Biographical and demographic information about slaves in the Persian Gulf and broader Indian Ocean can be found throughout British naval and consular correspondence during the 19th and 20th centuries. The most informationally rich sources on the lived experience of slaves in the Persian Gulf are the more than one-thousand manumission statements recorded by British consular officers during the first half of the 20th century.
Located in the India Office Records at the British Library (now publicly available through the Qatar Digital Library) and in the Foreign Office records at the National Archives of the United Kingdom (now publicly available through the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive), these statements were recorded by British officials and agents when slaves absconded to British consulates to appeal for their freedom. These statements served an important bureaucratic role in determining whether slaves met the necessary conditions for consular manumission as stipulated in Great Britain’s various anti-slave trade agreements with local rulers in the Persian Gulf.
Slaves who absconded to British consulates and residencies in Iran, Bahrain, Oman, and the Trucial Coast were often granted manumission certificates by British consular officials and agents if they could demonstrate through their testimonies that they had been imported into the region after a certain established date or that they had been abused beyond certain prescribed limits. Although varying in informational richness and detail, the manumission statements nevertheless provide invaluable information on the lived experience and demographic character of slaves in the Persian Gulf, including methods of capture, transport, and sale, as well as information on their treatment and familial and social lives. Through these statements, it is possible to trace slave trade routes as well as the lived experiences of slaves as individuals and as parts of broader demographic groups.
There are of course limits to what these sources (or any second hand reports of slaves’ experiences) can tell us. We discuss some of these limits in our discussion on silences in the archives.