British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Bill Wickham
Trial in Perim
Perim Island
Perim is an island at the southern end of the Red Sea. Until about 1934 it was a coaling station and a great number of ships put in there and not in Aden. It is now dead. Most of the buildings on the island and all the former installations of the port are derelict. My purpose in going to Perim was to try the local witch doctor. The Aden Crown Counsel came to prosecute and we had a police officer and a witness with us. We flew in an aeroplane which had been chartered for the occasion by the Police from an Aden company. It was a new American plane - a Bonanza Beechcraft. It sat six and was very comfortable. We left early in the morning and, as Perim is only about 100 miles away, we were there is less than an hour. Perim (unlike Kamaran which has its own Order in Council) is part of the Colony of Aden and accordingly I had jurisdiction there. As we circled over the island it looked extremely bleak but there is something romantic about it. It is separated on one side from the Yemen and on the other from the coast of Africa and lies across one of the busiest trade routes of the world. It was odd to think how many people and how many things had passed so close to this desolate place. The island is about five miles square. It contains a natural harbour which cuts well into the island like a tongue. Lying at the bottom of the harbour and looking like a great shark was the carcass of a warship sunk there in the war. More immediately sinister were the remains of an aeroplane which lay spreadeagled on the ground a short way from the end of the runway. We landed safely however and were met by the Clerk of Perim who runs the place. He is under the orders of the Commissioner of Police in Aden who is the Administrator of Perim.

Trial in Perim
Perim Harbour
Perim is not a flat piece of bare sand. It is a small undulating island broken into three or four small hills. The ground is all sand and small black stones. Nothing could possibly grow there. There are two shops. The population consists of about 300 people. A few of them are professional fishermen, others are employed in the evaporation plant which makes fresh water from the sea and some are miscellaneously employed by the Government. The rest are 'destitutes', to use the Clerk's expression, and are kept by the Government who had not the heart to let them starve or compel them to move to Aden when the port was closed.

There is no transport on the island and no road. After a few minutes walk we arrived at the police barracks. There is always a small detachment of armed police from Aden. To my considerable surprise, I was greeted with a Guard of Honour. I was not quite sure what to do. I was dressed in white shorts and shirt, a camera over my shoulder and a missionary hat which had been rescued from obscurity for the occasion. I handed the camera to the Clerk and rather clumsily removed the hat while the guard presented arms. When this was over I inspected the guard. I muttered something which could have been 'carry on Sergeant' and the guard was duly dismissed. It was similar to the guard which the judge inspects in Aden when he opens the sessions about three times a year. It was exceptionally smart and I made what I hoped were suitable comments to the sergeant.

Trial in Perim
Perim Cable Station
After this we all piled into a dhow and sailed across the harbour to the Administration Office for the trial. This was believed to be the first time a magistrate had come from Aden to try a case on Perim, but there were no crowds outside the court and remarkably little interest was taken in the proceedings.

The charge was causing grievous hurt to a small girl of about eight. There were two accused. One was a boiler scraper employed in the Evaporation Plant. He was also the local witch doctor. The second accused was her father. He was charged with abetment. The facts disclosed that the girl had been seized of a fever and her father had sent for the local witch doctor, thus following the normal procedure. The latter diagnosed devils. He said the girl had one devil in her mouth and one under her finger nail. In removing the first devil, he knocked out some of her teeth. Happily they were milk teeth. In removing the other devil, he tore off her finger nail. There is no doctor on the island, but in due course the news reached the dresser who gave the girl some tablets which reduced the fever. The prisoner admitted that he had treated the girl, but claimed that he had only massaged her with oil and prayed over her. He called a number of witnesses, including the Qadi of Perim (the Qadi is the religious leader) who all said that this was a proper way to behave. The prisoner said his father and grandfather before him had all been witch doctors and it was the normal practice to send for him when someone was ill. Questioned by me, however, they all agreed that had the prisoner removed the finger nail it would have been wrong. They were sure that he had never used violence on his patients but had he done so it would have been wrong. The teeth they thought, being milk teeth, might have been loose anyway and might have been knocked out by accident. I duly convicted him and sentenced him to 9 months imprisonment in Aden. I am sure this was a proper sentence. He had removed a girl's finger nail - a horrible thing to do.
Trial in Perim
Perim Island Lighthouse
It was clear from the evidence of the Qadi and others that it was no part of the Muslim religion to tear off little girls' finger nails. If it had been all right in local opinion the Clerk would never have reported the matter to Aden. By our standards it was not a heavy sentence, but it could only be served in Aden. As he had never left Perim in his life before and had to travel in an aeroplane to a foreign gaol, the punishment was probably sufficient. Moreover, it was the first time in local memory that such a thing had happened. When he has finished his sentence he will return to his job. The father I bound over and charged him in future that when his daughter was ill to send for the dresser, who had a stock of modern drugs, and not the witch doctor.

After the trial, we inspected the island and I took some photographs. It is a most depressing place. There are few buildings intact and very little sign of life. We had lunch in the very Victorian rest house. The pilot caught some fish. We had beer and ice, so did quite well. The rest house had obviously been built, furnished and decorated at a time when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. Although there had been no electricity on the island for some years, electric light bulbs still hung dejectedly from the ceiling. There were stained pictures of highland cattle on the walls and one or two watercolours in gilt frames.

When we left, the pilot. Crown Counsel and I sat in the front, the prisoner in the back with the police inspector. When we landed in Aden, I thought the prisoner looked as if he considered the worst part of his sentence to have been served.

Map of Perim Island in 1955
Location of Perim Island
Map of Perim Island
Colony Profile
Aden Colony Profile
Perim Island Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 98: October 2009


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