Travels to Aden and Mocha in the mid 19th Century, #6

Coffee hills of Yemen (from Niebuhr’s travels)

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; for Part #2, click here; for Part #3, click here; for Part #4, click here; for Part #5, click here.

Osgood provides details on the coffee plant and its distribution to the port of Mocha:

“The coffee plant grows sixteen or eighteen feet high, with an upright stem covered with a light brown bark. Its branches grow horizontally and opposite, crossing each other, and form a pyramidical appearance. The leaves grow on the opposite side of the branches, to the length of four or five inches, and to half that width in the middle. The flowers, growing in bunches at the junction of the leaves, are white, maturing first into green, then red berries resembling bunches of cherries, [p. 181] each of which contains two kernels. But one crop is annually produced, which is gathered in the months of January and February. For the purpose of being dried in the sun, the gathered coffee is spread on the house-tops, or cleared spaces of ground, where it is frequently watered to open the koke, or shell, which is always separated by grinding before packing. The coffee raised at Annas and Sana, which is held in the best estimation, is generally dried upon temporary floors, covered with a compost of clay and cow ordure, which protects the coffee from vermin and also gives it a permanent yellowish color. How perceptibly such a compost may affect the taste of the coffee would doubtless be a matter of inquiry with the tidy, cow-loving Hindu house-wife, who uses a solution of it to purify her parlors, ornament her walls and doorways, and for numerous other purposes.

Large quantities of coffee arrive at Mocha, from March to the latter part of July, from the coffee districts within twenty days’ journey. Camels are employed in its transportation, each of which carries about six hundred pounds, contained in two sacks. They are driven in long trains of fifty or more, arranged one behind another, the head of each being tied to the tail of the camel immediately before him. Thus arranged but few drivers are necessary.

All coffee from the country is first taken to the custom house, a large building one hundred and fifty bet square, near the sea gate, where it is stored to be inspected by the governor, who visits the custom house [p. 182] daily. Here, also, the duties are fixed, at the rate of seven per cent on Arabian exports and imports, two and a half per cent on English and three per cent on American imports. A double duty is imposed on smuggled goods. From the custom house the coffee is taken to the gowdowns, or warehouses of the merchants, several of which are attached to the walls of the custom house and rented by the government. There it undergoes the process of being cleared from pebbles and dirt by means of sieves. Those who do this tedious work of garbling, though expert in their calling, earn but the value of five or six cents daily, a portion of which earnings is paid to one of their number who acts as their overseer, and to whom the purchaser must complain if he has any fault to find. An active man may garble two or three bales in a day, and a smart woman half as much. Having been cleaned, the coffee is packed in bags for exportation, and if good should be free from white and black kernels and have an aromatic smell.

But few Arabs, and those the wealthier class, indulge as a general habit in the luxury of coffee. It has often been disputed whether coffee does not come under the prohibition of the Koran, which forbids the use of strong and inebriating liquors, as it is a “well known fact that the fumes of coffee have some effect on the imagination. Its use is however generally tolerated and many Arabs say “that a dish of coffee and a pipe of tobacco are a complete entertainment.” They drink it without either milk or sugar, after it has been pounded fine in a mortar and then steeped. All classes use a very [p. 183] palatable beverage made from the koke, or coffee shell, which goes by the name of kawha. It can be obtained at the numerous and much frequented coffee shops, where “Well seasoned bowls the gossip’s spirits raise,” for half a cent a quart.

Coffee, senna, hides, skins and gums are the principal articles procured here by Americans. In part return for these, American cotton goods are disposed of at small profits. These goods were first introduced here in 1832, and after the obstacles thrown in the way of their introduction by the Surat merchants, who had perfect control of this branch of trade, were surmounted, they soon superseded cottons of British manufacture, being stronger and better able to undergo the ruinous Arabian process of dyeing. They are mostly made up into robes, in the following manner. Pieces about twelve feet long are dipped into a solution of indigo, and afterwards into one of gum arabic. Having been dried, the cloth is spread over a smooth log, on opposite sides of which sit two men, who, with tremendous blows, hammer the cloth till the surface is uniformly glazed. These, when raveled three or four inches’ deep at the ends, are ready for the country markets, where, with a waistcoat of the same material, they constitute the common Bedoween dress.

The principal currency at Mocha is in German crowns, free from holes and flaws. They are considered the value of Spanish dollars, which pass with no objection. American dollars are not taken. Venetian [p. 184] sequin and Spanish doubloons are among the gold coins and piasters, half piasters, and commassees, among the smaller pieces of money. Commassees vary in value as the governor chooses. Some days five hundred and fifty of them may pass for a dollar, but a few days after fifty more may be required to make up the same value. Arabs at Mocha give no credit and receive no interest on money loaned.”

more to come