Peter Hinchcliffe, John T. Ducker, and Maria Holt, Without Glory in Arabia. The British Retreat from Aden
Peter Hinchcliffe, John T. Ducker, Maria Holt / Without Glory in Arabia: The British Retreat from Aden .- London-New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013 (new paperback edition) .- xxiii + 327 p. ISBN 978 1 78076 289 0.
1The withdrawal from Aden and South Arabia must surely stand as one of the most humiliating, and indeed damaging to Britain’s long-term interests, in the annals of British decolonization. Far from leaving behind a stable and friendly successor state through a transitional constitutional process, Britain found itself involved in a fighting retreat which resulted in the Marxist-inspired People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen emerging from the wreckage of the former colonial state. In many ways, the title of the book under review, itself a quotation from the memoirs of the last British High Commissioner of the Federation of South Arabia, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, sums up the overall interpretation of the three authors, Peter Hinchcliffe, John T. Ducker, and Maria Holt.
2One of the principal themes which emerges from Without Glory is the failure of British constitution-building in Aden and in South Arabia to provide a stable and effective structure either for the period leading up to independence or for that which followed. The Federation of South Arabia, which linked the existing federation of Western Protectorate States to the more advanced colony of Aden, proved an inherently unsound structure. Former Labour Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, memorably described it as a ‘misbegotten Federation … controlled by the backward sheikhs from the protectorates … whose main occupation was fighting each other’ (p. 158). The decision of the British Labour government in early 1966 to close the Aden base and not to provide any military commitment to the Federation after independence —to be granted by 1968— pulled the rug from beneath this constitutional assemblage. John Ducker argues that the impact of the Defence White Paper on the Federal government proved ‘fatal’ (p. 211). ‘[T]he effect of the decision on the Aden base on the Egyptian government’, he explains ‘was that they now knew that they had only to sit out the period until the British withdrew from Aden for them to emerge victorious from their struggle to prevent the emergence of a South Arabian state supported by Britain’ (p. 211). Certainly the Labour government’s crucial policy change towards the federation at the beginning of 1966 was roundly condemned by Britain’s allies among the rulers of the Aden protectorates, as it was by some of the British officials working in South Arabia who felt that their government had reneged on its commitments. For instance, the former Political Officer in the Amirate of Dhala, Robin Young, wrote in his diary on 2 February 1966: ‘We are clearing out lock stock and barrel leaving our friends high and dry and apparently London does not care a hoot what happens thereafter. I was hit for six. I felt as if my tummy had suddenly been removed’ (pp. 158‑9). Moreover, the Chairman of the Supreme Council told Foreign Office Minister Lord Beswick that ‘we cannot believe it is your wish that we shall be sacrificed just because after many years of repeated promises to the contrary the British government finds it suits its own self-interest to desert its friends and leave them in the lurch’ (p. 209).
3Another notable feature of the book is the extensive use of oral testimony in addition to the more traditional archival research. In this regard, Maria Holt’s chapters on British civilians and the end of empire in Aden, and also on colonialism and revolution in Southern Yemen, are particularly noteworthy. What comes across is the tremendous danger which ordinary individuals, whether British or Yemeni, faced at the end of empire as clashes between the forces of local nationalism and the colonial state grew increasingly violent. As one former British headmaster recalled: ‘it came rather abruptly, a sudden change to being completely at risk. You know you took a chance most of the time but it got to a point where you had to be very careful wherever you went’ (p. 229). As for Yemenis, Holt discovered a paradox at the heart of their response to British rule and its ending. While many were highly resentful of British rule, some demonstrated a palpable nostalgia for the British period. As one foreign editor of a local newspaper observed: ‘A lot of people had to leave the country after the British left because of the regime changes that happened here in the south and the terrible injustices that followed. So they always remember the period as a “golden age” in Aden’ (p. 255). Nevertheless, Britain’s abject failure adequately to prepare the country for independence is a common source of bitterness in the testimonies gathered by Holt. As one of Holt’s interviewees expostulated: ‘My feeling towards British rule is that, although they ruled Aden for 129 years … they have done nothing. It’s not like Kenya, not like Hong Kong now, not like India. Even the preparation to take over … when the British left, we didn’t have the experience to run things, to develop … I feel they have deceived us’ (p. 248). As regards the contemporary situation, Holt discovered that many Yemenis ‘bewail the fact that the UK apparently takes so little interest in their country’s current political and economic woes’ (p. 257).
4Without Glory is a well-written and original study of the end of empire in Aden and South Arabia. The book as a whole possesses an intriguing mix of oral testimony, individual recollection, and also archival research. It is perhaps a pity that more space is not afforded to reflect on the role of British rule, and its abrupt ending, on Yemen’s current instability and reputation as a haven for extremism and terrorism. Furthermore, an opportunity was possibly missed to draw parallels with the litany of failed federations over which Britain presided during the demission of empire. In sum, though, the three authors are to be congratulated for presenting one of the more complex episodes in British decolonization in such an intelligible and readable form. It is to be wholly welcomed that Without Glory has been republished in paperback and hopefully this will ensure an even wider readership which the book undeniably deserves.
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Simon C. Smith, « Peter Hinchcliffe, John T. Ducker, and Maria Holt, Without Glory in Arabia. The British Retreat from Aden », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 5 | 2015, mis en ligne le 30 décembre 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : http://cy.revues.org/2964Haut de page
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