Sir Antonin Besse was born in June 1877 in the city of Carcassonne, France. At the age of 7 his family moved after the death of his father to the city of Montpelier with six of his brothers. Antonin was not academic and this may have motivated him to apply for voluntary enlistment to serve in the army from age 18 to 22.
Besse decided to search for work and was successful in getting a 3-year contract with Bardey et Compagnie (Bardey & Co.). They were working in the city of Aden as exporters of Yemeni coffee brought from North Yemen. He borrowed a sum of money from his brother-in-law to buy clothes worthy of mild tropical weather and to buy a ticket to Aden, because he was penniless. He took a ship from the port of Marseille bound for Aden, in April 1899.
Besse worked earnestly and diligently at Bardey & Co., he woke up often at 4.30 AM and worked continuously until 6 PM, learning everything to be learned about the Yemeni coffee trade, and becoming a professional in this area.
In 1902 and after the end of his contract with Bardey & Co., he travelled to the city of Hodeida and founded his own trade with capital borrowed from his brother-in-law. Later that year he closed down that business and went back to France. In France, negotiations were successful to obtain a large loan from a bank, that enabled him to establish his work in Aden and pay all his debts. He brought with him his brother Emile to Aden to help manage the work founded in Hodeidah. By 1904, Besse found himself struggling to pay the financial dues to the bank. His brother-in-law – with the assistance of a lawyer – managed to settle his debts with the bank and to pay reduced premiums, but before maturity.
When he returned to France early in 1907 he met Miss Marguerite Hortense Eulailie Godefroid by chance on a train. They continued to correspond for a year, then married in April 1908. Margaret belonged to a wealthy aristocratic family and brought much luck to Antonin. She also invested in his business and became a partner. The sales of coffee increased seven times in the first year of operation, and after the outbreak of World War I it reached two thousand times.
His marriage to Margaret ended in divorce. In 1922, Florence Hilda Crowther became his second wife and soul-mate until his death. She gave birth to his two sons : Peter and Antonin, and three daughters, Ariane, Joy and Monna. The second son (Antonin) was entrusted by his father before his death with the business (after 1951) and excelled in is development. Antonin Besse II is a patron and honorary vice-president of the United World Colleges.
Sir Antonin Besse founded St Antony's College, Oxford in 1950 and endowed a number of other Oxford colleges. He also made some gifts to the British Museum and was later knighted by the British Government with dispensation from Charles de Gaulle.
Business legacy in Aden
Besse built the headquarters of his company in Aidrus Road, Crater, the building continued to be the centre of operations until his death in 1951. The ground floor of the building consisted of warehouses and stores, the second floor consisted of offices, staff rooms and rest rooms, and on the third floor a luxury apartment acted as his residence. Later, he built a distinctive and unique villa on top of Ras Marshag, Crater. The villa became a private residence of the leader who rules Yemen.
The year 1934 saw the launch of the his first projects, a soap factory in Crater, but he had transferred the factory in following year to Mualla, where he upgraded the factory machines further. In 1937 another factory was built next to the soap factory for the production of coconut oil and a third plant for the production of glycerin. He was also active in the shipbuilding and he was the first in Aden to install a diesel engine on local sailing ships (Dhows) in 1936.
When Besse traveled to Mukalla on a sailing ship, the journey was slow and uncomfortable, prompting him to establish in 1936 an airline company with a capital of five thousand pounds, dubbed Arabian Airways, the fleet consisted of two small planes, each with a capacity of four seats. His idea was to connect the port city of Aden and Hadhramaut region, but one of the planes crashed after one year of operation and replaced by another, then the second plane crashed at the Tarim airport in 1938, due to losses incurred he decided to close the company the following year in 1939.
His company – called A. Besse & Co. (Aden) Ltd – was agent of many insurance, airlines and shipping companies. He also managed to get an agency of the Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell, a business that brought fortune to his trading empire.
Sir Antonin Besse suffered a stroke in the summer of 1948 and, three years later, died in Gordonstoun on July 2, 1951 aged 74. By then he had entrusted his son Antonin Besse II to manage his expansive trading empire. He developed his father's business intelligently until the independence of South Yemen in 1967 and the enforcement of the Nationalization Act.