Books

Hashish – A Smuggler’s Tale by Henry de Monfreid

He doesn’t know what hashish is yet but is determined to smuggle it from Greece to Egypt in his small boat. A classic.

Hashish is a classic tale of adventure in daring by one of the greatest adventurers of the early 20th century. The premise of the book is a classic example of the Fool embarking on a perilous undertaking: Henry de Monfreid learns that hashish is grown in Greece and sold at great profit in Egypt. He formulates a plan to ship it legally to Somalia and then smuggle it north in his ramshackle boat through the stormy Red Sea.

But he has precious little idea what hashish actually is.

He makes the acquaintance of a Greek sailor in Marseille who seems to regard the buying of hashish as a perfectly normal activity. He gives Monfreid the address of his family in Greece who happen to own a farm in the mountains. Upon arrival Monfreid his welcomed like a long-lost cousin despite the fact that he doesn’t speak a word of Greek .

The local bishop volunteers to escort him to the farm in the mountains and all the while Monfreid is worried sick that they might palm their worst stuff off on him. To hide his ignorance he chooses to resort to an old tactic; when the farmer presents him with a sample he simply maintains a severe silence. The farmer panics and assures him that this is only his cheap quality.

“I have not come such a long way to buy cheap stuff. Bring your best at once.” He sniffs with dignity.

Honour and good merchandise thus saved, Monfreid looks into ways to avoid the troublesome Greek customs formalities. He is introduced to a sailor by the name of Caravan, who knows his ways around these things.

Never in my life have I seen such a scraggy human being; he was a veritable mummy, seeming to have no flesh at all. He later learns that this poor sailor was once accidently locked in the harem of a sultan in Turkey.

“He was so cherished and caressed by the Sultan’s 150 wives that he was prematurely and permanently exhausted.”

With his hashish safely arrives at Dijbouti, Monfreid begins a 36 day journey north to Suez against the prevailing winds. Storms batter his boat so badly that on more than one occasion all thoughts of profit vanish as the boat comes within metres of being smashed on the reef. Yet not all dangers came from the elements alone; they put to on the coast of the Italian colony of Eritrea. They argue with native soldiers and end up rowing back to their boat whilst bullet whiz around them on deck. Once more back on board the boat they let off some dynamite in imitation of a cannon to scare off the soldiers. True to Monfreid’s nature he observes:

We had a hearty laugh over our battle.

Yet the Italians didn’t take it so lightly; they imagined that a full scale Turkish invasion was underway and orders were given for the colony’s troops to be mobilised.

Upon arrival at Suez, Monfreid laments that the easy part of his voyage was now over. The elements he could rely upon to treat him honestly if severely. The negotiations that awaited him ashore, however, filled him with dread.

I should have to struggle now against cowardice, cupidity, trickery… a crooked fight amid the filth of a sewer.

His buyers attempt to rob and deceive him in a variety of ways but this is seen as quite standard behaviour. Once he negotiates these hazards and wins their respect there only remains the transit of the hashish to inland Egypt. For this the services of the Bedouin are required. The nomads are loyal and diligent when on your side but when you enemy he learns that They hold human life very cheap; their own as well as that of others….They would fid it most natural to attack a caravan, pillage it and massacre those in charge.

His ship meets the Bedouin at a deserted beach and all are on tender hooks for the passing customs patrols. The nomads use castrated camels trained not to make any sound. Once they enter in the desert, however, the danger has passed as the Bedouin choose only the most arid territory to cross; along the way they have water and grain buried in the caves – no one could follow them and not die of thirst.

His profit secured Monfreid soon becomes disenchanted with the following anti-climax.

After the dangerous play and emotions of this struggle it was going to be very difficult to settle down to humdrum coasting. To do this one has to be a wise old philosopher who has seen through the vanity of everything..

This discontent is familiar to all travellers and adventurers. Monfreid wistfully concludes Hashish with:

We carry our Wandering Jew in our hearts.