Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

27 November 2014

Circumnavigating Warbah and Rollicking Riproars, or How to Cure the Boredom of Empire

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Who’s Who of 1942 records that Edward Wakefield and Tom Hickinbotham, British colonial officers stationed at Kuwait, circumnavigated the Persian Gulf island of Warbah.  However, twenty years after their retirement from imperial service, they admitted that this was not such a spectacular feat after all.

In March 1961, an article was reproduced in several newspapers under titles such as ‘Hoodwinked by Hickinbotham’ and ‘Rawther A Joke on ‘Who’s Who’: Blokes Sailed Around Warbah’.  The report notes: ‘Two distinguished Englishmen admitted Friday they've been playing a joke for years on that staid and authoritative annual volume ‘Who's Who’’.  Hickinbotham is quoted saying: ‘It's all rather a joke.  Warbah Island is, in fact, a mudflat […] only just visible at high water’.  He continued: ‘One day I said to Mr Wakefield, “See, nobody’s heard of Warbah Island”.  So we decided to put it on the map by sailing around it in a launch’.

Left: Sir Tom Hickinbotham by Elliott & Fry, 7 December 1960, © National Portrait Gallery x82837.
Right: Detail from ‘Rough Sketch Chart of Kuweit, Fao, M’gussa and Surrounding Country’, IOR/R/15/1/475, f. 82 Noc

Some newspapers put this prank down to the fact that imperial service in Kuwait ‘was all deadly boring’.  Hickinbotham alludes to such boredom in a personal letter of August 1942 to William Rupert Hay, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf.  Comparing his temporary position to that of a family doctor, he writes: ‘He has no authority in the household while the family health is good [...] Most people loath to call in a doctor while they see hope of unaided recovery […] They are particularly unwilling to take their troubles to a locum tenens’.  Perhaps in an attempt to lift Hickinbotham’s spirits, Hay sent him twelve bottles of Persian wine the following week.

One way of combatting boredom was reading.  Certain books could be a means of legitimating the imperial mission of which Hickinbotham was a part, although they could also serve as a form of escapism.

‘Capt C. at Marshag. May 22nd 71’, Mss Eur F140/234/4  Noc

Hickinbotham’s ‘Private File’ contains correspondence with booksellers, providing details of the books that Hickinbotham procured for himself and the Kuwait Agency library.  These books include biographies that verged on hagiography, such as Philip Graves’s The Life of Sir Percy Cox: The Amazing Record of a Great Imperialist and Archibald Wavell’s Allenby: a Study in Greatness.  Hickinbotham was also preoccupied with Arabian travel and exploration since he had served in Aden throughout the 1930s.  He procured books like Paul Harrison’s Doctor in Arabia by Paul Harrison, Harold Ingrams’s Arabia and the Isles, and Hugh Scott’s In the High Yemen.

Publishers advertised to colonial officers by means of regular mailings of ‘Latest Arrivals’.  Tailored advertising could also target the boredom and potential sexual frustration of a bachelor colonial officer away from home.  One such example is a card fixed to a letter from Thacker & Company advertising the titillatingly titled Boudoir to Bar Stories, a ‘For Men Only’ collection of jokes and stories that ‘will throw you into rollicking riproars’.

Left: Invoice from Thacker and Company Limited, dated 11 May 1942, IOR/R/15/2/1030, f. 129r.  Noc
Right: Advertising card from Thacker and Company, IOR/R/15/2/1030, f. 130v

The Empire was indeed boring.  This was not because India, Kuwait or any of Britain’s colonies were intrinsically boring, but imperial administration was increasingly banal.  Jeffrey Auerbach notes, ‘British administrators at all levels were bored by their experience travelling and working in the service of king or queen and country’ because ‘the empire’s “civilizing mission” was truly a banal affair of administration’.  This had resulted in a situation where ‘reality simply could not live up to the expectations created by newspapers, novels, travel books, and propaganda’.  Notwithstanding some exceptions, colonial officials, Auerbach concludes, ‘were deflated by the dreariness of their imperial lives’ and ‘desperate to ignore or escape the empire they had built’.

Daniel Lowe
Arabic Language and Gulf History Specialist   Qatar Digital Library  Cc-by
Twitter: @dan_a_lowe

Further Reading:

‘File [1/39 I] Major T Hickinbotham, OBE (Private File)’ IOR/R/15/2/1030

‘Wakefield, Sir Edward (Birkbeck)’, Who Was Who

‘Britons Admit Exploring Joke on 'Who's Who'’, St Petersburg Times (11 March 1961)

‘Hoodwinked by Hickinbotham: What's What in Who's Who’, The Oneonta Star (11 March 1961)

‘Rawther A Joke on ‘Who’s Who’: Blokes Sailed Around Warbah’, The Bluefield Telegraph (11 March 1961)

Jeffrey Auerbach, ‘Imperial Boredom’, Common Knowledge 11:2 (2005), pp. 283-305

Tom Hickinbotham, Aden (London: Constable, 1958)

Edward Birkbeck Wakefield, Past imperative: my life in India, 1927-1947 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1966)



25 November 2014

A most depressing read

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 Many people grumble that health and safety measures are excessive, but in the 1920s there was
clearly much progress to be made, judging by the dreadful toll of industrial accidents and poisonings. These are revealed by the monthly statistics of occupational diseases and fatalities which were published by the Labour Gazette.

Labour Gazette 1921 - fatal accidents

Labour Gazette, Dec 1921    Noc

CJ Burrow 2Not surprisingly, mining and quarrying exacted the greatest toll in lives lost. Although mining is well-known as a dangerous occupation, I was still shocked to read in the Labour Gazette that in December 1921, 98 people died in underground mines and eight in surface mines. Looking through other editions of this monthly publication, I was even more shocked to discover that while this was the highest figure for deaths in underground mines that year, people were killed every single month. Only in May and June of 1921 were the casualties in single figures, and a total of 713 lives were lost that year.

The Labour Gazette for 1921 includes a summary of the causes of accidents in mines during 1920. During that year, 1130 people died in mines due to falls of ground (49.47%), haulage accidents (20.97%)
miscellaneous accidents underground (11.15%), explosions of fire-damp and coal dust (2.30%), shaft accidents (3.72%) and accidents on the surface (12.39%).

CJ Burrow 1       CJ Burrow 3

JC Burrow, 1893  Noc

The photographs accompanying this article, which date from the late 19th century, vividly illustrate the challenges of operating safely in the environment of the mine. By the 1920s, although there were still horrific numbers of deaths and non-fatal accidents, it seems there were already moves afoot to try to improve the lot of miners. The Labour Gazette for March 1922 includes a paragraph about the Miners’ Welfare Fund which was set up under the Mining Industry Act 1920 for purposes connected with the social well-being, recreation and living conditions of workers in and about coal mines. It was also to fund mining research and education. Research into miners’ safety lamps and coal dust dangers was funded by the first allocations of grants. The fund was supported by a levy of a penny a ton on the output of each mine. Coal mining had long been at the heart of the British economy, fuelling industry and transport by rail and steam-ship, so improving conditions was essential for the nation as well as the individuals involved in the industry.

Labour Gazette 1921 Advert 2

Advertisement in the Labour Gazette, 1921  Noc

Anyone interested in the history of working life should consider reading the Labour Gazette as it has a wealth of information about employment in different trades and industries, prices, wages,
disputes, legislation, government contracts and even statistics of poor relief. It provides remarkable
insights into Britain’s manufacturing past.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records   Cc-by

Further reading

Mongst Mines and Miners; or Underground scenes by flash-light: a series of photographs, with explanatory letterpress, illustrating methods of working in Cornish mines. Part I.-An account of the photographic experiences, by J. C. Burrow ... Part II.-A description of the subjects photographed, by William Thomas
(London : Simpkin, Marshall & Co. ; Camborne : Camborne Printing & Stationery Co., 1893)

Further images from JC Burrow are in the Online Gallery

Labour Gazette, 1921, 1922

20 November 2014

The Slave Trade at Aden, Part 2

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We continue our story of the young man named Nusseeb, who was alleged to have been purchased as a slave by Ali Abdullah, supercargo of the ship Aden Merchant, and of the enquiry ordered into Nusseeb’s case by the Government of Bombay.

When the Aden Merchant, renamed Seaton, arrived back in Aden from Calcutta, Nusseeb was not on board. Captain S B Haines, Political Agent at Aden, denied the ship permission to leave Aden, and questioned relevant witnesses about their knowledge of Ali Abdullah and Nusseeb. Ali Abdullah himself refused to answer Captain Haines' questions, simply saying “… you are a father to all and I am your son, and you know I was tried in Calcutta. I have therefore nothing more to say”.

Aden B20052-68
Aden, 1 January 1871 WD 2574 Images Online     Noc

In his report to Government, Captain Haines gave a description of Ali Abdullah which is worth quoting in full: “Ali Abdullah is about 40 years of age, tall for an Arab, and muscular; and evinced great bravery during various skirmishes with the Arabs, prior to the capture of Aden by the English, being then Governor of the Town, and afterwards appointed Arab Custom Master by Government, an Office he held with credit for three years”.

Although none of the witnesses could give the whereabouts of Nusseeb, Captain Haines discovered that Nusseeb and the other alleged slaves had been sent from Calcutta to Jeddah on board another ship sailing under Arab colours.

The Bombay Government accepted that the evidence taken by Captain Haines bore much against Ali Abdullah, and they saw the absence of Nusseeb from the ship on its return to Aden as strong proof in favour of the testimony of those who claimed to have witnessed his purchase. However, the Government was very unhappy with Captain Haines' examination of the witnesses, describing it as not only very loosely but carelessly taken, and describing his investigation as having “…been conducted in a manner which would reflect but little credit on any court of justice”. Captain Haines was admonished that he should have tried Ali Abdullah on a charge of slave-dealing, and was ordered to do so.

Just over three months later, on 24 August 1844, Captain Haines sent a report of his attempts to bring Ali Abdullah to trial. Unfortunately, the witnesses previously interviewed by Chief Magistrate Patton at Calcutta had since travelled to Jeddah, where they had dispersed, and they were not expected to return to Aden. Worse still, the boy Nusseeb could not be located in Jeddah by the British Consul residing there, and his whereabouts could not be discovered. With an absence of witnesses and conflicting testimony from the investigations in Calcutta and Aden, Captain Haines felt he had little choice but to come to a verdict of not proven and recommended that the case be dismissed. The Government of Bombay agreed with that decision.

John O’Brien
India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

Slave Trade, Vol 3: Proceedings regarding the charge of slave dealing against Ali Abdulla, the supercargo of the barque called the Aden Merchant, in the case of a boy named Nusseeb, who Ali Abdulla allegedly purchased from Ali Ibn Hamed of Aden [IOR/F/4/2066/94848 pp.1-28].

Slave Trade, Vol 6: correspondence relating to the slave trade in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf [IOR/F/4/2066/94851].

Slave Trade in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf [IOR/F/4/2087/96921].

Read our story about slavery in Muscat.