The great Kuwaiti cat-meat scandal

A coffee shop in Kuwait, 1918 Image copyright Qatar Digital Library

In 1930s Kuwait, an accusation that a restaurant was serving cat meat might easily have ended badly for the owner. But in one case British diplomats decided it was a matter for the Crown - and rode to the rescue of the unlucky man, writes Matthew Teller.

Perhaps the stew was a bit chewy. Or maybe someone heard mewing at night. Or was it in fact a plot to defame an immigrant restaurant owner and drive him out of business?

Kuwait in 1937 was abuzz with rumour and counter-rumour, as the mayor put it about that Abdul Muttalib bin Mahin had been serving cat meat disguised as mutton. Uproar ensued.

The Town Lieutenant placed Abdul Muttalib under arrest, closing his restaurant and locking him up.

And there he may have languished for some time, but for the fact that Abdul Muttalib wasn't Kuwaiti. He was Pashtun, from the borderlands between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan - and, as such, he was a British subject. Under a 1925 colonial order, that meant he was not bound by local laws.

At the time of the arrest, Gerald de Gaury, the British agent in Kuwait, was "on a tour of the hinterland" as he put it in a dispatch.

Image copyright RGS-IBG
Image caption Gerald de Gaury photographed in Saudi Arabia in 1934

But within half an hour of his return the indignant diplomat had sprung Abdul Muttalib from prison and brought him to Britain's diplomatic residence for trial.

Judge and jury in the case would be none other than De Gaury himself.

The evidence presented against Abdul Muttalib was not of the strongest - amounting to the discovery in his house of a "herd of eight fat cats". Nonetheless, the Sheikh himself wrote to De Gaury urging deportation.

Was De Gaury's superior, Trenchard Fowle, perhaps amused by this case?

"Under what section of the Indian penal code the man could be tried is a nice point," Fowle wrote in a memo contained in India Office files recently digitised by the British Library.

"Possibly section 415 (cheating) might apply. Section 273 (noxious food) would hardly be applicable, since cats-meat, though not to everyone's taste, cannot be held to be unfit for food."

But at the appointed time for trial, no witnesses came forward. They could only be produced with the Sheikh's order, the town lieutenant explained - and the Sheikh had departed to go hunting in the desert.

De Gaury dismissed the case and Abdul Muttalib returned to his restaurant.

Such a stark illustration of colonial power split local opinion. De Gaury made a show of visiting Abdul Muttalib's restaurant, publicly snubbing the mayor who had made the initial accusations.

The mood turned in Abdul Muttalib's favour - but the poor man wisely concluded it was time to move on. Within weeks, he had closed down and left the country.

Image copyright Qatar Digital Library
Image caption A street scene in Kuwait dated 1918

So had cat really been passed off as mutton? Fowle felt sure it had not. The mayor, he wrote in his summary of the affair, was himself planning to open a restaurant and had hoped to remove a rival "by spreading the base calumnies already referred to".

The mayor's "confederate in this sinister affair" - the town lieutenant - was "certainly open to suspicion", Fowle added.

"He admitted, for instance, the possession of no less than fourteen cats… With these as 'capital' the mayor and himself could doubtless have started a flourishing business in the restaurant line."

Image copyright British Library

Round the Bend is a series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library. You can explore the archive yourself.

British Library curator Louis Allday contributed original research for this article and has written an essay on the Kuwaiti cat meat crisis.

Selected documents:

De Gaury's memo explaining the crisis

Fowle's summation of the case

A selection of Gerald de Gaury's photoscan be seen at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

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