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Imagine if the British chose Socotra over Aden

Captain Haines of the Royal British Navy purchased the port of Aden from the sultan of Lahj in 1837, returning in January 1839 with 700 troops to take control, and built a refueling depot for the British Navy en route to India. He served as the administration assistant of Aden from 1839-1854. At the time it is estimated that the population of Aden was a mere 600 people, about half of whom were Jews. In seven years the town had been rebuilt and it was home to 25,000 as a free port.

But in 1833 he was on a different mission, an attempt to purchase the island of Socotra from the Mahri sultan in Qishin. Here is his account of meeting with the sultan, who refused to sell his tribal inheritance to the British crown. Imagine if he had and the port of Aden had been ignored...

"Memoir of the South and East Coasts of Arabia." By Captain STAFFORD BETTESWORTH HAINES, I. N., Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 15:104-166, 1845

[p. 107] A direct communication by steam being the anxious object of the Supreme Government of India, it was considered probable that Sokoṭrah might answer as a depôt. I was, consequently, sent on a mission to Keshín to obtain the island by purchase.

[p. 108] On arriving there, I dispatched Lieutenant Wellsted on shore to inform the Sulṭán of my arrival, and to ascertain when it would be convenient for him to see me. The reply of the chief was "To-morrow;" and I accordingly went over, accom­panied by Lieutenant Sanders, Dr. Hulton, Messrs. Smith and Rennie. We were ushered into the house of Sultan 'Abdullah, with whom we found Sultan Ahmed, the rightful heir, a lad of about eighteen years of age. The chief Káẓí then made his appearance, and the nephew 'Abdullah, having retired for a few minutes, returned leading in his uncle, Sultan 'Omar ibn Tawari, who is totally blind, about fifty years of age, though apparently more, from bodily deformity, his stature not exceeding 5 feet, 3 or 4 inches; his head is large, with a round forehead; his eyes very disgusting, the eyelids hanging down so as to leave the dull, filmy eye visible and protruding; his voice is strong, and in manner he was extremely frank and energetic.

After the usual salutations and polite inquiries after each other's health, he begged us to be seated on a carpet, and after a minute's pause, said- "I wish I could see you. Your voice is young and strong. Have you been long away from your home?" I replied- "I have served my Government for many years; and have now the pleasing duty of informing you that I have been honoured by receiving its commands to thank you for your liberal kindness last year, and to assure you of its friendship: also to ex­plain to you its wishes on some important points, as soon as we shall be alone." The room was cleared in an instant, with the exception of the Sultan's family, and the Káẓí, when I was desired to express my wishes freely.

I explained to him that to carry on steam-communication between India and England, a depot under British control was requisite; and that, consequently, I was commissioned by Government to purchase Sokotrah from him. I pointed out its inutility to him, and the advantages he would derive from disposing of it to the British nation for a sum of money; and also explained the advan­tages that would be secured to his people by trading with the island when under the British flag: in fact, I described the ad­vantages arising from the sale of the island in as glowing terms as I possibly could. He listened calmly and attentively. The crafty 'Abdullah also appeared deeply interested; whilst Ahmed's idiotic countenance exhibited a careless indifference to what was said. The Káẓí listened in silence.

A few minutes' consideration sufficed to enable Sultan 'Omar to decide upon his reply; and he commenced by complaining that the British had promised that his boats and men only were to be employed in coaling steamers; whereas the Bengal steamer [p. 109] was otherwise assisted, to the injury of himself and people. I told him that the duty I came on, if successful, would annul all former agreements; when he, to evade the point of transfer, asked me where I intended to go after leaving Keshín. I replied that my cruise would chiefly be influenced by his decision with respect to the transfer of Sokoṭrah by sale, to the British.

After a pause, he said, in a firm and decided manner-"Listen, Captain Haines, and I will give you an answer. As sure as there is an only God, and He in heaven, I will not sell so much ground" (making a span with his fingers). "It was the gift of the Almighty to the Mahrahs, and has descended from our forefathers to their children, over whom I am Sultan." I pointed out to him that the island was conquered by his tribe after its evacuation by the Por­tuguese; that it was so widely separated from him that its value could not be compared to what I was prepared to offer; but hastily interrupting me, he exclaimed- ‘Ana ma ya'thi (I will not give) so much ground (confining his span to2 inches); but I am ready to abide by our former treaty."

Determined to leave this resolute old man on good terms, and not being desirous of prolonging so unsatisfactory a visit, I rose, and in a laughing manner said-"Well, Sultan 'Omar, since your determination of 'Ana ma ya'thi has not been very long considered, either for your own benefit, or with the consent of the elders of your tribe, I will return to my ship, and remain some time, to enable you to consult with your family and friends on the advantageous offer I have made on the part of the British Govern­ment." On my repeating the Sultan's expression, " 'Ana ma ya'thi," a general laugh ensued, and we parted apparently the best friends. Several letters passed between me and the Sultan afterwards, on the subject of the transfer; but he remained firm to his first decision, and no argument that I used could induce him to waver.

The character of this old chief I admired: a cripple, and de­prived of his eyesight, he never forgot that he was the patriarch of his tribe-and avarice (that Arab vice) failed to tempt him to barter his birthright for money. He evinced no anger through­ out; was polite, but firm; telling me that he knew we could take his country by the strong arm, but that he believed our principles of justice would not permit us to do so. On parting he said­ "God is witness we have both endeavoured to fulfil our respective duties: you, to your Government; and I to my tribe, as their father. Farewell."

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