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Piracy in the Persian Gulf

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Piracy in the Persian Gulf

Map of the Persian Gulf, 1851. Charts like this were first developed as a consequence of the 1809 Persian Gulf campaign.

Piracy in the Persian Gulf was prevalent prior to the 20th century. It was perceived as one of the primary threats to global maritime trade routes, particularly those with significance to British India and Iraq.[1][2] Many of the most notable historical instances of piracy, referred to as 'resistance' by modern Emirati historians, were perpetrated by the Al Qasimi tribe. This led to the British mounting the Persian Gulf campaign of 1809, a major maritime action launched by the British to bombard Ras Al Khaimah, Lingeh and other Al Qasimi ports.[1][3] The current ruler of Sharjah, Mohammed Al Qasimi argues in his book The Myth of Piracy in the Arabian Gulf [sic], that the allegations of piracy were simply excuses used by the British to impose imperialism.[4]

Piratical activities were common in the Persian Gulf from the late 18th century to the mid 19th century, particularly in the area known as the Pirate Coast which spanned from modern-day Qatar to Oman. Piracy was alleviated from 1820 with the signing of the General Maritime Treaty, cemented in 1853 by the Treaty of Maritime Peace in Perpetuity, after which the coast began to be known by the British as the Trucial Coast (present-day United Arab Emirates).[5][6]


  • History 1
    • Early history 1.1
    • 17th century 1.2
    • 18th century 1.3
      • Persian Gulf campaign 1.3.1
    • 19th century 1.4
      • Organized piracy under the Wahhabis 1.4.1
      • Renewed tensions 1.4.2
      • 1819–1820 expedition 1.4.3
      • Peace treaties 1.4.4
    • 20th century 1.5
    • 21st century 1.6
  • The Pirate Coast 2
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Early history

Persian Gulf from space.

Piracy flourished in the Persian Gulf during the commercial decline of the Dilmun Civilization (centered in present-day Bahrain) around 1800 BC.[7]

As early as 694 BC, Assyrian pirates attacked traders traversing to and from India via the Persian Gulf. King Sennacherib attempted to wipe out the piracy but his efforts were unsuccessful.[8][9]

It is suggested in the historical literature of the Chronicle of Seert that piracy interfered with the trade network of the Sasanians around the 5th century. The works mention ships en route from India being targeted for attacks along the coast of Fars during the reign of Yazdegerd II.[10]

Ibn Hawqal, a 10th-century history chronicler, alludes to piracy in the Persian Gulf in his book The Renaissance Of Islam. He describes it as such:[11]

In Richard Hodges' commentary on the increase of trade in the Persian Gulf around 825, he makes references to Bahraini pirate attacks on ships on ships from China, India and Iran. He believes the pirates were attacking ships travelling from Siraf to Basra.[12]

Marco Polo made observations of piracy in the Persian Gulf. He states that in the seventh century, the islands of Bahrain were held by the piratical tribe of Abd-ul-Kais, and in the ninth century, the seas were so disturbed that the Chinese ships navigating the Persian Gulf carried 400 to 500 armed men and supplies to beat off the pirates. Towards the end of the 13th century, Socotra was still frequented by pirates who encamped there and offered their plunder for sale.[13]

17th century

Following the expulsion the Portuguese from Bahrain in 1602, the Al Qasimi (called by the British at the time Joasmee or Jawasmi1 ) – the tribes extending from the Qatari Peninsula to the Ras Musandam – adopted maritime raiding as a way of life due to the lack of any maritime authority in the area.[5]

European piracy in the Persian Gulf was frequent in the 16th and 17th century, targeting mainly Indian vessels en route to Mecca.[14]

Edward Balfour asserts that the Muscat Arabs were "highly predatory" from 1694 to 1736, but it was not until 1787 that the Bombay records made mention to the systemic recurrence of piracy in the Persian Gulf.[15]

18th century

A sketch of Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah in 1836.

One of the earliest mentions of piracy by the British comes from a letter written by William Bowyear dated in 1767. It describes a Persian pirate named Mīr Muhannā. The letter states "In his day, he was a major source of concern for all those who traded along the Persian Gulf and his exploits were an early factor, beyond purely commercial concerns, that led the East India Company to first become entangled in the politics of the region".[16]

One of the most notorious pirates to have ever exploited the Persian Gulf during this era is Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah. He was described by the English traveller and author, James Silk Buckingham, as ‘the most successful and the most generally tolerated pirate, perhaps, that ever infest any sea.’[17] He moved to Khor Hassan in Qatar around 1785.[18] In 1810, the Wahhabis attempted to strengthen their position in the Gulf by aligning themselves him as he was the most influential parsonage in Qatar at the time.[19] He ruled Qatar for a short period and was considered by the British to be the leading pirate of the Pirate Coast.[20]

Persian Gulf campaign

In his book Blood-Red Arab Flag, Charles E. Davies alleges that the issue of piracy in the Persian Gulf appeared to have escalated in 1797.[21] This corresponds with one of the most prominent occurrences of piracy in the Persian Gulf which revolved around the acts of piracy committed against the British by the Al Qasimi tribe the same year, thus signalling the start of the Persian Gulf campaign of 1809.[1]

While the British claim that acts of piracy disrupted maritime trade in the Persian Gulf, Mohammed Al Qasimi, author of The Myth of Piracy in the Arabian Gulf [sic], dismisses this as an excuse used by the British to further their agendas in the Persian Gulf.[4] Indian historian Sugata Bose maintains that while he believes the British colonial accounts of piracy were self serving, he disagrees with Al Qasimi's thesis which professes that piracy was not wide spread in the Gulf.[22] Davies argues that the motives of the Al Qasimi tribe in particular may have been misunderstood and that it cannot be definitevely stated that they were pirates due to issues of semantics.[21] J.B. Kelly, a historian, comments in his treatise on Britain and the Persian Gulf that the Qasimi are undeserving of their reputation as pirates, and goes on to state that it was largely earned as a result of successive naval incidents with the rulers of Muscat.[23]

19th century

Organized piracy under the Wahhabis

Around 1805, the

  • Qatar Digital Library - an online portal providing access to British Library archive materials relating to piracy in the Persian Gulf, including public domain resources

External links

  1. ^ a b c Al Qasimi, Muhammad (1986). The Myth of Piracy in the Arabian Gulf. UK: Croom Helm.  
  2. ^ "The Corsair - Historic Naval Fiction". Retrieved 13 January 2015. 
  3. ^ "Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al-Qasimi obituary". 1 November 2010. Retrieved 13 January 2015. 
  4. ^ a b Pennel, C.R. (2001). Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader. NYU Press. p. 11.  
  5. ^ a b c d Donaldson, Neil (2008). The Postal Agencies in Eastern Arabia and the Gulf. pp. 15, 55, 73.  
  6. ^ a b c Nippa, Annegret; Herbstreuth, Peter (2006). Along the Gulf : from Basra to Muscat. Schiler Hans Verlag. p. 25.  
  7. ^ Nyrop, Richard (2008). Area Handbook for the Persian Gulf States. Wildside Press. p. 12.  
  8. ^ Hamilton, John (2007). A History of Pirates. Abdo Pub Co. p. 7.  
  9. ^ Saletore, Rajaram Narayan (1978). Indian Pirates: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Concept. p. 12. 
  10. ^ Larsen, Curtis (1984). Life and Land Use on the Bahrain Islands: The Geoarchaeology of an Ancient Society (Prehistoric Archeology and Ecology series). University of Chicago Press. p. 61.  
  11. ^ """Full text of "The Renaissance Of Islam. Retrieved 13 January 2015. 
  12. ^ Hodges, Richard (1983). Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis. Cornell University Press. p. 149.  
  13. ^ Anonymous (2010). Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Volume 13, part 2. Nabu Press. p. 434.  
  14. ^ Cornell, Jimmy (2012). World Voyage Planner: Planning a voyage from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world. Adlard Coles. 
  15. ^ a b Edward Balfour (1885). The Cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia (3rd ed.). London: B. Quaritch. pp. 189, 224–225, 367–368. 
  16. ^ "A THORN IN ENGLAND’S SIDE: THE PIRACY OF MĪR MUHANNĀ". Retrieved 13 January 2015. 
  17. ^ Buckingham, James Silk (1829). Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 121. 
  18. ^ "The coming of Islam". Retrieved 13 January 2015. 
  19. ^ Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf. Vol I. Historical. Part IA & IB. J G Lorimer. 1915' [843] (998/1782)"'". Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  20. ^ Orr, Tamra (2008). Qatar (Cultures of the World). Cavendish Square Publishing. p. 21.  
  21. ^ a b Davies, Charles (1997). Blood-Red Arab Flag: An Investigation Into Qasimi Piracy 1797-1820. University of Exeter Press. pp. 65–67, 91.  
  22. ^ Bose, Sugata (2009). A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire. Harvard University Press. p. 44.  
  23. ^ Casey, Paula; Vine, Peter (1992). The heritage of Qatar. Immel Publishing. p. 34. 
  24. ^ a b Wilson, Arnold (2011). The Persian Gulf (RLE Iran A). Routledge. p. 204.  
  25. ^ a b Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf. Vol I. Historical. Part IA & IB. J G Lorimer. 1915' [653] (796/1782)"'". Retrieved 13 January 2014.  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  26. ^ Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf. Vol I. Historical. Part IA & IB. J G Lorimer. 1915' [654] (797/1782)"'". Retrieved 4 August 2015.  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  27. ^ Précis of correspondence regarding the affairs of the Persian Gulf, 1801-1853' [57r] (113/344)"'". Retrieved 13 January 2015.  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  28. ^ Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf. Vol I. Historical. Part IA & IB. J G Lorimer. 1915' [659] (802/1782)"'". Retrieved 4 August 2015. 
  29. ^ Moorehead, John (1977). In Defiance of The Elements: A Personal View of Qatar. Quartet Books. p. 23.  
  30. ^ Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf. Vol I. Historical. Part IA & IB. J G Lorimer. 1915' [667] (810/1782)"'". Retrieved 4 August 2015. 
  31. ^ Althani, Mohamed (2013). Jassim the Leader: Founder of Qatar. Profile Books. p. 21.  
  32. ^ Ahmadi, Kourosh (2008). Islands and International Politics in the Persian Gulf. Routledge. pp. 17–20.  
  33. ^ Mohamed Althani, p. 22
  34. ^ "UK in the UAE". 2008-05-01. Retrieved 2009-07-15. 
  35. ^ a b Leatherdale, Clive (1983). Britain and Saudi Arabia, 1925-1939: The Imperial Oasis. Routledge. pp. 10, 30.  
  36. ^ "ECONOMY IN TURMOIL: GULF TRADE HIT BY PIRACY AND FAMINE". Retrieved 13 January 2015. 
  37. ^ Ulrichsen, Kristian (2014). The First World War in the Middle East. Hurst. p. 23.  
  38. ^ "Global Maritime Piracy, 2008-2009". Retrieved 13 January 2015. 
  39. ^ Sowell, Thomas (1999). Conquests And Cultures: An International History. Basic Books. p. 39.  
  40. ^ "PIRACY CONFERENCE HELD IN OMAN". Retrieved 13 January 2015. 
  41. ^ Griffes. South Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean. ProStar Publications. p. 184.  
  42. ^ "U.S. troops battling pirates, smugglers off Iraq’s coast". 26 October 2006. Retrieved 14 January 2015. 
  43. ^ Incorporated, Facts On File, (2008). United Arab Emirates. Infobase Publishing. p. 20.  
  44. ^ Malcolm, John. Sketches of Persia, from the journals of a traveller in the East (1st ed.). London J. Murray. p. 27. 


1. Al Qasimi were also referred to as Joasmi, Jawasmi, Qawasim and Qawasmi in various records and books.


See also

The Pirate Coast was later called the Trucial Coast by the British after the Treaty of Maritime Peace in Perpetuity was signed in 1853[5] and the 'Exclusive Agreement' of 1892 cemented this by ceding control of foreign relations to the British. During the late 19th and early 20th-century a number of changes occurred to the status of various emirates, for instance emirates such as Rams (now part of Ras Al Khaimah) were signatories to the original 1819 treaty but not recognised as trucial states, while the emirate of Fujairah, today one of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates, was not recognised as a Trucial State until 1952. Kalba, recognised as a Trucial State by the British in 1936 is today part of the emirate of Sharjah.

Hermann Burchardt, a 19th-century German explorer and photographer, surmised that the Pirate Coast deserved its designation, and goes on to claim that piracy was the main occupation of the inhabitants who were infamous for their fanatacism and bloodthirstiness.[6] A British customs official named John Malcolm who served in the Persian Gulf area from the 18th century to the 19th century wrote that when he questioned an Arab servant named Khudádád about the Jawasmi (the main pirate tribe in the Persian Gulf), Khudádád professed that "their occupation is piracy, and their delight murder; and to make it worse, they give you the most pious reasons for every villainy they commit".[44]

The designation Pirate Coast was first used by the British around the 17th century and acquired its name from the predatory nature of the Arab inhabitants.[43] Edward Balfour proclaims that the Pirate Coast was comprehended to have encompassed the area between Khasab to Bahrain, an area circumscribing 350 miles. It is also claimed that the principal stronghold was in Ras al-Khaimah.[6][15]

An 1849 map of Arabia which makes mention of The Pirate Coast

The Pirate Coast

Iraq experienced a rise in piracy since the start of the century. There were 70 incidents of piracy reported from June to December 2004, and 25 incidents from January to June 2005. It is usually perpetrated by small groups of three to eight people using small boats.[41] From July to October 2006, there were four reported piracy incidents in the northern Persian Gulf, which targeted mainly Iraqi fishermen.[42]

Jamie Wrona of the Maritime Liaison Office declared that piracy throughout the Middle East region was not only a threat to the regional economy, but also to the global economy.[40]

21st century

Kuwait signed protective treaties with Britain in 1899 and 1914 and Qatar signed a treaty in 1916.[37] These treaties, in addition to the earlier treaties signed by the Trucial States and Bahrain, were aimed suppressing piracy and slave trade in the region.[35] Acts of piracy in the Persian Gulf desisted during this period. By the 20th century, piracy had become a marginal activity,[38] mainly due to the increasingly widespread use of steamships which were too expensive for freebooters to finance.[39]

20th century

Despite the treaties, piracy remained a problem until the coming of steamships capable of outrunning piratical sail ships. Much of the piracy in the late nineteenth century was triggered by religious upheavals in central Arabia.[35] In 1860, the British opted to concentrate its forces on suppressing the slave trade in adjacent East Africa. This decision left its trade vessels and steamers in the Gulf vulnerable to piracy, prompting some to take their business elsewhere.[36]

In 1820, a number of Sheikhdoms on the southern Persian Gulf coast and the British government signed a maritime peace treaty. The treaty only granted protection to British vessels and did not prevent coastal wars between tribes. As a result, piratical raids continued intermittently until 1835, when the sheikhs agreed not to engage in hostilities at sea for a period of one year. The truce was renewed every year until 1853, when a treaty was signed with the United Kingdom under which the sheikhs (the Trucial Sheikhdoms) agreed to a "perpetual maritime truce".[33] It was enforced by the United Kingdom, and disputes among sheikhs were referred to the British for settlement.[34] Bahrain subscribed to the treaty in 1861.[5]

Bushehr sea-front, c. 1870.

Peace treaties

After seizing the Pirate Coast capital, the British went on to sack the cities of Lingeh and Doha.[31] They also took counter measures to suppress piracy in the region by relocating their troops from Ras Al Khaimah to the island of Qeshm. They eventually withdrew from the island around 1823 after protests by the Persian government.[32]

In November of that year, the British embarked on an expedition against the Al Qasimi, voyaging to the Pirate Coast capital of Ras Al Khaimah with a platoon of 3,000 soldiers. The British extended an offer to Said bin Sultan of Muscat in which he would be made ruler of the Pirate Coast if he agreed to assist the British in their expedition. Obligingly, he sent a force of 600 men and two ships.[28][29] By December, the allied forces had secured a decisive victory, with the British posting only 5 casualties as opposed to the 400 to 1000 casualties reportedly suffered by the Al Qasimi.[30]

In 1819, the British wrote a memo regarding the issue of rising piracy in the Persian Gulf. It stated:[27]

1819–1820 expedition

  • In 1815 a British Indian vessel was captured by the Jawasmi near Muscat, the majority of the crew being put to death and the rest being held for ransom.
  • On the 6th of January 1816, the H.E.I. Company's armed pattamar "Deriah Dowlut," manned entirely by natives of India, was attacked by Jawasmi off Dwarka, and eventually taken by boarding. Out of 38 individuals on board, 17 were killed or murdered, 8 were carried prisoners to Ras-al-Khaimah, and the remainder, being wounded, were landed on the Indian coast. The entire armament of the Deriah Dowlut consisted of two 12-pounder and three 2-pounder iron guns; whereas each of the pirate vessels, three in number, carried six 9-pounders and was manned by 100 to 200 Arabs, fully armed.
  • Matters were at length brought to a head by the capture in the Red Sea, in 1816, of three Indian merchant vessels from Surat, which were making the passage to Mocha under the British flags; of the crew only a few survivors remained to tell the tale, and the pecuniary loss was estimated at Rs. 12,00,000.

There were numerous outrages expressed by the British, who were dismayed with the acts of piracy committed against them after an arrangement between them and the Al Qasimi broke down in 1815. J.G. Lorimer contends that after the dissolution of the arrangement, the Al Qasimi "now indulged in a carnival of maritime lawlessness, to which even their own previous record presented no parallel". Select instances are given:[25][26]

Renewed tensions

[25], a British chronicler, perceives this view as extreme, and believes the Al Qasimi acted within their volition.J. G. Lorimer However, upon remarking on the rampant increase in piracy starting in 1805, [24] suggests that the Al Qasimi tribe members acted against their will so as not to incur the vengeance of the Wahhabis.Arnold Wilson [24]

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