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The story of Peter Davey (1914-1947)


The author, a member of the Society, is a journalist and writer resident in Kenya. His father, Brian Hartley, CMG OBE, served as Director of Agriculture, Aden 1938-1954, and was a close friend of Davey who was killed in Dhala in 1947. Aidan Hartley's forthcoming book, ‘The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War’, will be published by Harper Collins in July this year.

‘... In the corner of the veranda was a Zanzibar chest, carved with a skill modern Swahili carpenters have forgotten. The old camphor box bore a design of lotus, paisley and pineapple and it was studded with rivets tarnished green in the salty air. When I opened the chest lid, cobwebs tore and something scuttled into a corner … Inside one file were my father’s handwritten memoirs on which he had been working for years. I opened a second file and reached down to grasp the pages. The instant I touched them they began to crumble in my hands, Time, heat and the drenching humidity had ravaged them … I began to read the papers. I quickly realised I had stumbled on a secret that had been buried for half a century. Here were the diaries of Peter Davey, my father’s good friend. Ever since I was a boy, the story of Davey crept in and out of conversation at home in vague, half-finished sentences. The tale had always been there, yet my father never properly talked about it. Davey was a silence, a shadow that moved constantly out of the corner of one’s eye. And now, as if it had been deliberately dropped into my lap, here was the full and tragic rendition of Davey’s life … ’

In this opening passage from my forthcoming book, ‘The Zanzibar Chest’, I describe how seven years ago at home in Kenya I stumbled by chance on the story of Peter Davey, the Political Officer killed in a shoot-out when he attempted to arrest Sheikh Muhammad Awas near the village of al-Hussein, west of Dhala, on April 15th, 1947. The diaries turned up when I found myself at a crossroads in life. My father Brian Hartley (Director of Agriculture in Aden, 1938-1954) had recently died. I had just left Reuters after covering a string of wars in the Balkans and Africa culminating in the ghastly mess of Rwanda. I wanted to travel and clear my head, and on the insistence of my mother (Doreen Hartley, the Governor’s secretary in Aden, 1949-1951), 1 tucked Davey’s diary under my arm and set off for Yemen.

Davey’s story is one of several somewhat unconnected tales in ‘The Zanzibar Chest’, but I don’t yet feel I’ve done justice to Davey. The only way to do that would be to publish his diaries in full, illustrated with his excellent photographs. Over the years I have received a great deal of help on my amateur excursions into the colonial history of Aden - most generously in London from Nigel Groom, who succeeded Davey as Political Officer in Beihan, and his wife, Lorna, and from my hosts in Yemen, Ahmed Hussein al-Fadhli and Brigadier-General Sharif Haider bin Saleh al-Habili. But the project still faces many challenges, not the least of which is finding a publisher. Briefly, this is the story.

The saga of how the diaries survived at all is itself remarkable. My father and Davey met in 1938. They became good friends and shared a house in Sheikh Othman. They also worked a great deal alongside each other, with Davey tackling political matters and my father the agricultural. The diaries fell into my father’s hands after he was dispatched by Aden with explosives to demolish the fort of Davey’s assailant, Sheikh Muhammad Awas. Davey, who had converted to Islam, was laid to rest in a Muslim cemetery in Dhala. My father retrieved his personal effects and he attempted to send all these to Peter’s mother in Sussex. However, for reasons that remain a mystery to me the diaries were never sent.

From then on, the diaries accompanied my family on its adventures. Following my parents’ marriage, the documents went with them to East Africa. First they were kept at their farm near Mount Kenya The farmhouse was burned down during the Mau Mau Emergency, but by that time the diaries had been transported to Langaseni, my family’s new ranch on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Here they remained for seventeen years. When Julius Nyerere’s socialist government expropriated the ranch, the diaries were rescued once more. This time they went to North Devon, where my parents had bought another farm. As a young boy I first heard about Davey when I was briefly shown the handwritten diaries, before they were locked away again in the black tin trunk that sat in the office. In 1972, my father deposited the original handwritten diaries in Rhodes House library, Oxford. He had made a typed transcript of a portion of the diaries in the 1940s. This copy was kept at our house in Malindi, on the Kenya coast, and this was the copy I discovered in the Zanzibar chest.

In the photographs Davey is blond, square-faced, and athletic. His diaries are wonderfully written, packed with contemporary flavour and incident. One of the most fascinating aspects is to observe his transformation from naive youth to a man utterly engrossed with life in the Aden Protectorate.

He commenced the first volume on October 6th, 1932. He was 17, he had just left Eastbourne College and it was the eve of his departure by sea for the island of Perim, where his father had been the manager of the coaling station since 1920. Perim’s British community was big enough to field a cricket team for matches against passing ships. Peter visited Mokha, French Somaliland and also Aden, where he met the British Resident, Colonel (later Sir Bernard) Reilly for the first time. Peter’s ambitions were clear from the outset. ‘Dec. 3, 1932 - I am trying to pick up as much Arabic as I can ... as I might be joining the Palestine Police force. ’ He was rejected due to his poor eyesight, so his father persuaded an American entrepreneur named Klauder to take him on. Klauder was a competitor of Besse in the hides and skins trade, in which Peter was trained. The young man, who first lived in Crater, yearned to get out of Aden. He earned three guineas while stringing for The Times on the fighting between Imam Yahya and the Saudis over the Asir in May 1934. He was later sent to Lahej, where he met Wagner, a former comrade of Henri de Montfreid and now the Sultan’s engineer, and in 1935 he visited Shuqra, Abyan, and Dhala. In October the same year, Peter was dispatched to deliver the first motor vehicle to Taiz.

Sir Bernard Reilly and Davey clearly got on well. ‘Pop’, as Davey always called him, ‘is so very human. There is nothing he likes better than to sit with a beer at his elbow and yarn to people. ’ On February 23, 1936, Reilly asked Davey to be his ADC. In this position Davey encountered a succession of interesting figures, such as Freya Stark, and the Protectorate Sultans when they visited Aden to pick up their stipends. But he also got a chance to travel, notably with Reilly and Ingrains to the Hadhramaut, where they dined at the house of Sayyid Abu Bakr bin Sheikh al-Kaff in Seiyun with several hundred notables.

When responsibility for Aden was transferred from India to the Colonial Office in 1937, Reilly, now Governor, advised Davey that more ‘interference’ in Arab affairs was likely He promised to try to get him appointed as a Political Officer. Davey was not qualified in the eyes of the Colonial Office, but Reilly pushed his proteges case hard and, after interviews, he got the appointment and was posted to Beihan on October 18th, 1938. His initial task was to support Lord Belhaven’s operation to recapture Shabwa from an invading force of Zeidis under Ali bin Nasr al-Gardhai by gathering intelligence on their movements. ‘I am thoroughly enjoying life now’.

In these first months in Beihan, he met Sharif Hussein and his brother Awadh, Sheikh Qassim, Ali bin Munasser of the Bal Harith, the various Musabein section leaders and the Abida in their tents. Davey quickly grew to love getting about on horseback or on foot. Like my father, he was in his element travelling in the Protectorates. He loved nowhere quite as much as Beihan. ‘Sept. 6th, 1942 - I seem to have many friends there and Aden becomes, more and more, a place of strangers ...

From the Shabwa operations onwards, the pace of Davey’s diaries barely lets up for a pause in this early phase of Britain’s ‘forward policy’ in the Aden Protectorate. There are border disputes and battles with the Zeidis all along the frontiers. There are negotiations to end blood feuds, threats of air action, bombs dropped from Vickers Vincents. We have desert journeys to Al Abr and beyond, the consolidation of Sultan Saleh bin Hussein’s authority in Audhali, long rides from Aden all the way to Beihan via the Thirra Pass. He gives us marvellous details of customs, dress, history and legend, gleaned from his encounters along the way. An amazing succession of personalities leap off the pages. Sayyid Ahmed bin Yahya al-Koblani, the Amil of Harib, is ‘a little plump rat-faced fellow’. Basil Seager, British Agent for the Western Protectorate, is ‘pedantic’ and ‘loquacious’, but a ‘nice enough fellow ... ’

My father and Davey worked together in various parts of the Protectorate but with most a positive effect in Abyan. Here, development of the agricultural potential of the delta had been prevented by feuding, much of which focused on control of water courses. Belhaven quotes a note in the Abyan file in Aden that observed facetiously, ‘There is no way in which any of the disputes can be settled, until everyone in the district is dead. ’ Finally, the Lower Yafai and Fadhli leaders signed their truces and work to share the waters and restore the spate irrigation system soon began to pay off By the 1950s,Abyan was prospering from exports of some of the world’s highest quality long-staple cotton. On my 1998 visit to Yemen, Ahmed Hussein al-Fadlih and his friends kindly showed me around Abyan and explained the history to me.

Brian Hartley on his horse, 'Tunis' (given to him by Sharif Hussain), above the Kaur escarpment, 1944. [Photograph: Peter Davey]

The focus of Davey’s career as a Political Officer was in Beihan. Having dealt with threats from the Yemen, Davey’s aim was to restore peace in the wadi, with Sharif Hussein firmly in charge. After a succession of dramas, he was able to write:

‘Sept. 22, 1943 - It is nearly five years since I came to Beihan and in that period much of my energies have been spent trying to persuade Government to take an interest in obtaining security, in placing the Sharif at the head of Beihani affairs and in trying to encourage the Beihanis to accept peace. Today ... this has to a large extent been achieved. ’

Of Hussein, Davey observed in 1944, ‘I could not wish for a better friend, English or Arab, and I feel a genuine respect for him,’ although he was not blind to Hussein’s cupidity and ambition, which ultimately brought the two into conflict.

On February 24th, 1945, Davey wrote, ‘I have decided on two momentous decisions. I am determined to marry an Arab girl, which means that I will have to profess the faith of Islam ... We have both become very, very fond of each other. ’ The woman, Sheikha bint Mohsin, was a relative of Hussein’s. She was also married. Davey was understandably worried about the reactions of both the British and Arabs. Hussein put his mind at rest, saying a marriage and the Englishman’s conversion to Islam would bind them closer. As for the British, my father was in Hadhramaut dealing with the famine and Davey decided to keep it a secret - even from his own family Sheikha divorced. Sharif Hussein oversaw the conversion - and Davey took the name Abdullah. A few days later, on 28 March 1945, Davey and Sheikha were married. To pay the bride price, Davey had to sell his prized stallion ‘Kubeyshan’ to the Sharif for 250 silver dollars. They set up in a new house, each of them buying in goods dictated by custom: he had carpets, water skins and coffee pots; she the rope of the camel, saddle bags, pillow cushions and wooden food bowls.

Hussein could be impetuous and Davey fell foul of this in 1946 when the Sharif started to build a fort on a rock at the head of the valley within view of the Yemeni frontier. Reports of this got back to the Imam’s officials, who threatened to break off all talks with the British if construction continued. When Davey asked Sharif Hussein to suspend the work, the later lost his temper and threatened to ‘resign’. Davey lay low and after much mediation they were reconciled, All seemed to have been settled by the time Davey left for Aden to go on long leave. Hussein accompanied him.

Wednesday, March 6th 1946, Aden - The Governor [then Sir Reginald Champion] has issued an ultimatum to me: that either I divorce Sheikha or I shall be transferred. This is the hardest thing I have yet experienced in my life I think … The subject is so painful for me that it is impossible for me to write in detail of the pros and cons but it is obvious that I cannot continue with Sheikha as life would be made too difficult for us both, officially and socially.

Davey did the only thing he could.

Thursday, March 14th 1946, Aden - I divorced Sheikha today in the presence of Sharif Hussein and Sheikh Qassim Ahmed ... I have been forced to divorce her and I feel as if I have been cut in half but I have no way out of it as God knows. May He heal the wounds in our hearts.

On leave in Britain, Davey visited old friends. He stayed with Belhaven in Scotland in July, 1946, and also saw his mentor Sir Bernard Reilly. During dinner at Quaglino’s with Reilly, Davey told him that he planned to traverse the Empty Quarter, from Beihan to Najran.

But instead, Davey returned to the life he knew best. In October, 1946, he flew to Aden to be met by a relieved Seager (‘no staff and a very incompetent Secretariat who are timid and even lethargic ... ’). He was immediately posted to Dhala, where rebellion against Amir Haidara had been fermenting. ‘The situation in Amiri country is difficult due to mishandling by Government. ’ Specifically, the Shairis had refused to pay Haidara taxes. Under the terms of his treaty, Haidara had a right to demand weapons from the British, which Seager gave him. The Shairis fled en masse into Yemen, only to be coaxed back by Seager with promises of compensation and independence. When a charismatic young sheikh of the Ahmedi clan named Muhammad Awas observed this, he led his own people in a fresh uprising. Haidara blamed the British, withdrew to sulk in his castle on Jebel Jihaf and within its walls began plotting.

Davey rode out to wave the flag soon after arriving. Muhammad Awas received him warmly and Davey took an immediate liking to the young leader. ‘Only by starting a complete new order can Government hope to improve the political and economical welfare of the people,’ Davey reported to Aden in January 1947. Seager responded by calling for Haidara’s arrest and removal. Davey swiftly persuaded the Ahmedi to join in the British operations. On 8th February, Davey and a small force of Government Guards, flanked by Muhammad Awas’s men, attacked the fort on Jebel Jihaf, forcing Haidara to flee.

A conference of tribal sheikhs was called and despite Davey’s advice, Seager ordered the Ahmedi to restore allegiance to Amir Nasir, Haidara’s uncle. Awas was horrified. Having aided the British, he had clearly expected the Ahmedi would be released from the burden of Amiri taxation. He responded with a hit-and-run attacks against Haidara’s family properties. Davey was left with no choice but to enforce an unpopular British policy He set off to arrest the sheikh.

On 15 April, 1947, Davey approached Muhammad Awas and his followers as they sat chewing qat in the shade below their husn. Clearly Davey mishandled the situation by attempting to arrest the young sheikh in a way that would cause him an intolerable loss of face. According to my father, Davey exclaimed, ‘Sheikh, you have broken your word on keeping the peace. I can no longer trust you, so I have come to arrest you!’

The sheikh yelled, ‘ Your mother lies!’ Ummak kadhaba! Mayhem erupted, with both sides opening fire. A Government Guard gunned down Awas, but not before the sheikh had shot Davey in the chest. The Englishman staggered backwards;

when one of the sheikh’s retainers ran in among the group and finished Davey off with a second shot, the same instant he, too, was killed. It was over.

Brian Hartley arrived days later to destroy the fort. The Ahmedi capitulated to the British, but the troubles in Dhala did not end for years to come. My father wrote just before he died, ‘How tragic, how foolish and how wasteful the whole business was ... I had lost a comrade, a friend of many years and many trips. The government lost a fine man. Peter and Awas and his loyal retainer had been killed. The fort was no more. I decided there was nothing more to be done. Nothing of any good came out of all of this ... ’ At Davey’s Dhala burial the Surat Yasin was recited and the Government Guards fired a salute over his grave. In a draft version of a letter to Peter’s mother, written after the interment in Dhala, my father said:

‘Peter gave his life for an ideal and it was fitting that his resting place should have been in such a setting, among the people he worked for and mourned by his comrades.’

Davey's assailant, Muhammad Awas al-Ahmedi. [Dhala Museum]

August 2003