Travels to Aden and Mocha in the mid 19th Century, #8


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; for Part #6, click here; for Part #7, click here.

Osgood was not anxious to visit a nearby garden by camel, but at last he did; it is a wonderful description of the act. He also discusses slavery.

[189] No wheel carriages are used here, the most general mode of transportation being by camels, for which the males alone are serviceable. The flesh of the camel forms a staple article of food, the head and neck being excepted, because one of the race unwittingly rendered these parts unholy by obtrusively poking his head and neck into Mahomet’s tomb; Wellsted says that a camel is welcomed at its birth, by the Arab, with “another child is born unto us.”

Upon the back of one of these “ships of the desert” I made a trip on a sultry afternoon, through the country, to an Arab picnic given by Syed Abdallah bin Omar Sahfee, at the country seat of a wealthy Arab merchant, Abdul Rasool. But a word or two preliminary. Having in mind Abdallah’s invitation, I had for two days scorned to engage one of the tolerable Arabian horses to be had, unwisely keeping an appetite for some better  [p. 190]
choice, till finally I found that I must walk or take an ugly and famished camel with a small head, made expressive by little ears and small black bright eyes, and with a neck long enough to have allowed him to feed upon wayside herbage, even at his fastest pace. His body was disproportionately large, like a well distended wind pouch, with a curved back, from the middle of which a single hump rose to an apex ten feet from the ground. His attenuated legs eloquently besought for some kind of pantaloon appendage to hide their disagreeable slimness. Had he been healthy and well fed, his dorsal hump would have been rough and fleshy, but a half starved existence had called upon that curious provision of nature to supply therefrom the chief nourishment of his body, until but little of it remained but the bony framework, presenting almost as many corners as a trapezihedron.

  The preceding unflattering description might safely be applied to all camels to be met with at Mocha. Having received a signal that his burden was in waiting, his ungainly legs were gathered under him, with his hind quarters towards the wind, as all camels do when left to themselves to take a posture of rest. Mounting the triangular saddle, the sight of which was enough to incapacitate one for sedentary pursuits, I gave the signal for his rise. This he accomplished by a convulsive motion of his fore legs, whereupon his hind legs, which partial nature had provided with two separate joints, the one bending forward and the other backward, were straightened. A third motion of the fore legs, and the animal was upon all fours, [p. 191] ready for travelling. Camels are frequently driven, or rather steered, by means of a string fastened ta the tail, its ends being held by the rider. Instead of this mode, a stick, with reins attached, had been passed through the nostrils of the animal I was riding.

   He started off unconcernedly with his light load at the rate of five or six miles an hour, over a good road lined on each side for several miles, with date groves, and in less than an hour brought me to the garden of Abdul Rasool, which was appropriated, like several others in the neighborhood, to the culture of a limited number of stinted date trees, herbs and vegetables, at great expense. All the plantations near the city are irrigated with water raised from wells by means of bullocks. Within Abdul Rasool’s garden I found the governor and other worthies apparently enjoying their host’s hospitality in smoking, eating, quaffing coffee, and gossiping with numbers of Arabs, Persians, Suratmen and Turks. But the requisite source of pleasure on such occasions, that of female society, was not there to be found. A strict compliance with religious tenets made it strictly a male assemblage.

Slavery is but nominal at Mocha, although many of the population are owned by wealthy persons through purchase. Cargoes of slaves are often brought to this port from Abyssinia. The men and boys are well treated, often taught to read and write, and seldom worked severely, the drudgery of labor being performed by hired coolies. Without showing any sense of degradation at their condition, the slaves frequently dress as expensively as their masters, and good behavior often [p. 192] obtains for them manumission, or offices of trust while in willing bondage. There are several instances at Mocha at the present time, of wealthy merchants and owners of many slaves, who formerly lived in servitude. An acquaintance of mine once expressed to an Arab merchant great surprise at seeing slaves so well treated. “Suppose,” was the characteristic reply, “a man has a son whom he cannot trust, and a faithful slave who will make for him a good business, why should he not make the slave the same as a son?” The offspring of male slaves are held in bondage, but if a slave marries an Arab woman, with his master’s consent, he becomes free.”

more to come