by Alastair Hamilton, 2010


This is the first full-length scholarly study of the history of the European discovery of Oman, from Classical Antiquity to the mid-twentieth century.

Oman has always been known to travellers sailing between Europe and India or Persia. But it was its coast that was known. Greeks and Romans charted it, medieval merchants traded on it, and the Portuguese conquered its main towns in the early sixteenth century. After the Portuguese had been ejected in 1650, an independent Oman built an empire of its own, stretching round the Indian Ocean from India to Zanzibar. Muscat, the capital, was visited by western powers eager to obtain commercial concessions and political influence. Yet the interior, ruled by local tribes, was all but entirely unknown until the nineteenth century. Only then did a very few, mainly English, explorers venture inland and embark on the true discovery of Oman. But even that was sporadic. As long as there was a powerful ruler, the travellers were protected, but by the late nineteenth century the sultans in Muscat had lost control over the interior, and it was not until well into the twentieth century that western visitors could investigate the south and begin to chart the centre and the west.

Oman was thus one of the last Arab countries to be fully discovered. Alastair Hamilton examines this process from the earliest times up to 1970 and discusses the ways in which the slowly growing knowledge of Oman was propagated in the West by travellers, missionaries, diplomats, artists and naturalists, and by those scholars who gradually uncovered the manuscripts and antiquities that allowed them to piece together the history of the area. The protagonists include Carsten Niebuhr, known for his expedition to Yemen; James Wellsted and the officers on the brig Palinurus, sent by the East India Company to survey the Omani coast from 1833 to 1846; James and Mabel Bent, indefatigable explorers of southern Arabia; Bertram Thomas, financial adviser to the sultan; and Wilfred Thesiger.


Chapter One. The Land of Heat, Perfumes and Sailors: From Antiquity to the Renaissance
Chapter Two. The ‘Good Towns’ of the Coast: The Portuguese Occupation of Oman
Chapter Three. The New Era: Independence and Foreign Wooers
Chapter Four. An Arabian Utopia: Enlightened Impressions
Chapter Five. The Growing Friendship: The British and Oman
Chapter Six. ‘The Wealthiest and Most Popular Prince Throughout Arabia’: Sa‘id, Sultan of Muscat and Oman
Chapter Seven. Imperialism and Humanitarianism: The Attraction of Zanzibar
Chapter Eight. The Palinurus Period: The Exploration of the Omani Coast and Interior
Chapter Nine. The Unpenetrated Country: Muscat and its Inaccessible Hinterland
Chapter Ten. The ‘Dearth of Information’ Remedied: Scholarly Discoveries
Chapter Eleven. A World Unchanged: The Appeal of Exoticism
Chapter Twelve. Arcadia in the South: The Exploration of Dhufar

Author Information

Alastair Hamilton, former Louise Thijssen-Schoute Professor of the History of Ideas at Leiden University and Professor emeritus of the History of the Radical Reformation at the University of Amsterdam, is the Arcadian Visiting Research Professor at the School of Advanced Study, London University, Warburg Institute. He is a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.

Review Highlights

‘Beautiful … designed and produced to the sorts of standards that one would wish to see more often, but which are now, unfortunately, an increasing rarity.’ Anthony Sattin in The Times Literary Supplement

‘A beautiful book as well as a scholarly one … Hamilton’s account and analysis is thorough and scholarly, with clear footnotes and bibliography; and the fine illustrations bring the story to life.’ Stuart Laing in the Journal of Arabian Studies

Sample Text

Introduction: My subject is the western discovery, up to 1970, of what is now the Sultanate of Oman. Some of the ground has been covered before. Besides the many articles and monographs on individual travellers, there have been more general books. David George Hogarth’s Penetration of Arabia of 1904 remains a classic. In 1978 there appeared Robin Bidwell’s useful bibliography of European accounts of Muscat from 1500 to 1900, and in 1987 Philip Ward published his Travels in Oman on the Track of the Early Explorers, which contained sizeable excerpts from the descriptions of Oman made by foreign visitors through the ages, but with a particular emphasis on British travellers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since a number of these descriptions appeared in journals which are not always easily accessible this was a most welcome contribution. Robin Bidwell discussed explorers in Oman in his Travellers in Arabia of 1994. In the same year Xavier Beguin Billecocq published an anthology of descriptions of Muscat, in French and English, Oman. Vingt-cinq siècles de récits de voyageurs / Twenty-Five Centuries of Travel Writing, while Brian Marshall made an extensive survey of European travellers in Oman between 1792 and 1950. More recently, in 2006, Hilal al-Hajri published British Travel-Writing on Oman. Orientalism Reappraised, a balanced account but mainly limited to the British.

I inevitably venture onto much of the territory dealt with by these authors, and to all of them I am indebted. Yet, however important travellers are in the discovery of a country, my study goes beyond them. I shall be concerned with the gradual increase in information available in the West about the fundamental features of Oman—its general physical appearance, its geology, fauna and flora, the customs and the religion of its inhabitants, the tribal system, and its government. Discovery is a process to which sedentary scholars can sometimes make an important contribution. In addition to visiting and describing previously unknown areas, it involves the recovery of ancient texts, the editing and translating of historical works, the collection of reports by historians of religion, the examination of the works of geographers from Antiquity and later, and, in the case of zoological and other specimens, their description and classification in a museum. And then there is the image which was, or could be, formed of Oman in the West. Here again the availability of texts, the publications of anthologies of travel literature, and accounts which give a survey of existing publications and documents all play an important part. The image of a country, moreover, is often subject to changes of taste and intellectual fashions, the attraction of a special sort of exoticism, the appeal of a particular type of landscape, and the desire to face the challenges which one country can set more than others. The unexplored, or the late explored, areas of Oman were at an advantage in this respect. They continued to prove challenging and to appeal to a spirit of adventure long after other countries had ceased to do so.

This book, it must be emphasized, is not a history of Oman. A number of such histories exist, and will be indicated in my footnotes. A major obstacle facing historians is the shortage of sources, and one of the topics which I shall indeed touch upon is the recovery, mainly in the nineteenth century, of those few sources which enabled scholars to find out more about the past of Oman and to place it in the general context of Arab history, the development of Islam, and the world of the Indian Ocean of which it was part. The great majority of travellers who came to Oman until well into the twentieth century could only visit the coastal area, and even of that they tended to form a superficial impression, often based on little more than a few days—and in some cases hours—spent in Muscat. ‘It is remarkable’, wrote Percy Badger in 1871, ‘and by no means creditable to the British Government in India, that notwithstanding our intimate political and commercial relations with Oman for the last century, we know actually less of that country beyond the coast, than we do of the Lake districts of Central Africa.’

But how can we define Oman? I shall be concentrating mainly on the territory which corresponds to the present Sultanate. It now covers an area on the south-eastern coast of the Arabian peninsula stretching from the Straits of Hormuz in the north to the region of Dhufar and the Jabal al-Qamar in the south. To the west lies the Empty Quarter, the great desert. In the south Oman borders on Yemen and in the west on Saudi Arabia. Further north comes the eastern border of the United Arab Emirates, and in the north-east the territory of the Emirates divides the Omani enclaves of Musandam and Madha from the rest of the country. Within the Sultanate, south of the Musandam peninsula, the fertile coastal plain of Batina extends from Suhar to Barka. Inland are the Western Hajar range and the district of Dahira, reaching into the desert and including the Buraimi oasis. Due south of Dahira is the mainly desert area of al-Gharabiya. Moving towards the coast we have the Jabal Akhdar, the vast mountain inland from Barka and Muscat, and to the south-east of that ‘Uman, the ‘heartland’ which includes the city of Nizwa. Between 'Uman and the coast is the Eastern Hajar range, and to the south al-Sharqiya with its desert, the Wahiba sands. South-west of al-Sharqiya lies Ja‘lan. Further south still comes the vast wasteland of Jiddat al-Harasis and the region of Dhufar.

However, in the early 1860s William Gifford Palgrave, an English traveller in the Arabian peninsula, gave a far more ample definition of the country. Palgrave took the territory of Oman in its broadest possible sense, as Trucial Oman extending as far west as the borders of Qatar and comprising what are now the Emirates. ‘But in a political sense of frequent occurrence,’ he added, ‘‘Omān has a yet wider acceptation, since it then includes, besides the above-named territory, that also of Benoo-Yass, Katar, the Akhāf, all the islands of the Persian Gulf from Bahreyn eastward, namely, Djishm, Ormuz (or Hormooz as the natives call it), Larej, and many others of lesser note, besides the entire coast on the Persian side from Rās Bostanah to Djask. Lastly, the same rule extends over a long strip of the African shore opposite to Zanzibar, while the island that bears that name, Socotra too, and whatever adjoins them, are subject to the ‘Omānee sceptre.’ For Oman had an immense empire. At various moments in its history it occupied Gwador on what is now the Makran coast of Pakistan, ports on the Persian and East African coasts, numerous islands in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Pemba, Mombasa, and a considerable part of the East African interior. Since Zanzibar was an essential part of the country from the moment when the greatest ruler of the nineteenth century, Sultan Sa‘id, decided to spend ever more time there in the 1830s, I shall also deal briefly with the manner in which Zanzibar affected the image of Oman in the West until its secession in 1861.

In western eyes Oman occupied a special position with regard to the larger Arab world. Situated on its eastern fringe, close to the coast of Persia and not far from India, it tended to be seen not only as an Arab country but also as part of the area of Persia and the Indian subcontinent. And indeed, with large Indian and Persian communities, the great ports were bewilderingly cosmopolitan. ‘Hindoostany’, wrote William Owen, who was in Muscat in 1823, ‘appears to be the lingua franca, Arabic being only spoken by the native Arabs, who form by far the smallest portion of the inhabitants.’ While jurisdiction over the commercial activities of their citizens in much of the Arab world—Morocco and the other North African countries, Egypt and Greater Syria—was entrusted by the governments of England, Holland and France to the Levant companies founded in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and run from their country of origin, Oman and the rest of the Arabian peninsula fell under the East Indian Companies. The English East India Company, set up in 1600, was managed mainly from Bombay from the late seventeenth century on. The Dutch East Indian Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, established in 1602, had its central administration in Batavia (now the Indonesian capital Djakarta), and, by the early eighteenth century, the Compagnie française des Indes orientales, created in 1664, was administered from Mauritius (then the Ile de France).

And even if the first European expedition to occupy Oman, led by the Portuguese Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1507, had set sail from Lisbon, the Portuguese would usually approach the country from the capital of their empire in the Indian Ocean, Goa. Oman, consequently, was also seen in a Middle to Far Eastern context as opposed to a Near Eastern one, and this eastern identity increased as its sultans occupied territory on the East African, Persian, and Indian coasts and spread their rule to the islands, from Masira and the Kuria Muria Islands of the coast of Oman, to Socotra just south of the Arabian peninsula and African islands still further south. In the course of this book we shall see that Oman, like many countries of the East, had certain features on which nearly every traveller commented and which sometimes became the subject of legends and myths. The most striking was the extreme heat of Muscat, situated on the Tropic of Cancer. Average temperatures from April to the end of October range from 32 to 38°C, but the heat, particularly in the summer months, has been known to reach 47° or far more, and there is an uncomfortably high level of humidity, between 70 and 80 per cent for most of the year.

Visitors through the ages complained about it. Jan Jansz Struys, who was in Muscat in 1672, wrote that ‘in the Moneths of August and September it is here so incredible hot and scorching, that I am not able to express the condition that Strangers are in, being as if they were in boiling Cauldrons or in sweeting Tubs, so that I have known many who were not able to endure the Heat would jump into the Sea, and remain there until the Heat of the day be over.’ Richard Blakeney, in Muscat in March 1814, assured his readers that hardly any European could survive it. ‘For a great part of the year,’ he added, ‘even the natives cannot appear in the streets. The reflection of the sun from the rocks afflicts the people so severely with diseases of the eyes, that I scarcely met one out of ten who were not visibly suffering.’ For William Owen the climate was ‘so fatal that, it is certain death for any Englishman to remain during the hot season’. ‘Muscat’, wrote Thomas Skinner, an English officer who visited Oman on his way to Bombay in June 1833, ‘is esteemed the hottest place on earth.’ The American agent Edmund Roberts, in Muscat in the same year, complained that ‘the perspiration poured from the body like rain, and the strength was at once prostrate.’

A few years later the French botanist Remi Aucher-Éloy recorded the English rumour that a single night in the town was lethal. In 1840 John Henshaw, another American, sailed into the port of Muscat and compared it to the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel. To prove his point a member of the crew obligingly dropped dead within ten minutes of arrival. The Scottish travel writer James Fraser was in Muscat for a week on his way from India to England in July 1821 and had the full benefit of the summer heat: ‘The greatest inconvenience we experienced, was from the suffocating heat of the nights, the wind blowing parchingly from off the rocks deprived us of that cool freshness which the dewy morning brings in most countries; and kept the frame so continually relaxed and unrefreshed even by sleep, that it would not but be ready to yield to the first exciting cause of disease, to which it might be exposed.’ And Grattan Geary, the editor of The Times of India, in Muscat in March 1878, was fascinated by the idea that, in the summer heat, ‘the sleepers are during the night watered, like plants, with a watering-pot.’

The persuasion that no European would survive the heat for any length of time may have added to the exotic attraction of Muscat and provided a thrill for those in search of adventure. But it also goes some way to explaining why so few passengers whose ships dropped anchor in the bay of Muscat were prepared to go on land and why, in that cosmopolitan town, Westerners should have been such a rarity between the departure of the Portuguese in the seventeenth century and the arrival of British advisers and oil prospectors in the twentieth century. The Austrian Ida Reyer, married to the Viennese lawyer Mark Anton Pfeiffer, was in Muscat in April 1848 and observed that the heat was such that ‘everyone who is in any way engaged here, go as soon as their business is finished to their country-houses situated by the open sea. There are no Europeans here; the climate is considered fatal to them.’ When Grattan Geary disembarked in Muscat thirty years later together with his French travelling companion, Captain Jourdan, he observed that they ‘doubled the European element for a whole day’, the only other Europeans in Muscat at the time being the British resident and a British merchant.

But although four British residents died, apparently because of the climate, between 1800 and 1810, the longevity of many other foreigners living in the town seemed to belie the perils of Muscat. ‘The summer climate of Oman,’ we read in the sober Handbook of Arabia of 1916, ‘is intensely hot, and Muscat has the reputation of being one of the hottest towns in the world, but it cannot be said to be unhealthy.’ Despite the English rumour, Aucher-Éloy was struck by the good health of the foreign residents, and it was after Sir Percy Cox, the former British agent in Muscat, aged over sixty, read a paper on Oman at the Royal Geographical Society in 1925 that Harry St. John Philby, who had himself lived for many years in Saudi Arabia, raised the question of the climate. Sir Percy, he said, ‘referred also to the heat at Baraimi, but said nothing very discreditable about the climate of Muscat, where he and Lady Cox are said to have spent five years. I suppose he refrained from telling us of the climate for a particular reason; for fear, for instance, that nobody would believe him. I think you will agree with me that neither he nor, if I may take the liberty of saying so, Lady Cox are particularly convincing advertisements of the unhealthy nature of the Persian Gulf climate in which they have passed not only five years, as one might have thought from to-night’s lecture, but rather more than a quarter of a century.’

Another feature which was constantly emphasized was the uncanny abundance of fish in Omani waters. Although this was undoubtedly true, the facility of catching them gave scope to fancy. ‘In the Bay of Mascate’, wrote the Portuguese traveller Pedro Teixeira, who first visited Muscat in 1587 when he had sailed from Goa to Hormuz in the fleet of Martim Affonso de Mello, ‘there is great plenty of fish … The fish are dried and sent over all India, and so abundant and easy to catch that often a hungry cat will come down to the beach and lay her tail on the water, to which the little fishes come and take hold of it. When she feels them fast, with a whisk of her tail she lays them high and dry, and satisfies her appetite. This seems strange, but less so if one considers what curious means of providing for themselves many animals have discovered. And this may be found the more credible from what befell myself in that very bay in the year 1587, when I was there in a fleet. I happened to see the galley-slaves fishing with no more tackle than their hands, which they dipped in the water, and pulled out the fish. I wondered, and on asking I learnt that they tied a little bit of fish within the thumb, which the fishes came to nibble at, and so were seized in the hand and pulled out. To make sure, I did so myself, and caught several.’

Almost three centuries later Richard Blakeney reported that the Omanis fed their cattle on fish, and James Fraser wrote: ‘I know of no place equal to Muscat for the abundance and excellence, perhaps, too, for the variety, of its fish. The water around the ship was continually alive with them. Those particularly of the herring and pilchard kinds swarmed, thick as gnats in a summer’s evening, seeking, as it were, protection in the shadow of the vessel from the larger fish, that constantly pursued them for food, the sere fish, the king fish, and cavally, with many other sorts, of whose names we were ignorant, were continually darting in every direction among the shoals, which scattered and fled on all sides, till the water was all in a foam; and we remarked that they were particularly active at this exercise, about nine in the morning, and four in the afternoon.’

Finally, a word should be said about two figures who have been regarded as emblematic of Oman. The first is Ahmad ibn Majid, one of the greatest pilots of his day. In 1928 the French Arabist Gabriel Ferrand encountered the manuscript of a Yemeni historical text dating from the sixteenth century, al-Baraq al-yamānī fī al-fata al-‘othmanī (The Yemeni Lightning Flash in the Ottoman Conquest) by Qutb al-Din al-Nahrawani. This was the text which launched the idea that Ahmad ibn Majid was the pilot given to Vasco da Gama by the ruler of Malindi in 1498 and who conducted him across the ocean to India. Unfortunately, however, this piece of information has proved to be incorrect. The true Ahmad ibn Majid had ceased to navigate in about 1465.

The other emblem of Oman is Sindbad the Sailor, familiar to Europeans ever since the early eighteenth century from The Arabian Nights. In The Arabian Nights Sindbad is always said to have been born in Baghdad and to have set sail from Bassora, but Sindbad has been adopted in Oman and visitors, such as James Morris when he was in Batina in 1955 and Wendell Phillips three years later, are assured that his birthplace was Suhar. The two emblems, the celebrated pilot Ahmad ibn Majid and the legendary sailor, both point to an indisputable truth: the Omanis have always been renowned as navigators, and it was to their talents as seamen that they owed much of their power and their immense empire. The magical islands visited by the Sindbad of The Arabian Nights, furthermore, may well have corresponded to some of the islands of the Omani coast which western travellers would explore.