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Mocha Trade in the early 19th century

As the British extended their trade through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were a number of books written about the trade items and how to procure them at various ports. One of the most important was William Milburn’s Oriental Commerce, first published in 1813 and revised in an 1825 edition [] after the death of the author. The full text of the 1825 edition is available at There is a lengthy discussion on trade through the port of Mocha, although very little on Aden, which was not very important at the time until the British took it over after 1839. I attach below the section on trade items available at Mocha (Milburn 1825:71-77).


ACACIA, the inspissated juice of a thorny plant, growing in Arabia, and other parts:—two sorts are known, Vera and Germanica. The former is a gummy substance, usually firm, but not very dry. It is met with in round masses, enclosed in thin bladders, from four to eight ounces weight; outwardly a deep brown, inclining to black; of a lighter brown within, inclining to red or yellow. The Germanica is a juice expressed from the unripe fruit of the sloe bush, and differs from the preceding, in being harder, heavier, darker, sharper in taste, yielding its astringency to rectified spirit; whereas the other is not at all dissoluble by spirit. The Vera should have little or no smell; applied to the tongue, it should soften quickly, imparting a rough, not very ungrateful taste, followed by a sweetness. If quite pure, it dissolves totally in water; if otherwise, the impurities remain.

ACORUS, or CALAMUS AROMATICUS, (Bach, Hind. Vacha, S an.) is a reed, or knotty root, about the size of a little finger, several inches long, reddish externally, internally white, full of joints, somewhat flatted on the side, of a loose spongy texture; smell strong, taste warm, bitterish, and aromatic. They should be chosen tough, cleared from fibres, and free from worms, to which it is very subject.

ASPHALTUM is a solid shining bitumen, of a dusky colour outside; within of a deep black, found in many parts of Egypt. A thin piece appears of a reddish colour, when placed between the eye and the light. It has no smell when cold, but acquires a slight one by friction; when exposed to heat, it liquifies, swells up, and burns with a thick smoke, the smell of which is strong, acrid, and disagreeable. It is occasionally adulterated with pitch; but the fraud may be discovered by means of spirits of wine, which dissolve the pitch, and only take a pale colour with Asphaltum.

BALM OF GILEAD, or Balsam of Mecca, is a resinous juice that distils from an evergreen tree, or shrub, growing between Mecca and Medina; it is much used by the Asiatic ladies as a cosmetic. The tree is scarce; the best sort is said to exude naturally, but the inferior kinds are extracted from the branches by boiling. It is at first turbid and white, of a strong pungent smell, a bitter and acrid taste; upon being kept some time, it becomes thin, limpid, of a greenish hue, then of a golden yellow, and at length of the colour of honey. This article, being scarce and valuable, is very liable to adulteration. The following methods are recommended to discover imposition cause a drop or two of the liquid balsam to fall into a glass of clear water; if the drop goes to the bottom without rising again to the surface, or if it continue in a drop like oil, the balsam is adulterated. If, on the contrary, it spreads upon the surface of the water, like a very thin cobweb, scarcely visible to the eye, and being congealed, may be taken up with a pin or small straw, the balsam is pure and natural. Or if the pure balsam be dropped on woollen, it will wash out; but if adulterated, it will not. The genuine, dropped into milk, coagulates it. When a drop of the pure balsam is let fall on red hot iron, it gathers itself into a globule; but oil or spurious balsam runs, and sheds itself all round. The genuine balsam also feels viscid and adhesive to the fingers. If sophisticated with wax, it is discovered by the turbid colour, never to be clarified; if with honey, the sweet taste betrays it; if with resins, by dropping it on live coals, it yields a blacker flame, and of a grosser substance than the genuine. When the balsam is too thick to be taken out of the bottle, it need only be placed near the fire, the smallest degree of heat liquifying it. The bottles must not be quite full, lest they should break, as the balsam is apt to rarify. Amyris Opa-Balsamum is the name of the tree whence the balsam issues; Opa-Balsamum is the name of the juice or balsam; Carpo-Balsamum, the fruit; and Xylo-Balsamum, the wood: these are all useful.

CARPO BALSAMUM should be chosen fresh, plump, ponderous, of a hot biting taste, smell in some degree like the balsam. Hypericum is sometimes mixed with it, which may be discovered by its excess in size, vacuity, want of virtue, and peppery taste. The berries are about the size of a small pea, sharp at the end, brown, with a small stalk. Reject such as are broken, decayed, and worm-eaten.

XYLO-BALSAMUM should be chosen in small knotty rods, the rind red, the wood white, resinous, and having a scent somewhat like the balsam.

Freight is charged on Balm of Gilead at the rate of 16 Cwt to the ton.

CIVET. This substance is soft, unctuous, and odoriferous, nearly the consistence of butter, produced by an animal called the Civet Cat. They are confined in cages, and when irritated, throw out the civet, which is carefully scraped off. It is brought from the Brazils, Guinea, and the interior of Africa; it is of a dark brown colour, unctuous, somewhat resembling Labdanum, of a very powerful smell, far from fragrant or agreeable. Its principal use is as a perfume, and when genuine, is worth from 30s. to 40s. per ounce. The best is said to come from the Brazils, of a lively whitish colour, which becomes dark by keeping. If paper is rubbed with civet, and it will bear writing on afterwards, it is considered genuine.

COFFEE.—There is but one species of the coffee tree, the Coffea Arabica, supposed to be a native of Arabia; it seldom rises more than 16 or 18 feet in height: the main stem grows upright, and is covered with a light brown bark ; the branches are horizontal, the leaves when fully grown are 4 or 5 inches long, and 2 broad in the middle. The flowers are produced in bunches at the roots of the leaves; the fruit, the only useful part, resembles a cherry; it grows in clusters, and when of a deep red, is gathered. It is of an oval form, smaller than a horse bean, and of a tough, close, and very hard texture, prominent on one side, and flatted on the other, having a large deep furrow running along the flatted side. It is moderately heavy, hard to break, of a greyish yellow colour, and a somewhat bitterish taste.

Of the coffee produced in the Eastern parts of the world, that of Mocha is esteemed the best; secondly, that of the Island of Bourbon; and thirdly, that of Java.

It is impossible to ascertain, with accuracy, the quantity of coffee raised in the East Indies. It appears that, formerly, one year with another, there were annually exported from Arabia 60,000 bahars.

Coffee was never an object of cultivation worth attention in any part of our extensive territories in the East Indies, till within a few years: now some considerable plantations have been formed at Chittagong, but the produce is considered inferior to either the Java or Bourbon. It is likewise cultivated on the west coast of Sumatra, but to a trifling extent, and of a very inferior sort.

Mocha coffee is the most valuable kind, and is what is commonly called in Europe, Turkey Coffee; it is packed in large bales, each containing a number of smaller bales, or frazils, and should be chosen of a greenish olive hue, fresh and new, free from any musty smell, the berries of a middling size, clean, plump, and as free from sticks and other impurities as possible, and particular care should be taken, that it is not false packed; it is very apt to imbibe moisture, or the flavour of any thing placed near it; it should therefore not be stowed in a ship's hold, if it can possibly be avoided. Coffee imported in packages of less than 112 lbs. net is liable to seizure, and no smaller packages can be entered for exportation. The quantity allowed to a ton, is 18 cwt.

Dates are sent in large quantities from Arabia to the British settlements in India. This fruit is somewhat in the shape of an acorn, composed of a thin, light, and glossy membrane, somewhat pellucid and yellowish, which contains a fine, soft, and pulpy fruit, that is firm, sweet, and rather vinous to the taste; within this is enclosed a solid, tough, hard kernel, of a pale grey colour on the outside, marbled within like a nutmeg. They are generally left on the tree until quite ripe (at which time they are soft, and of a high red colour,) and then are pressed into pails, or baskets, until they unite together like a paste; they are then more esteemed, and become a rich sweetmeat. Those which are dry and hard, are of little value. In Persia a very excellent kind of brandy is made from dates; in many places the stones are ground to make oil, and with the paste which is left, they feed the cattle and sheep. This is practised chiefly on the Coast of Arabia, in the Persian Gulph, and at Muscat, where they find it a very nourishing diet. Dates are seldom imported from India.

Hermodactyl is the root of a species of Colchicum, growing in Turkey and Arabia, of the shape of a heart, flat on one side, with a furrow on the other; of a whitish brown colour externally, internally white; compact and solid, yet easy to cut or powder; it is about the size of a chesnut, and has a viscous, sweetish, farinaceous taste, but no remarkable smell. They should be chosen as fresh as possible, well dried, and free from the worm, to which they are very subject. This article is seldom imported from the East Indies.

JUNCTUS ODORATUS, or Squinanthum, sweet rush, or camel’s hay, is the produce of Arabia and Turkey, whence it is exported in bundles about a foot long, composed of smooth stalks, that bear some resemblance to barley straws in shape and colour. The leaves are like those of wheat, and it is full of a fungous pith: towards the tops of the stalks are sometimes found short woolly spikes of imperfect flowers, set in double rows. The sweet rush, when in perfection, has an agreeable smell, with a warm, somewhat bitter, but not unpleasant taste.

MYRRH is a vegetable product of the gum-resin kind, distilling by incision, and sometimes spontaneously, from a species of the genus amyris (Murr and Bol, Hind. Bola, San.) It is generally in grains, from the size of a pea to that of a horse-bean, or larger; the figure is as irregular as the size ; round, oblong, or contorted. These grains are of a resinous greasy substance, not hard to break; colour, a reddish brown, with a mixture of yellow; smell, strongly aromatic ; and taste, acrid, warm, bitter, though somewhat spicy. When broken, myrrh is often marked with small white semi-lunar specks. It is to be chosen in clear pieces, light, friable, unctuous, and of the bitterest taste, of a reddish brown colour: the foul and black must be rejected. When pure, myrrh will dissolve in boiling water; but as the liquor cools, a portion of resinous matter subsides. There are sometimes found among myrrh, hard shining pieces, of a pale yellow colour, resembling gum Arabic, but without taste or smell; sometimes masses of bdellium are mixed with it, which are darker coloured, more opaque, softer than myrrh internally, and different in taste and smell. Sometimes an unctuous gummy resin, of a moderately strong, but somewhat ungrateful smell, with a durable bitterish taste, obviously different from bdellium and myrrh, is found with this drug; and sometimes we meet with hard, compact dark-coloured tears, less unctuous than myrrh, of an offensive smell, and a most ungrateful bitterness, so as, when kept some time in the mouth, to provoke retching. The quantity allowed to a ton is 16 Cwt.

Rhinoceros’ Horns are much esteemed among the Mahometans, on account of their being considered a powerful antidote against poison. They are in general about 12 to 15 inches long, and from 3 to 6 inches in diameter, though sometimes (rarely) 10 inches in diameter, and near 24 inches long. A good sized horn, sound, and not broken at the point, is worth from three to four pounds sterling. At the base they are commonly of a brown or olive colour, though occasionally grey, and sometimes nearly white: they are nearly straight, having a very small curve, inclining upwards with a sharp point. The horns of the Rhinoceros have not that interior spongy substance contained in those of other animals, but are entirely solid: they are made into drinking-cups and snuff-boxes.

Rhinoceros' Hides are in great demand for making targets or shields; when prepared, they are proof against the stroke of a scimitar; they are of a variegated colour, and when polished, very similar to tortoise-shell. At Surat they make the most elegant targets of these hides, and stud them with silver-headed nails. These will fetch from 30 to 40 rupees each, and are much sought after, particularly in Arabia.

Sagapenum is the concrete gummy resinous juice of a plant, supposed to be the Ferula Persica. It is met with in drops, and in masses composed of those drops; but the loose drops are much finer than the masses. In both forms it is a compact substance, considerably heavy, of a reddish colour outwardly, but paler within, and clear like horn. It grows soft on handling, so as frequently to stick to the fingers. The larger, darker coloured, broken masses of bdellium are sometimes substituted, but may be easily distinguished by the weak smell. Sagapenum has a strong smell, somewhat of the leek kind, and a moderately hot, biting taste. Of Sagapenum 18 cwt. is allowed to a ton.

SALEP is prepared from the dried roots of a plant of the Orchis mascula (Salib misri, Hind, and Arab.); it was formerly imported from the East Indies, and held in great estimation, being considered highly nourishing. It is generally in yellowish white oval pieces, hard, clear, and pellucid, without smell, in taste somewhat resembling Tragacanth. It has the singular property of concealing the taste of salt water; hence, to prevent the calamity of famine at sea, it has been proposed that the powder of it should constitute a part of every ship's provisions. If kept dry, it never spoils. The freight of this article is calculated at 16 cwt. to the ton.

SENNA is the leaf of an annual pod-bearing plant, the Cassia Senna (Sena Mecci, Hind. Sena, Arab.), and is imported dry from Alexandria and the Red Sea of an oblong figure, pointed at the ends, particularly the one opposite to where it grows to the stalk ; in the middle it is about a quarter of an inch broad, and seldom more than an inch long, of a lively yellowish green colour, a firm texture, somewhat thick and flat; its smell faint, but not disagreeable, and its taste somewhat bitter, nauseous, and acrid. There are two or three inferior sorts, distinguishable by their being either narrower, longer, and sharp pointed, or larger, broader, and round pointed, with small prominent veins, of a fresh green colour, without any yellow cast.

In choosing Senna, the shape of the leaf should assure us that it is of the Alexandrian kind; it should be bright, fresh, of a good smell, soft to the touch, and clear from stalks and spots. That which is imported from India is in general foul, full of sticks and dirt, in the proportion of 3 lbs. of sticks and dirt to 1 lb. of leaf; if well garbled, it might answer, but the heat of the hold is very apt to injure it. The freight is calculated at 8 Cwt. to the ton.

Sharks' Fins are an article of trade from the Arabian and Persian Gulphs to India, and from thence to China; they are esteemed very strengthening by the Chinese. In choosing them, care should be taken that they have been properly cured; the larger they are, when free from decay, the more they are esteemed. In India they are generally sold by tale: each fin should be upwards of nine inches long; all under that size, reckon two for one; the price varies from three to five rupees per hundred. In China they are sold by the pecul, which contains about 500 pieces. The East Indiamen prefer carrying them on freight from India to China; they are packed in bales, weighing about 7 cwt.; and from Bombay to China the freight is about 20 to 24 rupees per bale. They are likewise prepared on the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts, and many of the islands in the Indian Ocean.

Gum Tragacanth, or Dragon, is a gum exuding from a prickly plant (Astragalus). This commodity, chiefly produced in Turkey and Arabia, is of different hue and appearance, from a pale white to a dark and opaque. It is usually in long, slender, worm-like pieces, and sometimes in roundish drops, which are rare. It is moderately heavy, of a firm consistence, rather tough than hard. It is with difficulty pulverized, unless dried, and the pestle and mortar kept warm. Its natural colour is a pale white, and the cleanest specimens are somewhat transparent. It has little or no smell, and a taste rather disagreeable. It melts in the mouth to a very soft mucilage, without sticking to the teeth, as Gum Arabic does. The most striking difference between this and the other gums is, that It gives a thicker consistence to a much larger quantity of water, and is with difficulty soluble, or rather dissolves but imperfectly. When put into water, it slowly imbibes a great quantity, swells in a large volume, and forms a soft, but not fluid mucilage: by agitation, and an addition of water, a solution may be obtained, but the gummy mucilage settles to the bottom on standing. Gum Tragacanth should be chosen in long twisted pieces, semi-transparent, white, very clear, and free from all other colours; the brown, and particularly the black, are to be wholly rejected. There is a sort of gum, which has been occasionally brought to England, resembling Tragacanth in outward appearance, but more transparent, called Kuteera, the produce, not of a thorny shrub, but of the Sterculia Urens (Roxb.,) which is not applicable to the same purposes, or indeed of any value. Of Tragacanth, 16 cwt. is allowed to a ton.

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