy off the invaders with "a present" of 40,000 dollars, and would probably have suffered further at their hands had not the operations of the Egyptian troops in their campaigns against the Wahhabis in 1813 to 1819, the occupation and destruction of their capital, and the execution of their Amir Abdallah at Constantinople, given for the time an effectual check to the aggressions of the fanatics of Nedj.

A second expedition against the piratical tribes in the Persian Gulf was however, organised by the Government of India in 1819. Seyyid Sa'id heartily co-operated with the force sent from Bombay under General Keir, and contributed to the success of the expedition, which, after reducing several piratical strongholds, forced the chiefs of all the maritime tribes to conclude treaties, in 1820, binding them to a perpetual maritime truce among themselves, to abstain from piracy, and to accept the arbitration of the British agent in the Gulf in case of intertribal disputes. A prompt and steady enforcement of the provisions of these treaties almost put an end to piracy.

After some unsuccessful attempts to annex Bahrein, the Seyyid turned his attention to consolidating his possessions on the African coast, and devoted to that object nearly fifteen years, from 1829 to 1844. The ruler of Mombasa; an Omani territory at the time, sailed on board of Sultanah to London in 1842 as an ambassador to Queen Victoria. Furthermore, the Omani vessel Carolin equipped with 26 guns visited Marseelia in 1849.

Seyyid Sa'id made Zanzibar his principal residence, and in a series of expeditions, in some of which he received important assistance from the English, he gradually occupied almost every seaport of importance, and all the islands off the coast, from near Brava to Cape Delgado. He had a considerable fleet of ships fairly manned and armed after the English fashion. One of these he sent to England and presented to King William the Fourth, and she was long on the navy list as H.M.S. Imam, a serviceable teak-built frigate. In his operations on the African coast he relied mainly on his naval resources, which enabled Viirn to concentrate at any point a force of well-armed Arabs sufficient to capture the forts which had been everywhere built by the former Portuguese conquerors in positions commanding the trade of the coast, and to overcome any opposition from the native African chiefs.

Trade was everywhere fostered, and wherever the Seyyid's red flag was hoisted tho Indian traders, or banians of four or five principal castes, who had from the earliest days been trading on that coast till driven away by Portuguese exactions, would flock back, and the Seyyid himself would often take a part in a venture, or allow his men-of-war to carry cargo, when not engaged in a military expedition. His chief fellow-tribesmen and followers were encouraged to settle wherever they found good land; and plantations of cocoa-nut, sugar cane, and cloves grew up wherever protection was given to the labourers, bond or free, to clear the forest. Under his rule Zanzibar became an important emporium. Indian merchants were followed by German, French, American, and English houses, consulates were established by all four nations, and treaties of commerce were executed.

As the market for slaves in the West Indies, in South America and the Southern Indian Ocean declined, the trade northwards to supply the slave-markets of Egypt, Turkey, Arabia and Persia increased, in spite of the efforts somewhat spasmodically made by the English Government to stop it by sea. Of course it was easy for British consuls to prove by argument that in the long run such a drain of the local labour market was not only inhuman but impolitic. The Seyyid, however, and his followers and advisers caring less for humanity than for their own immediate profit, and still less for the future policy of their successors, were by no means willing to give up or restrict a traffic which insured them a cheap and abundant supply of slave labor, and afforded an article of export more profitable and easy of transport than elephants' teeth.

Nevertheless, at the repeated solicitations of his English allies the Seyyid executed more than one treaty for the suppression of the slave traffic. The provisions of these engagements were not always very effectual in view, but they enabled a succession of active and independent consuls, aided by energetic naval officers, employed on the coast to prove the possibility of putting an end to the traffic by sea.

Seyyid Sa'id embarked once more for Zanzibar ; but 'the decree of fate' overtook him in the Sea of Sayebelles. He died on board his frigate, the Victoria, on the 19th of October 1856, at the age of sixty-five, after a reigu of fifty-two years.

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Page last modified: 25-12-2012 18:36:16 ZULU