On The Edge of Empire: Hadhramawt, Emigration and the Indian Ocean 1880s-1930s

On The Edge of Empire: Hadhramawt, Emigration and the Indian Ocean 1880s-1930s 

by Linda Boxberger

State University of New York Press, 2002. Pp. xix + 292. Illus. Append. Notes. Maps. Bibliog. Index. Pb. £17. ISBN 0-7914-5218-2.

This book is, without doubt, a unique contribution to Hadhrami studies. Painstakingly researched, it is marked by a discernible sincerity in approach and understanding, and reflects the author’s genuine interest in and affection for her subject.

With a fine Introduction and thought-provoking Conclusion, the book is divided into four Parts, each comprising two chapters. The author’s skills as cartographer and photographer are evident in the book’s nine maps, the most interesting being those showing Say’un, Tarim, Shibam, al-Mukalla and al-Shihr as they would have appeared during the 1920s and 1930s; and in the thirteen b/w photographs, including ‘Husn al-Ghuwayzi’ on the front cover.

However, the maps, excellent as they are, are not entirely unblemished. For example, the place-names ‘Damum, ‘Haynin’ and ‘Chayl bin Yamin’ should be written ‘Dammun’, ‘Haynan’ and ‘Ghayl bin Yumayn’. Moreover, I doubt if the people of Dammun, proud of their town’s historical claims to a pre-Islamic origin and as a seat of Kinda power, would like to see their town treated for the purposes of this study merely as a suburb of Tarim, even if this has, arguably, become a fact of recent urban development. It may be worth recalling that Imru’-al-Qais, the great sixth century princely poet, mentioned the town when he wrote: ‘As if I have not caroused a night at Dammun, and as if I have not witnessed the raids at ‘Andal ... ’ Dammun, though once well-known for its wine presses, has, since the coming of Islam, produced many great Sufi saints as well as traditional scholars and poets. One of these was al-Mu’allim’Abd al-Haq al-Dammuni (d. 1872), whose compositions in verse have been used extensively by some modern scholars (Muhammad ‘Abd al-Qadir Ba-Matraf, for example) as source material for history covering the Kathiri- Yafi’i wars during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Indeed, while al-Jahiz (d. 869) was to state that poetry amongst the Arabs was used ‘to immortalise events’, al-Jumahi (d. 917) maintained that ‘verse in the Days of Ignorance was to the Arabs the diwan (register) of all they knew’.

In the map of al-Shihr, I failed to detect the two great ‘Husns’ of ’Dar Nasir’ and ‘Bin ‘Ayyash’, which would have been important centres of activity during the period covered by this book. Regarding the map of al-Mukalla, I would like to make three observations. First, the old ‘Husn’ of the Kasadis, largely rebuilt and expanded by the successor regime to serve as residential quarters and administrative centre, would undoubtedly have been the town’s most striking landmark, but is missing from the map. Also missing is the residence occupied by the Qu’aiti Sultan and his heir before the ‘Qasr al-Mu’een’ palace was completed in the 1930s. This complex was located exactly opposite the latter, at the foot of the mountain, and comprised: the ‘Husn al-Shaybah’ (the oldest and built by Sultan ‘Awadh bin ‘Umar), ‘al-Bagh’ (built by Sultan Ghalib bin ‘Awadh while acting as Viceroy for his father), and the residence of Sultan ‘Umar bin ‘Awadh (later loaned to accommodate the British Political Agent), all enclosed within a compound wall. Thirdly, the town wall shown in the map as dating back to the Kasadi period was actually built by the Qu’aitis: a photograph of it taken by the Austrian expedition of 1895 was published in 1914. The wall built by the Kasadi rulers was further east and closer to the old town, ‘al-Bilad’, as depicted in the water-colour by Commander Robert Moresby RN in the Searight Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

In regard to the map relating to Hadhrami migration, while it may be argued that no place in the Indian Ocean was left unvisited by Hadhrami migrants, the landfall for those arriving by traditional vessels, say in the case of western India and well into the nineteenth century, was the coast of Gujrat and Khandesh; and this region still boasts many notable Hadhrami families. Meanwhile, it is sad to see the author following the error repeatedly made by the British administration in portraying the Qu’aitis as a coastal clan. Like the rest of the Yafi’i clans which had come from Upper Yafi’ - by invitation - during the early eighteenth century to expel the Imam’s representatives from Hadhramaut, they hailed from the Mausatta tribal group, or ‘maktab’, and had settled like their fellow clans in Wadi Hadhramaut, based initially at ‘Andal. Shibam was their first seat of authority, represented on their flag as the middle one of three castles. The Qu’aitis took back al-Shihr from the Kathiris, who had previously seized it from Naqib ‘Ali Naji Bin Bureik, at the instigation of their fellow Yafi’is. The Kathiris had also threatened al-Mukalla, which was later annexed by the Qu’aitis partly in settlement of a loan and partly to punish the Kasadis for their alliance with the Kathiris whose ultimate plan was to blockade Yafi’i enclaves in the interior and expel or exterminate them.

Regarding the Yafi’i presence in Hadhramaut (which dates back to the Himyarite empire - the Yafi’is being ‘Banu Himyar’ or ‘sons of Himyar’), it should be noted that they did not, as the author suggests, migrate to the region due to periodic drought and famine’; their rugged, mountainous homeland with its prolific terrace cultivation was considerably more fertile than Hadhramaut. Rather they were invited in, first to liberate the region from the ‘Imams’ and then to serve as mercenaries, by dynasties which were subsequently to attain power. The Yafi’i tribes were divided into ten ‘makatib’ or tribal groups: five based in Upper Yafi’ and recognised and referred to as ‘Bani Malik’; and the rest, ‘Bani Qasid’, based in Lower Yafi’, with migrants from the latter being imported into Hadhramaut mainly during the Kasadi and Qu’aiti eras.

But these are minor cavils and should not detract from a book which I consider to be the most comprehensive ethnographic and historical analysis of Hadhrami society yet to appear in any language. I would particularly like to commend the author for introducing to Western readers the fifteenth century agriculturalist and poet, Sa’d al-Suwayni, a photograph of whose tomb appears on p. 154; he was not only the ‘patron of farmers’ but also a poet in the fashion of Nostradamus, whose verses were said to be laden with portents of the future.

The first chapter of Part One of the book, ‘Aspects of Social Identity in Hadhramaut and Abroad’, deals descriptively with the land, the people, their social and economic background and socio-vocational structure, emphasising the latter’s ‘imperfect correspondence’ with such terms as ‘classes’ or ‘castes’. The author rightly points our that all social groups were conscious of a heritage which affected major aspects of their life such as upbringing (including education, training and apprenticeship); and occupation and marriage (it was not possible then for a man to marry above or a woman below their social group). However, in Hadhrami settlements abroad, where a variety of opportunities were open to all individuals, traditional educational and occupational limits were not strictly observed. For example, in India individuals from backgrounds other than those traditionally associated with learning could be found playing the role of scholars; while those not associated with arms-bearing could be found serving in martial professions. The second chapter deals with Hadhrami emigration and Hadhrami communities in East Africa, the Red Sea, India and the Far East, highlighting the conflict and fusion between traditions borne from home, and local cultural and modernising influences which Hadhrami migrants were exposed to (and which later inspired calls for reform in the homeland).

Part Two deals with the organisation of urban and rural life. The first chapter concentrates on Say’un, Tarim and Shibam in the interior, discusses types of land tenure, crop-sharing, irrigation and water rights, and touches on the imminent clash between unwritten but strictly observed traditional codes and the needs, including easier and safer communications, of a dynamic, expanding society. The second chapter focuses in like manner on the coastal region: al-Mukalla and alShihr, agricultural centres such as Ghayl Ba Wazir, al-Hami and Wadi Hajr, and coastal activities such as boat-building, sea-faring, fishing and the caravan trade. Highlights include the reflections of the renowned Indonesia-born Hadhrami, Ali Ahmad Ba Kathir, on the future prospects for agriculture in Hadhramaut. But for some inexplicable reason there is no mention of the immense contribution made by Sultan Saleh bin Ghalib al-Qu’aiti to modern agricultural development in the region. Following his accession in 1936, Sultan Saleh proclaimed his commitment to encouraging agriculture by all possible means, including the introduction of cooperatives and facilities to train farmers in the use of modern agricultural techniques and equipment. His scheme, however, to set up a cooperative bank to extend loans foundered on its inability to make a surcharge to cover administrative expenses; but loans were extended by cooperatives for seed and fertiliser etc. Other failures in the 1930s were trials to market cigarettes produced at Ghail Ba Wazir using local ‘Hummi’ tobacco (whose flavour proved unsuitable), and the trial marketing overseas of Du’ani honey, in which Harold Ingrams was to play a part.

Part Three of the book discusses prevailing traditions of religio-social belief and practice, and emerging pressures for religious, social and educational reform (the need for a modern curriculum which included non-traditional subjects, particularly in the case of girls’ education), that were influenced by the ideas and cultural experience of returning emigres. Boxberger’s analysis of local Sufi tradition covers such topics as visitations to the tombs of saints and the seasonal pilgrimage to the tomb of the Prophet Hud (Eber of the Old Testament era), practices upheld by pro-Sufi elements but frowned upon by their unitarian and modernising critics. Here again, I was surprised to find no reference to the important role played by Sultan Saleh bin Ghalib in educational development. In the late 1930s, only two years after his accession, his annual educational budget for modern schools in Hadhramaut was already double that of the British Crown Colony of Aden. I should also like to mention here the leading role in female education, during the period subsequent to this study, of Fatima ‘Abdallali al-Nakhibi who died recently.

The book’s concluding Part Four, ‘Power, Politics and Conflict’, covers the birth and growth of the Kathiri and Qu’aiti Sultanates, promoted with funds from the ‘Mahjar’ (Hadhrami diaspora), and their transition from bitter rivalry to a tenuous union in 1918 - until the change in British policy from indirect to more direct involvement in the administration of the region was once again to drive a wedge between them. The final chapter discusses pressures for rapid reform and modernisation, and the stiff opposition to change from entrenched vested interests. Having failed to achieve an indigenous way forward, and lacking the financial and human resources to meet the enormous challenge of reform, Hadhramis were ultimately driven to seek the help of a world power with the strongest presence in the region: Britain.

Finally, I should note one or two errors of detail in Appendix A: the last Kathiri Sultan’s name was Hussain, not ‘al-Muhsin’; Sultan ‘Awadh bin ‘Umar died in 1909, and his second son, Sultan ‘Umar bin ‘Awadh, died in 1936. I would also recommend, in view of the large number of Arabic names and towns mentioned in the text, that future editions should have a more detailed index.

Linda Boxberger’s outstanding book is undoubtedly going to serve for many years as an original work of reference, and a rich and stimulating guide in many different fields for all who have a general or specialist interest in Hadhrami studies. She deserves our deep gratitude.

Ghalib bin ‘Awadh Al-Qu’aiti

Linda Boxberger