THE KUWAIT CATíS MEAT CRISIS OF 1937

In 1937, in British-ruled Kuwait, a restauranteur was accused of passing off catís meat as mutton. The restaurant owner was an immigrant Pashtun named Abdul Muttalib bin Mahin. His accuser was the local Mayor. Muttalibís restaurant was closed down and he was arrested and imprisoned by the Town Lieutenant. This seemingly trivial incident, became a demonstration of colonial power in the region.

Muttalib came from the borderlands between modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan and was therefore a British subject. Under a 1925 Colonial Order he was not bound by Kuwait's local laws. Gerald de Gaury, the British agent in Kuwait, overrode the local ruler to dismiss the case against Muttalib. He summarised the incident in a memo to his superior, Trenchard Fowle who also wrote a memo about it (both now contained in India Office files at the British Library). I have added of annotations in square brackets for the benefit of the modern reader.

[From] Political Agency, Kuwait.
The 18th March 1937

[To] Hon'ble Lt.-Colonel T.C. Fowle, C.B.E.
Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, BUSHIRE.

My dear Colonel,

In the next day or two one Abdul Muttalib bin Mahin, a Pathan restaurant keeper hitherto resident here, leaves Kuwait. With is departure should end a case that at one time caused some anxiety. It began on the 11th January, on which date, returning late from tour in the hinterland, I found the Agency Head Clerk writing to tell me that Abdul Muttalib, a British subject, had, in my absence and contrary to the provisions of the Kuwait Order-in-Council been arrested by the local authorities. The charge was that of selling cat in his restaurant instead of mutton.

I lost no time in securing his release. Half an hour after my arrival he was out of the Kuwait prison, and temporarily detained by me in the Agency. Early the next morning the Ruler called on me and apologised for the error in procedure. No one could have been blander. Just as he was leaving me he asked if he should send me a letter about it. I said, "No", and that I quite understood the case; I would send to his Town Lieutenant for the witnesses and investigate. All seemed well.

2. Later in the day, however, a letter came from the Shaikh laying out the evidence in an apparently ingenuous way; the final statement being that the Kuwait Watch had visited the man's house and found a herd of eight fat cats there. The letter concluded with a request for the man' deportation.

3. His Excellency or his officers had thus in effect tried, and convicted the man and I was to be merely his executive official for the deportation. This would not do. I sent for the Shaikh's Town Lieutenant and said that I should try the man the following day at 3 o'clock p.m. and requested the witnesses at that hour, handing him a letter to the Shaikh to the same effect. Having sometime previously observed an unusual number of cats in the Lieutenant's own house, I sharply asked him how many he himself kept. Quailing he said, "About fourteen, with those in the harem" - as if the latter were inedible. He left apparently "as good as gold". All seemed to be well.

4. At this point His Excellency went off hawking for several days. At the time I thought it suspicious. I was right. At 2 p.m. the following day I was informed by the Town Lieutenant and the Shaikh's Secretary that the witnesses in the case could not be produced at 3 p.m. without the Shaikh's order - and the Shaikh was away. "We are so sorry", they said.

5. I told the Lieutenant and the Secretary confirming it in writing, that at 3 p.m. I should try the man in any case, as arranged. I could not keep him longer detained without at least an investigation. At 3 p.m. precisely, I had the man brought before me and in the absence of witnesses, dismissed the case; writing a note to the Ruler, politely but firmly requesting other arrangements in future when away. The next day the Shaikh informed me that all the witnesses had come at 3 p.m.; quite ignoring his Secretary's refusal in any circumstances, and as late as 2 p.m. the day before, to send the witnesses in his absence. I wrote to him the facts.

6. The town has meanwhile been divided into two parties, for and against Abdul Muttalib. I visited rather publicly the restaurant and equally publicly cut [snubbed] the Mayor who brought the case. The hint of action brought over the majority, ever anxious to be on the winning side, to Abdul Muttalib's party. Fortunately, owing to his past charity [which demonstrated that he was a good Muslim], it included the Ulema [religious scholars]. Opinion being about equally divided and the Ulema and conservatives against them, the local authorities began to drop their interest in the case. Indeed there was nothing much now they could do except to be troublesome about delivering the key of the restaurant to the man. I soon obtained it for him.

7. I should add that the American Mission [The Arabian Mission of the Reformed Church in America] had entered the case with their habitual elan. Dr. Mylrea [Charles Stanley Mylrea from the Mission's hospital] analysed a hair found by the Mayor on a table in the restaurant, and certified it to be the same as that on a dead cat from a dustbin in the neighbourhood. In the absence of all other witnesses this evidence, to the chagrin of the Mission, held, I felt, no weight.

8. Abdul Mutalib has decided that his business is bound to suffer from the accusation and is now winding up his affairs with a view to departure this week.

9. Thus ends what was known while it last as the Kuwaiti Cat's meat crisis, and which at one time threatened to be rather serious.

10. As far as I can make out, the case arose through the ambitions of the Mayor to imitate his predecessor in acquiring a restaurant. He made the error of attacking a British subject because he thought foreingers [foreigners] easier game that Kuwaitis, and because the Ruler, having weakly concealed the provisions of the Kuwait Order-in-Council from most of his subjects, he did not realise that he would in the end encounter me. He was aided by Shaikh Abdulla Jabir, the Town Lieutenant, an ambitious, jealous man who plays on the Shaikh's weakness, and who seems to be taking a rather more prominent role since his visit to Baghdad last Autumn.

Yours sincerely
[Gerald de Gawry's signature]

Upon receipt of de Gaury's memo, Fowle reported (with dry wit) the incident to the British Government in India. While the modern reader might think de Gaury was personally sympathetic to Muttalibís plight, he was, in fact, sending a strong message as to who really ruled their country. He was aware that many Kuwaiti subjects were ignorant of the extent to which the Kuwait Order-in-Council (a colonial power) violated their countryís sovereignty and the protection it gave to British subjects. Muttalibís almost immediate release from prison and acquittal (with de Gaury as judge and jury) made it clear that British subjects, even those accused of a crime, were under British protection and could not be arrested or prosecuted by local (i.e. native) authorities. The Cat's Meat Crisis demonstrated Britainís dominant position in Kuwait at that time.

[From]Office of the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Camp, Bahrain
Dated the 5th May, 1937.

[To]Major W.R. Hay, C.I.E.
Deputy Secretary, External Affairs Department, Simla.

The following incident which occurred some time ago at Kuwait, which was duly reported to me by de Gaury, and which can go down in history as "The Kuwait Cat's-meat Crisis" has some rather unusual features, which may be of interest to put on record.

2. One day when de Gaury returned from a tour in the hinterland, he found that Abdul Muttalib, a British subject, had, in his absence, and contrary to the provisions of the Kuwait Order in Council, been arrested by the local authorities, the charge being one of selling cat in his restaurant instead of mutton.

3. de Gaury lost no time in securing Muttalib's release and the next morning the Shaikh called on de Gaury and apologised for the error in procedure.

4. Later in the day a letter was received from the Shaikh giving the evidence against Muttalib, the most serious item of which was that the Kuwait Watch had visited the man's house and found there a herd (or covey, or whatever is the correct term) of eight fat cats. The letter concluded with a request for the man's deportation.

5. As de Gaury points out the Shaikh or his officers had in effect tried and convicted the man and he (de Gaury) was to be merely his executive official for the deportation. This of course de Gaury could not agree to. He sent for the Shaikh's Town Lieutanent and informed him that he would try Muttalib the following day at 3 p.m. Under what section of the Indian Penal Code the man could be tried is a nice point. Possibly section 415 (cheating) might apply. Section 273 (noxious food) would hardly be applicable, since cats-meat, though not to everyone's taste, cannot be held to be "unfit for food".

6. Before de Gaury's interview with the Town Lieutenant closed, de Gaury having previously observed an unusual number of cats in the Lieutenant's own house, scored a shrewd point by sharply asking him how many he kept himself. Qailing, [sic] the Lieutenant answered "about fourteen, with those in the haram [sic]", and left hastily.

7. The next move in the case was that the Shaikh went out hawking, and at 2 p.m. on the next day de Gaury was informed by the Town Lieutenant that the witnesses in the case could not be produced at 3 p.m. without the Shaikh's orders, and the Shaikh was away. de Gaury quite correctly confirmed his previous message that he would try the man at 3 p.m., and at that hour had the man brought before him and - in the absence of witnesses - dismissed the case.

8. The American Mission, for some obscure reason, took up the case with considerable elan. Dr. Mylrea playing the part of the local Sherlock Holmes, or rather Dr. Thorndyke, and - analysing a hair found on by the Town Lieutenant on a table in Muttalib's restaurant - certified it to be the same as that of a dead cat in a dustbin in the neighbourhood. de Gaury correctly, to the chagrin of the Mission, decided that this evidence could not hold weight.

9. The Town had meanwhile been divided into two parties - for and against Abdul Muttalib. In favour of Muttalib were the Ulema, owing to his past charity, and the local authorities gradually dropped their interests in the case.

10. The affair was apparently engineered by the Mayor of Kuwait who, wishing in his private capacity to set up as a restaurant keeper, proceeded to sweep a possible rival from his path by spreading the base calumnies already referred to. It would not seem improbable that the Mayor had as his confederate in this sinister affair no less a personage that the Town Lieutenant, whose attitude throughout was certainly open to suspicion. He admitted, for instance, the possession of no less than fourteen cats, surely a large number for a single household, even including the quarters for his wives, and with these as 'capital' the Mayor and himself could doubtless have started a flourishing business in the restaurant line.

11. Muttalib himself although officially cleared decided that his business was bound to suffer from the base accusations which had been made against it, wound up his affairs and departed from Kuwait, whether with or without his eight cats is not known.

I am sending a copy of this letter to Clauson and Stewart.

[Lt.-Colonel T.C. Fowle]

 

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