In the Shadows of Empire: The Fall of British Aden

In the whirlwind days of Aden's final chapter under British rule, about thirty years ago, there's a story worth telling about someone from the Foreign Office. Not exactly a local, yet they managed to get a real insider's look, thanks to Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, the last High Commissioner.

He wanted someone from the Foreign Service, his old crowd, as his private secretary. This person was already in Aden, part of the Foreign Office's plan to have a familiar face for the upcoming embassy with the new independent government.

Before landing this gig, they were in the Eastern Aden Protectorate, a bit of a misnomer since it wasn't known for being particularly protective. Working as an assistant to the British Resident in Mukalla, they were under President Jim Ellis. Ellis was a follower of Harold Ingram's ideals, trying his best to bring some peace and a bit of prosperity, though it was a tough nut to crack. The place was still pretty much the same old tribal anarchy that's been the norm in Arabia since forever. For a young Arabist, it was like being thrown into a historical adventure, think American diplomat meeting Robin Hood in Europe.

Aden, though, was a different kettle of fish. Being a Crown Colony, it had a few more bells and whistles - courts, unions, and even a Legislative Council at one point. Plus, the basics like hotels, buses, and drains. Mukalla had its fair share of outsiders, like the Sultan and his crew, but Aden was a real melting pot. When the Brits first landed, Aden was barely more than a village.

Trevelyan's big task, whether he knew it right off the bat or not, was to get the British army and officials out with as little trouble as possible. Initially, there was more to the job - trying to set up something democratic in Aden, getting our old mates in the upcountry states to work together peacefully. The Federation of South Arabia was a big project, but sadly, it was pretty much dead on arrival. Plus, the usual colonial duties - justice, health, economic development, and the like.

But the road was rocky. People wanted the Brits gone, but it was tough not to feel a bit sour when liberation groups, or 'terrorists' for short, kept up their attacks, often targeting people for their skin colour. Like the case with Derek Rose, a mate who got killed in Aden just because his car broke down. Even though we'd announced we were leaving, the political and military problems didn't just vanish. Folks either didn't believe we'd really go or thought a bit of violence against us would look good on their CV. Plus, the opposition wasn't as united as we thought, and we often found ourselves caught in the middle of their squabbles.

Our situation was tricky. The whole world seemed to be against us. Take the laughable visit from the United Nations Commission, which ended up being more of a circus than anything helpful. And then there was the Egyptian Intelligence, stirring up trouble from across the border in North Yemen. Even within Aden, our influence was slipping away. If we caught a terrorist, we could only hold them until we left, and being detained by the Brits was almost a badge of honour.

We resorted to some less-than-stellar tactics. Pressure on detainees, arming our friends up-country - practices that started off with good intentions but ended up as desperate measures. The army had its own way of doing things, like the Argylls, who had a reputation for swift justice. Interestingly, just after the Argylls retook Crater, I got to see a different side of things. Walking around with their Adjutant, it was surprising to see small Arab kids offering sweets. It was a side of Aden I hadn't expected.

Trevelyan was a sharp cookie, with experience in the Indian Political Service and as an Ambassador in Moscow. He had a knack for handling things smoothly, like easing tensions between Government House and the military or understanding the importance of clear decisions over muddled debates. He fought against setting a fixed date for withdrawal, knowing it would play into the opposition's hands. His tactics paid off – when we finally left, to the tune of "Fings Ain’t Wot They Used to Be", it was without a single shot fired. The only time I saw him falter was over the timing of a medal ceremony, but even that was sorted out in the end.

The aftermath in Aden was a bit of a puzzle. FLOSY, the group everyone thought would take over, got quickly overshadowed by the National Liberation Front. The power shift was rapid and left many questions unanswered. When we sat down for negotiations, some familiar faces popped up, ones we'd known from the federal army or police, revealing a deeper game at play.

Aden – a society on the brink of change, torn between the end of an era and the birth of something new.