Aden, Queen Victoria's first imperial acquisition in 1839 and Britain's only Arab Crown Colony, predated most of its African colonies by over fifty years and
survived all save Swaziland. Yet, while Britain's African exit was generally ordered and
harmonious, Aden's abandonment in 1967 was abrupt and inglorious. Why should this
have been when by 1960 Aden, Britain's most important foreign base, was enjoying
unmatched prosperity, sophisticated social services, the rule of law and the prospect of
steady political evolution?
Two of this book's authors witnessed the final years of British rule and are well
qualified to answer this question. John Ducker's meticulously researched analysis of the
historical and constitutional background, HMG's policy overall, and the neglect of the
Eastern Aden Protectorate opens fresh and important perspectives. Peter Hinchcliffe, the
project's initiator, has woven together a collection of vignettes which vividly illustrate
the vicissitudes and dangers of political and military life. Robin Young's diaries portray
the dilemmas of a loyal senior officer whose idealistic vision turned to dust. Sir Richard
Turnbull's memoire acidly summarises the overwhelming task that faced him as Aden's
penultimate High Commissioner. Maria Holt's oral history, collated 36 years on from
British and Arab sources, may fit less comfortably but reassures us that some aspects of
British rule were appreciated. James Nash's poem Aden encapsulates the whole bittersweet
Britain's retreat from Aden was not determined by Islamic radicalism but by Arab
nationalism, Nasser's ambitions, the Yemen Revolution, worldwide anti-imperialism,
lukewarm American support, successive sterling crises and ultimately a failure of will.
Although successive 20th century British governments accepted imperial disengagement
as inevitable, it became an article of faith that the Aden military base must be retained at
almost any cost. By 1961, as HQ Middle East Command, it maintained 15,000 British
servicemen with wide ranging strategic responsibilities - above all the Gulf's oil.
Military expenditure took absolute priority. Little Aden's Falaise Camp (completed just
as we left) cost thirty six times the entire 1964/67 Federal development budget. If
Nasser was Britain's bugbear, Aden became its albatross.
Turnbull described the ill fated Federation (designed to unify and safeguard Aden and
the tribal states) as a 'ramshackle contrivance'. But in principle the concept had long
been supported by Arab nationalists and eventually became the catalyst for the modern
Yemen Republic. Unfortunately, Britain's model was flawed due largely to its policy of
cynical parsimony that had created an unbridgeable economic, political and social chasm
between Aden and the Protectorate and an unworkable constitution that gave unelected
tribal rulers excessive powers and over-representation.
Even so Without Glory poses some tantalizing 'What ifs?'. For example: If Governor
Luce's radical proposals for early merger, independence and generous development aid
had not been rejected in 1958 and then repudiated in 1964. If the Foreign and Colonial
Offices and MOD had agreed a common policy. If Adeni politicians and Federal rulers
had sunk their differences. If the military had been given freer rein to counter dissidence
and terrorism. If Saudi Arabia had been brought into the loop earlier. If Britain's solemn
treaty undertakings to defend the Federation had not been shredded by the 1966 Defence
Six months before the British quit Aden, Nasser lost the Six Day War and withdrew
his 50,000-strong Egyptian Army from the Yemen. But Britain, now cutting its losses,
could only stand by while the revolutionaries took over. The NLF's anti-capitalist crack
down and the Suez Canal's closure spelled the end of Aden's commercial prosperity and
marked the start of two decades of Marxist mayhem, oppression and austerity.
Overall, I warmly commend this book with two major reservations. First, the vital
contributions made by Aden's public servants, the Aden Port Trust, the BP Refinery and
the many British, French, Indian, Arab and other foreign commercial firms that made the
place hum, earn barely a mention. Secondly, little is recorded of the loyal Arab rulers
and officials who plighted their troth and got nothing in return. Lord Trevelyan, Aden's
last High Commissioner tasked to wind it all up, sourly concluded that "Our period of
occupation did the country little permanent good, for all the selfless work of many
devoted Englishmen". Yet it was Britain's promotion of the free movement of goods,
capital and labour and its imposition of law, order and governance that lifted Aden from
a mean fishing village to become the 'Hong Kong of the Middle East'. HMG might have
rebuffed the Yemen Republic's 1997 overtures to join the Commonwealth but 90,000
British citizens of Yemeni origin have chosen to live here.