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Antonin Besse

The indefatigable Monsieur Antonin Besse, whose Aden-based global trading empire stretched from Europe to USA to Abyssinia, became Aden's most  successful businessman in terms of wealth, surpassing his most notable nemeses, Cowasjee Dinshaw and Paul Riès.

A very private man, he worked on the principle that the less people knew about him the less trouble he would have. Not even M. Besse's closest friends seemed to know where he had been born, and numerous urban legends shadowed his life.

 

He kept fit playing tennis, riding, swimming and climbing, advanced his cultural inclination with music and reading - he was a prolific reader - and maintained a European style rarely seen in Aden.

 

To detail the life of a man such as Antonin Besse would require several books - such was the extent of his activities. Why there has not been a movie yet made of his life surprises me. What follows is necessarily a very superficial narrative of his story which can barely do credit to the magnitude of his achievements.

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Antonin Besse in trademark white suit & bowtie 1940

Antonin was born 26 June 1877 in Carcassonne, France. The family moved to Montpellier where his father died. Antonin was 7, living with his mother and 6 siblings. His school achievements were unspectacular and this perhaps reinforced his motivation to volunteer for military service at just 18.

 

On his discharge from the army at age 22 he borrowed money from his brother-in-law to pay for traveling expenses, tropical clothing and a trunk to enable him to take up an appointment working for Bardey & Co. in Aden on a three-year contract. This is the same company Arthur Rimbaud had worked for almost 20 years earlier, and young Antonin's wage was to be no more than Rimbaud's had been. Antonin boarded a steamer at Marseilles on April 16 1899 bound for Aden.  

Antonin worked hard at Bardey's, often rising at 4.30am and working through till 6pm. He learned everything there was to learn about coffee and the coffee trade and became quite an authority. He didn't get on well with Bardey and at the end of his 3-year contract, despite a draconian

clause ostensibly preventing him setting up his own business in competition, he nevertheless established himself in Hodeida early in 1902 using capital from a further loan advanced by his brother-in-law. Later in the year he was back in France where he successfully negotiated a substantial loan from a French bank which enabled him to set up business in Aden, pay off his brother-in-law, and to bring his brother Emile to Aden to help run the Hodeida business. By 1904 Antonin found himself struggling to meet the payments to the bank. Represented by his brother-in-law, a lawyer, the debt was settled with an early reduced payment.

 

Whilst back in France early in 1907 he met Mlle. Marguerite Hortense Eulailie Godefroid, by chance, on a train. They corresponded for almost a year and were married April 1 1908. Marguerite was from a wealthy aristocratic family and brought a considerable fortune to the marriage which she readily invested in the business, whilst as an adept business partner she maintained the books. Turnover increased 750% in the first year and by the outbreak of war it had increased 2500%.

 

The marriage to Margeurite ended in divorce but Antonin met Florence Hilda Crowther, who was to become his second wife, and soulmate, for the rest of his life. They were married in 1922 and had 5 children, Peter, Tony, Ariane, Joy and Monna. Hilda was his rock and was possibly the only person in his life who could live up to his high, yet noble,  ideals, and whom he never seems to have criticised.

The Union Club was considered by outsiders a stuffy British institution. It's members appeared to be restricted to those of 'class' such as government officials, military officers and as a token gesture some of Aden's leading business figures.  Antonin forever held the institution in contempt for refusing his admission as a member, the reason for refusal never formally being known, though often repeated was the jibe, "No sensible shark would ever think of taking on a shark that size", in reference to his apparent immunity from sharks when swimming.

Besse wrote in 1941, "When I came to Aden 40-odd years ago merchants were, and maybe still are, held in contempt by officials and officers, towering, socially, above them. 'Boxwalla' was  the kindest epithet used for a merchant. Shipping agents and bank managers were regarded as the aristocracy of these common folk but were nevertheless considered to belong to the 'boxwalla' clan.....except when their help was required. "

In 1914 Besse built his new HQ in Aidrus Road, Crater which was to remain the centre of operations until his death in 1951. On the ground floor were warehouses and storerooms, the second floor was for offices and staff accommodation whilst the penthouse comprised his expansive, stylish office and living accommodation. The dark stone building with a central courtyard was located just down the road from the Aidrus Mosque. At one time AB had to sell the property to help repay pressing debts. However, he leased it back and it remained his headquarters for the rest of his life.

1934 saw the acquisition of a run-down soap factory in Crater which was relocated the following year to Maalla, with new plant. In 1937 more new plant was added to produce coconut oil. The factory's by-products then created a further opportunity to set up a glycerine factory and this opened in 1938. Besse was clearly an entrepreneur extraordinaire; a master of the art.

 

Besse was active in the dhow-building industry and was the first to put diesel motors into dhows in 1936. Years earlier in 1917 he had met another merchant, Henry de Monfried, in Djibouti and they partnered to build a dhow, Besse providing the capital and de Monfried to come to Aden and provide the construction expertise. However, the government held unfounded suspicions that de Monfried intended to use the vessel for illegal arms trading, and it was commandeered. 

Besse operated a fleet of up to 14 dhows, mostly motorised, which afforded him an advantage in that he could operate them in all seasons. This was particularly helpful in 1941 when he was able to win over competitors by importing sheep from Berbera in the monsoon season. In addition to the dhow fleet Besse eventually operated 4 ships, up to 30 lighters, 5 tugs and a floating dock.

That he possessed a pioneering spirit is clearly evident. Air-conditioning was first introduced to Aden by Besse. He was the first to own a private motor car, first with electricity, first with modern plumbing when piped water became available, first with a refrigerator and the first to build a steel fishing vessel in Aden. He was adept at local and international currency trading and made a small fortune based on trading Maria Theresa dollars. His hide business was lucrative and included, at one time, 1,000 leopard skins a month. He ran a fleet of more than 104 Lancia trucks in Ethiopia which were fully utilised, using Italian drivers and mechanics.

In Aden, Besse & Co. were agents for deep freezers, refrigerators, electric and gas cookers, washing machines and other domestic appliances, Kelvinator & Carrier air-conditioning and Philips radiograms. His multitude of business agencies in Aden included Austin, Lancia, Renault, Jaguar, Holden & Dodge cars, for which service, repairs and spare parts were available at the Besse garage near the Main Pass roundabout at Maalla. There were also Johnson and Evinrude outboard motors and marine accessories. Besse also had a garage in Aidrus Rd., Crater which employed Italian mechanics

Besse & Co. were agents for the Liverpool & London & Globe Insurance Company Ltd and the Prudential Assurance Company Ltd. and for air and sea travel bookings. Associate company, The Halal Shipping Company Ltd. represented many shipping lines. However, possibly the most lucrative agency was for Shell, and his long-term, though often volatile, relationship with Shell, assured Besse considerable commissions. The relationship was by no means one-sided as Besse had secured for Shell the means to enter hitherto untapped markets.

"When I joined the Besse Group in the sixties, the old floating dock and El Nabeel was something of the past but some pictures of ships owned by Besse Aden were still there and then came the new slipway and the new workshop in Hedjuff. In the sixties I came across Mr. Nougarede the GM for shipping and dockyard, also Mr. Shaw the commercial manager of the Aden Dockyards Co. and some other engineers, Italians in particular and the last of them who stayed 70/80, including Mr. Salvatore Alvino. I also had the chance to work there between 73/93."    ~ Mustafa.

 

Besse owned many properties in Aden such as his head office in Aidrus Road, Crater, (till he sold it), The Crater Soap Factory, Maalla garage, the Crescent Hotel and Crescent Annexe, a warehouse in Crater, and staff quarters in Maalla. One of the first buildings built along Maalla road was erected by Antonin Besse as quarters for his staff.

  

Besse's motto:  "Plus est en vous"  (There is more in you than you think.)

 

The business tycoon thrived on risk, but not only in business. He would regularly swim in the open sea, in Sharks Bay off Crater, despite its notorious, shark-infested waters. "It makes swimming more interesting", he would say.

 

Following closure of his 'Arabian Airways' he kept the only remaining aircraft, a Short Scion, which he used for trips to Mukeiras. Returning from such a trip in 1940, the plane crashed on takeoff and Mr. Besse suffered life-threatening, spinal injuries. He was taken to hospital where he was fitted with a full body cast; most uncomfortable in the oppressive Aden heat. He was transported to France where he spent several months convalescing at his 'Le Paradou' property.

 

When people talk of Antonin Besse invariably the first subject, and sadly often the only subject, that is mentioned or known of is his endowment to establish St. Antony's College, Oxford, a gift which he had wished to remain anonymous. In the overall picture of his life, without taking from the generosity and significance of this endowment, it was a relatively small matter. His philanthropy was widespread and the full extent will never be known.

 

"I still remember  how my father was happily surprised when coming home after meeting Mr. Besse. Given the opportunity of  talking in French (in Torino it was a second familiar language and my father  did not feel so comfortable with English) he was astonished by Mr. Besse's knowledge of classic Italian literature and of classical music. My father, who had excellent musical education in his school years, learned from Mr. Besse of composers he never heard about before, such as Ludovico da Victoria for example."    ~ Paolo Almondo.

 

Mr Besse suffered a stroke in the summer of 1948 and set to the task of preparing an extensive document to assist his successors in running his expansive business empire. The great man died 3 years later on July 2 1951 aged 74.

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