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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

With launch of online Gulf archives, Qatar’s history now an open book

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A hand-sketched map from 1823, showing the first-ever recorded rendering of Qatar’s coastline; a British official’s notes from 1782 about rival tribes in Zubarah and Bahrain that make the first mention of Qatar; and a letter from the son of then-Emir Sheikh Jassim bin Muhammad Al Thani confirming his father’s death in 1913.

These are some of the gems from Qatar’s past that have been unearthed following the world’s largest digitalization of historical records on the Gulf Arab states and Iran, which have just gone online for the first time at the Qatar Digital Library.

Included in the archives are maps, manuscripts, sound recordings, photographs and archival material, all free for public and academic use.

The initiative is part of a 10-year collaboration between Qatar Foundation, Qatar National Library and the British Library in London, which began in 2012 and ultimately will see half-a-million documents digitized and made available online.

Letter from the Political Agent at Bahrain to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf at Bushire regarding the state of Sheikh Jasim bin Muḥammad Al Thani's health, dated July 13, 1913.
Letter from the Political Agent at Bahrain to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf at Bushire regarding the state of Sheikh Jasim bin Muḥammad Al Thani's health, dated July 13, 1913.

It will take three years and $14 million to digitize the catalogue of documents, a cost being borne by QF.

The online archives include 475,000 pages from the UK’s India Office records, which previously were only accessible to those intrepid enough to navigate 14km of shelves on the subject at the British Library in London.

The material also includes 25,000 medieval Arabic scientific manuscripts, from the British Library’s own collection.

In contrast to some of the earlier records that start from the mid-18th century, the archives also feature contemporary material, including sound recordings of musicians performing traditional Qatari songs.

Transforming understanding

It is hoped that making these documents more widely available will spark renewed interest in studying the Gulf, both from academics inside the region and internationally.

Dr. James Onley, senior lecturer in Middle Eastern History at the UK’s Exeter University and editor of Journal of Arabian Studies, said in a statement:

“This is a major milestone in the study of these countries. Now anyone can access the region’s fascinating past from anywhere.

“This easy access will enable scholars around the world to discover new things and write new histories that will expand, and ultimately transform our understanding of the region.”

India reported to the British government through the India Office between 1858 and 1947. According to the BBC:

“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.”

Some 125,000 documents have already been uploaded to the site, with the rest set to be there by the end of the year. Many chart the relationship between Qatar and Britain over the past 300 years.

Qatar’s records

The first mention of Qatar in the records dates back to Oct. 5, 1782, when the East India Company’s Resident (political emissary) at Bushire, Iran, reported to his colleagues in Bombay of an attack by the Utubi (Bani Utbah) tribe of Zubarah against the Al Madkhur of Bahrain, during the course of which “several lives were lost on both sides.”

Letter to William Hornby, President and Governor, Council at Bombay, from Edward Galley, Resident at Bushire, dated Oct. 5, 1782.
Letter to William Hornby, President and Governor, Council at Bombay, from Edward Galley, Resident at Bushire, dated Oct. 5, 1782.

Some 40 years later in 1823, the earliest records in the India Office files of a map of Qatar’s coastline appeared with a hand-sketched map of El Biddah – one of the early settlements in what is now Al Bidda district of central Doha.

Detail from the trigonometrical plan of the harbour of El Biddah on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf.
Detail from the trigonometrical plan of the harbour of El Biddah on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf.

According to the explanatory note by Dr. Mark Hobbs, a Gulf history specialist at the British Library:

“From the decks of the Discovery and Pysche, the British officers saw El Biddah as groups of houses tightly clustered around two forts, many of which had been damaged the previous year, when the East India Company’s brig Vestal bombarded the town, as punishment for its inhabitants’ alleged involvement in piracy.”

Before that, Qatar was believed to be part of Bahrain, and the peninsula does not feature in earlier maps of the region.

Of social and cultural interest are the documents relating to the death of the then-Emir Sheikh Jassim bin Muhammad Al Thani in 1913, following what is believed to have been a stroke.

The archive features a letter from his son Abdullah to the British political agent in Bahrain, Major Arthur Prescott Trevor, confirming his father’s passing, followed by a number of intelligence reports about the “considerable fortune” Sheikh Jassim had left.

This included pearls, camels and horses in addition to money that he bequeathed in legacies not only to his family, but also to his servants and slaves.

 Letter from the Political Agent at Bahrain informing the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf of the death of Sheikh Jāsim bin Muḥammad Āl Thānī, dated 26 July 1913.
Letter from the Political Agent at Bahrain informing the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf of the death of Sheikh Jāsim bin Muḥammad Āl Thānī, dated July 26, 1913.

In addition to the original letters, manuscripts, maps and drawings, the site features contextual reports written by British Library experts, to help readers understand the background story to and relevance of many of the items.

The portal also includes contemporary audio-visual material, such as photographs and video clips taken by Rolf Killius, the British Library’s curator of oral and musical cultures, which record sea shanties and other traditional songs, performed in 2013 by local musician Khalid Johar and others.

Speaking at a press conference this week, QF President Saad al Muhannadi said that other international libraries, including German’s Berlin Library, have also been approached to discuss establishing similar partnerships, but that these have yet to be confirmed, Qatar Tribune reports.

Thoughts?

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MIMH
MIMH
6 years ago

What a great initiative, money well spent learning about history.

Restie
Restie
6 years ago
Reply to  MIMH

Indeed, I love the periodical formality and the language of official memos and correspondence from the British Empire, it’s amazing to imagine this occurred in a time of no emails or even air mail for the most part, so much thought was put into every word. A stark comparison to email and texting culture nowadays.

Osama Alassiry
6 years ago

I spent 6+ hours reading from it yesterday… Amazing resource

MIMH
MIMH
6 years ago
Reply to  Osama Alassiry

It’s really good isn’t it? Qatar doesn’t get enough credit when to spends its money wisely.

A_qtr
A_qtr
6 years ago

love it… i spent my whole thu evening going through it… amazing

Shirin
Shirin
6 years ago

What an outstanding and valuable resource.

Truth-Seeker
Truth-Seeker
6 years ago

The major source of independent documented data on the region’s modern history is stored in the British archives. It is an important step towards revealing an accurate account of historical events, provided that nothing gets censored under any excuse.
It might shock many to know for instance that the ruler sheiks of the gulf were competing to invite the Brits to take their sheikdoms under their protection! And then claim they forced them out and got their independence!

Restie
Restie
6 years ago
Reply to  Truth-Seeker

I would be very careful in stating the independence of any data, especially that produced by civil servants in a non-native language. These records are incredible primary accounts, but they weren’t compiled by anyone independent to a cause, profession or ideology.

Truth-Seeker
Truth-Seeker
6 years ago
Reply to  Restie

A note will taken. but this is as good as it gets. It is rare in this part of the world that you find qualified scholars who would be prepared to risk producing research papers based on accurate account of the region’s modern history.
Most of the materials floating around the gulf are financed by bias sources.

Lynn
Lynn
6 years ago

Great article, however, digitalization is the incorrect word. It is digitization or digitisation. Digitalization is the the administration of digitalis until the desired physiological adjustment is attained; also : the bodily state so produced. Please see the dictionary entry at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/digitalization

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