Performing Authority: the ‘Islamic’ Seals of British Colonial Officers

Author

Gulf History and Arabic Language Specialist, British Library
Cultural appropriation was as much a part of empire as military force. The use of ‘Islamic’ seals by British colonial officials is one example of this.

In his record of nineteenth century Egyptian society, Edward William Lane wrote that ‘[a]lmost every person who can afford it has a seal-ring, even though he be a servant’.

The function of seals as symbols of textual authority and ownership is deeply rooted in the Islamic world, especially in Arabic and Persian-speaking societies. Historically, seals were used for authorising various documents, including letters and legal contracts, and for marking the ownership of books and manuscripts.

Edward William Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (London: Alexander Gardner, 1895), p. 49
Edward William Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (London: Alexander Gardner, 1895), p. 49

Islamic-style Seals

However, Arabic-script seals were also used by British colonial officers. As noted by Venetia Porter and Annabel Gallop in their book Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World, this was a long-established practice in India where officials of the East India Company were theoretically acting as ‘servants’ of the Mughal emperor. This set a lasting precedent: British colonial officers used Islamic-style seals well into the twentieth centuries.

How might we understand the use of seals by non-Muslim Europeans in the context of the Empire? A few examples from the Middle East and Gulf are given here from the British Library’s 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. Records.

Left: Seal of the Political Resident in the Gulf from a letter dated 10 August 1909; Right: Seal of the First Assistant to the Political Resident in the Gulf from a letter dated 7 July 1898. IOR/R/15/1/752, f. 53v and IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 34v
Left: Seal of the Political Resident in the Gulf from a letter dated 10 August 1909; Right: Seal of the First Assistant to the Political Resident in the Gulf from a letter dated 7 July 1898. IOR/R/15/1/752, f. 53v and IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 34v

Edward Charles Ross served as 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. (1872–1891) and was an avid collector of antiquities. His personalised seal is the same size, style and shape as the generic Residents’ seal, but it also includes his name.

Seal of Edward Charles Ross from a letter dated 1 June 1887. IOR/R/15/1/752, f. 147v
Seal of Edward Charles Ross from a letter dated 1 June 1887. IOR/R/15/1/752, f. 147v

Seals of Lewis Pelly and John Calcott Gaskin

Not all seals were rectangular or included the title of the seal-holder. Two other examples are the seals of Lewis Pelly, 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. (1862–1872), and John Calcott Gaskin who served as the assistant to 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. at Bushire at the end of the nineteenth century, and later as the first Political Agent A mid-ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Agency. at Bahrain (1900 –1903).

Both seals are oval and very small, measuring only 19 x 9 mm and 14 x 9 mm respectively. Each is inscribed with their name in nasta‘liq script and decorated with a vine and floral motif.

Left: Seal of John Calcott Gaskin’s from a letter dated 25 June 1899; Right: Seal of Captain Lewis Pelly on a letter to Hajji Ahmad, dated 17 February 1865. IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 88v and Mss Eur F126/56, f. 12r
Left: Seal of John Calcott Gaskin’s from a letter dated 25 June 1899; Right: Seal of Captain Lewis Pelly on a letter to Hajji Ahmad, dated 17 February 1865. IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 88v and Mss Eur F126/56, f. 12r

Pelly’s seal is dated with the Hijri year 1279 inscribed above his name. This equates to sometime between 29 June 1862 and 17 June 1863. Since Pelly assumed the role of 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 August 1862, this date is significant: it places the production of the seal within the first eight months of his tenure. It is possible, therefore, that Pelly commissioned his seal to commemorate his new position and authority in the Gulf.

Seal of Charles Belgrave

Other Europeans employed in the Gulf, aside from 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. officials, used Arabic seals, too. One such example is Charles Belgrave, who was employed as Adviser to the Bahrain Government from 1926 until 1957. His oval-shaped seal is the same size as those of the ruling Āl Khalīfah family with his name, C D Belgrave (sī dī balkrayf) rendered in naskh script. There is also a decorative tughra design that does not appear to form part of the inscription.

Belgrave’s seal was mentioned by journalists in the Persian newspapers Shafagh-i Surkh and Ettela'at when writing about Britain’s colonial dominance of Bahrain. For example, on 8 October 1930, it was noted that ‘Shaikh Hamad had two seals prepared exactly similar to each other, with this inscription, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa al Khalifah, and the other is in the hands of the British Counsellor who uses it for sealing all orders, letters and judgements which are put into force’. Another article dated 2 December 1930 made the observation that ‘[o]nly rarely is the seal of Shaikh Hamad bin Isa al Khalifah … seen beneath some decree’, making starkly clear that Belgrave’s seal, as well as his personal power, were wielded more frequently than the Shaikh’s.

Extract of an article in a Tehran newspaper, Shafagh I Surkh, dated 8 October 1930. IOR/R/15/2/126, f. 128r
Extract of an article in a Tehran newspaper, Shafagh I Surkh, dated 8 October 1930. IOR/R/15/2/126, f. 128r

As documented in his diary, Belgrave was well aware of the authority that seals carried. In an entry dated 30 May 1930, the elderly blind leader and legal authority of the Sunni community (qāḍī) of Bahrain had insinuated to Belgrave that ‘his favourite wife had stolen [his seal] from him’ and had given it to another man to seal papers. Upon hearing this, Belgrave had a devastating realisation, noting ‘If we admit the invalidity of his signature, all documents since he became blind are liable to be queried’.

Another incident a year later involved Belgrave’s own seal. In a diary entry dated 29 May 1932, he wrote that a certain ‘Alī bin Ḥusayn had recovered the seal out of his ring which had fallen out during an affray. He reflects: ‘I am lucky to have got it back as it is the one I seal all official papers with and it would be awkward if I lost it’.

Letter of the Regency Council (majlis al-wisāyah), dated 30 January 1938, bearing the seals of Shaikh ‘Abdullah bin ‘Isa Al Khalifah (top), Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifah (middle) and Charles Dalrymple Belgrave (bottom). IOR/R/15/2/181, f. 39r
Letter of the Regency Council (majlis al-wisāyah), dated 30 January 1938, bearing the seals of Shaikh ‘Abdullah bin ‘Isa Al Khalifah (top), Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifah (middle) and Charles Dalrymple Belgrave (bottom). IOR/R/15/2/181, f. 39r

Seals could signify ownership, authorship and station, and British officials such as Belgrave, understood their use and potential for abuse. The use of seals can therefore be understood as a way of aesthetically and textually performing Empire, or as ‘Ornamentalism’, to borrow a term coined by David Cannadine. This was done by means of the cultural appropriation of a recognisable ‘Islamic’ symbol to legitimate hierarchy, authority and power, making them ‘visible, immanent and actual’ to British subjects and potential imperial rivals alike.

Secondary Sources

  • David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (London: Allen Lane, 2001)
  • Edward William Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (London: Alexander Gardner, 1895)
  • Venetia Porter, Arabic and Persian Seals and Amulets in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 2011)
  • Annabel Teh Gallop and Venetia Porter, Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2012)