The quiet travels of Colonel Boscawen


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

Between 1929-1933 Lieut-Colonel the Hon. M.T. Boscawen made three visits to Hadhramaut (then part of Britain’s Aden Protectorate) from his home near Tanga, East Africa. In 1934 he visited Soqotra and in 1935 travelled from Aden to Sana’a. He was the first European to visit Tarim (1929) since Leo Hirsch in 1893, the first to come within sight of Shabwa (1932), and the first to visit Sei’ar country and to see and photograph the South Arabian oryx (1933). He made a significant contribution to the Natural History Museum’s collection of birds from South Arabia, and it is through him that the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge came to acquire one of the most important and striking exhibits in its collection of antiquities — a first millennium B.C. bronze ‘roaring’ lion (55.6 cm. high) found in al-Qatn, Wadi Hadhramaut.

Boscawen made no record of his journeys in an area which was then little known and largely unexplored, despite being urged to do so by the few who knew enough of these journeys to appreciate their importance. We have brief glimpses of Boscawen in the travel literature of the period (Van der Meulen, Freya Stark, Philby), but it fell to Harold Ingrains, who met him in Aden in 1933 and 1935, to reconstruct his routes mainly from the places where he had collected birds (places which Boscawen had identified for the Natural History Museum) and from the anecdotal evidence of local Hadhramis.

Colonel Boscawen

Following his initial visit to Shibam and Tarim in 1929, Boscawen returned to Hadhramaut in January 1932, travelling via Mukalla and Shihr through Hamumi country to Tarim. In February he travelled east down Wadi Masila as far as Qabr Hud and then up Wadi Barhut to Bir Barhut, previously visited by Van Der Meulen and Von Wissman in 1930. Returning to Tarim he proceeded west to Seiyun and Shibam where he arrived at the beginning of March. From Shibam he started his return journey to Aden and accompanied by an escort of Hamami bedouin, he continued west through Wadi Dulir towards Shabwa. He camped outside Shabwa but was fired on by local Buraiki nomads and did not enter the village. He then visited Wadi ‘Irma before turning south west to Nisab. Travelling through Aulaqi and Audhali country he arrived at Shuqra on the coast and was back in Aden the following day. In February 1933 he returned again to Hadhramaut and, travelling from the coast via Raidat al-Johiyeen, he reached Shibam towards the end of March. He left for the northern desert in April, proceeding via Wadi Sirr (last visited by Theodore and Mabel Bent in 1897) to Husn Bin Rumaidan, the seat of one of the principal leaders of the Sei’ar tribe. From there he travelled through Wadi ‘Eiwa to the desert where he spent a week tracking oryx with the Sei’ar. By May he had returned to Mukalla and was back in Aden by early June.

In his book Arabia and the Isles (1942), Ingrams mentions that he asked Boscawen why he never wrote anything down, and that Boscawen [a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge] replied, ‘I can’t spell’! Perhaps a more compelling explanation lies in Boscawen’s instinctive modesty and his aversion to any form of self-publicity. Writing to the President of the Royal Geographical Society, Admiral Sir William Goodenough, in September 1933, in reply to the latter’s request for a photographic portrait of him, Boscawen said, ‘I am quite out of place among your distinguished explorers etc ...’

Mildmay Thomas (Tommy) Boscawen (1892-1956) was a younger son of the 7th Viscount Falmouth. He served with the Rifle Brigade in the front line throughout the 1914-18 War, rising from subaltern to battalion commander, and winning an MC at Loos in 1915 and a DSO on the Somme in 1916. In a chapter on leadership in his book, The Anatomy of Courage (1945), Lord Moran (Winston Churchill’s doctor) wrote: ‘alone in its influence over the hearts of men I place phlegm — a supreme imperturbability in the face of death which half amused them and half dominated them — the ultimate gift in war. During an attack on Guillemont in the Battle of the Somme an officer of the Rifle Brigade was crossing the open [ground] under heavy shell fire when he dropped his glove. He walked back two or three yards, picked it up and went on.’

That officer was ‘Tommy’ Boscawen. After the war he went out to Tanganyika (Tanzania) and built up what was to become the largest individual sisal growing enterprise in East Africa, covering some 85,000 acres. There he employed an increasing number ofYemeni/Hadhrami expatriates including one who became his trusted assistant and travelling companion — Shaikh Abdullah Abubakr al‘Amoodi, a native of Wadi Du’an in Hadhramaut. Abdullah accompanied Boscawen on his trek from India via Tibet to Chinese Turkestan in the 1920s; and it was Abdullah who aroused Boscawen’s interest in Hadhramaut and accompanied him on each of his three journeys there; Abdullah returned to Du’an in 1934, when Boscawen was on leave in England, and shot 37 birds to add to the 127 skins which Boscawen had collected for the Natural History Museum in 1932 and 1933.

Freya Stark and others have commented on the warmth with which Boscawen was remembered in Hadhramaut — for his personal charm and open-handedness (he paid handsomely, for example, for the services of his bedouin guides). He established a close relationship with Sultan Ali bin Salah Al-Qu’aiti, a senior member of the ruling Qu’aiti dynasty, who lived in al-Qatn. As Freya Stark records somewhat wistfully, Sultan Ali presented Boscawen with the magnificent first millennium B.C. bronze ‘roaring’ lion (Fig. 1), which is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Roaring Lion
Fig. 1. Roaring Lion, originally flanking a monumental entrance way, 8th-7th century BC. From al-Qatn, Wadi Hadhramaut. Fitzwilliam Museum.

When Boscawen first saw it, the bronze was lying on its side in sand on the floor of a house some miles from Shibam. Boscawen was reluctant to accept it but Sultan Ali insisted. When he got it back to England the British Museum showed not the slightest interest, so he took it to Spinks for evaluation. There it was spotted by the celebrated art dealer Lord Duveen, who offered Boscawen £5,000 for it — a huge sum in the 1930s — but Boscawen said that the bronze had been a gift to him and was not for sale. Sultan Ali was also instrumental in obtaining a live oryx for Boscawen to send to the London Zoo — the first brought to England since 1878 (when a specimen obtained in Jedda was sent but died soon afterwards). Boscawen’s oryx is said to have been walked from the desert down to Shibam on a lead behind a camel, and then flown to Aden in an RAF ‘Wapiti’. The photograph at Fig. 2 was taken shortly after the animal’s arrival at the zoo in mid-1933, by Boscawen’s ten year old nephew the Hon. Robert Boscawen, using a Kodak Box Brownie camera! Oddly, there is no mention of Boscawen’s gift to the zoo in Douglas Carruthers’ Arabian Adventure (1935) which published a photograph of the oryx which Boscawen had tracked and shot in April 1933, nor in Anthony Shepherd’s Flight of the Unicorns (1965) — about the oryx expedition to Hadhramaut in 1962 sponsored by the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society — which includes a detailed account of previous European attempts to track or obtain a specimen.

London Zoo
Fig. 2. London Zoo, 1933. Courtesy: The Hon. Robert Boscawen, MC

Boscawen, in his turn, presented Sultan Ali with a hunting rifle. This was inherited by the latter’s younger son, Abdulaziz, and remained in his possession until it was looted during the civil war of 1994. The photograph at Fig. 3, taken by Boscawen in 1929, shows Sultan Ali (1898-1948) with his elder son; sitting on Sultan Ali’s left is Shaikh Hussain La’jam at whose house just outside Shibam Boscawen used to stay. This and Boscawen’s other photographs of Hadhramaut are held in the Royal Geographical Society’s Picture Library.

Sultan al-Qu'aiti
Fig. 3. Sultan Ali bin Salah al-Qu’aiti, al-Qatn, 1929. The Royal Ceographical Society

Yemenis who knew Boscawen in East Africa remember him for his open, unassuming nature and his philanthropy — qualities which were seen as unusual in European settlers at that time. Boscawen took a close interest in the welfare of his staff, especially his Arab employees, and in a number of cases financed at his own expense the further education of their children. He built a mosque at Moa for the local Muslim community in 1952, and would make a point of attending the annual Muslim feast commemorating the Prophet’s Birthday. In 1954 he made a substantial contribution to the Arab Welfare Association in Mombasa. Boscawen is also remembered for his enjoyment of hunting and fishing (he went annually to New Zealand to fish), his love of books and music, but especially for his keen interest in agriculture; much of his time was spent managing and touring, sometimes by plane, his large sisal estates in Kenya (Mwatate, near Voi) and Tanganyika (Moa and Tanga Line).

Due largely to his own reticence, our knowledge of this intrepid traveller and enlightened planter will always remain fragmentary; but his name lives on in the Fitzwilliam Museum. During the last two decades of his life Boscawen formed an impressive collection of renaissance and later European sculptures, principally bronzes, and from 1946 onwards lent anonymously to the Museum a number of objects, including the bronze lion given to him by Sultan Aui. After his death in 1956, the collection passed to his sister the Hon. Pamela Sherek, who in 1979 donated to the Museum, in her brother’s memory, the objects already on loan. The Fitzwilliam Museum acquired the remaining sculptures by bequest following her death in 1995, and these form part of what is now known as ‘The Boscawen Collection’.

I am most grateful to Viscount Falmouth and to the Hon. Robert Boscawen for their personal recollections of Colonel Boscawen (their uncle), and to both Mr Muhammad al-Qa’tabi (grandson of Shaikh Abdullah Abubakr al-’Amoodi) and Mr Sa’ud Abdullah al-Audhali for their recollections of him in East Africa. I must also record my warm appreciation of the help received from Mr Muhammad Bin Dohry, the late Mr Abdullah Yumain Bin Daghar, Mr Ralph Daly, Miss Leila Ingrams, Dr Abdulaziz bin Aui Au-Qu’aiti, Dr Eleni Vassilika, Keeper of the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Christine Auder, Assistant Librarian, BirdLife International, Cambridge.

December 1999