Harriet Tubman Seminar York University 7 February, 2000



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On the Arab side of the Gulf, the island of Bahrayn, with its rich pearl fisheries74, and al-Qatif in the area of al-Hasa between Kuwait and Qatar, were the oldest established ports. During the first two decades of the eighteenth century, control over Bahrayn changed hands several times between Persia and Oman. In 1753, as part of his aggressive policy in the Gulf, Nadir Shah seized the island after several decades of Arab rule. Bahrayn would not revert back to Arab rule until 1783 when the Khalifah section of the Utub Arabs occupied it.c The port of Qatif, on the other hand, remained under the control of Bani Khalid up to the closing years of the century when it fell to the Wahhabis from Najd. By the turn of the century, the port of al-cUqayr was superseding al-Qatif as the paramount port for the area of al-Ahsa in Eastern Arabia. Its main exports were dates plus various typres of gums and incense.75

The Nadji tribal migrations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a profound impact on the rise of new ports in the Gulf. During the century, the above-mentioned Utub, who originated in Najd, settled into Kuwait (al-Qurayn) and Qatar (Zubara) before seizing Bahrayn. By the middle of the century, Kuwait, with an excellent natural harbor and strong leadership under the Al Sabah shaykhs, became home to one of the finest fleets in the Gulf.c Around 1760, the Khalifah section of the cUtub followed by the Jalahimah left Kuwait for Qatar. Together they transformed the small town of Zubara into an important center for the export of pearls.76 Throughout the second half of the century, the Gulf became a stage for the cUtub's prolonged struggle against the Hawalah Arabs, especially the Qawasim section around the Trucial and southern Persian coasts. Little is known of the history of the Hawalah other than that they were the long established inhabitants of the southern Persian coast, some of whom returned to the Arab coast around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.77 By the end of the century, the Qawasim section, with their base at Ra's al-Khayma, had become active in the pearl trade and, more importantly for Basra’s trade, buccaneering.

Each of these, and numerous other smaller settlements, had a fleet of small vessels active in the carrying trade of the Gulf. As the larger ships unloaded their goods from India at Masqat, Bushire or Basra, these fleets would then disperse the merchandise throughout the region. Their most profitable export, pearls, was often the cause of many of the conflicts. In 1767, for example, the cUtbi fleet was sent to bring a large freight of pearls from Qatar to Basra. Upon their arrival they discovered that the Qawasim had attacked the place and made off with an enormous amount of pearls and money estimated at thirty thousand tumans.78 These pearls were most probably later smuggled into Masqat and secretly sold or taken directly to India.

The season for pearl fishing began around the middle of May and end in late September.79 At the end of the season the pearls were sold to the merchants in the various Gulf ports who then shipped them to Basra, Bushire or Masqat for export. The pearl trade was undoubtedly one of Basra's most important assets. Even when this trade suffered a decline at the end of the century, some pearl merchants like cAbdul-Jalil al-Tabataba'i still continued to make handsome profits.80 Over the course of the century larger native vessels, of over 100 tons, were increasingly used in the carrying trade of the Gulf. The main cause for this increase was the rise of the cUtbi and Masqat fleets in the second half of the century. The cUtub, in particular, dominated the pearl trade to Basra in the second half of the century.81 Another reason for the frequent appearance of large native ships in the carrying trade of the Gulf could have been the transfer of the bulk of native shipping from the increasingly competitive India trade to that of the Gulf. The second half of the century also witnessed an increase in the number of English ships patrolling the Gulf, some of which inevitably became involved in the carrying trade. Their presence became particularly evident after 1765, as a result of British involvement in the protection of the trade of Basra.


The last decades of the century witnessed a sharp rise in the number of piratical attacks on Basra's shipping. While "piracy" is a word that conjures up various images, it should be noted that those who carried out these operations in the Gulf were quite different from the renegade and run-away sailors that made up European piracy at that time. Most of the raids were carried out in the course of inter-tribal conflicts or by Shaykhdoms attempting to control parts of the Gulf trade. In this sense, their practices differed little from those of the leading European powers of the time except that, at times, they degenerated into indiscriminate attacks on all vessels. Certainly the tribes themselves considered such attacks as a “legitimate form of warfare and source of income”.82

While piracy was nothing new to the Gulf, numerous factors contributed to its intensification toward the end of the century. One of the most important was the demographic upheaval of the preceding century and its culmination in the establishment of new Shaykhdoms along the Gulf. Soon after its establishment, the Utbi Shaykhdom in Bahrayn witnessed a protracted power struggle between the Khalifah and Jalahimah sections. After their eviction from the island, the Jalahimah, under their fiery leader Shaykh Rahmah ibn Jabir, launched a relentless war against the maritime trade of Bahrayn and its allies, (notably Kuwait), which inevitably affected Basra’s trade.c In this campaign Shaykh Rahmah often found support from the Qawasim. Unlike the Jalahimah, the Qawasim, under Shaykh Saqr ibn Rashid, rarely discriminated in their choice of victims targeting cUtbi, Omani and European ships with equal zeal.83 In 1808, for example, Qasimi attacks included an estimated twenty ships from India, with four belonging to the English.84 As with the Qawasim, the Jalahimah benefitted greatly from their alliance with the Wahhabis of Najd. But also like the Qawasim, the Jalahimah became increasingly isolated after the defeat of the Wahhabis in 1818. Nevertheless, Shaykh Rahmah of the Jalahimah refused to give up. He continued his relentless war against the Al Khalifah, a willing ally of any of their enemies, until 1826 when, surrounded by cUtbi ships, the now old and blind shaykh prefered to blow himself up rather than surrender to his bitter foes.85 In the meantime, though, the trade of Basra and the Gulf in general “had dwindled to a trickle”.86


Newly established Shaykhdoms that maintained amiable relations with Basra nevertheless helped direct trade away from it. "Altho'," observed Manesty and Jones, "a favorable change has lately taken place in the commercial interests of Muscat, Bahreen, Zebarra [Qatar] and Grain [Kuwait], the commercial importance of Bussora has since the year 1773 most materially decreased."87 Kuwait, in particular, seemed to benefit from Basra's decline by attracting a number of Basra’s principal merchants.88 Resuming their comments on its growing importance Manesty and Jones wrote in 1792:
Grain [Kuwait] has always had a free communication by the desart [sic], with Bagdad and Aleppo and very large and rich caravans ... frequently passed to and from those cities.89
It would not be a great exageration to say that the development of Kuwait received a major boost directly as a result of the Persian occupation of Basra in 1776.90 "The degree of [Kuwait's] importance," wrote Manesty and Jones,
must ever depend on the prosperity or distress of Bussora, during the time, in which the Persians were in possession of that city, Grain [Kuwait] was the port through which that part of the produce of India proper for the Bagdad, Damascus, Alepo [sic], Smyrna and Constantinople markets which is annually brought to Bussora, found its way to these places.91
After the Persians withdrew, Kuwait continued to attract trade away from Basra thanks to its relative security, autonomy and low customs duties. The flight of many of Basra's leading merchants to Kuwait continued to play a major role in the commercial stagnation of the city's trade well into the 1850s.92 Bahrayn and Qatar benefitted in a similar manner accentuating Basra's decline.93

Basra's Trade With Southern Persia
Basra’s trade with southern Persia is testimony to the great freedom of trade enjoyed by the merchants of the area and the general lack of state intervention in this trade. Relations between the Ottomans and Persians were often extremely hostile, particularly around the vicinity of Basra. Nevertheless, the lively trade accross the boarder appeared largely unaffected by the political hostilities and travellers, like Mir cAbdul-Latif al-Shustari who visited Basra in 1787, came and went with hardly any difficulties save those offered by bandits.94 The wealthy Persian community in Basra certainly had commercial dealings with their kin accross the boarder. In August of 1729, the English Agent reported that the route between Basra and Isfahan was now secure and that "many" merchants were going and coming "once again".95 Khawajah Yacqub, probably the most important Jewish merchant prior to the Persian occupation, and his partner, Khawajah Shahadah, regularly took Indian spices and cloth to Shuster and brought Gilan raw silk to Basra.96 The same was true of Basra's Armenian merchants who kept a regular correspondence with their partners in Isfahan.

Merchandise from Basra was sent either to to Shiraz or Isfahan via Shuster and Dizful.97 The former, to the south-east, was reached directly by caravan, or by ship to Bushire then by caravan while the latter, to the north-east, was reached by the Karun river and caravan. Closer to Basra was the city of Huwayza just accross the Shatt al-cArab. Trade between Huwayza and Basra remained active despite several Ottoman attempts to take the city after the fall of the Safavids.98 Unlike the mainly camel caravans of the Syrian Desert, the mule was the most common means of transportation in Persia with the usual size of a caravan not exceeding thirty or forty animals. Merchants operating along this route rarely owned their own animals preferring to hire mules and muleteers for the trip. The mules of the village of Zarqan, north of Shiraz, were considered the most dependable and usually preferred by the merchants.99 Basra’s imports from Persia included dried fruits, pistachios, saffron, rhubarb, tobacco, drugs, sword blades, spear heads, gun barrels, caps, Kashmir shawls, lambskins, Kirman wool, carpets, and Gilan raw silk. Most of this material was re-exported to the Gulf, Baghdad and Aleppo, and from there to various other points. Basra's export to Persia included Indian spices and piece goods, Mukha coffee, some English woolens, various piece goods from Aleppo and Baghdad, specie, and its own dates.100

In the seventeenth century, under the Safavids, the southern part of Persia flourished, with merchants from all over Asia and Europe flocking to Isfahan.101 During this time, Basra benefitted from the strong state of the Persian economy. The fall of the Safavids in 1722, and the ensuing civil strife culminating with the wars of Nadir Shah obviously had a negative impact on this trade. The decline in Persia's economy, however, (especially in the south) was successfully checked under the rule of Karim Khan Zand (1750-1779).102 In addition to improving security he moved the capital further south to Shiraz, reduced the rate of taxation, encouraged handicrafts, repaired the irrigation networks, and granted merchants, particularly the Armenians, new privileges. These reforms soon had a favorable impact on trade leading the an EEIC's "Select Committee Appointed by the Court of Directors" to report: "under the last- mentioned prince [Karim Khan Zand], commerce had begun to revive, and very considerable progress had been made at his death."103 It is no accident that this period, despite continuing border tensions and recurrent hostilities with the Kacb tribes, coincided with Basra's trade boom prior to the Persian invasion of 1775. Between December 1768 and March 1777, over 27 percent of the merchants that had dealings at the English Factory in Basra were from Persia.104

After the death of Karim Khan Zand in 1779, Persia entered a new period of savage civil war. Reports sent from Basra at this time are full of anxiety over the unstable conditions in Persia and the need for reinforcements.105 Trade routes became increasingly insecure because of the Kab and Banu Lam tribes who, like the Qawasim in the Gulf, grew in strength and ambition after the collapse of central authority in Persia. The Kaccb’s efforts at establishing an independent Shaykhdom had a particularly negative impact on Basra’s trade. Having emigrated from central and eastern Arabia to Persian Khuzistan sometime in the seventeenth century, the Banu Kacb jealously guarded their independence by inhabiting the inaccessible marshlands along the Karun river all the way up to Ahwaz.106 After the collapse of Nadir Shah’s effort to reunify Persia they gradually emerged, under Shaykh Salman, to became an important naval power.107 Karim Khan’s attempts to bring them to heel were cut short by his death and the end of Persia’s central authority. By 1780, the reports from Basra were again warning of the need for naval protection against the raids of the Banu Kab fleet.c

Persia’s chaotic state did not end until 1794 and the establishment the new Qajar dynasty. The story of the rise of the Qajars and the excessive cruelties of their leader, Agha Muhammad Khan, is well known. Agha Muhammad's fury, fueled by an unrelenting hatred for the Zands, fell heavily on the cities of southern Persia, particularly Shiraz and Kirman. Normally, Basra's trade with Persia would rapidly recover following such periods of instability, yet the rise of the Qajars fundamentally altered this relationship. Even prior to their ascendancy, the economic and demographic growth of the north at the expense of the south gradually increased after the fall of the Safavids. Under Qajari rule, the focus of Persia's political power and economy moved decisively from Isfahan, Kirman and Shiraz, to Tabriz and, later, to the new capital of Tehran.108 As the north benefitted the rapid growth of its trade with Russia, the south, upon which much of Basra's trade had traditionally depended, fell into "decay and depopulation."109

Basra's Riverain Trade With Baghdad
In most of its essentials, the nature of the riverain trade between southern and northern Mesopotamia remained unchanged until the introduction of steam ship navigation in the nineteenth century. During our century, Basra's riverain trade with Baghdad was carried by several fleets of mostly small boats called Takanahs with a few larger ones called Shaykhas.110 Less common ships included the Daniq, Barakshin, Baghlah, Sinik, Ghalyawz and the Sacd on the Tigris, and the Ghrab on the Euphrates.111 In the 1760s there were about 40 ships operating along the Tigris route, each capable of carrying 300 to 400 bales.112 Under normal conditions, the "Baghdad Boats", as these ships were called, made the trip once a year down either the Tigris or the Euphrates depending on their respective security situation. The Euphrates route usually enjoyed better security due to the protection provided by the Muntafiq in return for a protection fee paid by the merchants. The Euphrates was also preferred for the return trip because its current was not as strong as that of the Tigris. If all went well, which was quite rare, the boats would leave Baghdad in June arriving at Basra in July as the India ships were unloading and prices generally at their lowest. As often happens, however, the Muntafiq shaykh would close the route at the last hour in the hope of receiving additional payments. This is what happened in 1725, for example, when Shaykh Muhammad al-Mani forced the Baghdad boats to lay in the river "for months" until the merchants agreed to pay him "considerable sums" for their passage.c

Joseph Amin, who in 1768 came down to Basra on one of these boats, related that he first travelled by caravan for four days from Baghdad to Hillah stopping each night at a caravanserai. After paying the customs at Hillah, the boats took seventeen days to reach Samawah, where they again paid customs. Three days later they paid additional customs at Qurnah, before reaching Basra. The entire trip south took some twenty-five days, while going north could take up to twice that long.113 The most important cargo that these boats brought from Baghdad included copper, specie, various goods from Anatolia and the Aleppo and Persian goods that were not sent directly to Basra. Ships waiting to return to India were particularly eager to get a good freight of specie. In March of 1774, for example, seven large boats arrived from Baghdad with about 800,000 rupees in gold and silver specie.114 They returned loaded with India goods, Mokha coffee and pearls.

Copper, valued in the foundries of India, remained a strong export item throughout the century even after the decline of maritime trade. The copper originated in mines around Diyarbakr in southern Anatolia.115 They were all considered the property of the Porte and under the command of a "Pasha of the Mines". The mined copper was transferred by river or caravan to Musul where it was smelted and cast into cakes. From there it was transported by boat to Baghdad and then to Basra. The copper was subject to customs in each of the three cities. At Diyarbakr it paid an export duty of 2 percent, followed by an import duty of 2.25 percent at Musul and 2 percent at Baghdad. At Basra it paid an import duty of 8.33 percent and an export duty of 5.5 percent. The estimated cost of transporting it from Diyarbakr to Basra, (inclusive of duties and protection payments), amounted to some 50 percent of its original value. Nevertheless, the merchants at Baghdad who purchased the copper found it profitable enough to increase exports from 16,000 "attaree maunds"116 in 1791 to 70,000 in 1796.117

The increased export of this item represented the exception rather than the rule. Beginning in the 1770s the preferred Euphrates route began to lose its security due to the increasing rebelliousness of the various tribes that inhabited the region. The decline of state authority as a result of the Persian invasion goes only so far in explaining this tendency. Of greater significance were the great tribal migrations of the past century and a half and their culmination, during the last third of the century, with the increasing boldness of tribes like the Khazacil just above Qurnah. This tribe, located along the Euphrates from Diwaniyyah to Basra, constantly threatened the city's riverain communication with Baghdad. During the second half of the century, the Khazacil built several fortresses along the Euphrates forcing ships to pay for their protection.118 By 1787 they had obstructed the trade along the Euphrates to the extent that merchants were forced to use the slower and more expensive Tigris river route.119 As a result provisions at Basra became critically low and prices increased dramatically. Sulayman Pasha, the Wali of Baghdad, responded by personally commanding a large army to punish the rebellious tribes, yet their cunning shaykh, Hamad al-Humud, successfully evaded the Wali's army.120 For the remainder of the century and well into the next, campaigns were sent against them almost annually, but this only increased the violence of their raids.121

While the insubordination of the Khazacil had the most direct effect on the riverain trade, other tribes also contributed to the disruption of communications. In 1786, the powerful cUbayd tribe around Baghdad launched an ambitious movement to install their Shaykh, Sulayman al-Shawi, as Wali of Baghdad.122 This rebellion continued for two years before it was finally subdued. In 1787, al-Shawi joined forces with Shaykh Thuwayni of the Muntafiq and seized Basra prompting the Wali to organize a large campaign to re-occupy the port.123 This was also the period when Wahhabi raiding reached as far as the banks of the Euphrates. By the end of the century these rebellions and raids practically shut down the Euphrates route contributing to the overall decline of Basra's trade.
Basra's Caravan Trade With Aleppo
Rivaling Baghdad as Basra's most important inland trading partner was the city of Aleppo in northern Syria. With a population of over 100,000 Aleppo was easily the largest city in the Fertile Crescent. It was also the third largest city in the Ottoman Empire after Istanbul and Cairo.124 Though the trade between India, the Ottoman provinces and Europe went through several routes, the desert route between Basra and Aleppo was considered to be the safest, cheapest and most direct in the eighteenth century. The commercial links between the two cities were underscored in 1781 when the government of Aleppo agreed to pay half the construction cost of a new fleet to protect Basra's shipping.125

The caravans that crossed the Syrian Desert were among the largest and best organized in Asia. Camels took the merchandise of Basra, India, Southern Persia, Yemen, Masqat and the Gulf, and brought back goods from Syria, Anatolia and Europe. The imports included gold and silver coins, French broadcloth, Venice ware, beads, looking glasses, stained glass, silks, satins, brass wire, cochineal, tobacco, and Aleppo flowered piece goods.126 Another item brought by these caravans from Istanbul was the so-called “gold thread” which was in high demand in India.127 Three types of caravans travelled between Aleppo and Basra. The large, so-called "merchant caravan", which transported goods and specie, was the most important in terms of the amount and variety of the merchandise traded. This caravan took several months to prepare and, under normal conditions, made the trip twice a year. The second type was simply a smaller version of the merchant caravan which usually left from Aleppo to Basra and returned with the merchant caravan. Lastly, the so-called "light caravan" contained unladen desert-bred camels for sale in Aleppo. This was the largest of the three and made the trip once a year.128

In the preliminary preparation for a merchant caravan the merchants and camel-owners would first choose a caravan leader, called a "Shaykh" or "Bashi", who was then sanctioned by the Wali.129 The choice of the Bashi was a very delicate matter since one who does not command respect among the desert tribes might not prove effective in securing a safe journey. In addition to his tribal credentials most merchants preferred that he also be a Sharif with a reputation for honesty since it was not uncommon that caravans were pillaged through an agreement between the Bashi and the tribes. In the eighteenth century, this position was usually held by a member of the cUqayl tribe who inhabited most of the towns along the route including areas around Aleppo. In the middle of the century, most merchants preferred the services of a certain Bashi named Sayyid Talib whose reputation guaranteed him a substantial income.130 The Bashi would fix the schedule, pick the route, collect the necessary provisions and "standardize the quality and size of each individual camel-load of goods".131 The average camel-load measured some 500 pounds though some camels have been known to carry up to 700 pounds.132 At the end of the century, merchants paid between 90 and 130 rupees for each camel-load depending on the nature of the merchandise. This price is likely to have been lower in 1760s and could be indicative of the higher protection costs required by the desert tribes.133 The Bashi also organized the caravan's protection by hiring squads of armed cameleers, each under their own shaykh. Along the route the Bashi's authority was absolute despite the presence of other officials such as the Mu'adhin.134

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