The British Empire Library

Sheba Revealed - A Posting To Bayhan In The Yemen

by Nigel Groom

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Peter Hinchcliffe (Honorary Fellow, Edinburgh University and Queens University, Belfast HMOCS Aden Protectorate 1961-67)
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!

British Empire Book
Nigel Groom
The London Centre of Arabic Studies
1 900404 31 1


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