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June 04, 2023 04:35 EDT

Sayyid Sa‘īd: The Arab Sultan in the Age of Revolution

The Context

In 1842, Sayyid Sa‘īd (1791–1856), the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar, checked with the British Consul at Muscat if it would be disrespectful to recycle to the Nizam of Hyderabad, in India, a carriage and harness that was gifted to him by Queen Victoria. He said he had not made any use of it, as there were no roads of any description in Zanzibar where he could use it. As a result, the carriage remained in its packing case. He once got it taken out to have a look at it and then got it repacked. The carriage was a gift on the exchange of the Ratifications of the Convention of Commerce between him and Her Majesty.

The Sultan was recycling it as his gift to the Nizam because of the ‘extraordinary good treatment all Arabs met with’ at Hyderabad. He said he was constantly hearing of the Nizam’s kindness to all Arabs. Once he got the permission, he sent the carriage, along with other gifts, to the Nizam via Bombay. The Bombay government assisted in its onward journey to Hyderabad. The Sultan kept  a constant link with Bombay as, among other things, this was a contact point for the purchase, repairs and management of his fleet of ships. Ali Muhammad, one of the Queen’s Justices of Peace in the city, received the carriage and arranged for its transport to Hyderabad.

The Queen’s gift of a carriage to an island with poor roads revealed her ignorance of Zanzibar’s urban infrastructure despite many treaties of cooperation she had signed with the Sultan. 
And the Sultan’s request to forward the carriage as a personal gift to the Nizam of Hyderabad, in India, via his many contacts at Bombay, reflected his wide networks, political vision and the aspiration to engage with the wider politics of the Indian Ocean. The incident best exemplifies that there was more to the Sultan than met the eye beneath the diplomatic bonhomie and treaties of cooperation he signed with the British. He was most certainly lending the Asian slant to the ‘age of revolution’ as it played out in the Indian Ocean.

The Argument

Sayyid Sa‘īd, who reigned from 1806 to 1856, can be situated in what is known in world history as the ‘age of revolution’. This temporal categorization has been a valid tool of analysis to scrutinize European political and economic reforms in the period leading up to the late nineteenth-century waves of economic integration and globalization. What is less known is the role of the Arab and Asian rulers who dotted the Indian Ocean littoral and were equally effective agents of change. As a result, the analytical category becomes heavily Eurocentric, leading to the assumption that the Indian Ocean world became an unsuspecting victim to imperial hegemony in the decades that followed.

Sayyid Sa‘īd’s career corrects this imbalance. This critical period of world history—marked by a widening crisis in Eurasian land empires, the end of Persian dominance, the Ottoman crisis and the rise of Russophobia in imperial circles—offered Sultans like him the perfect context to step in as critical agents of change in the region. His economic interaction with the winds of globalization and his political aspiration as he engaged in conversations with the imperial powers, on slaves and the Wahhabis in particular, reflects the complex play of the ‘age of revolution’ which had a distinct feel and a particularly long temporality on the ocean.

Sayyid Sa‘īd, in keeping with the spirit of the ‘revolutionary age’, made a break from his family tradition of ruling from the interior tribal town of Al Rustaq. Instead, he made the port city of Muscat his seat of power. He recalibrated existing traditions and religious beliefs and set up his base on the island of Zanzibar to maximize the profits of maritime trade in slaves. He clearly envisaged a wider role for himself in the fast-globalizing world system. And yet, he powered the ‘age of revolution’ in distinctly non-Western ways.

The household remained the powerhouse of his forays into imperial politics. He diversified it to include a Persian princess, whom he married to get a foothold into the Persian Gulf and offset the control of the slave trade, in particular, by Britain. His mobility was restricted to his straddling between Muscat and Zanzibar. It is in this corner of the Western Indian Ocean that he carved his political sovereignty by successfully bringing together imperialism, the politics on slavery and reformist Islam to his self-interest. His ingeniousness lay in balancing his specific sociological understanding of these issues to imperial agendas and in the embedding of Western material culture to local society. Together, these gestures lent a distinct cosmopolitan modernity to his Sultanate and gave the ‘age of revolution’ its Asian slant.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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