Few areas in Britain have produced as many notable families in world history. The family name Williamson is one of those. It is believed to be descended originally from the Strathclyde Britons . This ancient founding race of the north were a mixture of Gaelic/Celts whose original territories ranged from Lancashire in the south, northward to the south bank of the River Clyde in Scotland . There were many notable contemporaries of this name Williamson; and one of the most notable was William Richard Williamson, “the Arabian adventurer”.
“High spirits sometimes led him to high places, the favorite eminence being the Clifton suspension bridge, that lofty and graceful structure spanning the Avon gorge.”
Williamson was born in Bristol in 1872, and when still a boy demonstrated a rebellious nature that sat easily with a passionate hatred of injustice. While a pupil at Clifton School he repeatedly courted both danger and the ire of headmasters by climbing the famous Clifton suspension bridge which soars over the Avon gorge. He was overjoyed when an uncle found him a place on a tea-clipper bound for Australia . The family's hope was that the rigors of shipboard life would soon cause the thirteen-year old to pine for the comparative comforts of a boarding school. But the new ship's boy was flogged and regularly ‘mast headed' for his lubber's clumsiness in Biscay gales, he resolved never to return.
“A boy living in Bristol in the eighties needed no salt in the blood to stimulate his interest in the sea”
The barque landed its cargo in New South Wales , and set course for Bristol via San Diego . Ashore in the Californian port, the ship's mates scattered in the traditional quest for beer and beauty. Williamson, however, clutching two dollars, took ‘French leave', and ran inland, praying that he would not be spotted by his shipmates, who were likely to force him back on board. He found work on a farm just south of Los Angeles , and then worked for his Aunt Amy, who had married a local homesteader. she came to admire her nephew, who soon mastered all the usual cowboy skills, including gun-slinging and bronco-breaking, but refused to accompany the other ranch-hands on their regular ‘busts' in the vice-dens of neighboring towns. Receptive to California 's natural beauty, he had developed a strong belief in God, and a dislike for throwing away what slender financial means he possessed.
Although gifted with a natural aptitude for the cowboy life, Williamson's imagination was soon fired by tales of gold; and once he had acquired an old mule, an even older Mexican shotgun, and a handful of dollars, he joined another cowboy, Jim Cook, and took the gold trail to the Nevadas . They had covered only a hundred miles before they were robbed while sleeping innocently beneath the stars. The silent thieves had taken their mule, the money in their pockets, and even their shoes. Cook turned back, disheartened, but the barefoot Williamson was not beaten so easily. He pressed on, pausing to work for a while as assistant to a quack doctor in a ten-gallon hat. At last he reached the Nevadas , where he staked a claim to a mine which, unlike many of its neighbors, seemed to contain only limestone, quartz, and an inexhaustible supply of Californian mud.
This new setback drove Williamson back to San Francisco , where he enlisted on a cargo ship bound for Bordeaux . A disastrous and near-lethal passage via the Horn did nothing to dampen his love of adventure, and after touching briefly in France , he joined an Irish fire-fighter who planned to work on the construction of the Panama Canal . Fifty men a day were dying of malaria in this first, ill-fated attempt to cut a channel across the Isthmus, and wages were high; but the fire-fighter's wife was soon convinced that Panama was ‘no country for a white man', and the threesome, afflicted with the malaria that was to dog Williamson for the rest of his life, traveled on to California. The bankruptcy of the railroad company that took them on left them penniless; but under Williamson's direction they formed a traveling theatrical troupe, barnstorming out-of-the-way settlements with a vaudeville act whose highlight was Williamson's unusual gift for juggling. A severe winter trapped the party in the Nevadas , but they reached the coast safely on skis made for them by a sympathetic Swede. Here Williamson struck out alone yet again, this time trying his luck as an amateur boxer. He won his first three bouts in the San Francisco championships,
The Sitka Brave turned out to be a whaler. Crewed mainly by shanghai'd landsmen, the large, square-rigged brig welcomed Williamson as a seasoned mariner, and he soon became fourth mate on a journey which scoured the ironbound coasts of the Bering Straits. While the captain was ashore, wearing a wig to charm the Eskimo ladies of easy virtue who eked out a living in the Alaska settlements, the brig was often left in Williamson's charge. Eight months later the Sitka Brave returned to 'Frisco for a long-overdue refit, but Williamson chose to remain with her for a second tour of the frozen Northern waters. He returned to San Francisco , where he signed up with the former captain of the Sitka Brave, now the proud owner of a schooner, for a trading voyage to the South Seas .
Williamson now set up as a small trader in the Caroline Islands , specializing in sea-cucumbers which is a delicacy for the Chinese palate the world over. He soon acquired considerable expertise in the harvesting and storage of the creatures; but again, as so often before, his fortunes were suddenly overturned. Arrested in his outrigger canoe by the Spanish colonial authorities, he was accused of selling rifles to rebel tribesmen, and thrown into a Manila jail.
Conditions in the prison were appalling, and Williamson later recalled this period behind Spanish bars as the worst in his life. Detainees lived in constant fear of beating, interrogation, or death by garroting. On one occasion Williamson was punished by being placed in a metal tank which gradually filled with water, and he could only save himself from drowning by desperately working a pump, a torment which was prolonged for several hours. After this ordeal he was forced to work in a chain gang, hobbling to work in the docks each morning holding an iron ball.
Famously, the Englishman's instinct in a prison is to attempt to escape. Williamson managed to bribe a guard to leave his shackles unlocked, and then, judging his moment, raced past the guards and down an alley. Shots rang out all around him, but he reached his destination, the United States consulate, unharmed. ‘Help me!' he cried, as he raced in, and the employees rushed to bolt the door behind him. On the other side, the Spanish soldiers were shouting and banging at the door.
The consul who surveyed the desperate and ragged escapee was Alexander Russell Webb (1846-1916), later to win fame as one of America 's leading converts to Islam. Having heard his story, Webb contacted the British consulate, only to learn that the British authorities were so anxious to avoid association with a possible rebel that they would not lift a finger to help. But a visit by the American consul to the docks turned up the English captain of a tramp steamer. Disguised as a drunken sailor, Williamson lurched down to the docks, and was hidden on board until the ship was warped from the quay, and laid a course for the British colony of Hong Kong .
Williamson's nautical skills were by now sufficiently developed to land him the position of quartermaster on a crack liner, the SS Chusan, heading for Singapore and India . In Bombay he was paid off, and found work in the P & O offices. His spare time was spent wandering the streets of the Gateway to India , where he contemplated, as thousands of others have done before and since, the extremes of the human condition which the city displays to passers-by. All the religions of the world were present, their conspicuous performers side-by-side with hawkers, beggars, and scorpion-eaters. Temples , churches and mosques offered havens of peace, and everywhere there was the mingling of sanctity, destitution and indulgence for which India is famous. The spiritual yearning kindled during his solitary wanderings in the Californian sierra broke surface again, and he took to wondering when God would send him a sign. He was still a teenager, but he had seen much of the world and of humanity.
The sign he was praying for came during his next sea-crossing. On the SS Siam, en route to Aden , Williamson found in the small ship's library a book by Imam Abdullah Quilliam, then the Sheikh al-Islam of the British Isles . He read it again and again, fascinated. Here, it seemed, was the answer to the questions which had been raised in his mind during years of spectacular experience, energized by the earnestness of which the teenage mind is so often capable. Here was monotheism far closer to his practical, English outlook than the mysteries of Trinity, reinforced by a no-nonsense set of clear rules for worship and the conduct of his life. This was no religion for dreamers or nancy-boys. It was a faith for tough, single-minded men of independent spirit.
On landing at Aden his luck suddenly began to change. An Arab runner brought him a request to pay a visit to the Assistant Resident. The official turned out to be an old friend of his father, and immediately offered him a position with the Aden Constabulary. Discreetly adding two years to his official age, Williamson accepted with alacrity. Here was a chance to earn good money, which at the same time afforded the opportunity to live among Muslims and to see how their faith worked in practice. The work was dangerous, particularly in the harbor district, but Williamson's skill with his fists and his Service revolver, acquired in the hard school of the Wild West, soon made him an exemplary policeman in the eyes of the authorities.
After a year of study under the courteous and patient Islamic teachers of Aden , he then traveled to the court of the Sultan of the neighboring town of Lahj , where he made his formal shahada, and was circumcised. Henceforth he was known as Abdullah Fadhil. During his stay in Aden , Williamson had a chance to meet and befriend several Kuwaiti merchants who would be going to the Hajj by sea through Aden . Of those merchants were of the “Al-Bassam” and “ Al-Naqeeb” families who also invited him to visit Al-Zubair anytime so to add to his knowledge about Islam and Arabic. This invite was later to be found useful to expand on his ambitions.
The reaction of the colonial authorities was swift. The Muslim constable was packed off to India , and it was put about that he was suffering from ‘a touch of the sun'. In Bombay , his request to be released from the police was granted, and he was offered a free passage back to England . This he refused, since his heart was set on returning to the Arabia . However he soon found that invisible hands obstructed his plans. No shipmaster heading for Arabia would take him on, thanks to the determined efficiency of the Raj authorities. But thanks to a Kuwaiti Sheikh Yousef Al-Ibrahim he was smuggled out in 1892 and soon he was improving his Arabic with every hour that passed.
For the next years, Abdullah studied Arabic and Islam under the teachers of Kuwait and Zubair. He also spent time traveling through the flat immensities of the northern Arabian deserts, where he learned to love the camel and the Arabian horse. Buying and selling these animals brought him a modest income, with which he was able to contemplate the next great turning-point of his life: joining the Hajj caravan of 1894.
Old age lay far ahead, however; and the return to Zubair provided the Hajji with ample time to consider his next move. He realized that his aspirations had been more radically changed by the pilgrimage than by the experience of conversion itself. Before his Hajj he had cherished the hope of returning to America and resuming the cowboy's life he had once loved so passionately. Grown to man's estate, he had felt confident that his vigor and independence would allow him to carve out a substantial ranch, where he could employ cowboys of his own. But the visit to the Ka‘ba seemed to have instilled a different set of priorities. He decided to settle down in the East, trusting to Allah to provide. And in due course, He did.
Hajji Abdullah became a trader throughout the Arabian Peninsula . On occasion he would take prime Arab horses to Bombay , to be sold to the British cavalry. His growing business connections allowed him access to European goods never before seen in Iraq . His arrival in the marketplace of Zubair on a penny-farthing provoked a riot, as terrified Arabs prayed for deliverance from the ‘Jinn of the Big and Little Wheel', while others drew their daggers and attempted to pounce on the young man in Arab robes who was riding about on it, and must certainly be devil himself. On another occasion he brought consternation to a desert encampment when he produced a phonograph and played a Quranic recording which he had made with a mullah of Zubair – possibly the first recording ever made in Iraq . An evening's explanation of the box's nature and purpose could not persuade the sons of the desert that the box was not filled with jinn, who had been trapped inside by some magical process.
He spent a total of twelve years trading in horses, amassing a small financial competence which allowed him to acquire a medium-sized dhow. Never able to ignore the salt in his veins, he embarked on a series of expeditions ranging from Bushehr to the Trucial Coast (now known as the United Arab Emirates), and, inevitably, he came once again to the attention of the British authorities. An official report described him as ‘one William Richard Williamson professing to be Haji Abdullah Fadhil, a Moslem Arab'. But imperial suspiciousness had faded; and the British Muslim mariner enjoyed generally cordial relations with the British gunboats which periodically stopped and searched local vessels, looking for rifles, slaves, and other contraband.
It was during this period that the Hajji traded in his camelhair tent for a comfortable house in Basra , and his mind slowly turned to thoughts of matrimony. Until that time he had always brushed the subject aside with the laughing observation that ‘a day's hunting with the hawk is worth many women', but he now sought out the hand of a young Zubair girl, breaking with local custom by insisting on seeing her face before agreeing to the match. Married life suited him well, and he later acquired a wife in Baghdad as well.
The Gulf was at the time one of the world's most productive pearl-fisheries. Modern Arabian absentmindedness about pollution, reinforced by the depredations of a giant starfish, have drastically reduced the oyster population of those waters; but in the Hajji's time it was a perennial temptation for a man blessed with a good dhow and a willing crew to hire a team of divers and head for the pearl banks, hoping and praying for a fortune.
The favored season was known as al-Ghaws al-Kabir, the ‘Great Dive', extending from May until mid-September. It is a time of sandy winds and intense heat; indeed, to this day the waters of the Bahr al-Banat off Qatar register the highest sea temperatures recorded anywhere in the world. The pearl banks, which were informally allocated to the tribes of neighboring coasts, were at their most fruitful off Bahrain , Qatar , and the Trucial Coast . Halhul Island , sixty miles east of Qatar , is surrounded by beds which, in their heyday, gave birth to pearls which came to adorn the crowns of many Indian and European monarchs.
In Hajji Abdullah's time the Great Dive would involve approximately four thousand vessels. The excitement was enhanced by the knowledge that the whole enterprise was, in essence, a form of gambling. Many were the ships which returned to port empty-handed; but the discovery of a large pink or white pearl would bring riches to the entire crew, from the nokhoda (captain) to the lowliest cook on board. To Abdullah, it was all reminiscent of his gold-panning days, and he joined in the preparations with relish.
During his stay in Kuwait , the English Hajji set sail in his forty-ton dhow, the Fath al-Khayr. He had laid in ample stores, although he knew that the pearling ships could remain at sea indefinitely. Food could be obtained from the sea itself, given that the waters of the Gulf teem with delicious fish; and water could be had by sending divers down to fill skins from the numerous underwater freshwater springs whose locations had been known for generations.
The Hajji never struck it rich on the pearl-beds. Accepting the decree of Allah, he instead traveled to Damascus , where he spent two precious years in the city improving his knowledge of Islam. On his return, he sold his dhow and found work with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which needed qualified guides for its prospecting activities, once it was rumored that there was some possibility of oil being present in the region. In 1935, he led the company's negotiations with the ruler of Abu Dhabi , thereby heralding the arrival of the oil industry. His advice was also sought out by Imperial Airways, which needed to survey the coast for emergency landing areas suitable for the flying boats which then plied its England-India route.
William left the oil business and retired to his farms in the village of Kut al-Hajjaj near Basra . Here he raised children and grandchildren, amazing them with tales of his remarkable life. Until his health failed him, in 1958 (his demise) he was a regular sight at the Ashar Mosque in Basra , and seldom missed the opportunity of attending a well-delivered class on religion. Back at home, he would sit with his amber and black prayer beads, his collection of religious books, and - a lifetime indulgence - a set of penny-Westerns with titles like Two-Gun Pete and Mayhem in Dodge City. William, whose path through life demonstrated so colorfully the universal appeal of Islam and the resilience of his native temper, would not have had it any other way. Loved by his large and vigorous family, he passed into the mercy of his Lord with a heart as serene as it was full of years.