Maritime Violence: Re-Thinking Claims of Piracy in the Lower Gulf

By Victoria Hightower
Submitted to Session P4463 (Challenging 19th Century Gulf Historical Narratives, 2016 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
19th-21st Centuries;
The era of the Anglo-Qasimi Wars of 1806, 1809-10, and 1818-1819 and the ongoing challenges the East India Company (EIC) experienced with suppressing piracy gave the lower Gulf States the label, the Pirate Coast. Within the scholarly literature piracy is often relegated to discussions of the early 19th century (Sweet 1964; Dubuisson 1978; Onley 1997, 2009) and/or rejecting (Al Qasimi 1986; Al-Fahim 1995; Taryam 1987) or accepting (Belgrave 1966; Moyse-Bartlett 1966) the label uncritically. This narrow view of piracy obscures the motivations and ramifications of maritime violence, as well as the changing British stance vis a vis maritime warfare more broadly.

This paper will examine the changing nature of the label of piracy, its context, and the deeper issues underpinning its use to demonstrate first that piracy was actually an ongoing problem throughout the 19th century in the lower Gulf, but that this label is also unmerited. Maritime violence and banditry was an accepted form of warfare in the Gulf until the 19th century. After the Anglo-Qasimi Wars, the East India Company increasingly broadened the definition of piracy, classifying it first as violence without order of a government (1820) to finally any act of violence at sea perpetrated by Arabs (1853).

Despite this broad and racist definition, the context of the acts shifted dramatically in the 19th century in ways that most historians have yet to recognize. The perpetrators became almost exclusively private subjects, not government agents. This proved challenging to the EIC who had until the 1860s relied on gunboat diplomacy to compel rulers into suppressing piracy. While the EIC officials continued their political pressures and threats of violence, the changing economic and political context of the Gulf made it more difficult for the EIC to force compliance with their agreements.

The re-conceptualization of piracy in the lower Gulf in the 19th century demonstrates a significant shift in the political power and authority along the coast and calls into question a number of existing historical paradigms, not least of which is the domination of the EIC officials in this region and the lack of power experienced by subjects along the coast.