From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the records, documents, correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.
This week, a smaller piece on the 1920s, with more to follow as a I read through the period. Enjoy this vignette.
The first eighty years of the Al Khalifa dynasty’s rule in Bahrain was chaotic and messy, a non-stop war. Mainland enemies threatened to invade the islands and take it from the Al Khalifa, who had themselves only wrestled it from the Persians in 1783. Once the dynasty’s lordship over the islands was finally, begrudgingly accepted by other rulers and states, it was not long before the fighting turned inwards, as it broke out between the ambitious brothers and cousins of the Sheikhly family.
That warring ended in 1869 after the latest bout of fratricide saw the murder of the latest Ruler, Ali bin Khalifa, at the hands of his brother and cousin. The British Political Agent intervened by enforcing a strict law of primogeniture (i.e., eldest son inherits) and propping up Isa, the young and orphaned son of the murdered Ali, as Ruler.
And Isa bin Ali ruled uncontested. Fifty-four years on though and the regime had reached an impasse. The British had been pressing Sheikh Isa to instigate reforms for a year and a half now: in late 1921, a deputation of Shia villagers handed the Political Agent, Major Daly, a petition demanding that something be done about the tyrannical feudal laws. Major Daly had duly sent it on to his superior, the Political Resident of the Gulf, Lieutenant-Colonel Trevor. Reform was necessary, it was decided by the British, but it would be far cleaner if the Bahrainis did it themselves. Together they had been trying to get a home-grown reform movement going.
Now it was May 1923 and very clear that reform by Sheikh Isa would never happen. Some were content to let it be so. Colonel Trevor was replaced as Political Resident by Colonel Knox, a man who opposed instigating reforms almost as much as the local Sheikhs did. When in April the British India Government wrote that “We agree that the misrule in Bahrain has reached such a pitch that we must secure the introduction of fiscal and administrative reform(s) on the lines indicated by the Resident [Trevor],” Knox came back urging against his predecessor’s advice. He argued that “matters are no worse than the state of affairs we have tolerated for twenty years. We have no real case against Sheikh Isa to justify such strong measures as deposition.” The mere existence of clamour for reforms, Knox argued, is not enough to justify them.
But Government came back to him: Institute reforms. Knox’s cynical reservations meant nothing to them. He was forced into action. And before any reforms could happen, Sheikh Isa had to go. The Ruler’s sons Sheikhs Hamad and Abdulla were brought around to the British side. The co-option of Sheikh Abdulla was an especially big win for the British, as he had until recently been a primary opponent to reform. For his part, the heir-apparent Sheikh Hamad was prepared to take over from his elderly father.
There had been much fear that military intervention would be needed, that Sheikh Isa would need to be forced out into exile for the reforms to take place, but with everything falling into place smoother than anticipated, all that was needed was for Sheikh Isa to step aside – preferably peacefully.
In May 1923, Knox travelled over to Bahrain from his headquarters in Bushire (now Bushehr, Iran), arriving in the final days of Ramadan. Sheikh Isa invited him to a meeting, but Knox declined. This was something deeply discomfiting for the Sheikh: tradition had it that the Ruler would always meet the Political Resident within a day of his landing. And here he was, in Bahrain, refusing to be met. Fear spread through the ranks of the Al Khalifa family, frightful of what the Political Resident was up to. And what was he up to? In Knox’s own words, “I was doing nothing and they could not imagine what I was doing.”
In his most diplomatic way possible, Knox informed Sheikh Isa that he would not want to have the meeting until the Sheikh had finished fasting and his mind was at its sharpest. After the celebrations of Eid at the end of Ramadan, the two finally met. And here, now, Knox gave Sheikh Isa the British demands: step aside, so that Bahrain can change. Sheikh Isa was 75 years of age. He had been ruling for over fifty years and he had played his part well, but now he was old, too old, and too obstinate. He needed to go.
Sheikh Isa stubbornly refused. Knox tried to sugar-coat his demands. He reminded the Sheikh that Abdul Rahman al Saud of Riyadh had retired while his son bore all the responsibilities as statesman, and Abdul Rahman had never suffered any loss to his honour or dignity for it. Sheikh Isa was quick to point out that Abdul Rahman’s son was Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, Sultan of Nejd, who had won his empire “with his own right hand”. The two were not the same.
“And who, pray, conquered Bahrain for you and called you, an orphan and a fugitive, to take your seat as Sheikh of Bahrain?” Knox snapped back, “And who, all these fifty-five years, has kept and maintained you here against Turkish force and Persian fraud, internal and external enemies? Was it your greedy, disloyal tribesmen or the British Government? And if now looking to the good of all in its wisdom the British Government asks you to make way for a younger and stronger man a year or two before God calls you to himself, is there any gross oppression to this conduct? Does it not rather show a kindly solicitude for your welfare as well as that of your subjects in setting you free from the anxieties of this difficult and thankless task? There is no reason why you should not continue to enjoy the name and dignity of Sheikh of Bahrain – indeed it is not our intention that Sheikh Hamad should be other than your fully empowered agent who is under no necessity of consulting his principal any more than he consults any other old greybeard in Bahrain.”
Here was a man with the full weight of Empire at his side. The raw power of the British imperial machine seared through the Sheikh’s dignity. Who was he to be proud? Who was he to be his own Ruler? He was nothing without the British and he was forced to know it. Yet still he remained obstinate. “You can kill me or turn me out,” he declared, “but while I am alive, I will not retire”.
Calculating and calm, Knox explained to the ancient Sheikh that he could ask the Government if they would give him leave to set Sheikh Isa aside forcibly, that if he did so they would no doubt empower him to do so, and that this correspondence which would grant him imperium in Bahrain would take three days. That was all the Sheikh had: three days to step aside on his will. As Sheikh Isa left the Resident’s office, he turned back, spitting that Bahrain was not worth the smoke of a cigarette to him.
Despite all his bravado, Sheikh Isa backed down.
Six days later, on 26 May, some three hundred Bahrainis of every walk of life met in a specially convened majlis at the British Agency. At front and centre, from left to right sat Captain Coleridge of the HMS Cyclamen, a gunboat anchored threateningly near Bahrain; next to him, Sheikh Hamad, the new Ruler; Major Daly, the Political Agent; on the far right, Sheikh Abdulla. And sat in the centre, flanked by Sheikh Hamad and Major Daly, was Colonel Knox.
Sheikh Isa was not present at the majlis that overthrew his authority.
Khuri, Tribe and State in Bahrain: the Transformation of Social and Political Authority in an Arab State (1980)
IOR/L/PS/10/1039, India Office Records, British Library, London