Reiseliteratur weltweit

Geschichten rund um den Globus

1816 - James Silk Buckingham
Population and Business in Muscat and Muttrah

The appearance, dress, and manners of the Arabs of Muscat differ but little from those of Yemen and the coast of Hadramaut. In stature they are of the middle size, but almost invariably slender. Their physiognomy is not so marked as that of most of the Desert Arabs, from their race being more mixed with foreigners brought among them by trade. The complexions of those of pure Arab descent are much fairer here than in any part of Arabia that I have visited, from the southern borders of Palestine to the Indian Ocean; though, excepting the plains of Babylonia, Muscat is the hottest place I have ever experienced, in any part of the world. From the preference which seems to be given here to handsome Abyssinian women over all others, there are scarcely any persons able to afford this luxury, who are without an Abyssinian beauty, as a wife, a mistress, or a slave. This has given a cast of Abyssinian feature, and a tinge of Abyssinian complexion, to a large portion of the inhabitants of Muscat: besides which, there are many tall and handsome young male slaves, who are assigned the most honourable places, as rulers of their master's household, though still slaves; and others again, who by the death of their masters, or other causes, have obtained their freedom, and enriched themselves so as to become the principal merchants of the place.
   A distinguished person of this last description had recently arrived here with all his family and suite, from Bombay. This man was a native of Gondar, tall, handsome, and of regular features, approaching to the European form; but his complexion was a jet black, and his hair short and woolly, though he had nothing else in his appearance that was African. He was originally brought from Massowah, on the Red Sea, and sold as a slave at Muscat. Having the good fortune to serve a most excellent master, and being himself a faithful servant, he was admitted as adopted heir to all the property, there being no children to claim it; and, as is not unfrequently the case in similar instances of a faithful slave serving a benevolent owner, he was invested with all the property by will before his master's death. Not long after, or when the time required by the law had been fulfilled, he married the widow of his benefactor, and took her and all her relatives under his protection. Making a voyage to India, he remained long enough as a fixed resident in Bombay to establish his domicile there; and, in virtue of this, was considered to be a British subject, and permitted as such to sail his vessels under the British flag. One of these, the Sulimany, commanded by an English captain, touched at Muscat, on her way to Bussorah. Some slaves were put on board of her against the English captain's remonstrances; and the agents of the owner, who was himself at Bombay, seemed to think, that though their principal was sufficiently an Englishman, by adoption or domicile, to obtain a British flag for his vessels, yet that they were sufficiently Arabs to be justified in conducting their own business, even in these ships, as Arab merchants. The Sulimany sailed for Bussorah, was examined and captured by his Majesty's ship Favourite, the Hon. Captain Maude, in the Gulf, was sent to Bombay, and there condemned in the Court of Admiralty, as a lawful prize, for being found with slaves on board under English colours, and accordingly condemned. The Abyssinian, finding his interests shaken by this stroke in India, had returned to what he considered his real home, and had brought all his family and domestics with him.-There were many genuine Abyssinians, and others mixed with Arab blood in their descent, settled here as merchants of wealth and importance, and this returning Abyssinian was received among them all with marks of universal respect and consideration. There are also found here a number of African negroes; but these, from their inferiority of capacity and understanding to the Abyssinians, seldom or ever obtain their freedom, or arrive at any distinction, but continue to perform the lowest offices and the most laborious duties during all their lives.
   These three classes are all Mohammedans, and of the Soonnee sect. Their deportment is grave, and their manner taciturn and serious; but there is yet an air of cheerfulness, and a look of content and good-nature mixed with what would be otherwise forbidding by its coldness. Beards are universally worn; but these are by nature thin and scanty: they are generally preserved of the natural colour, and not dyed, as with the Persians; though henna, the stain used for that purpose, is here applied freely to the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands; as well as cohel, or surmeh, the Arabic and Turkish names of antimony, to the eyes, from an idea that it increases their sparkling effect, and preserves the sight. Rings are sometimes worn, with the turquoise or firouzi stone set in them. The dress of the men is simply a shirt and trowsers of fine muslin, slightly girded round the waist, open sandals of worked leather, and a turban of small blue checked cotton, with a silk and cotton border of red and yellow, a manufacture peculiar to the town of Sahar, to the north-west of Muscat, on the coast. In the girdle is worn a crooked dagger; and over the shoulders of the merchants is thrown a purple cotton cloth of Surat; while the military, or people of government, wear a neatly made wooden shield, hung by a leathern strap over the shoulder, and either hang the sword loosely above it, or carry it in their hand. Nothing can surpass the simplicity of their appearance, or the equality of value between the dresses of the wealthiest and the lowest classes of the people. The garments of the Prince, taken altogether, without his arms, could not have cost more, I should conceive, than about an English guinea; and his arms were not nearly so costly as is usual among the northern Arabs and the Turks. Notwithstanding which, however, the people of Muscat seemed to me to be the cleanest, neatest, best dressed, and most gentlemanly of all the Arabs that I had ever yet seen, and inspired, by their first approach, a feeling of confidence, good-will, and respect.
   The foreigners who sojourn here for such periods as their business may require, but who are not reckoned among the permanent residents, are Hindoos; principally Banians from Guzerat; some few Parsees from Bombay; Sindians and Belooches from the coast of Mekran ; Persians from Bushire; Arabs from Bahrein; and Jews from Bussorah. Some Desert Arabs sometimes come in from the country; and while they are looked upon as much greater strangers by the people of Muscat than any of those enumerated, and spoken of as a sort of wild race, among whom no man in his senses would trust himself, they, in their turn, regard every thing they see of the port, the shipping, and the bustle of commerce, with an eye of surprise and admiration. The few of these men that I saw, were of a smaller stature, more dried and fleshless in their forms, of a darker colour, and altogether of a more savage appearance, than even the Yezeedis of Sinjar. Like them, these seemed never to have passed a razor over their beads, or scissors over their upper lip. Their hair was long and black, and hung in a bush of thick locks over their foreheads, eyes, and shoulders. They wore no other covering than a blue checked cotton cloth, girt around their loins by a, small plaited leathern cord, and were without any other shelter for their head than the immense bush of hair, plastered with grease, which covered it. One of these only had a yambeah; two or three of them had swords and wooden shields; but the greater number of them carried short spears only. They were seemingly as barbarous and uninformed as men could possibly be.
   The town of Muscat is on the whole but meanly built. The Custom-house, which is opposite to the landing-place both for passengers and goods, is merely an open square of twenty feet, with benches around it, one side opening to the sea, and the roof covered in for shelter from the sun. This landing-place is also the Commercial Exchange, where it is usual, during the cool of the morning, and after EI Assr, to see the principal merchants assembled, some sitting on old rusty cannon, others on condemned spars, and others in the midst of coils of rope, exposed on the wharf, stroking their beards, counting their beads, and seeming to be the greatest of idlers, instead of men of business; notwithstanding which, when a stranger gets among them, he finds commerce to engross all their conversation and their thoughts. Of mosques I saw not one; at least none were perceptible in the town by their usual accompaniments of domes and minarets. There is no public bath, and not a coffee-house throughout all the place. The bazaars are more narrow and confined, and the dwellings all certainly poorer than in either of the commercial towns of Mocha, Hodeida, Jedda, or Yambo, on the Red Sea; and there is a strange mixture of Indian architecture in the Banians' shops and warehouses, gilded and decorated in their own fantastic way, which contrasts with the sombre melancholy of the Arab houses and alleys by which they are surrounded. The dwelling of the Imaum, which has an extensive and pretty front near the sea, the residence of one of his brothers near it, and about half a dozen other houses of the chief people here, are the only edifices that can be mentioned as good ones. The forts, which command the harbour, look contemptible to an European eye, though they enjoy commanding positions, are furnished with good cannon, and are perhaps of greater defensive strength than they would at first sight appear to be.
   One great distinguishing feature of Muscat, over all other Arabian towns, is the respect and civility shown by all classes of its inhabitants to Europeans. Even in Mocha, where the East India Company have so long had a factory, the most impudent insults are offered to Franks, as they are called, even by children. Here, however, where there has not for a long while been any European resident, an Englishman may go everywhere unmolested. In the town, every one, as far as I observed, even the Imaum himself, went on foot. When they journey, horses are seldom used, but camels and asses are the animals mounted by all classes of those who ride. During our stay at Muscat, I did not see, however, even one of either of those animals, though I was on shore and visited every part of the town. The tranquillity that reigns throughout the town, and the tolerance and civility shown to strangers of every denomination, are to be attributed to the inoffensive disposition of the people, rather than to any excellence of police, as it has been thought. There is indeed no regular establishment of that kind here, either in patroles or guards, except at the forts on the heights above the town, where there are sentinels who repeat their cries from tower to tower. Nevertheless, whole cargoes of merchandize, and property of every description, are left to lie open on the Custom-house wharf, and in the streets, without fear of plunder. The ancient regulation which prevented the entry of ships into the port, or the transaction of business on shore, after sun-set, is not now enforced; and though shore-boats are not permitted to come off to ships in the harbour after dark, yet ships'-boats are allowed to remain on shore, and to go off at pleasure. Every thing, indeed, is favourable to the personal liberty, the safety, and the accommodation of strangers; and the Arabs of Muscat may be considered, I think, as far as their manners go, to be the most civilized of their countrymen …
   A little to the north-west of Muscat, and seated at the bottom of a cove, almost of the same form and size as its own, is the town of Muttrah. As a harbour, this is quite as good as Muscat, having the same convenient depth of anchorage, from ten to thirteen fathoms, the same kind of holding ground, and a better shelter from northerly and north-west winds. Ships not being able to beat into the cove of Muscat with southerly winds, may always stretch over to the westward, and anchor in that of Muttrah, from whence they may weigh with the land-wind, and come into Muscat at pleasure. Muttrah is less a place of business than Muscat, though there are more well-built houses in it, from its being a cooler and more agreeable residence, and, as such, a place of retreat for men of wealth. Provisions and refreshments for shipping may be had with equal ease from either of these places; indeed, the greater part of those brought to Muscat are said to come through Muttrah, from the country behind. Meat, vegetables, and fruit, are all abundant in their season, of excellent quality and low price; and fish are nowhere more plentiful or more delicious than here. The water also is pure, wholesome, and agreeable to the taste; it is brought from springs in the hills, and conducted into a reservoir at Muscat, from which a ship's casks may be filled in a few hours, if a sufficient number of hands be employed. This is more frequently done by large boats and people from the shore, than by the boats of the ships watering, and is found to be attended with conveniencies which more than overbalance so trifling an expense, being also much more expeditious. For ships having tanks, or wishing to fill their own casks on board, it is usual to send off water in bulk, in a large boat, filled at the reservoir; but this is found to affect the quality of the water materially, and should, if possible, be avoided. The boats themselves being frequently oiled on the inside to preserve the wood, this oil gives a peculiarly unpleasant taste to the water, which remains on it for many hours; the boats always leak a little also in their upper works, by which the sea-water is let in to mix with the fresh, and makes it quite brackish; and lastly, the men employed on this service, who are generally negro slaves, make no scruple to come from the shore with dirty feet, and to wash them in the boat; they plunge their perspiring bodies also into the water, remain in it to row off to the ship, immersed up to their middle, and even scrub and wash themselves in it before coming alongside, so as to leave all the filth and impurities of their skin behind them. All these causes, though creating no perceptible difference in the appearance of the water at the time, need only be mentioned, to create an objection to this mode of receiving it on board, and to give a decided preference to filling it in the ship's casks.
   It has been before observed, that it is usual for ships to moor in tiers at Muscat, or, if single, to ride head and stern, as there is no room in the inner part of the cove to swing. The best anchor, and the ship's head, should be to the northward, and the stern anchor to the southward. Neither in entering the harbour, nor in securing the ship, is any assistance now given by pilots of the port, nor indeed is it at all necessary, as there are no dangers but those above water and in sight. It appears that formerly there was a Serang of the port, who moored the ships, and was allowed a fixed remuneration for it from the vessel brought in: but this is not usual now; though, if assistance were really wanted, or signals of distress made, they would no doubt be very promptly complied with. It should be added, that ships wishing to refit here, ought to be furnished with all the necessary materials on board; as naval stores of every description are scarce and dear, from their being altogether foreign produce. Ship-timber is brought to this port from Malabar; canvass from Bengal; coir from Africa and the Laccadive islands, and made into rope here; and anchors and all smaller stores, as well as guns and ammunition from Bombay. As the tide rises about five or six feet, light vessels may be hauled on shore at high-water, and careened, both at Muscat and at Muttrah; and there are shipwrights and caulkers sufficiently expert in their arts, to render any assistance that may be needed from them in that way. Deficiencies in ships' crews may also be made up by Arab sailors, who are always to be found here, and are unquestionably braver, hardier, and better seamen than the Lascars of India, though they are sometimes more difficult to be kept in order. On board their own large ships, even the names of the masts, sails, and ropes, as well as the orders of command in evolutions, are, as in India, a mixture of Arabic, Persian, Hindee, Dutch, Portuguese, and English; so that the Hindoostanee of a country ship is quite intelligible to them all. Besides the terms common to the vessels of India, I remarked some here, which were evident remains of Portuguese domination, as 'Bandeira, Bussolag and Armada,' for flag, compass, and squadron; which are called in Hindoostanee, 'Bowta, Compaz, and Jhoond'; in Arabic, 'Beirak, Deira, and Singar;' and in Persian, 'Alum, Doora, and Sengar'.

Buckingham, James Silk
Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia
London 1829; Reprint Westmead 1971

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