If knowledge is power, then the British government’s secret gazetteer of the Gulf, known simply as “Lorimer” after its author, epitomises the scale of imperial ambition. Intended to be a portable handbook, it was anything but, writes Matthew Teller.
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It’s one of the 20th Century’s most unusual books.
Commissioned in 1903 as a six-month project to produce a “convenient and portable handbook” for British diplomats, John Gordon Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia covered 5,000 pages when it finally emerged 12 years later, in six giant volumes.
Lorimer, born in Glasgow, served as a colonial administrator in India before his transfer to Baghdad and then the Gulf. He took five years over the first volume, an obsessively detailed listing of towns and villages that records everything from topography to demography.
To stop such a wealth of specialist knowledge falling into the wrong hands, it was immediately classified “secret”, circulated only among British officials.
“The general appearance of Doha is unattractive; the lanes are narrow and irregular, the houses dingy and small,” wrote Lorimer about the Qatari capital – now a city of wealth and ambition, but then, to his eyes, a semi-abandoned village.
“There are no trees. The people are unhealthy in appearance – a circumstance which is attributed to their assiduity in pearl diving, which places a severe strain on the human constitution.”
Dubai, Lorimer reports, had a population of about 10,000 (today, more than two million). Steamers from India docked once a fortnight, but aside from pearls, the only local exports were shells and dried fish.
Meanwhile in Abu Dhabi Lorimer saw “no cultivation except a little of dates, [and] no trade worthy of mention outside the town. Camels abound.”
Lorimer planned the gazetteer’s second volume as a comprehensive survey of Gulf history. He was working on it, alongside his diplomatic duties in Bushire (now Bushehr in Iran), when he lost his life.
The Times of India reported that on Sunday 8 February 1914, while cleaning his pistol, Lorimer “pulled the trigger and discharged a last cartridge which had been overlooked in the magazine”. He died from a single gunshot wound to the stomach and was buried next day with full honours. He was just 43. A letter in the following week’s Spectator described him as “one of the keenest of intellects, with a mind like a Damascus blade”.
Lorimer’s historical volume, completed by a colleague, was published in five parts in 1915 – and, like its companion, marked “secret” for decades. It was only after declassification in 1955 that Lorimer could be credited for his work. His 5,000-page “handbook” has been central to the study of the Gulf ever since.
The British Library is now publishing the entire Gazetteer online.
Lorimer’s greatest achievement was to gather a vast body of knowledge into one place. But it wasn’t all facts and figures. Moments of drama emerge as in this episode off the coast of Abu Dhabi: “On the night of 31 August 1873, a slave swam off to the [British ship] May Frere from a fleet of 73 pearl boats in the vicinity. The slave received protection, with the result that all the pearl boats weighed [anchor], lest their slaves should desert and be freed.”
Up until then, fugitive slaves seeking safety on board a British vessel might have been handed back to their owners. But after this incident it became Admiralty policy not to return escapees to slavery under any circumstances.
Lorimer then wryly records another bid for freedom.
“On 25 November 1899, on the occasion of a visit to Qatar, a slave belonging to a relative of the [ruling] sheikh waded off in the dark to the Residency launch and succeeded in getting on board. He was accordingly liberated.”
The sheikh’s response is unknown.