The British Empire Library

Sultans Of Aden

by Gordon Waterfield

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Peter Hinchcliffe (Aden 1961-67)
This is a classic tale of early Victorian official piracy - Aden was the first British colony acquired in Queen Victoria's reign. Beautifully written and accessible to the non-specialist reader despite drawing almost entirely on official records. It is in fact a republished work having originally appeared under the John Murray imprint in 1968. A new feature is a tailpiece by Stephen Day, a former HMOCS colleague of mine, who like me served in the Western Aden Protectorate/South Arabian Federation during the last few years of British rule which ended with something of a whimper on 30 November 1967.

The story of the conquest of Aden is hardly one of imperial 'derring-do'. Rather the result of a loss of patience with the 'natives' seeking to frustrate imperial (and personal) ambitions. Captain Stafford Haines of the Indian Navy had been long considering the possibility of acquiring a British foothold in the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean. The new steamships on the route to India needed coaling stations. Haines thought that the scruffy fishing port of Aden would be a good choice - particularly as in 1820 the Sultan of Lahej offered the East India Company the right to set up a British Agency in exchange for an alliance against other neighbouring unfriendly tribes. The company was not interested at that time, not wishing to get entangled into local tribal politics; but the file was reopened 17 years later when Haines was negotiating with the Lahejis over the plundering of a British flagged-ship in the vicinity of Aden. This led to negotiations to buy Aden from the Sultan. These foundered over family politics and Haines, not a man to be denied his prize by a little local difficulty, took the village by storm on 19 January 1839 in a rather onesided engagement which left only a handful of his men dead or wounded. Britain was to stay 128 more years and Haines, the white 'Sultan', was the first of a long line of colonial potentates in direct succession to the Arab Sultan whose land he seized. And Aden was destined many years later to metamorphosis from the small fishing hamlet of 1839 to the huge free port, amongst the top three in the British Empire of the 1950s and 60s.

Waterfield deals at length with the consolidation of Haines' rule, his conflicts with hostile tribesmen from the hinterland, including the aggrieved Lahejis themselves and his struggle with an increasingly unsympathetic Indian government starving him of the resources needed for his administration. In the end it was his enemies amongst the military and the civil servants who brought him down. After 15 years as 'Sultan' ruling a colony, which had grown from 600 to 20,000 inhabitants, he was recalled in disgrace and although acquitted twice of peculation of official funds the Company eventually found a charge which stuck. He was imprisoned as a criminal debtor and died a broken man.

Stephen Day's envoi covers the final years of the British presence. His is a very personal and lively account - an insider's view, vividly anecdotal, of the last inglorious years of a failed and indecisive policy of decolonisation which ended in a scuttle - a craven loss of will by the Labour Government of 1965 and a cynical abandonment of the last generation of Sultans whom we had identified as the potential mainspring of a successor government of South Arabia; whom by our association we turned into pariahs in a Middle East dominated by anti-colonial nationalism or 'Nasserism' and whom we left in the lurch when the going got too tough. As Day points out, it was the very presence of the British base which was the focus of nationalist hostility and the principal cause of the growing instability. Indeed, to the point that as one Labour politician put it 'the base consumed more security than it provided'. But the Eederation was created around the Sultans as a counterweight to nationalist forces precisely to safeguard the base - a fundamental contradiction in our policy, which was only resolved by our abandonment of that Federation and the principal players within it. His account ends positively. Many of the former ruling families, exiled to Saudi Arabia since our departure, have been able to return to their ancestral homes and regain some of their property. 'Arabia without Sultans' to borrow Professor Halliday's striking title and probably the more happily for all that.

This is a highly readable and important book. A worthy addition to any Middle Eastern library and excellent background to an unusual, indeed unique, colonial project.

British Empire Book
Gordon Waterfield
Stacey International
1 900988 41 0


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