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  Book review

South Arabia: The ‘Palinurus’ Journals

by Jessop Hulton 

Edited by W A Hulton and privately printed, 1844. Reset, with an introduction by Carl Phillips, by The Oleander Press, 2003. Pp. xiv + 202. Illus. Maps. Bibliog. Appendices. Hb. £45. ISBN 0-906672-29-5.

The Oleander Press is to be congratulated on rescuing Jessop Hulton from undeserved, if understandable, oblivion. Hulton was one of several gifted, versatile and adventurous young men who served under Captain S. B. Haines on board the East India Company’s survey ship Palinurus in the 1 830s. Haines’ survey of the coast of Southern Arabia was driven by the Company’s requirement for a coaling station to service its steamships on the Bombay-Suez route; Jessop Hulton was witness to the brief and ill-starred invasion of Soqotra in early 1835, which preceded the decision to seize and occupy Aden in 1839; his ports of call also included Muscat, Mukalla, Aden and Mocha.

Hulton was the ship’s surgeon on three voyages 1833-1836; during a break in the third voyage, while on a journey from Mocha to Sana’a, he fell seriously sick. He died a few weeks later on board the Palinurus at the tragically early age of twenty-six.

Hulton’s journal was never intended for publication, but after his death his elder brother had a few copies printed for private distribution. From one of these, held in the British Library, the journal has been transcribed and reprinted with a valuable introduction by Carl Phillips, and a select bibliography.

Officers engaged on the Company’s nautical surveys were encouraged to gather information on the people and places which they visited; and trips ashore, away from the enforced confinement of shipboard life, offered opportunities for physical and mental recreation, and the promise of adventure, which Hulton and his fellows eagerly grasped.

In his seven-page introduction, Carl Phillips provides a biographical profile of Hulton, sets the journal in its historical context, and assesses its importance. Hulton’s interests ranged far beyond medicine, and included history archaeology, geology and natural science. As Carl Phillips notes, Hulton played a major role in the discovery in 1834 of the ancient inscriptions at Husn al-Ghurab, near Bir Ali, which made possible the eventual decipherment of South Arabian script. Phillips finally lays to rest the enduring misconception (promoted by Wellsted in his published work) that it was Wellsted, rather than Hulton and his companion, J. Smith, who first found and copied these important inscriptions. Hulton’s discovery is recorded in his journal. And it is attested by Haines who also tells us that Hulton volunteered to accompany Wellsted and Cruttenden on their celebrated inland expedition to the ancient site at Naqb al-Hajar in 1835, but that his medical duties on board the ship prevented him from going. Despite the disappointment that he must have felt, Hulton makes no mention of this in his journal, although he does record details of what Wellsted and Cruttenden reported on their return. Later in the year, Hulton refers to a breakdown in relations between Haines and ‘the first Lieutenant’ (i. e. Wellsted) which bedevilled the atmosphere on board during the last stage of the second voyage. This nearly drove Hulton to abandon any thought of signing on for a third voyage; he did so because Wellsted dropped out.

The published journal includes two papers by Hulton on the Kuria Muria islands and Ben-Ben, which reflect his reporting skills both as surveyor and medical practitioner. It also includes Haines’ valedictory tribute to Hulton in a letter of condolence to his brother, William, in which Haines described Hulton as ‘deeply and most deservedly regretted by the whole crew by whom he was beloved for his amiable qualities … he was one of the best of men.’

Something of Hulton’s personality can be deduced from a charming vignette of Soqotran family life which he wrote during his second visit to the island in 1834; in it one senses an undertone of nostalgia for his home in Preston which he had left in 1832, en route to Bombay and was never to see again:

‘It is delightful to see a numerous family engaged in their peaceful occupations and enjoying themselves together. The elder part are generally employed in weaving goat’s-hair, while the younger ones are deriving happiness from innocence itself. A family group of this description made a strong impression on me. They were seated under an ukshur tree [Hulton believed this to be Boswellia serrata], whose extended branches and dark thick foliage threw a refreshing coolness over the quiet scene. The father, he looked quite the patriarch, was composedly seated, eyeing with pride his surrounding family Next to the mother sat the youngest daughter, really a beautiful creature about fifteen, whose attention could scarcely be fixed on her task, for now and then she dropped the handful of black wool, from which she was drawing the thread, and addressed some playful words to her elder brother and sister who were more steadily engaged in preparing material from which the kunilees are woven ... The youngest child, a boy about twelve years, was busily churning, by shaking a skin-full of milk backwards and forwards. So busy were they all, that I had full time to watch them, unobserved; and when I was seen … a single word from the old man reassured them, and I stayed there a short time delighted with that scene of happiness:

Hulton’s journal highlights a brief but eventful period in British India’s relations with Arabia and the Gulf. It contains a wealth of detail on conditions of life in the region during the 1830s; and the informality and spirit with which Hulton writes make the journal a delight to read.

The book is nicely produced (with a sewn binding), but something has gone awry in the reproduction of the photographs. Unlike his friend Cruttenden, Hulton was not an Arabist, and his transliteration of Arabic names is somewhat haphazard. A glossary of names difficult to recognise, for example: 'Abuthbee’ (Abu Dhabi), ’Kissein’ (Qishn), ’Ourleji’ (Aulaqi), ’Jaffer’ (Yafa’), would have been helpful.

John Shipman