A Voyage to Arabia Felix

A Voyage to Arabia Felix 

by Jean de La Roque. First published in French in 1715; facsimile reprint of the 1732 English translation with an introduction by Carl Phillips, The Oleander Press, Cambridge, 2004. Pp. xxiv + 396. Illus. Map. Bibliog. Hb. £45/US$67.50/{67.50. ISBN 0-906672-50-3.

Jean de La Roque (1661–1743) inherited an interest in the Orient from his father, a Marseilles merchant, who had travelled to Constantinople and the Levant in 1644 and brought back with him, in his son’s words, ‘not only some coffee but also the little moveables and equipage which he kept for his own use in Turkey [and which] passed then for a real curiosity in France…’ But by the end of 17th century coffee-drinking had become an increasingly popular pastime in Europe, and there was a growing demand for the commodity. La Roque’s orientalist studies took him to the Levant but never to Arabia, and his interest in the coffee trade and Yemen was sparked one day by a short report which he read in a local newspaper about a voyage to Mocha (1708–10). This had been organised by merchants from the Breton port of Saint-Malo with a view to purchasing coffee directly from its country of origin, by-passing the Ottoman and Indian middlemen who still dominated the trade. La Roque’s eagerness to learn more about this first French voyage to Yemen (by the Curieux and Diligent) led him to contact and debrief Godefroy de la Merveille who had taken part in it. The coffee was grown in the highlands and the main town where the harvested coffee was brought for sale was Bait al-Faqih, a two-day journey north-east of Mocha, where the French established a temporary business base before rejoining the crews in Mocha. The expedition proved a commercial success, and in 1711 a second voyage was organised (by the Diligent and Paix), returning to Saint-Malo two years later.

La Roque’s Voyage de l’Arabie Heureuse, first published in 1715, provides an account of both expeditions: the first for the most part as narrated by de la Merveille; the second drawing largely on the testimony of two Frenchmen (Major de la Grelaudiere and M. Barbier, the surgeon on board the Diligent) who, in response to a request from the Imam al-Mahdi Muhammad bin Ahmad (1687–1718) for the services of a doctor (a request which the French were quick to turn to their economic advantage), travelled from Mocha via Taiz and Jiblah to the Imam’s palace at al-Mawahib near Dhamar. They remained there for three memorable weeks (rendered on p.203 as ‘three whole years’!) before returning to Mocha.

La Roque includes a chapter on ‘the tree and fruit of coffee’ based on the observations of members of the first voyage, and an ‘historical treatise’ on the spread of coffee-drinking in Asia and Europe based on his own copious studies of the subject.

Such was the interest aroused by the book that English translations appeared in 1726, 1732 and 1742. The reprint under review is a facsimile of the English edition of 1732 which includes an account of the detention by the Turks of Sir Henry Middleton in December 1610 (not 1612 as in the title page) and his involuntary journey to Sana’a. The anonymous translator added this to the text to make the point that the English had travelled into the interior of Yemen a century before the French first arrived, and had penetrated further inland.

Yemen gradually lost its monopoly of the coffee trade as the coffee bush was successfully transplanted to Reunion, Java and Brazil. Nevertheless, a niche market for Yemeni coffee persisted and the publishers have therefore included a specially commissioned translation of a report on the coffee trade and other economic activity in Yemen by M. Cloupet, a French trader who visited Mocha and Bait al-Faqih in 1788. Cloupet mentions en passant his romantic interest in the sister of a rich merchant of Bait al-Faqih with whom he was on friendly terms; somewhat to his relief (at not having to undergo the rituals of conversion), the girl declined his proposal of marriage on the grounds that his beard was too short! De la Merveille, in his account of the first French voyage to Mocha, also digresses, at greater length, on his own ‘gallantries with the Arabian ladies.

In his authoritative introduction Carl Phillips assesses the importance of La Roque’s contribution to the historiography of Yemen and the Red Sea trade. He also presents new and interesting material gleaned from French archives on the men who sailed from Saint-Malo and the travails which they experienced in addition to those already recorded by La Roque’s informants.

The Oleander Press’s initiative in making La Roque’s classic work accessible to the general reader is to be warmly welcomed. Their edition has been printed and bound in India where the technique of facsimile reproduction has been brought to a fine art.

John Shipman

Jean de La Roque