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Naval History 1506-1722 - Safavid Dynasty

The first European Power to appear in the Persian Gulf were the Portuguese. In 1508, the great admiral, Alphonso Albuquerque, after reducing Muscat and other places in Arabia, entered that inland sea with a fleet of seven ships of war, and demanded the surrender of the island of Ormuz; and, on receiving a refusal from the Persian governor, Khoja Attah, cannonaded the fortifications and sunk or burnt the Persian fleet. Khoja Attah agreed to pay an annual subsidy to the King of Portugal, and to permit the erection of a fort; but Albuquerque, owing to the weakness of his crews, was unable to assert his rights of conquest.

But a greater power than Portugal appeared on the scene in 1622, and wrested from her the pride of place which she had held for two and a half centuries. Shah Abbas, the great King of Persia, grew envious of the European Power which, though retaining on the throne a nominal king, lorded it over the island of Ormuz, and caused the barren rock to attain to such a pitch of greatness as the commercial emporium of the East. Shah Abbas was aware he could not compass the downfall of this island fortress without the co-operation of some naval Power, and turned his eyes to the East India Company, whose factory at Surat was then the centre of their power and wealth in Western India. Accordingly, Imaun Kooli Khan, Governor of Fare, called in the English accounts Prince of Shiraz, was directed to undertake the military portion of the enterprise, in conjunction with the East India Company's ships.

On 09 February 1622 the squadron arrived at Ormuz, accompanied by about 200 Persian boats, and on the following morning disembarked the Persian army of 13,000 men, who marohed to the town in "a confused manner." They penetrated without resistance to the market place, where they found further progress barred by barricades. The Portuguese, however, appeared to be afraid of being intercepted in their retreat to the castle, and also anticipated treachery on the part of the Mahomedan inhabitants, for they were quickly dislodged and retired into the castle. The Persians then sacked the town, breaking into all the shops and houses, and "wearied themselves with carrying away plunder all day".

Events in Persia, notably the succession of the new ruler Nadir Shah, determined to establish Persia as a naval power, and to make Bushir a headquarters for the Persian fleet, conspired to check the progress hitherto made by the East India Company in the field of trade, especially in Bander Abbas which the British were ordered to leave by Nadir Shah's successor, Shah Kareem Khan, ostensibly to avoid a civil war.

Having consolidated his hold on Persia, Nadir Shah turned to building up a naval force, aimed at protecting her against naval invasion inside Gulf waters, while at the same time wishing to encourage foreign trade. The country, however lacked a naval tradition and Nadir Shah himself lacked naval experience and expertise. He was compelled at first to use Arab sailors and vessels, loaned by Sheikh Rashed, the Arab Governor of Bassido, because the British and Dutch had refused to sell Persia vessels. Later the British and Dutch relented, leasing four vessels to the Shah's navy, under the command of Latif Khan from 1733.

Despite setbacks, the Shah proceeded with his plans to build up a modern fleet, enlarging it with three new vessels purchased from Europe in 1734. The ambitions which lay behind his drive to create a modern navy soon became apparent when it launched its first attack against Basra in 1735 from the new naval headquarters of Bushir, which the Shah had chosen both for its strategic importance and its location out of the way of commercial shipping. The attack on Basra, launched to exploit the unstable political situation obtaining there caused by Ottoman-Arab conflict, was checked by the British navy, honor bound to cooperate with the Ottomans ruling Basra.

The Persian navy, sufficiently recovered however to attack and occupy Bahrain in 1736 under the command of Latif Khan, the Shah installing Shaikh Nasser - the ruler of Bushir - as nominal ruler of Bahrain. Nadir Shah sought to occupy Muscat, the sentinel of the Gulf. However, the Persian fleet, under the command of Takie Khan, who asdumed command following the death of Latif Khan, was defeated, largely as a result of a mutiny instigated by Arab sailors in reaction to ill-treatment.

Further setbacks for the Persian navy included two further mutinies in 1739 and 1740 which seriously undermined the confidence of the navy; the political situation worsened still further in 1748 when Nadir Shah was assassinated, leaving the country in chaos. The assassination of Nadir Shah by his officers precipitated general disorder among the population resident on the Persian side of the Gulf, the fleet which he had built up becoming ineffective.

The commander of the Persian fleet in Bander Abbas, the Arab Mala Ali Shah, and the ruler of Bushir, Shaikh Nasser, exploited the unrest, tearing Persia apart, each of them seeking to strengthen his influence in the region. That the commander of the Persian fleet should have chosen the Qawasim, a tribe based on the western coast of the Gulf, to side with in a bid to consolidate his naval force in the Gulf, entirely reflected the extent of the tribe's influence andnaval power in the area in the middle of the eighteenth century.




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