Explore The Archive
Articles From Our Experts
Search the site
Articles From Our Experts
Filter articles by:
The British Empire in the Gulf
Commerce and Communication
People and Places
Culture and Religion
Sciences and Medicine
Power and Politics
United Arab Emirates
articles to explore
From its origins as a small London enterprise, the East India Company (EIC) emerged as a powerful commercial and political organisation, whose presence in the Gulf helped shape the region’s modern history.
A Brief History of the English East India Company 1600–1858
An enormous effort was made to translate almost all known Greek literature into Arabic during the 8th to 10th centuries, and Baghdad was at the centre of this work. Why was it that so many of the translators were Christians?
Why Were So Many of the Greek-Arabic Translators Christians?
An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Iran, as illustrated through the India Office Records.
Country Profile: Iran
Britain and its Allies maintained supremacy over the Gulf’s airspace during the Second World War, but mechanical failure could quickly turn the tables, making crewmen dependent on the region’s local population for their survival.
Air Crashes in the Gulf during the Second World War
An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Saudi Arabia, as illustrated through the India Office Records.
Country Profile: Saudi Arabia
Great Britain abolished the slave trade in its Empire in 1807, yet not only did it persist in the Gulf into the latter half of the nineteenth century, it flourished amid ineffectual British efforts towards its suppression.
Britain’s Ineffectual Efforts to Suppress the Slave Trade
By charting waters within and creating accurate maps of their spheres of influence the East India company, and later India Office, ensured that they had an advantage over competing powers.
India Office Records Map Collection: A Vast and Powerful Resource
The name Mīr Muhannā is much celebrated in Iran today because he stood up to imperialism and won.
A Thorn in England’s Side: The Piracy of Mīr Muhannā
An Italian bombing raid brought Bahrain into the Second World War’s ‘zone of operations’, sparking fear amongst Bahrainis and concerns amongst the British over the safety of the islands’ strategic oil installations.
The Second World War Comes to Bahrain
An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Qatar, as illustrated through the India Office Records.
Country Profile: Qatar
Though nowadays Qatar is well-known for its immense natural oil and gas reserves and the rapid modernisation of society, it has a rich heritage of music and dance intimately related to pearl-diving, sea trade and Bedouin traditions.
Modernity meets Tradition: Reflections on Traditional Music in Qatar
An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Bahrain, as illustrated through the India Office Records.
Country Profile: Bahrain
Sir Lewis Pelly was a key figure in the history of the Gulf owing to his role, as British Political Resident, in enforcing the region’s maritime peace treaties from 1862 to 1873.
A Portrait of Sir Lewis Pelly
The arrest of a British Subject on spurious charges makes plain Britain’s dominant position in Kuwait in the late 1930s.
The Kuwait Cat’s Meat Crisis
An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Kuwait, as illustrated through the India Office Records.
Country Profile: Kuwait
Sharjah 1940, and Nazi radio broadcasts in Arabic filled the air, stirring pro-German sentiment amongst the town’s inhabitants – and provoking consternation amongst British officials.
Nazi Propaganda in Sharjah during World War II
For over thirty years, Charles Belgrave was an immensely powerful figure in Bahrain who played an instrumental role in its development but by 1957 he had become so unpopular he was forced to leave and never set foot in the country again.
Charles Belgrave – The Adviser
In the thirteenth century, Ibn al-Nafīs wrote a substantial commentary on Avicenna’s entire Canon of Medicine thereby revising existing understandings of human physiology and anatomy. His theory of the pulmonary transit of blood formed a cornerstone of the modern theory of blood circulation.
Ibn al-Nafīs and Pulmonary Transit
An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Baluchistan and Makran, as illustrated through the India Office Records.
Profile: British Baluchistan and Makran
During the first four centuries of Islam, almost all the Greek scientific literature available in manuscripts was translated into Arabic in an effort, centred on Baghdad, known as the ‘translation movement’.
Scientific Translators and Powerful Patrons
How and why did the British Library come to hold 14,000 Arabic manuscripts within its collections?
The Arabic Manuscripts Collection in the British Library
When and where did the sciences practised in the Islamic world during the so-called Golden Age originate?
The Beginnings of Science in the Islamic World
Negotiation and improvisation formed the basis of the Gulf’s early aviation industry.
Negotiating the Origins of the Gulf’s Aviation Industry
A government department unique in its scope and power, the India Office had a profound impact on the history of the Gulf.
The India Office: The Government, in London, of British India
Kuwait has maintained a thriving traditional music culture; in particular bahri, or sea music, and ṣawt have remained at the heart of the music scene.
Hidden Treasures: Reflections on Traditional Music in Kuwait
A colonial officer named Hickinbotham illustrates the everyday boredom of administrating the Empire with his practical jokes and escapist reading list.
‘Imperial Boredom’ and Imperial Reading
In the Sultanate of Oman, traditional music, poetry and dance are still part and parcel of everyday life and national celebrations alike.
Sea meets Desert: Reflections on Traditional Music in Oman
Murder, suicide, communal riots, racial snobbery and a colourful, much-maligned British Agent caught up in the midst of it all: a record of life in Gwadar 1928–32.
M. Waris Ali’s ‘Absurd’ Account: A Native Agent and the Riots at Gwadar
Former slaves employed in the Indian Navy’s crews in the mid-19th century often exploited the itinerant existence of naval vessels to escape servitude.
Between Freedom and Slavery: The Employment of Runaway Slaves in the Indian Navy
The shipwreck in 1852 of a merchant vessel off the Oman coast, led to the plunder and loss of enough indigo to supply the entire Gulf region for a year.
The Indigo Trade in the Gulf in the Nineteenth Century
While much remains unknown about the life of the first Meccan photographer, al-Sayyid ‘Abd al-Ghaffār, his 1880s photographs shed light on life in the holy city.
‘Abd al-Ghaffār: The First Meccan Photographer
When Pelly undertook making a trip to Riyadh in 1864–65, he wished to gain intelligence on the Nejd, but also to prove that an Englishman could travel through the territory unmolested.
Pelly’s Unprecedented Trip to Riyadh
During the American Civil War (1861–65) cotton supplies to Britain’s textile mills dwindled, causing a boom in production elsewhere in the Empire.
How the American Civil War Caused a Boom in Cotton in Persia
Britain’s decision to prohibit the use of modern diving suits and cultured pearls on the Gulf’s pearl banks was intended to preserve the region’s pearling industry, yet ultimately contributed to its slow collapse throughout the 1930s.
British Government Resist Modernisation of the Pearling Industry
Only by mapping and surveying Aden fully were the British able to plan for its reconstruction and fortification, thereby facilitating trade and other shipping to and from India and beyond.
Mapping Aden: The British Occupation of A Vital Trading Port
Qatar’s exploratory wells were drilled relatively late, although Major Frank Holmes sought an exploratory lease in 1922.
The Qatar Oil Concession Ushers in a New Era for British Relations with Doha
Kept alive until today by a very small number of chalgi Baghdad ensembles and through remaining shellac recordings, Iraqi maqam is a sophisticated musical genre from urban Iraq that developed in the 1920s‒1940s.
Dusty Streets and Hot Music in Baghdad: Iraqi Maqam Music and Chalgi Ensembles
While much of the world was experiencing the effects of global war in the first half of the 1940s, the Gulf by contrast was an oasis of calm.
The 1940s: Perfect Peace in the Midst of War
Despite inauspicious beginnings, Shaikh Aḥmad al-Jābir Āl Ṣabāḥ’s official visit to England in 1919 proved a success.
Shaikh Ahmad goes to England: The Politics of Official State Visits
The reign of Said bin Taimur was marked by financial troubles from the outset, but despite his more active role in the 1930s, a rebellion in the province of Dhofar ultimately cost him the Sultanate.
The Financial Troubles of Said bin Taimur
Captain Owen’s plan to take over the portal town of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean put British officials in a contentious situation with the Sultan of Muscat and Zanzibar.
Mombasa: Britain’s Shortest-Lived Protectorate?
In spite of legally abolishing slavery in its Empire in 1833, the British Government struggled to eradicate the practice in its protectorates in the Gulf.
Manumission, Not Abolition: British Mediations over Slavery in the Gulf
In the ninth century, Ḥunayn ibn Ishāq decided to explain Greek terminology, instead of simply adopting it, in his translations of the medical treatises of Galen. In doing this he helped establish Arabic as an international language of science.
Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq and the Rise of Arabic as a Language of Science
While Britain’s more distinct political and strategic interests in the Gulf grew over time, it was initially a matter of textile trading with Persia that first lured them to the shores of the Gulf.
Foundation of an Empire: The East India Company’s Early Trade in Silk and Wool
Verbal abuse and physical attacks from those amongst which he lived, and denigration from foreign visitors; all part of the job of being a British Native Agent in Sharjah.
People in the Gulf: Native Agents at Sharjah
Ṣawt, the urban music of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, has evolved from diverse musical traditions, including sea music, and was profoundly influenced by Indian, African and classical Arabic music.
Sing, Play and Be Merry: The Unique Ṣawt Music of the Arabian Peninsula
Papers highlighting a difference in 1915 between Western and Arab interpretations of judicial procedure in Bahrain may not be representative of the history of Britain’s jurisdiction in the Gulf as a whole.
Khidma: Britain’s Pragmatic Approach to Justice in the Gulf
New communication technologies transformed bookkeeping practice at the British Residency in Bushire.
Telegraphs and Typewriters: The Impact of Technology on Bookkeeping at Bushire
How did a fourteenth century illustrated ‘Treatise on the Art of Riding and using the Instruments of War’ end up in the British Library’s Arabic manuscript collection? A ‘Nincumpoop’ of the Napoleonic era, who moonlighted as an antiquarian, holds the answer.
Sir Thomas Reade: The ‘Nincumpoop’ Collector of Arabic Manuscripts
For a period of over 150 years, from 1820 until its withdrawal in 1971, Britain was dominant in the Gulf, but the nature of British domination evolved from economic influence to political control, particularly of the Arabian side of the Gulf.
The British in the Gulf: an Overview
An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and United Arab Emirates, as illustrated through the India Office Records.
Country Profile: United Arab Emirates
A little known first-hand account, that the British Agents in Bahrain garnered by chance, sheds light on William Henry Irvine Shakespear’s death.
The Death of Captain Shakespear
The EIC’s departure from Bushire in 1769 was one example of how, in the 17th and 18th centuries, groups of traders would settle, then relocate, along the Gulf coast with great adaptability, going where they could freely carry out their business.
The Mobility of Merchants in the Pursuit of Profit: The English Withdraw from Bushire
A 1787 letter requesting plants from the Persian Gulf for a newly established botanical garden in Kolkata illuminates the way in which the pursuit of scientific knowledge became part of the EIC’s global economic endeavour.
A Quest for Knowledge: The Basra Date Palm, the Botanical Garden in Bengal
Bahrain’s Order in Council gave the Political Agent the power to, on one hand, issue birth certificates, and on the other, to rule on capital punishment for convicted criminals.
Births, Marriages, Deaths: Bahrain’s ‘Order in Council’ in Action
Played out against Oman’s imposing geographical position, the British relationship with Oman has changed from that of allies against common foe, through informal British imperial influence to an important trading and strategic partner today.
A Close Relationship: Britain and Oman since 1750
From the early days of its existence, the East India Company sought a secure base, known as a factory, in the Gulf from which to conduct trade with Persia. In 1763, it finally established a base which would provide some continuity to its operations, namely Bushire.
The Political Residency, Bushire
The untimely death of John Gordon Lorimer, acting Resident in the Persian Gulf 1913–14, was seen as a tragedy. Yet, his legacy – in the form of his Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia – emerged forty years later and has remained central to the study of the Gulf ever since.
‘Persian Gulf Tragedy’: the Death and Legacy of John Gordon Lorimer
It’s hard to imagine a natural resource as important to the history of the development of the Gulf States as oil. But in the early days of oil exploration, nothing was more important than water.
Water, not Oil, the Most Valuable Resource in the Gulf
‘Islamic’ and ‘Western’ are terms used to describe different styles of binding but experts agree that much further research is required to create more meaningful categories.
‘Islamic Style’ Binding: A Misleading Term Ripe for Further Research
Six videos demonstrating the replication of a specific eighteenth-century manuscript's binding by the British Library's conservator, Flavio Marzo.
Replication of an Eighteenth Century Manuscript Binding
From East India Company intelligence to news of the discovery of oil, the India Office Records demonstrate the exchanges that took place between Britain and Qatar over the last three centuries.
Qatari History: Pivotal Moments Revealed in India Office Records
At the time of Sheikh Jāsim bin Muḥammad Āl Thānī’s death in 1913, his great wealth was revealed to the British in intelligence reports sent by Yūsuf bin Aḥmad Kanoo.
A Considerable Fortune: The Wealth, and Death, of Sheikh Jāsim bin Muḥammad Āl Thānī
The first crossing of the Arabian Peninsula by a European, revealed in glimpses by the early correspondence of the Bushire Residency, was indicative of the East India Company beginning to look beyond the Gulf littoral and into Central Arabia.
The Accidental Explorer: George Sadleir and Britain’s Entry into Central Arabia
Not only did the Asian subcontinent’s hot and humid climate present a significant threat to the health of British administrators, but it also presented new challenges to their business of recordkeeping.
A Nineteenth-Century Approach to the Conservation of Government Records
The Private Papers of One of the Gulf’s Most Important Political Residents, 1862–72, provide a fascinating insight into British Policy in the period as well as providing a more personal insight into the life of a British official.
Lewis Pelly’s Private Papers
How did an illustrated Arabic manuscript on the Art of War come into the possession of an illegitimate son of a King; his extraordinary and ultimately tragic life leading to its acquisition by the British Library?
An Earl, a Collection and a Gun: the Curious Provenance of a British Library Manuscript
Germany’s desire for ‘a place in the sun’ saw her challenge Britain’s commercial dominance in the Gulf in the early years of the twentieth century.
German Interests in the Gulf’s Pearling Industry
Common household practices such as consuming hot soups and drinks when one has caught a cold are rooted in humoral medicine, which was the dominant medical paradigm from the time of Galen to the nineteenth century (and beyond) across much of the world.
Galenic Humoral Pathology
In a pre-internet age of slow-travelling news, just how could a message be sent from London to Basra in 22 days?
London to Basra in Twenty-Two Days
The India Office Private Papers offer a personal perspective on military, political, social and economic history over the period 1750–1947; in their private correspondence and diaries, people could write in different, often more open, ways.
The India Office Private Papers
An unassuming financial file that forms part of the India Office Records contains an unexpected example of British, Arabic-language propaganda.
‘For the Sake of Freedom’: British World War II Propaganda Posters in Arabic
An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Iraq, as illustrated through the India Office Records.
Country Profile: Iraq
J. G. Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia has long been used as a central source for the study of the region. Yet, it is essential to understand the contexts of its production in order to fully appreciate its content.
Colonial Knowledge: Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia
A candid exchange between British officials in the 1920s reveals the extent to which Britain had intervened in Bahrain in its own interest.
Britain’s ‘interest’ in Bahrain
There are numerous records relating to high-level British officials in the Gulf, but the letters in the India Office Establishment Files also reveal the working conditions of the lower-paid ranks of Agency staff.
The Menial Establishment in Britain’s Political Agency, Bahrain
In 1920, a gift from Ibn Saud in the form of a female oryx was the first ever to have survived the difficult journey from Arabia to London.
The King’s Oryx: Ibn Saud’s Diplomatic Gift to George V
The peoples of the Islamic world excelled at designing and building water-clocks as these manuscripts show.
Robots, Musicians and Monsters: The World’s Most Fantastic Clocks
In recognising the importance of the trade, British colonial records cast light on the state of the ancient trade in Frankincense in the Dhofar region at the end of the 19th century, as well as some conflicts that emerged as a result.
Frankincense in Dhofar: An Ancient Trade at the Centre of 19th Century Tensions
In the immediate post-WWII period, despite British opposition, the U.S. sought to increase its influence in the Gulf by distributing propagandistic material in Arabic.
U.S. Propaganda in Post-WWII Bahrain
With the oil industry booming in Bahrain in the early 1930s, BAPCO oil workers, amongst others, lobbied for the first cinemas to be established.
Priority Air Freight to Serve Bahrain’s First Cinemas
An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Oman, as illustrated through the India Office Records.
Country Profile: Oman
The environment has greatly influenced life in the Gulf and Indian Ocean over the centuries. Before the era of steamships, a hugely significant factor affecting life and trade in this region were the winds of the Indian Ocean monsoon.
Muscat and the Monsoon
Sir Lewis Pelly is a key figure in the history of the Gulf who, in his role as Political Resident, was Britain’s senior official in the region from 1862 to 1873. He holds particular importance for Qatar due to his recognition of its independent sovereignty in 1868.
The Emergence of Qatar: Pelly’s Role in Britain’s 1868 Recognition of the State
‘What can I buy from the current post holder?’ was the first consideration of a newly appointed British Agent in the Empire. Frequent moves meant that provisions, furniture and necessities for entertaining were bought and sold rather than transported with Agents from post to post.
Creature Comforts, Wine and Spirits: Inside the Home of a Peripatetic British Agent
George Barnes Brucks was the first Englishman to survey the Gulf’s coasts in the 1820s. But while Brucks’s charts were quickly replaced by more accurate maps, his writings offer fascinating historic insight into the region.
George Barnes Brucks and the First English Survey of the Gulf
The 1948 visit of Shaikh Khalīfa bin Mohammed Āl Khalīfa to Britain on a training trip arranged by the British Council provides an early example of cooperation between Britain and Bahrain in matters related to policing and security.
Bahrain’s Chief of Police Visits the UK, 1948
Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq: a Medieval Arab scholar who transformed his understanding of ancient Greek medical texts into manuals for the benefit of many successive generations of students.
The Making of Medical Manuals: The 'Questions and Answers' Format in Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq’s Medical Manuals
Pesta and Rifi Songs, which developed in the twentieth century from Iraqi maqam, became more popular because they were recorded on shellac and broadcast throughout Iraq in the mid-century.
Love and Separation in Baghdad: Pesta and Rifi Songs on Shellac Discs
The 1930s was the decade that transformed the Gulf from its role as conduit between Britain and her empire to a strategic locus in the run-up to the war and a ‘highway between east and west’.
The 1930s: the Gulf as ‘Highway between East and West’
An Islamic seal with an unusual bird design appears on a witness statement delivered by the Sheikh of Dubai to the British Resident in The Gulf, following a fatal gun battle in Dubai in 1910.
Guns ‘n’ Seals: An Unusual Seal indicates Cultural Influences in Dubai in 1910
Until the 19th century, European powers considered much of the Gulf coastline to be hazardous, but the 1820 survey recorded vital details that contributed to later British involvement in the region.
Important Work: The British 1820 Survey that Charted the Gulf for the First Time
Before oil, the inhabitants of the Gulf’s Arab coast depended on diving for natural pearls for their economic livelihoods. And, like oil, it was chiefly European and North American demand that dictated the success or failure of each pearling season.
Divers are a Pearl’s Best Friend: Pearl Diving in the Gulf 1840s–1930s
Although British power in the Gulf was founded on maritime truces with local rulers, in the early 20th century land-based attacks increased, creating the need for new agreements.
When Maritime Protection Is Not Enough: Britain’s Agreement to Protect Qatar’s Borders at Sea and on Land
Salim Rashid Suri, an Omani ṣawt singer and oud player became famous as the ‘singing sailor’ and for developing a truly unique style, which took influence from musical sources across the Middle East and India.
The Singing Sailor, Salim Rashid Suri: A Ṣawt Musician from Oman
It was an event that provoked anxiety among Persians and foreign traders alike and was to trigger a period of profound instability in Iran: the death, in 1779, of the ruler of Persia, Karim Khan Zand.
The ‘Dreaded’ Death of Karim Khan Zand, Ruler of Persia
Upon the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, instructions sent to the Native Agent at Sharjah on how to visibly mourn her death reveal aspects of the construction of empire via ritual mourning practices.
The Death of Queen Victoria: the Politics of Mourning for the British in the Gulf
The vast trove of material held at the British Library that pertains to Britain’s Colonial exploits owe their present organisation in part to the early acknowledgement by officials in the EIC and India Office of the importance of record-keeping.
History of the India Office Records and Private Papers
What was the purpose of Sir Lewis Pelly’s trip through Afghanistan in 1860?
Journey through Afghanistan, 1860
al-Bīrūnī’s Qānūn is the most complete astronomical encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. It represents the most successful attempt to correct and rewrite Ptolemy’s Almagest, and was based on the results of three centuries of research in Islamic lands.
al-Bīrūnī: a high point in the Development of Islamic Astronomy
The British Government had a strong interest in Kharg, a small, strategically placed island in the Gulf.
A Strategic Position: British Seizures of the Island of Kharg
The removal of original backgrounds and inscriptions reveals a tension between the photographers ‘Abd al-Ghaffār and Snouck Hurgronje in terms of their process, approach to and outlook on photography.
From the Individual to the Archetypal: ‘Abd al-Ghaffār’s Edited Photographic Portraits
Ibn Saud’s quest for recognition of his Arabian Kingdom, and how British Government officials turned their backs on the largest reserves of crude oil in the world.
Emir Faisal’s Diplomatic Mission and Britain’s Reluctance to Invest in Saudi Oil in 1932
How a state of the art communications technology arrived in Bahrain in 1916.
The Coming of the Wireless Telegraph to Bahrain
The establishment of the Bahrain Agency in 1900 cemented previous British interest in the Persian Gulf and set the tone for increased economic and political involvement in the 20th century.
The Political Agency, Bahrain: Inside the Organisation that Ran Britain's Interests in Bahrain
Growing tensions between the British and the Sheikh of Dubai led to a gun battle in 1910 that cost numerous lives and did long-term damage to relations between the British and locals on the Trucial Coast.
The Dubai Incident, 1910: A Gun Battle that Damaged British relations with the Trucial Coast
Over several centuries, the close relationship between individual explorers of the Arabian Peninsula and the British Empire was made clear in often unpublished journals and accounts held in the India Office Records.
Thesiger’s Clothes: Empire and Exploration in the Arabian Peninsula
Astrology was considered a scientific discipline in the Middle Ages, when political powers patronised astronomical research that was considered necessary for obtaining ‘scientific’ astrological predictions.
Sahl ibn Bishr and the Rise of Astrology in Abbasid Times
The vast archive known as the India Office Records, occupying approximately nine miles of shelving in the British Library, contains the documents created or received in London by three organisations crucial to the British colonial effort in the period 1600–1858.
The India Office Records
A number of key moments in the life of Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa are recorded in the India Office Records.
Episodes from the Life of Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa
Lewis Pelly, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf 1862–72, witnessed rapid expansion in the value of trade in the region as well as political upheaval and crisis caused by famine.
Economy in Turmoil: Gulf Trade Hit by Piracy and Famine
With pearling in decline and oil exploitation on hold, what drove Bahrain’s economy between the World Wars?
Bahrain’s Economy: Buffeted between Pearls and Oil
The movement for political reform in Kuwait in 1938 signified change in the region and highlights the country’s – and Britain’s – response to the ideas and forces that delivered it.
Kuwait’s Majlis Movement: National and Regional Developments Brought into Focus