The Burning Ashes of Time
by Patricia Aithie
Seren, 2005. Pp.206. Map. Illus. Pb. £9.99. ISBN 1-85411-398-400-X.
What have Cardiff and Aden and/or South Wales and the Yemen in common? The answers will be found in Patricia Aithie’s The Burning Ashes of Time, literary companion volume to Charles and Patricia Aithie’s superb photographic record of their Yemeni travels Yemen: Jewel of Arabia (Stacey International, 2001). Patricia’s quest to piece together her family’s links with the coal and shipping industries that made Cardiff the most important coal exporting port in the world and helped establish Aden as Britain’s fortress guardian of the sea routes to India is recorded in her new book at two levels. First there is her Yemeni travelogue covering generally familiar ground but enlivened by the author’s enthusiasm, insights, eye for place and scenery and empathy with the people. Secondly, there is her scholarly investigation of the South Wales/Yemen nexus and how it was that a breed of seafaring Yemeni tribesmen should come to stoke the boilers of Britain’s Royal and Merchant Navies and establish in Cardiff the oldest settled Arab community in Britain.
All will enjoy such vignettes as her visit to the mountain village of Katina to look up the family of the Imam of Tiger Bay’s Islamic Centre or her account of Sheikh Abdullah Hakimi, the free thinking Sufi sailor, who built the first mosque in Wales, and, as a leading member of the Free Yemeni movement, founded in Cardiff Al Salam one of the first Arabic newspapers in Britain to voice dissent against Imamic rule. But it was depressing to learn that on his return to Aden in 1952 he was imprisoned by the British in an attempt to stabilise British/Yemeni relations, to die two years later from suspected poisoning. These and other tales will revive old memories and although Patricia stretches the imagination by drawing parallels between Yemenis and Welshmen as sharing a sombre sense of history no one would deny a common love of poetry and language.
Her account of the free movement of goods, capital and labour which characterised 19th-century British commercial enterprise and which put both Aden and Cardiff on the map is fascinating stuff. The defining date was 1839 when Haines made Aden Queen Victoria’s first imperial possession and when the Second Marquis of Bute built the world’s largest walled dock in Cardiff. At this time, the ancient port of Aden had fallen into ruin and its population declined to barely six hundred. Likewise Cardiff, a Roman fort on whose foundations the Normans built their great castle, had just emerged from fishing village status. It was Welsh steam coal, the finest in the world, mined from the sylvan valleys of Merthyr and Aberdare and the vision of two remarkable men that transformed the fortunes of both places. Haines, determined to restore Aden to its former commercial greatness, laid the foundations of a prosperity that reached its apogee in the early 1960s when Aden became one of the foremost bunkering ports in the world and the ‘Hong Kong of the Middle East’. Bute, a commercial genius and creator of modern Cardiff, risked his entire fortune to make coal and Cardiff synonymous and the place where the world’s first £l million cheque was written.
Aden’s coal bunkering progress was not quite as smooth as the book implies. Coal might have made Cory Brothers and Powell Duffryn’s fortunes and Cardiff one of Britain’s biggest coffee importers, yet from 1881 until the mid 1930s Aden was locked in a bitter battle for coal bunkering supremacy with the rival Perim Coal Company. Perim Island’s well sheltered deep water harbour could accommodate the biggest ships within a few hundred yards of its onshore bunkers whereas Aden’s was so shallow that ships had to be anchored two miles offshore. Only when Aden deepened its harbour and oil replaced coal did Perim’s Coal Company collapse leaving only Aden in the field.
Cardiff and Aden’s latter day history make dismal contrasts. Cardiff became Wales’s first capital city boasting Britain’s most modern Sports Stadium and the only publicly funded opera house to be built since the 19th century, whereas Aden, since Britain’s departure in 1967, has yet to rebuild its former prosperity. But the links forged between the Yemen, South Wales and indeed several other British cities survive. Many of those stoking Shamiris and Yemeni Sindbads (who already numbered 5,000 in Cardiff alone in 1900) stayed on to marry Welsh girls and five generations later have become a vital and integral part of the community. Patricia Aithie’s book is a fascinating and valuable addition to the history of Britain’s moment in South West Arabia, but an index would have been useful.