Harriet Tubman Seminar York University 7 February, 2000

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Harriet Tubman Seminar

York University

7 February, 2000



Thabit Abdullah

Paper Presented to the Tubman Seminar

In the eighteenth century, Basra was linked to six major trading areas. India was certainly the most famous with its much coveted merchandise of spices and fabrics. Of almost equal fame was the city's biannual caravan trade with Aleppo. The coffee of Mukha created the demand for the trade with Yemen, usually via Masqat. The Tigris and Euphrates provided the highways for Basra's trade with Baghdad and points north, while southern Persia was reached either through caravans or the Karun River. Lastly, Basra's trade with other ports on the Persian Gulf created, perhaps, the most integrated of the six regions. Of less importance were the trade routes to Arabia and Damascus, both of which were linked to the Aleppo trade. For Basra's merchants this was usually an open region with hardly any notion of national or ethnic boundaries.1

In the early part of the eighteenth century this trading region could be viewed as a subset within an emerging self-contained Indian Ocean "world system" with its center at Surat.2 It is now quite well known that by the end of the century this emerging world system was gradually incorporated within a European-dominated world economy. According to Niels Steensgaard the eighteenth century witnessed a “number of apparently unconnected phenomena” which ultimately led to a structurally more vulnerable multi-polar world system in the Indian Ocean.3 These “unconnected phenomena” include a major increase in European demand for Asian products, the indiginous development of a number of competing naval powers, and the weakening or collapse of the major Muslim empires.4 All of these factors, plus some local ones, played a role in the structural transformation of Basra’s trade networks. To understand how this transformation came about each one of the six networks will be examined separately.

Basra's Trade With India
There is little doubt that Basra’s maritime trade with India constituted the most important part of the city’s commerce. There were three main terminal points for Indian goods imported into the Ottoman Empire: Istanbul, Aleppo and Cairo. The first two received most of their goods via Basra particulalry during the eighteenth century when the Red Sea route stagnated.5 Indian textiles were usually in high demand competing quite successfully with local products.6 In 1785 it was estimated that the total annual imports of Indian goods into Istanbul alone equaled some 5 million ghurush. This was slightly under the amount of total imports from Europe during the same period.7 The traveller Mehmet Emin effendi, who visited Surat in 1749, saw a number of merchants from Baghdad and Basra purchasing goods and preparing to ship them to the Middle East.8

The India ships brought large quantities of merchandise of various types. On average, the large ships brought more than 1000 bales9 of goods each.10 From Bengal, Basra imported rice, sugar, sugar candy, iron, tin, lead, lumber, chinaware and piece goods of " near fifty different kinds."11 The Coromandel coast provided chintz of different kinds, cotton and cotton yarn. Musk, henna, lump lac, Kashmir shawls, Gujarat piece goods, and various cotton fabrics came from Surat and the Malabar coast. Indian spices, including pepper, cassia, turmeric, indigo, cardamum, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger came from various parts of the sub-continent. The only important European commodities shiped from India and sold at Basra were English woolens and firearms. In 1707, a ship owned by the well-known Surati merchant Ahmad Chalabi, unloaded Indian merchandise which brought in 15,494.25 ghurush in customs duties.12 Assuming that this merchandise was taxed at the normal 8% of its value, we come up with the figure of 193,678 ghurush being the estimated value of the goods. Now considering that this ship was loaded with only one-third its normal capacity, the figure for the value of Indian goods brought on a ship loaded up to half or three-fourths capacity (which was the normal amount) would be in the range of 290,517 to 435,775.5 ghurush. Most of this merchandise was transported to Aleppo, Baghdad and Persia.13 After unloading, many ships left a wakil, or agent, behind to dispose of the cargo in the most profitable manner. This trade with India resulted in a chronic deficit for the Ottomans.14 While the Ottomans were eagerly paying for Indian goods there was hardly any product that was exported in return. The result was a regular cash flow from the Middle East to India. This was also the case at Basra notwithstanding Basra’s export of dates and some Arabian stallions.

India, for most of its history, had two distinct trading areas. Gujurat, Malabar, Western India and the Persian Gulf represented one region, while Bengal, Coromandel and Eastern India constituted a second, separate area.15 By taking the aggregate number of ships and their dates of departure and arrival, we can establish a sense of the annual shipping shedules between Basra and India. As is evident in figure 1, the ships from Bengal and East India rode the north-east monsoon and arrived at Basra between April and July, peaking in June, just as the winds began to shift.16 This guaranteed that they did not have to waste too much time at Basra. In fact, those returning directly to Bengal usually departed within a couple of weeks of their arrival since the voyage took nearly four months and passing Ceylon was quite difficult after October. Rarely did any small vessel attempt this voyage. Communication with Western India was much easier and more frequent. Though the majority of ships arrived in July and August, a fair number also appeared between December and April (Figure 2). Departures peaked twice, around August and November. The latter probably included ships ultimately heading for Bengal with long stops at India's western ports. There were no noticeable differences in the schedules of European and Indo-Arab shipping to India.

While a great deal of the merchandise from Eastern India was transported in stages by native Indo-Arab ships, Europeans dominated the direct shipping routes throughout the century. This was not, however, true of the trade with Western India. Though the earliest dependable figures we have are for 1724, the sources still suggest that Indo-Arab shipping dominated this route throughout the first third of the century (Figure 3). In 1690, despite a harsh bout with the plague, as many as 16 or 17 ships arrived at Basra from the various parts of India.17 By 1707, due to the conflicts with Persia and the Muntafiq tribes, this number had dropped to only six.18 Several years later trade began to pick up thanks to the establishment of security so that a total of 11 ships were reported to have arrived in 1720.19 Favorable trade during this period also corresponded to its general rise in Western India particularly in Malabar which enjoyed a boom in commercial activities around 1730.20

The most important of the native ships that traded between Basra and Western India were those owned by the Chalabi family of Surat.21 Each year Basra waited anxiously for the arrival of Chalabi's two ships that regularly made the voyage from Surat. During the first decade of the eighteenth century when the Ottomans were still busy trying to establish control over southern Iraq, Chalabi’s two ships were the only ones from India still calling regularly at Basra.22 The size of these ships was considered larger than most European vessels trading in this area. The Fath al-Rahman, which ran this route throughout the first half of the century, had a carrying capacity of 500 tons. The same was true of the Islambuli and the Salamani which operated in the second half of the century.23 The importance of these ships to the merchants of Basra was clearly demonstrated in 1754 when the Dutch seized them as a result of a previous dispute with the Mutasallim. The panic that this action created was enough to force the Mutasallim to give in to Dutch demands.24 Basra's commercial performance for the rest of the century again showed its great sensitivity to developments in India. After the boom of the 1730s, Malabar's trade began to stagnate as a result of the instability and increasing regulations brought about by the rising state of Travancore. It revived again around 1773/1774 before declining sharply for the rest of the century and beyond.25 In both, its rise in the early 1770s and its subsequent decline, Malabar's trade practically mirrored that of Basra.
Our figures show that while Indo-Arab shipping with Western India exceeded that of the Europeans up to the mid-1740s, it was generally declining throughout most of the first half of the century. The ratio of European (especially English) to native shipping continued to shift in favor of the former until the Persian occupation of 1776 and the subsequent overall decline in trade. The English had achieved this domination of the European trade with Basra as a result of their defeat of France in their long struggle for mastery over India. During the first Anglo-French war in India in 1744, the English navy succeeded in establishing its control of the seas.26 By the end of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), England emerged as the paramount European power in India. This “greater power for the English at Surat and Bombay naturally carried with it greater power in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.”27 Thus, while France’s trade with the Ottoman Empire accounted for nearly 50 to 60 percent of the empire’s trade with western Europe, it was practically non-existent at Basra.28 Several years before the Seven Years War, the Dutch were expelled from Malabar after losing the war with the kingdom of Travancore allowing the English to become the unrivaled European commercial power in the Gulf.29

There is much evidence that points to a growing European control of the Indian Ocean freight trade becoming quite evident by the second half of the eighteenth century.30 Lakshmi Subramanian argues that English control of Surat’s shipping and freight trade became particularly pronounced after 1759.31 Not surprisingly, our sources confirm that this was also the case with respect to the Persian Gulf and Basra at this time.32 In a number of letters from both Surati merchants who trade at Basra and Basrawi merchants specializing in the Indian trade, these merchants mention their intention to freight exclusively on English ships.33 Our compilation of the number of European and native ships arriving at Basra from India (figure 3) lends further credence to this claim. Lastly, the French, who in a 1768 report were considering to re-establish their trade with the Gulf, complain of English domination of the freight trade between Basra and India.34 While this European (English) domination never reached the same level as it did in the Mediterranean, there is little doubt that increased English shipping played a decisive role in Basra’s trade boom of 1768-1774.35

Basra's Trade With Mukha & the Role of the Omanis
The other important source for this boom was the rise of the Masqat fleet in the second half of the century. Despite the numerous works that make passing reference to the great fleet of Oman and its successful expeditions against the Portuguese in the seventeenth century, we still know little about its role in the trade of the region.36 We know that the Yarubi Sultans, who came to prominence in the mid-seventeenth century under the leadership of Imam Sultan ibn Sayf I, succeeded in developing a strong fleet built largely at the port of Surat.c In 1650, they took Masqat from the Portuguese and began a series of naval expeditions that soon drove the Portuguese from the Gulf and most of East Africa. El-Ashban believes that by the turn of the century Omani naval power had become "stronger than any of the native rulers along the entire shores of the Indian Ocean."37 The rise of Masqat soon attracted a large trade with India, Yemen, Africa and the Gulf. In the attempt to establish their claim over part of this trade, the Omanis also challenged the two great Islamic empires in the area. In 1707, the merchants of Basra complained that hostilities with the Imam of Masqat was one of the primary causes behind the stagnation of Basra’s trade after the Ottoman reconquest.38 While a lucrative, peaceful relationship was eventually established with Ottoman Basra, Masqat’s conflict with Safavid Persia was more intense and lasted much longer. During the first two decades of the century, the Omanis sacked several Persian ports culminating in their occupation of the island of Bahrayn in 1717.

The power of the Yarubis declined during the 1720s as rival claimants to the throne plunged the country into a prolonged civil war which was only temporarily interrupted by Nadir Shah's invasion in 1738. The throne finally fell to the Al Bu Saccid clan in 1749 marking the start of a new period of relative stability in Masqat. Under the wise leadership of the Sacid Imams, Masqat reclaimed its position as one of the paramount ports of the Indian Ocean. Their trading empire soon spread from Southern Arabia to Eastern Africa with the Imam's representatives present in all the main ports of Western India and the Persian Gulf, including Basra. The enterprising skills which the merchants of Masqat exhibited allowed their trade to continue to flourish even after its decline in the Persian Gulf at the end of the century. In 1791, the EEIC agents at Basra wrote that "whilst trade languishes and an increasing scarcity of specie prevails in the Turkish and Persian dominions, the merchants of Muscat are engaged in capital commercial enterprizes."39

Masqat's primary export to the Persian Gulf during this period included slaves, ivory, some Batavian sugar and, most importantly, coffee. After successfully driving out the Portuguese from East Africa in the seventeenth century, the Omanis established several trading colonies including those at Zanzibar, Kilwa, Pate and Mombasa from which slaves and ivory were exported to the Persian Gulf, Arabia and India.40 Among the vessels used to transport East African slaves were the Dhow, Baghla and Sunbuk. The slave Dhows ranged in size from "mere boats" to 350 tons and were noted for being "enormously swift".41 Information on the size and nature of this trade to Basra remains scanty. Otter, in 1734, mentioned that the Masqat fleet had brought in a shipment of slaves while he was there, yet he failed to mention anything else on the subject.42 There were numerous Ottoman regulations for the sale of slaves in Basra in the sixteenth century, but they give us little indication of the scale of the slave trade in the eighteenth century.43

The available information indicates that Omani vessels sailed for East Africa, with the north-east monsoon, in early November and returned during the summer months with the south-west monsoon. Many slaves were usually held in Masqat for some time before being sold in the various ports of the Persian Gulf.44 In Basra, most of the slave ships returned loaded with dates. While estimates have varied greatly, the most convincing ones suggest that this trade was not very large in the eighteenth century. It was not until the following century, particularly between 1840 and the late 1880s that the slave trade picked up considerably.45 In one of the few estimates available for the eighteenth century, Ricks states that between 1722-1822 the number of slaves exported to the entire Persian Gulf did not exceed 500-600 each year, with most years registering figures far below this.46 Jwaideh and Cox have argued convincingly that demand for slaves in Southern Iraq was never high due to tribal customs that objected to concubinage and slave labour in agriculture.47 This arguement is supported by the lack of eighteenth century Ottoman or EEIC documents refering to the slave trade at Basra. The few slaves that were sold in Basra were mostly employed as domestic servants.48

The primary trading commodity of the Omanis, however, was the coffee of Mukha over which they developed a virtual monopoly in the second half of the century.49 It was estimated that the Masqat fleet carried "near one half of the quantity [of coffee] annually produced in Yemeen."50 This, in turn, was "sufficient for the full consumption thereof in the countries of Persia, Arabia Deserta, Mesopotamia, Courdistan, Armenia, Georgia and Natelia."51 Some of this "article of luxury" reached as far as Germany, Poland and Russia.52 Prior to the rise of the Masqat fleet, Mukha coffee reached Basra mainly through Indian ships belonging to Surat. According to one English report written in 1721, 10,000 bales of coffee were exported annually from Yemen to Basra.53 The authorities at Basra estimated that the customs revenues from coffee imports at the end of the seventeenth century equalled 50,000 to 60,000 ghurush per year.54 Not surprisingly Yemen's commercial ties with Basra were strong enough for news from one to affect the market of the other. In 1701, for example, the merchants of Mukha rejoiced at news of Ottoman re-occupation of Basra which they felt would surely boost their coffee exports.55 This trade apparently suffered a decline in the middle of the century partially due to the civil war that erupted in Yemen culminating in 1759 with the millenarian movement of Abu cAlamah.56 By the 1760s, however, the impact of the new Masqat coffee fleet became apparent. In normal years, it numbered some fifty Trankis57, most of which were quite small.58 On their return they carried off the bulk of Basra's date exports which they sold in various parts of Arabia, East Africa and India.

Thanks to the continuing vibrancy of Masqat's economy the coffee trade did not suffer a sharp decline similar to that of the India trade towards the close of the century. Nevertheless, there is evidence that there was a reduction in the amounts imported by Basra. Other than a decline in demand due to the overall difficult conditions at Basra, there might have also been a problem in the supply. Between 1785 and 1820 the Al Bu Sacids took a series of aggressive steps (including military confrontation), designed to insure their control of the carrying trade to the Persian Gulf.59 The chief enemies of the Omanis at this time were the Utub of Bahrayn, the Qawasim of Ra’s al-Khaymah and their Wahhabi allies from Najd.

The Wahhabi movement began in the middle of the century as a movement of religious reform with a strong puritanical message. Shortly after its establishment most of the tribal factions and city-states of Najd swore allegiance to its doctrines and, under the leadership of the Al Saccud, formed a powerful confederation. By the turn of the century, they established their overlordship over eastern Arabia and threatened Oman, Syria, Kuwait, Basra and all of southern Iraq. The apogee of Wahhabi power came in 1802 when they sacked the Shici city of Karbala' causing much distress all over southern Iraq.60 By the end of the eighteenth century, the Wahhabis had succeeded in establishing an “ironclad association” with most of the coastal tribes along the Gulf.61 The Wahhabi tide was not halted until 1818 when their Imam surrendered to the forces of Muhammad Ali of Egypt.

The Qawasim, a section of the Hawalah tribes, originally inhabited the Persian side of the Gulf. Their power became apparent in the Gulf with the decline of effective Persian control particularly after the death of Karim Khan Zand in 1779.c Masqat’s conflict with the Qawasim and the Wahhabis was particularly intense between 1800 and 1820.62 The ebb and flow of this war did not end until the Wahhabi defeat at the hands of the Egyptians in 1818 and English participation against the Qawasim. Only then were the English and Omani navies capable of destroying the Qasimi fleet and fortifying their main ports.63 In 1819, the Qawasim were forced to sign a General Treaty of Peace which effectively neutralized their challenge. During this long conflict the Omani fleet was unable to reach Basra with the same regularity and ease causing an overall decline in Basra’s coffee imports. In addition to this, Yemen’s coffee exports suffered a major blow at precisely the same time as Masqat’s war with the Qawasim. Paul Dresch mentions that increased competition from Java coffee, (which was not imported at Basra), led to a worldwide drop in coffee prices. In the early nineteenth century they suffered a serious "crash" leading to a drop in exports.64

The close commercial ties between Masqat and Basra were also evident in their political relations. Under the Al Bu Sacids the friendship between the two ports grew into an active military alliance against Persia. During Karim Khan's siege of Basra, the Imam of Oman sent a large fleet composed of two "large ships" and numerous "small craft" under the command of his son to help repel the invaders.65 The participation of the Omani fleet temporarily turned the tide lifting the spirits of the besieged Basawis enabling them to hold on for several months longer. The Ottoman Sultan was reportedly so delighted with this gesture that he ordered Baghdad's Wali to send the kharaj tax of Basra to the Imam and to grant Masqat's merchants favorable terms of trade.66 In a reply the Imam described the two ports as "a single body sharing both good and bad".67 This friendship was again tested in 1809 when the Wahhabis requested Masqat’s assistance in attacking Basra. The Imam’s refusal infuriated the Wahhabis and led to their invasion of Oman the following year.68

Basra's Trade With the Gulf
Our lack of information on the number of small vessels trading at Basra becomes critical when considering the nature of maritime trade within the Persian Gulf. There is little doubt that the merchandise transported by these vessels within the Gulf exceeded that of the larger ships recorded by the English Agents. According to one estimate, the Arabs had over four hundred small vessels operating between the Gulf, Western India and Eastern Africa in the eighteenth century.69 Contemporary Dutch sources indicate that several hundred more ships (mainly small Trankis), operated within the Gulf.70 The majority of the Arab inhabitants of the coast who owned these boats, lived in extreme poverty. Their main sources of livelihood were fishing, pearling, all sorts of petty trade, and buccaneering. Fiercely independent, they often sailed with their entire families and meager belongings from shore to shore to avoid state control or to seek new fortunes.71

Throughout most of the century, Basra acted as the major "international port" for the Persian Gulf. Countless fleets of small boats from all over the Gulf brought the products of the Gulf to Basra for export to India or the hinterland. Bandar cAbbas remained active, especially during the first half of the century, but the heights which it had enjoyed under the Safavids had long since passed. In its stead, Nadir Shah encouraged the development of Bushire in the northern part of the Gulf. Under the Matarish Arabs and their shaykh, Nasir al-Madhkur, it soon became Persia's paramount port and a competitor of Basra for the India trade.72 Bushire also had a limited local trade with Basra and was often used by merchants interested in smuggling their goods into southern Iraq through Persia.73 Near Bushire, the island of Kharj briefly rose to prominence in the middle of the century, first under the Dutch and then under the ruthlessly ambitious Mir Muhanna. Other ports on the Persian side that were active during this period were Bandar Riq under the Bani Sacb Arabs, Lingah, and Kangan.

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