Sunday 24 November 2019

#SharjahSaturday - The Death That Made Mahatta Fort

The Handley Page HP42 - in its time, a technological revolution

One of the reasons that Sharjah's Mahatta Fort is a favourite of mine is it has history - we're talking relatively recent, but nonetheless fascinating history that is little less than kaleidoscopic.

The fort was built by Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi in 1932 as part of a deal with the British Government to establish a landing strip and facilities in Sharjah to accommodate the Imperial Airways HP42 biplanes flying the 'Empire Route' from Croydon to Australia.

And it was at the centre of an epic drama that threatened to slash the most valuable link in Britain's Eastern Empire.

Now, I could tell you about the Empire Route and how it hopped across Europe to reach Alexandria and then made its way across the desert to Iraq and then Sharjah, accomplishing the journey in just four days. I could tell you about the trench that was laid across the black Jordanian and Iraqi deserts, using chains dragged behind tenders, to guide the planes. I could tell you of the desert fuel dumps, secured using lock and key against the marauding Bedouin of northern Arabia.

I could talk about the fight between the British and Persian governments that drove the necessity for an airport on the Arabian peninsula in the first place - or the desperate search for a suitable location, fighting against the clock to keep the Empire Route alive. I could sit you down and tell you about that search - about how Dibba was first investigated by a despairing Group Captain, who realised that the ground would take longer to prepare than the British had to hand as they lost their landing rights on Hengam Island. The Persians had insisted on putting their claim to the Tunbs Islands on the table before renegotiating the new agreement. The British had walked away rather than drop the Tunbs, which they saw as belonging to the Trucial States. But it left them with the urgent need to find a new landing strip.

Given a cup of cocoa or two, I'd certainly tell you the story of the HP42, a leviathan of its time, which could take up to 38 passengers (18 in the front, 20 in the back - all 1st class) up into the skies, flying at 100 miles per hour. Of how the dazzling advances in technology made the British flying boats redundant and favoured the long-range HP42. Or indeed of how the Rulers of the Trucial States resisted the British push to establish landing rights - of how Ras Al Khaimah put armed guards out to stop the British establishing a refuelling base and how Dubai refused to allow passengers from the flying boats to land.

I could most certainly tell you the story of Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, dispossessed as a young man and exiled to Dubai before his triumphant return to Rule over Sharjah. Of the fight between his powerful father-in-law and the Ruler of Sharjah, Khalid, who had stolen Sultan's inheritance. And I could tell you about the war that erupted for control of Kalba, ruled by a slave called Barut on behalf of his Al Qasimi overlord. Because the Imperial Airways backup strip was laid in Kalba and in order to do this, the British recognised the tiny east coast township as being a Trucial State in its own right. At one time, Kalba was the seventh emirate.

But I'm not going to. You're going to have to buy the book for that. What I AM going to tell you about is how it took the death of a man to close the negotiations that were taking place against the clock as the British faced the breaking of the air route that connected their Empire to the East.

Hugh Biscoe was the British Political Resident in the Gulf, a life-long administrator in the government of Bombay who had little to no experience of the Arab world and who did not himself speak Arabic. Having gained Sultan bin Saqr's approval to establish a landing ground at Sharjah, a coup given that the British were desperate to find an alternative to Hengam before the clock ran out on their agreement with the Persian government, in May 1932 Biscoe found to his astonishment that Sultan bin Saqr had changed his mind and would no longer permit the airfield to be built.

There was no more time. The Empire Route was in danger of being shut down.

The Empire Route. Imagine, it'd take you about 2 weeks to fly all the way - at 100 mph!

Biscoe called in a flight of Westland Wapitis - at the time fearsome, noisy fighting machines that would undoubtedly have struck the fear of God into the hearts of anyone in Arabia - to reinforce his point. He had no time to spare and couldn't afford to mess around. He pressed anyone he could rally to support his cause, including Sultan bin Saqr's domineering father-in-law, to no avail.

Turning the screw even further, Biscoe now brought the British Navy, the traditional tool of British policy enforcement in the Trucial States, to bear. The pressure on Sultan bin Saqr to sign the deal was intense, but so was the local opposition. Biscoe finally resolved to sail to Sharjah and hammer out his deal with the reluctant ruler. On the way, he picked up the Political Agent to Kuwait, Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Dickson. 

Biscoe had long suspected the British Residency Agent in Sharjah, Isa bin Abdullatif Al Serkal, of machinations against the airport deal. Al Serkal, whose role as British Agent made him one of the most powerful men on the coast, would see his influence wane considerably if the British established a direct presence. Biscoe thought Dickson, a fluent Arabic speaker with enormous experience in Arab affairs, would provide, let us say, a more dependable translation.

In the early hours of the 19th July 1932, the day of his intended arrival in Sharjah, sailing across the Gulf aboard HMS Bideford, Sir Hugh Vincent Biscoe KBE, His Britannic Majesty’s Political Resident in the Arabian Gulf, suffered a heart attack and promptly died.

Dickson barely hesitated. He had Biscoe buried at sea and, no sooner had the body wrapped in its Union Jack slid into the warm waters of the Gulf, but Dickson had cabled London to get permission to finalise the airport deal himself. London was desperate - yes, the more experienced Dickson was to proceed to Sharjah and try to get the deal done as soon as possible. On any terms.

The rest, as they say, is history...

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