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In the lion's paw: Henry de Monfried and the British at Aden (1916-1922) 

At the outbreak of the First World War, Ottoman Turkey controlled the whole length of the eastern shore of the Red Sea from ‘Aqaba to Shaikh Sa’id at the extreme tip of South Western Arabia, except for territory in ‘Asir controlled by the tribal supporters of Sayyid Muhammad al-Idrisi. Al-Idrisi was to ally himself with the British against the Turks, in return for British cash, arms and occasional naval support. Meanwhile, the treaty which the Turks had negotiated with the Imam in 1911 allowed them to disengage from the Yemeni highlands and to concentrate their forces in Sana’a, in Hodeidah and their other garrisons along the Tihamah coast, and in the southern region of Hujjariyah bordering Britain’s Aden Protectorate. Despite British attempts to persuade him to act otherwise, the Imam respected this treaty until the Turkish evacuation of Arabia in 1919. The British had insufficient troops in Aden to avert the humiliation of an early Turkish advance into the Protectorate, culminating in Turkish occupation of Lahej for the duration of the war.

Since a major British strategic concern was the defence of the Red Sea route to India, two naval patrols were established to operate along the coast of Turkish Arabia: one from Suez to Jeddah, and the other from Jeddah to Aden. An additional objective of patrols in the southern sector was to prevent supplies reaching Turkish garrisons and ports such as Hodeidah, Mocha and Luhayyah. This inevitably led to the interception (and often destruction) by British patrol vessels of Arab dhows in or near smaller Yemeni ports and anchorages.

Britain’s policy of blockading ports on the eastern shore of the Red Sea was tightened in 1916 to reduce the incidence of smuggling; the only permitted exceptions being traffic to and between Idrisi-held ports such as Midi and Jizan, the regular steamer service to Jizan from Aden, and French and Italian maritime traffic with Jizan. Apart from Kamaran which the British occupied for strategic reasons in 1915, British patrols to other Red Sea islands such as Farasan (claimed by al-Idrisi), Hanish and Jebel Zukar were mainly designed to forestall their seizure by the Italians. Britain’s blockade of Turkish ports in Yemen proved only partially effective; and it hurt not only the Turks but also the livelihood and interests of local Arabs whose goodwill Britain wished to cultivate. The blockade also exposed the sizeable British Indian merchant community in Hodeidah and elsewhere, already deprived of consular protection by the war, to economic hardship and the risk of reprisals.

Henry de Monfreid began his career in the Horn of Africa in 1910, working for the Djibouti firm, Guignony, as a trader in Abyssinian hides and coffee. He was then in his early 30s, with a restless and independent spirit which his new job failed to satisfy. Having acquired a love of the sea in boyhood, sailing with his father in the Mediterranean, he decided to abandon Guignony, to buy a dhow and to try his luck pearl fishing and trading in arms. Djibouti, since replacing Obok as the capital of French Somaliland, had become the centre of a flourishing arms trade into the Horn and Arabia. A syndicate of local French firms imported arms mainly from Belgium, using Arab middlemen to sell and distribute them. It was a lucrative business which generated considerable customs revenue for the French administration who turned a blind eye to the fact that the arms trade was officially prohibited in Arabia by both the Turkish and British authorities.

Before the declaration of war on Turkey at the end of October 1914, de Monfreid had landed consignments of arms at Khor al-’Umaira and Ras al-Ara (on the southern Arabian coast between Perim and Aden), and lesser cargoes on the Tihamah. He ceased arms smuggling thereafter, concentrating on pearling and periodic shipments of provisions and passengers to Yemen. He obtained a concession from al-Idrisi to establish a pearling operation on the Farasan islands, but, denied French political support and in face of what he saw as British obstruction, he was later forced to abandon the project. He therefore felt more than justified in flouting the blockade of the Yemeni coast which the British had unilaterally established in January 1915. The Governor of Djibouti regarded the blockade as a damaging threat to Djibouti’s economy; he was therefore happy to issue permits to de Monfreid to sail to destinations such as Assab and Massawa on the African shore of the Red Sea, as a cover for his illicit journeys to Yemen.

HMS Minto (centre foreground) c.1915

Henry de Monfreid on board HMS Minto with 
Chief Engineer Vincent who acted as his interpreter, 
March 1918

De Monfreid enjoyed playing ‘cat and mouse’ with British Red Sea patrols, and claimed to have had eight uneventful encounters with them before his luck ran out. It did so on 25 October 1916 when his dhow, Fateh al-Rahman, was intercepted by HMS Lunka, under Commander Murray, 41/2 miles off the Yemeni coast, nearly 10 miles SW of Mocha. De Monfreid had just put ashore his 20 passengers and cargo of kerosene so there was no overt evidence of blockade-running. But he only had a permit to sail from Djibouti to Dumeira on the African shore of the Red Sea, and Murray considered his explanation for having veered so far off course unconvincing. Murray was instructed to take de Monfreid and his dhow to Perim for further investigation. De Monfreid spent a month in Perim as the ‘guest’ of the Assistant Resident, Major R. B. Graham, before being released (just in time to meet his young wife and three-year-old daughter in Djibouti on their arrival from France). The British, despite their interrogation of de Monfreid’s crew (who had been allowed no contact with de Monfreid since his detention on board HMS Lunka) failed to find any evidence, even among de Monfreid’s personal papers, which would have justified confiscation of his dhow. But their suspicions of him persisted.

During the first half of 1917 De Monfreid was allowed to return to Aden to supervise repairs to Fateh al-Rahman and two other dhows which he had now hired to the Djibouti authorities. He was also permitted to construct a motorised dhow in the Ma’alla shipyards in partnership with a local French business tycoon, Antonin Besse (who after the Second World War was to endow the foundation of St Antony’s College, Oxford). Construction of the dhow was completed in early August when de Monfreid applied for an exit permit to take it to Djibouti. Unbeknown to him, the Resident Naval Officer in Aden, Gillespy, had been working hard to prevent this. In a report dated 3 August to Captain W H D Boyle, the Senior Naval Officer (SNO), Red Sea Patrol, Gillespy stated:

‘I have this (Friday) forenoon had before me a Somali named Noor Ali, a native of Zayla [in British Somaliland], who informs me that for 5 months last year he served in a small dhow belonging to de Manfred [sic]. During that time the dhow made three trips between Djibouti and a place called Oosaf on the southern Arabian coast to the eastward of Sheikh Syed [Sa’id] with cargoes of provisions and stores, also arms and ammunition, for the Turkish troops at Sheikh Syed… He states they were twice boarded by a British man-of-war but passed themselves off as pearl fishers. Noor Ali states that there are other members of the crew of the same dhow who are now at Masha [Gulf of Tajoura] who are willing to give evidence to the same effect.

… the large dhow which has been built at Maala for de Manfred is, I understand, complete and ready for sea. There would appear to be sufficient evidence to justify the authorities in impounding this new dhow (which is of 100 tons capacity) at any rate for the period of the war. It seems to be a most anomalous condition of affairs that so notorious a blockade runner as de Manfred should be permitted to make use of the building facilities of Aden to enhance his illicit trade.’

Gillespy’s report, with its implicit criticism of the Aden government’s inertia, was copied to the Residency where it galvanised the First Assistant Resident, Major W M P Wood, and his junior colleague, Major Bernard Reilly, into a fever of activity. The following day Reilly interviewed Nur Ali and two other Somalis (one of whom was a member of de Monfreid’s crew and said nothing to compromise the Frenchman). Since Reilly did not speak Somali, he, like Gillespy, will have depended on the services of an interpreter; in Gillespy’s case this was the Admiralty’s interpreter, Entoub Ali, who Nur Ali later claimed had sought to put words into his mouth to incriminate de Monfreid. Statements attributed to Nur Ali, and to another Somali, Jama [Juma’] Ali, were recorded by Reilly in English, in his own handwriting. Both Somalis were illiterate, and each statement bears, in addition to Reilly’s signature, an inky cross instead of the more usual thumb print. There are striking discrepancies between these statements and what Gillespy quoted Nur Ali as having told him: de Monfreid’s shipment of arms to the southern Arabian coast is now said to have taken place between 4 and 5 years ago instead of in 1916; the arms were handed over not to Turks but to Arabs; and the dhow was never boarded by British men-of-war. Nur Ali’s statement added: ‘Since the war the foreigner [de Monfreid] has not been running arms, but I believe he now intends to do so in his new dhow’. Apparently Nur Ali could not remember the foreigner’s name, so he identified him by physical description and by reference to his current presence in the Ma’alla shipyard.

Commenting on these papers to the British Resident, Major-General J M Stewart, Wood minuted: ‘I do not think there is the slightest doubt that [de Monfreid] is implicated in the trade (gun-running). We have sufficient evidence to justify us in refusing [him] permission to leave in the dhow’. When Wood (who had already passed a copy of Nur Ali’s statement to the French Consular Agent, Adolphe Ries) was later asked by Ries for a copy of Gillespy’s report, Wood replied that he couldn’t give him one but that ‘the facts stated in it are the same as in the statement with the exception that the time of committal of offence [i.e. the landing of arms on the southern Arabian coast] is given as one year ago instead of between 4 and 5…’ This was manifestly untrue, and, as we have seen, there were other striking discrepancies. When Ries later taxed Reilly with the fact that Nur Ali, back in Djibouti, had repudiated the statements made in his name in Aden, and that therefore the basis of the Residency’s case against de Monfreid was unsound, Reilly brushed this aside on the grounds that he himself had recorded Nur Ali’s testimony. In fact, Nur Ali said nothing in front of Reilly which could be regarded as compromising except the speculation (echoed by the other Somali, Jama Ali) that de Monfreid intended to use the new boat for arms smuggling. Nevertheless, Residency officials chose to consider this material as sufficient pretext for refusing de Monfreid a permit to take the new boat to Djibouti, and for banning him from Aden for the duration of the war. Neither option had entered their heads during the months that de Monfreid had been in Aden building the new boat, until they saw Gillespy’s report. The timing of Nur Ali’s statement so close to de Monfreid’s planned departure for Djibouti strongly suggests that Gillespy was determined to bounce the Residency into impounding the boat and that he engineered matters to that end.

Before his expulsion from Aden, Monfreid wrote to the Resident saying that he had heard that certain Somalis had made defamatory statements about him and requesting an opportunity to clear himself before a competent legal authority. His letter was ignored.

Through the French Consular Agent in Aden, Adolphe Ries, the Governor of Djibouti vigorously objected to the impounding of the dhow on the grounds that his administration had been intending to hire it. He refused Aden’s request to confine de Monfreid’s future sailings to the African coast, although he did agree not to intervene on de Monfreid’s behalf if the latter was caught in Britain’s exclusion zone (which stretched from Lith, south of Jeddah, to Shihr, east of Aden). The Governor’s disenchantment with the British was stoked to outright anger in early March 1918 when de Monfreid was arrested off British Somaliland, and and taken to Berbera despite the fact that his papers were in order.

On 4 March 1918 the British Commissioner, Berbera, had telegraphed Aden:

‘It has just been reported that on March 2nd dhow containing arms and ammunition including small gun and possibly machine gun, having on board Frenchman with assumed name Abdul Hai said to be well-known gun-runner, anchored off Karam. Ammunition reported to be intended for the dervishes and to be disembarked at Hais or Mait. Urgently request that arrangements may immediately be made with naval authorities to do what is possible...’

The SNO, Red Sea Patrol (now Captain Alexander Palmer of HMS Juno), immediately ordered Commander C E V Craufurd of HMS Minto to track and intercept the dhow and take it to Berbera. This was done on 6 March. Later, in a report dated 12 March, Palmer commented: ‘I have no doubt in my mind that this clever rascal [de Monfreid] succeeded in landing the arms at Mait whence they would be sent to Jid Ali, one of the Mullah’s strongholds distant about 50 miles from Mait. He [de Monfreid] admitted [having] landed at Mait to replenish water as one cask had gone bad...’ Palmer would soon have to eat his words.

Meanwhile, Berbera had asked Aden to send them as much background on de Monfreid as possible. On 9 March Wood sent a telegraphic reply which was long on unsubstantiated suspicions, short on hard fact and wrong in several details. Wood’s tendentious report, which included the loaded comment: ‘the man’s wife is pure German. Her father lives at Stuttgart.’, can only have been intended to encourage Berbera to believe the worst of de Monfreid. Particularly misleading was Wood’s reference to ‘strong suspicions that [de Monfreid] had been running despatches to Turks or else arms and ammunition’ when he was detained at Perim in 1916. Likewise Wood’s statement that ‘it was also ascertained by private enquiry from high sources that at Jibouti in 1914–15 [de Monfreid] was given two years’ imprisonment by the French courts in connection with the arms traffic’. The source for this, who could hardly be described as ‘high’, was Adolphe Ries, a businessman in Aden (founder of the eponymous firm of Paul Ries) who doubled as French Consular Agent there. In 1916 Ries had told Wood’s predecessor, Lieut-Colonel H F Jacob, that de Monfreid had been sentenced in Djibouti to two years’ imprisonment but had been released and sent to France 3 months later to serve in the French army. Wood and the Resident, General Stewart, in reply to Berbera’s request for further information on de Monfreid’s prison sentence, decided not to question Ries further and merely reiterated that their source was ‘a very good one’. In fact, de Monfreid’s sentence was for only six months, and arose from an uncorroborated charge of selling ammunition to a Somali who had accused him of this offence. De Monfreid was fined on the separate charge of having defrauded Djibouti customs on a consignment of unsold arms which he had buried on the island of Mascali, north of Djibouti, and which were discovered there by the French authorities in late 1914.

When intercepted by HMS Minto off the Somali coast, de Monfreid was on his way to Mukalla to buy wood for a new dhow to replace the one impounded by Aden. He had a permit for this from the Governor of Djibouti. He was detained at Berbera (largely on board HMS Minto) for some 25 days without any official notice of the reasons for his detention or any opportunity to state his case except in private and unofficial conversation with Commander Craufurd (which the latter duly recorded and circulated). On 2 April Palmer, SNO Red Sea Patrol, informed Wood that Berbera had abandoned its case against de Monfreid and that HMS Minto was taking him back to Djibouti. Meanwhile, on 1 April the Commissioner of Berbera, Lieut-Colonel G H Summers, issued a ‘Proclamation’: 

‘whereas it has been made to appear to me that the presence of Henri de Montfried [sic] in the [Somaliland] Protectorate is dangerous to peace and good order… I, Gerald Henry Summers… Acting Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief… do hereby order and proclaim that the aforesaid Henri de Montfried is prohibited from being in the Protectorate or in the territorial waters of the Protectorate during a period of two years beginning on 1st April 1918, under penalty of imprisonment...’

This proclamation, couched in the pompous language of the time, was clearly intended to save the Commissioner’s face. Summers had been overzealous, and with the disappearance of the informants who had accused de Monfreid of gun-running the case against him had fallen apart. Publicly, Summers took the line that the case had been dropped ‘partly in view of certain assurances given me by the Governor of Djibouti and partly on account of the fact that a conviction was not certain, as the prosecution depended almost entirely on circumstantial evidence.’ In fact, Summers had completely ignored the Governor of Djibouti’s representations on de Monfreid’s behalf and his repeated requests for information about the reasons for de Monfreid’s arrest.

De Monfreid’s anger and frustration is evident in a letter to the Governor of Djibouti written on 16 April 1918:

‘J’ai pris connaissance du requisitoire du Résident de Berbera qui semble n’avoir d’autre but que d’écarter les responsabilités. Ces procédés semblent inspirés par Aden, tant les analogies sont frappantes, surtout dans la valeur des arguments spéciaux employés contre moi.

Veuillez vous rappeler, Monsieur le Gouverneur, dépositions qui servirent de prétexte à mon expulsion d’Aden, dont nous avons eu ici la démenti formal par la bouche même d’un temoin. Jamais d’ailleurs les autorités d’Aden ne consentirent à me confronter avec ces indigènes. Même méthode à Berbera; on cherche des charges contre moi mais on me met dans l’impossibilité de les discuter en ne me les faisant pas connaître. Pendant vingt cinq jours que dura ma détention on aurait pu eu le temps de me confronter avec les gens qui m’accusaient. Il est probable que l’édifice de mon accusation semblait trop fragile aux autorités de Berbera, sa lecture seule montre clairement que son but est tout autre que la recherche de la vérité...’

De Monfreid’s friend Antonin Besse, who had financed construction of the dhow which the Aden authorities had impounded (and which was later purchased by the British Navy), learned in conversation with HMS Minto’s French-speaking Chief Engineer, Vincent, that the telegram which Wood had sent to Berbera on 9 March had sabotaged any hope of de Monfreid’s early release. Besse also knew that Wood had given Bethell, Assistant Commissioner, Zayla, a confidential dossier on de Monfreid to deliver to Berbera. He therefore saw de Monfreid’s detention as part of a plot by Wood to get the Frenchman caught. Apparently Vincent also told Besse that he and his fellow officers were ‘scandalised’ by the way de Monfreid had been treated.

Meanwhile, Wood, prompted by a note about de Monfreid by his predecessor, Lieut-Colonel H F Jacob (who had been transferred from Aden to Cairo in 1917) wrote to the Qu’aiti Sultan, Ghalib bin Awadh, on 17 April to warn him that de Monfreid might turn up in Mukalla to buy wood and that if he did, would he kindly arrest him and hand him over to the British authorities. The Sultan graciously agreed to do this should it prove necessary. Jacob’s note (addressed to the High Commissioner in Cairo, Sir Reginald Wingate, and copied to Aden) contained a revealing comment with regard to the legality of the British intervening in the affairs of local Protectorate states in order to exclude or detain undesirable foreigners:

‘…We can do in war time anything we please. De Monfreid is a dangerous character – repudiated by the French, but still used by them.’

Jacob’s reference to French repudiation of de Monfreid was thoroughly discredited by a letter dated 28 November 1919 from the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, to Viscount Allenby (who had replaced Wingate as High Commissioner in Cairo), stating that the Quai d’Orsay were pressing London for Aden’s exclusion order on de Monfreid to be lifted. Until Curzon’s intervention, the Aden Residency had prevaricated on this issue in correspondence with the French Consular Agent who, once the war had ended, repeatedly urged Aden to lift the restriction.

In 1920, in response to an unconfirmed report from the Naval Officer, Cairo, of gun-running into Yemen by de Monfreid from an island depot near Djibouti (this has the ring of old information being reheated for British consumption) Aden sent a Police Constable to Djibouti to investigate. The latter later reported that for the past three years there had been no arms smuggling from the French port or nearby islands.

On 14 February 1919 Reilly (who was to become Aden’s first colonial governor in 1937) had piously minuted that ‘even after the blockade is raised I think we shall have to watch [De Monfreid’s] activities pretty closely in connection with contraband arms traffic’. Reilly was true to his word. De Monfreid’s arrival in Aden in August 1921, in his new dhow, Al-Tair, en route to Bombay, prompted Aden, ever prisoner of past prejudice, to warn Bombay that ‘de Monfreid, a French resident of Djibouti, suspected of gun-running during the war as he is known to have been a gun-runner before the war’, was on his way. Bombay later reported that the vessel had been searched but that no arms other than the few declared had been found. De Monfreid’s return to Djibouti the following January and his further trip to India via Aden in April 1922 were duly noted by Aden’s Police Inspector Barnes who reported to the Assistant Resident that his men had failed to extract anything of interest from de Monfreid’s crew.

The demonisation of de Monfreid, driven by the paranoia of a few individuals and irreversibly enshrined in official papers, fostered the image of a lawless Frenchman, an infamous loup de mer, as dark and alien as his native crew, who posed as a Muslim and had an uncanny ability to evade arrest. Monfreid was transformed into a bogey, and his will and capacity to damage British interests in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden were exaggerated out of all proportion to reality. In wartime, few British are likely to have seen him in a more romantic light: in the mould, for example, of Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel. But de Monfreid’s smuggling of provisions into Turkish Arabia was a mere drop in the inward flow of illicit commerce; it could have had no material impact on the blockade. Chasing de Monfreid through the reefs and shoals of the Red Sea may have been an agreeable sport for British naval patrols, but it diverted resources from more important operational tasks.

The few who emerge with credit from the saga of de Monfreid’s relations with the British include Commander Craufurd and officers of HMS Minto, who treated de Monfreid with a respect and sympathy which he warmly acknowledges in his memoirs. Likewise Major Graham, de Monfreid’s urbane ‘host’ on Perim, who ensured that his crew were properly fed during their continued detention at Perim after the Frenchman’s release. The less honourable treatment which de Monfreid experienced elsewhere seems to have been influenced by an unthinking, at times vindictive prejudice. But perhaps some allowance should be made for the corrosive effect on the judgement of Aden’s British Indian officials, of an enervating climate and imperial hubris.

John Shipman
Vol 14.