20 APRIL 1930
At 1000 hours on 20 April 1930, HMS Lupin and HMS Cyclamen, two British Arabis class warships opened fire on the town of Khasab, situated on the mountainous coast of Oman’s Musandam Peninsula which juts out into the Straits of Hormuz. The bombardment was focused on a central area of the town behind the Portuguese built seventeenth century fort, which included the family home of the town’s sheikh, Hasan bin Muhammad, as well as targeting the neighbouring village of Beni Hadiya and any local fishing vessels.1
The incident was kept secret, receiving no coverage at all in any British newspaper and, as of the time of writing (June 2021), I haven’t noticed any mention of it in any regional history book or indeed even on the Wikipedia page for Khasab, though there might be the occasional reference in PhD dissertations. We can be certain that both the Omani dictatorship and the British government which continues to support it, regard any reference to the event as inconvenient history.
SHEIKH HASAN OF KHASAB DEFIES THE BRITISH
In the months preceding the bombardment, Hasan had led a peaceful and popular defiance of British attempts to impose control. The trigger for conflict came when a delegate of the British backed Sultan and a survey party, were not allowed to pass through the town.
Britain’s Political Resident at Bushire (Persia) had warned on 17 March that if the sheikh was ‘allowed to flout (the) Sultan’s authority with impunity, (the) effect will spread… and the authority of (the) state will be further undermined,’ adding in a further telegram on 24 March that he believed it was not an isolated incident but part of a ‘concerted action by (a) number of petty sheikhs to resist authority of Muscat and also to flout (the) British authorities.’2
KHASAB MUST BE PUNISHED AS A LESSON TO ARABS
The Political Resident pointed out that Khasab was an important stop over for flying boats and that unless London was prepared to consider a detour. He considered it ‘essential that the sheikh should be subdued.’3
What he feared even more was the repercussion of such defiance for the British ‘on (the) Trucial Coast where as you know I am being urged to arrange facilities for (the) RAF. Failure to clear up (the) situation at Khasab will make matters much more difficult whereas surrender of this petty sheikh would have (a) salutary effect. Delay however is creating (an) unfortunate impression on (the) Arab mind.’4
A senior British naval commander joined the chorus of doom, warning that he had ‘noticed very clear indications of lessening respect for the authority of Great British on both (Gulf and Indian Ocean) coasts of Oman and has heard sheikhs frankly state that they regard Great Britain as a decadent power. Unless Khasab is now reduced to complete submission British authority in the Persian Gulf will receive a most damaging blow.’5
THE BRITISH CABINET APPROVES A PUNITIVE RAID
By the 9 April the issue had been escalated to the highest possible priority as the British Cabinet considered what steps to take. William Wedgewood Benn, the Secretary of State for India, urged his colleagues to approve a punitive expedition as ‘only in this way’ would the ‘authority of the Sultan of Muscat’ be upheld.
Ministers accordingly gave their initial approval for the fort to be destroyed, followed on the 15 April when the issue was brought up again, for an agreement for the area of shelling to be widened to include the quarter of the town where the sheikh’s house was located as well as the neighbouring village of Beni Hediya, the only constraint being that ‘due notice’ should be given ‘to avoid danger to human life.’6
With London having authorised the use of modern naval firepower, the Captain of HMS Lupin duly delivered an ultimatum to the sheikh at 1000 hours on 18 April, which expired 48 hours later, no response having been received. Even though the British believed the sheikh was away from Khasab somewhere in the mountainous interior, they refused to extend the deadline.
Within minutes of the deadline expiring, many of the inhabitants were watching the smoke rise from their homes and flames engulf the fishing vessels on which their livelihoods depended. There was however still no message from the sheikh, and the bombardment was repeated on 22 and 26 April, while at the same time a blockade was implemented with Persian dhows approaching the town advised that it was not safe for them to proceed.7
SHEIKH HASSAN SURRENDERS
Sheikh Hasan finally surrendered on 5 May, and was sentenced to 18 months in the main prison at Muscat where due to the appalling conditions there had been a recent outbreak of scurvy. The Sheikh of Dubai appealed for his release but was informed that this was not possible prior to November 1931, and that subsequently he would remain indefinitely detained at Muscat. The Sheikh of Dubai had been distressed to learn of the condition of Sheikh Hasan’s family who had resorted to begging for their survival. There is no word I can find in any of the written records of what the impact was on the ordinary residents rendered homeless by Britain’s punitive raid.8
- Telegram from HMS Lupin to Political Agent Muscat, 18 April 1930 in File No XXVIII/12 Khasab Visit of H.M.S. Ormonde and Bombardment from 20-12-29 to 28-5-30, Qatar National Library.
- Telegrams Political Agent Bushire to Government of India, 17 and 24 March 1930 in File No XXVIII/12 Op. cit.
- Political Resident Bushire, telegram, 4 April 1930 in File No XXVIII/12 Op. cit.
- Telegram Political Resident Bushire to Government of India, 7 April 1930 in File No XXVIII/12 Op. cit.
- Senior Naval Officer ‘Triad’ Bombay to C. in C. East Indies, 8 April 1930 in File No XXVIII/12 Op. cit.
- Meeting of the Cabinet, Tuesday 15 April 1930 at 10.30 am, National Archives, Kew, CAB 23/63/23.
- Telegram from HMS Lupin to Political Agent Muscat, 26 April 1930 in File No XXVIII/12 Op. cit.
- British Consulate Bushire to Political Agent Muscat, 28 March 1931, HMS Penzance to Political Representative Bushire, 15 March 1931 and Political Agent Muscat to British Consulate Bushire, 1 May 1931 in File No XXVIII/12 Op. cit.
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