x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A reference book for every historian to rely on

When it was first published, the British government classified Lorimer's magnum opus as secret, and only a few dozen copies were printed.

John Gordon Lorimer (back row, centre) with his parents and siblings, in an undated family photograph. Courtesy of The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
John Gordon Lorimer (back row, centre) with his parents and siblings, in an undated family photograph. Courtesy of The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Towards the end of the 19th century, Britain's colonial competitors were increasingly challenging her hegemonic position in the Gulf. The British imperial government in London and Calcutta responded with policies designed to strengthen their influence in the area, long regarded as the key to the defence of the jewel in the imperial crown, India.

As a preparatory step, background documentation on the area was to be prepared to ensure British officials were better informed. The brief was to produce "a book of reference in which the history of every political question or relationship affecting this region can be traced from the beginning". One of the outcomes of this formidable instruction was John Gordon Lorimer's 1908 Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia.

When it was first published, the British government classified it as secret and "for official use only", and only a few dozen copies were printed. Despite being written from a British imperial perspective for a British imperial audience, the Gazetteer contains such a wealth of data that no contemporary researcher of the Gulf can afford to ignore it. In a 1971 review, The Times Literary Supplement described Lorimer's magnum opus as "stupendous" in its coverage and "without any modern substitute", a judgement endorsed by academics to this day.

The son of the Reverend Robert Lorimer, John Gordon (1870-1914) was born into a family intimately connected with the British imperial project in the East. His maternal grandfather, a judge, was hanged by his servants during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, while JG's brother, Robert was discharged from the Indian civil service when he refused to participate in a flogging. Another brother, David Lockhart Lorimer, became British Vice-Consul for Arabistan, SW Iran, and played a key role in the early development of the Middle East's first oil industry there.

David and John also shared a love of languages, another family trait. David translated Bakhtiari verse, published The Phonology of the Bakhtiari in 1922, and during his retirement recorded endangered languages in the Hunza villages of the Karakorum. In 1902, John wrote his Grammar and Vocabulary of Waziri Pashto while working in the Indian civil service in what is now Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. In 1903 John was placed on special duty for a period of six months to compile the Gazetteer but ended up working on it for 10 years, aided by a small group of equally dedicated researchers, in the government archives in Bombay and Calcutta and carrying out field trips and surveys in the Gulf.

In commissioning the Gazetteer, the original intention had been to provide British agents and policymakers in the Gulf, India, and London with "a convenient and portable handbook to the places and interests with which they are likely to be concerned". However, by the time of its final publication in 1915, a year after Lorimer's death, the Gazetteer had swollen to an enormous six volumes and well over 5,000 pages.