Category Archives: religion

Aurangzeb’s Mughal Legacy, 1707

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 62-63, 82-83:

It was the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 that changed everything for the Company.

The Emperor, unloved by his father, grew up into a bitter and bigoted Islamic puritan, as intolerant as he was grimly dogmatic. He was a ruthlessly talented general and a brilliantly calculating strategist, but entirely lacked the winning charm of his predecessors. His rule became increasingly harsh, repressive and unpopular as he grew older. He made a clean break with the liberal and inclusive policies towards the Hindu majority of his subjects pioneered by his great-grandfather Akbar, and instead allowed the ulama to impose far stricter interpretations of Sharia law. Wine was banned, as was hashish, and the Emperor ended his personal patronage of musicians. He also ended Hindu customs adopted by the Mughals such as appearing daily to his subjects at the jharoka palace window in the centre of the royal apartments in the Red Fort. Around a dozen Hindu temples across the country were destroyed, and in 1672 he issued an order recalling all endowed land given to Hindus and reserved all future land grants for Muslims. In 1679 the Emperor reimposed the jizya tax on all non-Muslims that had been abolished by Akbar; he also executed Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the gurus of the Sikhs.

While it is true that Aurangzeb is a more complex and pragmatic figure than some of his critics allow, the religious wounds Aurangzeb opened in India have never entirely healed, and at the time they tore the country in two. Unable to trust anyone, Aurangzeb marched to and fro across the Empire, viciously putting down successive rebellions by his subjects. The Empire had been built on a pragmatic tolerance and an alliance with the Hindus, especially with the warrior Rajputs, who formed the core of the Mughal war machine. The pressure put on that alliance and the Emperor’s retreat into bigotry helped to shatter the Mughal state and, on Aurangzeb’s death, it finally lost them the backbone of their army.

But it was Aurangzeb’s reckless expansion of the Empire into the Deccan, largely fought against the Shia Muslim states of Bijapur and Golconda, that did most to exhaust and overstretch the resources of the Empire. It also unleashed against the Mughals a new enemy that was as formidable as it was unexpected. Maratha peasants and landholders had once served in the armies of the Bijapur and Golconda. In the 1680s, after the Mughals conquered these two states, Maratha guerrilla raiders under the leadership of Shivaji Bhonsle, a charismatic Maratha Hindu warlord, began launching attacks against the Mughal armies occupying the Deccan. As one disapproving Mughal chronicler noted, ‘most of the men in the Maratha army are unendowed with illustrious birth, and husbandmen, carpenters and shopkeepers abound among their soldiery’. They were largely armed peasants; but they knew the country and they knew how to fight.

From the sparse uplands of the western Deccan, Shivaji led a prolonged and increasingly widespread peasant rebellion against the Mughals and their tax collectors. The Maratha light cavalry, armed with spears, were remarkable for their extreme mobility and the ability to make sorties far behind Mughal lines. They could cover fifty miles in a day because the cavalrymen carried neither baggage nor provisions and instead lived off the country: Shivaji’s maxim was ‘no plunder, no pay’.

But what appeared to be the end of an era in Delhi looked quite different in other parts of India, as a century of imperial centralisation gave way to a revival of regional identities and regional governance. Decline and disruption in the heartlands of Hindustan after 1707 was matched by growth and relative prosperity in the Mughal peripheries. Pune and the Maratha hills, flush with loot and overflowing tax revenues, entered their golden age. The Rohilla Afghans, the Sikhs of the Punjab and the Jats of Deeg and Bharatpur all began to carve independent states out of the cadaver of the Mughal Empire, and to assume the mantle of kingship and governance.

For Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and the other Rajput courts, this was also an age of empowerment and resurgence as they resumed their independence and, free from the tax burdens inherent in bowing to Mughal overlordship, began using their spare revenues to add opulent new palaces to their magnificent forts. In Avadh, the baroque palaces of Faizabad rose to rival those built by the Nizam in Hyderabad to the south. All these cities emerged as centres of literary, artistic and cultural patronage, so blossoming into places of remarkable cultural efflorescence.

Meanwhile, Benares emerged as a major centre of finance and commerce as well as a unique centre of religion, education and pilgrimage. In Bengal, Nadia was the centre of Sanskrit learning and a sophisticated centre for regional architectural and Hindustani musical excellence.

To the south, in Tanjore, a little later, Carnatic music would begin to receive enlightened patronage from the Maratha court that had seized control of that ancient centre of Tamil culture. At the other end of the subcontinent, the Punjab hill states of the Himalayan foothills entered a period of astonishing creativity as small remote mountain kingdoms suddenly blossomed with artists, many of whom had been trained with metropolitan skills in the now-diminished Mughal ateliers, each family of painters competing with and inspiring each other in a manner comparable to the rival city states of Renaissance Italy.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, democracy, economics, military, nationalism, piracy, religion, South Asia, war

Cemeteries of Przemyśl

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 241-242:

Przemyśl buries its dead to the south. Today, if one walks from the city’s clock tower down what used to be called Dobromil Street, whose end destination now lies cut off across the Ukrainian border, the municipal cemetery soon comes into view. Turn right up a twisting, undulating road which in 1914 led past some of the Fortress’s main powder magazines, and very soon you reach the military burial ground. For all its tranquility, this is a sad place. A pretty, lightly wooded field lies at the top of the sloping grounds. Only a monument, flanked by two imposing Byzantine crosses, warns visitors that below their feet is the mass grave of some 9,000 Russian soldiers. The Austro-Hungarian cemetery across the road appears more organized, with row on row of dark stone crosses. Yet no plaque records how many men lie here—as if that were still a military secret—and the crosses have no inscriptions; these peasant soldiers are in death, as in life, anonymous. The empires for which they fell would within just a few years both lie in ruins. Yet the violence unleashed by their war would live on. Silent witnesses to future, even greater horrors lie nearby: in a Polish military cemetery for soldiers killed fighting German invaders in 1939 and Ukrainians in the 1940s, and, just to the east, in the city’s eerily beautiful Jewish burial grounds.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Hungary, military, Poland, religion, Russia, Ukraine, war

Europe’s Most Anti-Semitic Great Power, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 134-136:

Like flame following a gunpowder trail, violence blazed toward Przemyśl. Cossack cavalry were especially dangerous and fiercely anti-Semitic. They had a long history of murderous conduct—or, as they glorified it, of righteous slaughter of infidels. In Russia, they were the Tsar’s enforcers, and they had been instrumental a decade earlier in harshly suppressing revolution. In Galicia, they lived up to their reputation as wild and merciless. Everywhere, Jews were mugged and shops looted. In some places, worse crimes were perpetrated. Men were beaten or murdered, women raped. Christians were also sometimes attacked, but from the start it was clear that their Jewish neighbors were the invaders’ main targets. That the violence might pass them by, many displayed icons of Mary the Mother of God, Jesus, or Saint Nicholas in their windows or on the roofs of their dwellings. Jews, trying to save their property, copied that example. Many fled. By some estimates, nearly half of Galicia’s Jewish population, up to 400,000 people, ran for the Austrian interior. Witnesses described an “interminable file of refugees… poor wretches who had left everything behind them except a few belongings on their backs.” These frightened, fatigued, fleeing Jews “presented a picture of truly piteous misery.”

The worst atrocity befell Lwów. There, on September 27, after nearly a month of tense but peaceful occupation, a pogrom flared. News of this pogrom reached Przemyśl in January 1915 through a spy who had been sent out to reconnoiter the zone of occupation. In his account, it was a ploy “in real Russian style” by Tsarist troops to circumvent a ban on plundering. A soldier had fired off a shot from a house on a street in the Jewish quarter, and a cry had then immediately gone up that the Jews were attacking the military. The soldiers were ordered to punish the Jews and given permission to plunder their shops. In its outline, the spy’s account was correct. Who fired the shot which sparked the pogrom was never firmly established. The occupation authorities insisted, of course, that it was a Jew. Not in contention, however, was the brutality of the Russian reaction. Cossacks stormed through the streets beating and shooting helpless Jewish civilians. They butchered 47 Jews and arrested 300 Jewish bystanders.

Neither Grand Duke Nikolai nor his subordinate commanders organized or officially sanctioned this ill-disciplined violence. However, the atmosphere of anti-Semitic hatred at Stavka, the Russian High Command, and the toleration of atrocities against Jews at all levels of the army’s command structure made it possible. The Russian Empire was Europe’s most anti-Semitic Great Power. Religious, economic, and, by the First World War, especially political prejudice, increasingly influenced by the modern ideology of race, stamped the Russian ruling elite’s and military’s hostility toward Jews.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, migration, military, nationalism, Poland, religion, Russia, Ukraine, war

Civilian Internments in Przemyśl, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle p. 71:

KUSMANEK’S FIRST TWO tasks at the war’s start were to protect the Fortress from surprise attack and to prepare it for siege. The third, however, was inward-looking: to maintain internal order. Kusmanek possessed formidable powers to fulfill this objective. Galicia fell within the extensive “Area of the Army in the Field” declared on July 31, 1914, in which military commanders were placed above the civilian administration. On August 2, repressive martial law was imposed throughout this area. Unrest or rebellion, high treason, espionage, lèse majesté, and a host of other offenses detrimental to smooth mobilization were henceforth to be tried in military courts. Through the Fortress Command court, over which Kusmanek presided, passed a stream of civilian cases from the surrounding region.

The Fortress Command, like other military and civilian authorities in Galicia, acted preemptively to smash all possible resistance. Lists of potential traitors had been drawn up by district officials in peacetime, and across the province, over 4,000 people were arrested in the first days of war. The Russophile intelligentsia was the primary target, but through paranoia, denunciations, and the cynical exploitation of the emergency by some Polish officials to rid themselves of troublesome local opponents, many Ukrainian nationalists, for whom rule by the Tsar would be a catastrophe, were also taken into a Kafkaesque “preventive detention.” The Greek Catholic Church, to which most Ruthenes adhered, suffered particularly grievously. The similarity of its eastern rites to those of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the fact that a small minority of its priests were Russophile, all fueled suspicion. Its churches around Przemyśl had been built with Russian funds, went one rumor, as landmarks to help orientate an invading army. In the Przemyśl diocese, where 873 clergy had their ministries, more than a third of the priests, 314 altogether, were interned.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Hungary, language, military, nationalism, Poland, religion, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine

Multiethnic Przemyśl in 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 11-13:

The Przemyśl municipal authorities were keen to emphasize the Polish credentials of their city. This too was a mark of modernity, for nationalism was the new, exciting, and inspirational ideology of the late nineteenth century, promising the renewal of real and imagined past glories and a better, more efficient future. The reforms of the 1860s had placed Galicia in the hands of Polish conservatives and granted considerable powers of self-government to Austria’s municipalities. As in other Galician cities, Polish Democrats—more liberal and elite than their name might today imply—ran Przemyśl in the decades before 1914. Under mayors Aleksander Dworski (1882–1901) and Franciszek Doliński (1901–1914), the expanding city not only improved its infrastructure—building wells and drains, a municipal slaughterhouse, a hospital, and an electrical power station—but also asserted the Polishness of its public spaces. The most impressive new or rebuilt main streets were named after the most revered Polish poets, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński, or landmark events in Poland’s history, such as the May 3, 1791, constitution, or the medieval victory of Grunwald over the Teutonic Knights. Statues of Mickiewicz and the Polish warrior-king Jan Sobiecki III, funded by popular subscription, were raised by the old Market Square.

Przemyśl’s other ethnic groups were also caught by the new spirit of the late nineteenth century. The Greek Catholic minority generally had little opportunity to make much mark on the city in brick or stone beyond its historic churches. There was, however, one important exception: schools. Language issues, and the right to teach children in one’s mother tongue, were becoming central to identity and to political disputes across the Habsburg Empire, and Ukrainian-speakers—or Ruthenes, as they were known in this period—were no exceptions. In the late nineteenth century, elite boys’ and girls’ secondary schools teaching in Ukrainian were founded, augmenting existing primary provision and attracting pupils from far beyond the city limits. Ruthenes were deeply divided in their identity, and the fractures were reflected in their associations and in the press. “Ukrainian” at this time denoted a political stance: a conviction that Ukrainian-speakers were a distinct nation. The majority of the small clerical and intellectual elite adhered to this view. A lesser group, the so-called Russophiles, disagreed, regarding themselves culturally, and sometimes also politically, as a branch of the Russian nation. Though difficult to enumerate, a fairly large section of lower-class Ruthenes was mostly indifferent to the novel idea of the nation, and persisted in prioritizing the Greek Catholic faith as the foundation of their identity.

Przemyśl’s Jewish community displayed some similar divisions. Orthodox Jewry had long predominated, and though this was still true in the early twentieth century, the modern era had brought schism and change. There were four synagogues in Przemyśl by 1914. The oldest, situated in the Jewish quarter, and eight other smaller prayer houses were frequented by the traditionalist, Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews who so fascinated Ilka Künigl-Ehrenburg. They were instantly recognizable, especially the men, with their curly sidelocks, beards, black hats, and black kaftans. To attend synagogue with them was a profoundly spiritual experience. Künigl-Ehrenburg ducked under the low doorway of the Old Synagogue one Sabbath and climbed up to the women’s gallery to watch. The faithful filled every inch of space. Some sat, others stood, all pressed tightly together. From above, a stream of light pierced the darkness and shone onto the silver-edged Torah scroll displayed by the altar. Wrapped in their gray-and-white striped prayer shawls, the believers rocked back and forth murmuring their sacred devotions. To the Styrian countess, it was strange—“oriental”—but very moving. “Everything was full of atmosphere, harmonious,” she wrote.

Times were shifting, however. Beginning in 1901, the kehilah, Przemyśl’s Jewish communal council, dropped Yiddish and instead conducted its meetings in Polish. The city’s three other synagogues had all been built since the 1880s and catered to wealthy, educated Jews. Jews—some of them—had particularly prospered from Przemyśl’s rapid expansion, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by their Christian neighbors. The town’s credit institutions were nearly all in Jewish hands. The majority of new manufacturing concerns and almost all trading and services were as well. The most intense civic development in the final thirty years of peace had taken place to the east of the old town and in the suburb of Zasanie, north of the San River. In these districts, the housing stock had more than doubled, and it was to there that well-off Jews had moved. They had bought up property on the smartest strips; it was a mild irony that on Mickiewicz Street, named for Poland’s national poet, no fewer than 74 of the 139 buildings were Jewish-owned. The synagogues serving these communities, like the people who attended them, took inspiration from modern liberalism and nationalism. The “Tempel” in the old city was home to Jewish progressives keen to integrate into Polish culture. Faced with red brick, like synagogues in the west of the empire, it celebrated Polish holidays and had sermons and prayers in the Polish language. The Zasanie synagogue was popular with Zionist youth.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Czechia, democracy, Germany, Hungary, language, nationalism, Poland, religion, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine

They Shot Horses, Didn’t They?

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 200-202:

One of the more unpleasant jobs I had to undertake at Ubon was to condemn and destroy the Japanese army horses. They had already marched over 1,500 miles from China and were in a terrible condition, both from starvation and ill-treatment. I had Tom Phillips to help me, who had been a racehorse trainer in Norfolk before the war, and out of 1,200 horses we inspected, we condemned 700 to be shot; they were dying at the rate of about ten a day from starvation and had only their droppings to eat. Some of the saddle sores were so big and deep that I could put my fist in them; I had never in my life seen such ill-treated horses.

Tom Phillips and I shot a great many, and I was often sick afterwards. The first day a deputation of Thais formed up and asked me not to kill the horses because it was against their Buddhist principles. I replied that it was a duty I very much regretted. I noticed plenty of Thais around afterwards removing their horses’ tails, before they were buried in huge pits dug by Japanese working parties.

Word reached me after the first day that the Japanese were saying that I had shot the horses for motives of revenge, because we had won the war. I therefore had them all paraded and through Sergeant Thomas told them that I was not shooting the horses because we had won the war, but to put them out of their misery after the ill-treatment to which they had been subjected.

I did not understand the Japanese mentality, for when leading their horses up to be shot, many of the men were in tears, and after they were shot they would take off their caps and bow at the graves, and even put flowers on them. A signal came from Bangkok suggesting that I was killing these animals unnecessarily, and that a veterinary officer would be coming to Ubon to inspect those that remained. A few days later a very fine-looking Indian colonel arrived and the Japanese paraded the remaining 500 that we had not shot for his inspection. He promptly condemned a further 400 to death.

Tom Phillips had left when I still had to shoot these 400 horses, and so I gave some of the Japanese vets back their pistols and told them to help me. After I discovered that they were taking up to three shots per horse, and found that some of the horses were being buried still alive, I stopped them and had to deal with the rest myself. Out of the 700 horses that I shot personally with an American .30 carbine with a folding butt which I used like a pistol, I had to give only one horse a second bullet. This was a horse that I shot in the correct place — at the centre of the X drawn from the ears to the eyes — but it trotted off apparently uninjured. When it was caught and brought back again, it was found to have a neat bullet hole in exactly the right place. It did not appear to be either frightened or in pain, or upset in any way. I fired the next shot downwards into its skull from above its ears and it dropped dead — I can only think it had a freak skull. I was very thankful when this distressing job was over.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Buddhism, disease, Japan, military, Thailand, war

Early Jesuits Adapt to Japan, 1580s

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 60-62:

Now that he was here to see it for himself, the actual state of the mission in Japan, unsurprisingly, had not met Valignano’s expectations.

In particular, there was significant discord between Japanese converts (especially the most senior ones not used to being gainsaid in their own domains), and the non-Japanese missionaries (who often behaved as if they knew everything). To meet the grievances of the Japanese community, Valignano quickly held consultations to identify ways in which the earlier mission had been mismanaged. These included overly strict discipline, racial discrimination in admittance to holy orders, an insistence on the superiority of European ways and a refusal to support the learning of the Japanese language by some senior Europeans—in particular the mission superior, Cabral.

Another problem Valignano faced was that most Europeans did not appear very civilized to the locals who saw them as, frankly, vulgar. By comparison, the Japanese were consistently well mannered. Valignano wrote, “even the children forbear to use inelegant expressions among themselves, nor do they fight or hit each other like European lads.” Upper-class Japanese people, particularly, considered Europeans dirty, ill-mannered and ignorant of proper comportment. The Japanese were also used to daily bathing, and the ability to eat without touching food with their hands—both customs Europeans of the time customarily scorned.

Having identified these impediments, Valignano issued decrees on how Jesuits should conduct themselves and adapt more to local norms. (Though, even the relatively broad-minded Valignano still balked at bathing regularly and forbade his charges, including the Japanese and African ones, from doing so.) By the time he left Japan for the first time in 1582, he’d already opened three more seminaries with the aim of training locally recruited brothers and priests. The mission relied upon its native Japanese followers to help celebrate masses, marriages and funerals in Japanese, and for diplomacy in many cases. Until Valignano’s arrival, Jesuit policy had forbidden Japanese men from becoming full members; they, instead, had to remain as semipermanent acolytes. One of the most important things Valignano would do during his tenure as Visitor was facilitate the first non-Europeans becoming full Jesuit members and ordained priests in Japan.

Then, to make Catholic priests’ status more recognizable to the Japanese, Valignano reorganized the mission structure to more closely resemble that of the social organization of the Nanzen-ji Temple in Kyoto. Japanese religion at this time had become a fusion of imported Buddhist beliefs and native animist beliefs, hence, Buddhist “saints” were worshipped in the same places as ancient animist gods called kami. Sometimes kami and Buddhist saints eventually mixed in together and became one entity. Buddhism itself, was divided, sometimes violently, by sect, some of which, like Zen, had their origins abroad, and others, like Nichiren, which started in Japan. Valignano copied their ranking system so locals would understand the social standing of the Jesuits and know which priests were more senior. Initially the priests had intentionally dressed poorly, marking their vows of poverty, but Valignano changed that, and they smartened up, or at least made sure their clothes were clean. This made the Japanese more open to the new religion, because it looked more like traditional ones, respectable, blurring the lines somewhat and gaining the Catholics more respect.

Valignano also directed the missionaries and other Jesuit workers to systematically learn as much Japanese as possible. Only then, when they could speak directly to the locals in their own tongue, could they truly reach out across Japan for the Church. Perhaps influencing his plans, Valignano was particularly taken with the Japanese language, calling it “the best, the most elegant, and the most copious tongue in the known world,” adding, “It is more abundant than Latin and expresses concepts better.”

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, education, Europe, language, nationalism, religion

An African Mercenary Arrives in Japan, 1579

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 19-20:

Yasuke was in his early twenties, no more than twenty-three.

He’d been a soldier for half his life, visited a dozen sultanates, kingdoms and empires. A young warrior who knew himself and more of the world than most ever do.

He was a very tall man, six-two or more—a giant for his time, comparable to meeting a seven-footer by today’s standards. He was also muscular by the standards of any day, thanks to relentless military drill and a childhood, and lineage, built on a diet of abundant meat and dairy.

Arriving in Japan, Yasuke’s eclectic attire revealed his familiarity with a much wider world. He was primarily dressed, quite smartly, in Portuguese clothing—baggy pantaloons to stop mosquito bites, a cotton shirt with a wide flat collar, a stylish doublet of dark velvet. But he carried a tall spear from India, its blade crafted into an unusual wavy shape with two “blood grooves” cut into the steel to make the blade lighter while still sturdy. He also carried a short curved Arab dagger at his side; both weapons shone like mirrors with constant attention from Yasuke’s whetstone. His dark head was wrapped in a stark white turban-like cloth to protect it from the sun.

This was not, clearly from his garb alone, Yasuke’s first arrival somewhere new, someplace utterly foreign. He was, rather, an experienced and well-traveled man in an ever-shrinking world.

He’d been on the move since he was a boy. From the swamps and plains of his birthplace on the banks of the Nile, to the mountains and deserts of northeast Africa, the fertile coasts of the Arabs, dusty Sind and the green of Gujarat. He’d likely fought alongside, and against, Hindus, Muslims, Africans, Turks, Persians and Europeans, and escaped death as a teenage soldier countless times before being employed by Valignano in Goa. The abducted child soldier was now simply the soldier. Well trained in weapons, strategy and security. Even, thanks to time spent beside leaders from several cultures, conversant in diplomacy. His experience and skills were of a caliber sought across the whole world, highly in demand among the rich and powerful.

This unexplored Japão (as the Portuguese called it) was merely the next place he was to be for some time as he put those same skills to work and did the job of protecting an employer and staying alive. The tide, he understood, must be taken when it comes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ethiopia, Japan, migration, military, Portugal, religion, Sudan

British Ties with Oman

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 11-12:

The British connection with Muscat dates from the early days of the East India Company in the seventeenth century, though the first treaty between Britain and the Sultan was not signed until 1798. An agreement followed two years later for agents of the East India Company to reside at Muscat, but the appalling climate killed off so many of them that it lapsed. Throughout the nineteenth century the British and the Sultan, who was then the most important ruler in the Gulf, collaborated closely in suppressing piracy, and the slave trade ceased in the Sultanate under a treaty of 1822. By a treaty of 1852 Britain (and France) recognized the independence of the Sultan, who still conducts his own foreign policy and maintains his own armed forces. Under subsequent agreements he may call on British help in time of trouble.

The trouble came soon after the old Imam’s death; the principal causes were Saudi ambition and, of course, oil. Ever since 1937 the Saudis had been trying to expand their territory beyond the edge of the Rub al Khali [the Empty Quarter], claiming frontiers with their neighbours — the States of the Aden Protectorate, the Sultanate, and the Trucial Sheikhdoms — which those neighbours refused to accept. After the Second World War the two superpowers, Russia and America, became increasingly involved in Arabia and the Gulf, the former pursuing an old imperial design, the latter attracted by fresh discoveries of oil: both with a common interest in reducing the influence of Britain. Encouraged by the new situation, the Saudis in 1952 suddenly occupied the strategic oasis of Buraimi, owned partly by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, a Trucial State, and partly by the Sultan of Muscat.

The Sultan gathered a force of between six and eight thousand tribesmen and, but for the ill-advised intervention of the British Government, would have expelled the intruders immediately, thus dealing a sharp blow to Saudi prestige and cementing the loyalty of the Omani tribes. When he failed to move, Saudi intrigue began to prosper.

The dispute went to international arbitration at Geneva, where the Saudi method, perfectly respectable in Arabia, of reinforcing their arguments with offers of large sums in gold to the members of the Tribunal caused such scandal that the President and the British delegate resigned in protest. At the end of 1955 the seemingly inexhaustible patience of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government ran out; in a sudden, bloodless coup the Trucial Oman Scouts descended on Buraimi, expelled the Saudi garrison, and established a garrison of their own and another of the Sultan’s in the Oasis. But the three year delay had been disastrous for the Sultan. The Saudis had made good use of the time to spread their influence in Oman, suborning the tribesmen with lavish gifts of money and arms. Moreover, a new Imam had arisen on the death of the Sultan’s old friend: one Ghalib bin Ali. A weak and colourless personality appointed by a cabal of three sheikhs but never formally elected, he was virtually a Saudi puppet; he possessed, however, a valuable ally in his brother, Talib, the Wali [Governor] of Rostaq, a brave, energetic and extremely ambitious leader with considerable military ability, who soon emerged as the driving force of the movement. Immediately after his election Ghalib, with his brother, toured his domain, setting up his own garrisons in his holy capital of Nizwa and in other strategically important towns and villages in the interior.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arabia, Britain, economics, energy, Islam, military, nationalism, piracy, slavery, U.N., U.S., USSR, war

Omani Rulers Foreign & Domestic

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 9-10:

Although Omani Dynasties have on occasion extended their territory as far afield as India and Zanzibar, Muscat itself has known a long succession of foreign overlords, from the Persians of Cyrus the Great to Albuquerque’s Portuguese — who behaved atrociously, lopping off limbs, ears and noses to punish or even to prevent resistance. These and other invaders — the hosts of the Prophet, the Caliphs of Baghdad, Turks and Tartars, Wahabis from beyond the Empty Quarter — have swarmed over the country. But although some of them ruled, for longer or shorter periods, over Muscat and the coastal belt, none of them established firm control behind the mountains, in Oman, where the tribes continued in their old way of life, intriguing and fighting among themselves in rancorous isolation from the outside world and deeply resentful of all intruders, Arab or nasrani [Christian].

They followed the Sharia law of Islam, rigorously interpreted according to the doctrines of the Ibadhi sect brought to Oman by the Kharejites [Seceders] — survivors from mutinous soldiers in the army of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law — and proclaimed at Nizwa at the end of the seventh century by Abdullah bin Ibadh. Ibadhis may not drink or even smoke, and must not trim their beards — though they sometimes trim their moustaches. Their puritan creed regards the Koran as the sole source of authority and teaches that it must be read literally, without interpretation; and, more important for the political history of Oman, their tradition requires that the choice of their Imam should be by election among the Faithful.

For nearly a thousand years, until the early seventeenth century, the Imams of Oman, who held both spiritual and temporal jurisdiction over their subjects, were elected on personal merit or popularity; any attempt by a reigning Imam to ensure the succession for his eldest son was fiercely resisted by the fanatical Ibadhi Qadhis — the judges who administered the law. But early on in the seventeenth century there arose a dynasty of Imams, the Al Yaarabah (or Yariba), who from their capital in the ancient fortress town of Rostaq established firm control over the interior of Oman. They not only expelled the Portuguese from Muscat, built up a powerful navy, and extended their influence throughout the Persian Gulf and even to East Africa, but such was their prestige that they were able to modify the elective principle and ensure that the succession to the Imamate continued in the direct line for nearly a hundred years. This last achievement was to have profound significance for the future.

After 1720 the al Yaarabah dynasty began to collapse in a series of disputes over the succession. There followed nearly twenty-five years of civil war, with two rival Imams fighting for supremacy, one supported by a confederation of tribes under the leadership of the Beni Ghafir — the Ghafiri faction — the other by a confederation under the Beni Hina — the Hinawis; these factions, whose rivalry has dominated most of the subsequent history of Oman, exist to this day and any Ruler, to be successful, must be able to control or hold the balance between them. The war ended with the victory of the Hinawi candidate, Ahmed bin Said, Governor of Sohar; this brave and energetic soldier expelled the Persians, who had taken advantage of the confusion to re-occupy Muscat, and founded the present ruling dynasty of Al bu Said.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arabia, Britain, Iran, Iraq, Islam, migration, piracy, Portugal, Somalia, war