From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the documents, notes and correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.
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December 21, 1921 was a momentous, now forgotten day. On that day a large deputation of Shia Bahrainis marched to the offices of the British Political Agency and there presented a petition to the Agent, Major Daly. Daly, the most senior British colonial official on the island, was also pretty new to the job. He’d been around for no more than a year, but it seems that what he saw, and what was said to him, affected him. Much of what he did in his years as Political Agent would be shaped by the petition handed to him at the start of his tenure.
The Bahrainis had a simple demand: that the British protect them from their overlords, who had made their lives unbearable. Major Daly dutifully sent it onwards to his superior in Bushire (today the town of Bushehr along the Iranian coast), the Political Resident – or as the Bahrainis called him, the “Chief of the Gulf”. The translation of this desperate petition survives in the documents of the India Office:
Praise be to God who had made Kings as spacious shadows to which the refugees from heat take refuge and which is the resort of the helpless at the time of calamities, and who made their justice a cause of bliss. If a King acts cruelly times change, and any wise man should take lesson of the conduct of his predecessor. Look at the Tasm, Faroahs and Tobba (sic) of whom there is no trace, and look how justice lasts long. The British Government (for instance) has not lost her name and her honour does not decrease. God has blessed His creatures by strengthening that Government and the talk of that Government’s justice is prevalent. Her justice has superseded that of Anawsherawan (sic). The people have seen the justice of the late Queen Victoria who would administer justice to an oppressed even against herself in order to safeguard the interests of her subjects and her honour. After her came the Great King Edward and after him the present King George whose justice has spread over all the world.
Secondly, we beg to state to the possessor of great wisdom and good temper, the Chief of the Gulf, that the Shi’ah Community is in a state of great humiliation and subject to public massacre. They have no refuge, the evidence of none of them is accepted, their property are subject to plunder and themselves liable to maltreatment every moment. Injustice is increasing everyday. If we were to enumerate the outrages, we could do so, but in deference to the respect of the Chief we do not do so and only refer to one thousandth part of them.
This Government is unanswerable to God for our bloodshed and for the injustice to which we are subjected, because she is able to help the weak and the poor and to relieve us from the hand of the oppressors.
Then, do rescue us, O Chief, before we perish. The inhabitants of the villages gathered together today to come and take refuge with you, but the advice of the two good men, Muhammad Sherif and Haji Abdun Nebi, prevented them. The headmen refused and insisted on coming to Your Excellency.
We appeal to you in the name of God to help us. If you do not give us our rights and do not help us, you are helping the oppressors to continue their practice. Our patience and power are exhausted. If we leave this sanctuary and the Chief does not help us, we will meet with death and he is responsible to God.
This petition is from all the Shi’ahs of Bahrain.
A heartfelt plea for help. The Shia of Bahrain, locally called the Baharna, are the original inhabitants of Bahrain. As long ago as the 14th century, Ibn Battuta, the worldly Moroccan traveller, described the inhabitants of Bahrain and Qatif (a town on the eastern coast of modern Saudi Arabia also populated by Baharna) as being “out-and-out Shi’ites” who would “openly proclaim it, fearing nobody”.
Some six hundred years later, the descendants of the people Ibn Battuta wrote about could hardly be described to be so proud. The centuries had not been easy on them: in the 1500s they were conquered by the Portuguese, bringing an end to a series of local Bahraani rulers. The Safavid Iranians then controlled the country in the 1600s, and finally the Al Khalifa, the local lords of Zubarah – a coastal town in modern Qatar, now deserted – conquered the islands in 1783. They did not take the islands uncontested and the first 50 years of their reign were not easy, as other mainland-Sheikhs eyed the fragile islands hungrily.
And in this brutal contest, the Baharna appear to have gotten the worst of it. In 1818, the British Assistant Political Agent to Turkish Asia had written a political and economic assessment of the islands of Bahrain. Of the Baharna, he gave only one sentence to their lot in life: “The aboriginal inhabitants of Bahrein (sic), now subjected to a foreign power, suffer from the tyranny of their masters more keenly than language can express.” Yet in the words of the Shia themselves, their lives were worse than they had ever been in living memory. A second letter to Major Daly from the Baharna in 1922 describes how “the oppression and tyranny of the Rulers increases” as they wait for the reply from Bushire.
“Although the whole family of al Khalifeh” is guilty of oppressions, “yet they are not all alike.” Indeed, some in particular amongst the powerful exhibited every ill-use of power possible. Extortion, theft, murder and rape – many of the most powerful indulged in them all. One man in particular kept reappearing in the documents, whose crimes just ran on and on – and we are assured by both the Bahrainis and Major Daly that what has been put to pen is only a small sample of them.
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Reading the archives of the India Office, it seemed to me important to relay these stories of past tyrannies. For the sake of being tactful, the identities of all those involved have been masked. Family names have been left out or replaced and specific villages obscured. With that said, here are the awful stories Major Daly relates:
Last hot weather the wife of a tailor was forcibly abducted and detained for several days in Shaikh “Ahmed”‘s house. The husband was threatened, and in any case could only complain to Shaikh “Ahmed” himself, who is the absolute ruler of the town.
Shaikh “Ahmed” is ruler of a second village. His Wazir there, one Abdulla and his wife, act as procurers for Shaikh “Ahmed”. Several women have been compelled to visit Shaikh “Ahmed” at the Wazir’s house. The daughter of “Anwar” was abducted and kept there for some days, as also was the daughter of Syed “Bakir”. In each case the parents were threatened and, as they would get no justice in any case, endeavoured to escape the ignominy of public exposure. These two girls have since been sent to Qatif each year when it is the season for “Ahmed” to visit the village. The cases are well known locally.
No death duties are legitimately levied in Bahrain and such a tax is unauthorised in Sharia. “Mahomed” died and left two lakhs of rupees [Rs 200,000]. Shaikh “Ahmed” levied a tax of Rs 20,000 without right. He then by subterfuge caused disputes among the heirs by means of which nearly half the estate was taken as “Khiameh” or court fees which are now levied at 10%.
Shaikh “Ahmed” keeps a prostitute, a Jewess whom he seduced, and who was for a time his mistress. He has had an arrangement with this woman whereby she lures young men of respectable families to her house. There they are raided by “Ahmed”‘s fidawis [his armed guard] and sums of money are recovered from them under threats of exposure and imprisonment. A considerable sum of money is said to have been realised in this way.
On the death of Haji “Mohsin”, Shaikh “Ahmed” put his property under restraint and did not hand it over to the heirs till Rs 1000 had been paid. It is universally stated that he had no claim against the estate.
Shaikh “Ahmed” seized the house of Haji “Muhammad” on a false pretext and still retains it.
“Khalil” brought a wife from abroad. He went on business to Qatif and on his return found his house looted and his wife gone. Some time later he saw his wife with two well known pimps. He demanded her return and was told that she had been handed over to them to keep by Shaikh “Ahmed”. He went to Shaikh “Ahmed” who then said he could take her. Recently he complained in the Agency about the loss of his goods. Shaikh “Ahmed” is said to have bribed him to leave his name out of the case.
The daughter of “Fadil” was abducted by Shaikh “Ahmed” and subsequently turned adrift as a prostitute.
The daughter of one “Jafar” was similarly abducted.
“Abdul Aziz”, son of Shaikh “Ahmed” endeavoured to seduce the daughter of “Mahmoud”, a well known merchant of Muharraq. He failed, but one evening caught the girl in a side street with some of his servants, and posted sentries at each end of the street. The girl was then raped. The father, knowing he could hope for no redress and, fearing above all loss of honour for his family, endeavoured to keep the matter quiet but it is well known now.
A plot of land with some dwelling premises belonging to Abdul Rasool has been seized without pretext by Shaikh “Ahmed” and given to one of his mistresses, who now lives there.
Shaikh “Ahmed”‘s servants abducted a girl native of Fars. Her parents, after searching for her for some time, returned home and left behind one Muhammad to continue the search. He discovered that she was being kept by Sheikh “Ahmed”. The latter then passed her on to an arab of Zallaq receiving Rs 400. Muhammad, on behalf of the parents, made efforts to recover the girl. He did so on payment of Rs 500 and on condition that he himself married here. She was pregnant and subsequently died in childbirth.
There are many more stories relating to other notorious members of the ruling family, each seemingly with their own way of doing things – I specifically picked the ones around Sheikh “Ahmed”. He was a known extortionist and rapist and he was the king of his particular patch of Bahrain. Nothing could be done. And while I particularly chose to share the crimes of Sheikh “Ahmed”, he wasn’t alone. Other relatives of his were just as arbitrary and cruel. “Ahmed” liked his women and his money and didn’t care how he got either; others were more the sort to commit their subjects to abject humiliation or finance political murders.
Tyranny was practised to such an extent that matters affecting our honour were not safe (implies that womenkind were not safe) and [Sheikh “Ahmed”] even took girls from their houses by forces and her father and mother, from fear could not speak.
Bahrani letter to Major Daly
Here was a people destitute of all their dignity – their karama. Not their land, their work, their wives or their families had been left untouched. And there was no one who the Baharna could air their grievances to.
Except for the British. All the atrocities by the royal sheikhs finally led the Shia to march into the offices of the British Agency on that winter’s day in 1921, where they demanded that something be done. Major Daly wrote to Bushire informing the Political Resident:
It is said to me that if we extend out protection to the Bahrain Government so that it is immune from outside danger, we should use our influence effectually in order that the inhabitants be not unduly oppressed and that they should have a reasonably efficient Government in comparison with other Arab states. “Failing this”, I am asked, “Why do you not remove the British protection; then we would at least have the redress usually resorted to by Arabs. We should appeal to another Arab ruler to take over our country and treat us better.”
In the coming years Major Daly would be instigator of many reforms. The “State of Bahrain” as a modern country with recognisable 20th century institutions came about on the basis of the wheels he set in motion during his years as Political Agent. He would reform the municipal councils (themselves a reform of his predecessor which was instantly corrupted by the ill-reputed men who sat on them). Through him, the British would dethrone the ruler Sheikh Isa (not to be confused with his great-grandson Emir Isa), whose old age and wavering mental health stood in the way of progressive forces, placing his son Sheikh Hamad in charge. And it was through him that a job advert appeared in the personal column of The Times newspaper which a young Charles Belgrave saw and replied to, and his doing so would change Bahrain forever.
Was Major Daly moved by the plight of the Bahrani people? Or was he perhaps just a highly effective bureaucrat who recognised that reform now would pay off in the future? I don’t have the necessary information to make such a judgement on the man. But he did prove how British interests did not preclude the notion of helping the Bahraini people in rising to a better place in life – how a better balance of power could improve everyone’s interests in the country.
In fact, his successes would open the doors wide for what would prove to be a generational fight. The children of these degraded Shia would be the first to come together with their Sunni brothers, joining forces during the workers’ strikes of 1938. The leaders of those strikes and the generation of youths after them would be the nationalists of the 1950s and 1960s. They in turn would directly inspire the politicians of the 1970s and their subsequent struggles for the reinstatement of parliament into the 1990s. And it was the men of that decade who continued in their parents’ struggle for democracy in the 21st century.
The Al Khalifa, too, would change as a family. The Rulers of Bahrain would often be described as difficult and frustrating to work with by later British officials – but some were also benevolent, others were genuine and hardworking; no longer were they the tyrannical oppressors of Major Daly’s time. It is the case that British mediation and intervention in Bahrain caused a move towards a better society – by no means a perfect one, far from it, but when we compare where we are today with where we were not even a hundred years ago, there is an appreciable shift towards a better society. It is a shift made all the more meaningful by how hard-fought it was.
In a way then, it was the brutal extremes of absolutism that opened the way for a freer Bahrain – and it shouldn’t go unsaid that for decades now, Bahrain has often been noted as a country more politically mature and open than its neighbours.
Records of Bahrain : primary documents, 1820-1960. [Slough] : Archive Editions, 1993
- Extracts from Brief Notes, containing Historical and Other Information connected with the Province of Oman; Muskat and the adjoining country; The Islands of Bahrein, Ormus, Kishm and Karrack; and other ports and places in the Persian Gulf; prepared, in the year 1818, by Captain Robert Taylor, 3rd Regiment Bombay Native Infantry Assistant Political Agent in Turkish Asia
- IOR: R/15/2/83 and L/P&S/10/1039; Bahrain and the British: reforms and unrest, 1921 – 1922