The British Empire Library

Roads To Nowhere: A South Arabian Odyssey, 1960-1965

by John Harding

Courtesy of OSPA

Hugh Walker (Kenya 1953-64 and Aden 1964-67)
In his foreword to John Harding’s remarkable book, Lord Luce stresses the importance of preserving the record of those who had the privilege of colonial service during the Empire’s closing years. Roads to Nowhere is a major contribution to that end. Eminently readable, informative, entertaining and humorous it is also scholarly and well researched. It has an excellent index and the black and white photographs, all by the author, are of a high quality.

John Harding’s description of his personal odyssey as a young political officer in Aden between 1960-65 is both fascinating and amazingly detailed. His recall of conversations and candid comments enliven the book throughout.

In his preface he relates the sad collapse of the ill fated South Arabian Federation in 1967, after 128 years of British connection. He contrasts this with the huge success of the creation of the United Arab Emirates after a similar period. Unlike the Gulf States, however, the Federation contained no oil. If it had, its story could have been very different, even with a hostile Yemen on its borders.

Before going to Aden, Harding lunched with Harold Ingrams, famous for his pacification of the Eastern Aden Protectorate as described in his book Arabia and the Isles. Ingrams was strongly against the concept of the (then) newly inaugurated “Federation of South Arabian Amirates” which comprised six of the leading Western Aden Protectorate states and Aden. He firmly believed that only Arabs could find their true destiny and that trying to impose our own creation upon them was the worst thing to do.

Various British versions of a Federation - not including Aden - had been mooted since the early 1930s. One model advocated by Kennedy Trevaskis, British Agent for the Office of the WAP Office, had already been adopted by some rulers in 1959. But without including Aden it could never have been economically viable.

As Harding points out the federal constitution hammered out by Governor Johnston was virtually unworkable. Moreover, Johnston also underestimated that peculiar Arab genius for self destructive dissension - assuming that once merger had become a fait accompli, logic, self interest and HMG’s support would do the rest.

Aden had been described to Harding as a well-run, bustling, modern city with a relatively sophisticated infrastructure and an efficient public service. On the other hand the WAP was said to be chaotic with its administration pure “Cowboys and Indians stuff’. Nevertheless, Harding records that Governor Johnston regarded the way in which a handful of Political Officers had brought the Protectorate under control at minimum cost and force as “an extraordinary, little publicised achievement of disinterested British imperialism and considered that South Arabia’s best interests had been served by an unselfish and devoted body of British public servants in Aden”.

From the outset Harding depicts the stark contrast between the urban inhabitants of Aden Colony and the wild Arab tribesmen in the Protectorate states. This applied to the Europeans as well! The proposed Federation seemed, and proved, to be a marriage of irreconcilables doomed to failure. Ironically Trevaskis, one of its main progenitors, may have sowed some of the seeds of its failure due to his mistrust of the urban Adenis and their administrators which tended to create an unseemly friction.

In Aden Administrative Officers had direct executive powers whereas in the Protectorate states Political Officers were “Advisers” to the local rulers. The main problem in controlling fractious tribesmen was always the lack of adequate funds for development to help stabilise the population. Instead, aid was often in the form of gifts of cheap .303 rifles (£12 in the UK) and boxes of ammunition which could be sold on the local arms market. (These gifts were not always used for the purposes intended and sometimes turned against the donors!). Even “silver” Maria Theresa dollars, specially minted in Birmingham, were distributed in states such as Dhala’ which bordered on the Yemen, where they were a local currency.

Harding’s last chapter, Envoi, provides a clear synopsis of the final years of Britain’s declining influence in South Western Arabia. Terrorism, fomented by Egypt in neighbouring Yemen, and international politics were contributory factors. Whilst Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War in 1967 caused Nasser to abandon the Yemen, his humiliation intensified anti-British sentiment within both Aden and the Federation. It hastened the almost equally humiliating British withdrawal - followed by Aden’s economic collapse, due also to the closure of the Suez Canal.

In the end, however, the Federation was destroyed by several factors, not least was the UK Labour Government’s left-wing antipathy to the Federal Rulers. An acute sterling crisis contributed to the Government’s failure to provide basic economic support. The way in which it blatantly reneged on security undertakings was the Federation’s final death knell.

By its betrayal the British Government bore a huge responsibility not only for the collapse of the very Federation it had constructed but also for the deaths of many British Servicemen and thousands of those Arabs who had trusted and supported the British.

Roads to Nowhere is a frank account of the day by day experiences of a young Colonial Service Officer in a unique territory in a bygone era. I recommend it.

British Empire Book
John Harding
Arabian Publishing Ltd
978 0 9558894 2 4


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