Arming Arabia – Bullet Casings from Archaeological Excavations in Doha

Corroded coins and bullet casings found at the joint QM - UCL Qatar Old Doha Rescue Excavations

Corroded coins and bullet casings found at the joint QM – UCL Qatar Old Doha Rescue Excavations

Glints of green corroded bullet casings in the sand reveal a story of gun-smuggling and colonial expansion to archaeologists from Qatar Museums and the Origins of Doha Project. Archaeologists uncovered several bullets during the joint QM – UCL Qatar Old Doha Rescue Excavation in central Doha, and the identification of these bullets was recently conducted by Fareed Alshishani. These bullet casings indicate the introduction of the modern rifle into Qatar in the late 19th and early 20th century. During this period Qatar became a hot spot for the arms trade, with many weapons shipped to those resisting British colonialism along the Northwest Frontier of British India, and others being redistributed to the tribes and city states of the Arabian shore.

Until the last quarter of the 19th century the townspeople and Bedouin of eastern Arabia armed themselves with muzzle-loading flintlock muskets and rifles, as well as swords, flintlock pistols and daggers. Archaeological evidence for this was found in the central Doha excavation, in the form of at least one gun-flint. The gun flint would have been mounted on a musket or pistol and struck by a hammer when the gun was fire, causing a spark to ignite a gunpowder charge that had been rammed down the barrel.

A gun-flint from the excavations in central Doha

While gunpowder and flint served well for over two centuries, it was slow and unreliable. Meanwhile, a technological arms race was taking place in the west to produce faster-loading and more accurate guns. European armies and the Ottoman Empire adopted in quick succession muzzle-loading rifles, single-shot breech-loading rifles and finally magazine-fed rifles. As each new type of weapon was adopted old stocks were sold to private arms dealers, resulting in large numbers of relatively new weapons on the international market.

Thus, almost as fast as they were invented, new weapons were bought and used by the warriors of Arabia, much to the alarm of the colonial powers who had developed them, which tried unsuccessfully to restrict their circulation. A flourishing arms trade developed in the Gulf, and by 1907 the United States Consul in Baghdad reported that the Bedouin of Turkish Arabia (which included Qatar) “are nearly all armed with spear, sword and rifle, and some tribes carry Martini-Henri rifles almost to a man” (Al-Rashid 1976). Cartridge cases for the Martini-Henry rifle were found at the excavation in central Doha.

Several .577/450 Martini-Henry bullet cases, used mainly in the Martini-Henry rifles favoured by many of the Bedouin and townspeople in the early 20th century.

Several .577/450 Martini-Henry bullet cases, used mainly in the Martini-Henry rifles favoured by many of the Bedouin and townspeople in the early 20th century.

Shortly thereafter Martini-Henry rifles became common-place. Self-loading rifles began to appear in Qatar: Hermann Burchardt, visiting Doha in 1904, remarked that “the Arab possessed, along with the Martini rifle of the Turkish soldiers, also some self-loading rifles of the newest construction” (Nippa et al. 2006: 217). In other words, some of the locals were already better-armed than their colonial overlords.The new rifles to which Burchardt refers would have been the Lee Enfield .303, whose bullet cases are found in the upper levels of excavations in Doha. This rifle, the mainstay of the British Army during the First World War, is still used for competition shooting.

International politics and European colonial aspirations created and maintained an international arms trade. The Ottomans, in particular, used their stocks of obsolete weapons to arm their client tribes in Arabia. The French Consul at Muscat protected the arms trade in the Persian Gulf in order to undermine British influence in the region, and French arms dealers commanded a substantial portion of the trade. The same colonial rivalries and suspicions also hampered British attempts to regulate or restrict the flow of arms through the region.

Finally, the internal politics of the Gulf along with European expansionist policies created an environment in which there was a constant demand for weapons, fed through both official and unofficial merchants. Inside Arabia, the Saudis fought the Rashidis and Hashimites in a series of wars, while other raids and wars and the strong demand for weapons in Persia and the Northwest Frontier further built the demand for modern rifles.

A British made .303 British bullet case. This type of ammunition has been used since 1889, and it is still in use today. Many weapons use this ammunition including the Lee-Enfield rifle, Bren light machine gun and the Browning machine gun.

A British made .303 British bullet case. This type of ammunition has been used since 1889, and it is still in use today. Many weapons use this ammunition including the Lee-Enfield rifle, Bren light machine gun and the Browning machine gun.

Muscat became a centre for arms trade in the region, from where just over half of the arms were exported to Persia and the Northwest Frontier with the remainder destined for Arabia or Mesopotamia. Qatar was one of the most important routes for the import of arms into Nejd, southern Persia and the Northwest Frontier during the late 19th and early 20th century. Arms sales were prohibited in the British-protected territories of the Gulf, but because Qatar was under Ottoman control, and lacked any legal treaty with the British, the profitable trade was unchecked. By late 1906 the arms flow through Qatar was substantial with 1,500 rifles a month entering central Arabia through the port of Doha alone. Local merchants were involved in a legitimate trade, but unofficial trade also flourished. At first the British attempted a blockade, but following the treaty signed in 1916, Qatar was incorporated into British Trucial system of administration. This allowed the British to better control the sale of arms passing through Qatar’s port, and help limit the supply of guns to those opposed to its dominance in the region.

Husayn bin Ramzanal-Naimiposing in 1959 with his family and Enfield rifle, near Murwab, northern Qatar (Ferdinand and Nicolaisen 1993)

Husayn bin Ramzanal-Naimi posing in 1959 with his family and Enfield rifle, near Murwab, northern Qatar (Ferdinand and Nicolaisen 1993)

References

Ferdinand, K., & Nicolaisen, I. (1993). Bedouins of Qatar. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Nippa, A., Herbstreuth, P. and Burchardt, H. (2006) Unterwegs am Golf: von Basra nach Maskat. Berlin: Schiler

Al-Rashid, I. (1976) Documents on the History of Saudi Arabia, Volume I. Salisbury, N.C., Documentary Publications.

Further reading:

Fiscus, J.W. (1984) Gun Running in Arabia: The Introduction of Modern Arms to the Peninsula, 1880-1914. PhD thesis presented to Portland State University. Available at http://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/open_access_etds/1624/

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