Year of the Nationalists, Part 4: The Hidden Intervention

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the documents, notes and correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

Part 3 of Year of the Nationalists can be read here.

* * *

It had already been a historic year for Bahrain. The National Union Committee (henceforth “The Committee”) had been officially recognised in March by the Ruler, Sheikh Salman, making them the first legal political party in Bahrain and the Gulf region. That same month, the bungling police brutally fired on an angry crowd, killing many and heightening the tension in the country. The year also saw the first elections of any importance for the Health and Education councils. But this minor process of democratisation was ruined when at the last moment the ruling family selected a certain Shaikh Abdullah to be head of both councils, with veto powers. The Committee boycotted the councils and it was the last attempt at democracy until independence. 1956 also saw the inflammatory rise of anti-British and anti-colonial demands by the opposition: Selwyn Lloyd, the British Foreign Secretary, was attacked by a mob; and the demands that Charles Belgrave, the autocratic Adviser, should leave grew louder and louder.

And then the Suez Crisis happened. Nasser, Egypt’s president, nationalised the Suez Canal to help fund his infrastructure projects. In retaliation, Britain and France, who had owned the Canal, concocted a mad plan. On 29 October they made their move when Israel, their partner in this endeavour, invaded the Sinai Peninsula. Britain and France intervened as a peace keeping duo with a secret mission: to take back the Suez Canal.

The Arab world was in an uproar and general strikes were held across the Middle East and North Africa. In Bahrain, the protest marches would turn violent and anti-British rioting ran wild. In the ensuing chaos, the leaders of the Committee were arrested and quiet was restored to the country. It was British military intervention which allowed such a peace to return.

The story is there, but something is missing. Exactly what happened in November 1956? We know the general outline, as summarised above. But the British national archives are amazingly sparse about it. As I will explain, a lot of information is just not there, and its absence is striking. My main source for these articles has always been the documents and correspondences of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office kept in the National Archives in Kew, London. In particular I’ve been drawing on a series of six files, “Internal Political Situation in Bahrain”, series code FO 371/120544 through to FO 371/120549. I’ve referred to them extensively in telling the story of the “Year of the Nationalists”.

The sixth file in the series, 371/120549, covers the events in the last months of 1956. But frustratingly, it has very little on November 1956. My own notes from this file have a large gap following an intelligence report dated 6 November 1956, which notes that a curfew was  imposed on 3 November, and that the National Union Committee had released a pamphlet declaring a boycott of British and French goods on 4 November. It also notes that this self-same pamphlet also carried a protest against the arrest of Ibrahim Fakhro, a Committee leader. It is the closest thing to contemporary documentation of the crackdown that I’ve found. Then silence reigns until near the end of November.

I first looked at these files a year ago. It was only when I began writing Part 3 of Year of the Nationalists that it dawned on me that I was missing a dire amount of information regarding the November events – here were the nationalist leaders, all arrested, and I had nothing on it. So I went back to the Archives and there I found that there is in fact a second series of six files by the Foreign Office. This series, FO 1016/465 through to FO 1016/470, “Bahrain: Internal Political Situation, 1956”, runs through the same events as the series that I read last year. Many of the documents within were copies of ones I had already sifted through, but others still were new to me. By now it was clear I had gotten ahead of myself when I started writing this series, but I didn’t have the time to go through all six thick files so I took out only 1016/470, the last in the series.

What I found was frustrating. The earliest dated document in this file was from 1 November, a notice issued by the Ruler, Sheikh Salman, reminding the public that under a 1947 law, demonstrations without permission from the Government are illegal. It then further clarified this law, with the inclusion that participants in illegal demonstrations would be fined up to Rs 3000, imprisoned for up to three years, or both. That this statement was issued at all is quite telling of the strength the Bahraini nationalists held on the streets and the rising anger against the British and their war in Egypt. The Bahraini government certainly seemed worried, at the least, that public anger would explode on the streets. This seems like a promising find, but then there are three weeks worth of documents missing: the next dated document after 1 November is on 19 November. Then on 21 November a notice is issued by Charles Belgrave, the Advisor, repealing the 1 November notice of Sheikh Salman. It is from this point on the documents appear in their usual density, with most of them dated December as the brevity of November gives way.

Evidently, Part 6 of the series, which I was reading, was not the file with the information I needed. So I went to order Part 5 – FO 1016/469 – only to find that it’s been retained by the Foreign Office. Dated 1956, the record has no title. But sandwiched between FO 1016/468 (Bahrain: Internal Political Situation, Part 4) and the above-mentioned FO 1016/470, Part 6, it’s obvious what the record is. Part 4 covers the the summer of 1956 for the most part – its latest correspondence is dated September – and so it seemed Part 5 must have the sought-after information.

But Part 5 is withheld under the Public Records Act (1958), Section 3.4:

Public records selected for permanent preservation under this section shall be transferred not later than thirty years after their creation either to the Public Record Office or to such other place of deposit appointed by the Lord Chancellor under this Act as the Lord Chancellor may direct:

Provided that any records may be retained after the said period if, in the opinion of the person who is responsible for them, they are required for administrative purposes or ought to be retained for any other special reason and, where that person is not the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chancellor has been informed of the facts and given his approval.

The key here seems to be in the second paragraph, where a record may be withheld for “administrative purposes” or “any other special reason”. That segment of correspondence and documents filed by the Foreign Office on Bahrain in 1956 is unlikely to be needed for administrative purposes, so what is the “other special reason” alluded to? It is worth noting here that Britain’s heavy involvement with the next part of the story – that is, the deportation of the Committee leaders to St Helena at the end of December 1956 – has not been retained by the Foreign Office. That by most measures would appear to be the more controversial of Britain’s actions in Bahrain in this time, but it is the military involvement that is hidden from us.

We know that the British intervened in Bahrain in November 1956. The history Tribe and State in Bahrain, Fuad Khuri, states as much. But did they make use of the infantry regiment stationed there earlier that year? Did they just loan equipment like helicopters to the Bahraini police? Exactly what happened is what I want to know. In an effort to at least find out why the file which we can only assume has the full details on the November 1956 events has been retained, I’ve sent a Freedom of Information Request to the Foreign Office, and they will hopefully have an answer for me within a month.

Having said that, here’s how Fuad Khuri tells the story of the November strikes in Tribe and State in Bahrain:

Al-Bakir met with the advisor and agreed to have the committee organize peaceful strikes and mass meetings under police protection.

One assumes this happened on either 1 November, following the Ruler’s polite reminder of how illegal demonstrations would be treated, but Khuri doesn’t place a date on the meeting. Khuri describes the Committee’s protests:

On 2 November the CNU organized a mass meeting in Manama, attended mostly by the urban Sunni. After some fiery speeches, the participants marched in a supposedly peaceful procession, escorted by a symbolic police force. Not unexpectedly, in those moments of emotional contagion, the procession drifted off the route it had planned to follow and soon developed into a riot the police force could not control. Knowing the repressive measures mob actions may stimulate, al-Bakir, supported by his immediate associates, tried to stop them, but to no avail. The mob set fire to the British firm of Gray McKenzie, smashed the windows of the government and the British commercial houses, looted and burned some houses owned by Europeans in Muharraq, and attempted to set alight a gas station in the middle of the bazaar. On the next day they destroyed the boats and machinery of the British firm, looted and burned al-Khalij newspaper, set fire to the Public Works Department building, and tried unsuccessfully to burn down the Catholic church. Several houses owned by Europeans in Manama were looted and some were burned, after being evacuated a day earlier.

It’s clear that something needed to be done. The protests had gotten completely out of control of both the formal opposition and the state. Anti-British rioting was tearing Bahrain apart – certainly, it was tearing the country apart for its British inhabitants. At what point, however, was that enough to send Britain into action?

As though the details of these events weren’t murky enough, Khuri’s narrative doesn’t match up one-to-one with what little information can be gleaned from the British archived correspondence. A certain Mrs Thomas, wife of a British aeroplane pilot and occupant of one of the Muharraq houses looted in the riots, sent a frustrated letter to the British Agency complaining about her loss of property. The British Agency consulted with the Foreign Office on how to reply, and through this correspondence comes to us a timeline of the events. We know that at precisely 1.32 PM, Mrs Thomas called the Bahrain State Police to report that children had thrown stones and broken windows. At 2.55 PM, the Royal Air Force (RAF) station in Muharraq reported that children were damaging cars nearby. At 3.40 PM, “in view of the deterioration of the situation” in Muharraq island, police reinforcements were sent in from the Manama station. Then at 6.10 PM Mr Barrow, a neighbour of Mrs Thomas, reported to the police that a crowd was breaking into their flats. A riot squad was quickly sent down and the RAF evacuated the British under siege. By 6.58 PM, the situation had calmed down and the police were withdrawn.

We know all this precise information of the riot in Muharraq, including the date that it occurred: 1 November. But Khuri’s history implies that this riot, as well as the others he lists, happened on 2 November or in the days after it. Was Khuri missing some information when he wrote his own history of the events? How much rioting actually occurred before the Committee’s Manama meeting on 2 November? The British timeline, with its statement of the “deterioration of the situation”, suggests that the looting of the expatriate workers’ homes was not an isolated incident. But we can also infer that the rioting was limited to Muharraq island only, since the capital, Manama, was quiet enough for reinforcements to be sent from there.

As was mentioned, we have the details of this particular riot because of a complaint by one of its victims. Mrs Thomas’ letter was referred to the Foreign Office and a brief was sent back by Dougles Dodds-Parker, a Parliamentary Under Secretary, who outlined to the British Agency his thoughts and what to write in response to her. He notes that “her most serious complaint, I think, is that the use of British forces for this purpose was not sanctioned early enough during the recent disturbances.” Clearly then, the British did not intervene as early as 1 November. Dodds-Parker further writes that:

It was essential, in the interests of our policy both in Bahrain and in the Persian Gulf as a whole, that the use of British forces should be regarded as a last resort in a generalised emergency, and should not be committed on account of a specific local incident (however painful and disagreeable to those concerned) before the inadequacy of the local security forces to keep general order had become clear.

When, then, was that? 2 November? We know that there was a line crossed at which point the British military aided the Bahraini police force. But the looting of British homes was not that line. This all may seem like obsessing over minor details, but the British involvement in suppressing the riots directly led to the imprisonment of the National Union Committee’s leaders, and thus the snuffing out of this first, major political organisation in Bahrain and the Gulf.

Here is what Khuri writes on the arrests:

Taking advantage of the Sunni-Shi’a split on the issue, the police, reinforced by British troops, arrested Ibrahim Fakhru on 2 November and four other members, including Shamlan, al-Bakir, and Alaywat, three days later.

Disregarding Khuri’s previous and relatively minor errors in the timeline of events (and ignoring the mysterious note on sectarianism, which he fails to expand on), this does confirm that the British were involved on 2 November. The scraps of British documentation that have escaped being withheld might back it up. An intelligence paper was drawn up at the end of each month, and the summary for November notes that a curfew was imposed by decree on 3 November in Manama, Muharraq and Al Hidd, taking effect from 2.30 PM. Does that mean that order was restored to a point where the police could enforce a curfew? If so, then the British must have intervened on 2 November. Or was the curfew needed to impose order? That would suggest that it was on 3 November that they involved themselves. In either case it seems that the British had intervened no later than 3 November, as it was their military which helped the Bahraini Police regain control of the situation. Having said all that, it seems that the simplest course is to take Khuri at face value and accept that the British “reinforced” the Bahraini police on 2 November.

Putting the British archives to one side, there is another primary source we can draw on: the personal diaries of Charles Belgrave (as opposed to his memoir, Personal Column). Can they provide an answer to these questions? Here’s his entry on 2 November:

What a day! The telephone must have rung about every five minutes. The earlier part of the morning fairly quiet till the procession started which acted entirely contrary to the arrangement which we had agreed upon. They came past the house shouting my name & and stayed a while opposite the agency, shouting, then went off but they, en route, smashed a lot of windows, set fire to the African & Eastern building & tried to set fire to two petrol stations, fortunately they didn’t fire the tanks. In the morning police arrested some men for obstructing the police among them a member of the committee & owing to that the strike is to continue tomorrow and popular anger has again been turned onto me as the Shaikh apparently told the innumerable people who rang him up that his release or detention was a matter for the Police and the Adviser. A very trying day, we could see the flats at Muharraq still burning at night. Sent a cable to Times. I often feel that I dislike intensely every single Arab in Bahrain. After dinner decided to go out & see the Shaikh. Went out in a jeep with 6 armed men, found at 10 oclock all shut up & though we battered the door for quarter hour we got no response. Came home to more telephoning, situation bad in BOAC area.

Here are some very interesting details on the actual turn of events on that day as well as on Belgrave’s own personal feelings at the time (“I often feel that I dislike intensely every single Arab in Bahrain”). It at least backs up Khuri’s own telling of the events. He even mentions the arrest of Ibrahim Fakhro, though he doesn’t name names.  However this entry gives no indication as to British involvement in the matter.

The next important event occurred three days after the 2 November riot, on 5 November, when three more Committee leaders are arrested: Shemlan, al-Bakir and Alaywat. Considering the murky records available from the British National Archives, it should come as no surprise that the British are light on the details on the events of 5 November. The only note in the intelligence summary regarding 5 November is that the curfew was lifted between 10 AM and 4 PM. The personal diaries of Charles Belgrave give only enough detail to confirm that this did happen:

The raids went off well, three leaders of the committee were raided, those arrested A Rahman Bakir, Shemlan & one of Hedd to be picked up later.

However, at the end of the 5 November entry, Belgrave finally acknowledges the British military presence in Bahrain. Only a single sentence is given about them:

British troops patrolling & doing guards & ready to help in emergency.

If we accepted Khuri’s narrative, that British reinforcements were sent in on 2 November, then we also know now that they were patrolling Bahrain for at least three days – onto 5 November. This also answers the question regarding what form British “reinforcements” took – clearly, the infantry stationed on the islands after the March crisis were put to use. But that doesn’t explain what they were doing in the days immediately before or after – as mentioned, the British archival material is non-existent between 1 November and 19 November. When did the British troops return to their barracks?

And more niggling questions are raised: were British troops directly involved in the arrests of Fakhro, Shemlan, al-Bakir and Alaywat? Or was it that their stabilising presence allowed the Bahraini Police to refocus their efforts and carry out the arrests independently? Precisely what was their objective?

It might seem like it should be enough to say that it happened and move on, but the events of these first days of November had significant, lasting effects. In the following year, the British would note the growing problem of the strength of the reactionaries within government:

While we must try to see that a renewal of political agitation is staved off for as long as possible we must also try to see that the Ruler, who is reactionary by nature, by upbringing and by association, does not use this calm solely to strengthen his own autocratic position and that of the Al Khalifa. There is I feel some hope that he will not do so but he needs to be watched constantly and, when possible, have any undesirable tendency checked.

Gault, Political Agent, 21 May 1957

When I said that the great difficulty was the Ruler’s own stubbornness and unwillingness to move, [Ahmed Fakhro] agreed but said that he personally considered Shaikh Salman as the best person to be Ruler of Bahrain and infinitely better, with all his shortcomings than anybody else in the family.

Gault, in conversation with Ahmed Fakhro, brother of Ibrahim Fakhro, 23 December 1957

The royalty was in a strong position after the crushing of the Committee and their power was running unchecked (though the latter issue had as much to do with the departure of Charles Belgrave in 1957). From Gault’s writings, it seems the British were wary of this new status quo. Yet it is a status quo that they had responsibility in creating, through the military involvement which led to the arrest of the Committee leaders.

At the end of the day, there really isn’t enough information to say anything else except this: In the first week of November, anti-colonial anger reached a pitch and riots broke out. The Bahrain police were at a loss to keep the situation under control, when the British military reinforcements entered the scene and restored order. It was in that time that the leaders of the National Union Committee were arrested.

Why did it happen this way? What were the motivations of the British, whose intervention changed the course of Bahrain’s history? I don’t think there is some great conspiracy at the heart of this hidden history, but there is certainly something very strange about it all: 58 years on from the events, the files telling this tale are still withheld. What is so sensitive about this story of which all the protagonists are now dead, that it still hasn’t been released to the public? It is an important, absent, part of the story.

On a personal level, it’s a missing piece of the puzzle that has hounded my peace of mind for the last month. I want to find and share why this missing information is so important, but at the end of the day must content myself with the facts we do know. And so after this long detour through the annals of British Archives and the events of November 1956, it is time for me to move the story on.

* * *

Next week, the trial and deportation of the nationalist leaders and the departure of Belgrave. Part 5 of Year of the Nationalists, the finale, can be read here.

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About alialjamri

Young journalist, blogger, trying to make sense of the world we live in.
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One Response to Year of the Nationalists, Part 4: The Hidden Intervention

  1. Pingback: Year of the Nationalists, Part 5: Uncomfortable Peace | Islander's Oasis

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