Perim Island was strategically placed at the entrance of the Red Sea. It was also something of a notorious shipping hazard in what was a vital choke point along the route from India to Britain. Its position would become even more important once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, although passengers and important messages used the Red Sea route even before the opening of the canal crossing the narrow Suez peninsular usually by camel before 1858 and then by railway once Cairo was linked to Suez. It was with this increasing importance that led to the British formally seizing the island in 1857.
The East India Company had actually briefly occupied the island as far back as 1799 once Napoleon had arrived in Egypt. Lieutenant-Colonel John Murray landed with 300 soldiers to see if it would make a suitable base to block any further French advance towards India. John Murray soon concluded that any British cannons placed on the island would not have had the range to block a French fleet sailing past. The island was also at a disadvantage of being a base due to the lack of any water supply. Consequently, within 6 months, the EIC withdrew their force from the island and abandoned their plans to build a fort there. For the next six decades, the island returned to its status as an obstacle to be avoided by shipping. However, the year 1857 was to see a series of developments that saw the British take control of the island definitively.
The long and tenuous communications links between Britain and the Raj were exposed in 1857 with the start of the Indian Mutiny. This laid bare Britain's difficulties in rushing troops to its defence in the face of this serious emergency. Furthermore, Britain and France were falling out with one another despite having been allies in the recent Crimean War. Napoleon III began fortifying ports and military structures in France in anticipation of war with Britain. Britain retaliated with her own fortification schemes around her own ports as tensions escalated. The fact that the French were undergoing negotiations to begin building the Suez Canal in Egypt and investing in the Egyptian economy further heightened regional suspicions for the British. Prime Minister Palmerston decided to annex Perim Island after hearing that a French ship had left Reunion with the purpose of seizing Perim for herself. Had they seized the island, it could have meant that the French could have had control of both ends of the Red Sea and permanently disrupt Britain's fastest communication line to its most important colony of India.
The particulars of the seizure by the British are quite interesting in themselves. According to the Earl of Kimberley, Secretary of State for India to the Governor-General of India, the island of Perim was seized hours before the arrival of the French expedition thanks to the British consul in Aden deliberately getting the French drunk and consequently delaying their departure. By the time they had left Aden a British warship had already seized the island for the British.
The Royal Navy landed troops on the island from Aden. Another reason to seize the island was to improve navigation in the area and plans were immediately put into place to build a lighthouse on the island. This was completed in 1861 and played an important role in the narrow and treacherous stretch of water. This lighthouse and a small detachment from the Aden garrison were the only evidence of imperial control for the next two decades or so.
The island was administered from Aden which had already become an important regional colony for the British since it became a colony of the East India Company in 1839. However, the Indian Mutiny would see the destruction of the EIC and the British government take control of the Indian Raj and therefore Aden and its territories from 1858 onwards.
The commercial life of Perim exploded in the 1880s when the Perim Coal Company was established by Hinton Spalding. The shipping route through the Red Sea had exploded in the years after the opening of the Suez Canal. Most of these had recoaled at Aden but its facilities were becoming crowded and the larger iron vessels found that the channels were not deep enough to pull alongside Aden's quays. Perim Island on the other hand had more than deep enough berths for the largest of ships. Almost overnight, Perim Island transformed itself from an obstacle to be avoided to being the hub of maritime activity as ships refuelled and revictualled in Perim harbour. Consequently, facilities for the administrators, workers and transitory visitors to the island expanded somewhat. Passengers could alight and break up their voyages if they so desired. Its one downside was that the island had no potable water, but as there were so many ships passing through the island, it was not difficult to arrange the deliveries of supplies so that refreshments could be made available to other ships calling in to port. Condensers were also used to create water in the desert conditions. Aden responded to the economic threat of Perim Island by extensively dredging their own harbour in the 1890s but as the quantity of shipping only increased over time, both ports could share in the maritime opportunities provided thanks largely to the success of the Suez Canal.
World War One illustrated a strategic threat to the island after Britain went to war with Turkey with the invasion of the Dardanelles in 1914. The Turks in Arabia had sent a force to threaten Aden and the British communications along the Red Sea. This included an assault on the island on June 14th and 15 of 1915 when Turks landed on the North Coast of the island. They were met by a detachment of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers under the command of Captain A.G.C. Hutchinson who successfully drove them off the island. The troops on the mainland facing the island were subsequently pushed back by troops from Aden supported by the Royal Navy and by the end of the year all threat to the island of Perim had been removed.
Perim Island witnessed the murder of the island's Assistant Political Officer in 1924. Lieutenant L.A. Lawrence of the West Yorkshire Regiment was killed by members of the 1st Yemen Infantry detachment at Perim. The motive seems to have been to seize the payroll and they carried off 6,000 rupees to the mainland. The murder convinced British authorities to disband the British officered but locally manned unit to be disbanded.
The interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s saw the beginning of the decline in the fortunes for Perim Island as ships began the steady switch from coal to oil as their primary form of fuel. Aden invested heavily in this infrastructure largely due to the fact that they had the contract to supply and victual the Royal Navy which switched to oil even before World War One broke out. Consequently, Aden was well placed to extend these facilities to commercial shipping companies as oil grew in popularity in the interwar years. The Wall Street Crash and the great depression had a further negative effect on the quantity of shipping travelling around the world. The shift in fortunes was made evident by the fact that the mighty Perim Coal Company which had so dominated the island's economy for so many years filed for bankruptcy in 1935.
The British continued to administer Perim until 1967 when it withdrew from Aden. Initially, the British had considered requesting that the island remain apart from Yemen and become a United
Nations Trust Territory to ensure the that navigation through the treacherous Bab-el-Mandeb could be secured for ships of all nations. There was some nervousness over the motives of the successor Yemen state and whether it would hinder the flows of shipping. However, much of the United Nations Assembly and the Soviet Union in particular were suspicious of British motivations and considered its stance as a form of neo-colonialism. Consequently, the island was handed over to Yemen when it became independent.