British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Michael Crouch
Political Officer at work,
Eastern Aden Protectorate
Mukalla
"Don't know why, don't know how
I can't stand this place Sanau...
Prefer Al'Abr - this Bedou jabber-
They Just keep talk, talk, talkin' all the time ..."
AAND's Lament

Surely one of the best positions a young man in the late 1950s could find himself as a Political Officer working In the Eastern Aden Protectorate (EAP) was an appointment as 'Assistant Adviser Northern Deserts' (AAND). The Resident Adviser and British Agent at Mukalla, headquarters of the EAP, headed a small staff of political officers - known as 'Assistant Advisers' to reinforce the perception that they merely 'advised' the local rulers to whom they were appointed - to bring these petty potentates headlong into the modern age. AAND by unique contrast in those parts had direct responsibility to keep the peace along the vast Saudi border, from the Oman to the Yemen, days of driving from Mukalla. It was about 1,000 miles from end to end via the meandering tracks that skirted the Empty Quarter, the % million square miles of sand desert, a portion of which was in the EAP. In this fastness there were five water-holes.

AAND tried to visit each locale regularly, but his schedule was invariably dictated by reports of tribal skirmishing, arms smuggling, blood feuds and the like, so it was a peripatetic existence: a short-wheelbase Landrover with a 3-litre engine and sand tyres, accompanied by a 25 hundredweight Bedford 'pick-up' truck with balloon tyres; a barrel of petrol, a barrel of water; a tent and a sulky cook; plus a section of local soldiers and a 'Desert Guard' (an auxiliary, recruited from the area to be visited, as guide and liaison).

The British had built romantic-looking, if squalid, little white forts to garrison each waterhole at which the local Bedouin - men-folk, women, goats, camels and sheep - clustered. There were a few 'tube-wells' drilled by the oil-prospecting company and to these also the local tribes were drawn. When the oil company moved on in its prospecting, maintenance of the pumps was left to individuals - hastily trained In the workshops hundreds of miles away in the Wadi Hadhramaut, up to five or six days travel over bumpy tracks. When a tube-well pump seized up, as they always did, the reports of the deaths of hundreds of animals (invariably exaggerated) spurred AAND to transport relief mechanics and their spanners, to ensure early repairs.

Political Officer at work,
Eastern Aden Protectorate
Sanau Fort
At each fort there gathered the local tribal leaders, malcontents and petitioners. In some locations where the tribes maintained reasonably cordial relations with AAND, long discussions in the evening were a delight, stretched out round the campfire, the camels gurgling and roaring In the background and the vivid canopy of stars overhead. At other locations it was not such a pleasure, where the locals constantly pestered and importuned over matters of tribal grievance, old quarrels lovingly resurrected each time AAND came into sight.

The fort at Sanau was particularly noisome, both for the local quarrelsome 'parishioners' and for the quality of the water, believed to contain 25% magnesium sulphate. The smell from the well could be caught down-wind from a long way away. Here it was necessary to keep the vehicle permanently on call; AAND would feel his insides churning, requiring a hasty move to behind the nearest sand-dune. This was quite impractical on foot, because the petitioners would follow him, even while he squatted. So the vehicle was there to be hastily jumped into and driven to a private distance...

Each fort was in radio contact with Mukalla, but AAND was without, so there were periods when he was completely out of touch with the outside world. Tribal fights could start, camel raiders from the Yemen could sweep in; very often the crisis solved itself without the outside world being aware of what was happening at the time. On other occasions, prompt signals ensured back-up in the form of extra troops, or even a fly-over by the RAF based in Aden, to remind AAND he was not really alone.

It was a good life - for a period. Left too long and AAND could suffer from 'Desert Madness', the 'Cafard' beloved of PC Wren In his Beau Geste novels of the French Foreign Legion, when the sufferer saw his fastness as the most isolated place on earth for an expatriate marooned therein. Mukalla was aware of this: an earlier colleague had started behaving strangely and one day sent an 'Operation Immediate' signal to headquarters - a degree of urgency intended for major emergencies. All the signal said was 'BEDOUINS ARE BASTARDS.' The political officer was relieved and sent on leave. AAND was advised not to misuse the signal priority and merely to add on the end of a routine signal 'FIGGIS WAS RIGHT (the name of the original sufferer from Cafard). Mukalla would then know AAND needed a break.

Aden Map
1953 Mukalla and Socotra Map
1953 Eastern Aden Protectorate Map
Colony Profile
Aden
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 103: April 2012


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