Nigel Groom, OBE, served in the Colony and Protectorate of
Aden from 1946-57, and then in the Colonial Administration in
East Africa. From 1962 until his retirement in 1984 he worked in
the Ministry of Defence, London. His publications include, ‘An
Archaeological Map of South-West Arabia’ (1976), ‘Frankincense
and Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade’ (1981), ‘A
Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Place Names’ (1983), and
‘Sheba Revealed: A Posting to Bayhan in the Yemen’ (2002).
Two hours out from Aden, the weekly Aden Airways Dakota
touches down at Kamaran for thirty minutes on its way to
Eritrea. Its passengers disembark hesitantly into the
furnace-like heat and scurry towards a patch of shade offered by
the wide verandah in front of Kamaran’s tiny airport building.
Iced squash and tattered magazines are handed round while an
Arab hawker tries to sell scallop shells, and a mountain of tins
and bulging sacks containing the personal belongings of a
bearded Yemeni merchant, is weighed and labelled.
Some of the passengers cluster round the airport’s famous
notice board with its cryptic series of answers to questions
that may come to mind. Kamaran, they learn, means ‘the island
of two moons’, the second moon being reflected by the Red Sea
which surrounds it (1). To those who will see no more of the
place, there is nothing else romantic about it. The encircling
desert of broken yellow coral shimmers in the heat with a
burning glare. The wind kicks up sheets of salty, stinging dust.
There is not a house nor a tree in sight.
The Commissioner, in khaki shorts and a topee, scuds across
the plain in a battered truck to collect his supplies and mail
(2). One feels admiration for this retired colonel, struggling
against sandflies, heat and loneliness to uphold, in so remote
an outpost, some of the withered glories of our former Indian
Empire. With a small Government staff of Arabs and Indians, he
sees that taxes are collected, a school and a dispensary run,
water distilled, electricity generated, law and order
maintained. A posse of armed police from Aden hauls in
offenders, but they are few.
with two members of the Aden Armed Police
CLICK HERE for more pictures of Kamaran
The finest thing on the island is its road system, for the
construction of a road necessitates no more than marking out its
course with cairns of stones. Although only two vehicles exist
on the whole of Kamaran to use them, broad highways sweep across
the desert in every direction, provided as a result of the
eccentric humour (or was it nostalgia) of a previous
Commissioner, with a complete set of British road signs and
signposts (3). ‘Steep hill’ is the sign that first greets
one as one leaves the airport, and the gentle dip of fifteen
feet which follows reminds one how valuable is a sense of humour
in such surroundings.
The highest point of Kamaran is little over fifty feet above
the sea and it was here that the Commissioner took us to see the
earliest traces of Kamaran’s history — an empty Persian tomb
cut into the coral. This grave, surrounded by disintegrating
fortifications and well over a thousand years old, demonstrated
how tenuously but stubbornly man can cling to the most barren
corners of the earth. Being strategically sited near the
southern gates of the Red Sea, possessing a safe anchorage and a
brackish supply of drinking water, Kamaran has been occupied
continuously ever since the Persians placed their garrison on
it, and perhaps for long before.
The Portuguese have come and gone, leaving behind a fine, but
now crumbling, sixteenth century fort. However, the Turks who
followed contributed most to the island’s well-being, not only
with the wells cut deep through the coral in an inland
depression, but also with the conception which gave Kamaran a
heyday of prosperity — its use as a quarantine station for
Muslims on the pilgrimage to Mecca.
From late in the nineteenth century, ships jammed tight with
Muslims from India, Africa and all the countries of the Far
East, crowded into the Kamaran anchorage during the pilgrimage
season. Their human cargoes were off-loaded into camps,
medically inspected, disinfested and disinfected before being
allowed to proceed to the sacred soil which began at Jeddah, a
little further up the coast, and ended before the Kaaba of
When the Turks were defeated in the First World War, an
international control was exercised over the Quarantine Station,
but it was placed under British administration. In anticipation
of a vast increase in the number of the faithful who would make
the pilgrimage the camp was greatly extended. Long lines of
barrack-like sleeping quarters were constructed where the Turks
had provided only wattle huts. Big disinfecting plants were
installed where the pilgrims went through an ordeal of cleansing
on a production line basis. A power station was built worthy of
a small town. The local water supply was inadequate, so a
massive distillation plant was introduced to make sea water fit
for drinking. There were carpenters’ shops, machine shops, a
small railway to transport fuel and stores, a wireless station,
a fine landing stage, a cantonment of officials’ bungalows.
Lastly, but by no means least in the eyes of all who worked on
Kamaran, there was the ice factory, which produced the only
means of keeping cool.
The islanders, born to be fishermen and sailors, prospered
exceedingly on this trade in potential disease among the devout,
and the population grew. In the village of Kamaran, the only
settlement apart from a few isolated groups of fishermen’s
huts, fine houses and a magnificent mosque went up, and a lively
trade in pilgrim requirements was conducted with the mainland.
This, on top of the wealth that the more hardy could derive by
diving for pearls from the coral reefs, gave the inhabitants a
glimpse of previously unimagined wealth.
But their prosperity was short-lived. Anxious to control the
pilgrimage in all its aspects (for even in these days of oil
royalties it is still a very lucrative traffic), the Saudi
Arabian Government decided to construct its own Quarantine
Station and to insist that Kamaran be by-passed.
Today, the long lines of buildings in the camps lie empty and
deserted and a handful of men maintain a ghost town while
arrangements are debated for its breaking up and disposal.
Kamaran has become a museum and it was to the exhibits in this
museum, illustrating the final chapters of its history, that the
Commissioner led us.
We walked through the house that had once belonged to the
Turkish Commander containing, incongruously enough, a spiral
iron fire-escape staircase leading straight up from the middle
of the drawing room on to the roof. It was much as the Turks had
left it. On opening a cupboard, the top of a stack of stationary
slipped on to the floor — a wad of unused yellowed envelopes,
still in their wrapper, with the printed address: ‘To the
Sublime Porte, Constantinople’.
We moved through the thousands of rusting items in the
Stores; we paused before the dispensary — its shelves bulging
with drugs enough to last a lifetime; and we admired the ancient
though no longer used wireless transmitter, with its valves in
great balloons of glass nearly eighteen inches long.
We looked at the fire engine, a manual pump of early
Victorian vintage, and probed into a cupboard jammed full of
disintegrating ‘lungis’ held in reserve for the pilgrims
whose clothes were beyond cleansing.
Part of the ‘museum’ was working still. The huge
distillation plant, with its massive fly-wheel nearly ten feet
in diameter, was hissing and grunting slowly; it had been built
in 1870. In the power house, one of the three DC generators was
still being coaxed by an Arab electrician into giving light
until such time as the new machines on order can be installed.
In keeping this aged machinery going, they have worked miracles
— these half dozen Arab technicians of the Commissioner staff.
Unable to call for assistance at anything less than a week’s
notice, their adroitness in dealing with an emergency is
uncanny. We learned that shortly before our visit, the
blacksmith had forged a complete new rear axle for the
Commissioner truck out of old drain-pipes.
The Quarantine Station and the administrative area, topped by
the high roof of the Commissioner’s bungalow with its
sentinels of ancient cannon, are half a mile from the village,
where all but ten per cent of the island’s population live.
There must be few places so sleepy and empty as Kamaran
village. The wealth brought in by the Quarantine Station having
ceased to flow, half the men-folk of the place have had to leave
the island for Aden or Jeddah or the high seas in search of
work. Today, about two thousand people live in Kamaran but
fifteen hundred of these are women and children. The men who
remain run a dozen small shops, sail the few dhows that still
trade from Kamaran, smuggle, catch fish from small sambuks and,
during the season, dive for pearls.
We visited the pearling beaches at the north end of the
island after a run in the truck over flat coral and sand, past
salty tracts that had once been profitable mangrove swamps until
the mangroves had all been cut for fuel and timber. Flamingoes
and pelicans fluttered aimlessly among the scanty bushes that
remain. The pearling beaches were soon discernible by the stench
of millions of empty oyster shells, piled in a continuous bank
stretching for miles just above the high water mark. The season
for pearls was over, but we learned something of the hazards of
this occupation; of the terrible menace from sharks and
barracuda to men diving overboard among the reefs; of the
frustration of opening perhaps a hundred oysters, gleaned from
the ocean bed with straining lungs, before a single pearl would
be found; and of the glee with which a fully grown pearl would
be extracted after days in which only a hundred minute seed
pearls had been discovered. Kamaran provided the Colony of Aden
with its wedding present to the Queen — a necklace of large
and perfectly matched pearls. In terms of sheer hard labour
alone it was a gift almost beyond price.
Pearling enriches a few, but it does little to help the bulk
of Kamaran’s population in their poverty. Housing is no
problem, for half the houses in the village are now empty, but
the question of finding enough money to pay for their simple
food in a land where nothing will grow has proved insoluble to
many of the island’s inhabitants.
Faced with the need to dispense charity to a large proportion
of his people, the Commissioner has formed a Charitable Trust,
which hands out weekly grants to several hundred poor and needy.
The funds come from a nest egg preserved from the Quarantine
Station days, but they are severely limited and Government
assistance has had to be sought. Democratically, the
Commissioner handed over the administration of this Trust to a
committee elected from the island’s inhabitants. It was their
first election but it was no success for democracy; the bulk of
the island’s electors stood to one side and refused to
participate. ‘These things’, they said, ‘are better left
in the hands of Government, which knows how to run them’.
Our confidence in Britain’s colonial policy fortified by
their simple faith, we returned that evening to drink iced
squash under the fan on the Commissioner veranda. How different
it might have been, we thought. How different it nearly was, the
Commissioner reminded us.
An Italian had come to Kamaran a few months before the last
war, a refugee — he had stated — from the oppressions of
Mussolini. He was received with courtesy and allowed to occupy
one of the empty houses, built for the Quarantine Station’s
doctor. He had kept to himself and behaved well, never
apparently short of money. He had only drawn attention to
himself by installing the island’s first and only flush
cistern in his bathroom. The day before Italy entered the war,
however, he disappeared without trace, leaving behind him a
wireless transmitter and the full dress uniform and regalia of
Italy’s first Governor of Kamaran.
That the course of the war would have been much altered had
he not taken fright was unlikely, but Kamaran’s history might
have been different and the story gave new meaning to the
plaintive bugle calls echoing into the dusk as a red-turbaned
Armed Policeman sounded the Last Post and the Union Jack slowly
fluttered down from its mast head. Gazing out beyond the huge
silhouette of a cannon, and the flickering lanterns of the
village and the dhows anchored in front of it, we could faintly
discern the lights on the mainland of Yemen. Five miles of sea
separated us from the shores of Arabia. In this strait Kamaran’s
second moon bobbed and swayed on the rippling surface of the
1. This interpretation needs to be treated with caution,
since the initial letter of the Arabic place name is ‘kaf’,
not ‘qaf’ (qamaran: ‘two moons’). Another explanation
is that the daughter of a king of Yemen, having fallen gravely
sick, was sent to the island to recuperate; she did so and
asked the King to give her name, Kamaran, to the island to
commemorate her recovery.
2. Colonel R. G. E. W. Albania, who between 1925—1942 had
served intermittently as assistant and acting Political Agent,
3. The previous Commissioner was Major David Thompson who
spent 17 years on the island from the early 1930s. The travel
writer Norman Lewis recounts meeting Thompson and his ‘charming
young wife’ when he visited Kamaran in 1937 (A Voyage By
Dhow, Jonathan Cape, 2001, pp.45—48).