From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the records, documents, correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.
This week, a smaller piece on the 1920s, with more to follow as a I read through the period. This has been written to be a standalone piece, but for broader context, check out Old Greybeard of Bahrain and A Chasm without Karama.
Some three hundred people came to the Majlis that overthrew Sheikh Isa bin Ali as ruler of Bahrain. On 26 May 1923, in the overwhelming heat of early summer, they crowded into the Political Agency: merchants, townsmen, tribesmen, Sunnis, Shia, Sheikhs of the Al Khalifa and even a group of Persian merchants and British expatriates came to witness the spectacle. Colonel Knox, the Political Resident and highest British authority in the Gulf, sat in the centre of the room, surrounded by his allies: Between him were Major Daly, the British Agent in Bahrain, and Sheikh Hamad, the Heir Apparent and his father’s newly and fully empowered regent. His father, Sheikh Isa, while still holding the title of Hakim – Ruler – was rendered completely powerless.
Knox had been squarely for the status quo and initially unwilling to take to the task of reform to any degree. Let life in Bahrain take its natural course, he argued, and if changes must be made, can it not wait until the old man breathed his last and Sheikh Hamad succeeded to the Sheikhdom in a more natural way? But the British government had come back to him and ordered that it happen; thus he became the brazen voice of reform.
“It is quite possible that many of you present here to-day, especially Sunnis, may view with regret the disappearance of a Sunni ruler who has ruled over you for so many years.” He began his speech quite amicably. When Sheikh Hamad sent out for representatives to attend the Majlis, many of the Sunnis ignored his British-borne authority and instead went to Sheikh Isa and asked him if they should attend. They were the ones that needed winning over. “It is a very natural feeling and I venture to express the very earnest hope, almost the belief, that our proceedings to-day will eventually tend to the uplift and special progress of the Sunni Community … I believe that I shall not be accused of exaggeration if I say that the proportion of foreigners has during the last twenty years progressed as twenty-to-one and their wealth as a hundred-to-one. I really believe I am understating facts.
“It is my earnest hope, which I am confident is fully shared by Shaikhs Hamad and Abdullah and by the Political Agent, that the measures of reform we initiate to-day will bring the Sunni community into line with other communities. They will pull their weight in the boat and have, as is their birthright, a preponderating voice in the administration of these Islands so that, in spite of some natural regrets, we can look forward with some confidence to a bright and happy future for the Sunni community.”
He had raised the Sunni Bahrainis above the other communities. He was not so well-meaning to the other groups present today. To the Al Khalifa, he directed pointed criticism: “You must not expect that because you have taken the trouble to be born you have therefore a right to live on the rest of the community, whether by allowances from the revenues of these Islands or by preying on the poor and helpless. ‘He who will not work, neither shall he eat’ is a good motto and you had better apply it to your own case.” It is easy to imagine the Sheikhs rolling their eyes at this. Where they children to be scolded?
“Those of you who lend your energies to assisting Shaikh Hamad in his thankless task of raising the Government of these Islands to the plane of modern civilization will be liberally rewarded and given opportunities of exercising such talents as God has given you. Those who sit still and do nothing must be content with a bare pittance for subsistence. Those who do mischief will be cut off absolutely and punished accordingly.” It was a warning that would bear to be true. Under the new regime, the Al Khalifa Sheikhs would see themselves in a new poverty – at least compared to their previous wealth. Major Daly would restrict their traditional sources of income, abolish the feudal form of governance and tighten his grip over customs revenue so that it became a revenue of the state, rather than of particular Sheikhs. It’s no wonder that the Sheikhs would quickly turn to “do mischief”, and never mind Knox’s warning.
Can they be blamed for taking the overthrow of Sheikh Isa badly, when Knox treated them so derisively?”I endeavour to turn your thoughts to education and the means of earning an honest living for you are too numerous for all to find places in the administration and, I fear, owing to neglect, many are not competent.” Hardly inspiring words.
Not that they were alone in Knox’s contempt. To the Shia Baharna of the island who had long been under serfdom to their Al Khalifa overlords, who had extorted them to destitution and arbitrarily humiliated them, he said, “Much of the agitation of recent years has been fictitious. I am far from saying that you have had no cause for complain but what I mean to say is that I cannot subscribe to the opinion that recent misrule is either more tyrannical or more flagrant than it has often been in the past. The state of these Islands, the signs of additional wealth that meet the eye everywhere (reveals) the lie to the contention that misrule has been persistent and is increasing.” It could hardly have assured the multitudes in poverty to be told that they were just hysterical.
Knox, after all, had never wanted to institute reforms. He had wanted to keep the status quo. If the Shia were in the same state of serfdom now as they were in the past, then they should keep a stiff upper lip now as they had done in the past – or so Knox’s logic seems to suggest. More than any Briton involved in forging this new Bahrain, he was married to British colonial interests and did not shy from revealing how set he was on preserving the status quo even as he set reforms into motion. “I want you to remember that this is a Sunni country and surrounded on this short of the Gulf by powerful Sunni communities who watch our proceedings with vigilant interest and no small degree of suspicion. You must not expect equality at a bound and Sunni privileges can not be swept away at once, if at all.”
Despite this outright admittance that he had no intention to see a state of equality between Shia and Sunni, Knox would become a champion of the downtrodden Baharna: as he was the superior of Major Daly, who implemented reforms on the ground-level, and as the reforms ultimately benefited the Shia more than anyone else in Bahraini society, so Knox would be seen with a warm glow through this association.
In turn, he would speak to the powerful Dowasir tribesmen of Budaiya (on the west coast of Bahrain) who had threatened often to turn to Ibn Saud for help should their interests be harmed. Ibn Saud himself was keen to make inroads in Bahrain, and the coup – and the majlis Colonel Knox held – could not have happened before Ibn Saud’s belligerent ambassador was sent packing out of Bahrain and the great Sultan of Nejd himself convinced to leave Al-Hasa on the east Arabian coast, where he could threaten Bahrain militarily.
“You have frequently met such threats (of reform) in the past by a counter threat to leave these Islands in a body and go over to Ibn Saud or others. If that is your intention, in God’s name, go. But,” he warned them, “if you resign as a protest, do not be surprised if your lands and houses are confiscated to the State and given to others, and I can assure you that there will be no lack of applicants.” In fact, many of the Dowasir would leave, settling in Dammam, on the Saudi coast near Bahrain. Those of them that then chose to return to Bahrain later would find that Knox’s threats had not been idle, and they would have to fight to regain the Budaiya properties they had in their anger abandoned.
After a note on pearl diving reforms – the British could make legal changes, but reform had to begin at the bottom, in the minds and mentalities of the pearl divers, shackled though they were to the exploitative pearling captains and merchants – Knox turned to Hamad. If the Shia and Al Khalifa had been treated as children alike, no one was treated more condescendingly than Sheikh Hamad himself, the new Hakim – Ruler.
“I will tell you a story that I heard,” he said to Sheikh Hamad, “of what took place the other day when there was an assembly much like the present one, to celebrate a School Prizegiving. Most of the scholars received rewards but one, who probably did not deserve one, began to whimper and the headmaster, fearing that he would spoil the tamasha, led him up to you and explained that by some mistake this boy had been forgotten.
“Whereupon – O Hamad! – you pulled out a gold watch from your pocket and presented it to this whimpering little boy and another member of the Al Khalifa, not to be outdone in generosity, gave him £5 and I have no doubt that the assembly went out saying what noble-hearted open-handed gentlemen you were. It sounds like a story from the Arabian Nights or the spacious days of Harun al Rashid.
“Now I tell you – O Hamad! – that your conduct on this occasion was absolutely rotten … Thirty years have I worked with Hakims great and small and yet never have I known or met the Hakim who was not in need of money for public needs. The Political Agent is hard put to it for want of money, I am cramped for lack of funds, Persia and Iraq and France are on the verge of bankruptcy and Germany has fallen over the precipice. The Government of India is reducing its establishments and dismissing its servants and the Government of London is doing likewise and who are you, O Hamad, that you should be better than they?”
There can be no wonder as to why the Al Khalifa family, when invited personally by Sheikh Hamad to the majlis, would turn to Sheikh Isa for guidance rather than obey his son. Did Sheikh Hamad have any authority beyond what the British gave him? The Al Khalifa didn’t seem to think so. The forgotten fact was that Sheikh Isa was just as disempowered a ruler – he had been installed and ousted by the British as they saw fit. But in a reign that spanned an entire lifetime, as Isa’s did – fifty-four years – these details seemed to crumble to dust in the memories of the men who watched his authority collapse.
From Political Resident to local ruler, Colonel Knox told Sheikh Hamad that if “people curse you, as people will curse a Hakim, go on your way without flinching. If they praise you to your face, examine yourself and ask in your head ‘Where, Oh Hamad, hast thou erred?’ And in conclusion, my friend,” Knox took him by the hand, “blessings and prosperity on your rule.”
There could be no mistaking who was the Hakim of Bahrain.
Five months on from the majlis, Bahrain was split between those overjoyed by the new prospects Major Daly and Sheikh Hamad were creating and those who wanted nothing more than to reverse everything back to the old ways. Next week, a series of petitions and counter-petitions are made to the British by the anti- and pro-reform camps in Bahrain.
IOR/L/PS/10/1039, India Office Records, British Library, London