The British Empire Library

A Fateful Intrusion: The British India Line in the Arabian Gulf, 1862-1982

by Michael Quentin Morton

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover nor even by its presentation throughout. Unfortunately, that maxim just does not work for Michael Quentin Morton's book. The presentation and organisation of this book is simply stunning inside and out and the clarity of writing and academic rigour are more than a match for its looks. From the gold embossed titles to the plentiful illustrations, photographs and maps (many of which are in full colour), to the glossary and easy to follow notes and bibliography, this book is almost a masterclass in how best to arrange and organise your thesis and topic in an accessible and easy to follow manner. By all means judge this book by its cover, it is a joy to behold and a joy to follow.

Now I have to say that I have lived in the Gulf myself and have enjoyed the dichotomy of watching huge oil tankers pass what seem like anachronistic but beautiful (largely tourist-orientated these days) dhows with my own eyes. I did not get to see the steamships of the British India Line depicted and explained in this book, but the effect must have been similarly impressive when they first appeared in the Gulf in the Nineteenth Century. The juxtaposition of old and new technologies reaching back through history and into an unknown future must have caused awe for local peoples and Europeans alike. This book attempts to explain that technological and economic journey for this corner of the Middle East.

The author makes it clear that the British India line did not create a trading pattern from nothing. The Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean had their own trading routes that had existed for centuries beforehand. They worked primarily around the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean but with their own idiosyncracies and microclimates for the Gulf itself. Both the Portuguese and Dutch had intruded upon these ancient trading rhythms with their own sailing ships, priorities and markets from the 16th Century onwards. However, it was not until the Eighteenth Century that the British, primarily through their own East India Company, hijacked existing coastal Indian trade and imported items like dates and horses to the sub-continent which was becoming ever more important to their own economic and political power.

1763 saw the first British formal presence in the Gulf with the establishment of the Bushire Residency on the Persian coastline. Russian interest in Persia and Central Asia only amplified Britain's desire to create its own presence in the region and try to have an influence on the buffer lands between India and the Russians. The turning point for bringing the region into the nascent Pax Britannica was after 1819 when the East India Company convinced the Royal Navy to help commit resources to defeat the Qawasim on the pretext of defeating piracy in the region. Actually, there was almost as much at stake commercially rather than just fighting pirates as the British sought to extend their maritime control in a post-Trafalgar world. The resulting 1820 Treaties of Perpetual Peace confirmed British pre-eminence in the region for the next century and a half and began the process of plugging the region very much into a British trading system for the next century at least.

At this point in time, sailing ships had to work hard in the Gulf with their tides and winds to get where they needed to go to. This was something which the dhows had long understood how to work with, but they were still constrained by the time of year and the prevailing winds and tides. It was the advent of steamships that would transform the trading patterns of the Gulf and attach it more firmly into the Anglosphere and especially into the crucial Indian arm of those trading routes. Steamships would increasingly rely on Bengal coal and British made steam technology to provide regular services into the Gulf. They no longer had to worry about being becalmed or working against the winds, they could even power up rivers using this remarkable technology. Timetables became more meaningful and where steamships went, the telegraph was invariably not far behind as communications improved all round. The Gulf would soon provide an alternative route to the Red Sea for secure British communications between Britain and India. This was especially true when Egypt had its own independently minded leader and before the Suez Canal had been opened in 1869. The Euphrates Valley Route seemed a desirable and more easily British controlled route in the 1830s and 1840s. Gunboat diplomacy could take on a whole new meaning as the new technologies could be used to overawe local rulers considering moving away from British dominance in the region as was demonstrated in 1841. Commerce and raw military power went hand in hand and railway opportunities seemed to provide another solution to bridge the British to India route via the Gulf. Indeed it was these ideas that saw British imperial entrepreneurs like Sir William Mackinnon and Sir Bartle Frere to lobby for imperial expansion in the region and explained thoroughly by the author. The origins of the British India Steam Navigation Company were basically to provide a subsidised mail service through the region whilst also providing ships that could be pressed into military service during an emergency - as the Indian Mutiny had recently revealed could be very necessary indeed. The line was formally established in 1862 but of course provided merchant shipping and passenger facilities alongside its subsidised mail services.

The British India Line would soon dictate which ports and political entities were worthy of regular stops and would pretty much shape trading patterns in the region for many years to come. The author makes it clear that they did not displace dhows fully by any means, but the smaller, nimbler dhows would have to adjust their own trading patterns to account for these new ships plying their own routes and creating new flows of goods and peoples. The early 1860s would prove to be a good time to start a new venture in the region as the American Civil War disrupted trading patterns significantly and provide new markets and suppliers as cotton and corn in particular increased in price. New trading agents established themselves to collect produce and navigate customs and quarantine procedures. Oman certainly suffered as they were bypassed by the BI lines as they had attempted to maintain their own systems and trading routes outside of the British system. The end of the American Civil War in 1865 certainly caused problems but as the author explains, the disruptions may have favoured the British India Line as competitors were dissuaded commercially from competing in the region and the BI Line could rely on their government mail subsidies to keep going regardless.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 could well have offered a new existential threat altogether especially given the French and Egyptian involvement in the mammoth undertaking. Fortunately for the region, Britain was able to take a controlling interest in the Suez Canal within only a few years and far from killing off trade in the region, it saw an explosion as this new artery of international trade flowed ever thicker with shipping and good through the Mediterranean to the Indian sub-continent and back again. It would be easier than ever to get products and personnel from the Gulf to Britain. I always love it when books like this throw up interesting and unexpected nuggets of information such as the Black Country's particular fancy for Middle Eastern dates which grew up from these new imperial trading patterns. You could travel from London to Basra via Karachi without changing ship - at least at first. Later it was switched to a connection service but still it illustrates that the world was definitely becoming smaller and more connected as ships increased in size and comfort and new trading opportunities opened up.

With time came more competition too, some local, some from India and more ominously some from Europe. The early 20th Century would bring the Germans into the region as their own imperial ambitions saw the Hamburg-Amerika line start sailings to the Gulf. These had their own subsidies and were not afraid to undercut any gentlemen's agreements that the various British lines had entered into. Russian and French lines also entered the fray. Interestingly Persia modernising its Customs facilities by bringing in Belgians to administer it more effectively, efficiently and less corruptly. This striving for efficiency ended up deterring shipping to Persia and provided new opportunities on the Southern Gulf shore in places like Dubai which did not have such stringent customs dues in place. The author explains how the BI line certainly switched one of its main hubs in Linga Persia to Dubai on the Trucial Coast for this very reason. The German threat amplified also with the Berlin to Baghdad railway idea which alarmed many in Whitehall as it seemed to confirm that the Ottoman Turks were fundamentally gravitating towards Germany commercially as well as strategically. It also appears that the Ottoman officials would use quarantine procedures against British ships as a way of frustrating trade or generating money for themselves. Disease was certainly an issue in this area, but it could also be a useful excuse to upset rivals or extract funds from frustrated merchants. The German interest could have been a fundamental challenge to the BI Line had it not been for the First World War.

The P&O Line and the BI Line amalgamated in 1914 partly in response to this German threat although they did at least keep their own identities for many more years yet. Of course, the outbreak of war brought the Gulf into the front line. Over 60 BI Line ships were provided to the military as troopships, hospital ships and to transport stores and horses. A few BI line ships were sunk especially by German raiders in the Indian Ocean, but in reality British military involvement in the Gulf was pretty effective and soon services could resume without any German competitors getting in the way. In an example of pure coincidence, the book I read before this one was on the Red Sea Patrol so it was interesting to compare the fates of the two seas. Although the British were hemmed in to Mesopotamia, they were never likely to lose Basra and so the Gulf quickly returned to its British lake status to all intents and purposes. If anything the consequences of the war turned the area into more of a British region than it had ever been before with the creation of the Iraq Mandate and the removal of German and Ottoman interest in the region. Even the Persians had acquiesced for a short period as the Russians were undergoing their Revolutionary convulsions . Of course, there were the first signs of what would become the aerial threat with seaplanes beginning to make inroads into passenger and mail services, but these were still too rare, too expensive and too intermittent to cause any fundamental threat to the shipping industry at this point in time. Indeed, the BI Line returned to something of a monopoly in the region with more ships than ever with new ships being built for them. They were officially part of the largest merchant fleet in the World during these Interwar years. The other interesting hint at the future was the discovery of oil in the region but again war would step in before new opportunities in this field could be fully realised.

World War Two once again saw many BI Line ships seconded to the British war effort. This time on a more global basis and with many more being sunk by the German (and Japanese) submarines. Indeed over half their ships were sunk during this war. The region itself was largely untouched by warfare except for the British taking more control in Persia and Iraq. But the Post-War World would offer fundamentally bigger threats to the BI Line. The immediate threat being the independence of India in 1947. At a stroke, the British Pax Britannica was severed. Britain had long relied on Indian lascars, port facilities and markets. Many of these were now direct competitors for the BI Line or the BI Line had to compete for their resources and custom. Furthermore, the explosion in Gulf trade did little to aid the BI Line as oil revenues demanded different shipping capacities in the form of oil tankers, containerisation and RollOn-RollOff Ferries. The BI line ships suddenly appeared quaint and outdated and fell out of favour as local countries sought to push their own domestic shipping concerns at the cost of what was an increasingly an anachronistic hangover from an ever dwindling Empire. Bigger and faster planes made mail subsidies redundant and passenger ships were rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The BI line dwindled to a single ship and finally in 1982 even this came to a halt. Over a century of Imperial backed trade had come to an end. But over that time, as the author makes abundantly clear, the BI line had been a transformative institution for the region. It had brought jobs, expertise, post, port infrastructure, security, trading opportunities, quarantine and customs regulations, allowed workers to migrate through the region and provided an engine for cultural interchange. Fundamentally it had plugged the region into the world economy. Once the British aspect of that regional economy was no longer pre-eminent its own rationale faltered but that did not diminish its importance for all those years beforehand and for fundamentally shaping the trading routes that came after. It is no accident that ports like Dubai, Bahrain and Kuwait took over from places like Bushire, Linga and Basra. Understanding these imperial and commercial imperatives of the 19th and early 20th centuries help explain the world of the late 20th and 21st centuries.

I have to say that this book is perfectly pitched and should be read by anyone with even a passing interest in transport, economic or imperial history. It is clear enough for novices to these subjects or those with a general interest and yet detailed enough through high quality research to provide fascinating insights for the specialist. It is a great example of how an author can taking a seemingly narrow topic - like a Shipping Line - and give it a much wider perspective so that the reader can really take away a fuller understanding of much larger themes to do with imperialism, the Gulf region, and even the nature of shipping as an industry. I understand that this book is hard to track down but I really cannot recommend it highly enough. It is worth getting hold of a copy, you will not be disappointed.

British Empire Book
Michael Quentin Morton
National Archives - Ministry of Presidential Affairs UAE
Amazon UAE


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