Sir William Russell's 36-Hour Adventure in Aden

This interesting and amusing description by Sir William Russell of a 36 hour visit to Aden in January 1858 was republished in the Suffolk Gazette, the journal of the 2nd Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, in May 1907.

Sir William was a war correspondent in the Crimean War and during the Indian Mutiny and at the time of writing this diary was editor of the Army and Navy Gazette.

11th January 1858. Early this morning and in the distance a line of crags like shark’s teeth rising out of the water, These resolved themselves into sharp saw-backed ridges of rock, cliffs and peaked mountains, of rich rufous and vandyck brown, streaked with reds and blacks as we approached. Surely here are Vulcan’s workshops! Here Brontes Steropes, and Pyrcamon have cleared out their cinders since the days of Saturn; here are the dust and ash-heaps of the Cyclopean forges.

Not one little tree! Not one blade of grass! Not one patch of verdure the size of a man’s hand!

The eye seeks the summits of those tumuli in expectation of the smoke of the subterranean fires in which those rocks were melted and cast out in beds of scoria and ashes. The blue sea seems to actually fizz at the base of those tremendous hills of slag and to boil and splutter as it heaves against them. High in the air of the loftiest peak a flag is flying from a lofty staff. The old Union Jack is flaunting a welcome to us; a house which looks like a child’s Noah’s ark can be detected near the staff by the curious.

Round by bluff and sloping ashes we glide swiftly; here and there white straight lines run across the ravines which seem to topple over us, these resolve themselves into walls of solid masonry, tunnels and archways are seen high up amid the crags. A round building of stonework with black specks on the flat roof looks very like a fort; and see! As we round the point and run into the shallow bay before us, there is another house from which the dull black eyes of the cannon are staring right at you.

The bay holds some half-dozen merchantmen, most of which show French colours, a flotilla of Arab dhows, an odd-looking steam sloop, and a small armed schooner. The cinders seem to have been shovelled away to form this bay. Before us there is a row of three or four white houses one storey high thatched with reeds rising out of ashes and backed by mountains of cinders. Here and there the cinders rise into cones above the bay and on the top of those cones are perched some two-dozen isolated houses, one or two huts on the beach complete the public and private buildings of the port, but the military station is perched in an extinct crater about three miles away where it is nearly as hot as if the volcano was in full activity.

Travellers have sought in vain to convey to their readers their impressions of the extreme aridity and desolation of Aden, in vain, because there are no words which can give an idea of a settlement of human beings fixed among a series of extinct volcanoes. I thought as I looked at it that I felt very much like a thirsty fly who had suddenly dropped down on the cooking establishment of some great railway company would feel, with difference that I could not fly away.

The prophetic and hypothetical resemblance to the Inferno with its fires extinguished, which is generally suggested to you by one of the ship’s officers or an old Indian, is falsified by the blue sky overhead, though the hideous Somalis and demonic shrieks of the creatures who dance and whirl around would give fair grounds for believing that if it were indeed a deserted compartment of the Eastern Orcus some of the spirits had been forgotten and were rejoicing in their liberty.

The natives are pulling off! “Now then, who’s for shore?”

In frailest canoes and lumbering boats, castaways of merchantmen of all nations swarm the predacious Charons and cling to the ship’s sides like apes. Here are lank, lean, knock-kneed, hollow-thighed, calfless, larkheeled, flatfooted, undersized, bullet headed narrow-chested Somali, - genuine children of the African littoral. These savages paint their faces and wear huge wigs of hair dyed a dull scarlet which contrasting with their black physiognomy renders their aspect more frightful than pantomime masks. There is one feature inside their faces if teeth can be called so, of exceeding beauty - close-set, snow white glistening dentistry, which must be quite lost on bad food and accidental cooking.

Some of the boats are pulled away by tawny Arabs - a race of men as superior to the Somali as the thoroughbred horse is superior to the donkey. Nervous, sinewy, quick-eyed, mad with passion and lust of gain, the thin nostrils swelling at every gesture and with every utterance of the mouth, broad-chested, narrow-flanked, full-thighed, well-limbed these Arabs whom one sees in a degenerate state at Aden, Suez and all Eastern seaports this side of China are like the horses of their own deserts; with something of the gentility of blood about them and an air ineffable which speaks of the times when there were distinct races and tribes of men as of animals ere commerce had bundled them together in her universal cosmopolitan operations.

A brisk little naval engagement alongside terminated in the capture of myself and two or three companions who were at once carried off to shore in a canoe paddled by red-wigged savages. Who would not go on shore to escape from a steamer coaling with the thermometer at 92 degrees in the shade, even though the shore was only that of Aden? Besides a sea had come in at the open port and I wanted to dry them. And where could one dry clothes better than at Aden?

A paddle of ten minutes brought us to a rude pier which led to a bank of rough shingle and hot sand whereon at some distance was placed the rows of three or four houses, which looked so white and nice from the sea. The centre one bore over the door the legend “Prince of Wales Hotel” (His Royal Highness will never be able to appreciate the rare comforts of this establishment, for it is now - but I am anticipating). [Russell doesn’t refer back to this, but he may have been going to say that the hotel was closed in July 1858. It was to eventually reopen as the the Hotel de l’Europe.] The walk, short as it was, made us dreadfully hot, for we were out in the open sun. And more, we were surrounded and baited by a yellow, dancing, maddening pack of young savages, Africans and Islanders, with naked figures, painted hair, huge wigs, who presented us with muffs and boas, and wigs of ostrich feathers, porcupine quills, sea shells, and leopard skins, and whirled around us in a feverish dance.

We reached the Hotel at last. Ah! Parsee Cowasjee, where did you get that soda-water? Anyone who remembers those early days when his nurse would put the soapsuds into his mouth, will know what we who drank of that Aden soda-water experienced. But who can describe the horrors of the brandy, except the man who can do justice to the strange qualities of the bottled ale? I asked for a glass of water. A thievish looking half-naked Mussulman waiter took up a long necked pitcher of water, and handed me a glass, into which he poured a whitish fluid. In the midst of the stream as it flowed something black wriggled, and after a plunge to the bottom came up to the top of the tumbler and looked at me. It was a dreadful thing, about four inches long and the size of a full bodied earthworm, with two sharp black eyes, and a large mouth, and palpitating sides, which were perforated with a row of additional mouth or gills, that worked incessantly, while with an easy motion the interesting thing swam about in my tumbler. The waiter admitted that the creature was on the whole objectionable as an ingredient of a drink, but he said, “there will be some more water by and by”. I can merely add, that the hideous larva, or whatever it was, on being poured out onto the sand, wriggled about for some time and was lively when I last saw him.

Our only resource, as it was too hot to visit the station till sunset, was to inspect the stock in Cowasjee’s shop next door and to look at a very poor match of billiards between a bleary-eyed little midshipman of the Indian Navy and a nautical gentleman who was suffering from delirium tremens. Cowasjee’s shop consists of the whole house minus the roof, and it contains everything that a man does not want. I suppose that passengers going out to India anticipate here their Indian purchases, as passengers bound for Europe here invest their money in Paris gloves made at Malta, or in Windsor soap. There are some people to whom a shop is an abstract necessity for disbursement. Here, then, in Cowasjee’s you see men and boys buying Chinese slippers they will never wear, and all sorts of garments and articles they don’t want, and Cowasjee, a Parsee, with large olive coloured, oval, smooth face, quickeyed, and intelligent, place his hands on his portly person, and smiles placidly whilst his Parsee assistants glide round the curious shelves, and recommend things they never tried - Yarmouth bloaters, pate de diable, pith hats, pocket handkerchiefs, eau de cologne, Whitechapel cigars, Piver’s perfumery, (a wonderful man, Piver? I got one of his bottles in a case-mate of the Redan, and yet it was so bad.)

When we had gone through those amusements, our party, now largely increased by fugitives from the coaling went into the verandahs, and thereupon gazed out upon the sea, the cliffs, the beach, and on the wild crowd of Somali boys and Arabs who waved their wares before us, or descanted on the merits of donkeys, mules, and camels, all caparisoned, and ready to start for the station. A few of the old “Die-Hards”, His Majesty’s 57th Regiment, came down from their bungalows to look at us, and from them we learned that the remarkable steam-sloop, which rejoiced in the name of Adjadah or something approximate, was supposed to have a tendency to bathos, which would not render it desirable to send our detachment of sappers on board her, (poor Lambert! I had really forgotten to mention that gallant, fine-hearted soldier, who as I heard to my infinite regret shared by everyone who knew his kindly, honest genial nature, fell a victim to the maliferous climate of China.)

We had an odd kind of dinner at the Prince of Wales, which was chiefly remarkable for its extreme unfitness to support life and good humour of those who tried to eat it. Then we organized races among the Somalis, who ran the strand, and among the camels and mules, which displayed remarkable speed over the shingle whilst the winners and the riders never stopped shouting, “I say, saar, you give me five shillin! I say, you promised me one pound.” Amid these sports the noble art of self-defence was not forgotten. The Somalis aware of the Briton’s love for athletic sports, paired off, and in a style which would have delighted the shades of Cribb and Belcher, hit each other on the face and chest and got each other “into chancery”, although they had no particular suits to speak of; and knocking their curly heads together with an astounding clatter, looking deceitfully in earnest, and claiming the reward of victory at every round. “You give me one pound saar, me beat big fellow.” The sun began to set at last, we paid 6 shillings a head for dinner, and 6 shillings a head for wine, and set off to the station, up a steep road which led us by cliffs overhanging the sea, to the wonderful basin in the mountain top, where the English troops are stationed. I can say nothing of it now, for as I write remembrances full of melancholy steal over me. One of my companions in that pleasant excursion rests far away from friends and country, in a lonely grave.

January 12th. As coaling was still going on when we returned to Lower Aden, the passengers who could get beds slept at the hotel, which offered to them a certain number of monk’s cells, opening to a wide passage, which was screened by coconut matting from the outside yards. Stewart, of the 7th Hussars who slept next to me in the corridor, would insist on having two boys to fan him all night. It is not to be wondered that, then, that the two rings which I had placed on the table beside my bed were gone in the morning. One was a souvenir from the Crimea, bought from a wounded Zouave, who had taken it from the finger of a Russian officer and had taken the finger off to get the ring. I had found out the family of the officer by an extraordinary accident long afterwards, and the ring, which they begged me to retain, had a special value in my eyes. I wrote to all the authorities in the ill regulated little dependency and to my comfort I heard that robberies were common at the hotel and recovery quite unheard of. The police - for there are police at Aden - made a charge on a group of boys and led one into captivity; but I shall never see my rings again, the hotel people look guilty, - but the Nubia’s gun fires.

At three o’clock we are steaming out of the harbour of Aden, leaving fattened mosquitoes and enriched Parsees. Memo for travellers - never touch one of the Somalis; one of our passengers provoked by the persecutions of a crowd of urchins, gave one of them a tap on the head with his cane, down fell the young rascal as if dead, and in an instant a stream of blood was flowing from his head upon the sand. He had taken up a sharp shell and cut open his scalp with it. The passenger was horrified, the crowd raised a dismal lamentation, the police came up, and the result was that the Somali received two pounds as hush money and marched off rejoicing.