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Cotton, Expertise and the End of Empire in the Aden Protectorate

Published: 7 April 2021 - William Harrop

The year was 1946, and in an experimental plot in the Abyan delta – a 120,000-acre triangle of viable agricultural land in the British-ruled Aden Protectorate (now southern Yemen) – the Director of Agriculture planted the first crop of Egyptian cotton into the silty earth. His name was Brian Hartley, and what he could not have predicted was how this cotton growing scheme, irrigated by the seasonal floods that cascaded down from the surrounding highlands, would re-shape British rule for decades.

Indeed, by 1955 the Abyan Scheme (as it became known) was irrigating 46,000 acres and had harvested a cotton crop worth an astounding £2.4 million. Beyond this success, however, lies a more interesting story. Abyan was not simply the brainchild of an ambitious agricultural expert but was also the product of imperial careering trajectories and circuits of knowledge from across the British empire that were truly global in scope. As this post will elaborate, the scheme was rooted in the soils of Trinidad and Sudan as much as the Abyan delta. More fascinating still, is how it became sucked into the rising fervour of anti-colonial nationalism in the Middle East, surging in the wake of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ascent to power in Egypt in the 1950s.

Figure 1: A map of states in the Aden Protectorate, the Western part of which became the Federation of South Arabia in 1962. The Abyan region is located in-between the Lower Yafai and Fadhli states. Wikipedia Commons.

The seeds of Abyan

To begin, we must return to Brian Hartley. Hartley was very much the product of the growing focus on scientific approaches to imperialism of the interwar period, which saw the emergence of technical schools specialising in attempting to improve the productivity of the empire’s agricultural resources. After his studies at Oxford in 1927, Hartley had taken the post-graduate course offered at the recently established Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, based in Trinidad. While there, students were taught to think of the colonies as agricultural ‘laboratories’, with Trinidad being used as a giant experimental plot for all cash crops from coffee to cotton.

Immersed in this culture of scientific imperialism, Hartley specialised in cotton and, after graduating in 1928, opted to be posted to the cotton producing district of Mwanza in British Tanganyika. He remained there for ten years, before being snapped up for the top job of Director of Agriculture for the Aden Protectorate in 1938.

When Hartley arrived in Aden, the Abyan delta was derelict. Farmed for centuries through a sophisticated local irrigation system, generations of local hostilities between tribes had put a stop to large scale flood irrigation for decades. All this changed with the outbreak of war in 1939, however. As a part of war-time food production drives across the empire, British experts and local soldiers forcefully occupied the delta and set about restoring the old irrigation system for agriculture. Earthwork and brushwood dams were reconstructed by local labourers and gradually the flood waters were put back to irrigating the delta. Like something out of a textbook from the Imperial College in Trinidad, after noticing the potential of the delta, Hartley began experimenting to see if it could support cotton.

Figure 2: A colonial official directs local labourers and bullocks in the construction of an earthwork dam. Crown Copyright.

It was not long before Abyan was successfully growing cotton of “magnificent” quality, and in 1947 it was awarded a £270,000 loan from the British government under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act to aid its expansion.[1] That same year, an organisation called the Abyan Board was also set up to manage the scheme and mediate the feuding Lower Yafai and Fadhli states, on which sat an assortment of British technocrats, colonial officials and representatives from the two states. By 1949, the Daily Mirror was excitedly reporting to its readers a seemingly fantastical story of how “one man turned the desert into a garden”.[2] The scheme was touted as a model example of colonial development. However, this model was itself borrowed from another part of the empire.

The Sudan Connection

The Gezira Scheme was an immense agricultural development project which started in 1925 in the Anglo-Egyptian ruled Sudan and used the Blue Nile to irrigate an expanse of land larger than New York City for cotton. Its success made it a blueprint for colonial development schemes across Africa, but its influence was not just confined to the continent. The Abyan Scheme was modelled as a miniature version of Gezira, with it adopting the same profit-sharing agreement between the Board, local elites and the tenant farmers.

Figure 3: The cotton ginnery at Al-Kod, Abyan. Abyan’s first crops of cotton were ginned using machinery from Sudan’s Ministry of Agriculture. Crown Copyright.

These connections with Sudan were not just limited to ideas either, with Sudan’s place in the Arabic speaking world meaning that service in the Sudan often led to further work in the British Middle East. Abyan offers a clear example of these careering ‘networks’ where between 1947 and 1967, a roster of agricultural officers and colonial administrators from Sudan went to Aden to staff the Abyan Scheme.

When looking for candidates for the post of General Manager of the Abyan Board, for instance, officials expressed a strong preference for those with experience in Sudan’s cotton fields. Indeed, by the time of Britain’s scuttle from Aden in 1967, three of the Abyan Board’s five General Managers had cut their teeth in the Gezira. In this sense, cotton was a conduit for connections across the empire.

This is not to suggest that the Abyan Scheme was a mere transplant from one colony to the other, however. The Aden Protectorate had one of the most complicated systems of rule in the empire, in which Britain ruled around two dozen independent polities through a patchwork of advisory treaties. This political complexity made the centralisation achieved in Sudan impossible.

Cotton and the End of Empire in the Middle East

While Abyan’s cotton industry bloomed, the same could not be said of Britain’s position in the Middle East. In 1954, two years after the coup that ousted the British-backed monarchy, President Gamal Abdel Nasser ascended to power in Egypt and began vociferously condemning British imperialism in the region. Nasser’s criticisms of British policy and calls for a pan-Arab state were broadcasted into the Aden Protectorate from Cairo, and quickly found fertile ground among many Arabs who had their own local grievances with British rule.

One such grievance was the Abyan Scheme. Indeed, although it was framed by colonial officials as a ‘partnership’ between local elites, farmers and the Abyan Board management, Abyan had become associated with colonial exploitation. Part of this stemmed from the fact that many believed that the Abyan Board’s British management were paying farmers less than their fair share for their cotton.

This stood in stark contrast to another cotton project in Lahej, a Protectorate State next to the Abyan delta. On the heels of the success of the Abyan Scheme, another cotton scheme was started in the fertile oases of Lahej along Abyan’s blueprint. The crucial difference, however, was that the Lahej scheme was managed entirely by local Arabs and paid its farmers more for their cotton. The success of an Arab-run cotton scheme turned Abyan, with its paternalistic British management, into a symbol of colonialism to mobilise against. This was soon weaponized by the South Arabian League (SAL), an Arab nationalist party inspired by Nasser’s pan-Arabism.

Figure 4: A photograph of a labourer picking cotton as a part of the Arab-run Lahej cotton scheme. Crown Copyright.

These simmering tensions surfaced during the turbulent negotiations over a new constitution for the Abyan Board in late 1955. During the proceedings, Mohammad Aidrus, a charismatic representative for the Lower Yafai state on the Abyan Board and member of the SAL, used his position to make pointed criticisms of British rule. In one particularly tense encounter with a British adviser, Aidrus cited the Lahej cotton scheme as an example of how Arabs could manage their own affairs and demanded the “prompt expulsion of the Abyan Scheme’s British Management”.[3] Aidrus’ dispute with the British administration soon gained notoriety and was even referenced in anti-colonial broadcasts from Radio Cairo.

Adding pressure to the negotiations, the talks were accompanied by popular demonstrations organised by the SAL which energetically called for an independent federation with Lahej and closer association with Egypt, all of which threatened to unravel British rule in South Arabia. This made the blood of colonial officials run cold. After lengthy negotiations Aidrus was able to get the British to commit to an all-Arab Abyan Board, albeit with a British General Manager and advisers.

Abyan stands as an example of the global connections of knowledge and anti-colonialism forged by cotton and empire. From the lectures at Trinidad, the vast cotton fields of Sudan, and the rise of Arab nationalism in the Middle East, Abyan was a development scheme entangled in and shaped by the global dimensions of imperialism and decolonisation.

William Harrop is studying for an MA in Global & Comparative History at Warwick. In 2020 he completed his BA in History at Exeter, and he is currently researching into colonial development in the Aden Protectorate for a dissertation, on which this post is based, entitled: ‘A potential Garden of Eden’: Empire, environment and development in the Aden Protectorate, 1947-1960. In this, he intends to use previously unstudied records from the British Library and the National Archives at Kew to integrate Aden and the Abyan Scheme into the histories of the environment and the ‘networks’ of expertise associated with late colonial development.

[1] Quote from visit of W.F. Crawford from the British Middle East Office: ‘Notes on a Visit to Abyan’, SAD.503/4/5, W.F. Crawford Collection, GB-0033-SAD, Durham University Special Collections.

[2] ‘One man turned the desert into a garden’, Daily Mirror, July 1949, in CO 725/98/8, The National Archives, Kew.

[3] Kennedy Trevaskis, The Deluge: A Personal View of the End of Empire in the Middle East (London: I.B. Taurus, 2019), p. 239.