“Do you dare to wear it?”
– 1974 advert for Bint el Sudan perfume
By Alison Bate
It was my last day in Khartoum, the dusty desert capital of Sudan. I lay spread-eagled on my bed, trying to keep as cool as possible, and planning the day ahead.
I’ll visit Omdurman Souk, I decided, follow on my grandfather’s trail. After all, it was thanks to Grampy and his “expert nose” that I was in Africa at all.
The original Bint oil perfume (non-alcoholic)
Omdurman is Khartoum’s sister city, and I first heard the name from my globetrotting grandfather. It was on one of his trips that the perfume Bint El Sudan was born, after a meeting with Omdurman merchants. It quickly became the best-selling non-alcoholic perfume in the world.
Eric Burgess, known in the style of the times as E.E. Burgess Esq., was a traveling perfume salesman for W.J. Bush & Co. of Hackney, East London.
His mission? To sniff out new markets for exotic perfumes. Like his father before him, Eric Burgess started at the company as a youngster and stayed with Bush for 50 years. It was a family tradition: his grandfather and great-grandfather also traded in chemicals of some kind. And as an export manager and buyer, he travelled all over Africa, the Middle East and Europe, often in very remote areas.
“He lived at a time when you could have real adventures,” his younger daughter Elizabeth – my Mum – recalled.
As a young child, she remembers him flying in a small plane over their garden in Kent, waving a large white hankie out the window as he headed across the English Channel on yet another long trip.
I grew up listening to my grandfather’s travel tales at his home in Kemsing, Kent – the cozy English village he lived in for 60 years.
NOTE: A shorter piece, “The Bint Factor”, was published by Reader’s Digest Canada in December 2009)
Grampy’s home was full of elephants: ivory tusks carved with a row of elephants; book-ends with ivory elephants at each end; and a carved wooden elephant stool on the landing near the top of the stairs.
His wife Ann died when I was only eight, so my memories are of him living alone, but very comfortably, in the same grounds as Auntie Pat, Uncle John and our cousins Simon and Roger.
Travelling with my grandfather in France
Even in retirement, Grampy dressed immaculately in a jacket, long-sleeved shirt and tie, waistcoat, carefully creased trousers, braces and well-polished leather shoes.
He’d tell of his adventures with an infectious chuckle, bushy eyebrows twitching, glasses at the end of his nose, and a cigarette with a full inch of ash wedged between his fingers.
My brother Tony, sister Gill and I would watch fascinated, wondering when the ash would fall off, as we listened to how he’d had to shoot a man in Africa or helped toss a dead thief off a train.
Grampy told one of his stories in the company’s Albright magazine in February 1965, shortly after he retired.
Journeys overseas took months in his early days, sometimes more than a year, and he was a regular on the Continental long distance trains. Late one night in the Balkans, he was in a sleeper when he heard a noise in the corridor:
“I left my compartment and saw the attendant bending over a fellow lying on the floor. Apparently the guard had caught him stealing, the thief had drawn a knife and the guard had shot him,” he recalled.
“I asked what he was going to do about it and he said quietly: ‘Give me a hand to shove him out’ – and we did, out of the window”.
In another interview, this time with The Sunday Times of London, Eric Burgess recalled an unplanned six days in the desert.
“We crossed the desert from Damascus to Baghdad in a fleet of Cadillacs with enough food for a week in case we got stuck with the rain coming. But we reached one patch of mud 25 yards across and it took us two hours to get through it.
“We all fell flat on our backs and I arrived in my office in Baghdad covered in mud. I caught sight of myself in a mirror and, good heavens, I realised I hadn’t got a tie on.”
Grampy (right) riding in Africa
In Africa, he travelled on mules, horses or walked on foot. Dressed smartly in a jacket, tie and pith helmet, armed guard in tow, he’d visit the markets, tribesmen’s huts or little shops, tracking down new essences, exploring and opening up new markets for the company, and returning to collect new orders.
Bint is born
It was on one of his early expeditions that Bint was born, after Eric Burgess set out for Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Sudan in 1919 with several large leather cases and a strong trunk, tightly strapped.
As he told it, one blazingly hot day a group of 14 Omdurman merchants “looking like brigands” crowded into the small office used by the company representative in Khartoum.
After squatting on the floor and drinking several cups of thick strong coffee, as was the custom, they produced a large number of exotic essences, including jasmine, lilac, lily of the valley, musk and amber.
They asked my grandfather to use them to make the perfect perfume for Muslims. Strict Muslims don’t touch alcohol, so the perfume had to be oil-based, a more expensive process.