Travels to Aden and Mocha in the mid 19th Century, #2


This post continues the story of Joseph B. F. Osgood (1823-1913), whose Notes of Travel or Recollections of Majunga, Zanzibar, Muscat, Aden, Mocha, and other Eastern Ports (Salem: George Creamer, 1854) describes the Arabian coastline, like a 19th century Ibn Baṭūṭṭa. For Part #1, click here.

Here is part of his account of Aden, which at the time was under the control of the British:
[120] “Further down the coast are Shahire and Maculla, ports of some importance, having considerable trade with the Red Sea ports, Bombay, and ports in Africa tributary to the Imaum of Muscat. Maculla is the [p. 121] seaport of Hadramaut, and has been visited in former times by American vessels. All bugalas going to and from the Red Sea stop here. A few Banian traders have established themselves here. The trade of the place has very much declined since the occupation of Aden by the English.

Approaching from the seaward the rugged outline of earth which shapes Cape Aden looms up like a vast island off the south coast of Arabia Felix. As the distance diminishes and the black boundaries of the cape are more distinctly defined they resolve into sharp towering peaks, gothic spires, castellated ridges, and craggy masses overhanging awful precipices. These extend over an area five and a fourth miles long by two and a fourth miles broad. It is well worth one’s time and trouble to land on the cape, even, if for nothing else, to learn from the irony responses from the beaten rocks and the large quantities of ferruginous conglomerate lying everywhere around that, in some age long gone by, igeous action had there opened a safety valve in the earth’s solid crust to relieve it of an oppressive and heated sigh. If ambitiously disposed one may climb the hot serrated heights, stepping where never human foot before has trodden, and from the highest summit look down seventeen hundred and forty eight feet upon the smiling “old ocean,” no longer “cheered with the grateful smell of  “Sabean odor, from the spicy shore Of Araby the blest,” that one John Milton said used to be blown by the  [p. 122] northeast winds from the delectable hills of Aden or the ”Land of Promise,” as its name signifies. ”Land of sterility and starvation !” will one involuntarily exclaim as he gazes forth upon the bleak, barren, unenlivened expanse of rock and sand, undiversified by the lizard hue of cultivation. No waving grain, no groves, no trees, no vegetable dress whatever, not even a solitaiy bachelor blade of sickly withering grass in all that semi- circumference of prospect to relieve the aching eye-balls from the blinding glare of the parched plains and heated rocks that day after day for several years have felt an ”unclouded blaze of living light,” tempered often at one hundred and twenty degrees of heat. During the ten years previous to my last stay at Aden there had been but two showers of rain.

Cape Aden is connected to the main-land by a low sandy isthmus, the greatest width of which does not exceed fourteen thousand feet, while it is about four thousand feet wide at the narrowest part, where a massive wall was erected by the Turks in the middle of the sixteenth century, when they were masters of Aden. A part of this wall still remains.

On the east and west sides of this isthmus are the two best harbors to be found in Arabia Felix. They are capacious enough to accommodate a thousand vessels at one time. The peninsula completely shelters the west harbor or Back Bay, as it is called, where vessels may ride at anchor within a few yards of the shore. Back Bay, though the better harbor of the two, is however, difficult of egress from June to August, while the [p. 123] shumal or west wind blows; the eastern harbor or Front Bay is in turn made turbulent during the other half of the year, when the northeast monsoon prevails.

The entrance to Front Bay is protected by fortifications on the triangularly shaped islet of Serah, which makes a prominent part of the wonderful natural defences which make Aden the “Gibraltar of the East.” Serah Island is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, twelve hundred by seven hundred yards broad. Its highest summit is about eight hundred feet above the sea level. Regarding it, wrote Captain Nicholas Daunton in 1611: — ” To the seaward, though it be in a manner dry at low water there stands a high rock, somewhat larger than the tower of London, which is not by enemies to be in haste ascended by reason it is so steep, and that but one way by narrow steps to get up where four men may keep down a multitude. This rock is so walled and flankered and furnished with ordinance as it seemeth to me it may command both the town and the road, yet who will avoid it may ride in nine fathoms water without their command or within their command from nine fathom downward.” It is related that the great Albuquerque lost two thousand men beneath the fortifications of Serah in an attempt to capture it in the middle of the sixteenth century. It has been the scene of many other sanguinary conflicts since that time, the last of which was January 22, 1839, when the English captured Aden and battered down all the fortifications upon the island, including a round tower eighty feet high. Since that date new and [p. 124] complete fortifications have been erected by the present masters of the place.”

more to come