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Chapter 7: Suez to Aden

Travellers assembling at Suez--Remarks on the Pasha's
Government--Embarkation on the Steamer--Miserable accommodation in the
Berenice, and awkwardness of the attendants--Government Ships not
adapted to carry Passengers--Cause of the miserable state of the Red
Sea Steamers--Shores of the Red Sea--Arrival at Mocha--Its appearance
from the Sea--Arrival at Aden--Its wild and rocky appearance on
landing--Cape Aden--The Town--Singular appearance of the Houses--The
Garrison expecting an attack by the Arabs--Discontent of the
Servants of Europeans at Aden--Complaints by Anglo-Indians against
Servants--Causes--Little to interest Europeans in Aden.

Amongst the travellers who came dropping in at the hotel, was the Portuguese governor of Goa and his suite, consisting of four gentlemen, the private and public secretaries, an aide-de-camp, and the fourth holding some other appointment. They came by the French steamer, which had left Marseilles on the day of our departure. The governor, a fine old soldier, and a perfect gentleman, proved a great acquisition to our party; and knowing the state of Goa, and the disappointment he would in all probability sustain upon arriving at the seat of his government in the present low condition to which it is reduced, we could not help feeling much interested in his welfare. This gentleman, who inherited the title of baron, and was moreover an old general officer, had mixed in the very best society, and was evidently well acquainted with courts and camps; he spoke several languages, and in the course of his travels had visited England. His retinue were quiet gentlemanly men, and the young aide-de-camp, in particular, made himself very agreeable.

There were two other travellers of some note at Suez, who had put up at Hill's Hotel; one, an American gentleman, who had come across the desert for the purpose of looking at the Red Sea. I saw him mounted upon a donkey, and gazing as he stood upon the shore at the bright but narrow channel, so interesting to all who have read the history of the Israelites, with reverential feelings. I felt a strong inclination to accost him; but refrained, being unwilling to disturb his reveries with what he might have thought an impertinent interruption. It was evidently a last look, for he was veiled for the journey, and at length, tearing himself away, he turned his donkey's head, and struck into the desert. The other traveller was a young Scotsman, who proposed to go as far as Aden in the Berenice, on his way to Abyssinia, trusting that a residence of some months in Egypt would enable him to pass for a Turk. He had no very precise object in view, but intended to make an attempt to explore the sources of the Nile.

There was nothing in Suez that could make a longer stay desirable, and we quitted it without regret. My journey through Egypt had been much too rapid for me to presume to give any decided opinion concerning the strongly agitated question respecting the merits of the Pasha's government. It is very evident that he has not learned the most instructive lesson of political economy, nor has yet understood that the way to render himself powerful is to make his subjects rich; nevertheless, though his exactions and monopolies may be felt at present as very serious evils, yet, in establishing manufactories, and in embodying a national force, there can be no doubt that he has sown the seeds of much that is good; and should his government, after his death, fall into the hands of people equally free from religious prejudices, we may reasonably hope that they will entertain more enlarged and liberal views, and thus render measures, now difficult to bear, of incalculable advantage to the future prosperity of the country.

The British Consul politely offered to conduct myself and my female friends on board the steamer; he accordingly called for us, and I bade, as I hoped, a last adieu to Suez, it being my wish and intention to return home by way of Cosseir. Previous to our embarkation, a series of regulations had been placed in our hands for the engagement of passages in the Honourable Company's armed steamers, with instructions to passengers, &c.

Upon repairing to our cabin, Miss E. and myself were surprised and disappointed at the miserable accommodation it afforded. The three cabins allotted to the use of the ladies had been appropriated, in two instances, to married couples, and we were obliged to put up with one of smaller size, which had the additional inconvenience of opening into the public saloon. There were no Venetian blinds to the door, consequently, the only means of obtaining a free circulation of air was to have it open. A locker with a hinged shelf, which opened like a shutter, and thus afforded space for one mattress to be placed upon it, ran along one side of the cabin, under the port-hole, but the floor was the only visible means of accommodation for the second person crammed by Government regulation into this den. There was not a place in which a wash-hand basin could be put, so awkwardly were the doors arranged, to one of which there was no fastening whatsoever. Altogether, the case seemed hopeless, and as cock-roaches were walking about the vessel by dozens, the prospect of sleeping on the ground was anything but agreeable, especially with the feeling that we were paying at the rate of four pounds a day for our accommodation.

We were, however, compelled to postpone our arrangements, by a summons to dinner; and in the evening, when repairing again to the cabin, I found my mattress placed upon two portmanteaus and a box. Of course, no attention was paid to the inequalities of the surface, and I endeavoured, by folding my fur cloak and a thick dressing-gown under my sheet, to render this miserable apology for a bed tenable. Hitherto, our berth-places in the Government-steamers had been very comfortable; though small, they answered the purpose of sleeping and of washing, while the larger cabin into which they opened, and which was set apart for the ladies, enabled us all to complete our toilets without inconvenience. A sail had been hung before the door by way of curtain, but the heat was still difficult to bear, and we found that we had adventured upon the Red Sea at least a month too soon. The next morning, the captain, hearing that I had, as might have been expected, passed a wretched night, kindly sent his cot for my future accommodation; after the second night, however, the servants thinking it too much trouble to attend to it properly, the ropes gave way, and it came down. The cabin being much too small to allow it to remain hanging all day, I at first trusted to the servants to put it up at night; but, after this accident, and finding them to be incorrigibly stupid, lazy, and disobliging, I contented myself with placing the cot upon two portmanteaus, and thus forming a bed-place. Subsequently, one of the passengers having kindly adjusted the ropes, Miss E. and myself contrived to sling it; a fatiguing operation, which added much to the discomforts of the voyage. The idea of going upon the quarter-deck, or writing a letter, which might perhaps be handed up to Government, to make a formal complaint to the captain, was not to be thought of, and seeing the impossibility of getting any thing properly done by the tribe of uncouth barbarians dignified by the name of servants, the only plan was to render myself quite independent of them, and much did we miss the activity, good humour, and readiness to oblige manifested by our Egyptian attendant, Mohammed. Where a wish to please is evinced, though wholly unattended by efficiency in the duties undertaken by a servant, I can very easily excuse awkwardness, forgetfulness, or any other fault; but the wretched half-castes, who take service on board the Government steamers, have not even common civility to recommend them; there was not a passenger in the vessel who did not complain of the insults to which all were more or less subjected.

Where the blame lay, it is difficult to state exactly; no one could be more kind and obliging than the captain, and it was this disposition upon his part which rendered us all unwilling to worry him with complaints. The charge of a steamer in the Red Sea seems quite enough to occupy the commandant's time and attention, without having the comforts of seven or eight-and-twenty passengers to look after; but these duties might have been performed by a clever and active steward. Whether there was a personage on board of that designation, I never could learn; I asked several times to speak with him, but he never in a single instance attended the summons.

We had no reason to complain of want of liberality on the part of the captain, for the table was plentifully supplied, though the cooks, being unfortunately most worthy of the patronage of that potentate who is said to send them to our kitchens, generally contrived to render the greater portion uneatable. The advantage of rising from table with an appetite is one which I have usually tried on board ship, having only in few instances, during my numerous voyages, been fortunate enough to find food upon which I dared to venture.

The more I have seen of government ships, the more certain I feel that they are not adapted to carry passengers. The authorities appear to think that people ought to be too thankful to pay an enormous price for the worst species of accommodation. The commandants have not been accustomed to attend to the minutiae which can alone secure the comfort of those who sail with them, while the officers, generally speaking, endeavour to show their contempt of the service in which they are sent, against their inclination, by neglect and even rudeness towards the passengers.

While on board the Berenice, the following paragraph in a Bombay newspaper struck my eye, and as it is a corroboration of the statements which I deem it to be a duty to make, I insert it in this place. "The voyager (from Agra) must not think his troubles at an end on reaching Bombay, or that the steam-packets are equal to the passenger Indiaman in accommodation. In fact, I cannot conceive how a lady manages; we have, however, five. There are only seven very small cabins, into each of which two people are crammed; no room to swing cats. Eight other deluded individuals, of whom I am one, are given to understand that a cabin-passage is included in permission to sleep on the benches and table of the cuddy. For this you pay Rs. 200 extra. The vessel is dirty beyond measure, from the soot, and with the difficulty of copious ablution and private accommodation, is almost worse, to a lover of Indian habits, than the journey to Bombay from Agra upon camels. No civility is to be got from the officers. If they are not directly uncivil, the passengers are luckier than we have been. They declare themselves disgusted with passenger ships, but do not take the proper way of showing their superiority to the duty."

The only officer of the Berenice who dined at the captain's table was the surgeon of the vessel, and in justice to him it must be said, that he left no means untried to promote the comfort of the passengers. It is likewise necessary to state, that we were never put upon an allowance of water, although, in consequence of late alterations made in the dockyard, the vessel had been reduced to about half the quantity she had been accustomed to carry in iron tanks constructed for the purpose. Notwithstanding this reduction, we could always procure a sufficiency, either of hot or cold water, for ablutions, rendered doubly necessary in consequence of the atmosphere of coal-dust which we breathed. Not that it was possible to continue clean for a single hour; nevertheless, there was some comfort in making the attempt.

There were eight cabins in the Berenice, besides the three appropriated to ladies; these were ranged four on either side of the saloon, reaching up two-thirds of the length. The apartment, therefore, took the form of a T, and the upper end or cross was furnished with horse-hair sofas; upon these, and upon the table, those passengers slept who were not provided with cabins. Many preferred the deck, but being washed out of it by the necessary cleaning process, which took place at day-break, were obliged to make their toilettes in the saloon. This also formed the dressing-place for dinner, and the basins of dirty water, hair-brushes, &c. were scarcely removed from the side-tables before the party were summoned to their repast. The preparations for this meal were a work of time, always beginning at half-past one; an hour was employed in placing the dishes upon the table, in order that every thing might have time to cool.

The reason assigned for not putting Venetian blinds to the cabin-doors was this: it would injure the appearance of the cabin--an appearance certainly not much improved by the dirty sail which hung against our portal. The saloon itself, without this addition, was dingy enough, being panelled with dark oak, relieved by a narrow gilt cornice, and the royal arms carved and gilded over an arm-chair at the rudder-case, the ornaments of a clock which never kept time. All the servants, who could not find accommodation elsewhere, slept under the table; thus adding to the abominations of this frightful place. And yet we were congratulated upon our good fortune, in being accommodated in the Berenice, being told that the Zenobia, which passed us on our way, had been employed in carrying pigs between Waterford and Bristol, and that the Hugh Lindsay was in even worse condition; the Berenice being, in short, the crack ship.

Every day added to the heat and the dirt, and in the evening, when going upon deck to inhale the odours of the hen-coops, the smell was insufferable. When to this annoyance coal-dust, half an inch deep, is added, my preference of my own cabin will not be a subject of surprise. With what degree of truth, I cannot pretend to say, all the disagreeable circumstances sustained on board the Berenice were attributed to the alterations made in the docks. Previously to these changes, we were told, the furnaces were supplied with coal by a method which obviated the necessity of having it upon deck, whence the dust was now carried all over the ship upon the feet of the persons who were continually passing to and fro.

Occasionally, we suffered some inconvenience from the motion of the vessel, but, generally speaking, nothing more disagreeable occurred than the tremulous action of the engines, an action which completely incapacitated me from any employment except that of reading. The only seats or tables we could command in our cabin consisted of our boxes, so that being turned out of the saloon at half-past one, by the servants who laid the cloth for dinner, it was not very easy to make an attempt at writing, or even needle-work. Doubtless the passengers from Bombay could contrive to have more comforts about them. It was impossible, however, that those who had already made a long overland journey should be provided with the means of furnishing their cabins, and this consideration should weigh with the Government when taking money for the accommodation of passengers. Cabins ought certainly to be supplied with bed-places and a washing-table, and not to be left perfectly dismantled by those occupants who arrive at Suez, and who, having previously fitted them up, have a right to all they contain.

The miserable state of the Red Sea steamers, of course, often furnished a theme for conversation, and we were repeatedly told that their condition was entirely owing to the jealousy of the people of Calcutta, who could not endure the idea of the importance to which Bombay was rising, in consequence of its speedy communication with England. Without knowing exactly where the fault may lie, it must be said that there is great room for improvement. In all probability, the increased number of persons who will proceed to India by way of the Red Sea, now that the passage is open, will compel the merchants, or other speculators, to provide better vessels for the trip. At present, the price demanded is enormously disproportioned to the accommodation given, while the chance of falling in with a disagreeable person in the commandant should be always taken into consideration by those who meditate the overland journey. The consolation, in so fine a vessel as the Berenice, consists in the degree of certainty with which the duration of the voyage may be calculated, eighteen or twenty days being the usual period employed. In smaller steamers, and those of a less favourable construction, accidents and delays are very frequent; sometimes the coal is burning half the voyage, and thus rendered nearly useless to the remaining portion, the vessel depending entirely upon the sails.

During the hot weather and the monsoons, the navigation of the Red Sea is attended with much inconvenience, from the sultriness of the atmosphere and the high winds; it is only, therefore, at one season of the year that travellers can, with any hope of comfort, avail themselves of the route; it must, consequently, be questionable whether the influx of voyagers will be sufficiently great to cover the expense of the vessels required. A large steamer is now building at Bombay, for the purpose of conveying the mails, and another is expected out from England with the same object.

The shores of the Red Sea are bold and rocky, exhibiting ranges of picturesque hills, sometimes seceding from, at others approaching, the beach. A few days brought us to Mocha. The captain had kindly promised to take me on shore with him; but, unfortunately, the heat and the fatigue which I had sustained had occasioned a slight attack of fever, and as we did not arrive before the town until nearly twelve o'clock, I was afraid to encounter the rays of the sun during the day. We could obtain a good view of the city from the vessel; it appeared to be large and well built, that is, comparatively speaking; but its unsheltered walls, absolutely baked in the sun, and the arid waste on which it stood, gave to it a wild and desolate appearance.

We were told that already, since the British occupation of Aden, the trade of Mocha had fallen off. It seldom happens that a steamer passes down the Red Sea without bringing emigrants from Mocha, anxious to establish themselves in the new settlement; and if Aden were made a free port, there can be little doubt that it would monopolize the whole commerce of the neighbourhood. The persons desirous to colonize the place say, very justly, that they cannot afford to pay duties, having to quit their own houses at a loss, and to construct others, Aden being at present destitute of accommodation for strangers. If, however, encouragement should be given them, they will flock thither in great numbers; and, under proper management, there is every reason to hope that Aden will recover all its former importance and wealth, and become one of the most useful dependencies of the British crown.

We were to take in coals and water at Aden, and arriving there in the afternoon of Saturday, the 19th of October, every body determined to go on shore, if possible, on the ensuing morning. By the kindness of some friends, we had palanquins in waiting at day-break, which were to convey us a distance of five miles to the place now occupied as cantonments. Our road conducted us for a mile or two along the sea-shore, with high crags piled on one side, a rugged path, and rocks rising out of the water to a considerable distance. We then ascended a height, which led to an aperture in the hills, called the Pass. Here we found a gate and a guard of sepoys. The scenery was wild, and though nearly destitute of vegetation--a few coarse plants occurring here and there scarcely deserving the name--very beautiful.

It would, perhaps, be too much to designate the bare and lofty cliffs, which piled themselves upwards in confused masses, with the name of mountains; they nevertheless conveyed ideas of sublimity which I had not associated with other landscapes of a similar nature. The Pass, narrow and enclosed on either side by winding rocks, brought us at length down a rather steep declivity to a sort of basin, surrounded upon three sides with lofty hills, and on the fourth by the sea.

Cape Aden forms a high and rocky promontory, the most elevated portion being 1,776 feet above the level of the sea. This lofty headland, when viewed at a distance, appears like an island, in consequence of its being connected with the interior by low ground, which, in the vicinity of Khora Muckse, is quite a swamp. Its summits assume the aspect of turretted peaks, having ruined forts and watch-towers on the highest elevations. The hills are naked and barren, and the valley little better; the whole, however, presenting a grand, picturesque, and imposing appearance. The town of Aden lies on the east side of the Cape, in the amphitheatre before mentioned. A sketch of its history will be given, gathered upon the spot, in a subsequent paper, the place being sufficiently interesting to demand a lengthened notice; meanwhile a passing remark is called for on its present appearance.

At first sight of Aden, it is difficult to suppose it to be the residence of human beings, and more especially of European families. The town, if such it may be called, consists of a few scattered houses of stone, apparently loosely put together, with pigeon-holes for windows, and roofs which, being flat, and apparently surrounded by a low parapet, afford no idea of their being habitable. It is difficult to find a comparison for these dwellings, which appeared to be composed of nothing more than four walls, and yet, to judge from the apertures, contained two or more stories. The greater number were enclosed in a sort of yard or compound, the fences being formed of long yellow reeds; the less substantial dwellings were entirely made of these reeds, so that they looked like immense crates or cages for domestic fowls.

My palanquin at length stopped at a flight of steps hewn out of the rock; and I found myself at the entrance of a habitation, half-bungalow, half-tent; and certainly, as the permanent abode of civilized beings, the strangest residence I had ever seen. The uprights and frame-work were made of reeds and bamboos, lined with thin mats, which had at one time been double; but the harbour thus afforded for rats being found inconvenient, the outer casing had been removed. Two good-sized apartments, with verandahs all round, and dressing and bathing-rooms attached, were formed in this way; they were well carpeted and well furnished, but destitute both of glass windows and wooden doors; what are called in India jaumps, and chicks of split bamboo, being the substitutes.

Government not yet having fixed upon the site for the station intended to be established at Aden, none of the European inhabitants have begun to build their houses, which, it is said, are to be very solidly constructed of stone; at present, they are scattered, in Gipsy fashion, upon the rocks overlooking the sea, and at the time of the year in which I visited them they enjoyed a delightfully cool breeze. What they would be in the hot weather, it is difficult to say. The supplies, for the most part, come from a considerable distance, but appear to be abundant; and when at length a good understanding shall have taken place between the British Government and the neighbouring sheikhs, the markets will be furnished with every thing that the countries in the vicinity produce.

The garrison were prepared, at the period of our arrival, for the outbreak which has since occurred. It is melancholy to contemplate the sacrifice of life which will in all probability take place before the Arabs will be reconciled to the loss of a territory which has for a long time been of no use to them, but which, under its present masters, bids fair to introduce mines of wealth into an impoverished country. The Pasha of Egypt had long cast a covetous eye upon Aden, and its occupation by the British took place at the precise period requisite to check the ambitious designs of a man thirsting for conquest, and to allay the fears of the Imaum of Muscat, who, naturally enough, dreaded encroachments upon his territory.

Aden had hitherto agreed very well with its European residents. The sepoys, servants, and camp-followers, however, had suffered much both from mental and bodily ailments. They were deprived of their usual sources of amusement, and of their accustomed food, and languished under that home-sickness, which the natives of India feel in a very acute degree. The greater number of servants were discontented, and anxious to return to their native country. This natural desire upon their part was highly resented by their masters, who, instead of taking the most obvious means of remedying the evil, and employing the natives of the place, who appeared to be tractable and teachable enough, abused and threatened to beat the unfortunate people, convicted of what self-love styles "ingratitude."

In a very clever work, I have seen the whole sum of the miseries of human life comprised in one word, "servants;" and until we can procure human beings with all the perfections of our fallen nature, and none of our faults, to minister to our wants and wishes, the complaint, so sickening and so general, and frequently so unjust, will be reiterated. Anglo-Indians, however, seem to be more tormented by these domestic plagues than any other set of people. The instant a stranger lands upon Asiatic ground, we hear of nothing else. It is considered to be polite conversation in the drawing-room, aid delicate-looking women will listen with the greatest complacence to the most brutal threats uttered by their male associates against the wretched people whom hard fate has placed about their persons. By some mischance, these very individuals are equally ill-served at home, the greater number who return to England being either rendered miserable there, or driven back to India in consequence of the impossibility of managing their servants. As far as my own experience goes, with the exception of the people in the Berenice, who were not in the slightest degree under the control of the passengers, or, it may be said, attached to them in any way, I have always found it easy, both at home and abroad, to obtain good servants, at least quite as good as people, conscious of the infirmities of humanity in their own persons, have a right to expect. My simple rule has been, never to keep a person who did not suit me, and to treat those who did with kindness and indulgence. The system has always answered, and I am probably on that account the less inclined to sympathize with persons who are eternally complaining.

There may be some excuse at Aden for the conversation turning upon domestic matters of this kind, and perhaps I do the station injustice in supposing that they form a common topic. With the exception of those persons who take pleasure in the anticipation of the improvement of the surrounding tribes, there is very little to interest European residents in this arid spot. Should, however, the hopes which many enlightened individuals entertain be realized, or the prospect of their fulfilment continue unclouded, those who now endure a dreary exile in a barren country, and surrounded by a hostile people, will or ought to derive much consolation from the thought, that their employment upon a disagreeable duty may prove of the utmost benefit to thousands of their fellow-creatures. It is pleasant to look forward to the civilization of Abyssinia, and other more remote places, by means of commercial intercourse with Aden.