Profile of a Yemeni Seaportas Sketched by Servants of the Dutch East India Company

C. G. Brouwer (1997) Al-MUKHA. Profile of a Yemeni Seaportas Sketched by Servants of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) 1614-1640. Amsterdam: D'Fluyte Rarob,
509 pp, maps, photos, indexes. ISBN 90-300267-6-X

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 40 (1998):#3

Pieter van den Broecke (painting by Frans Hals, 1633) [from Brouwer, p. 93]

Once in awhile a book comes along that is so well done, on almost every level, that it is literally difficult to put it down. Such is the case with C. G. Brouwer's masterful study of the port of Mocha between the years 1614-1640. Although, to be sure, there is far more information here than the subtle subtitle would indicate. The basic data for this book stem from the records and correspondence of Dutch merchants and seafarers serving the Dutch East India Company, which had a beachhead in Mocha during the heyday of coffee exports. Here we find thorough historical documentation, both in the text and the detailed appendices. As the table of contents, reprinted below, indicates, these records along with the author's painstaking comparative analysis fill in many blanks on the city of Mocha and its role as a port during the first half of the 17th century.

If you have an existing interest in Ottoman Yemen or the relations between Yemen and the West during the coffee trade boom, or just in the mystery of Mocha, you must get this book.Any library with a serious collection on the Middle East needs to have this book in its collection. Any scholar who is exploring the history of Mocha, at any point in history, should begin with this book, even if only to consult the impressive bibliography. It would appear that far more information from the same sources on the items traded is available for further study. There is no other book for Mocha and few historical studies on Yemen approach its caliber.

One of the first items to praise is how readable the book is, not to mention the user-friendly indices. While there are a few spelling errors (e.g. "litteral" on p. 48), the narrative is clear and, at least to this reader, continually fascinating. Even if you had no particular interest in 17th century Mocha, this book would probably peak your interest. When I say"readable," I also refer to the creative style as well illustrated in the prologue (reprinted here). Its eloquence, quite literally again,speaks for itself far better than this review could.

The first part of the book is an exercise in historiography. Brouwer has combed the literature, Arabic and Western, to see what is available on Mocha. The result: not very much. The medieval Arab geographers and travelers barely mention the town. The normally loquacious Yaqut devotes but one line to Mocha as lying between Zabid and Aden (how profound...). Yemeni histories and Western travelogues are searched, but again little appears specifically on Mocha until the 16th century. The conclusion:"Islamic al-Mukhâ, we have to conclude, was a most insignificant port prior to 1500. A town let by the sea, nothing more.It was only in the course of the sixteenth century that its role both as a commercial port and a naval base gained in importance" (p. 40).Following that: "There can be no doubt that this South Arabian town was a major international seaport between 1600 and 1850, thus for about two and a half centuries in succession. Cargo ships from all the coastal areas of the western part of the Indian Ocean, from Persia, Oman, Gujarat, Malabar, Chormandel, Malindi, Somalia and Abyssinia supplied the port with commodities, varying from spices,chinaware and textiles to metals, sugar and tobacco. They returned,loaded up with coffee beans, frankincense, myrrh, noble metals etc.The city was connected with Egypt, Syria and Turkey overland by means of caravans and overseas by cargo vessels. Western merchantmen called at its road stead; the powerful East India companies of the English and the Dutch maintained offices there, though not permanently.According to the standards of the time and in that part of the globe, al-Mukhâ was a large and populous city" (pp. 54-55). After 1850the key word is decline. In the early 20th century Bury referred to Mocha as "a dead-live, mouldering town."

Having surveyed the range of original texts, Brouwer provides a very informative "heuristic" analysis of modern research on Yemen. Here one finds an annotated guide to research about Mocha. The first study that comes to mind is Eric Macro's 1960Bibliography on Yemen and Notes on Mocha, which Brouwer justly deconstructs as amateurish and of dubious methodology for mixing time periods with abandon (p. 63). The author finds some 31 references that focus on Mecca, mostly journal articles or entries in reference works. He then explores the problem of finding "hidden" sources on Yemen -- references that do not directly refer to Mocha in their titles. Concluding this historiographic exercise, Brouwer remarks: "The exceedingly poor harvest of historical contributions of sufficient scientific calibre which are exclusively devoted to early seventheenth-century al-Mukhâ, and the equally poor stream of publications in which valuable considerations on the port are incorporated or 'hidden', not the least the restricted range of aspects which have light shed upon them in both categories of secondary literature, make Macro's judgement from 1980 almost achutzpah: 'The history of how Mocha came to exist; how, why and when it reached its zenith and the reasons for its decline, (...) is well enough known by Arabian specialists'" (p. 84).

There is much to be learned about early 17th century Mocha as town and port in this volume. For example... Unlike other Yemeni towns such as Aden, Taiz, or Sanaa, Mocha had no town wall in 1616 (p. 129). Brouwer compiles a sketch plan of the town (p.143). Based on a variety of clues, the population of Mocha may have reached 20,000 permanent residents with about 1-2000 visitors swelling the town during the monsoon trade season (p. 207). Mocha was an important center for the camel trade (p. 222). Information is also provided on sailing times and the number of vessels in and out of the port. The annual number of ships calling at Mocha is estimated at32-34 (mostly from Western India) for the early 17th century.

One of the major contributions is a virtual window into the life of the Dutch merchants in Mocha. Brouwer estimates that some 200 Dutch East Indies sailors, captains, soldiers and merchants visited Mocha in the the time period studied. We find out where they lived, how they lived, the political problems they faced, types of ships, details about crews, customs and trade. Some converted to Islam, some mutinied, some died, all no doubt hated the intense heat. In 1638 the Dutch East Indies Company resumed trade in Yemen with Imam Husayn, who issued a "binding firman" with the following stipulations (p.240): "They may freely call at this bander(bandar). They may trade in the interior without any hindrance. They may provide their office directly, i.e. by bypassing the weigh house.They enjoy a number of toll priviledges. On the death of one of them,the goods left behind will devolve upon their over hooft ('chief'). If someone runs away, he will be brought back. In the case of their getting involved in scuffles with subjects of the Imâm, the Dutch leaders are entitled to punish them. They may practice their faith in full freedom, and need not fear any 'molestation' therein.In conclusion, Husayn solemnly promises that he, for his part, will never break the fermân, unless the other party provokes him to do so."

"Nowadays," concludes Brouwer, "al-Mukhâ is little more than a sloping field of ruins,anything but a pulsating port" (p. 377). True, but a bit of the pulse can be felt with a careful reading of this erudite volume.

Book Excerpt:PROLOGUE

A couple of coasters are moored at an extended loading jetty to the south. The harbour grounds have barriers closely guarded by soldiers. A customs house is crowded with busy officers. A swarm of lorries has settled around the mosque.Gleaming on the northern horizon, a power station ... These, at the end of the Eighties, are the visible signs of al-Mukha's resurrection or, at least, of the arrested decay of this Yemeni port.

For the rest, the city is still the same endless field of ruins it was in the summer of 1976 when I visited it for the very first time. After a long journey descending from Ta'izz,across the slopes of the Tihâma, the taxi suddenly stopped. My heavily armed travelling companions jumped out and dispersed swiftly in all directions. I asked the kât chewing driver to continue the trip to al-Mukhâ. But he answered: 'This is al-Mukhâ!You are right in the centre of the town'. Dazed, I looked around me.I saw huts made of combed wood and covered by gunny sacks scattered over a vast sandy plain, in between them reed structures with pointed caps were held together by ropes. There were a few stone houses too,with two or three stories, some of which were partially collapsed,their plaster work in tatters, their bays dismantled, their windows,robbed of their shutters, offering a perspective, though holes in theroofs, to the sky.

There was no alternative to AbûSâlih's poor funduk to be found. On its crumbling stairs a goat sought shelter in the shadow. In the inner court the drinking water,distributed early in the morning and collected in an oil barrel, was cooking in the sun. The clammy heat was unbearable. Stretched out on a rickety plank bed, sweat was running out of every pore.

The reconnoitring expeditions I went on in the days after resulted in ineradicable pictures of loss and transitoriness. Doors of empty warehouses and of dwellings left forever creaked in the wind, their hinges fallen off. In dark holes a few poor vegetables and fish, some imported canned food, and bundles of kât, were offered for sale. By way of alternative national service, a disillusioned French doctor carried out operations on critically ill children in a temporary hospital. Judging by the stones blown bare by the wind, an arena full of pits and little hills hid a cemetery. A small mosque of provincial appearance stood beside the sea. Not far inland, as if it were lost, was the al-Shâdhili mosque with its adjacent beehive tomb, the multi-stage minaret dazzling white at a distance but at close quarters grey and flaking. In a wide curve all around was a series of defensive towers, partly deteriorated, and with what only a rich imagination could succeed in reconstructing as a ring-wall between them.

On the southern shore, just past a little concrete bridge, were the ruins of a building that had once served as a shower cabinet according to a faded inscription in English: 'After the sea wash your body here'. Near the flood line lay a few rafts composed of four or five knee timbers bound together with ropes,covered with nets, and with a stone being used as an anchor. Then there was a cluster of fishing pro as shored up by car tyres and spars, with sharp bows and flat sterns, brightly coloured, with names such as Ashâb or al-Sadâka in unwieldy characters; in the stripes of shadow below them skinny dogs sought protection from the sun. A series of hulls followed, partly buried in the sand, unrigged, scrapped, with the remains of hawsers, rust-eaten anchors, cracked rafters and rails, rotten ceilings and shell plates. A perished fleet. Along the asphalt road, melting in the sun, between the beach and the saltpans, was a line of electricity poles, some of them capsized, their hanging wires leading to a stake structure that informer days had served as a light beacon.

Then, finally, a tongue of land ending in as hort mole. Some flat-bottomed boats were moored there. Dockers,stripped to the waists and sweltering in the heat, were unloading sacks of cement on their shoulders and necks, hauling them over a sagging plank to a lorry. A tiny chugging tug, manoeuvring between the sandbars, towed a string of boats to the distant roadstead where three ships, loaded with cement and Djibuti whiskey, were anchored.At a sandbar, crossways to the quay-wall, lay three wooden dhows,their sails furled, with round bellies, sharp pointed bows and poops,and decorated with geometric edgings. The crew of one of these ships,six souls in all, skirted and turbanned, gathered around kettles and pans next to their vessel; a curly-haired ship's boy, left on board as a lookout, stared down on them. At the very end of the mole was a small sea fortress in a state of irreparable decay. Some gun barrels which had tumbled from their carriages lay at its base, washed over by the waves. A similar ruin, likewise surrounded by flooded weapons,was at the northern point of the half-moon shaped bay.

This was al-Mukhâ. A seaport covered by a greyish-blue sky, flogged by a boiling hot sandy wind that sometimes reached storm force. Its sparse inhabitants preferred to stay inside their houses during the day. A desolate place. Could this town really once have been the famous international entrepôt on the coast of 'Arabia Felix', the port of destination for numeroius richly loaded vessels from all quarters of the world, the coffee port from which 'mocha' takes its name?





Tables, lists, and figures





Sources, Studies, and Subject

1. Al-Mukhâ through the ages: A selection from the sources

History up to 1600: Pre-Islamic era, 25.Islamic period: Oriental authorities, 27. Western witnesses, 28.Yemeni geographical and navigational writings, 30. Yemeni chronicles,33. Yemeni biographical works, 36. Recapitulation, 38. Heyday,1600-1850: Oriental and Yemeni evidence, 40. Western testimonies, 45.Decline, 1850-1950: Oriental, Yemeni, and Western sources,55.

2. Al-Mukhâ in modern research

Monographic studies: Heuristic apparatus,61. Monographic studies, all periods, 62. Summary, 68. Hiddenstudies: Demarcation, 69. Hidden studies, early 17th century: Yemeni,70. Non-Yemeni, 73. Recapitulation, 81. Conclusion, 84.

3. al-Mukhâ in profile

Sources: Sources, early 17th century, 85.Ottoman sources, 85. Yemeni-Arab sources, 87. English sources, 90.Dutch sources, 91. Subject: Choice of sources, 98. al-Mukhâ,1614-1640: City and shipping according to Dutch witnesses, 99. Some theoretical considerations, 101. Source-criticism, 103. Context: The First Ottoman Period, 1538-1636, 106. The Dutch East India Company(VOC), 1602-1799, 112.


The City of al-Mukhâ

4. Situation and buildings

Situation: General location, 119. Bay and coast, 121. Currents and climate, 122. Roads and jetty, 125. Galley's anchorage and mole, 127. Buildings: General aspect, 128. Wall, 129.Castle, 129, Sea fortresses, 130. Governor's palace, 132. 'Alfandinga', 133. Mosques and shrines, 134. Houses, 135. Prominent dwellings, 137. Factories, 137. Jail, 140. Serails and public baths,140. Coffee houses, 140. Marketplace, 141. Shipyard, 141. Cemeteries,142. Streets and squares, 142. City plan, 144.

5. Government

Turkish rule: The Sultan: Territory, 145.Aims, 147. Periods of reign, 148. The Beylerbeyi: Appointment, 148.Journey, 151. Accession, 152. Entourage, 153. Forces, 154. Revenues,156. Relationships with al-Mukhâ, 157. Terms of office, 164.Income, 166. Periods of rule, 167. Arab rule: The Imâm: Expeller of the Turks, 168. Pretenders to the imâmate, 170.Sphere of influence and policy, 173. The Amîr: Installation and power, 174. Subordinates, pomp, and revenues, 175. Âghâand Amîr, 176.

6. Defence

Army and navy: Soldiers, 179. Ca'ûshes, 181. Armament, 183. Galleys, 185. Galley's captain,186. Sloops, 187. Defensive capacity: Wall, castle, fortresses, and galleys, 188. European threat to the city, 190. European blocade of the Bab, 194. Turkish protection, 195. Indian safeguard,197.

7. Population

Composition and size: Explosive growth, 201.Inhabitants, 202. Residents, 203. Visitors, 204. Size, 206. Disease and death, 207. Women, 209. Strata and professions: Social levels,211. Professions and trades, 214. Food supply and transport: Daily food, 217. Drinkable water, 218. Firewood, 220. Pack animals, 220.Riding animals, 223.

8. Religion, legal status, and language

Religion: Muslims, 237. Hindus, Jews, and Christians, 228. Conversion, 229. Legal status: The Dutch under the Turks, 232. The Dutch under the Arabs, 239. Legal position of the Dutch traders: summary, 241. Legal position of the other non-islamic merchants, 244. Language: Diversity of languages, 246. The Arabickoine, 250. Interpreters, terdjumâns, and documents,252.


The Shipping of al-Mukhâ

9. Harbour

Arrival and departure: Anchorage, 259.Surrender of sails, 261. Inspection, 262. Entry, 262. Audience, 264.Tour, 265. Discordant reception, 266. Departure, 268. Customs,services, and offices: Presents, 270. Kaftâns, 273. Anchorage,274. Rent, 275. Transport, 276. Victualling, 281. Shâhbandar,282.

10. Ships

Eastern ships: Types and rates, 287.Capacity and draught, 289. Hull, 292. Superstructure and rig, 294.Image, 295. Shipyards, 298. Names, 298. Western ships: Types, 300.Carrying capacity, 302. Draught, 303. Hull, superstructure, and rig,304. Portraits, 305. Rough description, 305. Naming, 307.

11. Ordnance, crew, and owner

Ordnance: Asian ships, 309. European ships,309. Crew: The Asians: survey, 312. Nâkhudâh, 314. Mu'allim, 316. Writer, 318. The English, 318. The Dutch: general picture, 320. commanders and merchants, 322. Masters and mates, 326.Size and rough composition, 328. Functions and pay in detail, 330.Administration of justice, 334. Owner: Western and Eastern ships,335.

12. Shipping

Communications: Network, 339. Routes, 342.Sailing times: Seasons, 346. Duration of voyage, 349. Size: Annualtotals, 355. Regional contribution, 356. Navigation: Art of navigation, 360. Depths and bottom, 364. Currents, 366. Weather conditions, 367. Provisioning, 370.




I) Shipping movements

II) Crews

III) Sailing times

IV) Totals of ships

Weights, measures, and coinages

Dynastic tables


Dutch Sources



Search Site

Search Library Collection