Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (478)
Death of 'Demolition Devil'
From the outset of their occupation of Egypt, the British realised how important it was to control the Nile if they were to control Egypt. Thus, in 1930, there was intense rivalry among British companies to see which would win the right to increase the height of the Aswan reservoir. A company owned by Sir John Norton Griffith ultimately won the tender but that same year Griffith killed himself on an Alexandria beach. The mysterious circumstances surrounding the suicide of 'Demolition Devil' are presented by Professor Yunan Labib Rizk*
Egypt under British hegemony knew two types of colonial administrators. On the one hand, there were the members of the diplomatic corps, the most famous of whom were the high commissioners to Egypt of the likes of Sir Percy Lorraine who served in Egypt from 1925 to 1929 and Miles Lambson, who served from 1933 to 1946. The second were the "men of the empire upon which the sun never set".
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The British high commissioners to Egypt Lorraine and Lambson; Kitchner; Allenby; Lloyd and Cromer
The latter, particularly associated with the Victorian era (1837- 1901), were distinguishable by their faith which was founded upon two pillars: the preservation of the empire and its expansion to the greatest possible extent. This in turn generated a paradigm of behaviour characterised by austerity and intrepidity. Whereas the diplomatic corps drew its candidates from a single stream, the Foreign Office, "men of the empire" came from various walks of experience and expertise.
Most of the British high commissioners to Egypt until the early 1920s were of this school. The biographies of Cromer and Kitchner, who served before the declaration of the protectorate, and of McMahon, Wingate, Allenby and Lloyd, under the protectorate, indicate that before coming to Egypt they had served in various other corners of the empire, most frequently in India.
The same applied to British government functionaries in Egypt, especially those overseeing irrigation works. From the outset of their occupation of Egypt, the British realised how important it was to control the Nile if they were to control Egypt. It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the most powerful names in the Ministry of Public Works arrived in Egypt with significant credentials of service elsewhere in the empire, especially India. Prominent among these were Sir Garstin, who took over control of irrigation works in 1885, and Willcocks, the most famous irrigation inspector in Egyptian history.
Simultaneously, during this period, British entrepreneurs were making headway into Egypt, through commercial warehouses, public transportation, banks and insurance companies, not to mention major construction works, such as reservoirs and barrages. The construction of the Aswan reservoir in 1902 and increasing its height 10 years later had been financed by British companies. In 1930, when the reservoir was elevated a second time, there was intense rivalry among British companies to win the contract, which was ultimately handed to the company owned by Sir John Norton Griffith.
Griffith was the very model of "men of the empire", as is evident from contemporary reports in the British press. The Evening News wrote that his biography was virtually a synonym for risk and adventure and that success followed him through his career in the army, government and commerce. "When he engaged in engineering works in a professional capacity, he invariably chose to contract major projects that everyone had believed were impossible. Daring and fearless, he undertook expeditions fraught with danger and visited many battle sites in the pursuit of his engineering works. He was just as intrepid when he entered the fray of politics. He continued his engineering activities until the start of the Great War, the third war in which he took part. Griffith was dubbed by his friends Imperial Jack because of his many travels and activities on behalf of expanding and advancing the affairs of the empire."
The Star spoke of Griffith in similarly eulogistic tones. To the above information it added that during the Great War, he undertook his greatest military act of daring, which involved blowing up oil sources in Romania during the German invasion of that country, thereby depriving German forces of vital fuel supplies. His feats in Romania earned him another nickname among his friends and colleagues: the Demolition Devil.
The reason for all this interest in the man in the British and Egyptian press was the tragic news reported on 28 September 1930. Sir John Norton Griffith, who had been staying in room 99 in the San Stephano Hotel in Alexandria, committed suicide. Al-Ahram relates that on the morning of his death, Griffith went to the beach in front of his hotel, got into a small boat that he sailed nearly a full mile out into the sea, then took out his gun and shot himself in the chest.
Only a few people had been on the shore at that early hour. Among them was a policeman who hastened to get help. A rescue team set out towards Griffith's boat but were only able to bring back a lifeless body which they then took to the Swiss Hospital for an autopsy.
Several reasons were voiced in the British press over the causes that drove Griffith to suicide. According to the Sunday Dispatch, quoted in Al-Ahram, since his arrival in Alexandria, Griffith was universally liked for his kindness, wit and geniality. However, in his last interview with a correspondent from the newspaper, he appeared despondent. He told the reporter, "You caused me considerable trouble with the Wafdists by suggesting that I said that Egyptian engineers at the time of Wafd rule were incompetent." He added that he hoped to set matters right by speaking to Wafd leader Mustafa El-Nahhas, who might be dining that evening in the hotel. When the Sunday Dispatch reporter asked Griffith if had anything further to add, he responded, "I am fed up with words. Lawyers have almost driven me mad with their non-stop talking all day long."
The report of the forensic physician, when it was released, at least clarified the cause of death. Contrary to the initial reports, Griffith did not shoot himself in the chest but rather in the head. "The bullet pierced the cranium and exited the other side," the physician said. Although the gun itself could not be found, as it had fallen into the sea, "analysis of the injuries indicates that it was an automatic and that death was caused from the wound it inflicted and not by drowning." The body, Al-Ahram continued, would be embalmed and sent back to England for burial in the family cemetery. Many secrets would be buried with the body, although it is possible to unearth some in the archives of the construction of the second elevation of the Aswan reservoir.
The project was officially launched in 1929, when on 29 January of that year, the government allocated LE3.8 million for the construction of the reservoir. Raising it another nine metres would create a reservoir of 2.5 billion cubic metres. "This quantity of water is essential for agricultural development in Upper and Lower Egypt, although in fact it is commensurate to the needs of the country and national development."
Indicative of the interest Egyptians had in the new project was that Al-Ahram devoted nearly half of its entire 2 February 1929 edition to it. A good portion of this coverage consisted of "the findings of the report of the international committee created to examine the possibility of increasing the height of the reservoir again to create a reservoir of a depth of up to 120 metres above the level of the Mediterranean".
Following a brief history of the reservoir, the report discussed the inspections and tests that were performed to determine whether any cracks had occurred and whether it was still structurally sound three decades after it was constructed. The report went on to discuss proposed designs for the new elevation: one was submitted by Sir Murdoch MacDonald, a second by Professor Botra and three others submitted all at once by the director-general of water reservoirs. The committee found all the proposals lacking. The reservoir as it currently stands, its members maintained, "features the most advance form of architectural design using ancient Egyptian motifs. The elevation must convey the same spirit." The report discussed the prospects of the reservoir generating electricity after another nine metres were added to its height. Evidently, this presented some problems. On the one hand, it would be impossible to drill holes through the reinforcements added to the old portion of the reservoir; on the other, constructing a hydroelectric generating station beneath the reservoir would impede the flow of water necessary for irrigation and navigation.
Over the next months, several officials, including resident Aswan reservoir engineer Abdel-Qawi Ahmed and technical adviser to the Ministry of Public Works Sir Murdoch studied the report, initiated preparatory operations and began to draw up specifications for the tender. As they drew up plans, they also took into consideration two important factors: preserving the antiquities in the area and arranging for housing the people whose land and homes would be inundated by the water coming from the higher reservoir.
On 28 October 1929, Al-Ahram reported that the Ministry of Public Works signed a contract for raising the Aswan reservoir with the company of Sir Griffith, who submitted the least costly bid. The day before, the newspaper continues, Griffith and MacDonald went to Aswan to make the necessary arrangements for the beginning of construction operations. It added, "The adviser to the Ministry of Public Works would rather raise the reservoir by seven instead of nine metres, an opinion that he conveyed to the international committee that studied the project."
People must have believed that work on the project was proceeding smoothly and that it would soon be paying dividends in the fields of navigation, agriculture and power generation. Reflecting the general enthusiasm, an Al-Ahram reader, Labib Barsoum, presented the newspaper with a study on "Aswan electricity: methods of use and consumption." It was commonly believed that electricity generated by the reservoir should be restricted to powering the railway between Aswan and Luxor and other modes of transport in the vicinity of Aswan, to operating irrigation machinery in the governorate of Aswan and the southern part of the governorate of Qana and to the manufacturing of much needed fertiliser. Barsoum argued that it would be far more profitable for the country to use the electricity in transforming the abundant iron ore in the area to steel.
Less than a year into the three-year contract, the Ministry of Public Works announced that work on the reservoir had been delayed. In an official statement, appearing in Al-Ahram on 22 September 1930, the ministry said that it had "tried to impress on the contractor the need to pick up the pace of work and cautioned him of the consequences of delay when it became apparent that work was far behind schedule". In addition, the government recently received a letter from Griffith's attorney, addressed to the prime minister, revealing the financial straits into which the company had fallen and asking for the Egyptian government's assistance. Then, to compound the problem, "while the government was considering this request, the Ministry of Public Works received another letter from the contractor in which he declared that he was not prepared to continue on the project on the grounds of factors related to the work itself." The statement concluded with what amounted to an ultimatum. In view of the gravity of the situation, which touches upon the most vital interests of the nation, "the country will not hesitate in taking all measures necessary to safeguard the public welfare."
The public was incensed. Expressing the general mood in response to the announcement, Al-Ahram observed that the public was dismayed by the cessation of work on the reservoir because of the high hopes people had pinned on the quantity of water it would provide upon its completion, enabling the expansion of land reclamation and development. "We are greatly disappointed in the contractor who told us on the day he signed the contract that his company had capital assets no less than LE70 million and that this company had undertaken major projects of this nature in all parts of the world. Naturally, public opinion felt reassured and many eagerly awaited completion of the project in November 1932."
In addition to the little that had been accomplished, Egyptians were angered by the quality of what had been completed. The contractor had done no more than pour the cement, and when Egyptian engineers examined the reservoir, they found it too weak and, therefore, extracted from Griffith a promise to reinforce it. It was also revealed that out of the LE700,000 that were supposed to have been spent on the project by the end of its first year, only LE100,000 had been spent.
The day after the Ministry of Public Works released its statement, the contractor, as was the habit of these "men of the empire", attempted to cast the blame on Egyptians. The Egyptian Gazette, the mouthpiece for British interests in Egypt, carried a front page article in which Griffith claimed that the Egyptian overseers, charged with ensuring that construction was up to the standards stipulated in the contract, were so incompetent that it would be impossible to complete the project. Egyptian engineers responded in kind. Following a meeting with Mohamed Othman, deputy minister of public works, they issued a statement indicating that Griffith's company was acting unethically. It had made certain irregular financial requests from the ministry that the ministry had to reject because they violated the conditions of the contract, which stipulated that any dispute between the contracting parties should be referred to arbitration.
Commenting on this development, Al-Ahram maintained that the government's position was strong and that it was "by no means weakened by the charge of incompetence levelled against the overseers of the project which, in fact, was a manoeuvre on the part of the contractor aimed at compelling the ministry to bail him out financially, since he knows how keen the ministry is to see the project completed on schedule."
Because Sir Griffith was "a man of the empire", he had the immediate sympathy of the British press, which instinctively rallied to his defence. The Morning Post was not convinced by the Egyptian ministry's statement and felt certain that an investigation into the matter would support the justice of the complaints levelled by the British company. The newspaper concluded with the hope that the two sides would reach a settlement quickly and overcome all outstanding issues. The Daily Telegraph relayed a statement from Griffith who declared that it was unfair for "rumour mongers" to suggest that cessation of work on the project was due to financial problems. Work has stopped due to technical reasons, he insisted. In the Times we read that the Egyptian government insisted that its engineers in Aswan were no less competent than those who oversaw the work on the Nag'a Hamadi Barrage. However, it continued, the British company was not of this opinion.
It was also the general opinion of the British press that the halt in operations in Aswan was only temporary. Griffith's sudden suicide, however, put paid to such optimism and left both the British and the Egyptians wondering whether the project would be completed at all.
Under the headline, "The elevation of the Aswan Reservoir: The Norton Griffith Company's current position", Al-Ahram of 30 September 1930 reported that it was initially thought that Griffith's death would for sure mean that the government's contract with the company was null and void. However, when the question was brought before the Egyptian courts, it was found that Griffith had signed the contract in his capacity as director of that company. Since the company still existed as a legal entity, it was now up to the government to determine whether or not it wanted to go ahead with the project in accordance with the contract.
So much for theory. In practical terms, the company had already obtained LE200,000 from the Egyptian government, had another LE100,000 in insurance, while "the equipment and materials he brought in and the portion he completed come to LE400,000".
According to the Al-Ahram correspondent in Alexandria, it seemed that the contract between Griffith and the government held the key to a solution. It provided, "If work ceases for a period of 14 successive days and is not resumed after that, the government shall assume control over the entire project and manage it as it wishes." The correspondent then pointed out that work had been on hold since 21 September, or for 10 days, which meant that 5 October marked the end of the stipulated 14-day period.
Since there was no longer any contact between the Ministry of Labour and the company and since it was virtually certain that work would not resume now that the company had lost "its only man of note", it was just a matter of waiting until the remaining few days elapsed. At least, this was the assumption upon which ministry officials revised their calculations. Time, however, was not on its side. "In view of the fact that the reservoir generally begins to fill in February, the Ministry of Labour must act, and it is currently considering possible contractors to take over the work."
Meanwhile, more light was shed on the mystery behind Griffith's suicide. According to the Daily Herald, the directors of the British firm that was supplying the necessary construction machinery had announced that they had no objections to the intervention of the Egyptian government in the project. In addition, a source familiar with the work on the reservoir told the Daily Herald that the bid Griffith's company had submitted to the Egyptian government the previous year was LE300,000 less than the next lowest bid. "The Egyptian government and specialists were dazzled by the bid. After it was accepted, however, it occurred to them that there may have been a misunderstanding with regard to the quality of steel needed. It was thought that perhaps Griffith had based his calculations on ordinary steel whereas the project required steel that was rustproof." The source went on to say that Griffith had taken out a LE300,000 loan from the Egyptian National Bank in order to proceed with work and that "Sir Griffith's friends in England had been doing their utmost to help him during the last week of his life."
As the government went through the old bids on the contract that had been handed to Griffith, the Jackson Company, which had submitted the next lowest bid, announced that it was prepared to commence work within 24 hours of its bid being accepted. Certainly in its favour was the fact that it already had "a quarter of a million pounds of machinery and equipment on the site as well as available labour".
This was when a Mr Baxter, on behalf of the Griffith Company, offered to resume work on the project. By then, however, it was too late. The 14-day period had elapsed and the Egyptian government had resolved to wash its hands of the company. On 18 October, therefore, it began to take possession of the machinery and equipment on site and to assess the work that had been completed.
The government's decision set the tender competition in motion again and Jackson was not alone in the fray. Among his rivals was the company of Mr Charles Booth Sheffield, in whose offer the Egyptian government took particular interest since one of its senior engineers, Mr Backwell, had spent several years in Egypt and was familiar with circumstances and conditions in the country. In addition, much to the dismay of the British, non-British companies were also vying for the contract. Al-Ahram reports that an American construction firm had been currently engaged on a project in Greece when it learned of the tender and sent a representative to Egypt to study the Aswan reservoir project.
It was not until 1 December that the Egyptian government announced its decision. The contract was not handed to the American company, but to one of the four British contenders: Topham, Jones and Realton. Its bid was not the lowest but the Egyptian government had come to the conclusion that cheapest was not always best, a conclusion it had reached the hard way.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.