British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Mary Fletcher
Famine in Arabia
Seiyun
This article is about the famine that started in 1943 in the Hadhramaut (Eastern Aden Protectorate) and persisted in its effects until as late as 1947. The initial famine was caused partly by a three year failure of the rains and partly by the fact that, after the fall of Singapore, moneys normally flowing "back home" from Malaya and Java were cut off and the merchants could no longer pay for grain imports.

Famine in Arabia
Sir Cosmo Parkinson
In October 1942 reports from the drought areas were already going to Aden about the looming of famine. Action only began a year later with the opening of Government controlled grain shops. In Seiyyun on 4th November 1943 there was an incipient riot between the soldiers and "the poor" over who was to get the grain. Curiously enough, in December, when Sir Cosmo Parkinson (late Permanent Under Secretary of the Colonial Office) and his party reached Hadhramaut on their world tour, none of the official party noticed the famine conditions. The dying stayed hidden, the banquets proceeded, and the programme was carried out as planned months previously.

A month later Col. van de Meulen (the Dutch explorer) visited Seiyyun and described it later in his book Faces in Shem: "I approached a silent town. No-one was to be seen on the roads leading to it... We walked into a town without a voice... Some figures slipped past as if in a dream... In the strip of shade along the houses people were squatting wearily, others lay inert in the dust. Fear of death was upon them and they could only stretch out their hands towards us with a weak request for help... "

Doreen Ingrams also gave an eyewitness account of the horrors of the famine after a 500 mile tour of the country in 1943: "I noticed a little skeleton hanging onto the hand of another boy. They came and sat beside me and I saw the skeleton was a blind child. He was covered with sores, so thin that every bone stood out and it was obvious that left in his present condition he would soon die... I asked for his father and arranged that the boy should be taken to Mukalla, where I promised he should be cared for, and wrote a note there and then to my husband..who took him in and gave him a diet of cod-liver oil and milk. Subsequently Effendi, as we called him, became the first pupil in the blind school which was started because we felt there must be so many other children like him."

By February relief work had begun. This took the form of removing to the coast (to Mukalla) by lorry the children and women with babies. The able-bodied were fed at grain kitchens, and given simple tasks - road repairs for example - mainly as a morale-booster.

Political Officer at work,
Eastern Aden Protectorate
Mukalla
However, the services in Mukalla were badly strained by the influx of refugees and so no more were brought down officially. Instead more grain was sent up to the Wadi by lorry and camel. But these measures were slow and inadequate. At last the Government took the extremely bold and innovatory step of an air lift and air drop. It was not an easy operation for the R.A.F. as the wadis were narrow, air conditions often turbulent, and the available packaging more fragile than the ideal. It was risky work, done with amazing skill, and very successfully. Fortunately, and perhaps remarkably, there were no disasters or casualties. Eventually a peak of 8 oz. of grain per person per diem was reached.

Estimating the numbers involved was a difficult process. The total population of the area before the famine was estimated at 70.000. Figures for Einat were about 3,500 before the famine and a mere 1,300 at the end, though not all the missing persons would have died. An accepted estimate of the total dead was at least 10,000.

It must be remembered that all this happened in war time. It should be mentioned also that the area only became a British Protectorate in 1937; ten years previously the natural disaster element would have been called "the Will of Allah".

In those ten years the British influence had brought with it a British responsibility. It was not till the winter of 1946-7 that the last food kitchen was closed. In 1947 agricultural investment programmes were starting; road building, better seeds and implements, above all dams. The most spectacular of these was the great dam at Nuqra which bore the inscription:

I Nuqra tribute to ten thousand dead
Lay spread across the Wadi bed.
O God above, the Judge of All
Decree now that I may not fall.

The first heavy floods made a lake about two miles long and in parts 200 feet wide. And the long term sequel to these years of tragedy and effort? The sixties saw the withdrawal of British influence and later the Iron Curtain came down heavily. History repeats itself in Arabia, Ethiopia and Chad, across much of Africa and the near East, as it did from the days of Joseph in Egypt, and when Joel summed it up bitterly (Chap. 1, V. 4) "That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten: and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten."

The Children Arabia 1944-6

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Wadi Hadhramaut
In the early part of the famine in 1944, many of the sick and starving children were moved from the famine areas of the Wadi Hadramaut by truck the 200 miles to the coast, to Mukalla. This practice was discontinued when all transport was needed for grain movements and when the airlift began to make on-the-spot feeding and treatment possible; but in the meantime, a number of children were being cared for in Mukalla in makeshift hospitals. In time, they were sufficiently recovered to be discharged - but many were orphans, or of unknown identity or parentage.

The boys were relatively easily adopted by the Hadhrami Beduin Legion, who were accustomed to training boys from the Wadi as soldiers and who were themselves mostly Wadi Beduin. The girls were a different matter. At that time there was virtually no female education in Mukalla and certainly no residential possibilities - even in 1946 the only girls' education was a Koran class in the house of a leading Sheikh, taken by his daughter as previously instructed by her father. Obviously the girls had to leave the hospital. In this crisis the Beduin Legion took on the girls as well as the boys, arranged accommodation for them and a "matron" to look after them, and undertook their care and education. Two years later, when I first met them, there were about thirty girls in the school, age range about six to eleven. As they reached marriageable age, they left to be wives of soldiers or occasionally local citizens.

A Journey in the Hadhramaut
Hadhrami Bedouin Legion
The Beduin Legion had, of course, no precedent of female education to go on, so the girls were treated like their male counterparts, as budding soldiers. Apart from having their own quarters with their "matron" and her woman helper, and learning a little sewing and doing some cooking, they had a soldierly regime of reading, writing, Koran, Drill and P.T. under visiting Legion Officers and under military discipliiie. They were dressed in a sort of female version of the H.B.L. tunic, with a white headdress.

It became my husband's and my habit to visit, and also to entertain the girls on such occasions as the Eids. On these occasions, they were delivered by H.B.L. lorry, with Matron and her Assistant (duly veiled) and marched neatly into our compound, saluting smartly.

How do you entertain 30 little girls, aged 6-11, without toys, presents, cinema or entertainers? Food, of course, is one way; the luxuries, such as they were, of Mukalla suq. The children squatted on the ground round the white cloth with its curry puffs, various sweetmeats and fizzy drinks. The children waited politely and silently until invited to begin; thirty seconds later the silence was broken by the noise of thirty pairs of jaws biting smartly into thirty brittle curry puffs. They ate politely, silently, quickly - and extensively.

Before that, there had been games. I dredged my memory for every kind of game, race, team race, team game, playground activity that I could think of. (One thing about parties, it never rained on us). Perhaps 1 would say, "We need three teams". Up would jump the three eldest girls, salute, pick teams, salute again. After one halting explanation by me, and a trial run by them, they were hard at it. The trouble was that everything was done at the double, and a game which would take half an hour in the U.K. would be over in ten minutes. It took a lot of thought and planning to fill the time, and once they had learnt a game, they would play it at school and hope to learn new ones on their next visit.

Games, food, and then a farewell and thank-you speech, learnt and delivered with pre-planned gestures (which went somewhat wrong on one occasion when my husband and 1 were sitting the wrong way round for the speaker). Often 1 was presented with a little hand-embroidered cloth. It was all somewhat incongruous but delightful, like so much of life in Arabia to U.K. eyes.

The establishment of the school had been a triumph of pragmatism, improvisation and commonsense. It ran so contrary to the trend of life in Mukalla at that time that it appeared to be scarcely noticed by the community at large and to have no influence at all on female education. After all, they were only girls.

As so often happens in the Colonial Service, I never saw the end of the story - I suppose the school closed quietly when the last pupil reached the marriageable age of twelve. But somewhere in South Yemen there must be some women who are H.B.L. Old Girls. It would be interesting to know what they are like now - probably very little different from the other women around them, just as I am an ordinary U.K. suburban granny.

Colonial Map
Hadhramaut Map
Colony Profile
Aden Protectorate
Originally Published
OSPA Journals 49 & 54:
April 1985 & October 1987
Further Reading
Harvest of Journeys
by Hammond Innes

The View from Steamer Point
by Charles Johnston

The Barren Rocks of Aden
by James Lunts


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