A great spur of mountain juts into the waters of the southern Arabian/Persian Gulf behind Ras al-Khaimah ("Headland of the Tent"), a tiny coastal oasis with a shallow inlet where the pirates often sheltered their fleets. In early January, 1820, a handful of men, British officers and Arab tribal chiefs, gathered solemnly on the beach below the brooding headland and, one by one, affixed their signatures to a piece of paper which would change the history of the desolate crescent of sand and water sweeping from Qatar to the tip of the Oman peninsula. Previously, this hostile, sunbaked shore had been known to Englishmen as the Pirate Coast, so called for the privateers, smugglers and soldiers of fortune who for generations had darted out of hidden coves to menace Arab, Persian, Portuguese and British merchantmen as they passed through the narrow Straits of Hormuz, astride the busy shipping lane between Mesopotamia and India.
Today mammoth tankers ply these straits and nearby, on the booming Arab coast, the seven tiny shaikhdoms which gained independence from Britain in 1971 and federated as the United Arab Emirates prosper from oil, trade and construction. But it was not always thus. In the early 19th century this was a bleak and unpromising shore where the poor inhabitants scratched out a living from a little pearl diving or fishing, and, inland, grazing for their sheep and camels. For many, coastal piracy and desert raiding had been the key to survival.
Then, in January 1820, a British-imposed peace came to the southern Gulf and with the strokes of six pens the "pirate" coast became the "trucial" coast.
England had first become interested in the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf when she saw the need to establish trade routes and safe lines of communication with her empire in the East after Queen Elizabeth, in 1559, granted a charter to English merchants, "for their own adventurous costs and charges" to traffic merchandise in the East Indies. British navigation and trade were continually harassed by the local pirate chiefs, and several attempts were made to subdue them. All had ended in failure.
In late 1819, the time seemed ripe to eliminate the pirate threat once and for all. A powerful naval expedition was organized out of Bombay under the command of Major General William Grant Keir. It was the strongest force ever sent to the Gulf, with 3,000 fighting men in three British naval ships. At the same time, another force moved overland from Muscat in a pincers movement designed to prevent the pirates from making a strategic withdrawal into the desert. After bitter fighting, the pirate stronghold at Ras al-Khaimah fell early in the new year. The remaining seacoast towns surrendered like a row of falling dominoes.
Captain J. Perronet Thompson of the 17th Light Dragoons, who was General Keir's interpreter and aide, drafted the resulting treaty in Arabic, as well as "a true translation" in English. Keir and Thompson signed for the British. On the pirate side Shaikhs Hassan ben Rahman and Karib ben Ahmad were the principal signatories.
Captain Thompson had brought his wife and four-year-old son with him aboard one of the ships. After the battles were over and the treaty signed, the young officer and his family lived for a while ashore. There, in a tent on the lonely, now pacified beach, Mrs. Thompson, inspired, perhaps by restlessness, more likely by a sense of the importance of her husband's role during a significant moment of imperial history, wrote out in her own hand the copy of the treaty reproduced on these pages. Captain Thompson certified it to be "a true copy of the original."
"In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate!" it begins.
Praise be to God, who hath ordained peace to be a blessing to his creatures. There is established a lasting peace between the British Government and the Arab tribes, who are parties to this contract. On the following conditions:
ART. 1: There shall be a cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea on the part of the Arabs, who are parties to this contract, forever.
There follow 10 further articles spelling out future diplomatic and trade relations in some detail. One article describes a special flag (white with a red square in the center) to be flown at all times by all friendly Arab vessels as a clearly visible sign of their peaceful intentions. Thompson, a dedicated Abolitionist, also inserted a clause including the "carrying off" or transport of slaves in the definition of now-forbidden "plunder and piracy."
There were minor violations of the treaty from time to time over the years but in any case, by the end of the century, in 1892, imperial Britain was in the mood to go much further, imposing a new treaty which, although it left the seven Trucial Shaikhdoms with some internal autonomy, effectively took over all responsibility for their foreign relations. Today, with independence and prosperity (the U.A.E. was admitted to the United Nations last year and two of the shaikhdoms, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have substantial oil revenues), Mrs. Thompson's hand-copied version of the original 1820 treaty remains a quaint historic memento of the long-ago January day when a handful of British officers and pirate-chiefs gathered on the beach at Ras al-Khaimah.
John Brinton, whose hobby is collecting old books, writes on forgotten or little-known footnotes to Middle East history.