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Anglo-Qawasim Pirates Wars 1809-1820

In the early years of the 19th Century coast of the Persian Gulf were inhabited by brave, rapacious, and cruel people, brought up and nurtured from their childhood among scenes of bloodshed, and licentious and treacherous warfare on land. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance point to the Gulf, was controlled by the Qawasim tribal confederation. The Qawasim had a large fleet of trading and military ships based alternatively at Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah. A key source of revenue for the Qawasim was tolls, which they levied on all trade that passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Al Qasimi were also referred to as Joasmi, Jawasmi, Qawasim and Qawasmi in various records and books.

The British refused to pay these tolls and, unsurprisingly, serious tensions between the Qawasim and the British began to develop. The British went so far as to refer to the Qawasim as ‘pirates’. After a series of confrontations between the two sides in 1820, British forces laid siege to Ras Al Khaimah and destroyed the entire Qawasim fleet; this date marks the beginning of Britain’s hegemonic control over the region.

Previous to the expedition of 1820, under the command of Sir William Grant Keir, which had for its object the complete destruction of the forts and boatsf of the piratical tribes, notwithstanding the merited chastisement which had been inflicted upon them by a naval expedition in 1809, no vessel, whether carrying a British pass and British colours, or those of any other nation, was safe; and the only effect of repeated remonstrances, and threats of retaliation, was to elicit from them the promise, while still openly avowing their determination otherwise to continue their depredations, to respect the British flag,—an engagement which they nevertheless seldom observed, and for the violation of which they invariably failed to afford redress when called upon.

The slight and temporary impression which had been made by the first expedition, in 1809, in consequence of its not having been fittingly followed up by measures of precaution and general supervision, led, therefore, in the expedition of 1819-20, to the imposition of a general Treaty, consisting of eleven Articles, upon the Arab Chieftains, and the appointment of a Political Resident at Bushire, whose duty it now became to insist upon the full and strict observance of its conditions on the part of the subscribers; for which purpose the services of a naval and military force were placed at his disposal.

It was by instigating the Kawasim tribe of Arabs to acts of piracy in the Persian Gulf that the Wahabis first attracted the attention of the British Government. This sect had adopted strict and puritanical doctrines. They denied divine honours to Muhammad; abhorred and destroyed all holy tombs; abstained from the use of tobacco; and waged war against all Muhammadans who did not accept their peculiar views. The Kawasim, who have occupied the province of Sir from the earliest times, carried on a vigorous and profitable trade by sea till in 1805 they succumbed to the influence of the Wahabis and were drawn into the piratical projects of that turbulent sect. Under their influence the Kawasim plundered two British vessels and treated the commanders with great cruelty. An expedition was sent to the Persian Gulf to punish them for this aggression and to co-operate with the Imam of Maskat, who was then at war with them. The expedition resulted in the conclusion of a Treaty on 06 February 1806, binding the Kawasim to respect the flag and property of the British, and to assist vessels touching on their coast. This treaty appears to have been concluded without reference to the Wahabis.

The spread of the Wahabis in Oman soon threatened the ruler of Maskat with destruction, and the British Government determined to support him and to destroy the piratical fleets as the only means of preserving the peace of the Gulf. It was decided, however, not to attempt any operations by land, and to show extreme forbearance to the Wahabi Chief. A strong force was despatched in 1809, which took Ras-al-Khaima, Lingah, Luft, and Shinas, and destroyed the boats of the pirates. No treaty could at this time be concluded with the Kawasim, whose government had been completely overthrown by the Wahabis, nor were any permanent measures taken to secure the advantages gained iu 1809; consequently, piracy soon reappeared.

Luk 1809 Ras-al-Khaima 1809

In 1811 the Wahabis appeared in the vicinity of Maskat and plundered the territory of Saiyid Said. Application was made by him for the assistance of the British Government, but the request was refused on the ground that the British Government had recently co-operated with him merely for the extirpation of the pirates who interrupted the commerce of the Persian Gulf, not in prosecution of war against the Wahabis. A heavy money payment induced them to retire for the time, but the invasion was renewed by Mutlak-ul-Mutairi in 1813.

Saiyid Said was relieved from this danger by the General's death, followed, in 1814, by that of the Amir Saud, and by the invasion of Nejd from the westward by the Egyptians in 1816. An envoy had been sent by the Amir before his death to endeavour to negotiate a treaty of friendship and commerce with the British Government, but it was deemed inexpedient to negotiate any treaty or to form any intimate connection with tie Amir, though a friendly intercourse was to be maintained with him. Meanwhile the Egyptian troops had taken the holy places of the Muhammadan faith, and the Wahabi power in that quarter was broken for the time.

By 1812, the Qawasim had rebuilt their ships with wood imported from Africa and, before long, were in maritime disputes with the British once more. In 1814 the Kawasim professed a desire to be at peace with the British Government, provided they were left at liberty to make war on the neighboring Arab tribes. They even expressed themselves ready to abstain from molesting their Arab neighbours if the British Government would guarantee them protection from the vengeance of the Wahabi Chief. But they were quite unable to make good their professions. Even after the negotiations of preliminary articles of peace with the Resident at Bushire the Kawasim attacked and plundered British vessels. Other tribes were soon drawn under the Wahabi influence, and piracy increased to an intolerable extent.

An expedition under Sir W. Grant Keir was therefore despatched to the Persian Gulf in 1819 for the purpose of completely crushing them. In December 1819, Britain resolved to stop the Qawasim expansion once and for all. More than 200 ships were destroyed and towns along the coast, from Rams to Abu Hail, were demolished. The town of Ras al Khaimah was taken on 9th December, and was razed to the ground.

Engagements were made with the Arab Chiefs preliminary to the conclusion of a general Treaty. The object of the preliminary engagements was to include all matters of a temporary or individual character, so as to reserve the general treaty exclusively for arrangements of a permanent nature common to all the Arab Chiefs who might be disposed to subscribe it.

In 1820, after the capture of Ras-ul-Khaima by the expedition sent against the piratical tribes in the Gulf, Shaikh Abdulla bin Ahmad and Shaikh Stilaiman bin Ahmad, who then ruled Bahrain conjointly, signed a preliminary Engagement not to permit in Bahrain the sale of property procured by plunder and. piracy, and to restore all Indian prisoners then in their possession. They also subscribed the general treaty of 1820 for the pacification of the Persian Gulf.

Under the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf of 1820, Article 1 stated "There shall be a cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea on the part of the Arabs, who are parties to this contract, for ever."

The first obligation imposed upon the Arab Chieftains in the Persian Gulf, with reference to the Traffic in Slaves, was the provision forming Article IX of the General Treaty of 1820. The words are "The carrying off of slaves, men, women, and children, from the Coasts of Africa or elsewhere, and the transporting them in vessels, is plunder and piracy, and the friendly Arabs shall do nothing of this nature." This Article has ever been understood and held as forbidding only the carrying off of men, women, and children as slaves, and the transporting them in vessels, when so carried off, although the words may be said to bear the same comprehensive sense of forbidding the carrying off of slaves, and the transporting of slaves, however procured, in vessels; but even this most extended acceptation cannot be construed into forbidding the purchase of slaves, and the transport of them overland, unless indeed the last clause, which provides that the friendly Arabs shall do nothing of this nature, embraces everything. The Arabic sentence bears precisely the same meaning, and is liable to the same opposite constructions.

The treaty concluded with the maritime Arab Chiefs in 1820 did not limit the right of the Chiefs to carry on acknowledged war with each other by sea, that is to say, war proclaimed and avowed by one Chief upon another. All other hostile aggressions, however, were declared to be piratical. But under the name of acknowledged war many acts of piracy were committed, especially during the season of pearl-fishery.

When the poverty, habits of rapine, and interminable blood feuds (the heir-loom of the Arab); and when the enticing prospects of rich booty to be obtained from a course of piracy, are considered — the Arabs had been so long restrained and impelled to the faithful observance, with few exceptions, of their engagements with the British Government, by the dread of its power alone, and the assurance that punishment would immediately follow their slightest breach. The disorders and irregularities arising out of the blood feuds existing on land afford a pretty good proof of what would occur at sea, were it not for the restraining power of the British Government.

Experience has shown that the most solemn engagements between these chieftains themselves, formed without the guarantee of the Government, are no security whatever for the maintenance of peace: present prospects of temporary advantage or gain were quite sufficient grounds for their being set aside and disregarded. To some British observers at the time it seemed that there was little prospect of the maintenance of a perpetual pence, with reference to the peculiar habits and dispositions of the Arabs : that when a definite period was assigned, as in a truce, the several tribes were contented to allow their fends and animosities to remain in abeyance, under the idea that after a specified date it would always be in their power to indulge their deeply rooted feelings of animosity, should they feel disposed to do so. On the contrary, the circumstance alone of finding themselves precluded, by the conditions of a treaty putting an end to all future hostilities by sea, from avenging insults, or taking satisfaction for wrongs, whether real or imaginary, would so embitter the sentiments of hatred entertained towards each other, that a series of aggressions and retaliations would speedily arise, which would only tend to defeat the very object for which the peace had been negotiated.

In 1820 the British imposed a General Treaty of Peace on all nine Arab sheikhdoms along this coast and prescribed them to fly a square "white pierced red" flag instead of the plain red flags they were using on their vessels. The white in the flag would signify they had abandoned piracy. That flag was however not acknowledged by all tribes, who changed the designs and proportions. The Qawasim, who had been the principal leaders of the Persian Gulf pirates from the early 18th century, adopted the prescribed square "white pierced red" flag, but, as the Arab tribes preferred very long flags on their ships, they flew flags with proportions of 1:3, 1:4, or even 1:6. This flag, called the "No. 2 flag", also became known as the "Qasimi" (singular of Qawasim) flag. This flag however was not acknowledged by all tribes because it was associated with the Qawasim dynasty of Sharjah. The other tribes then added a white stripe to their plain red flag at the hoist.

After their crushing victory over the Qawasim the British imposed an anti-piracy treaty, known as the General Treaty of 1820, on all of the Arab rulers in the region. To enforce the treaty, manage their relations with local rulers and protect British trade in the Gulf, the British created the post of Political Agent for the lower Gulf. Originally based on Qishm Island, in 1822 the post was moved to Bushire on the Persian mainland and merged with the pre-existing position of EIC Resident at Bushire to create the position of Resident in the Persian Gulf (Political Resident in the Persian Gulf after the 1850s) the most senior British official in the Gulf and as such, the most powerful man in the region. By signing the Perpetual Maritime Truce of 1853, the Arab rulers formally surrendered their right to wage war at sea in return for British protection against external threats to their families’ rule.

It is certainly rare to see a head of state much less a hereditary monarch on a list of essential scholarship. The conventional view has justified British imperial expansion in the Gulf region because of the need to supress Arab piracy. The book "The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf" by Ruler of Shariqah Sultan ibn Muhammad al-Qasimi, first published in 1988, challenges the myth of piracy and argues that its threat was created by the East India Company for commercial reasons. The Company was determined to increase its share of Gulf trade with India at the expense of the native Arab traders, especially the Qawasim of the lower Gulf. However, the Company did not possess the necessary warships and needed to persuade the British Government to commit the Royal Navy to achieve this dominance. Accordingly the East India Company orchestrated a campaign to misrepresent the Qawasim as pirates who threatened all maritime activity in the northern Indian Ocean and adjacent waters. Any misfortune that happened to any ship in the area was attributed to the ‘Joasmee pirates’. This campaign was to lead eventually to the storming of Ras al-Khaimah and the destruction of the Qawasim. Based on extensive use of the Bombay Archives, previously unused by researchers, this book provides a thorough reinterpretation of a vital period in Gulf history. It also illuminates the style and method of the East India Company at a critical period in the expansion of the British Empire.



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Page last modified: 28-07-2019 18:56:13 ZULU