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The charting of the Red Sea: Sarah Searight tells how the efforts of the little-known Robert Moresby, together with the innovation of the marine steam engine, revolutionized trade and transport for the British Empire in the perilous waterway.

THE RED SEA HAS been described as a sea on its way to somewhere else. In other words its shores were not lined with valuable commodities waiting to be exported; instead it was an essential link between the two great commercial zones of the Mediterranean/ European world and that of the Indian Ocean. In the nineteenth century this treacherous sea would come to play a key role in a new era of communication between industrial Britain, with its rapidly expanding economy, and British India, with its raw materials and imperial requirements. Crucial in the development of the Red Sea route between the two countries was the harnessing of steam power, most notably in the form of the marine steam engine. But a further vital factor in this revolution in trade and transport was the charting of the hazardous waterway commissioned by the British East India Company and carried out by the little-known naval commander Robert Moresby and his colleague Thomas Elwon, both of the Bombay Marine, later the Indian Navy. Moresby, thought to have died in 1863, is a figure who has now all but disappeared from the records. But his feat in charting the dangerous waters of the Red Sea in the 1820s and 30s, ensured the route was viable for the new steam vessels.

From Suez at the northern end to the Bab al-Mandab at the southern end, the Red Sea is about 2,350 kilometres long, with an average width of 200 kilometres. At the Bab al-Mandab at the southern end it is a mere 30 kilometres wide. At the northern end it divides into two narrower waterways: the main one, the Gulf of Suez, is 300 kilometres long, the narrow, storm-tossed Gulf of Aqaba 180 kilometres long. According to the Admiralty's Red Sea Pilot, coral reefs are `more numerous and more extensive than in any other body of [equal] water'. Long strips of reef run parallel to the shore a few feet below the surface. Gaps in the reef lead to inshore channels that are sheltered and deep, and these are used by local vessels today as they were by the small-paddle steamers of the 1830s. In daylight a careful eye can distinguish reefs by in the colour of the water, though this is more difficult in summer when reefs can be confused with a brown scum of seaweed. There are also numerous coral islands, such as the Farasan archipelago off the Arabian coast near Jizan or the Dahlak archipelago off Massawa, as well as volcanic out-crops such as the Zubayr islands off Yemen.

In the early story of the Red Sea it was the winds that dictated its navigation. Between March and September, strong northerlies blow the whole length of the waterway. Only from October to March is it possible, thanks to gentler southerlies, to sail northwards and then only as far as Jiddah, on the Arabian coast roughly to latitude 36[degrees]. Jiddah, the port of Mecca, was thus the great entrepot of the Red Sea, its role enhanced by its proximity to the Muslim shrines of Mecca and Medina. On the African coast, the same wind barrier applied. Easy access between the Nile and the ports was the essential factor in the existence of several ports on the African coast from the first millennium BC.

Trade within the Red Sea was well established from the late third millennium BC, much of it in connection with the mysterious region of east Africa known by the ancient Egyptians as the Land of Punt (`land of the god'), from whence they obtained the aromatics used for mummification, as well as many other exotic products. Aden (known to the Greeks as Eudaimon Arabia `happy Arabia') was a major entrepot from the first millennium BC. From around 500 BC Egypt and the Mediterranean world began to receive their aromatics via an Arabian land route, borne on the backs of camels which travelled from the south Arabian coast through the ancient kingdoms fringing the desert. This was the route described by Herodotus in the fifth century BC and also by a succession of Greco-Roman writers. The Greeks knew of the monsoons that plagued the Indian Ocean, and initially sailed from Egypt only as far as Aden where they swopped goods with vessels from India.

The Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt used the Red Sea when importing African elephants from the Horn of Africa, initially alive for war (special boats had to be built in the harbour of Adulis in modern Eritrea), later, dead, for ivory. To avoid the ferocious northerlies, elephants and goods were off-loaded at the ports of Berenice or Myos Hormos in southern Egypt, and transported by land to the Nile. Around the beginning of the Christian era a shift of power from desert to highland in south-west Arabia coincided with the Roman focus on a sea route to the aromatics trade via Aden. Those heading northwards usually disembarked at a port on the African coast well below the Gulf of Suez, most usually Qusayr al-Qadim (established as the ancient port of Myos Hormos by current excavations by Southampton University Archaeology Department), or Berenice, and followed one of several routes through the mountains to the Nile and thence down river to the Mediterranean. An anonymous guide to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean appeared in the first century AD, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, presumed to be by an experienced mariner from its wealth of detail on winds, reefs, harbours, coastal peoples, trade and other related subjects.

The Red Sea was a major trade route throughout the Middle Ages, with Aden continuing to flourish from that east-west trade. Medieval records from thirteenth-century Yemen discuss sailing seasons as well as trade mechanics. Sailors were governed seasonally by stars as well as winds, and a substantial geographical and nautical literature existed for the literate.

Sixteenth-century Portuguese navigators, following the Cape route to the Indian Ocean from 1497, were determined to gain control from its Arab navigators of the longstanding trade of the Indian Ocean and adjacent waters. With the help of Tunisian merchants trading with India who spoke Castilian and Genoese as well as Arabic, the Portuguese must have had access to Arab nautical knowledge and in particular to that of the Arabian pilot Ibn Majid, the author of a notable mariner's guide, especially of the southern Red Sea, who is said to have piloted them across the Ocean. The most interesting of the Portuguese intruders was Joao de Castro (1500-48), whose description of the African shore, the winds and the reefs he encountered were invaluable to later European surveyors.

The Portuguese haunted the southern end of the Red Sea for several decades until they were effectively ousted by the Ottoman Turks by the mid-seventeenth century. Other Europeans--English, Dutch and French--were attracted by the potential for trade within the region, and in due course by the trade in Yemeni coffee. They based themselves in the port of Mokha--nearer than Aden to the Yemeni coffee terraces and coffee emporium of Bayt al-Fakih. Any further movement north up the Red Sea was firmly discouraged by the Turks. The northern part of the sea, and the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, were virtually unknown to European navigators.

By the mid-eighteenth century the possibility of opening communications between Europe and India was being closely monitored by European merchants in Egypt, eyeing the longstanding use of the route by local vessels. In 1778 an English merchant in Egypt, George Baldwin, used these local vessels to relay news of the outbreak of the French-supported American War of Independence to India thereby, he claimed, enabling the British to expel the French from their Indian possessions. And it was partly on the urging of Marseilles merchants based in Egypt that the French expedition led by Napoleon was mounted there in 1798, motivated by a policy to hamper British communications with India via the Red Sea route.

The French invasion of Egypt was ultimately defeated but a British expedition despatched from India in 1801 to take the French from the rear was impeded by the harsh winds and failed. The commander of this expedition, Sir Home Popham, attempted to survey the northern part of the waterway on this campaign, but the usefulness of his charts was limited by other priorities.

Up until now regular trade and communication between Britain and India had been conducted via the Cape. This was notoriously slow; the Marquis of Wellesley complained from India in 1803 that:
   ... in the present year I was
   nearly seven months without
   receiving one line of
   communication from
   England ... so that I suffered
   almost insupportable
   distress of mind. Speedy,
   authentic and regular
   intelligence from Europe is
   essential to the trade and
   government of this country.

Wellesley's complaint prompted the visiting Arthur Annesley, Viscount Valentia (1785-1863), to offer to inspect at least the African side of the Red Sea which, he wrote, had been avoided by the `moderns' despite the preference of the `ancients' for that coast. This was surely a good moment to inspect the sea, he suggested, `so soon after the British naval power had been so fully displayed on the shores of Arabia and Egypt'. Valentia focused on the lower African Red Sea, in particular the areas round the 126 Dahlak islands and Massawa, lavishly distributing his own names to the geography--Annesley Bay, Valentia Island (the mainland here was the base of Napier's expedition in 1868 against the Ethiopian emperor Theodore). His accompanying draughtsman Henry Salt provided in his subsequent account some interesting views of the area.

Such preliminary surveys were published in 1826-27 by James Horsburgh, hydrographer to the East India Company. Horsburgh's work provided a good foundation, but also highlighted the limitations of existing knowledge. By this time, the marine steam engine appeared to be racing to the rescue of British communications with India; the engine, first tested on Scottish lochs and American rivers, was by 1826 attempting the Cape route to India.

In that year a 479-ton wooden paddle steamer, the Enterprize, steamed (mostly sailed in fact) from London to Calcutta. Its progress was particularly noted by two individuals--a river pilot named Thomas Waghorn who was impressed by the steamer's steady progress against the wind up the Hooghly river to Calcutta, and indirectly by the Governor of Bombay, Mountstuart Elphinstone. A year later Elphinstone, together with the secretary of the Calcutta government and his wife, Mr and Mrs Lushington, chose to return to England via the Red Sea, sailing on a cramped little brig named Palinurus. This involved disembarking at Qusayr and crossing the desert to the Nile-in the customary four days. Mrs Lushington wrote a stirring account of their voyage, highlighting the season al problems that she hoped steam would overcome and commenting on the inadequacy of available charts: `How much pleasanter,' she wrote,
   ... to experience desert, Pharaohs,
   Sicily, Italy, than devoting five long
   months to the monotony of a voyage
   round the Cape of Good Hope, in a
   ship crowded with passengers, little
   known or too much known, and
   distracted by the mirth or
   fractiousness of numerous children.

Back in Britain Elphinstone joined Bombay's campaign, promoted by the new commander of the Bombay Marine (re-named the Indian Navy in 1832), Sir Charles Malcolm, to introduce steam to the Red Sea, which would enable boats to navigate up the Gulf of Suez against those tiresome northerlies. Waghorn and other entrepreneurs in Britain and Egypt were meanwhile working at linking Mediterranean steam crossings (already overcoming its infuriating calms) with the Red Sea via an `overland route' through Egypt. An experimental vessel, the Hugh Lindsay, was built in Bombay, powered by engines sent from England, and launched for Suez in 1829; a collier loaded with Welsh coal (sent via the Cape) went ahead, convoyed by a sailing brig the Thetis. Captained by a real steam enthusiast, James Wilson, she made it to Suez in thirty-four days but the collier was later wrecked on a reef, a fate which narrowly missed befalling the Thetis, on a reef subsequently named after her, just south of Yanbu on the north Arabian coast.

Drastic measures were clearly needed to prevent these disasters and two small brigs were made ready despite the reluctance of the East India Company in London to provide finance. One was the Palinurus, the same vessel that had transported the Elphinstone party to Qusayr in 1827, and `a perfect tub' according to James Wellsted, one of her officers. She was captained by Robert Moresby, who had gained experience from having surveyed the Laccadive Islands. The second vessel was the Benares, under the captaincy of Thomas Elwon. Each had a complement of around ten officers. Initially Moresby was appointed to the far less known northern half of the Red Sea. His base was at Suez, seen as the terminus of Waghorn's much trumpeted Overland Route, which connected the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean via Egypt and the Red Sea. Elwon was despatched to the south, but in 1833 he was transferred to the Persian Gulf leaving Moresby to complete the full survey. From 1829 to 1833 Moresby never left the Red Sea.

According to Felix Jones, chief draughtsman of the charts, `No expense was spared in fitting out the expedition':
   ... and all the surveying appliances of
   the day were provided, besides ample
   supplies of well-found boats and
   tenders ... the latter were native craft
   with Arab crews ... Arab pilots have so
   long and so often been accustomed
   to work up and down the sea that
   they may be expected to have a
   thorough knowledge of its localities.

They were only useful in coastal waters, but that was where Palinurus and Benares spent most of their time. In his Memoirs of Hydrography (1929), Llewellyn Dawson gives us some idea of the activities of the two craft: `Frequent bases, almost daily azimuths, latitudes by sun and stars observed on shore with artificial horizons and with chronometric differences'. Attention to the colour of the water, a technique learned from the locals, was crucial and only possible in daylight, preferably at midday; it could change from deep blue to green in a flash, indicating a reef below.

`This heated funnel of reef-bound sea' as Moresby referred to it, took its toll on the surveyors; `great dangers and privations were inseparable from such a service', Moresby noted. The summer months were particularly punishing when temperatures reached the high 40[degrees] and the Benares seems to have been especially vulnerable. It was rare for the full complement of officers to be functioning and Elwon himself was frequently ill. In 1833 the assistant surveyor, Lieutenant Pinching, died of smallpox off Aden where he was buried.

Moresby began his survey in the north, first in the two Gulfs and along the Arabian coast south to Jiddah, then north-south down the African coast. However, his Sailing Directions for the Red Sea, published in 1841, charts the Sea from south to north. Every detail is noted, not only reefs, harbours and anchorages but also provisions, the essential water (often awful) and fuel supplies. A fuller and more graphic narrative of the upper half of the survey is contained in Lieutenant J.R.Wellsted's account, in the second volume of his Travels in Arabia (1838). Wellsted had joined the Palinurus in 1830. The reefs were mostly surveyed from local boats with local pilots. One of them, Sarur, is particularly commended by Wellsted--`sturdy old helmsman', `admirable skill and coolness', `his grey locks streaming in the wind'--his local knowledge helping the expedition out of innumerable scrapes (the Palinurus had been forced to return to Bombay in 1830 for refitting after surveying the Gulf of Suez, while the Benares had to be sent back in 1831 in a shattered state, the leaky tub caught forty-two times on coral reefs).

Starting from Suez, as the nearest point to Cairo for those crossing Egypt by the Overland Route, Moresby worked a system of triangulation down each shore. At Suez itself he noted, `provisions are plentiful and good--oranges, pears, apples, plums in season'. And there were plenty of fine cabbages! In the Gulf there were some nasty spots whose names indicate the hazards--Moresby Shoal for instance, and Felix Jones `Patches' Another danger spot was the Daedalus Shoal at the entrance to the Gulf, which has a light on it to this day.

Moresby also surveyed the Gulf of Aqaba, a narrow deep waterway between high mountains that funnels high northerly winds. It was such winds, so frequently mentioned in the Sailing Directions, which the steam engine was supposed to overcome. The six-kilometre-wide entrance, at the Straits of Tiran, was bad enough--wrecks are strewn over the rocks there even today. In the Gulf itself on one occasion the Palinurus was blown Off her anchorage three times and only managed to stay put with fifty fathoms of chain on each of two anchors. Wellsted describes Moresby on one occasion springing up the rigging to spot reefs which everyone had declared were just wash from clashing tides; they lowered anchors to three fathoms but the vessel swung round and suddenly there was no bottom under the stem at eighty fathoms. In Wellsted's opinion four years in the Red Sea was nothing like as bad as 150 kilometres in the Gulf of Aqaba. On shore the crew helped locals repair the boats and Moresby going for a walk along the beach was accosted by fishermen whose boat had been thus mended, who insisted on his accepting a present of two sheep and a bag of dollars.

Heading out of the Gulf and down the Arabian coast a particular danger spot was Zabarga Island (also known as St John's or Emerald Island because of ancient peridot mines); Palinurus was caught in a fearsome gale and only avoided being driven on to the rocks by hooking a kedge anchor on to a hole in the reef. `An uncomfortable night was spent by all.' Moresby always records the availability or otherwise of fuel, provisions, water, attitude of locals: availability of water was sometimes dependent on their being able to roll the ship's casks to and from the source. At Yanbu (where a heavy north-west swell nearly wrecked Palinurus) water was available for a dollar for 300 gallons. (As late as 1987, despite extensive modernisation, Admiralty Pilot warns that `safe anchorage cannot be obtained at Yanbu due to considerable depths, strong northwest winds and a heavy swell.')

Onshore reception was variable. Moresby warned that `should a ship touch at any part of the Red Sea not frequented by Europeans (for water, etc.), great caution ought to be adopted, to guard against treachery from the various predatory tribes inhabiting the borders of the sea. The coastal plain had been devastated earlier in the century by Wahhabi puritan Muslims from Central Arabia followed by Egyptian invasion--none of this good news for non-Muslims. At Sharm Ghabur (sharm the local Arabic for a channel through the reefs), where Muslim pilgrims traditionally donned their pilgrim's garb, water and wood were cheap, and dates excellent, but the bedu were not to be trusted. `They were feared throughout the sea for ferocity and treachery,' writes Moresby, `so that it is dangerous to land on that stretch of shore.' There was indeed a long tradition of piracy in the northern end of the Red Sea.

The few larger ports could be identified by their minarets. Jiddah was one of these, `one of the most considerable places in the Gulf, as it had been for hundreds of years thanks to those variable winds around latitude 36[degrees], but it has an extremely complicated approach': noon was the best time to sail in `as owing to the transparency of the water, the sunken rocks appear as a dark green shadow on the water.'

In 1831, Elwon spent three days unable to enter the port while a heavy gale raged, pumps constantly going. In port were local vessels, a few Turkish vessels, eight from Gujarat and pilgrim vessels from Malaya and East Indies. Some 60,000 pilgrims arrived in Jiddah annually, on their way to the holy cities of Mecca and Madina; nowadays the Saudis handle some 2.5 million.

Further south the surveyors found Lulayyah to have an excellent bazaar and water brought into town by camels. Mokha, however, was in a state of decay; the water brackish but with a good bazaar selling sheep and local bread.

The Survey of the African coast established that contemporary sailors were right in preferring the Arabian shore. Although the African inhabitants were friendlier they were also fewer and so, therefore, were provisions. Water supplies were usually sufficient and casks could be rolled to and from sources but locals were unwilling to sell their animals. On the other hand at Mersa Shaikh Baroud, while the springs were good the road was too bad for cask rolling; it was best to ask for water to be supplied in skins, which could be carried aboard. The Palinurus surveyed the Dahlak archipelago extensively, as had Valentia and his party twenty-five years earlier, noting plentiful water supplies but little else. The archipelago guards access to the busy but tricky port of Massawa where the East India Company war sloop Nautilus was wrecked about the time of Moresby's expedition.

Moresby and Elwon were both smitten by intermittent fevers. Moresby himself returned to Bombay in 1833, exhausted by four years of surveying, while the valiant Palinurus sailed on to survey the southern coast of Arabia under Captain Haines (later the first British official in charge of Aden). Moresby, meanwhile, was sent to chart various coral islands lying across the track of India-to-Cape trade, notably the Maldives, the Chago archipelago and part of the Saya das Malha bank south-east of the Seychelles.

In 1838 Moresby's health finally obliged him to give up surveying. In 1842 he was employed by Peninsular & Oriental to command their brand new and most luxurious steamer, the Hindostan, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to Calcutta. Subsequently the Hindostan was employed on the Calcutta-Suez run, the Red Sea now made safe by those immaculate surveys.

The charts of Moresby and Elwon were drafted by Felix Jones to a scale of one inch to the mile (in the trickier parts, ten inches to the mile), and published in 1834. Two sheets of harbours, plus the Sailing Directions, followed in 1841--in time for the new, larger steamers. In 1839 Britain had acquired Aden as a coaling port, while the Overland Route through Egypt and the possibility of connecting ship arrivals in Alexandria with others at Suez meant a substantial increase in passengers and mail heading to and from India.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to a vast increase in traffic in the Red Sea and the upgrading of Moresby's work. No chart can be perfect and there are more than enough wrecks to keep divers happy for years to come. Nevertheless, Moresby's completion of the survey was remarkable when one considers the grim climate conditions, the fever and dysentery, the fatigue of being constantly on the alert for invisible reefs and the paucity of good provisions. One would like to know more about the courageous sailor, so committed to making the seas safe for others, but Moresby has disappeared from view. All we have are Felix Jones' words that `no better officer could have been chosen to conduct so perilous a work.'


Admiralty Pilot, Red Sea & Gulf of Aden (London, various editions); Lionel Casson (ed), Peri plus of the Erythraean Sea (London, 1990); Llewellyn Dawson, Memoirs of Hydrography (1929); C.R. Lowe, History of the Indian Navy (London, 1863); Robert Moresby, Sailing Instructions for the Red Sea (London, 1841); G.R. Tibbetts (tr & ed), Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the Coming of the Portugues, being a translation of Kitab alfawa'id fi usul al-bahr of Ahmad ibn Majid (reprint 1981); George Valentia (later Viscount Annesley) Voyages and Travels (London 1802-04, see esp vols II & III); James Wellsted, Travels in Arabia, vol. II, (London, 1838.)

Sarah Searight is the author of Yemen: Perspectives of Arabia Felix (Pallas Athene, 2002) and Steaming East (Bodley Head, 1991).
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Author:Searight, Sarah
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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