1800-1859 | Yemen

British naval ships reduce Aden to rubble

Early twentieth century postcard depicting the capture of Aden.
Via the British Museum and Wikimedia.

19 January 1839

On the morning of 19 January 1839, Royal Navy and East India Company ships bombarded the settlement of Aden, a fishing port inhabited by what The Asiatic Journal described as ‘a miserable population of 600 composed of Jews, Banians, Arabs and Samahlies.’1 The concentrated fire of 69 cannons soon flattened most of the defences and houses, killing 139 and wounding many more, before a force of 700 British and Indian marines was sent ashore to occupy what remained of the small town and harbour, which, according to an account published in the Bombay Gazette, now appeared as ‘a heap of ruins and tombs.’2  Despite pockets of determined resistance, the defenders were overwhelmed by the firepower of the assault and within hours the union jack had been raised.

It was obvious to contemporary commentators, that whatever the diplomatic pretexts advanced for the assault on the town, it was motivated primarily by financial and strategic interests. One key advantage possession gave the British was as a port and coal depot on the route to India. As the correspondent of the Bombay Gazette put it bluntly, ‘the English, in want of a coal depot,’ for their shipping had, ‘cast their eyes upon Aden conveniently situated in the mouth of the Red Sea; and a naval and military force was accordingly dispatched to occupy the place.’3 There were also other obvious economic benefits, with the Asiatic Journal noting that, ‘the advantages of our possessing such a station are almost too plain to require any comment. The harbour, one of the few existing upon the extensive coasts of the Arabian peninsula is excellent, and forms a natural outlet of Yemen, the richest province of that country, and naturally one of the most fertile districts of the East.’4 It is interesting, however, that one crucial commercial motive was left unmentioned, as Zaka Hanna Kour explains in The History of Aden. The East India Company knew that the occupation would end America’s trading advantage in the country. The United States had been taking the bulk of Yemen’s coffee exports and American cotton goods had been paying less duty than British made cotton garments, but with the port now flying the union jack, the British could ‘restore their monopoly of coffee’ and ‘break American commercial supremacy in the Yemen.’5


  1. The Asiatic Journal cited in “The Fortress of Aden,” The Morning Advertiser, 9 April 1839 p. 1.
  2. ‘Capture of Aden,’ The Bombay Gazette, 22 February 1839, p. 127.
  3. The Bombay Gazette, 22 February 1839, p. 126.
  4. The Asiatic Journal, op. cit.
  5. Zaka Hanna Kour, The History of Aden, 1839-1972, Frank Cass, London, 2005, p. 9.

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