On the morning of 10 December 1963, The British High Commissioner of the Crown Colony of Aden, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis, arrived at Khormaksar Airport, a civil and military facility in the shadow of the extinct volcano which forms the ancient harbour in the city of Crater. He was due to fly to London with British Colonial Office officials and local leaders of the Federation of South Arabia; their intention to hold a constitutional conference pursuing plans to cede sovereignty of the colony to the Federation in exchange for the security of the British military base there. As the delegation were waiting to board their DeHavilland Comet airliner, a hand grenade was thrown by a guerrilla fighter of the National Liberation Front (NLF), killing two members of the delegation and wounding more than 50 others. Trevaskis was saved by the bravery of his assistant, who leapt in front of the blast and was mortally wounded, but plans for the peaceful and ordered withdrawal from Aden were halted.
A state of emergency was declared which lasted until November 1967, and ended with the withdrawal of all British forces from South Arabia in an “abrupt and inglorious” decolonisation (Hinchcliffe et al, 2007 p.2), one which was unique in the post-war context, providing no official successor regime to receive the symbols and responsibilities of independent statehood (Hinchcliffe, 2007) and ending with the ascendancy of the only Marxist regime in the Arab world (Holt, 2007).
The Aden Emergency was the name given to an insurgency conducted by a range of armed organisations, aided politically and economically by the governments of Egypt and North Yemen, (whose objective was to end British rule and military presence in South Arabia (Balfour-Paul, 1991)) and the unfortunate convergence of global and local events which the insurgency preceded. Contextualised by the uncertainties of Cold War geopolitics, it was a conflict shaped by issues of decolonisation, Arab Nationalism, global trade and the advent of new technologies.
Following a brief history of the region, this essay will attempt to explain the key events in Aden between 1963 and 1967, and use primary sources to contextualise the course of events and gain insight into the attitudes of the Foreign and Commonwealth officials from whom they originated. It will discuss the local and global factors which strongly influenced the course of events, and examine the interactions between these. A brief comparison will be drawn between the withdrawal from Aden and other British decolonisations, such as those in Sudan and the Gulf States, and use will be made of secondary literature, particularly in an explanation and discussion of British foreign policy during the emergency.
Conclusions will be drawn, and an assessment of the value of the primary sources will be made. Finally, suggestions will be made for future study.
The British Empire first acquired the Port of Aden in 1839 as a coaling station for ships of the East India Company travelling between Europe and India. A well situated, large and accessible natural harbour, by the start of the 20th century it had become one of the busiest and most profitable ports in the world (Mawby, 2005). It was administered as a part of British India, and was known by the British Government as ‘Aden Settlement’. The port continued to prosper for the next four decades, despite territorial disputes with the Ottoman Empire (Hinchcliffe, 2007) supplying boiler water and fuel oil for international shipping and acting as an important entrepôt port; attracting immigrant labour from the adjacent hinterland and neighbouring Somaliland (Mawby, 2005). It has been noted that an important factor in the commercial success of Aden during this period was its unique position, equidistant from the important British interests of Suez, Bombay and Zanzibar (Ducker, 2007; Karpov, 1974). With the end of British rule in India in 1947, the geographical strategic importance of a British foothold in South Arabia became less significant (Northolt, 2008), but Aden remained a commercially vibrant centre of trade, a cosmopolitan city with a large and literate mercantile community of Arabs, Europeans, Jews and other international migratory traders (Hinchcliffe, 2007).
From the 1930s, Aden had comprised the Crown Colony of Aden, the small urbanised port area and immediate surroundings (with an area of around 190 km2), and the Aden Protectorate, a collection of around 25 emirates, sultanates and sheikdoms which surrounded the colony, and were provided, in many cases with financial assistance and advice on governance, and development by the British Government (Karpov, 1974; Foreign Office, 1965).
The Protectorate states to the east of the colony were known as the Eastern Aden Protectorate (EAP), and comprised primarily the sheikdom of Hadhramaut and the island of Socotra (Fig. 1). The western frontier of the EAP with the Kingdom of Yemen had been delimited in an eventual agreement with the Ottoman Empire in 1914, the border of which was known as the ‘Violet Line’, although this had been disputed by the North Yemen and Saudi governments (FO, 1964). The northern boundary of the EAP, delimited by the British at the southern edge of the Saudi desert (known by the British as the ‘Blue Line’) had been disputed historically by the Saudi state (Schofield, 2000).
The states situated to the immediate north and west of Aden colony were known as the Western Aden Protectorate (WAP). The WAP comprised many more small states than the EAP (Fig. 1), which were considered to be more lawless than the eastern states (RGS, 1950), partially because of the nature of the northern border, strongly contested by the leadership of the northern Kingdom of Yemen (RGS, 1950). The border was in a permanent state of ‘tension’ (Hinchcliffe, 2007) and it has been suggested that dissidents from either side were welcomed by the leadership in the opposing state (Ducker, 2007, The Times, 1967).
The WAP and EAP outlined above had been established as British protectorates for the purpose of safeguarding British interests in the port city. According to Glen Balfour Paul, British officials decided that their vital port could “…only be maintained by pushing into the hinterland and keeping its turbulent denizens at bay by a combination of military prestige and diplomatic ingenuity” (1991 p.49) This policy was to have a significant geopolitical effect upon the course of events in the Federation to be established later.
The question of independence for the Protectorates was first raised seriously in the early 1950s. After the Second World War the British Government pursued a policy of independence for all of its dependencies, to be implemented through a programme of economic and political development designed to foster ‘viable’ states with consenting populations and democratic governance (Jones et al, 1981). The idea of a proposed independent federation of states in the WAP (and eventually the whole protectorate, excepting the military base) was advanced by the governor of Aden, Sir Tom Hickinbotham, but because of complications, including the widespread political ramifications of the Suez Crisis and a lack of confidence in the leaders of the western states to federate peacefully, plans for independence were delayed (Balfour Paul, 1991). (In the meantime, the 1950s had seen a rise in nationalist ideologies in the WAP, and the subsequent formation of the first of several armed anti-colonial groups, the South Arabian League (SAL) (Kostiner, 1984)).
In accordance with the British objective of eventual decolonisation, the first official federation took place in 1959, with the inauguration of the Federation of South Arabia, comprised of six of the smaller and more stable WAP states. At this time the British government made a commitment to the security of the new Federation with the Treaty of Friendship and Protection, designed to ensure the viability of the new state after the British withdrawal (Balfour-Paul, 1991).
An important element of the eventual British withdrawal from the Protectorates was considered to be the integration of Aden colony into the new federation. It was proposed by the Commonwealth Office that such a move should be a result of consent among the population of Aden, and so the Aden Franchise Commission was established, comprised of local Arabs in 1962. The commission recommended a plebiscite of Adeni residents, which (after extensive debate about the inclusion of various sectors of the population, (Nagi, 1984)), resulted in the integration of Aden Colony into the federation, but without losing its Crown Colony status. This constitutional paradox was later cited as a significant cause of ‘political confusion’ among the population (Hinchcliffe et al, 2007 p.27), and it has been suggested that this confusion may have contributed to the continued growth and consolidation of nationalist ideologies in the protectorate, and the subsequent formation of more anti-British terrorist organisations and pressure groups. These included the People’s Socialist Party (PSP) in 1962, the NLF (responsible for the attack on Trevaskis) in 1963 and the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY) in 1964, all of which were implicated in violence or incitement to violence against British interests (Ducker, 2007) until the withdrawal in 1967.
Primary and secondary sources suggest that another factor in the rise of anti-British sentiment may have been the reaction of colonial authorities to the attack at Khormaksar Airport and Trevaskis’ subsequent declaration of a state of emergency. Ducker (2007) states that “the increased military presence on the streets of Aden as a result of the declaration…irritated opinion on the streets and was considered increasingly offensive to the younger, better educated Arabs” (in: Hinchcliffe et al, 2007 p.60). Immediately following the declaration, fifty to sixty Trade Union leaders and other dissidents were arrested and detained (FO, 1965). A 1964 Foreign Office Memorandum contains a transcript of The International Workers Committee of Solidarity with Aden Workers, organised by the PSP, which states the aims of the PSP on the international stage, including:
i) To have the United Nations send an international committee to Aden to investigate the massacres perpetrated against the Adeni workers and people
ii) For the workers of the world to denounce what was taking place in Aden and to call for the immediate release of prisoners, the immediate abolition of the state of emergency and the immediate removal of the British governor in Aden.
v) For the Arab oil workers to attempt to threaten British interests in the Middle East.
Foreign Office (1964) Recent developments concerning Aden
In addition to the strident accusations made at the PSP meeting, a Foreign Office document also reports that a number of accusations were posited by PSP leaders of ‘ill-treatment’ towards detainees. These accusations were denied by FO officials in the same document, who stated that “a deputation of three Labour MP’s recently visited those detainees and rejected charges of ill-treatment” (FO, 1964), (though they also suggested that a similar inspection from the Vice-President of the British Red Cross “would not be useful”).
While other decolonisations at the close of the British Empire were characterised by the importance of primarily local politics (Balfour-Paul 1991), the insurgency in Aden also was influenced significantly by international forces, and the Egyptian and North Yemen governments were able to use the newly widespread transistor radio to galvanise public opinion against the British. A Foreign Office telegram of 1964 warns:
Cairo and Sana’a radios (the latter can be regarded as Egyptian controlled) have in the last month sustained an unbridled campaign against Aden, inciting disaffection and violence and praising every manifestation of each.
Source: Foreign Office (1964) Political Relations: Aden
The PSP operated primarily as a political movement, inciting violence though disaffection rather than committing terrorist acts. In contrast, the NLF and FLOSY recruited and armed groups of tribesmen, and sought to bring about political change in Aden through violence (FO, 1965).
In 1963 the NLF was formed in protectorate states of the WAP which had not yet been federated. Established with support from the North Yemen government, this highly secretive, socialist revolutionary organisation was committed to violence against the British which took the form of hundreds of grenade attacks against off-duty military personnel and police forces (FO, 1965). After 1963 they shifted gradually from their nationalist agenda and adopted a Marxist ideology, gaining them international support from Communist China and revolutionary Algeria (Hinchcliffe, 2007). In 1965 the Egyptian government expressed their disapproval for the Marxist tendencies of the NLF by persuading the leader of the PSP, Abdullah Asnag that his organisation should militarise to prevent the NLF taking control (Hinchcliffe, 2007). Leaders in Cairo facilitated the combination of the PSP with the South Arabian League and in 1966 FLOSY was created (Balfour-Paul, 1991). In a meeting between the new FLOSY leadership and the colonial authorities, it was suggested to Asnag that his organisation should co-operate with the British since the decolonisation was imminent, but he retorted, “No, we must be seen to kick you out!” (Hinchcliffe et el, 2007 p.44). There were now two significant (para)military organisations seeking to remove Britain from Aden by force, and operating at odds with one another. Rivalry grew, as noted in this Foreign Office telegram to London:
…there has been renewed inter-fractional fighting between NLF and FLOSY, especially in NLF areas. A number of people are alleged to have been killed though bodies have not been recovered. Today, the Paras. report heavy fighting in Mansoura and Shaikh Othman, not involving security forces, and therefore presumable inter-fraction
Source: Foreign Office (1967) British policy concerning Aden and South Arabia
The interfactional violence grew, as did confusion among British officials, but information obtained from NLF informants indicated a strengthening faction, with defections from FLOSY and a consolidation of strength in Aden Colony:
There are a number of reports of defections from FLOSY to NLF including some well-known figures. It is believed that the interruption of supplies of money and arms to FLOSY from the Egyptians in Yemen is making itself felt…an informant who is high up in NLF circles states that military measures are being taken in Crater to deal with an unexpected FLOSY offensive against them
Source: Foreign Office (1967) British policy concerning Aden and South Arabia
In 1966, with the planned decolonisation of all the federal states imminent, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Labour government in London published a Defence White Paper which contained a major review of Britain’s military commitments. The document detailed the withdrawal of British forces ‘East of Suez’, reneging on the commitment made to the new Federation and earlier plans to maintain a military presence in Aden.
Shortly after the release of the White Paper came the defeat of Egypt in the Six Day War, forcing Cairo to withdraw their financial and military support for FLOSY (Ducker, 2007). The NLF took the initiative again, as reported to London from Government House in Aden Colony:
The NLF is clearly an influential force on the political scene…its political class seem singularly ill-informed. …it has considerable support in Aden, controls half the trade union movement and has in recent months appeared to be gaining the upper hand of FLOSY in their internecine rivalry.
Source: Foreign Office (1967) British policy concerning Aden and South Arabia
In accordance with the White Paper decision, the British withdrawal began in early 1967. While the RAF base at Khormaksar was gradually dismantled, the Times in London (August 14) reported that NLF forces were taking control of Federation States. By the end of November, when British forces were scheduled to leave Aden, the Federation states of Dhala, Shaib, Maflahi and Auhali were under NLF control (The Times, 1967), and the failure of the democratic Federation, which relied on British support, was ensured. In July, the British authorities offered to provide air support for the Federation from carriers for six months after the handover, but their offer was rejected by the Federal leaders, who saw the gesture as inadequate (Hinchcliffe, 2007). On November 29 Humphrey Trevelyan, the last High Commissioner of Aden, saluted the Union Flag as it was lowered for the last time at RAF Khormaksar, then flew by helicopter to a waiting Royal Navy vessel. The “abrupt and inglorious” decolonisation was complete.
The closure of the Suez Canal in the aftermath of the Six Day War sealed the economic fate of Aden under the NLF’s new Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), as declared in June 1969. The canal remained closed until 1975, and trade at Aden was reduced by around 80% (Karpov, 1976). As Ducker succinctly remarks (2001, p.45); “The NLF inheritance required real business acumen to confront. The NLF did not possess business acumen”. The PDRY declined economically – corruption was endemic, and widespread poverty resulted from the poor governance and economic planning exercised by the post-colonial leadership (Holt, 2007).
The deterritorialisation of Aden and the federation can be viewed as unique in the British experience of decolonisation. When compared with other withdrawals, such as those in Sudan and the Gulf States (the former preceding the Aden Emergency, in 1956 and the latter following it, in 1970-71), it may be noted that these other cases, local issues in London and the states in question were the primary expedient factors in decolonisation. In the case of Sudan, British Conservative party policy towards Egypt played a vital part in the timing of the withdrawal. In the case of the trucial states of the Gulf, their rapid growth in wealth coupled with growing costs for the British treasury made the decolonisation of the eastern Arabian emirates a primarily economic concern (Darwin, 1984). Although the constitutional roles of the colonial power in each of these protectorates was different, a comparison is still of value as all took place within the context of Britain’s new responsibilities in a changing geopolitical order. The external factors which came to bear in the case of Aden, in the form of propagandising by Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egyptian government, the involvement of the North Yemeni authorities and the closure of the Suez Canal, were all outside of the British and Federation Government’s ‘Spheres of Influence’ (Barnett, 1996). The stabilising force of the Saudi government, which had significant support from the EAP populace throughout the affair (Hinchcliffe et al, 2007) was a significant force against the eventual success of the PSP, but this also lay outside of direct British control. The effect of Pan-Arabist thought espoused by the PSP in the early years of the emergency are well illustrated by the telegram cited above, (in which the PSP leadership call upon “Arab oil workers”, presumably across the Arab world, to “threaten British interests”) which gives an insight into the international focus of the group’s philosophy. The request for attention from the United Nations (whose involvement Britain opposed throughout) in the same transcript indicates the group’s global intentions and awareness. Stability of Persian Gulf oil supplies was one of the chief strategic values of the military base at Aden toward the end of the British tenure there (King, 1964).
As has been shown, Aden was an early example of the use of electronic mass media for the distribution of propaganda. The Foreign Office memoranda which detail the use by Egyptian and North Yemeni authorities of radio broadcasting describe the content in great detail over many communiqués, and relate a genuine concern among the British Officials. They suggest a; “direct connection between this [Broadcasting] and the supply of arms to the tribesmen from the Yemen on an unusually large scale in recent weeks” (FO, 1966 p.5). The wide geographic influence extended by the newly affordable transistor radio was clearly another significant trans-national explanation for the conflict between the people of the Protectorate and the British.
The events described in this essay can also be seen as unique in the Arab experience of reterritorialisation. The establishment of the only ‘Marxist-Leninist Tyranny’ (Balfour-Paul, 1991; Darwin, 2984) in the Arab world, with support from Russia, China and revolutionary Algeria was the result of a particular convergence of global and local events. The geopolitical order of the cold war, in which Soviet support was extended to anti-American states, even if they were not communist (Balfour-Paul, 1991), such as North Yemen and Egypt, provided conditions for the establishment of such a state.
While external factors were significant in the withdrawal from Aden, it has been shown that policies made in London dictated many of the key events in the proceedings. The 1966 white paper, in which the British reneged upon their earlier promise to support the Federation after independence, has been called a betrayal; by sources as diverse as local commentators in Aden colony (Holt, 2007) and academics in the decades following the events (Balfour-Paul, 1991; Ducker, 2007; Hinchcliffe, 2007; Mawby, 2005), but the financial constraints placed upon the Labour government coupled with the ideological opposition to colonial entanglement within the newly elected party must not be forgotten.
Another perceived policy failure by London was the decision to clearly define the role of Aden Colony within the Federation. The ‘constitutional paradox’ and subsequent political confusion over the sovereignty of the colony among the public of the Protectorates, mentioned above, can been seen an example of poor governance, and one which failed to take account of the many differences between the modern and globalised port Colony of Aden and the more traditional hinterland of the Protectorates.
Commentators have pointed to the lack of a symbolic transfer of power (Hinchcliffe, 2007) in November 1967. Much was made at the time of the lack of exchange of national anthems, outgoing British citizens and servicemen instead choosing a refrain from a popular musical: ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’ (Mawby, 2005). Mention has also been made of the lack of a new flag for the PDRY and other symbols of statehood such as an exchange of salutes and a formal handover. Contemporary commentators on the transfer of ‘symbols of statehood’ in other regions have disagreed with this stance however, and point rather to the importance of strong governance and law making in a new state instead of the cultural identity provided by symbols (Jones et al, 1981). The lack of a ‘residuary legatee’ seems to be more important in a discussion of the sovereignty issues of Aden Colony.
This essay has attempted to provide an understanding of the events of the six short years in which South Western Arabia quickly changed, from a relatively stable and highly prosperous British ‘outpost’ to remote bastion of Marxist ideology. The primary sources cited in this work provide an interesting, if anecdotal perspective on the events in question. The Foreign Office documents cited are limited by their perspective of events and are naturally subjective but show a deep concern among the officers based in Aden for the citizens and for British interests.
Contemporary commentaries have suggested that the emergency was “…forced upon Britain by a crescendo of public pressures” (Balfour Paul, 1991 p.137), but it has become evident that external factors were also of paramount importance. It has been demonstrated that Aden is considered by many as an unsuccessful relinquishment of power which did not lead to prosperity in the client state. The period of decolonisation could be seen as a single historical and geopolitical progression, given the consensus view of universal decolonisation after the Second World War, but an examination of one withdrawal has highlighted the diverse factors which affected each event. There appears to have been no such thing as a ‘typical’ decolonisation during the period in question.
A study in the aftermath of the withdrawal and the extent to which the events of the emergency affected the region in the following decades would be of value. Also worthy of examination would be the support given by the PDRY to Palestine and European communist organisation with revolutionary aspirations. The segregation of the modern state of Yemen until 1990 into the PDRY and North Yemen (The Yemen Arab Republic) and the conflicts which existed until then could be analysed from a perspective of the decolonisation, as could the origins of the conflict currently underway in the north of unified Yemen (Camp, 2009).
A selection of Primary Documents dated 1962-1967 and relating to the Aden Emergency are available here.
Balfour Paul, G (1991) (Map, Figure 1): South West Arabia on the eve of independence in: Balfour-Paul, G (1991) The End of Empire in the Middle East Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press
Balfour-Paul, G (1991) The End of Empire in the Middle East Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press
Barnett, M (1996) Sovereignty, nationalism and regional order in the Arab states system in: Biersteker, T & Weber, C (1996) State Sovereignty as Social Construct Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Camp, M (2009) Pity those caught in the middle The Economist print edition Nov 19 2009 33-34
Darwin, J (1984) British decolonization since 1945: A pattern or a puzzle? The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 12(2) 187-209
Foreign Office (1964) Aden: internal political situation 1 January 1964 Catalogue Reference FO 371/174480
Foreign Office (1964) Brief for WEU ministerial meeting in Aden 23 January 1964 Catalogue Reference FO 371/174675
Foreign Office (1964) Political Relations: Aden 1 January 1964 Catalogue Reference FO 371/174480
Foreign Office (1964) Recent developments concerning Aden 18 February 1964 Catalogue Reference 371/31456
Foreign Office (1965) (Map) Aden/Dhofar Boundary Catalogue Reference FO1016/777
Foreign Office (1966) letters to the treaty chiefs and the supreme council of the South Arabia Federation on the withdrawal of British protection and reply thereto from the sultan of upper Jafai Catalogue Reference FO 93/153/7
Foreign Office (1967) British policy concerning Aden and South Arabia 15 January 1967 Catalogue Reference FO 961/30
Foreign Office (1967) British policy concerning Aden and South Arabia 15 April 1967 Catalogue Reference FO 961/30
Hinchcliffe, P; Ducker, T & Holt, M (2007) Without Glory in Arabia: The British Retreat from Aden London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd
Jones, C (2004) Britain and the Yemen Civil War, 1962-1965 Brighton: Sussex Academic Press
Jones, D & Kautz, R (1981) The Transition to statehood in the New World Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press
Karpov, S (1974) The Closure of the Suez Canal: Economic Consequences. International Affairs 4(20), 83-85
King, G (1964) Imperial Outpost – Aden: Its place in British Strategic Policy Chatham House Essays Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kostiner, J (1984) The Struggle for South Yemen Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Mawby, S (2005) British Policy in Aden and the Protectorates 1955-67: Last Outpost of a Middle East Empire London: Routledge
Nagi, S (1984) The Genesis of the Call for Yemeni Unity in: Pridham, B (1984) Contemporary Yemen: Politics and Historical Background
Northolt N.A. (2008) Fields of Fire – An Atlas of Ethnic Conflict London: Northolt Communications
Schofield, R (2000) The international boundary between Yemen and Saudi Arabia in: Detalle, R (2000) Tensions in Arabia: The Saudi-Yemeni Fault Line SWP Conflict Prevention Network Baden Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft
The Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain) (1950) The Geographical Journal 115(116) 105-106 London: Royal Geographic Society
The Times (1967) Takeover in South Arabia: Extremists Extend Control The Times 14 August 1967 Page number and author unknown
The Times (1967) Terrorist War Foils Plan for Aden The Times 7 November 1967 Page number and author unknown
The Aden Peninsular: