The remarkable life story of an early British convert to Islam

DUBAI (Arabnews): Among the many valuable rare books at London’s Firsts Book Fair stands an orange-toned, slightly-torn biography of a gutsy traveler you’ve likely never heard of. He was something of a rebel in Victorian times, escaping family pressures by sailing abroad during adolescence and eventually leading a life of his own in the Middle East. His name was William Richard Williamson, but he became known, simply, as Haji Williamson.

“Arabian Adventurer: The Story of Haji Williamson” was offered by the antiquarian bookseller Maggs Bros. Published in 1951, seven years prior to Williamson’s death, the book was penned by journalist and adventure-story writer Stanton Hope, who was taken by Williamson’s extraordinary life.

Maggs Bros.’ travel books specialist Sam Cotterell offered insight into Williamson’s jack-of-all-trades character.

“He went to sea at 13 and had a bewildering array of jobs before turning 20, including cowboy, gold prospector and amateur boxer,” Cotterell told Arab News. “He even spent a short period as a juggler in a circus troupe.”

Williamson was born in Bristol in 1872, where he was raised by a strict father. His voyages landed him in San Diego, the Caroline Islands, and Manila, where he was jailed for selling rifles to rebel tribesmen.

“He was born to have a regular life somewhere in Victorian Bristol, but ended up experiencing things that would have been practically incommunicable to his friends and family in England — an experience totally removed from its initial context,” said Cotterell. “I always think stories like his are the most interesting because you learn about how different cultures interacted, and sometimes clashed, at specific points in history.”

After escaping imprisonment, Williamson went to sea once again, making his way to Aden, Yemen to join the British police force. During the voyage, he came across a book on Islam, written by Abdullah Quilliam, an influential Briton who converted to Islam and established Britain’s first mosque in Liverpool in 1889. Reading the book was a turning point in Williamson’s life, and he eventually also converted.

“Christianity was a consistent part of his early life, even on his first travels, such as when he stayed in California with his aunt who was a Seventh-day Adventist,” noted Cotterell. “It seems his study of Islam quickly became an obsession, which his shipmates noticed when he no longer wished to join them for football matches on land, preferring to read in the ship’s library.”

What was considered a personal decision actually led to controversy in the establishment. “At first, he was considered a good policeman, but the British authorities became highly suspicious of his interest in the local community and Islam. And then, from the moment he converted, he was viewed as a potentially dangerous outsider,” said Cotterell. Their behavior towards Williamson shifted when Williamson took on the coveted role of inspector of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

 “A narrative about his life would never have been published early on, because it was only later, when his knowledge was deemed essential to securing oil concessions, that he regained acceptance from the British,” he continued. “There was a period of time in which he was completely apart from his country of birth.” 

Haji, meaning a male who performed the Hajj, became Williamson’s nickname, and indeed, he completed the pilgrimage in 1894, 1898 and 1936.

“What’s communicated in the book — and this is not coming directly from Williamson — is that he found a clarity in Islam beyond what he’d experienced as a Christian,” noted Cotterell.

Studying the Arabic language and culture, Williamson lived in Kuwait and an area close to Basra in Iraq, where he owned a dhow, and traveled widely in the Gulf region. He made a living through pearling, horse trading, and camel dealing. He fitted in, looking like a traditional Arab. One of the unique aspects of Maggs’ book is the curious cover, showing a large frontispiece of the eye-catching Haji Williamson.

“The portrait on the dust-jacket is memorable, showing him in his role as agent for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company,” said Cotterell.” He wears a Western suit but also a ghutrah and golden agal. It’s a kind of between-worlds image.”