Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Cotton, natural dyes, linen and textile trade from India, Yemen, Syria, Cyprus and other areas along the route were observed by the cartographer Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815) in his travel journal and historical descriptions from 1761 to 1767. After somewhat more than two years of travel however, the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia sadly lost five of its six members due to illnesses over several months in the year 1763. This serial of three essays will give some background information about the participants, but foremost emphasise on textile perspectives during the continuous part of the expedition, which lasted from July 1763 and up to the time when Niebuhr returned back to Denmark in November 1767.
In the autumn of 1760 all six participants were assembled in København (Copenhagen) to determine their plans for Den Arabiske Rejse (The Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia), which they began on 7 January 1761. The journey became troubled from the start with gales alternating with flat calm; the crew succumbing to the cold and the ship being forced to return to Helsingør three times, due to weather as well as to replenish the crew. It was only on the fourth attempt at leaving Helsingør that the group managed to get away on 12 March, arriving in the Mediterranean in the month of May. Visits were paid to Malta and Istanbul, amongst other places, before the journey continued to Egypt, one of the main destinations where the expedition carried out various work lasting a year. In October 1762 the journey continued to South Arabia where the botanical fieldwork became considerable, often assisted by local inhabitants. But everything was not going to plan. The philologist Fredrik Christian von Haven (1728-1763) died in May 1763 and a while later the naturalist Peter Forsskål (1732-1763) fell ill at the end of June, also suffering from malaria, he died in Yemen on 11 July the same year. After Forsskål’s demise the malaria-stricken group of travelling naturalists had to suffer further deaths and hardships.
These unfortunate illnesses progressed during the sea voyage, which started on 23 August in 1763, on an English ship from Mocha in Jemen towards Bombay [today Mumbai] in India. Two more of the participants died during the crossing, the artist Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind (1728-1763) on the 29 August and the servant Lars Berggren (17??-1763) the day after. Furthermore, the surgeon Christian C. Kramer (1732-1763) died after a few months in Bombay, leaving Carsten Niebuhr alone to carry on with the mission and take care of the extensive collections. Despite all unforeseen hardships, Niebuhr continued to be a careful observer via detailed accounts of everyday life, architecture, geography and more or less everything that caught his eye.
The instructions for the expedition had also given some direct advice or rather orders for the participants, which included how to address the local inhabitants in visited areas. In the introduction for Carsten Niebuhr’s Beskrivelse af Arabien… (Description of Arabia, 2009), a phenomena that was not unusual for Europeans at that time is noted: ‘…it is with greatest importance that the members of the expedition avoid showing arrogance toward the local inhabitants, but instead to respect their customs and traditions’. Overall, Niebuhr also seems to have been respectful – seen in the context of the time – in his descriptions and reflections of various peoples, their daily lives, religion, trade etc in the vast geographical area he visited.
In notes about Bombay and Surat in late 1763 and early 1764, Niebuhr gave detailed accounts about the trade. A few sections have been quoted in a translation for this essay, to give an idea of the complex criss-crossing of goods between various harbours, including textile goods as cottons and the desirable cochineal for dyeing yarn and cloth red:
Niebuhr sailed from Bombay on 24 March in 1764, and reached the harbour road of Surat two days later. During the coming days he added some notes about trading circumstances in Surat between various groups of people: which included the Mughal Empire, several European countries and their so-called Factories (trading and storage houses), that is to say the English, Dutch, French and Portuguese. Additionally, the Swedish East India Company traded in Surat to a minor extent, together with neighbouring areas that liked to take part in the wide-ranging trade of this port. By walking the streets of Surat, Niebuhr also made detailed descriptions of the various inhabitants clothes and how it was possible to travel in a comfortable palanquin if one preferred. This equipage was mostly draped with curtains, to protect from the sun, whilst an illustration from the original edition (Tab. XII) also depicted an oblong round cushion for further comfort.
Niebuhr left Surat by ship on 8 April 1764 and was back in Bombay five days later. Due to poor health, the rain season and other unforeseen circumstances his stay became prolonged and first in December the same year, he sailed towards Muscat.
Notice: Quotes have been translated for this essay by Viveka Hansen – from Danish to English from (Niebuhr…2003), if not otherwise stated. This is the first essay of three about Carsten Niebuhr’s observations of textiles from 1761 to 1767.