Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

James Onley on Britain's Local Representatives in the Gulf

James Onley on Britain's Local Representatives in the Gulf

James Onley, the 2008–2009 CIRS Senior Fellow and Director of the Gulf Studies program at the University of Exeter, delivered the May Monthly Dialogue lecture entitled “Agents of Empire: Britain’s Local Representatives in the Gulf, 1750s–1950s” on May 4, 2009. Onley began by explaining that the lecture was part of a larger study he conducted towards a book he authored entitled The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj: Merchant, Rulers, and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf, published by Oxford University Press in 2007. The book was based on a year’s fieldwork in Bahrain, where he made extensive use of local merchant family records. His work also drew heavily on historical records housed in the British Library in London.

Although based on Bahrain, Onley’s book has implications for the Gulf region in general. The Gulf, he noted, was “a frontier of Britain’s Indian Empire up until 1947.” He explained how the Gulf shaikhdoms formed part of Britain’s Indian Empire, comprised of colonies (the provinces of British India) and protectorates and protected-states (the Gulf shaikhdoms, Princely India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, the Aden Protectorate, and the British Somaliland Protectorate). The protectorates and protected-states of the Indian Empire, such as the Gulf shaikhdoms, had their foreign affairs and defense managed by the East India Company and, later, the British Government of India, until Indian independence in 1947.

“British India,” Onley explained,  “controlled its protectorates and protected-states by grouping them into diplomatic districts known as ‘political residencies’, each presided over by a ‘political resident’. ‘Political resident’ was the title the East India Company and the Government of India used for its chief political representatives (ambassadors or consul-generals), whose job it was to manage Britain’s relations with these states.” Each residency had a network of subordinate political agencies, run by political agents, in the key protectorates or protected states within the residency. Onley noted how “the local British agent was the de facto Foreign Minister and Defense Minister of these protectorates and protected states, although they still had their own heads of state: maharajas, nizams, shaikhs, amirs, sultans, and so on.”

Onley’s study focuses on British India’s Political Residency in the Gulf (1822–1947) during the nineteenth century. He explained how virtually all historical accounts of the Gulf Residency explain British involvement in the nineteenth century Gulf in terms of the interactions between the handful of British political officers, the local rulers and governors, and the small number of gunboats in Britain’s Gulf Squadron. Such top-down, one-sided explanations still dominate much of the thinking about how imperialism worked on the ground. Onley’s book is the first historical account to examine the infrastructure of the Gulf Residency that enabled the Gulf Resident, with so few resources, to maintain the Pax Britannica on the waters of the Gulf; to protect British interests throughout the region; and to manage political relations with the dozens of rulers, chiefs, and governors in Arabia and Persia as well as he did.

“The secret to the Gulf Residency’s effectiveness,” Onley argued, “was the Resident’s strategy of working within the indigenous political systems of the Gulf. Arab rulers in need of protection collaborated with the Resident to maintain the Pax Britannica, while influential men from affluent Indian, Arab, and Persian merchant families served as the Resident’s “native agents” (compradors) in over half of the political posts within the Gulf Residency. The result was a collaborative power triangle between the Resident, his native agents, and the rulers that sustained Britain’s informal empire in the Gulf.”

Onley’s book tells the story of Britain’s native agents in the Gulf. These locally-recruited agents not only had an extensive knowledge of local cultures, languages, and politics, which anyone recruited from outside the Gulf could not possibly possess, but also could obtain (through their family, social, and business networks) the intelligence the British needed to operate their informal empire in the Gulf. As wealthy merchants, these agents also enjoyed considerable influence with local rulers and governors. The contacts and influence of the agents enabled the Gulf Resident to tap into local political systems to an extent that would have been otherwise impossible, while at the same time the British connection allowed the agents to increase their wealth and political influence.

Onley explained how, today, native agents are known as honorary consuls. For hundreds of years, they played an important role as local mediators in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, yet they are barely accounted for in the history of Western involvement in these regions. Native agents represented the East India Company at the courts of hundreds of foreign states in South Asia until the early nineteenth century, when the Company began to replace them with British political officers. However, native agents continued to represent the Company and, later, the Government of India along the distant frontiers of Britain’s Indian Empire (where life was too arduous for British political officers) as well as in some of the less important Indian states. In the Gulf, native agents were typically Indian up to the early nineteenth century and Arab or Persian thereafter; in India, they were generally Indian and occasionally Persian.

The Gulf Residency supervised up to a dozen political agencies and consulates in Arabia and Persia in the nineteenth century, the majority of which were run by native agents. While concerned with the Residency as a whole, Onley’s book focuses on one political agency in particular: Britain’s Native Agency in Bahrain (c.1816–1900)—a case study within a case study. He introduced the audience to the most important native agents who served in Bahrain, men like Agha Muhammad Rahim Safar (Native Agent in Bahrain 1893–1900), pictured here in the middle with his agency staff in 1898. He explained that, while there were often conflicts of interest between trade and politics, the British tolerated this so long as British interests were advanced, the ends justifying the means.

Onley concluded by explaining how, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the British Government of India replaced these local agents with Britons, not because local agents were ineffective, “but because of the increasing international rivalry in the region – Russia, France, and Germany were becoming increasingly involved in the Gulf region,” necessitating the native agents’ replacement by British officers who were “a more visible sign of Britain’s presence in the region.” While the native agents may have been replaced, the same men or at least the same merchant families, continued their association with the Gulf Residency, serving as assistant agents, or munshis (political assistants) in all of the political agencies in the Gulf, as well as the Gulf Residency headquarters itself. Onley estimates that about 95% of those employed by the East India Company and the Government of India in the Gulf Residency, from native agents to laborers, were locally-recruited men like Agha Muhammad Rahim Safar (see photo below). The Residency could not have operated without them.

James Onley is the 2008–2009 CIRS Senior Fellow and Director of the Gulf Studies program and Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, England. He specializes in the history, society, and culture of the Gulf Arab states and holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford, where he studied at St. Antony’s College. 

Article by Suzi Mirgani, CIRS Publications Coordinator