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Carsten Niebuhr in Bombay and Surat

Anu Kumar ( is a writer and journalist based in the United States.

The lone surviving member of an ill-fated Danish expedition to Arabia, Carsten Niebuhr, wrote one of the earliest accounts of the two entwined trade cities—Bombay and Surat—by a western traveller.

In 1760, a band of very knowledgeable men—a botanist, a linguist, a physician, an artist and an ex-soldier—set off from Copenhagen in Denmark to discover Arabia. It was a most unusual expedition, to a part of the world hitherto unknown. Carsten Niebuhr was the sole survivor of what came to be called the Royal Danish Arabia Expedition. The expedition was doomed in several ways; a combination of several factors including unexpected illnesses, bad planning and not least, the failure and unwillingness of team members to get on with each other.

Some of Niebuhr’s writings (1792) of that voyage survive and his son, the equally illustrious German statesman and financier, Barthold Niebuhr, wrote an account of his father’s life, published in 1828. In the last century, the Danish writer and voyager, Thorkild Hansen, compiled the available details of the expedition into a book (1962), and the New York Review of Books in June 2017 brought out an English translation by James McFarlane and Kathleen McFarlane.

Niebuhr and the Expedition

Born on 17 March 1733 in Ludingworth, Hanover, Germany, Niebuhr was orphaned in childhood and grew up in poverty. In his early youth, he worked in the fields, and by a chance encounter with a surveyor who was measuring land, Niebuhr too became interested in the subject.

At 20, he enrolled for a mathematics degree at the University of Göttingen, Germany. Around the time, King Frederik V of Sweden and Denmark enjoyed a reputation in Europe as a patron of the arts and sciences. One of Niebuhr’s professors suggested to the Swedish foreign minister that the king send an expedition to unknown lands, especially to places known since ancient times as Arabia Felix, “pleasant Arabia,” identified as Yemen but at that time also encompassing regions within present-day Arabia, Egypt and Syria.

Niebuhr applied to join the expedition as a surveyor and geographer and was accepted. For a year and a half, he worked hard to acquire some knowledge of Arabic.

The other members of the expedition were the Swedish natural scientist Peter Forsskål; the Danish philologist Frederik Christian von Haven, who would purchase oriental manuscripts for the Copenhagen Royal Library and transcribe inscriptions he came across; Niebuhr as cartographer would measure and map hitherto unexplored areas; the Danish physician Christian Carl Kramer would research a number of medical issues; the German artist and painter, Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind, who would sketch the flora and fauna discovered and then there was the Swedish dragoon, Lars Berggren, the voyage’s man Friday.

In February 1761, the explorers left on board the Danish warship the “Grönland” and sailed from Copenhagen. Their journey took them via the Mediterranean to Constantinople, where they boarded another ship for Alexandria and Cairo. In Egypt, Niebuhr surveyed the Nile delta. His measurements and drawings were so detailed and exact that even a hundred years later, these were used in constructing the Suez Canal.

His colleague Forsskål discovered some 120 species of plants and collected seeds still unknown in Europe, while von Haven bought 72 manuscripts. Baurenfeind drew pictures of the way people lived—their tools, utensils and appliances, their traditional costumes and their musical instruments. They sailed from Suez in October 1762 and went on to Yemen, about which little was known in Europe, although numerous European ships had already docked in the port of Mocha or Al-Mokha to purchase the much sought-after coffee beans.

In Yemen, tragedy first struck. Travellers from cold northern Europe, the team, found itself helpless against the heat, the humidity and the ravages of the Anopheles mosquito. In May 1763, at Mocha, von Haven first died from malaria and Forsskål followed soon. To escape further mishaps, and to save the data they had amassed, the remaining members decided to travel eastward to India.

But in some ways, it was already too late; Baurenfeind and Berggren died on board in August 1763, while Kramer died in 1764 in Bombay. Carsten Niebuhr was henceforth left to work on his own, though he remained seriously ill for a long time with malaria himself. He spent nearly a year exploring Bombay and its environs before sailing homeward. He also spent some time in Surat.

Bombay, Almost a Perfect City

To travel unhindered in Bombay, Niebuhr wore local garb (loose cotton robes), and this proved effective. Bombay, as Niebuhr relates in his book translated in 1792, was then an island, “two miles in length, and more than half a mile in breadth” (p 388). A narrow channel divided it from another small isle called by the English, “Old Woman’s Island.” Bombay produced nothing but cocoa and rice, while on shore a considerable quantity of salt was also collected. The inhabitants were, thus, obliged to bring their provisions from the mainland, or from Salsette, a large and fertile island not far from Bombay that belonged to the Marathas.

Niebuhr writes of Bombay’s salubrious weather. The sea breeze and frequent rains rendered the climate temperate. Its air, Niebhur wrote, formerly unhealthy and dangerous, became purer once the English drained the marshes in the city and its environs.

The city was defended by a citadel in its middle that also overlooked the sea. The city had several handsome buildings; among which were the Director’s (as the head of the East India Company’s operations in Bombay was then called) palace, and a large and elegant church adjacent to it.

“The houses were not flat roofed as in the rest of the east but covered with tiles in the European fashion. The English had glass windows in their houses, while the other inhabitants had windows made of small pieces of transparent shells framed in wood” (p 390), that had the effect of making the apartments seem very dark. The harbour was spacious and sheltered. At the Company’s expense, Niebuhr learnt, two docks were hewn out of the rock, to enable two ships to anchor simultaneously. This was Bombay’s first beginnings as a sought-after port.

Niebuhr observed how the tolerance of English rule extended to people of all religions, a fact that rendered the island very populous. Its inhabitants numbered around 1,40,000 (Niebuhr’s precision for facts and numbers is apparent). Of these, the Europeans were the least numerous class. All religions, Niebuhr remarked, indulged in the free exercise of their worship, not only in churches, but openly, in festivals and processions, and none took offence at another.

Bombay was governed by a council comprising a governor called the president, and 12 counsellors, who were all merchants, except for the commander of the troops. The other employees of the East India Company were factors (trading agents) and writers (clerks) of different ranks.

Factors or trading agents were sent to interior settlements such as Sindh. The Company paid moderate salaries to its factors and directors, but they were permitted to trade on their own account in India from the Cape of Good Hope, to China, and northward, as far as Jeddah and Basra. By means of this extensive trade, “the directors were able to acquire the wealth which became the astonishment and envy of their countrymen in Europe.” However, these advantages were reserved for the English exclusively, for the Company did not admit strangers into the ranks of its merchants, though military service remained open. Niebuhr saw officers from various nations, especially Germans and Swiss.

Niebuhr noted how the coast from Bombay to Basra was infested by pirates. It might have been easy for the English to exterminate these pirates but “it was in the Company’s interest to leave these plunderers to scour the seas,” so as to hinder other nations sailing in the same latitudes. “The Indians dared not travel from one port to another, other than in convoys and under the protection of an English vessel, for which they were obliged to pay a high sum” (p 399).

Visiting Elephanta

Elephanta was a small isle, near Bombay, that then belonged to the Marathas. It was inhabited, Niebuhr wrote, by a hundred or so poor Indian families. Its proper name, he wrote, was “Gali Pouri,” but the Europeans called it Elephanta, from the statue of an elephant made of black stone, that stood on the island’s shore. This island was of small importance to the Marathas and so the English could visit it without passports. Niebuhr found the temple at Elephanta so remarkable that he visited the island three different times, to draw and describe its curiosities.

“The temple was a hundred and twenty feet long, and the same in breadth, without including the chapels and the adjacent chambers. Its height within was nearly fifteen feet, though the floor appeared higher due to the accumulation of dust, and the sediment left by the rains.” This vast structure was cut out of solid rock. The pillars supporting the roof were also hewn out of rock. The temple walls were “sculpted with figures in bas-relief and many of these figures were of colossal size; ranging from 10 to even 14 feet in height.”

Neither in design, nor in execution, Niebuhr specifies, could these bas-reliefs be compared with the works of the Grecian sculptors, but they were greatly superior to the remains of ancient Egyptian sculpture. Yet, he had little hope of obtaining any information from the island’s current inhabitants. “For they were simple folks who believed that strangers visited the island one night and raised this edifice by the time day broke” (p 410).

The headdress on some female figures was usually a high-crowned bonnet. Niebuhr observed also a turban on some statues. He also noted at several places, the image of the famous “Cobra de Capella,” a sort of serpent, that the inhabitants treated with great reverence. The smallest of the chapels had the sculpted figure of the God Gonnis (Ganesha), then still in a state of neat preservation.

The rest of the temple was in a state of utter neglect and haunted by serpents and beasts of prey. One did not dare enter without first firing several rounds of ammunition to scare them away.

Surat’s Peculiarities

Niebuhr went on to spend a few weeks in Surat. The common language was Persian, though Portuguese had come to be the language of commerce and business. The English counsellor at Surat had to announce, via the firing of a cannon, the “Mussalman festival of Bairan”—something that Niebuhr found unusual. He describes the various castes in Surat, the most proliferate being the “Hindoo Baniyas.” There were other groups, such as the Persians, Armenians, Jews and Georgians (from Georgia in Central Asia). He noticed the people’s predilection in announcing their wealth from the state of their palanquins and horse-drawn carriages, locally called “gharris.” Niebuhr bemoaned the presence of fakirs and wandering mendicants on every street, many of whom would refuse to vacate a house’s precincts until the host made a token payment in alms.

Learning from Travel

On his return journey, Niebuhr lingered for a time amongst the ruins at Persepolis in Iran, destroyed by Alexander the Great in 332BC. Painstakingly, he copied in detail the numerous inscriptions he found there. He also visited Shiraz, Babylon, Baghdad, Mosul, and Aleppo. Till he reached southern Europe, he travelled like a man from the Orient—he dressed in their manner, he prepared and ate his meals in their ways, and he slept on a carpet which he always carried with him: reasons he later attributed for his surviving the voyage.

On 20 November 1767, Niebuhr arrived in Copenhagen after a journey that had lasted almost seven years. To Niebuhr’s credit, he saved for posterity the work of his fellow traveller and botanist Forsskål that can be found at Copenhagen’s Botanical Museum and in the Zoological Museum. Baurenfeind’s drawings were released in a book of illustrations that accompanied Forsskål’s zoological and botanical descriptions; his drawings of jellyfish remain the finest of their kind.

After his return, Niebuhr spent nearly 10 years publishing the results. In 1772, his Description of Arabia appeared in print. French and Dutch translations were published in his lifetime, and apparently a condensed English translation came out in Edinburgh (1792). Niebuhr died on 26 April 1815, aged 82. The University of Copenhagen’s Institute for Oriental Studies is named after Carsten Niebuhr.


Hansen, Thorkild (2017): Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition 1761–1767, Trans James McFarlane and Kathleen McFarlane, New York: New York Review Books.

Niebuhr, Carsten (1792): Travels through Arabia, and Other Countries in the East: Volume II, Trans Robert Heron, Edinburgh: R Morison and Son.

Updated On : 5th Mar, 2018


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