By: James A. Fargher
Despite lying in the middle of one of the world’s most critical choke points, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait between Djibouti and Yemen, the island of Perim is a remote and often forgotten outpost. Perim is located in the midst of the waterway which separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden – the connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Throughout history, Perim has been fought over as a prize by great and regional powers alike in the belief that the island can be used as a gateway to the vital Suez shipping lane. Nevertheless, due in part to the island’s small size and its harsh climate, Perim has proven to be only marginally useful to the regional maritime powers. This article reviews Perim’s modern history, exploring the series of occasions in which powers have attempted unsuccessfully to turn the island into a ‘Gibraltar of the East.’
Perim is a fragment of an ancient volcano, part of a chain of long-dormant volcanos stretching across Africa and Arabia. It lies in the middle of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, three kilometres from Arabia and twenty kilometres from Africa. Perim has no source of fresh water, aside from occasional rainfalls, and it is located in one of the hottest and driest regions in the world.
Perim was first scouted as a possible site for a castle by the Portuguese explorer and admiral Afonso de Albuquerque. The Portuguese had launched a fleet into the Indian Ocean in an attempt to seize control of the lucrative Indian spice trade and in 1513 Afonso led his ships through Bab-el-Mandeb into the Red Sea. Failing to discover sources of fresh water on the island, the Portuguese abandoned their plans for building a fortress on Perim. By the end of the 16th century the Red Sea had fallen under the control of the Ottoman Turks.
The possibility of establishing a naval base on Perim was next explored by the British East India Company in 1799. Lieutenant-Colonel John Murray, commander of the 84th Regiment, was despatched by the Company from India to Perim with a force of three hundred men. Following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, the Company was anxious to control the line of communication between the Red Sea and India, and to forestall any French assault on the subcontinent. Like the Portuguese, Murray discovered that there were no sources of water to supply his troops. Moreover, the artillery pieces at that time did not have the range needed to hit ships sailing through the western side of the Strait, so Perim could not be used to prevent a fleet exiting the Red Sea. Six months after landing on Perim, Murray withdrew his force from the island to Aden.
Following Murray’s failed expedition Perim was left unclaimed for nearly sixty years. Interest in the island was only revived when in 1854 the French engineer Fernand de Lesseps announced his plan to build a canal connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, a revolutionary project which when it was eventually completed in 1869 transformed the Red Sea into one of the world’s great oceanic highways. In response to rumoured French interest in the island and driven by the urgent need to construct a lighthouse, the British government despatched a warship to formally lay claim to Perim in 1857. The legend goes that Perim was seized hours before the arrival of a French expedition, the morning after the British consul in Aden had deliberately gotten them drunk, an episode which one Victorian statesman described as a ‘bright ornament in the history of British naval enterprize [sic]’. Indeed, Perim would remain a British possession for over a century until it was ceded to the People’s Republic of South Yemen in 1967.
Despite its timely capture and notwithstanding its location on the most important shipping and communication line in the British Empire, Perim did not prove to be a strategic asset for the British. Although a small detachment of Indian troops was garrisoned on the island and a lighthouse constructed, no fortifications were ever built on Perim. As the War Office concluded in a report in 1882, ‘no advantage would be gained by fortifying the island, although it is doubtless necessary to hold in order to prevent any other power taking it and converting it into a fortress.’ Moreover, even the latest artillery was unlikely to have the range necessary to stop ships from slipping through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. For Britain, Perim was only valuable in so far as that owning the island ensured that it was denied to other rivals; only once was it assaulted when in 1916 a small Ottoman force unsuccessfully attempted to storm it. Whilst a small coaling station did operate on the island between 1883 and the mid-1930s, this was purely a commercial enterprise and Royal Navy ships continued to refuel at the nearby imperial fortress of Aden.
The only time in modern history that Perim has been used to blockade the southern entrance of the Red Sea came shortly after it was granted to South Yemen in the 1960s. After failing to secure a UN resolution guaranteeing free passage of Bab-el-Mandeb, Britain had left Perim in the hands of South Yemen, then under the control of the National Liberation Front (NLF). A radical faction of the NLF occupied Perim in December 1967, and attempted to impose a blockade on Israeli tankers passing through the Strait. Armed with only short-range artillery, however, NLF militants were unable to interdict Israeli shipping, and an effective blockade was only implemented once Egypt joined in hostilities against Israeli during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In October that year, Egyptian troops armed with Soviet artillery pieces were deployed to the island, backed up with naval units. These forces were able to briefly secure the Strait and block Israeli tankers from reaching Eilat, but the blockade was lifted shortly afterwards following a ceasefire.
Since the October War, Perim has not been used as a strategic base. Despite its location in the middle of one of the world’s busiest shipping lines through which 3.4 million barrels of oil pass per day, no state has truly been able to utilise the island’s supposed strategic potential. The lack of water and harsh climate has hampered efforts to establish large garrisons on Perim, as does the island’s small size. Moreover, only modern artillery has sufficient range to engage ships passing through the western strait, and attempting to sever such a vital artery of world trade would likely result in significant political repercussions. With Yemen currently embroiled in a bitter civil war and lacking in naval hardware, it also remains unlikely that Perim will be used as a base for power projection in the short to medium-term.
James A. Fargher is a Doctoral candidate in the Laughton Naval History Unit in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, specialising in British naval and Imperial history.
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