A Day in Aden: 1877

One of the best-known travel books from the 19th century is ‘A Voyage in the Sunbeam’ by Mrs, later Lady, Brassey which described her eleven month round-the-world voyage in the steam yacht Sunbeam between July 1876 and May 1877.

She was a woman of seemingly tireless energy, which was very much evident in the diary entry of her 24 hours spent at Aden. In spite of a very disturbed night she then proceeded to embark on 16 hours of non-stop sightseeing, being entertained and entertaining through the heat of an Aden day.

The Sunbeam had a displacement of 531 tons and carried a crew of about 25, not counting the Brassey’s personal staff of about nine, numbers varying slightly on each leg of the voyage. At the time the Sunbeam called at Aden the owner’s party consisted of Mr and Mrs Brassey, their three young daughters, and three guests, one of whom was a doctor. Here are Mrs Brassey’s entries for the 15th and 16th of April 1877:

Sunday, April 15th. - Still intensely hot. The usual services were held on deck at eleven and four o’clock. The land, both in Arabia and Africa, could be seen the whole day, with precipitous mountains. In the afternoon we could make out the rock of Aden, and at sunset it stood grandly forth, looming in purple darkness against the crimson and blood-red sky, which gradually faded to tenderest tints of yellow and green, before it finally blazed forth into a radiant afterglow. At half-past eight a gun from the fort at Aden summoned us to show our colours, or rather lights. At nine o’clock we dropped our anchor in the roads; a boat came off with a bag of newspapers and to ask for orders in the morning. It was sent by the great Parsee merchants here, who undertake to supply us with coals, provisions, water, and everything we want, and spare us all trouble. For the last three or four days we have had a nice breeze astern, and if we had not been in a hurry to cross the Indian Ocean before the south-west monsoon set in, we should certainly have been contented with four or five knots an hour under sail instead of eight and a half under steam. We have averaged over 200 miles a day under steam alone, ever since we left Penang, and have burnt only one ton of coal for every 50 miles.

Monday, April 16th. - At 1.30 a.m. I heard the signal gun fired, and shortly afterwards a great splash of boats and oars, and a vast chattering and shouting of tongues, announced the arrival of a P. & O. Steamer. She dropped her anchor just outside us, so we had the benefit of the noise all night. I got up at daybreak and found the pilot just coming off. He took us to a buoy, a little closer in, and soon the business of coaling and watering commenced.

We reached the shore about 7.30, and, landing at the pier, had our first near view of the natives, who are most curious-looking creatures. They have very black complexions, and long woolly hair, setting out like a mop all round, and generally dyed bright red, or yellow, by the application of lime. Mr Cowasjee had sent his own private carriage to meet us. It was a comfortable open barouche, with a pair of nice horses, and two servants in Eastern liveries, green vests and full trousers, and red and orange turbans. We went first to his store, which seemed to be an emporium for every conceivable article. There was carved sandal-wood, and embroidered shawls from China, Surat and Gujerat, work from India, English medicines, French lamps, Swiss clocks, German toys, Russian caviare, Greek lace, Havannah cigars, American hides and canned fruits, besides many other things. But this general store is only a very small part of their business, for about 60,000 tons of coal pass through their hands every year.

We went on to the Hotel de l’Europe, which was by no means in first rate order, but allowances must be made for a new house. A delightful breeze was blowing in through the open windows, and although the thermometer registered 85 degrees in the dining-room, it did not seem at all hot. The view over the bay is very pretty, and the scene on shore thoroughly Arabian, with donkeys and camels patiently carrying their heavy loads guided by the true Bedaween of the desert, and people of all tinges of complexion, from jet black to pale copper colour. A pair of tame ostriches, at least seven feet high, were strolling about the roadway, and a gazelle, some monkeys, parrots, and birds lived happily together beneath the broad verandah. After a little while we went for a drive to see the camp and town of Aden, which is four or five miles from the Point where everybody lands. On the way we met trains of heavily laden camels bringing in wood, water, grain, and fodder, for garrison consumption, and coffee and spices for exportation.

After driving for about four miles we reached a gallery pierced through the rock, which admits you into the precincts of the fort. The entrance is very narrow, the sides precipitous, and the place apparently impregnable.

We went all through the town, or rather towns, past the Arab village, the Sepoy barracks, and the European barracks, to the water tanks, stupendous works carved out of solid rock, but until lately comparatively neglected, the residents depending entirely on distillation for their supply of water. There is a pretty little garden at the foot of the lowest tank, but the heat was intense in the deep valley amongst the rocks, where every sun-ray seemed to be collected and reflected from the white glaring limestone, and every breath of air to be excluded. We saw a little more of the town and the market crowded with camels, the shops full of lion, leopard, and hyaena skins. We went to the officers’ mess house, visited the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and the Mohammedan mosque, and then passing through two long tunnels, bored in the solid rock, we looked over the fortifications. Finally, we returned to the Point again by way of the Isthmus, and went to Government House, which gets a fresh breeze from every quarter.

We are all agreeably disappointed with Aden, and find that it is by no means the oven we expected; it is prettier too than I thought, the mountains and rocks so peaked and pointed, and although the general effect is one of barrenness, still, if you look closely, every crack and crevice is full of something green. This adds of course greatly to the effect of colour, which in the rocks themselves is extremely beautiful, especially at sunrise and sunset. The sea, too, is delightfully blue on one side of the peninsula, and pale green on the other, according to the wind, and the white surf curls and breaks on the sandy shore beyond the crisp waves.

We went back to the hotel a little before one, and found many friends had called during our absence. After superintending the children’s dinner, I went with Tom to luncheon at Government House. It was very pleasant; General and Mrs Schneider were more than kind, and the house felt deliciously cool and airy.

We are told that thirty miles inland the country is sometimes very beautiful. There are exquisitely green valleys, with a stream running through them, amongst peaks and rocky mountains, which one rarely sees in the desert. Here the natives cultivate their crops of corn - such corn as it is too, reaching six feet above a man’s head! All sorts of useful vegetable grow abundantly, besides roses, fruits, and fragrant flowers, large supplies of which are brought daily into Aden. About ten miles from the town there are acres of the most fertile garden ground, which is cultivated to supply the garrison with vegetables. Sometimes a party of seventy or eighty men, and ten or twenty Arab guides, goes out for three weeks or a month at a time surveying. The natives are much more friendly than they used to be a few years ago, when people were afraid even to ride outside the town. After luncheon we drove down to the town, finished our business transactions, and then went in the ‘Vestal’s’ steam launch on board the ‘Gamma’, one of the new Chinese gunboats on her way out to China.

After afternoon tea we all adjourned to the ‘Sunbeam’, where we found many other friends already arrived or arriving. We had only just enough time to look round before the sun set, and the short twilight was succeeded by the swift tropical darkness All too soon good-bye had to be said; the anchor was raised, and we were actually drifting slowly along under our head canvas before our friends took their departure.