By the time Nigel Groom arrived in Bayhan the Ottoman Empire had been gone
30 years. Aden and its protective hinterland of mini-states in treaty alliance with HMG
had become the Colony and Protectorates. The government's hand laid lightly on these twenty plus Sultanates, Sheikhdoms and one 'republic' that made up the two
protectorates. The sole British interest was the security of Aden colony with its still small
military base and its increasingly important, commercially and strategically, deep water
port, on the trading route from the Suez Canal to the Far East. The Protectorate rulers
were left very much to their own devices as long as their tribesmen did not threaten the
main 'trading routes' (unsurfaced rocky tracks) to the Yemen which ran through tribal
territory. Administration was rudimentary, there were no funds for development from
exhausted post war Imperial coffers (only 11 primary schools outside Aden Colony) nor
was there much of a vision of how the Colonial end-game would one day be played out.
The wind of change was barely stirring in this part of the Empire by the time Nigel
Groom arrived in his remote output 200 miles North East of Aden.
Yet this almost lyrical account of a young Political Officer's daily adventures in what
my own letter of appointment referred to some 12 years later as 'the wilder areas ot the
Aden Protectorate amongst scarcely civilised Bedouin' reveals the beginning of a change
in British thinking. Nigel and his few scattered colleagues were the spearhead of a
forward policy of bringing order to the anarchical in both an administrative and social
sense. He vividly describes his baptism of fire arriving in Bayhan as RAF warplanes were
bombing a recalcitrant tribe into submitting to their lawful ruler the Sharif of Bayhan (a
distant cousin to the Hashemite Kings of Jordan and Iraq). Harsh measures but it was
important for local stability that British protected rulers maintained authority within their
fiefdoms e.specially in the face of attempts by the then Imam of the Yemen to subvert
Protectorate tribesmen. Yes, the Great Game was alive and well and the Imams, like their
predecessors, still fiercely resented the growth of foreign influence and control in an area,
which they believed should be under their hegemony. But as Kipling might have put it:
'We have the bomber and they have not'.
Political Officers in the Protectorates unlike DOs or DCs in Colonial Africa had no
executive authority. They were purely advisers linking 'their' rulers with the British
authorities in the Colony. They could cajole but not command. Nigel Groom had to use
all his powers of persuasion in an attempt to modernise Bayhan - introduce a constitution,
set up a treasury and a rudimentary administration against the opposition of a strong
minded ruler as suspicious of British intentions as he was of the Imam's. Groom's
relationship with Sherif Hussein deteriorated to the point where his position became
almost untenable and he had to rely on other local notables to push his reforms. A
fascinating, almost Boys Own tale of courage and perseverance in the most unpromising
of circumstances. And also a penetrating insight into the lives and customs of the Bedou
tribesmen whom he encountered every day.
Space does not permit me to do Justice to Nigel Groom's great passion revealed by this
book; his exploration of the antiquities of ancient Qataban, part of the legendary Kingdom
of Sheba in which modern Bayhan is to be found. His enthusiasm for the archaeology of a
region, at that time almost unknown to the outside world, paved the way for the despatch
of an expedition by Wendell Phillips as recorded in his Qataban to Sheba
(Gollancz, London, 1955). This was mainly due to Groom's efforts to attract the interest
of western scholars.
This is a wonderful book. Literary and evocative of some of the more unusual events
of lost Empire. It brims with good humour and is profusely illustrated with photographs
from Groom's personal collection including many of the relics of ancient Sheba. What
more can I say except buy it!