Thursday, May 22, 2014

An Unsung Henna Hero: Herraouy and Henna in 19th Century France

While researching my previous post on the etymology of henna, I found a remarkable story that I knew I had to feature on this blog: the first scholar to devote a full-length academic work to the study of henna, the man who first isolated the active dyeing agent of henna (today known as lawsone) and coined the term hennotannic acid for it — the (now) virtually-unknown name of Abd-el-Aziz Herraouy. 

Every so often I come across individuals whose stories seem to jump off the page — previously on this blog I’ve featured the lives of Erich Brauer, Yehiel Haibi, S. G. Wilson, and J.B. Ginsburg, all of whom encountered or documented henna in some way. This post honours someone perhaps even more significant: a true ‘unsung hero’ of the story of henna, especially in the West. This is the story of the ordinary men and women whose stories do not (and will not) appear in textbooks; this post is offered in appreciation of their legacy and in support of “people’s history.” I apologize for its length, but I wanted to devote enough space to fully explore the history and implications of Herraouy's story.

Beit al-Harrawi, Herraouy's family
home, originally built in the
18th century, today a concert
hall for the Arab Oud House.
Abd-el-Aziz Herraouy — or in Arabic, عبد العزيز الهراوي, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Harrawi — was born to a middle-class family in Cairo, Egypt, on August 5, 1827. He likely had a typical upbringing for his time and standing: education at a state primary and preparatory school, where he would have received instruction in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and French, as well as instruction in arithmetic, geometry, history, geography, and calligraphy (Heyworth-Dunne, 1939, pp. 195-197). 

He went on to study at the School of Pharmaceutics in Cairo, and at the age of 18 Herraouy was sent to Paris to pursue higher education in Chemistry, along with his uncle, Abdelrahman Herraouy, who studied medicine. 

It was an exciting time for Egypt. In 1805 an Albanian Ottoman commander, Muhammad (or Mehmet) Ali Pasha, took control of Egypt and began a period of rapid and dramatic reforms in the military, economic, and cultural spheres, intending to turn Egypt into a modern European-style world power. His son, Sa‘id Pasha, continued in the same vein, supporting a variety of cultural and scientific endeavours, including the educational initiatives which sent Herraouy to Paris as part of the ‘modernization’ of Egypt, aiming to create a corps of educated, European-trained workers who could serve as administrators and civil servants.

Herraouy arrived in Paris in 1845, and began his studies at the Pharmacy School of the University of Paris [École Supérieure de Pharmacie]. He also had a placement in the dyeing laboratory of the Gobelins manufactory, an enormous and prestigious tapestry factory in the centre of Paris famous for supplying the royal families of France (and elsewhere) with their glorious wall hangings, upholstery, carpets, and other tapestries. I don't know whether Herraouy had a particular interest in studying dyeing or if he just happened to be placed there.
The mid-19th century was a pivotal time in the world of dyeing and fabric production. The Industrial Revolution was fueled by radical innovations in the textile industries, utterly transforming the way cloth and clothing was made, dyed, tailored, and distributed. Previously, clothing was usually made at home with locally-woven, naturally-dyed cloth; this began to shift to the mass production of ready-made clothing, thanks to factors such as new technologies in weaving and an influx of cotton from India and the Americas. Dyers and chemists searched for ways to supply the burgeoning industry with cheap, stable, and readily-available dyestuffs, and scientific research attempted to understand the workings of the traditional natural dyes used at the time — including indigo, madder, weld, logwood, and archil lichens — and whether similar results could be produced with synthetic means (Mellor and Cardwell, 1963). Synthetic dyes began to appear in the 1850s, including murexide, alizarine, and most famously, the aniline violet known as mauve, patented by William Henry Perkin in 1856, although natural dyes were still widely used until the end of the century.

Herraouy was writing at a very exciting time for chemists of colour, when the dyeing world was awash with excitement about the possibilities of using scientific analysis to further the industry’s abilities. The director of the Gobelins dyeworks at the time was the brilliant, eccentric, and long-lived chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who was a pioneer in researching the chemistry and optics of colour. His work on colour theory, demonstrating how tones of colour are affected by their proximity to each other, and his cercle chromatique [chromatic circle], a 72-segment colour wheel introduced in 1838, had a profound impact not only on industry but also in the artistic world, especially the Neo-Impressionist painters.

One of Chevreul's 'chromatic circles,' from Des Couleurs et de Leurs
Applications aux Arts Industriels
, 1864

Dyeing fabric at the Gobelins workshop,
from the 1772 Encyclopédie.
After several years studying dyeing at Gobelins, Herraouy decided to pursue something which “might enable him to do a service for his country that the current state of Egypt would readily appreciate” (Gaultier de Claubry, 1862, pg. 723), and began to work on henna, with the advice of Edme-François Jomard, the French geographer who supervised the Egyptian educational mission to Paris. 

Herraouy finished his thesis in 1862, titled: “Research toward the Natural, Chemical, and Industrial History of Henna” [Recherches pour servir à l’histoire naturelle, chimique, et industrielle du henné]. It is a fascinating document, shedding light on this unique historical moment and the complex narrative of henna’s encounter with the West. It is, to my knowledge, the first full-length academic text devoted specifically to the study of henna. It also is the only record of Herraouy’s own writing, and the very fact that he was able to leave a text is an important testimony to the world he lived in (cf. the memoir of Muhhammad Kani al-Baqli examined by Konrad, 2011).

The cover of Herraouy's thesis, 1862.
The full thesis in French can be found here; in this post I’d like to highlight some of the more interesting parts. It begins with 9 pages of lavish dedications, thanking his teachers, professors, colleagues, and co-workers. The first dedication is to Sa‘id Pasha, viceroy of Egypt, whom he thanks for his investment in educational opportunities for young students studying abroad, and declares that “having been sufficiently privileged to have been found among the number [of students], all my efforts attempt to pay to my sovereign and my homeland the debt which I have contracted to both of them” (1862, pg. ii).

He also thanks his professors, who were some of the most highly-regarded chemists and scientific researchers of the period, including Henri-François Gaultier de Claubry, Marcellin Berthelot, and Jacques Personne (pp. iii-iv). He then devotes a page to his “compatriots and friends,” his deceased parents, his uncle Abd-el-Rahman, and three other Egyptian students in Paris: Hassan Hachim, Ismail Effendy, and Mahmoud Younis (pg. v). He does not specify how they helped his thesis, but I can imagine from my own experience studying abroad that they might have had an ‘Egyptian ex-pat’ club where they kept up their Arabic, complained about the French weather, and reminisced about food from home.

He thanks Jomard (the supervisor of the Egyptian mission), and Antonio Bey Figari, an Italian pharmacist with whom Herraouy had studied back in Cairo (pp. vii-ix). Finally, he thanks Chevreul, saying that “it was in your wise lessons, and close to you, that I acquired the necessary skills to become a useful member of the [dyeing] workshop. If [my findings] one day become useful to my country, it will be due to you.” He also adds a touching personal note of appreciation (pp. x):
At the Universal Exposition of Industrial Products in London, 1851, you wanted the chromatic circle which I had executed to be featured, with my name, among the magnificent products of the Gobelins manufactory; this was a reward far superior to the value of my work, and for which I cannot thank you sufficiently.

In the introduction, Herraouy laments the lack of reliable research on henna (what else is new?) and declares that “I have undertaken this work in order to fill that gap, and also with the goal of finding an important industrial application for this shrub so widespread in Egypt; I would be happy if I could contribute to developing the trade of this substance once so prosperous, according to ancient authors, and thus add to the richness of my country” (pg. 6). The thesis itself has four parts: a compilation of botanical descriptions of henna (pp. 7-19); a history of its use in medicine, perfume, and dyeing (pp. 20-31); his chemical analysis of henna (pp. 31-38); and his experiments of dyeing fabric with henna (pp. 39-50). 

Farmer in henna field,
Upper Egypt, ca. 1938.
While much of the first two parts are quotations from other authors, Herraouy adds a few interesting tidbits about henna, presumably from his personal experience; he writes that “during the season of [henna’s] flowering, from August until October, one buys it in the streets of Cairo like one buys lilies on the streets of Paris to enjoy its scent in apartments” (pg. 21). 

He explains that there are two available varieties of henna powder: “henna of Arabia,” imported from the Arabian Gulf and sold in small leather bags for 12 piastres or 50 centimes per pound (if you’re curious, that would be about $2.30 in USD today — not a bad bargain for a pound of henna!), and “henna of Egypt,” which was ground more coarsely, sold in simple paper or fabric bags, and cheaper than henna from the Gulf (pg. 29). He notes that both come mixed with sand, Arabian henna having 5% sand and Egyptian henna having 29%, but that his experiments show that the henna itself is of the same quality and has the same dyeing power (pg. 31).

I will admit that much of the chemical analysis is impenetrable to me, and I would welcome anyone with a better grasp of chemistry to investigate it on their own. It appears that he did a number of experiments mixing henna with different liquids (water, sulfuric ether, alcohol) at different temperatures and concentrations, and reporting the different results. He found that he could best extract the colouring agent of henna by heating it with ether, then treating it immediately with alcohol, distilling it to a syrupy residue, which was then chilled and mixed again with ether (pg. 36).

Herraouy wanted to experiment more, but he notes cryptically that “pressed for time and lacking the primary material, I was not able to prepare a sufficient quantity to make a more extensive study of it” (pg. 37) — apparently he ran out of henna and was not able to have more shipped from Egypt in time. It’s an important reminder for us henna artists today, who for the most part have the luxury of having as much henna as we can afford readily available.

The dyeing laboratory at the Gobelins manufactory, ca. 1927

Herraouy believed that the colouring agent that he had isolated was a type of tannin, and suggested the name of “henno-tannic acid” (pg. 37). The thesis continues with his suggestions for using henna in the dyeing industry. Attempting to establish the different colours henna could yield, Herraouy experimented with dyeing silk and wool of various kinds: plain bleached fabrics and fabrics treated with soda ash, alum, lime, tin, chromate of potash, copper sulfate, and iron sulfate (Herraouy, 1862, pp. 39-40).

Yes, he did title a colour "goose sh*t."
To be fair, it's pretty accurate. Samples
of henna-dyed cloth, pg. 47.
Seven plates follow, with 38 little squares neatly pasted in rows demonstrating the variety of colours he achieved from light brown to almost black — labelled, of course, according to Chevreul’s colour classification system; they range from the simply descriptive, such as noisette clair [“light hazel”] or gris foncé [“dark grey”] to the more creative: cannelle clair [“light cinnamon”] ventre de biche sale [“dirty fawn belly”], merde d’oie [“goose feces”], and tête de nègre [“negro’s head”] (pp. 43-49). Despite these fanciful names, he concludes simply that “henna can serve, with ordinary dyeing procedures, to dye wool and silk a variety of the most diverse shades” (pg. 49).

He adds that he verified the stability of the colours by leaving the samples in the sun from April until July, resulting in only minor fading, and concludes his thesis with the note that “these experiments prove that not only can henna provide services to medicine with its astringent properties, it can also be extremely useful in the [dyeing] industry for its colouring power” (pg. 50).

Herraouy submitted his thesis on August 26, 1862 and it was immediately approved by the committee. His former professor, H.F. Gaultier de Claubry, gave a glowing report on Herraouy’s work at the October meeting of the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale [Society of the Encouragement of National Industry], where Gaultier de Claubry emphasized not only the quality of Herraouy’s work but its contemporary relevance, given “the increasingly numerous and frequent relations between France and Egypt, and the useful results which are the consequence for our commerce and industry” (Gaultier de Claubry, 1862, pg. 725). Herraouy’s thesis was one of seven theses considered that year for the annual Thesis Prize awarded by the Société de Pharmacie (but he did not win, the prize being awarded to Alfred Valser for his work on organic alkaloids; Baudrimont, 1863, pg. 55).

It appears, however, that Herraouy’s work would not have a lasting effect on the industry. He was, after all, fighting a losing battle; by the mid-19th century, natural dyes were already on their way out. British and German firms soon began massive production and distribution of synthetic dyes, and the use of natural coloring agents rapidly declined. While Herraouy’s work continued to be cited by chemists and pharmacists in Europe and North America, especially as henna became a popular hair dye in the early 20th century, the dyeing industry did not adopt henna to the extent that he had hoped. 

Herraouy himself returned to Egypt the following year, in 1863, where he immediately entered the civil service. He was initially employed in the Health Department (Heyworth-Dunne, 1939, pg. 261), and eventually appointed to the position of Director of the Mint [mudir dar al-ḍarb], where he was still serving in 1887 (Artin, 1888, pg. 239). According to Heyworth-Dunne, toward the end of his life he was appointed manager [naẓir] of the gunpowder factory in Cairo (1939, pg. 261). Did he continue his henna experiments? One can only imagine.

The Gobelins manufactory today.

Like Muhammad Kani al-Baqli, an Egyptian engineer and contemporary of Herraouy's, Herraouy wanted to show that he was “capable of making a contribution to… to the prosperity of the country and — more broadly speaking — to development, progress, reform, and civilization” (Konrad, 2011, pg. 183). Today the name of Herraouy is not well-remembered, despite the pioneering nature of his work as an Egyptian working with a traditional natural product, who was validated at the highest level of European academia and industry.

His work, to me, is an important testimony to the complex history of henna in the West. The myth is often repeated that henna was ‘introduced’ to the West by South Asian immigrants and ‘popularized’ in the 90s by pop artists like Madonna. This is similar to how the history of tattooing is so often reduced to the myth of “tattoos were once taboo and only for sailors and criminals, and are now becoming popular” (see Anna Felicity Friedman’s take-down of that myth here). Herraouy’s thesis demonstrates that in the mid-19th century, henna was well-known in Europe, associated with North Africa and the Arabian Gulf, and seriously considered for use in European industry for its dyeing properties.

Herraouy, it turns out, was mistaken about the chemical structure of henna; we know now that henna’s colouring agent, lawsone, is a naphthoquinone compound rather than a tannin. He bet on the wrong horse when it came to the history of the dyeing industry, and his social and political world prevented him from continuing his work as an academic and scientist.

Nonetheless, Herraouy’s work is an important cornerstone in the scientific study of henna and deserves to be more widely appreciated. When contemporary henna artists speak about “lawsone content” and “dye release,” when they experiment with comparative testing of the different stains of various henna mixes, or when they advocate for laboratory testing of henna to maintain quality standards, they are continuing his legacy, whether they know it or not. Herraouy has also become a personal hero of mine as the first author of an academic thesis on henna (to my knowledge), and his work and story is an inspiration to me as I continue to devote my academic career to the study of henna and its history. I would like to think he would be proud.

Artin, Yacoub. Monnaies du Mehdy Mouhammed Ahmed du Soudan [Coins of Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad of Sudan]. Bulletin de L’Institute Égyptien, vol. 8, 1888, pp. 231-246.
Baudrimont, Edouard. Rapport sur les Prix des Thèses, 1862 [Report on the Thesis Prize, 1862]. Journal de Pharmacie et de Chimie, vol. 43, 1863, pp. 34-55.
Gaultier de Claubry, Henri-François. Rapport sur L’Histoire Naturelle, Chimique, et Industrielle du Henné, par M. Abd-el-Aziz Herraouy [Report on ‘The Natural, Chemical, and Industrial History of Henna’ by Mr. Abd-el-Aziz Herraouy]. Bulletin de la Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale, vol. 9, 1862, pp. 721-725.
Herraouy, Abd-el-Aziz. Recherches pour Servir a l'Histoire Naturelle, Chimique et Industrielle du Henné [Researches Serving the Natural, Chemical, and Industrial History of Henna]. DPharm thesis, École Superieure de Paris. Paris: Pillet, 1862. 
Heyworth-Dunne, James. An Introduction to the History of Education in Modern Egypt. London: Frank Cass, 1939.
Konrad, Felix. “Fickle Fate Has Exhausted My Burning Heart”: An Egyptian Engineer of the 19th Century Between Belief in Progress and Existential Anxiety. Die Welt des Islams, vol. 51, 2011, pp. 145-187.
Mellor, Charles, and Donald Cardwell. Dyes and Dyeing 1775-1860. The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 1, no. 3, 1963, pp. 265-279.

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