Voyage To The Cape of Spices (1877)

In 1877, French geographer Georges Revoil set out on an expedition to the Cape of Spices. CJ Cruttenden and Charles Guillain had briefly visited the region, but Revoil was the first to write extensively about his journey in Voyages au Cap des Aromates, published in 1880.

We will post translated passages of Revoil’s work in a series of posts, the first portion of which will focus on his arrival to the Cape of Spices and meeting with Yusuf Ali Kenadid.

Part One: The Arrival

Dhurbo and Bandar Murcaayo

December 31, 1877

On the 31st, we are in sight of the coast. In the fall of the night, we see Ras Orbe ( in Somali Dourboh), a small fort and village to the west a little before Bender Meraya. The high mountains surrounding Ras Orbe are covered with greenery, cut to a few hundreds of feet in height. They form a small creek at the bottom of which stand out the fortress and dwellings. We are soon in front of Bender Meraya but we decide to wait until the next day to go down to the ground.
Accordingly, the captain makes arrangements for the anchorage. From the first day it had been agreed that our two hosts would go with Abdul carrying the letter addressed by Assan Ali to Sementar Osman, Governor of Meraya. It was to our astonishment to see them reconsider this decision and to insist the captain go to anchor, the next day, in front of Guesli, a port a few kilometers to the east. We ask them rather strongly for the explanation of their conduct. They admit to us that Meraya and Alloula have been at war since Yousouf Ali, Governor of Alloula, their brother and uncle, rebelled against Sultan Osman Mahmoud and that if they descend on land, their lives will be seriously in danger.
In the view of the proximity of Meraya and Guesli, we yield to the desire of the two natives and the next morning, we cast anchor in front of the latter port.

Some Somalis dock the Adonis and, through conversation, Revoil realises that the war has still not started between Alloula and Meraya. Revoil continues:

We also send to Meraya, a letter from Mohamed beni Ali for the Governor of the latter city, Sementar Osman. Two hours later, we received the visit of the Counselor of Sementar, named Abdallah, who came to Guesli to inquire about the motive that brought our streamer to the coast, whose fires had been seen the previous night and had alarmed the population of Meraya. Abdallah is a tall man, about 45 years, gray beard, physiognomy soft and thoughtful. He listens and speaks with gravity, dignity and pronouncement from time to time, not without a certain emphasis, on a few words of English that he learned during a stay of several months in Bombay.
Abdallah recommends us not to stay too long in Alloula, because it may compromise our relationship with the other points of the Medjourtine coast. Finally, he invites us to go down where he will escort us. He has scarcely finished talking to us when  a very lively discussion then rises between him and the young Assan, with respect to insurrectionary ideas the father of the latter, brother of Yousouf Ali, had in engaging in revolt against Sultan Osman Mahmoud.
We are preceded by Abdallah and other natives who accompanied him. They lead us towards a gourbi in the middle of the village square where awaits us Sementar Osman, surrounded by warriors, to the number of about fifty, all armed with their lances and their shields. Their attitude is proud and imposing. Abdallah introduces us to the Governor, who extends the hand to each of us, while pronouncing the usual Salamalekum, telling us that we are welcome.

Revoil notes about the warriors:

During the course of this interview.. I was struck by the variety of their expressions and their character. Not one looks alike. The hair curled and falling on the shoulders, the mustache fine, the beard clear-sown, this one, despite his skin black, reminds us of our beautiful musketeers of old; his head shaved, his face beardless, his face insolent, the cynical look, that one seems to escape of our prisons. The general physiognomy of this group reveals pride and the spirit of independence.

The Voyage To Alula

On the 2nd of February, we set out for Alloula. We meet at the Ras Felek ( Cape Belmok) a quantity of dhows engaged in fishing pearls. The coast we follow is hardly hilly. It takes place on our right as a large white strip and behind the mountains arise Meraya. As we were about to double the course .. we perceived on the horizon a black line which is extending indefinitely. It is formed by myriads cormorants (graculus latter) which, according to what we know later,  are station continually in these places and all nest in Abdul Khori or on two points of the coast named Djebeur Seghir and Djebeur Kebir.
We are soon in front of Alloula. Our two passengers, Ali and Assan kneel to thank Mohammed, then leave their costumes of pilgrim to put on the large loincloth. According to their desire, we announce their arrival by wearing the Muslim flag and drawing a few cannon shots. In response, the dhows of Yousouf Ali greet us with their guns.  The young Mohamed Assan can not contain his joy. With pride, he makes us count the small flotilla of his uncle, asking us if we suppose that Meraya could fight against similar forces. A few moments after the anchorage, we are accosted by a boat mounted by some Somalis who come respectfully to kiss the hands of the pilgrims.
A second boat soon arrived. It is mounted by an Arab, mercenary of Macalla, armed to the teeth and whose accoutrement can hardly be described in order to give even a feeble idea of this singular character. Crippled in the right leg, he is wearing a turban and red skirt. At his belt he has silver sabers, daggers and dusters coral inlays, all supported by a shoulder harness in leather of the width of two centimeters, studded with silver, and to which, from distance to distance, are clasped with small pendants. This strange person holds a long rifle in his hand.
Mohamed beni Ali and young Assan take leave of us. They return about three o’clock. Two boats accompany them: in one, Mohamed beni Assan the father, with all his servants; in the other, Yousouf Ali, his brother and some soldiers. Yousouf wears a rich costume, a silk turban, black coat with golden arabesques embroidery and a silk skirt. At his belt hands a silver scabbard.  He has a revolver in his hand, the model of which are those the English police are armed with.
We testified to Yousouf Ali our desire to accompany him on land as soon as we arrived on the shore. We were surrounded by the crowd that was waiting for us… We proceed, preceded by our hosts, to the citadel, at the foot of which we take our places. All around us are Yousouf and his soldiers.
Among these, I notice some Bedouins of Macalla, praised for the war. Their hair is smooth and very long, tied by a rope of camel’s hair, torso and bare legs, around the loins a simple foutu supported by a belt. To this belt are suspended all sorts of daggers and the various accessories of their long rifles.
The night is approaching and the muezzin calls for prayer. We return to our boat. Throughout the evening, the crews of the dhows around us were constantly making their voices heard with their warrior songs accompanied by the darbouka and the tam-tam as a sign of friendly demonstration.

Have something to say? Leave your comments, questions, or suggestions below.