Piracy in the Indian Ocean

Historians have been particularly interested in the fact that on two occasions during our period great empires provided security and a market for luxuries in different parts of the Indian Ocean world. The huge trade between China and the Abbasid empire has been linked to the rise and florescence of the Abbasid state after 750, and a similar situation with the T’ang dynasty in China from 618–907. The Fatimids in Egypt, the Colas in South India, and the Song in China produced the same effect in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

There certainly seems to be some connection between flourishing trade and stable empires, albeit one hard to quantify. Such empires usually got most of their revenue from the land, not the sea, and prevailing norms were usually hostile, or at least indifferent, to sea trade and merchants. Yet merchants did provide customs revenues, and perhaps more important brought curiosities and preciosities to the court. More generally, a strong, stable empire obviously has advantages for economic activity in general, including sea trade. Some states were actually quite interventionist. Srivijaya controlled the straits of Melaka for some time. In the early eleventh century the Cola state in south India responded to this with devastating raids. Thirteen ports in the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and the Nicobar Islands were attacked by Rajendra Cola.

The decline of empires usually produces much confusion, and this may be detrimental to trade, though on the other hand as an empire declines it will release hoarded wealth with which to defend itself, thereby increasing liquidity. Some notable episodes in the decline of these empires no doubt did impact on trade. In its last few decades the T’ang dynasty was less stable, and Guangzhou was sacked and foreign merchants massacred in 878 by a rebel army. At this same time, in 868–83, the Zanj slaves in lower Mesopotamia rebelled, and this is considered to have contributed to Abbasid decline. Later, the coup de grâce for the Abbasids, that is the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, may have disrupted trade, though this claim is open to doubt. The other great example of politics intervening in the ocean in our period is the cessation of Zheng He’s voyages in the 1430s as a result of a change in Ming policy. The precise reasons for this shift have been much debated, but certainly these expeditions were terminated by the court, and foreign trade greatly restricted. However, this coincides with the rise of Melaka, and it is a ‘chicken-and-egg’ matter as to whether the rise of Melaka meant the great expeditions were no longer needed, as compared with the rise of Melaka being to fill the gap left by the end of the voyages. In any case, the whole matter of this connection is difficult indeed to prove. Perhaps the point to keep in mind is that there were much more constant and important matters which affected merchants engaged in sea trade, namely did their imports meet local demand, and were prices high?

In the early 1340s Ibn Battuta was happily sailing along the west coast of India when his ship was attacked by pirates:

the infidels came out against us in twelve warships, fought fiercely against us and overcame us. They took everything I had preserved for emergencies; they took the pearls and rubies that the king of Ceylon had given me, they took my clothes and the supplies given me by pious people and saints. They left me no covering except my trousers. They took everything everybody had and set us down on the shore. I returned to Qaliqut and went into one of the mosques. One of the jurists sent me a robe, the qadi a turban and one of the merchants another robe.

Apart from again reminding us of how he could gear in to Islamic networks at need, this passage introduces the matter of piracy in the Indian Ocean in our period. Interestingly, Marco Polo had more or less the same problem, and we may note that Polo only slightly predated Ibn Battuta, for he died in 1324, a year before the latter set out from Morocco on his first hajj.

Polo wrote that on the west coast of India

there go forth every year more than a hundred corsair vessels on cruise. These pirates take with them their wives and children, and stay out the whole summer. Their method is to join in fleets of 20 or 30 of these pirate vessels together, and then they form what they call a sea cordon, that is, they drop off till there is an interval of 5 or 6 miles between ship and ship, so that they cover something like an hundred miles of sea, and no merchant vessel can escape them. For when any one corsair sights a vessel a signal is made by fire or smoke, and then the whole of them make for this, and seize the merchants and plunder them…. But now the merchants are aware of this, and go so well manned and armed, and with such great ships, that they don’t fear the corsairs. Still mishaps do befall them at times.

With the King’s connivance many corsairs launch from this part to plunder merchants. These corsairs have a covenant with the King that he shall get all the horses they capture, and all other plunder shall remain with them. The King does this because he has no horses of his own, whilst many are shipped from abroad towards India; for no ship ever goes thither without horses in addition to other cargo. The practice is naughty and unworthy of a king.

What these two unfortunate travellers are describing is either piracy or corsair activity. Whichever it may be, it is crucial to distinguish this from actual naval activity from port cities or other political entities, for at this time there were virtually no navies in the Indian Ocean, the exceptions being perhaps Zheng He’s voyages, and the activities in Sri Lanka, the islands, and the Malay world of the Colas. The real danger was from pirates and corsairs, the former to be seen as acting autonomously of any political entity, the latter connected, at least loosely, as Polo wrote, with a local ruler. Pirates were the most prevalent. Yet we need to keep in mind that some piracy is in the eye of the beholder; the so-called pirates could see themselves very differently.

Ibn Battuta had more than one skirmish with these predators, who were quite prepared to attack even very large ships. He set off from the Gulf of Cambay on an official mission from Muhammad bin Tughluq to the emperor of China. The mission had several ships, and one of them must have been a good size, as it carried seventy horses. Battuta’s own ship had fifty rowers and fifty Abyssinian men at arms: ‘These latter are the guarantors of safety on this sea; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will be avoided by the Indian pirates and idolators.’ Chinese accounts of the straits of Melaka, then and now a haven for pirates, complained that the locals ‘are very daring pirates. If they meet upon a foreign ship, they get into small boats, a hundred in number, and approach the enemy for several days. With a fair wind he may be lucky and escape. Otherwise he will be intercepted by them, and his goods will be plundered. Travellers who float around on the sea should guard against these robbers.’

Some pirates seem to have set up almost state-like structures. Ibn Majid south of Calicut found that the pirates there, operating out of the Kerala backwaters, were ‘ruled by their own rulers and number about 1000 men and are a people of both land and sea with small boats’. So also in the Gulf near Hurmuz in the twelfth century. The island of Kish was more or less a pirate state, or so the hostile accounts available say. These men raided up and down the Indian west coast, and across to East Africa. In 1135 they became very daring. They wrote to the ruler of Aden demanding a part of the city as protection against being raided. This was refused, so the pirate Amir sent fifteen ships, which entered Aden harbour and waited. They had no intention of landing: rather they wanted to capture merchant ships on their way back to India. Finally, two ships belonging to Abul Qasim Ramisht of Siraf, in the Gulf, appeared, but helped by troops from Aden they were able to beat off the pirates.

The Portuguese were the first European mariners to enter the Persian Gulf in force in the modern period. They dominated the Gulf from the early 16th century until the arrival of the British and Dutch in the early 17th century. With help from the East India Company, Shah Abbas of Persia drove the Portuguese out of their stronghold on Kharg Island in 1622. From that point onward, British commercial interests grew in importance even as Portuguese fortunes declined. But the Persian Gulf remained a strategic afterthought to British policymakers for almost 200 more years.

During the late 18th century, particularly after the death of the Shah Karim Khan in 1779, Persia lost control of the Gulf. The result was increased competition and conflict among the various coastal tribes of the Persian Gulf. That conflict devolved into raiding and, in British eyes, piracy. Arab corsairs based on the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula ranged far out into the Indian Ocean, threatening British shipping there as well as in the Persian Gulf.

The increase in piracy negatively impacted British trade in the region. Since the East India Company’s trade in the Persian Gulf was relatively limited, it made no effort to suppress piracy in the Gulf. But independent British merchants, known as “country traders,” were affected. These country traders developed fairly substantial and lucrative trade relationships in the Gulf. They exchanged British manufactured goods for pearls, Persian silks, and specie that were used in the China trade. Even though the Arabs normally left the well-armed East India Company vessels alone, they sometimes attacked the smaller, more vulnerable country traders. British merchants, of course, condemned such transgressions and pressed both the British Government and East India Company to take action.

The strategic outlook also changed at the beginning of the 19th century. Because the Persian Gulf was one of the primary mail links between the United Kingdom and India, the pirates impinged on official Britain when they attacked British mail ships. Even more important, the French expedition to Egypt (1798-1801) and France’s short-lived alliance with the Shah of Persia (1807-1809) raised the threat of French invasion through India’s northwest territories. British policymakers began to view the Persian Gulf as a buffer zone, protecting India’s western flank.

The death of the Sultan of Oman in November 1804 led to further aggression against British merchant shipping in the Gulf. At the time of the Sultan’s death, the British were actively pursuing an alliance with Oman. East India Company leaders realized that Oman, because of its location at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, was perfectly situated to restrict French and Dutch access to the Gulf. But Britain’s relationship with Oman put it at odds with one of the tribes most involved in piracy. The al-Qawasim were nominal vassals of the Sultan of Oman, but when he died, they reneged on their allegiance and broke away from Oman. Britain became a de facto enemy of the al-Qawasim. But that circumstance had distinct advantages since suppression of piracy in the Gulf not only would appease merchant and shipping interests in Britain but also would enhance Great Britain’s strategic relationship with Oman.

All three conditions that facilitate piracy are readily apparent when considering the Persian Gulf. The al-Qawasim were ideally situated geographically to perpetrate acts of piracy. The tribe’s territory included some 25 coastal towns on the western side of the Arabian Peninsula from the tip south to Dubai. Its main port was Ras al-Khaymah, which is located some 50 miles from the northern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. At that point, the Strait of Hormuz is only about 30 miles wide. Thus, the al-Qawasim could easily control traffic entering or leaving the Persian Gulf. The decline of Persian control of the Gulf and the death of the Sultan of Oman led to political turmoil, which facilitated piracy in the Gulf. Furthermore, since the United Kingdom was fully involved in the Napoleonic Wars, the British lacked the resources to aggressively respond to piracy in the Persian Gulf. Since the al-Qawasim depended on the sea for their existence, whether by trading, harvesting pearls, or raiding, there was considerable land-based support for their piratical activities within their territory as well.

The attacks began in the last quarter of the 18th century. In December 1778, six al-Qawasim vessels attacked a British ship carrying official dispatches. After a running battle that lasted 3 days, the British ship succumbed and was taken to Ras al-Khaymah as a prize. Encouraged by their success, the al-Qawasim assaulted two more British vessels the next year. The most significant incident occurred in October 1797 when the al-Qawasim stormed the East India Company cruiser Viper while in port in Bushehr. Although the company ship drove off the attackers, Viper suffered 32 casualties out of a crew of 65.

After they broke away from Oman, the al-Qawasim began levying tolls on all shipping entering or leaving the Gulf. When the British refused to pay the toll, the al-Qawasim retaliated by raiding British shipping. They captured two British ships in 1804 and attacked a 24-gun East India Company cruiser in January 1805. There was a short respite after the Omanis, led by the British Resident in Muscat, blockaded the main al- Qawasim fleet in Ras al-Khaymah and forced them to submit.

The truce did not, however, last long. In the meantime, the al- Qawasim continued to consolidate their power. By 1808, the al-Qawasim fleet numbered some 63 large vessels, 810 small dhows, and 18,000 to 25,000 fighters. In April 1808, two al-Qawasim dhows attacked another East India Company ship, the Fury (6 guns). Once the summer pearling season ended, the al-Qawasim resumed the war against the United Kingdom. The violence quickly escalated. When they captured the East India Company schooner Sylph (8 guns) in October 1808, the pirates killed 22 crew members. Only the captain survived. Wounded when the Arabs took the ship, the captain hid in a storeroom below deck and was rescued when the HMS La Nereide (38 guns) recaptured the Sylph as the raiders sailed her back to Ras al-Khaymah. The next month, some 40 al-Qawasim dhows entered the Indian Ocean and wreaked havoc on British and Indian shipping. Within a short time, they captured 20 merchant vessels and shut down commerce along the western coast of India.

This proved too much for the East India Company to accept so, in September 1809, a combined land and naval force was dispatched to the Persian Gulf to deal with the pirates. The force included 2 Royal Navy frigates, 8 East India Company cruisers, 1 East India Company bomb ketch, and 1,300 soldiers, half of whom were Europeans. Its primary objective was Ras al-Khaymah, which was assaulted and captured on 13 November 1809. Company soldiers sacked the town and burned 60 dhows trapped in the harbor. Later, the British force attacked two al-Qawasim strongholds in Persia: Linga and Luft.

British operations against the al-Qawasim pirates demonstrate the difficulty of trying to eliminate piracy using primarily naval forces. Although the British inflicted a substantial amount of damage on the al- Qawasim, the impact of the 1809 expedition was limited. Once the British returned to India, the al-Qawasim quickly recuperated. By the fall of 1813, al-Qawasim dhows once again hunted for prey off the coast of India. Further pirate cruises were conducted in the spring and fall of 1814. The al-Qawasim acted even more aggressively in the Persian Gulf, attacking two American, one French, and three Indian ships. In 1816, the British sent another expedition to punish the pirates, but it was even less effective because the naval force limited its actions to merely bombarding Ras al- Khaymah. During the 1817-1818 trading season, the situation was so bad that convoys were used to mitigate the risk of attack.

The forgotten history of piracy in the Indian Ocean

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