Hadhrami migration in the 19th and 20th centuries


This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, 1999

Dr Freitag lectures on the modern history of the Middle East at S.O.A.S. She edited (with W C. Clarence-Smith) ‘Hadhrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean’ (Brill, Leiden, 1997) which was reviewed in the last issue of the Journal. This article is based on her talk to a joint meeting of the British-Yemeni Society and the Society for Arabian Studies on 2 December 1998.

The history of migration from Hadhramaut, following the monsoons of the Indian Ocean, is an ancient one, even if my present survey is limited to the 19th and 20th centuries. Harold Ingrams estimated that in the mid-1930s some 90,000 Hadhramis, out of a total population of 260,000, migrated at some time in their lives. However, the Hadhrami community overseas would have been far more numerous if one counts second and third generation immigrants in host countries, who frequently harboured open or residual feelings of ‘Arabness’, not to mention those who were completely assimilated.

The process of migration

Wadi Hadhramaut in the first half of the 19th century was a rather impoverished region whose once flourishing agriculture had been severely affected by internal warfare and the consequent breakdown of security. It thus comes as no surprise that the more enterprising of its youth contemplated emigration, either to India and further east, or to Aden and the Red Sea, or to the East African coast. From the 1830s onwards, and particularly after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, travel on steamers increasingly became a faster alternative to sail. In whichever direction migrants turned, they could be confident of meeting compatriots in the major ports, who had settled there as traders or religious teachers. Some worked as port labourers, others were involved in the slave trade. A few had become members of ruling families, such as Sultan Ahmad of Moroni (1792-1875) in Grand Comoro, or were appointed rulers of border areas, such as Sayyid Husayn Jamal al-Layl (1805-73) in Perlis on the Thai-Malay border.

Most migrants could expect to stay with their relatives or compatriots, who would help them organise their onward journey or set them up in initial employment. A rare document from the early 20th century contains instructions from one of the richest men in Hadhramaut to two younger family members, about how to proceed to Singapore where they were to take charge of the family business. Although certainly not typical of ordinary migrants, this document gives a sense of how individuals organised their journeys. The first stage of the journey not discussed in the document, would consist of a seven to ten day ride from the Wadi across the jol to the coast:

when you reach Mukalla, you should stay with Sayyid Hussayn b. Hamid al-Mihdhar. All the money you might require, you will ohtain from Salim al-Yazidi whom we have notified. Send presents and letters to your families, children and to us, and write to us from everywhere so that we can rejoice at your well-being. Once you arrive in Aden, we have asked Abd al-Rahman bin Abdallah to write you a letter [of introduction]. When you have met him, follow his instructions. And if you happen to proceed to the haramayn [Mecca and Medina], follow his instructions. We have also asked Muhammad Jabar in Aden to provide you with everything you might need. If there is honey available in Mukalla, get some as a present for the relatives in Singapore. In Aden, buy some halwa, raisins and almonds as presents for your families, for us and the relatives in Singapore. Everything you might need from my money, whether little or much, is at your disposal. You also have my permission to pay sadaqa [alms]. When you travel to Singapore, follow the advice of your uncle Abd al-Rabman b. Abdullah.  On the day that you arrive in Aden, send a card to ‘Al-Kaff, Singapore, Abu Bakr Abd al-Rabman’, so that he knows that you are in Aden.

Even in the 20th century, not all journeys were by steamer, and on shorter hauls to East Africa, as well as on trips along the Arabian coast, dhows remained in use until after World War II. AlanVilliers in Sons of Sindbad gives a vivid description of such a journey from Shihr to East Africa with a colourful crowd of Bedouin, Sayyids and people not just from Hadhramaut but who had been born in Surabaya or, for example, had grown up in India. In Shihr, the boat took on passengers as well as:

queer long bundles swathed in black which were immediately passed with some deference into the blackness underneath the poop. Here they promptly disappeared. They were being stowed away in the great cabin. At the fifth or sixth bundle I became really interested, for the bundle moved. (Villiers, p.58).

It was a group of women, a rather untypical sight on boats given the conditions in that ‘foul and loathsome den’, as the cabin was described, with no daylight nor fresh air. While many Hadhramis might have travelled to one destination, and either settled there for good or returned to the homeland after a while, others traversed considerable parts of the Indian Ocean in pursuit of learning, trade and as teachers — very often combining these interests, as did Sayyid Abu Bakr b. Abd al-Rahinan b. Muhammad Bin Shihab. He was born in Tarim in Hadhramaut in 1846, where he grew up and enjoyed the benefit of studying with the most notable religious teachers of his time. At the age of 14, he was sent to the Hijaz, presumably to perfect his religious knowledge, studying under the most eminent Shafi’i mufti of Mecca, Ahmad b. Zayni al-Dahlan. Sayyid Abu Bakr briefly returned to Hadliramaut, only to leave it again at the age of 18, when he went to Aden. Apparently he impressed the Sultan of Lahej so deeply that he was asked to stay on. Instead, he decided to follow his kinsmen to Southeast Asia, where he is said to have visited most cities. Surabaya in Eastern Java, which together with the twin town of Gresik was a major centre of Hadhrami maritime enterprise, became his home during the next four years, and the centre of his trading enterprise.

In 1875 Sayyid Abu Bakr returned to his homeland as teacher and mufti. Ten years later he had to leave for unspecified reasons, passing through Aden and Lahej on the way to the Hijaz where he performed the pilgrimage. From the Hijaz he turned north, visiting Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem and Istanbul, where he was honoured by the Ottoman Sultan. Either before or after this journey he is said to have visited East Africa, and an anecdote tells of his meeting with Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar, where a number of influential Hadhrami ‘ulama’ lived. Thence Sayyid Abu Bakr proceeded to Hyderabad in the Deccan, capital of a state which employed large numbers ofArabs in its army where he became a teacher in the school sponsored by the Nizam. Once more he travelled to Java, visiting Johore and Singapore on the way, where he is supposed to have contributed considerably to the nahdha (renaissance) of the Arab community. In 1913 he returned to Hadhramaut and a few years later died in India where he had gone to settle his affairs.

Life in the Diaspora

Obviously, the experiences of migrants differed enormously according to their background, their destination and the length of their stay abroad. One can hardly compare the fate of the young girl on Villiers’ dhow who was destined for marriage in Zanzibar but died on the way with the life of a flamboyant bodybuilder and founder of the ‘Super-Physique League’ in Singapore, who was the offspring of one of the most successful Singaporean merchant and shipping families. Blessed with the advantage of descent from the people, if not the actual family, of the Prophet, many Hadhramis saw migration as a means of social and economic advancement. While some Bedouin were content to raise enough money to stock up their herd of goats back home, others had high hopes of establishing a large-scale international business, which they occasionally managed to realise. We tend to know about the success stories, but migration also produced large numbers of dislocated and disoriented people. Often, they were muwalladin, a term used for people from the coast, but also for children of mixed parentage. While the muwalladin often had the cultural capital to function in more than one society — which might well explain the adaptability and eventual success of so many of them — they also risked being regarded as outsiders; this was to become particularly relevant in the second half of the 20th century with the rise of nationalism. Economic and political conditions, together with individual circumstances and dispositions, thus had and continued to have a major influence on how migrants fared: whether they remained migrants or returned to the homeland, or whether they became absorbed into their host societies.

Let me briefly consider the story of the family of one migrant from Wadi Hadhramaut to Southeast Asia, which illustrates some of the economic and political rationales behind the movements of Hadhrami entrepreneurs. Muhammad ‘T’ was born into a major Hadhrami tribe inhabiting the region of al-Hawta. In the 1860s he travelled to Surabaya where he engaged in trade. His son Salim from a divorced marriage in Hadhramaut joined him as a child but soon fell out of favour with his father, who had many more children.

Salim moved to Kalimantan where he traded with the native Dayaks. By the 1890s Salim had established himself in Jakarta, trading mainly in muslin cloth. His commercial links reached as far as Vietnam, and, over time, he acquired a sizeable fortune which he partly invested in real estate in the Pasar Bahru quarter. In 1902/03 he moved to Singapore which had become something of a goldmine for real estate investment. During World War I, Salim sold his stock of rubber at a high price and bought a substantial amount of property cheaply which he rented out at a good profit. Later he acquired some steamers (sold by the family on his death in 1937), and during the 1920s and 1930s, despite having started out as an illiterate tribesman, he was arguably the richest man in Singapore, his wealth surpassing that of even the richest members of the al-Kaff family.

However, in spite of his success Salim nourished the dream of many migrants, namely of returning to a homeland less tainted by moral decay than Southeast Asia. A number of anecdotes passed on in the family illustrate how he tried to preserve Hadhrami manners as much as possible: he shaved the heads of his sons, and instead of sending them to local schools had them educated privately One son who developed too marked a taste for Singaporean nightlife, was sent back to Hadhramaut where he ended up as a small shopkeeper. Finally, Salim decided to resettle in Hadhramaut with his entire family but died within a week of their arrival in Aden; his family rushed back to Singapore, no doubt relieved at not having to spend the rest of their lives in a Spartan homeland which they knew only by hearsay. Nationalist economic policies in Indonesia in the 1950s led to the loss of much of the family’s property, and investments in real estate in Cairo and Singapore turned into dead capital with the introduction of rent control in both places. One of the sons therefore moved to Aden but in 1972 left again for Singapore, having found the new regime in South Yemen ill-disposed to capitalist enterprise.

The economic reasons for the rise and fall of this family’s fortunes reflect political changes which caused problems for entrepreneurial diasporas such as the Hadhrami community. While Dutch policies of racial segregation in the East Indies favoured the strengthening of a separate Arab identity over integration, the rising nationalist movement in the 1930s and 1940s had the opposite effect. In 1934, muwalladin founded an association which pledged that their homeland was Indonesia, and Hadhramaut was relegated to the role of the land of the ancestors. However, such willingness to integrate often did not suffice to appease local nationalists. With the emergence of independence movements around the Indian Ocean, trade-minorities such as Indians, Chinese and, indeed, Hadhramis experienced much hardship. The internment and deportation of 7,000 Arabs in Hyderabad after the annexation of that state by India in 1948, and the massacres of Arabs in Zanzibar in 1961 and 1964 bear witness to the sad destruction of a global world in the era of national independence.

To some extent, those who had cultivated their Arab identity had an option other than acculturation. Many Hadhramis relocated to the Arabian Peninsula. Some went directly to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states which were becoming major employers, others went to Hadhramaut to obtain passports which would enable them to travel to neighbouring countries. The Somali crisis of 1991 as well as continuing economic problems in the East African states have led to a constant trickle of immigrants to Mukalla where the Office for Migrants examines their claims to Yemeni citizenship.

However, not everybody felt at ease with such relocation. A member of the al-Kaff family, asked in the early 1980s about his retirement plans, commented, ‘if I’m to go back to Arabia, I’ll feel a bit out of place’, adding that Malaysia was a more appealing option. Such feelings are not new; an Indonesian acquaintance, who visited Hadhramaut for three months in 1946 on his way back from studying in Cairo, described his experience as an adventure: ‘I was a scout, so I liked it’. In Hadhramaut he interpreted the respectful address of habib, his due as a Sayyid, as a familiarity which he found deeply offensive. He fell out with the local Qadhi for reading the fatiha at his ancestor’s grave, instead of praying for the deceased’s intercession (tawassut); the Qadhi denounced him for having fallen under Wahhabi influence. The girls, however, saw him in a more positive light: as a visiting muwallad he was, by definition, more refined than his local peers and thus a more attractive marriage prospect.

For many Southeast Asians of Hadhrami origin, moving to Australia seems nowadays much more appealing than returning to Arabia. It is often presented as a last frontier, a land in which illegal immigrants can still earn enough capital to set up a business back in Indonesia, where land is abundant and affordable — in contrast to Singapore — and where opportunities are plentiful for the daring.

The migrants’ role in Hadhramaut

What was the role of the migrants in their homeland? There clearly existed some apprehension about the consequences of migration as was evident in the behaviour of Salim ‘T’. Abandoned families, moral corruption, and unwarranted intervention in the conservative society of Hadhramaut were among the suspicions harboured against migrants by those who had stayed at home. On the other hand the modern history of Hadhramaut is unthinkable without the contribution made by the migrants.

Their most basic contribution were the remittances. One of the reasons for the famines of 1943/44 and 1948/49 was the interruption of remittances in the context of World War II and of India’s annexation of Hyderabad. The family trusts of four large Hadhrami families disbursed small sums of money to thousands of relatives who, with such payments, were able to supplement their meagre incomes from agriculture and herding.

Besides supporting family, the remittances were used to acquire land and build homes. European travellers in the 1930s commented upon the new palaces in Shibam, Seiyun and Tarim. These featured doors of teak, bathrooms equipped with showers and toilets from the East Indies, and were furnished with Indian rocking chairs, oriental carpets, Javanese beds and mirrors, all of which had been transported from the coast to the interior on the backs of camels. Such pomp did not go unremarked. Muhammad Bin Hashim, teacher, journalist, administrator and historian, complained in 1940 that such buildings wasted valuable agricultural land, destroyed the palm groves which were central to the local Hadhrami economy, and employed the labour of animals and humans which otherwise could be used more productively.

One of the consequences of the comparative wealth of the diaspora was that it gained disproportionate influence over political developments in Hadhramaut in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The early 19th century witnessed a major breakdown of security; and while the traditional peace-brokers, the Sayyids, attempted in vain to negotiate settlements, a number of Arabs who had risen in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad, took matters into their own hands and eventually established the Kathiri and Qu’ayti sultanates which were to last until 1967. It is worth mentioning that these rivals were able to count not only on local support but also on support from India and Southeast Asia. Sayyid Umar b. Ali al-Junayd, one of the ‘pioneers of Singapore’, had returned to his homeland in 1835 in the hope of settling there, but after becoming embroiled in local disputes made a hasty exit. Although disillusioned with his own prospects in Hadhramaut, he began to support Sultan Ghalib b. Muhsin al-Kathiri who was seen as a potential guarantor of political stability. According to a family history, Sayyid Umar sent not only money to Hadhramaut, but also thirty warrior slaves and some cannons.

Migrants were not just interested in a safe retirement home. In the 1920s, Hadhrami newspapers in Indonesia printed engaging debates about the causes of Hadhramaut’s continuing problems. Was tribalism the culprit? Would schools improve the situation by educating Hadhramis to understand their basic problems and to become better and healthier citizens? How could agriculture and industry be promoted?

Lurking behind such discussions is a certain dismay at pouring wealth into what seemed to be a bottomless pit rather than into worthwhile development projects. In particular, the al-Kaff family, who had for long effectively paid the Kathiri sultanate’s bills, lost patience with the political and economic situation. They were instrumental in organising two conferences in 1927 and 1928, in Shihr (Hadhramaut) and Singapore, which brought together representatives of both sultanates as well as a number of merchant families.

The resolutions of the Singapore conference spell out how prominent members of the diaspora envisaged their relationship with Hadhramaut. Migrants were asked to create a development fund for the homeland, which was to be linked to a public budget — thus introducing the idea of accountable government. The vexed issue of customs dues, a persistent problem for the land-locked Kathiri merchants, was to be resolved. A member of the al-Kaff family was asked to set up a trading company in which the two states would hold shares and which was to set apart a certain portion of its profits for charitable projects. The two governments should start providing schools, details of a judicial system were spelt out, peace between the tribes was to be negotiated, and the conflict within the migrant community was to be settled.

This agenda foundered as a result of political differences, and was the last serious attempt at inner reform without outside support or intervention. In 1937/38, both the Qu’ayti and Kathiri sultans signed treaties accepting the ‘advice’ of a British Resident. Both had their own reasons for doing so, and some of the merchants involved in the conferences saw the treaties as an alternative means of establishing lasting peace and just government. Others obviously disagreed, not least because the rules of the game were now considerably changed.

Finally, the migrants contributed significantly to the cultural movement or nahdha which had started among the Arabs in Southeast Asia but quickly spread to Hadhramaut. This comprised a variety of phenomena, such as the establishment of schools, cultural clubs and associations, and the issue of local journals which were, at least initially, handwritten. Many of those who participated in this movement were Hadhramis who had been born or had lived abroad, and who came to Hadhramaut either to be educated in an Arab environment or who had been sent there as teachers.

The advisory treaties and the new pattern of administration which ensued, the advent of World War II, and the wave of national independence in the 1950s and 1960s all contributed to the relative decline of diaspora influence. Socialist policies after independence in 1967, which had driven the sultans from Southern Yemen, did little to endear the new regime to cosmopolitan entrepreneurs, who often relocated to the Gulf and elsewhere. Matters only changed in the 1990s with Yemeni unification which opened new opportunities.

Hadhramaut and the Diaspora in the 1990s

In Singapore, Jakarta and Surabaya I met people who had sent their sons to be educated in Tarim, often because they had come to be considered ‘troublemakers’ and it was thought that a proper Islamic education in Hadhramaut would set them straight. One man in Surabaya told me that his brother, after returning from Hadhramaut, had become a wandering preacher in rural Java and was very successful; everybody revered the Sayyid who had studied in Arabia.

Has nothing changed, then? It certainly would seem that the revival of religious learning in Shihr and Tarim, with the reopening of their schools, is once more attracting hundreds of students from abroad, many of whom are of Arab origin. Similarly, contacts with religious schools outside, such as the one in Lamu, Kenya, have been revived. Hadhramis in Southeast Asia are curious about conditions in the land of their ancestors, and a number of tours to the homeland have been organised.

There seems to be more scepticism, at least since the war of 1994, regarding investment in Hadhramaut and in wider Yemen. Certainly there have been efforts by the Yemeni government to attract investment from Southeast Asia, and some seem to have been successful. Similarly, businesses based in Saudi Arabia have kept an eye open for investment opportunities in Yemen. Finally, travelling by road from Mukalla to the Wadi one notices new houses and demarcated plots of land; so there is clearly interest within the diaspora, although entrepreneurs are well aware of the local obstacles to investment.

Meanwhile, the trend towards globalisation continues and has been reinforced by the Internet. In 1997 the journal of the Arab Association of Singapore published an article on Arab networking, and has since published e-mail and website addresses relevant to Hadhrami, Yemeni and Arab matters. This enables individuals and businesses from the US, Yemen, Malaysia and Turkey — to name but a few — to contact each other, and might well become a modern means of continuing the diaspora networks which proved so successful in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

December 1999