Book Review | When Oman ruled Indian Ocean and how Dar es Salaam copied Bombay

The Asian Age.  | Shubhda Chaudhary

This book is an important contribution for those who want to understand slave trade in the Indian Ocean.

Cover photo of 'Sovereigns of the Sea: Omani Ambition in the Age of Empire' by Seema Alavi. (Photo by arrangement)

Buy silver and cover it with gold,” goes an Omani saying. I realised the essence of it only when I landed at the Muscat international airport in 2018. In my mind, I was just expecting a desolate landing strip, but I was stunned by the cosmopolitan extravaganza that welcomed me. It shone like a 5,000-acre wide jewel manicuring the Rub al-Khali desert.

Was Oman just a mere peace mediator in West Asian politics? Or was there more to its history than what I was taught based off of the accounts of Western historians?

Seema Alavi’s exceptionally well-researched account of the role Omani Sultans played in the Indian Ocean during the heyday of the British Empire in the nineteenth century seeks to fill this gap. It discusses the fascinating lives of Sultan Said and his four sons, the Anglo-French rivalries in the Indian Ocean and the nefarious slave trade, all with a fresh perspective.

Post the Ottoman, Persian and Portuguese invasions, the Sultanate of Oman primarily flourished under the regime of its fifth ruler, Sayyid Said, who hailed from the Al Busaidi dynasty. He ruled from 1804 to 1856. Being a polyglot who even spoke Hindustani, Said shifted the capital of Oman from Al Rustaq to Muscat, making the kingdom more sea-facing.

He established the ship-building industry in Muscat with the help of Parsi shipbuilders from Bombay. He also got guns, cannon and mortar from the East India Company. Along with the ports of Muscat and Zanzibar, other ports of Bandar Abbas, Qishm, Lingah (now in Iran) and Gwadar (now in Pakistan) were also leased to him. He continued with slave trade to generate labour for his sugar, clove and indigo plantations. But most importantly, Said ruled through his tribal bricolage.

Al Rustaq, the erstwhile capital, was the hotspot of Ibadi Islam — the third branch of Islam alongside Sunni and Shia Islam. Ibadism is still the largest denomination in Oman and also practised in a few belts of Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Zanzibar. It accepts neither tribal affiliation nor divine selection but is based on a selection of successors from leading Muslim men in the community.

In Islam there is no distinction between religion and politics. The Prophet himself was a military chief, religious head and political administrator. Said, however, was able to cleverly negotiate his religious and political duties. He did not call himself the ‘Imam’ but ‘Sultan’ instead. He was more interested in creating ports linking commercial agencies with Bombay and Calcutta, the Dutch Indies, China, Persia and the lake areas of Central Africa.

After his mysterious death en route from Muscat to Zanzibar, a battle of succession began. Espionage, coups, assassination, matrimonial alliances, British and French rivalry – all rolled in. The lack of a legal will of succession further created chaos. The four sons — Majid, Thuwayni, Turki and Barghash — ruled different Omani regions simultaneously, each eyeing Muscat.

Sayyid Majid, the fourth son of Said captured Zanzibar, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, along with the islands of Pemba and Monfea on the east coast of Africa. He used Zanzibar as the epicentre for slave trade. The ports of slave trade in the Indian Ocean through African coastal ports — Kilwa, Pemba and Comoros — grew.

Arab tribes started preferring slave-hunting rather than trading in ivory or cloves. Hindu Banias and Muslim Khojas from erstwhile British India who had settled in Zanzibar played a pivotal role in this trade. Though Khoja Muslims were Ismailis, Sunnis and even Shia, the jurisprudence of Ibadi Islam did not interfere with their beliefs. During outburst of an infamous cholera epidemic, Majid frequently visited Bombay to learn about urban planning and sanitation measures. This helped him create Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania.

Meanwhile, Thuwayni, the third son of Said, ruled over Muscat from 1856 to 1866. The Muscat port was important for slave trade as well as the telegram line that connected Aden, Persia and Karachi. Because of his seniority, he had claimed Zanzibar, which even the French supported. In fact, the British had to station a steamer of the Indian navy at Zanzibar to protect Majid. Nevertheless, Thuwayni, who was closer to the French, controlled the coastal ports of Sohar, Soham and Soor in Oman.

But after the 1857 revolt in British India, the British preferred to ‘handle’ the Indian Muslims in Oman through Thuwayni. He not only exploited the ramifications of the banking crisis in UK in 1865 but also the American civil war and thus the ports of Chabahar and Gwadar also came under his supervision. After he was murdered by his son Salim, the Wahhabis took control and the family’s exodus to Zanzibar occurred.

After Thuwayni’s death, Sayyid Turki, the fifth son of Said, became the Sultan of Muscat. After all, the British could not let Wahhabis take control and thus, deposed them. Earlier, when Turki was governor of Sohar — the principal gateway to tribal interiors of Oman — he had been imprisoned by Thuwayni for having kingly aspirations. During that time, Karachi, Bombay and Hyderabad acted as prisons for dislodged Omani sultans.

Sultan Barghash ruled over Zanzibar after Majid’s death. He, too, was deported from Muscat to Bombay where he learnt about architecture, urban planning, coal mining, education and the printing press. He spread Ibadi Islam via the printing press.

With the death of Said’s four sons, the power of Oman started waning. Their successors grew heavily dependent on British loans, ultimately making it a de facto British protectorate.

This book is an important contribution for those who want to understand slave trade in the Indian Ocean, the growth of port cities, the control of the British over maritime trade as well as how the British Indian diaspora played an integral role in Oman.

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

By Seema Alavi


pp. 424, Rs.999