Without Glory In Arabia: The British Retreat From Aden
by Peter Hinchcliffe, John Ducker & Maria Holt
I. B. Tauris, 2006. Pp. xxiii 327. Illus. Maps. Notes. Appendices. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £29. 50. ISBN 10: 1-84511-140-0.
Perhaps the most important distinction to be considered in discussing the growing literature on the end of British imperial rule in Aden is between those authors who were there, and those who were not. From the former, readers expect detailed knowledge, local colour and a sense of passionate engagement with the issues which the British confronted as they plotted their retreat from empire. Two of the authors of Without Glory in Arabia have extensive experience of the last years of British rule in the region, while the third, Maria Holt, has interviewed members of both the British community and the local population with memories of this period in their country’s history. The result is a captivating and kaleidoscopic overview of some key events which fulfils expectations, in general, while leaving those readers who were not there, with some slight sense of frustration at a small number of missed opportunities.
All three authors make distinctive contributions to our understanding of the end of empire in Aden. John Ducker delivers calm, precise discussions of the historical background, the international context, the Eastern Aden Protectorate and the hugely controversial 1966 Defence White Paper. The last had perilous consequences for Britain’s allies in the region, and these are explained with great lucidity. Elsewhere, Ducker identifies a number of other failings of British policy, including the handling of the South Arabian League and the suspension of the constitution in 1965. These sections form a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about the reasons why British policy ended in such an ignominious manner. Peter Hinchcliffe draws on his own experience, on that of other political officers, and on the fascinating Robin Young diaries to provide a series of vivid portrayals of what life was like for the British in Aden and the Protectorates during the 1960s. These sections have the great merit of preserving some vitally important first hand accounts of the period, and give a genuine sense of what the texture of day to day life was like for those who were called upon to implement policy on the ground. The preservation of these memories is also an interest of Maria Holt whose Oral History Project seeks to encapsulate the experiences of British and Arabs in Aden. Her chapters are based on extensive research, and the careful handling of sensitive interviews has produced important results: in particular the chapter on Arab reactions to the development of British policy which is significant in balancing the overwhelming concentration on British experiences in the broader historiography. What these reactions reveal is precisely how diverse the Arab experience was and how significant the British legacy remains; its ramifications still have some influence over the lives of modern Yemenis.
Shared authorship of this kind inevitably raises issues pertaining to the editing of the different voices and the use made of a range of sources. The organisation of the disparate matter does appear somewhat unsystematic; and the ordering of the material between appendices, the main body of the text and the separate chapters perhaps needed more rigorous editorial direction. Additionally, professional historians may be somewhat frustrated by the manner in which some of the documents are presented. Robin Young’s diaries are the subject of a fascinating chapter which makes the lack of wider access to them seem rather more unfortunate, although there are, of course, many sensitivities surrounding material of this kind. In the absence of a detailed memoir by the late Sir Richard Turnbull, a synopsis of his views is presented in the first appendix without any clear indication of which portions of the text constitute direct quotation and which represent a précis of his thinking.
But whatever the cavils of a professional historian, more significant is one’s sense of gratitude to the authors for providing a lively and entertaining book which also contributes important new insights to our understanding of the end of empire in Aden.