Chronicles of Mail: Aden's Postal Evolution from 1843 to 1900

In the mid-19th century, the bustling port city of Aden became a pivotal node in the vast network of global communication. This historical account unfolds the intriguing saga of Aden's postal services from 1843 to 1900, a period marked by remarkable transformations. It delves into the meticulous institution of Time Bills for Indian mails, the strategic involvement of esteemed figures like John Malcolmson, and the evolution of mail routes that intricately connected Aden to the rest of the world. From the introduction of novel control measures to the challenges of geographical limitations, this narrative captures the essence of an era where every letter and parcel marked a step towards a more interconnected global community.

On 6 December 1843 East India House wrote to their Agent in Aden to inform him that the PMG in London had decided, as a control measure, to institute Time Bills for Indian mails going in both directions via Marseilles. The bills had to be completed in duplicate, giving the dates of arrival and departure and forwarded to the agent at the next port of call. This was followed on 30 December with another letter informing the agent that this control measure would come into effect with the despatch of the outward India time Bills with the mail via Marseilles which was leaving England on 4 January 1844.

A further letter dated 27 February 1845 stated that it was proposed to establish time bills for the Calcutta Mail steam packets which had recently been established between Suez and Calcutta (via Marseilles). These would begin with the Calcutta Mail that was leaving London on 24 March. In November the agent in Aden was informed that branch time bills between Aden and Bombay were being introduced for mail that arrived at Aden on the Calcutta Line of Packets and that a supply of time bills for Aden and Bombay were being sent by the packet leaving Southampton on 3 November.

John Malcolmson

By July 1847 the Staff Civil Surgeon in Aden, John Malcolmson, was also acting as postmaster there. He suggested that Mails from the UK for Mauritius could be sent via Aden, and onwards from there by merchant ships trading between Mauritius and Massaua (in Eritrea). This would be a much quicker route than via the Cape, which was how Mauritius was currently receiving its mail. The authorities were grateful for his suggestion but felt that the infrequency of vessels plying between the Red Sea ports and Aden did not make the idea very practicable.

In 1848 Malcolmson was reprimanded for an error of protocol, which gives one a good insight as to how the mails were transported. Some time previously it had been the practice for mails from Aden to England via Marseilles to be sent in a box addressed to the PMG in London, the box being opened by the (postal) agent in Malta who had then transferred the contents into iron boxes for the journey overland through France. For some reason the PMG had objected to mails addressed to him being opened in Malta and new instructions were given for the Aden Postmaster to send boxes via the agent in Alexandria. The problem was that Malcolmson had not interpreted these new instructions correctly and had addressed his boxes in such a way that they were being opened in Alexandria.

In 1851 the India Mail via Marseilles was still only a monthly service. On 24 September that year notice was given that in future the mail would leave London on the 8th of the month, instead of the 7th, and that if the 8th was a Sunday the mail would leave on the 9th.

In 1857 it must have been frustrating for ‘expats’ living in Aden to realise that they could have been getting many of their letters from the UK much more quickly than was the case. Post Office regulations stated that mail for Aden had to go via the India Mail packets ; some senders were putting ‘via Australian Mail’ on the envelope and these letters were being held back to go with the next India Mail – in spite of the fact that the Australian mail packets called at Aden. It was requested and agreed that in future an additional outward mail for Aden would also be made up to be carried on the Australian packets. Two statistics stand out from this period: twice as many letters were being sent to Europe as were being received; and almost as many newspapers as letters were arriving from Europe.

In 1866 the mail contract was amended for the Mail Packet to remain at Aden only sufficient time to take on coal, and that this must not exceed 48 hours.

In January 1868 the Indian Government added an additional mail steamer on the Aden-Bombay leg of the mail route from England to India; the steamer would leave Aden for Bombay on the arrival of each English Mail Packet from Suez for Calcutta. This meant that there would be about eight mails to and from Bombay each month. Including French mail steamers, mails to and from Europe averaged about six a month. About 45% of mails arrived at Aden at night, all being processed on arrival.

Due to the increasing problem of the silting up of the Inner Harbour, in 1870 the Mail Packet sometimes had to leave Aden early (i.e. spending less time there than that stipulated in the contract) in order to catch the tide. Also in that year the Franco-Prussian war caused some worries and uncertainties to the UK-India Mail Packet service. At the time there were three different routes available: via Marseilles, via Brindisi or via Southampton, there being a different rate for each route. The all-sea route, taking several days longer than mail being sent across Europe by rail, was the cheapest. The Aden Postmaster issued a Postal Notice in early November 1870 stating that owing to the war the Marseilles route for mails for England was about to be discontinued until further notice but that letters could still be sent either via Brindisi or Southampton. The inference from this Notice is that the Brindisi route was already an alternative to Marseilles and that it was not introduced when that route was temporarily shut down. But once operating from Brindisi the P & O Packets used that port from then on.

As for Mauritius the possibility of interruption would have a much greater effect as the monthly mail service to England was via Marseilles. Hence earlier that year the Colonial Secretary’s office in Mauritius had sent that colony’s mails in sacks addressed to the Aden Postmaster, with a covering note asking him to use his discretion as to whether to send the sacks on via Marseilles or Southampton. Another letter requested that in the event that the Messageries Imperiales steamship service was interrupted the outward mails should be sent by the first available steamer to Galle in Ceylon, from where they would be brought back to Mauritius.

In early November 1872 Mr Waller, the Aden Postmaster, issued a Postal Notice that there would soon be a monthly packet between Aden and Table Bay (Cape of Good Hope). The packets would call at Zanzibar, Mozambique and Natal in both directions. The service would commence on 5th December from Aden, thus allowing the packet to take mail from the mail steamer that had left Brindisi on 22nd November and also the mail steamer that had left Southampton on 14th November. (This gives one a good idea of the time saved by sending letters via Brindisi.) The packet would commence the return journey from The Cape on 30th December. The departure date from Aden was changed later to 6th December, with a packet to leave Aden every fourth Friday thereafter. This service was referred to as the ‘Zanzibar Mail’. In 1883 the contract for the Zanzibar and Lindi Mails specified that the steamer used for this service must be not less than 700 tons and have a speed of not less than 7.5 knots, except that during the monsoon an additional 48 hours was allowed for the journey. In addition the contractor would be obliged to call at two other ports between Aden and Zanzibar. The volume of mail to and from Zanzibar (that is to addresses in Zanzibar, bearing in mind the trading between the two locations) was quite high – about 210,000 letters a year to Zanzibar and about 170,000 a year in the other direction.

The Nord Deutscher Lloyd steamers began the following packet services in 1886: ‘China Line’ from Bremen via Naples, Suez, Port Said and Aden to Colombo, Singapore and Hong Kong; ‘Australia Line’ from Bremen via Aden to Colombo, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide; and ‘East Africa Line’ from Hamburg via Aden to Lamu, Mombasa, Tanga, Zanzibar, Dar-es-Salaam, Mozambique, Delagoa Bay, Durban and East London. To save time the China Line mail was sent overland from Hamburg via Munich and Kufstein to Naples.

A Postal Notice issued early in December 1887 warned that due to the terms of the new P & O contract which was to come into force on 1 February 1888, the stay of the Outward and Homeward Mail Packets in Aden would be reduced from six to three hours. P & O subsequently changed the shipping programme and for some sailings decided on a transhipment of mails and passengers at Aden instead of at Suez; this took place every fortnight and the time of stay of mail boats was, in consequence, often extended beyond the three hours.

During 1888 Messageries Maritimes modified their Australian Line programme and opened up a new East Africa Line from Port Said to Obock, Aden, Zanzibar and Reunion. As a result there was a bi-monthly mail for and from Mauritius and Reunion and steamers also called at Zanzibar. It was therefore opportune to send mails for Zanzibar by Messageries Maritimes steamers. In the same year the Director General gave permission for correspondence from Aden for the United Kingdom to be sent by Messageries Maritimes packets is this was opportune.

In 1888-89 the contract with the B.I.S.N. Co for the packet to Zanzibar was renewed but the new one stipulated a minimum speed of 11 knots for packets, an increase of two knots from the previous contract. [The contract signed in 1883 had stipulated seven and a half knots - see above.] Also in 1888-89 the Hodeida mail service by a local coasting steamer became regularly established. This was run by Cowasjee Dinshaw.

During 1891 additional postal links with Zanzibar became available using Portuguese and additional German steamers on the East Africa route.

During 1898-99 a total of 848 mails were received and 817 despatched, an increase of 12 and 62 respectively over 1897-98. In addition no less than 2,119 Naval mail bags passed through the Post office, 315 of which were for local delivery; 1,196 were for the East Indies Squadron and 608 for the Cape of Good Hope and West African Squadrons. During the year mails were twice despatched from Aden to Mukalla and Shehr, but no mails were received.

In 1899-1900 the packet programme was as follows: The P & O outward packet from Brindisi arrived on a Monday and the homeward packet from Bombay on a Thursday, except in the monsoon season when it arrived on Fridays. The French packet to and from China via Bombay called once monthly to no set date; the French packet to Mauritius and Madagascar called monthly, on the 6th or 7th in alternate months, returning on the 12th or 13th of the month. German packets to and from China and Australia called monthly. In addition an Italian packet called every Wednesday with mail from and for Red Sea ports. In that year 942 Sea Mails were received and 891 despatched. A total of 22,563 bags were handled, 12,936 of which were received and 9,627 despatched. Of those received, 7,608 were for Aden District and 5,328 for onward transmission by various shipping lines. A further 1,738 mail bags were received for HM Ships.

A Supplementary Mail Contract was signed with P & O for period 31 January 1905 to 31 January 1908 for the Brindisi-Bombay Mail Steamer to cover the journey within 278 hours, which only allowed a 3 hour stop at Aden. [The three hour maximum stopover of 1888 had obviously extended in the meantime.] The Outward Mail would probably arrive on a Sunday evening and the Homeward Mail on a Wednesday evening, except during the southwest monsoon when the transit time from Bombay to Brindisi would be extended by 36 hours. By 1905-06 the total number of bags handled had risen to nearly 29,500.

In September 1906 Cowasjee Dinshaw were being paid £600 a year for the mail contract from Aden to Berbera and Zaila, in British Somaliland. Half of this sum was being paid by the Indian Government. In addition a further sum of £240, all met from the budget of the Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief of the Somaliland protectorate, was being paid for the ‘acceleration’ of the mail service.