Island of Dragon’s Blood
by Douglas Botting
First published in 1958, reprinted in 2006 by Steve Savage, London & Edinburgh. Pp. 287. Maps. Illus. Glossary. Bibliog. Pb. £12. 50. ISBN 1-904246-21-4.
This is the story of the Oxford Expedition to Soqotra in 1956, which the author organised and led. The aim was to make a reconnaissance of the island, observing and recording as much of scientific interest as a period of two months (August and September) would allow. The last scientific expedition to Soqotra had taken place in 1898, and in 1956 the island remained almost as remote and inaccessible as it had been at the end of the previous century.
Botting’s party of six included an archaeologist, two doctors, a biologist, and a quartermaster (an undergraduate of sterling resource), with Botting himself combining the roles of scribe and film-maker. Arriving in Soqotra by courtesy of the RAF, the party embarked on their survey of the island’s botany, zoology, ethnology and archaeology (the doctors collecting blood samples from their numerous patients for later analysis). The party set up two base camps – one in the capital, Hadibo, whence they could study the life of the coastal plain, and the other in the mountains to survey the more abundant plant and animal life to be found there, and to study the aboriginal bedouin of the interior.
When he wrote this book Botting was an undergraduate in his mid-twenties, and its text reflects his youthful humour, zest and assurance, as well as his natural talent as a writer. It is a lively and entertaining account of the party’s exploration of the island and their interaction with its inhabitants, and also, drawing on Botting’s exhaustive preparatory reading, an invaluable guide to the island’s fascinating history.
The reprint of Island of Dragon’s Blood happily coincided with the Oxford Expedition’s fiftieth anniversary and with two other events: a major exhibition on Soqotra at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, and the publication of a definitive study of the island’s natural history which is also reviewed in the pages of this journal. In his Foreword to the reprint, Botting lists the several expeditions to the island which followed his own in 1956, and notes the many specialist researches that have been possible in recent years due to greatly improved communications with mainland Yemen. He has also updated his original bibliography to include recent publications of scientific interest.
This book remains the only general study of a little known area of Yemen which is still emerging from the time capsule so vividly described by the author. As an introduction to the island and its people and as a modern classic of Arabian travel literature, the book, in this handy paperback edition, will attract a new generation of readers.