An introduction to my series of stories for the BBC on Gulf history as revealed in the India Office records, which are being digitised thanks to a partnership between the British Library and the Qatar Foundation. Original story page with more links here
A transgender singer hits stardom in Baghdad. Officials scramble to impose order after a Kuwaiti restaurant is found to be selling cat meat. Gulf royals on an official visit to London are left marooned in a drab south London suburb because of a shortage of hotel rooms in the West End.
These are some of the quirky stories hiding in nine miles of shelving at the British Library (BL) that hold the India Office Records – millions of documents recording Britain’s 350-year presence in the sub-continent.
The India Office did not only administer India, it also exercised colonial rule over an area stretching west as far as Aden. That’s why the files cover Persia and Arabia. And the reason the stories are coming to light is that the Qatar Foundation has paid £8.7m for nearly half a million documents relating to the Gulf to be digitised.
Work started in 2012, and many of those documents have now gone online at the Qatar National Library’s digital library portal.
Never formally part of the British Empire, the Gulf nonetheless came under colonial administration after being targeted for trade in the 17th Century by the East India Company. Two centuries later, the government established direct control through the India Office.
For much of the period covered by the documents – from the 1750s to 1951 – the Gulf was a little-regarded backwater, dotted with coastal villages that scraped a living through fishing or pearl-diving, with basic goods being traded to and fro.
Officials created a complex network of regional authorities. British officers and locally recruited “native agents” in Bahrain, Muscat, Sharjah and other towns reported to a British ambassador known as the Resident, based for most of this period in the Persian port of Bushire (now Bushehr in Iran).
British officials would also travel the region, making some of the first journeys by outsiders into the harsh desert interior. In 1865 Lewis Pelly, the British Resident, was dispatched to Riyadh – then a small oasis settlement – to placate tribes accused of raiding the coastal towns, one of the first such expeditions by an outsider. He was knighted nine years later.
The records Pelly and other officials left – government papers, diplomatic dispatches, letters, diaries, financial receipts, maps, sketches, photographs and so on – have long been accessible only to those researchers able to visit the BL in person and navigate the often haphazardly catalogued archive.
“Given the paucity of publicly available data within the Gulf States, materials held in Britain are often the primary source of data for scholars working on the Gulf,” says Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, author of Qatar and the Arab Spring.
“Digitising the collection will make it far easier for scholars who are unable to visit London to access the material.”
Anyone with internet access will be able to search 475,000 pages from the two most important British outposts, at Bushire and Bahrain, along with 25,000 pages of medieval Arabic scientific manuscripts from the British Library’s own collections.
The portal currently holds between a quarter and a third of this total, with the remainder due online by the end of this year. Access is free, without registration, and the entire site is navigable in English and Arabic.
“What makes this project special is the variety of content – maps, archives, manuscripts – and the work we’re doing to create metadata for search, to make sure this content is relevant to a wide range of audiences, both in the UK and internationally,” says Richard Gibby, head of the British Library/Qatar Foundation partnership.
The BL’s curators are also writing contextual features, to help interpret the wealth of material and highlight unique stories from the archive – such as the tale of Massoud El Amaratly.
Assigned female at birth in southern Iraq in the early 20th Century, El Amaratly identified as male, and became famous in Baghdad in the 1920s for his distinctive renditions of rural folk songs. The BL has several recordings, and has brought in ethnomusicologist Rolf Killius to curate a unique digital Gulf music archive that also includes such rarities as traditional pearl-divers’ sea shanties.
As part of his research, Killius has also embarked on fieldwork, filming new performances of traditional music such as this bagpipe and drum ensemble in Oman.
One benefit of the digitisation project is that curators handle every item in previously poorly-labelled files, sometimes unearthing gems in the process.
Amid a shortage of paper, an unknown clerk in 1940s Bahrain took a couple of British World War II Arabic propaganda posters, turned them over and typed on the back.
These rare posters, trumpeting British freedoms and progressiveness, went unnoticed for 70 years, until BL curator Louis Allday chanced upon them while preparing files for digitisation. He writes about his find here.
But principles of free academic inquiry, which guide the BL’s work, contrast with Freedom House’s assessment of Qatar as “not free”. Amnesty International called Qatar’s new cybercrimes law, passed last month, “a major setback for freedom of expression”, and Qatari writer Mohammed Al-Ajami remains in jail, serving a 15-year sentence for a poem deemed insulting to the monarch.
The BL and Qatar National Library (QNL) both hold copies of the digitised archive but Gibby’s expectation is that the portal – currently hosted by Amazon – will eventually be transferred for hosting in Qatar. That could theoretically expose material to manipulation by Qatari censors.
“That was discussed very clearly right from the beginning,” says Gibby. “Both sides made very clear to each other that there is no suggestion this will be censored. To date that has been borne out. We, the British Library, are trusting [the Qatar Foundation] and our faith is in them.”
Rosie Bsheer, history professor at Yale University, comments that any endeavour to make archives more accessible should be welcomed “despite Qatar’s egregious record on civil liberties”.
The digitisation project has created dozens of jobs at the BL, where staff are pushing the boundaries of Optical Character Recognition software to convert typescripts and printed text into searchable files – relatively straightforward in English, but notoriously difficult in Arabic, which uses cursive letter-forms.
“In Europe, these kind of funds are not available,” says Dr Joachim Gierlichs of the QNL, referring to the millions provided by the Qatar Foundation. “As a curator, your struggle is to keep the collection open. But to develop and enhance it like this? That’s not an opportunity any more.”
The greatest benefits may be intangible. A project on this scale, facilitating universal access to a major archive in English and Arabic, has the potential to change perceptions of the Middle East – from outside, and also from within.
“The partnership,” says Gierlichs, “enables Qatar and the Gulf to discover their own history.”