The Scourge of the Pirate Coast
Rahman Bin Jaber - Also known as:
Rahmah bin Jabr
Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah
A scarred fierce old man stood on the deck of his ship. His single remaining eye was blind, but he did not need his sight to see that things were not going his way. On land a large force of Bani Khalid were massing to attack his base of Dammam. In front of him was a superior force of his hated enemy, the Khalifas. The largest ship, the flagship, was crowded with men. He gave his orders: grapple with the flagship.
It was soon clear that the battle was being lost. His young son supporting him, Rahmah Bin Jaber gave his final order to his attendants. Lead me to the powder kegs.
Enmity with Khalifas
Rahman Bin Jaber has been labeled as a pirate, but the origins of his fight against the Khalifas lay in betrayal. Bin Jaber and his tribe, the Jalihama, were one of many Qatari families who helped the Khalifas to defeat the Persian force in Bahrain, and take the island for themselves. However, the main beneficiaries of the victory were the Al Khalifas. Their refusal to share the spoils of battle lead to the Jalihama and most of the other Qatari tribes to return to Qatar, with Bin Jaber establishing himself at Al Hassan. This was to prove the start of a life-long battle against Al Jaber.
Although he was forced to withdrew from Khor Hassan at times, the position of Jaber's Qatar stronghold, at least from a maritime point of view, could scarcely have been better. Two coral reefs offshore arched round to form a protected bay, with only a narrow pass way between them. The fort itself was a ruder affair, although typical of the time and place a square building built from mud and coral reef, surrounded by a few huts. Nevertheless, when two British officers visited the fort in 1810 were and noted that its natural defensive position would make it a very difficult target to attack.
Khor Hassan was not his only base: he founded the port of Dammam in 1809, and this was often his base in his later years; it was from Dammam that he ventured out for his final and most famous battle.
Bin Jaber and the British
Although often called a pirate, Bin Jaber was careful never to antagonize the dominant naval power in the area.
The exploits of Rahmah, though in some cases piratical, were performed as a rule under pretext of lawful warfare; and towards the subjects and officials of the British government
his conduct was scrupulously correct.
Lorimer quoted in The Emergence of Qatar, p.25
According to Rahman Bin Jaber's assistance towards the Qawassimi (Joasmi) tribe as well as his growing strength did lead the Bombay government to consider an attack upon Khor Hassan (Rahman p.26). This was eventually replaced by a letter of friendly warning to the chief of the Saudi Wahabbis, urging him to restrain Bin Jaber from aiding the Qawassimi.
Despite his well known ferocity, Bin Jaber was to prove a popular figure with the British to the disgust of one visitor, a certain Mr Buckingham. Mr Buckingham came across Bin Jaber during his stay at Bushire, at a time when Bin Jaber was seeking medical attention from the British for a shattered arm after being hit by grapeshot in battle.
Rahmah-ben-Jabir's figure presented a meagre trunk, with four lank members, all of them cut and hacked, and pierced with wounds of sabres, spears and bullets, in every part, to the number, perhaps of more than twenty different wounds. He had, besides, a face naturally ferocious and ugly, and now rendered still more so by several scars there, and by the loss of one eye. When asked by one of the English gentlemen present, with a tone of encouragement and familiarity, whether he could not still dispatch an enemy with his boneless arm, he drew a crooked dagger, or yambeah, from the girdle round his shirt, and placing his left hand, which was sound,
to support the elbow of the right, which was the one that was wounded,
he grasped the dagger firmly with his clenched fist, and drew it back
ward and forward, twirling it at the same time, and saying that he
desired nothing better than to have the cutting of as many throats as he
could effectually open with his lame hand. Instead of being shocked at
the uttering of such a brutal wish, and such a savage triumph at still
possessing the power to murder unoffending victims, I knew not how to
describe my feelings of shame and sorrow when a loud roar of laughter
burst from the whole assembly, when I ventured to express my dissent
from the general feeling of admiration for such a man.
Mr Buckingham in Travels in Assyria, Medan and Persia (p.123) , also quoted in the Pirate's own book.
War and Death
There is little documentation of what happened in the twenty years after the fall of Bahrain except for that of the British, who were more concerned with their life and death struggle with Napoleon in Europe. However, Bin Jaber would have been a thorn in the side of Bahrain, allying himself with whoever would fight the Khalifas.
Things become clearer later on, when in 1816 Bin Jaber joined with the Sultan of Muscat to launch an unsuccessful attack on Bahrain. In return he was attacked by the Wahabbis, who were then allies of the Khalifa. Although bin Jaber escaped his base was destroyed and he took refuge in Bushire, where he was warmly welcomed despite, according to Buckingham, retaining up to two thousand of his followers.
He continued his maritime exploits, although once again he managed to keep on the right side of the British; his victims were the Qawassimi, who in turn had preyed on British shipping. In 1818, as the Wahabbis battled for survival against the Egyptians, he moved to a former base in Dammam, and resumed harassing Bahrain.
Having had enough, the Khalifas started paying a tribute of 4000 German marks to ensure peace; after further bloodshed the British resident of Bushire mediated a peace treaty.
The treaty did not last. In 1826, having twice slipped past a Khalifa blockade of Dammam once away to fetch reinforcements, the second time returning to do battle again - Rahmah found himself trapped. Two forces were approaching his fort from land, and a superior naval force lay offshore. Leaving his eldest son to do battle on land, Rahmah sallied forth one last time. His final moments were described thus:
Having, therefore, given orders for his vessel to grapple with the enemy, he took his youngest son (a fine boy about eight years old) in his arms, and seizing a lighted match, directed his attendants to lead him down to the magazine. Although acquainted with the determined character of their chief, and of course aware of the inevitable destruction which awaited them, his commands were instantly obeyed, and in a few seconds the sea was covered with the scattered timbers of the exploded vessel, and the miserable remains of Rahmah bin Jaubir and his devoted followers."
Samuel Hennell quoted in The Origins of Qatar p.29
Sources and Links
Ellms C. The Pirates Own Book (1837)
Buckingham J. Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia (1830)
Rahman H. The Emergence of Qatar (2005)
Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah: Wikipedia
Mandaville J. Rahmah of the Gulf (Saudi Aramco World 1975)