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  • The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj: Merchants, Rulers, and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf
  • Willem Floor (bio)
The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj: Merchants, Rulers, and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf, by James Onley. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007. xxxv + 224 pages. Appends. to p. 287. Bibl. to p. 337. Index to p. 352. BP65.

This books aims to demystify and to correct long-held views. It argues in seven chapters that it was not so much the British [End Page 166] who bore the burden of the Empire of India, but rather native, non-European collaborators, without whom British hegemony would have been less effective, if not impossible. Although the author holds that this thesis applies to the Indian Empire in toto, his analysis focuses on the situation of the Persian Gulf in general, and on the Native Agency in Bahrain in particular.

Chapter One is a short introduction to the subject and sources. Chapter Two provides a historical overview of how Britain established its influence over the Persian Gulf in the 19th century. Chapter Three describes in detail the administrative structure that Britain put in place to establish and maintain its control over the Persian Gulf, which, although led by British citizens, mainly consisted of native agents. Britain was forced to do so because it lacked British staff, whose survival rate in the Gulf was low, while native agents were more resilient, cheaper, and had local knowledge and language skills. Both sides benefited from this arrangement. Chapter Four takes a close look how this system of native agents was established, developed over time, and operated in Bahrain, protecting British interests in the various shaykhdoms at the head of the Gulf. Chapter Five examines not the system of native agents in Bahrain, but the men who made it work. They were initially recruited from among the Banyan community, but after 1834 from among Muslim merchants. Short biographies of these agents tell the story of the Bahrain Agency. In Chapter Six the author analyzes the abandonment of the native agency system by the British after the mid-1890s due to the political need to have British political staff in place.

In the last chapter the author summarizes his eight major findings: 1) the Indian Empire was much larger than the entire Indian subcontinent and included Eastern Arabia, Aden, and the northern Gulf tier; 2) Britain established its influence in Eastern Arabia/ the Gulf to protect trade and communications routes, but the treaties with the various local rulers also aimed to establish a protective buffer for British India; 3) unhealthy living conditions precluded the establishment of land-based British staffed agencies, which led to the reliance on maritime control and a mainly native agency system; 4) hence most political officers were not British but locally hired agents; first mainly Banyan and later Muslim merchants. This blend of local know-how defending foreign imperial interests worked very well; 5) the Persian Gulf residency not only was mainly staffed by natives, but this also gave it access to local intelligence networks; 6) thus, the Native Agencies were not “British” institutions, “but multinational collaborative organizations run for Britain by non-Britons:” 7) although the native agents were effective, race and religion played a role in how Britain employed them, hence the change from the use of Hindu to Muslim agents in the Gulf after 1834; and 8) the informal native agency system was a highly flexible and effective instrument, where the native agent might serve as the “fall guy” for both the British and the local rulers, in case the agent’s actions were not liked. The analysis is further supported by a large number of tables and appendices, a veritable who’s who of the area and time, and a good index as well as a useful glossary.

The author has made a major contribution to our understanding of the functioning of the British Empire, as exemplified by the situation in the Persian Gulf in general and in the Bahrain Agency in particular. At the same time, he has given us a much better understanding of Gulf society and culture, which, as in...