Piracy is not a new problem, of course, and sadly it has become a tragically topical one in the Indian Ocean today, but a magnificent silver gilt cup listed for sale at myfamilysilver.com recalls a little known chapter in British Imperial history when a task force was dispatched to eliminate attacks on East India Company merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf. Specifically, the expedition was aimed at the powerful Qasimi (essentially a conglomerate of local tribesmen, fishermen and seafarers) whose vessels had harried British ships in the Gulf for years. A previous British expedition in 1809-10 against Ras al-Khaima, the seat of Qasimi power on the Arabian coast to the east of the Persian Gulf, had subdued but not eliminated the threat. (Today Ras al-Khaima is the principal city of the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah bordering Oman in the United Arab Emirates. )
The expeditionary force left Bombay for the Gulf on 3 November 1819 and consisted of three Royal Navy ships, six East India Company cruisers (including Glenelg) and 18 transports carrying about 3000 British and native troops, including the soldiers of the 65th Regiment as commemorated on the cup. In addition, the force was bolstered by boats and troops volunteered by allies to the British in the Gulf, principally Shaikh Sayyid Sa’id of Muscat who saw a means of extending his influence in the region.
On 4 December the British launched a heavy bombardment on Ras al-Khaima which fell 4 days later with heavy casualties to the civilian population. After garrisoning the city, the British turned their attention to extinguishing any remaining Qasimi resistance along the coast, at a high human cost. British casualties totalled no more than a dozen or so soldiers killed in the entire campaign whereas an estimated 1000 local tribesmen were killed. In addition, the British destroyed approximately 200 small native vessels, ending the potential for further harassment at sea but also decimating the local fishing industry for years to come.
By February 1820, with the mission accomplished, the British force withdrew but not before razing Ras al-Khaima to the ground. The British commander, Major General Keir, negotiated a General Treaty with the ruling Shaikhs, defining future maritime behaviour in the gulf region. Piracy and seizure of slaves were strictly outlawed and a system of flags and passes was introduced to regulate shipping. On this basis, the British continued to trade in the gulf region though critics point out that the Treaty marked an unacceptable “grab for power” by the British in the region using Qasimi “piracy” as an excuse, the unhappy consequences of which remain to this day.
Further reading: Davies, C.E., The Blood-Red Arab Flag: An investigation into Qasimi Piracy 1797-1820 (Exeter, 1997)