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.
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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”.