Seema Alavi's book looks at how Oman navigated the colonial stranglehold : The Tribune India

Seema Alavi's book looks at how Oman navigated the colonial stranglehold

Seema Alavi's book looks at how Oman navigated the colonial stranglehold

Sovereigns of the Sea: Omani Ambition in the Age of Empire by Seema Alavi.Penguin Random House.Pages 424.Rs 999

Book Title: Sovereigns of the Sea: Omani Ambition in the Age of Empire

Author: Seema Alavi

Vivek Katju

Seema Alavi’s ‘Sovereigns of the Sea: Omani Ambition in the Age of Empire’ is a major and fascinating, though niche, work of historical scholarship. It explores the Omani sultans’ attempts to safeguard their autonomy and interests in the western Indian Ocean through the major part of the 19th century. The period witnessed fundamental changes in the region brought about largely by the European powers as they entrenched colonialism. In Oman, the British gradually tightened their grip on its rulers.

Alavi’s comprehensive and insightful introduction sets the stage. She argues that “…polities, such as Oman, are projected as pliable allies of the British in controlling maritime violence. Very rarely are they studied in their own right”. This is because historiography “reflects its unabashed Eurocentrism…” Thus, “imperialism sans the Arab-Islamic tint becomes the received wisdom”. It is important that history acknowledges how regional political actors sought to navigate a path to preserve such autonomy as they could through the pressures they were subjected to, which included exile in India. The Omani sultans were not unique but Alavi brings their story alive in all its drama, diplomacy, war and even patricide.

Her impressive work focuses on five Omani sultans. It begins with Sayyid Sa’id, who for half a century (1806-56) ruled Oman and its integral part, the Zanzibar Island, off the coast of what is now Tanzania. It thereafter moves to his four sons, the last of whom ruled till 1889. While Sayyid Sa’id governed a united maritime sultanate and indeed shifted his capital to Zanzibar in 1832, his sons with the intervention of the British partitioned the sultanate in 1861: Zanzibar and Oman became separate entities, with Majid followed by Barghash ruling the former, and Thuwayni and Turki the latter. The separation was strife-ridden but family and economic links remained strong.

Sayyid Sa’id emerges as a visionary ruler who established a power and commercial network stretching from his base in the leased Persian port of Bandar Abbas to the Omani coast, and the country’s interior areas to the maritime arc across to Zanzibar. The prosperity of his ‘state’ depended on agricultural produce, to trade in commodities and to that in slaves from Africa. Indeed, Alavi devotes a considerable portion of her work on the approaches of the Omani sultans towards slavery and the hypocrisy of the European powers, including the British, who allowed their people to profit from it. They did so even while imposing restrictions on the transportation of slaves on the high seas and urging the sultans to end slavery.

Even after 1873, when Zanzibar and the British entered into an agreement to end slavery, it continued on the island with the British looking the other way. Barghash undertook a trip to Britain in 1875 where he was accorded a great welcome and entertained among others by royalty. He sought to explain that slavery among the Arabs was bereft of the ills seen among other peoples. That it intrinsically robbed a human being of his very humanity escaped even a well- read and knowledgeable person as Barghash. Truth be told, economic and commercial interests triumphed over humanity then as they do now.

Both Oman and Zanzibar were cosmopolitan, with traders from Europe and India doing profitable business. Indian trading communities included both Hindus and Muslims and it would seem from the state commercial concessions awarded that there was no discrimination against the Hindus. Thus, the advent of Indian traders into the Persian Gulf and in Africa predates the establishment of European colonialism. Incidentally, the capital of Indian businessmen was also deployed for slave trade.

Another fascinating aspect thrown up by Alavi’s work is the commitment of some Arab tribes to Wahhabi doctrines and the influence of these tribes in the politics of Oman. The Omani sultans were themselves followers of Ibadi Islam but were not averse to seeking the assistance of the Wahhabis, who were doctrinally so different from them. The suspicions about the Wahhabis exhibited by the British in the 19th century because of their extremist version of Islam may have had to be compromised in the 20th century with the formation of Saudi Arabia, but the baleful impact of Wahhabi doctrines on Islam has not abated.

Alavi has gone into granular detail on the governance structures of the sultans and the political challenges they faced. This is fine, but it would have been helpful to the general readers if she had provided insights into the differences of relevant Islamic doctrines and had contextualised the Omani story with what was happening among the European powers both in the Persian Gulf and in Africa. That would have assisted the non-specialist reader to gain a better understanding of the German acquisition of East African territories, which adversely affected Zanzibar and led to the British declaring it a Protectorate in 1890 while they took the same decision on Oman in 1891.