The Sponge Exploration Syndicate registered in England in February 1905 and arrived in Bushehr the following May. It was represented by merchant Michel Hatinoglou, whose job was to obtain a concession on behalf of the Syndicate for exclusive rights to fish for commercial sponges in the Gulf.
A Screen for the Pearl
Due to its geographical location, the Gulf had become strategically important for the British Empire, specifically in controlling access to British India. Protecting the pearl industry from foreign interest was part of how Britain maintained maritime peace in the area. Hence, when news of the Syndicate’s arrival reached British officials in the Gulf, they advised the Syndicate that ‘His Majesty’s Government have [sic] no power to grant concessions’, as to do so would interfere with the exclusive pearl fishery rights of the tribes on the Arabian coast (IOR/L/PS/10/456, f. 225r). The rights in question were granted by Britain, and the Syndicate was therefore seen as an immediate threat both to these rights and to peace and control. Suspicious of the ‘foreigners’ representing the ‘quasi-British’ syndicate (IOR/R/15/2/14, f. 3r), British officials saw no way to prevent pearls being gathered at the same time as sponges, and ultimately concluded that the Syndicate’s expressed interests in sponges were in fact a ‘screen for the pearl’.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Office also advised the Syndicate that Britain had no claim of jurisdiction over the Arabian coast north of Bahrain nor over the Persian side of the Gulf. Consequently, in October 1905, the Syndicate informed the Foreign Office that it had approached the Shah of Persia and been granted a fifty-year concession giving exclusive rights to fish for sponges from Fao in the Gulf to Gwadar in the Indian Ocean. The Syndicate was in business.
Sponge fisheries had existed for centuries by the time the Syndicate was formed. Traditionally based in the Mediterranean, the commercial sponge fishing industry emerged in the nineteenth century, eventually spreading further afield to Florida and Cuba. With the wide range of uses for sponges, including in medicine and surgery, the sponge fishing industry was rising steadily when the Syndicate arrived in the Gulf.
With the knowledge of the first concession and in an effort to predict the fortunes of a commercial sponge fishing industry in the Gulf, the Government of India commissioned an India Office The department of the British Government to which the Government of India reported between 1858 and 1947. The successor to the Court of Directors. report by British Museum spongiologist Randolph Kirkpatrick. Published in November 1905, the report focused on the potential sponge fisheries in the Gulf and concluded that although Kirkpatrick was able to collect specimens of horny sponges during a voyage from Basra to Karachi, they could not be adapted for commercial use. Nevertheless, Kirkpatrick suggested that it was highly likely commercial sponges existed in large quantities ‘especially, for instance, on the extensive pearl oyster beds’ and that ‘a syndicate would stand a very good chance of success’ (IOR/L/PS/18/B152, f. 2r).
While British officials gathered their research, Hatinoglou continued to make his way around the Gulf, securing an additional concession from the Sultan of Muscat for fifteen years, before heading to Bandar Abbas at the end of 1905.
Fair Sirens and Bad Blood
The unwelcome news of a second concession sent British officials searching for a legal basis on which to ask the Sultan of Muscat to cancel it. However, they were eventually forced to concede in 1906 that ‘[c]learly the only thing to be done now is for us to watch the effect of the operations upon which the Syndicate are now embarking’ (IOR/L/PS/10/456, f. 115r).
Meanwhile, news of the Syndicate was spreading. In the British records, the Russian Consul General is quoted as calling Hatinoglou the ‘Spongeman’, and the Mushir al-Dawlah [Persian Prime Minister] referring to the Syndicate as the ‘Greek Sponge Exploiting Company’ (IOR/L/PS/10/456, ff. 117r, 128r). In addition, there were rumours that the Syndicate was a cover for the British Government’s own suspicious political activity. The Syndicate’s practices were being questioned too. In early 1906, the Political Resident A senior ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul General) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Residency. in the Persian Gulf The historical term used to describe the body of water between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. , Major Percy Zachariah Cox, relayed a story claiming that the Persian concession had been obtained unfaithfully by the ‘blandishments of some fair siren [sic]’ employed to target the Shah during his tour of Europe (IOR/L/PS/10/456, f. 120r). By March, Cox admitted to being ‘ultra nervous’ and having ‘instinctive apprehensions’ that the concessions would bring trouble (IOR/L/PS/10/456, f. 118r).
Nevertheless, Hatinoglou’s first attempt at sponge fishing in the Gulf failed. In August 1906, the Syndicate’s representatives returned to London as a result of the hot weather, lack of commercial sponges, divers who ‘dilly dallied’, and ‘bad blood’ between Hatinoglou and a ‘Captain Demetri’, who was guiding the Greek divers brought over by the Syndicate to obtain sponges (IOR/L/PS/10/456, f. 90r). Despite this, the British Government remained concerned about Hatinoglou and the Syndicate’s potential return. In late 1905, the Government of India warned the Trucial Coast A name used by Britain from the nineteenth century to 1971 to refer to the present-day United Arab Emirates. rulers against entering into any concessions without prior consultation. In addition, the SS Patrick Stewart was chartered to obtain sponges in the Gulf and send them on to the Calcutta Museum for examination.
Ultimately, there would be no need for such action. By 1908 and without much success, Hatinoglou had lost the Persian concession and the Syndicate appeared to be defunct. British fears that the Syndicate would end up fishing for pearls never materialised. What the records reveal, however, is the great anxiety the Syndicate caused and, therefore, how intrinsic the pearl trade was to the Government of India’s imperial strategy in the Gulf. The prevention of a small sponge syndicate’s success proved, in Cox’s words, ‘just as vital to us as the prevention of a naval base by a Foreign Power’ (IOR/L/PS/10/456, f. 152r).