Book ReviewWithout Glory in Arabia: The British Retreat from Aden [Archives:2007/1082/Culture]

September 3 2007

Reviewed by: Dr. Aviva Klein-Franke
[email protected]
For Yemen Times

The subject of this book is the history of Aden at the end of British rule. The authors documented the last years of British rule in South Arabia, describing the political development and social unrest in Aden. They analyzed the decisions made by the British government and the process of implementing these decisions by the British administration in Aden.

The book opens with a quotation from a poem by James Nash: “What remained? Some fading photographs”.

The book is comprised of ten chapters written by three co-authors. Maria Holt, the author If three chapters, is a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. John Ducker, who wrote four chapters in the book, worked with the British Civil Service in Aden In the years 1960-1967. Peter Hinchcliffe, the author of three chapters, was British Ambassador to Kuwait and to Jordan. Their study is based on first-hand knowledge, details from their own autobiographies as British representatives on duty in Arabia, as well as interviews and archive studies. Hinchcliffe made use of Robin Young's diaries in his research. Young spent eleven years in Aden, from 1956 until the end of British Rule In 1967, when he left the region together with Hinchcliffe (p. 149). The book includes documents which are published for the first time, such as the “Defence White Paper” (p. 173), which described not only the last stages of the British in Aden. It also gives us a picture of how life in Aden was for the locals in these years (p. 181).

Maria Holt began her research on Aden in 1996. In the year 1999 she directed the oral history project at Aden and she studied collective and personal memory. She realized that the British rule is rarely mentioned in the modern history of South Yemen and that British presence in Southern Arabia is very little valued (p. 6)Among the older generation, however, the British rule was well remembered and held in great esteem. Holt also refers to information taken from interviews with British political officers and civil servants (e.g., J. Shipman, p. 137).

John Ducker describes the political development in Aden during the last decade before the British left the area, analyzing the historical and constitutional background (p. 8). Several mistakes were made when dealt with the local political parties (p. 281). According to Ducker, these failures are due to the lack of foresight that the increasing feeling of national identity in Aden could eventually lead to a struggle against the British.

The last High Commissioner of the Federation of South Arabia, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, expressed the situation by one sentence: “So we left without glory but without disaster”. This sad phrase reflects the negative and frustrating short-sighted conclusions of the last ten years of British presence in South Arabia. The British left South Arabia with a bad aftertaste, with solemn and sad feelings, humiliated and running for their lives.

The British policy in South Arabia succeeded in preventing a civil war in the region which was, to my opinion, a very important achievement. When we come to evaluate the British contribution in the region in retrospect, from the beginning of their presence in the year 1839 until they left in the year 1967, the picture is not at all negative. Apart from Aden all the others were a British political backdoor issue and gained importance in the eyes of the British only in the last generation. If we take Aden without its hinterland, the Territories and the Hadhramout, we shall see that British contribution was not small at all (see by R.J. Gavin, Aden under British Rule (1839-1967), London : Hurst, 1975).

The British contributed much to the social change in the area. The British changed the tribal, religious and social law: girls should not marry before the age of 16 and later the age of 18. Eating Qat was allowed on weekends only and forbidden during the week. The sale of liquor was permitted under special circumstances. All inhabitants were considered equal before the law. Jews, Christians and Indians were not classified as Dhimmis and were free from paying the poll tax to the Sultan of Lahej. For the first time the poll tax was abolished in a country with a Muslim majority. The British established a new legal system for the entire population, which took hold alongside the Muslim Sharia and the Jewish Halakha.

All the groups who were serving the British or working under the British enjoyed an urban environment. A proletariat was created in Aden who felt itself less committed to the traditional tribal order. Its members earned money, made an income, lived in houses or flats in the city and enjoyed the benefits of the city, such as food, health services and infrastructures. The younger generation of Aden was able to absorb western education in the past couple of generations. There were also a number of students who could continue their high school studies in Bombay and in Great Britain. A new elite class was created in Aden. Young educated people became advocates, physicians and businessmen. There were scholars and academics who were now teachers in British schools and colleges. The leading educated groups in Aden spoke openly on political issues, seeking ways to liberate Aden from the rule of the British, and succeeded in influencing the tribes and the local groups to join them. The population of Aden enjoyed patterns of democracy: they were allowed to assemble, to express their opinion even against the rulers, to establish parties, to demonstrate and to publish their decrees and aims in newspapers. The disruption of the tribal order enabled them to lead their folks towards a new national identity.

Where else in the Arab world was it possible at this time?

Another achievement which the British may be thanked for, took place after the unification of the two Yemenite states, the “South Yemen Socialist State” with the “Yemen Arab Republic”. The Yemenite government could send back home the numerous Iraqi and Egyptian teachers, physicians and army officers, because their positions were manned by educated Adanese. The latter were easily integrated into schools, universities, hospitals and in the tourists industry in the main cities of north Yemen. Furthermore, the elite of South Yemen also helped to modernize the Republic of Yemen. Their knowledge of English helped them as mediators between the many delegations who were sent by national and international agencies for developing countries to work in Yemen.

As a conclusion on the period of British rule in South Arabia: although the last ten years were tough and unpleasant for all parties involved, it seems that not everything was negative, and that the British left a little more than mere “fading photographs” in southern Arabia for future generations to see.

Dr. Aviva Klein-Franke Martin Buber Institute for Jewish Studies, University of Cologne Albertus Magnus Place, 50923 Cologne, GERMANY.