The European Exploration of Kuwait

Cercle Royal Gaulois, Brussels
16 February 2010


under the patronage of H.E. Nabeela A. Al-Mulla, Ambassador of the State of Kuwait,
and François-Xavier de Donnea, President of the MEDEA Institute


The European Exploration of Kuwait


Dr. Ben J. Slot


Dr B.J. Slot (Apeldoorn, 1941) has spent most of his working life as archivist at the National Archives of the Netherlands. In addition, he has published many articles and a number of books, including The Origins of Kuwait and Mubarak Al-Sabah founder of modern Kuwait. Kuwait also has a place in a more general work: The Arabs of the Gulf, 1600-1784. These three books also exist in Arabic translation. At the moment he is preparing several publications, on the history of Greece, on the history of the Gulf in general, and on the history of Kuwait.




In her introductory speech H.E. Ambassador Nabeela al Mulla underlined that this event was coinciding with Kuwait’s Presidency of the GCC through 2010 which overlaps Belgium’s Presidency of the EU. Kuwait is a country which importance is mainly unknown. A study such as the one Dr Slot is presenting today make Kuwaitis proud to belong to such a country.

Mr François-Xavier de Donnea, President of the MEDEA Institute, took then the floor to present the new strategy line of the MEDEA Institute, from now focalizing on Euro-Arab relations and more especially on the relations between Europe and the Gulf countries. Those countries are mostly unknown, or known only for their energy supply or their petrodollars. There was undoubtedly a lack of an organism informing about the diversity of resources, cultures and heritages presents in the Gulf. The MEDEA Institute is pleased to initiate its new partnership with the Embassy of Kuwait by such an interesting conference about the dialogue between Kuwait and Europe in its early period.



The European exploration of Kuwait

In the course of the 15th century, when the European started to explore the world, they had an old source of knowledge: the handbook of geography by the Greek scholar Ptolemy of Alexandria (c. 150 A.D.) His work consists of lists of thousands of toponyms and coordinates which enable one to reconstruct the lost maps belonging to his book. Such reconstructed maps were printed and became generally available. Also in Ptolemy’s book figures the large bay of Kuwait which made it a splendid port as Holy Gulf, in Greek Hieros Kolpos. Ptolemy’s information was not very fresh when he wrote his book: the main source of Greek knowledge was Androsthenes of Thasos, who almost 500 years before Ptolemy explored the Gulf on the orders of Alexander the Great.


Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Cartes et Plans Ge DD 683 Rés. fol. 3 (detail)


The first map that seems to show results of the Portuguese explorations in the region of Kuwait is the unique and precious manuscript map of the Indian Ocean in the Miller Atlas in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, but this map is strangely distorted. Printed maps of the region that showed the situation after the first Portuguese explorations appeared in Italy from 1548 on. They were the work of the Piemontese cartographer Giacomo Gastaldi. Gastaldi’s big map of Asia of 1561 shows the knowledge acquired by the very first Portuguese expedition of 1507, but contains no solid knowledge about the Kuwait region. Gastaldi filled Kuwait haphazardly with erroneous toponyms from south-eastern Persia. The only positive thing is that there still can be seen the bay near Kuwait which Ptolemy called in Greek the Hieros Kolpos (Sacer Sinus in the Latin versions).


Gastaldi’s map of 1561


Gastaldi’s maps were inaccurate, but they were imitated by the great Antwerp cartographic firm of Ortelius and even became the standard of knowledge for the European printed maps until the year 1700.

There was by that time better knowledge available. In 1561 a Portuguese cartographer, Lazaro Luis, drew a manuscript atlas that contained the first geometrically correct image of the Gulf, with correct toponyms. A version of this map came into the hands of Dutch printers and so from 1596 on a few Dutch maps were printed  which showed two Kuwaiti toponyms: Ilha de Aguada (Island of the Well) for Faylaka and Zar for the headland of Zor near Kuwait’s border with Saudi Arabia. But these rare maps never gained a market share against the popular Gastaldi maps.

There is no confirmation that the Portuguese ever went on land in Kuwait. The first recorded presence of a European on Kuwaiti soil was in the course of a Dutch exploration of the route to Basra in 1645 when Dutch sailors went on land on an empty stretch of the coast of Kuwait and turned back thinking that there was nothing to be gained there.

There were two ways of exploring. Simple sailors could visit unknown coasts which could be dangerous. But there was also a more gentlemanly way of exploring, from a library. French cartographers found in Latin and French translations of books of Arab geographers

Between 1701 and 1721 the French cartographers Guillaume Delisle and Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville got rid of most of Gastaldi’s old misconceptions. They also had a French translation of a clear Arab source: the Arab author Abulfida’s version of the description of Arabia by Ibn Hawqal. This text mentioned a city Kadhema with a big harbor, and so maps since 1721 have Kuwait with the mention of its bay, but with an old and forgotten name.

The real Kuwait must have been known before 1750 to some Europeans. There was in Basra a Carmelite monastery with European monks who acted as agents for forwarding of mail from India to the Mediterranean and we know that Kuwait was the starting point of a caravan route to the Mediterranean. In 1750 Frans Canter, the representative of the Dutch East India Company in Basra, accused of fraud, took the money of his office and fled to Kuwait, then usually called Green, to travel with a caravan to Europe. Canter’s successor Kniphausen tried to recover the escapee and the money from Kuwait, but he was too late.

The Dutch documents on this event show us the position of Kuwait as an intermediary between East and West. A printed nautical chart, published by the firm of Van Keulen in Amsterdam in 1753 is the first map to have Kuwait City with the name of Green and Faylaka island as « Felicia ». The map shows moreover in lines of depth soundings the route of the first Dutch ships to visit Kuwait City, but its drawing is still a bit distorted.


Part of the nautical chart of the Gulf by Johannes van Keulen, printed in Amsterdam in 1753


Kniphausen was an interesting adventurer. He quarreled with the Turkish authorities in Basra, and then built a Dutch fortress, Mosselstein, on the island of Kharg. He established Kharg as the first free port in the Gulf, open to all nations. In the old times the Dutch East India Company’s policy had been focused on Turks and Persians, but Kniphausen told his superiors that Turks and Persians as subjects of tyrants were unreliable, and that it was much preferable to deal with Arabs, free people like the Europeans. The Arab shaikhs were accepted by their people because they were the most competent among them, not because they had inherited their position. The Gulf Arabs were rather poor, but loved their freedom, and if they came under pressure they left for new dwellings out of the reach of potential oppressors. In this context we have also to consider Kuwait, where merchants settled outside the reach of Persia or Turkey. To support his new policy Kniphausen wrote a long report on the Arab tribes of the Gulf region.

Kniphausen had during the hunt for Canter come into contact with the principal shaikh of Kuwait. In his report of 1756 he gives the first description of that place, which he still calls Green. He describes the Utub tribe of Kuwait as the biggest in the region. They have many small ships for pearling, fishing and trade. They are ruled in a unique manner: « several shaikhs together who govern in relative unity ». Among them the first in rank in 1756 was  a certain Mubarak Al Sabah, but because he was young and relatively poor there was another shaikh (the ancestor of the later Royal family of Bahrain) who had almost equal power. This state of affairs indicates a stable political system which had been established for some time: otherwise a relative young and poor person could not be the leader of Kuwait. Kniphausen also experimented with trade with Kuwait, he was interested in the sulphur ore of the southern part of the country.

The first printed mention of the name of Kuwait as synonym of Green is thanks to Carsten Niebuhr, a Danish geometer, who visited the Dutch on Kharg island in 1765 as only survivor of the Danish expedition to the Arabian peninsula which had left Denmark in 1761. His book also mentions the place of Kuwait as a link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

The war between Turkey and Persia of 1778 made that the Europeans left Basra once again and looked for another port in the Gulf region. The captain of an English ship, the Eagle made a first accurate survey of Kuwait Bay, the old Holy Gulf. The French consul in Basra, Rousseau (a cousin of the famous philosopher) came as first European to stay for some months in Kuwait.

Rousseau and Niebuhr were among the first to bring to Western Europe reports about a new development in Central Arabia: the movement of Islamic revival connected with the expansion of the first Saudi state. Kuwait, a city of moderate traders and sailors in the buffer zone between the Ottoman Empire and the Saudi state came under serious pressure between two strong neighbours and had to balance between the two, sometimes also trying an alliance with Britain, the main naval power in the region. This difficult position even reached in the European press: the Paris journal de l’Empire of 2 April 1811 was the first European newspaper to mention Kuwait’s balancing act.

In the following years Britain established its predominance in the Gulf. Between 1821 and 1830 they sent out ships to survey in detail all its coasts and so the first modern nautical charts of the entire Gulf were published. In the 19th century there came more foreign visitors to Kuwait and their impressions can be found in travel books and reports in archives. They usually described Kuwait in a friendly manner. A kind of general summary of the impression the Europeans had about Kuwait is given in the 1880’s by the great French geographer Vivien St Martin:

Kuwait is in Turkish Arabia a kind of independent republic ruled in a patriarchal way by a Shaikh. The powerful Utub tribe founded it, since then in has much increased because of the immigration of people from Basra…

The activity of its port is continually increasing, especially with India. Engineers generally see this place as the terminus of a railroad that once should connect the Gulf with the Mediterranean. The people of Kuwait are among the freest people of the world and also are said to be among those with the strongest physical health, people of 100 years old are quite common there…


The nautical chart of 1832 showing the detailed surveying by Guys and Brucks of 1821


A few years earlier, in 1870, there had been a Dutch naval visit to Kuwait. The report on this visit also gave a very positive image of Kuwait: it was a prosperous place and the only port in the Gulf where the trade was entirely in the hands of local Arab people. The idea of Kuwait being a kind of republic went so far that the prestigious Berlin firm of Kiepert in 1867 published a map showing an independent “Republic of Kuwait”; this to the indignation of the Ottoman Empire, and the map caused diplomatic upheaval. But even a Turkish source stated (following the French geographer Reclus) that Kuwait was a republic like the republic of Venice. The Turkish fears that Kuwait might drift into the hands of Britain was caused by such maps and by newspaper reports from India that Kuwait might ask to British for protection. The Turks reacted by trying to impose their authority on Kuwait around 1867 – 1871, but not very energetically: they feared that the rich Kuwaitis might leave Kuwait for a place outside reach of the Turks and that they would be left with a piece of desert.

But at the end of the 19th century, when the colonial empires tended to fill the last empty spaces in the world, also Kuwait came into serious danger. The Ottoman Empire wanted effective occupation of this strategic position. At that time, Kuwait was ruled by Mubarak al Sabah, a descendant of the Mubarak described in 1756 by Kniphausen.

Mubarak tried an old ploy, used already by the Kuwaitis around 1800 and in 1840: if Turkey looks dangerous, Kuwait will look for British protection. The British were at first not inclined to help him but Mubarak was cleaver and he established contact with the Germans, the Persians, the French, the Russians and the British very nervous that other powers would gain a foothold in the Gulf. Mubarak’s manipulations caused a high British official to make the statement: « We do not want Kuwait, but we also do not want somebody else to have it.

Mubarak’s Kuwait became a state with a legal status in international law. He created a clever play of balancing the British against the Turks. Both kept from interfering too much in Kuwait internal affairs because they still feared that the merchants and ship-owners would leave.


Shaikh Mubarak, portrayed by the German traveler Hermann Burchardt in 1903


Mubarak was quite a modern man, using a steam yacht to get to places where he could discreetly send telegrams, to foreign representatives. His most interesting contact was a French scholar, who after publishing studies on Islamic law, publishing a nationalist Arabic newspaper in Tunisia, where he was kicked out by the French authorities because he stared a nationalistic newspaper against the French.  He lived disguised as an Arab in Mubarak’s palace, writing newspaper articles about independence for the Arabian Peninsula and organizing the supply of arms to Mubarak’s friends Ibn Saud.

In 1912, Mubarak was the first Gulf ruler to have a newspaper interview. He went very far by playing the balance between the powers. It was even said that Sief palace in Kuwait had two reception rooms: one for visiting British officials and one for Turks.

According to by the Danish traveler Barclay Raunkiær, who visited Kuwait in 1912, Mubarak was an autocrat, but a very approachable one. He was indeed a unique personality who was the first Kuwaiti of international fame.