There were nearly as many foreigners as Arabs in Muscat, and probably more in Mattrah, which was the commercial capital: Hindu and Persian merchants and shopkeepers predominated in the suks, where each trade tended to monopolize a particular street or quarter of the bazaar; there would be a ‘street of the silversmiths’, a ‘street of the spice-sellers’, a weavers’ and a shoemakers’ quarter. Indian paper rupees were the currency in Muscat and Matrah, but in the interior only silver Maria Theresa dollars — in which we paid our troops — or gold were acceptable. Baluchis, too, were numerous in the town, their wives and daughters colourful in bright red, blue or green, with smiling, uncovered faces, in happy contrast to the veiled, black-draped Arab women.
Black features and colouring were not uncommon among the inhabitants, usually a legacy from the slave trade. Although, as I have mentioned, there were still slaves in the bodyguards and households of the Sultan and nobility, they were well-treated — unless they ran away and were caught, in which case they might be whipped or put in shackles — and many were freed by their masters and rose to be rich, or even powerful; at least one of the Sultan’s walis had started life as a slave. Under a curious survival from one of the earlier treaties, if a runaway slave could reach the British Consulate and clasp the flagpole in the courtyard, he became free. My most accomplished bugler was one of these; a bewildered Consul General had turned him over to me, and he served us well and cheerfully for several years until one day he deserted — to turn up later as the leading trumpeter in the Bahrain Police Band, at a much higher rate of pay.
Although both Muscat and Mattrah were good deep-water anchorages, neither had dock facilities or even a pier where ships could unload; liners and cargo boats had to stand out in the bay, while their passengers and freight came ashore in lighters. The little ports teemed with sailing craft of all sizes, from the hollowed-out tree trunks known as ‘houris’ to the ponderous ‘booms’ and ‘sambuks’ that plied up and down the coast; there were the fleets of dhows which traded with Zanzibar, waiting for the seasonal wind to blow them down to Africa, where they would remain until it changed to blow them back again. Once a week a big British India liner would call on its way between Karachi and Basra; this was an important social occasion, as were the visits we received from frigates of the Royal Navy, whose officers would come ashore in smart pinnaces to see the town and drive out to lunch with us at Beit al Falaj. The floor of the harbour at Muscat was littered with old Portuguese cannon, clearly visible through the crystal water — dumped there perhaps by the last garrison before they surrendered in 1660. Another chapter of history stared at us from a cliff face near the harbour entrance, on which were painted in huge white lettering the names of warships and merchantmen which had visited the port since the latter years of the eighteenth century. ‘My visitors’ book,’ the Sultan would call it, boasting to the few Englishmen who were ever allowed to meet him that Mr Midshipman Nelson had commanded a painting party on that cliff when his ship, Seahorse, had called at Muscat in 1775.
Facing the waterfront, which was only a few hundred yards long, were the British Consulate, the Customs building, and the square palace of the Sultan, which he never visited in my time, preferring the cool ocean breezes of Salalah, some 600 miles down the coast — one of his gravest mistakes and probably his costliest. This palace, according to legend, was built on top of the old Portuguese cathedral, whose vaulted columns form part of its foundations. These fine buildings, gleaming white above the deep blue harbour, were overlooked on either side by two great stone forts — Mirani on the north, Jalali on the south — both built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.