Mokha: 17 & 18 Century Profile [Archives:1998/12/Culture]

March 23 1998

Prof. Kees Brouwer is a professor at the University of Amsterdam, specializing in the history of the marine economy of Yemen in general and the history of the Mokha port in particular. The period of the 17th and 18th century is of particular interest for Prof. Brouwer, who wrote several articles and authored three books about this subject.
This article is based on a lecture delivered by Prof. Brouwer on Sunday, March 15 at the Yemeni Writers Union.
The first book is about the Dutch-Yemeni relations from a Dutch as well as a Yemeni perspective. The second book is compilation of Dutch documents related to Yemen and dating back to the 17th Century. Translated into Arabic, the documents are about various Yemeni towns and cities, both coastal and in the hinterland, such as Shihr, Aden, Hodeida, Aden, Sanaa, Taiz, etc. Covered with more detail and greater interest, is the Mokha port because it had an office of the Dutch East India Company.
The third book, Al-Mokha: Profile of the Yemeni Seaport as Sketched by Servants of the Dutch East India company V.O.C. 1614 until 1640, was published in English last year. It deals extensively with the history of the Mokha port and Yemen’s ties – via this port – with India, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and other more remote regions such as Bengal, Indonesia, etc.
This 25-year period of the Mokha port’s history is quite important because it covers the end of the first Ottoman occupation of Yemen and the beginning of the reign of the Qassemite dynasty in 1635. During the 16th Century, Mokha was just a little and unimportant fishing village. The real history of the place was between 1600 and 1850, following which Mokha lost its previous international importance as a major port for exporting the famous Yemeni coffee and reverted back to being a little fishing town.
The trade through Mokha during the whole period of its flourishing has not only been coffee, but also included many other products such as chinaware, textiles from India, metals and even black slaves from east Africa. So it is a whole group of products and at the beginning of the 17th century, coffee was only a very small part of the trade passing through Mokha.
Approaching Mokha from the sea during that period, ship passengers would see from afar the mountains and the white-washed city of Mokha. It was a fantastic city with its high Minarets of the Al-Shadli mosque. This was not only an ordinary minaret, but was also a sort of lighthouse for the ships coming into the Mokha harbor, which received only small ships. Large ships had to dock at least two kilometers away from the harbor, and unload their cargoes onto smaller boats.
In addition to the small white-washed houses in Mokha, there was also a castle, the palace of the Turkish governor, and the customs house just behind the harbor platform. Buildings in the city center were nicely built with the best stones in several floors.
However, these nice houses were empty for half of the year because they were homes for traders who came from different countries. So ship captains and other traders came from India and different regions and settled for half a year during the trading season in Mokha. They rented a house and paid the Arab owner a sum for the whole year. So the house owner closed the house during winter time.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the Mokha population grew fast within two decades to become a big city with about 23,000 inhabitants – as big as some Dutch or English ports at that time. So it was a big city, but most of the inhabitants were men and a small part were women and children. The population consisted of Yemenis, Yemeni Jews, Somalis and Indians who lived there for a very long time. There were also those who came to trade, who, despite being a very small minority – 1,500-2,000 people – were the men that played important roles. They brought their goods and merchandise and the necessary capital.
Having been a real international port with so many different people in the city, there had to be a common language that could be understood by nearly everyone. So Arabic and Turkish were very important languages in Mokha that were used in dealing with the port authorities.
Sometimes, traders also used Portuguese because it was spread all over the Indian Ocean as Portugal was a great power in that part of the world. Persian was also an important language in the city, but of course not understood by everyone but some traders who could make their contacts with other traders using Persian. English, Dutch and Malayan were also used in Mokha. So Mokha was really a very important international port.
Despite Mokha’s importance as an international port, it was not very well defended. Its castle had only 20 guns, of which only five or six functioned well with a range of 600-800 meters. These guns were directed towards the sea, making the land-side of the city vulnerable to attacks from the mountains by the Imam’s army. There were only three small navy boats with one gun each patrolling the port’s coast. They certainly could not confront an attack by large navy ships.
The port was defended by the Turkish sultan and the Mogul emperor whose revenue depended on trade between their countries. So if there ever was any attack on the port of Mokha the Turkish sultan and the Mogul emperor would immediately end all trading with the European nations. Only European ships presented any danger to Mokha because Indian ships were unarmed.
A small three-masted Dutch sailing ship, for example, had at least 30 heavy guns. So one small ship could destroy the whole of Mokha in one day. But they never had the courage to do this because if they bombed Mokha, there would be a lot of conflict. There was the Turkish governor of the city, there was the immediate real reaction by Mogul emperor or the Turkish sultan. Then the Dutch would not be allowed to trade again.
There are many aspects connected with the shipping activities in Mokha. Most of the ships came from India and East Africa in March, docking at the port of the city and leaving in September.
When the ships of India went back home from Mokha, they would arrive in October. Before October, unfavorable winds would wreck these ships on the rocks at the shores of India. So when they came one day late, the wind would be blowing in the direction of Mokha, driving the ships back wrecking them at the coast of India.
The famous Arab seafarer, Ibn Majid, described exactly the dates and the times of arriving and departing. This is what all ships coming from India or Persia had to observe very carefully.