17 March 2014
Studying history can be like visiting a foreign country. It is all too easy to follow an interesting diversion, and you never quite know where it will take you.
One benefit of a biographical approach to the study of history, by which I mean ‘following the people’ and researching a group of individuals as a way to make sense of a particular subject or period (see previous posts) is that you can discover surprising connections with other times and places. People move from one job to another, from one place to another, and ways of thinking acquired earlier may have influenced what they did later.
I have already written, on this blog, about how some of the British individuals I researched in post-war Germany were heavily influenced by their previous experience in parts of the Empire.
In some cases, their connection with the Empire continued after they left Germany. Some of the British generals who worked in occupied Germany later held important positions during the conflicts that accompanied decolonisation and the end of Empire, for example General Gerald Templer in Malaya, and General George Erskine during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.
But the most intriguing historical diversion from my research on occupied Germany took me to the Aden Emergency and to Arabia. I have written before about Harold Ingrams, and how his work restoring democracy in Germany after the war was influenced by his experience as a colonial administrator in the Hadhramaut in southern Arabia, now part of the Republic of Yemen, but then ‘the Eastern Aden Protectorate’ and part of the British Empire.
Aden first became a British Colony in 1839, when the town was seized by troops of the East India Company. It was used as a re-fuelling station on the sea-route to India and was under the jurisdiction of the Government of India until 1937, when responsibility was transferred to the Colonial Office in London. British control then gradually extended to neighbouring areas, through treaties of ‘protection’ with local rulers. When Ingrams arrived in 1934 these territories had been linked together into a Western and an Eastern ‘Aden Protectorate’. Local rulers retained responsibility for internal affairs, on the understanding they would follow the advice of the ‘British Resident’, and not enter into alliances with other imperial powers apart from Britain.
Relations between Aden and its protectorates and the independent Kingdom of Yemen were tense for much of the period after 1918, and there were numerous feuds between local tribal rulers in the protectorates, which Ingrams attempted to resolve when he brokered a series of peace treaties between 1934 and 1937, signed by over a thousand chiefs and sultans. Ingrams left Arabia in 1944 and took up his position in occupied Germany in July 1945.
When Ingrams left Germany and travelled overland across the Sahara in 1947, to take up a new position as Chief Commissioner of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast, now part of Ghana, he appeared full of optimism for the future. He wrote in his account of the journey, Seven Across the Sahara, of how ‘The days of colonization by force, exploitation and the imposition of an alien civilization by those who “knew what was best for the native” were over.’ He remembered his ‘ten happy years of experience in South Arabia…' [from 1934-1944], where he '… helped men of goodwill to make peace where for a millennium there had been war, and there we helped them to set up their own ordered government.’ He looked forward to ‘bonds of friendship’ being forged between the British and newly independent countries; bonds which would be ‘stronger than any between a conquering nation and subject peoples.’
Conditions in post-war Germany were, of course, very different from those Ingrams experienced in Arabia, but his personal motivation appears to have been the same. The same ideas, of making peace where there had been war, of creating an ‘ordered government’, and hoping to make friends of former enemies, could equally well be applied to occupied Germany as to Arabia.
While he was working in Germany, Ingrams updated his memoir, Arabia and the Isles, to bring the story up to date, introducing the relevant section as follows:
‘February of 1946. Winter in a small Westphalian town and I sit as it were before the freshly opened chest of memories of my last six Arabian years, turning over the pieces one by one to choose those which must be woven into the pattern of this story.’
He described how discussions with his brother Leonard, in the veranda of his house in Mukalla on the southern coast of Arabia, were ‘a part explanation of my presence in Germany to-day. For it was in this room that often of a night I used to think of the problem of the eradication of the ghastly doctrine of the Nazis and the redemption and regeneration of Germany. From these thoughts sprang the wish to help in the great task in which we are now engaged, to assist in the eventual peaceful co-operation by Germany in international life in Europe.’
A little later in the book he added that:
‘Strange though it may seem, the lessons learnt in Arabia have had their value in Germany. Not only has administration much in common in all countries, but human beings are everywhere much the same, subject to the same passions and responding in the same way to good and evil influences.’
Yet, while the outcome of the British occupation of Germany was relatively successful, British troops were forced to abandon Aden in 1967, after five years of war, in a hasty retreat that can only be described as a debacle. A naval task force of 24 ships evacuated the garrison. The short-lived ‘Federation of South Arabia’, created by the British between 1962 and 1964 through a forced merger of the city of Aden with the sultanates of the Eastern and Western ‘Protectorates’, collapsed in the face of local opposition.
According to Ingrams, writing later in 1963 in his book on The Yemen, British colonial policy changed in the late 1940s, to a more aggressive ‘forward policy’, which generated resistance from the Arabs:
‘Until the eve of the 1950s, British imperialism was not evident in the form in which imperialism has always called Arab defensive reflexes into play. Up till then the British were accepted as valued friends by the people of Aden and the Protectorate, and, even by Imams in the Yemen, as a beneficent presence…. Now it suffers from a clash between [Arab] nationalist politics and [British] latter-day imperialism, wearing the garb of British-Colony-and-Protectorate-emerging-into-modern-Western-democratic-welfare-nation-state.’
In 1966, in a long introduction to a third edition of Arabia and the Isles, Ingrams expanded on the theme, claiming that his ‘method of peacemaking in the 30’s was far more successful than the colonial methods which were introduced in the late 40’s and led to much or the trouble in the 50’s and 60’s.’
‘There was now [in the 1950s] a deliberate policy of imposing on these Arabs British ideas of government which had really been reached by a process of unconscious self-deception through the distortion of history….’
‘The [British] policy pursued for South Arabia in the last fifteen years or so has resulted in the taking of far too many unwarrantable risks with the lives of others, and this has led to many moral errors and political blunders, largely due to lack of knowledge and systematic thought … the basic cause of this has been the obstinate faith in the suitability of English institutions for all sorts and conditions of men.’
Ingrams’ was not entirely consistent in his views. When he first arrived in Germany, he appeared determined to impose ‘British ideas of government’ on reluctant Germans. He attempted to apply as much of the British model of democracy as he could, but with very limited success. In 1945 he wrote: ‘if we are to change German methods our only yardstick is our own system.’ British democracy, he believed, was the ‘most robust in the world’ and although ‘it is on British soil that it flourishes best … we do export it and tended carefully it grows and flourishes in diverse lands.’ He encountered strong opposition to his proposed reforms not only from German politicians of all political parties, who objected to the imposition of different model of local government, but also from many of his British colleagues.
By the time he left Germany, his views seem to have changed. He now accepted that the British model of government was not suitable for all, and it was not possible to impose political solutions, such as democracy or a unitary state, by force. As he wrote in 1966, now referring to Arabia, but perhaps influenced by his experiences in Germany:
‘If the people of the South [of Arabia] want unity and concord, as did those of the Hadhramaut in 1937, then with resolution and a spirit of goodwill, they may be able to achieve even a unitary state. But unity can only be won on acceptable terms by the Arabs themselves, and the British part can go no further than helping them to find a way of their own.’
In summary, it would appear that Ingrams, together with other British administrators and officials who worked in Germany, had come to understand the limitations of imposing British ideas of democracy in other countries. Meanwhile elsewhere in the Empire, British officials and administrators in Aden were still following a ‘forward policy’ of trying to extend their influence, in the mistaken belief that their form of government could be successfully transplanted to other parts of the world, regardless of local conditions, the interests of neighbouring countries, and the desires and preferences of the local inhabitants.
Harold Ingrams, Arabia and the Isles (London: John Murray, 1966) third edition, enlarged with an introduction covering recent developments in Southwest Arabia. First published in 1942
Harold Ingrams, The Yemen (London: John Murray, 1963)
Andrew Mumford, The Counter-Insurgency Myth: The British experience of irregular warfare (London and New York: Routledge, 2012)
History & Policy papers