Memories of Bint el Sudan

Pix Sudanese perfumes

Sudanese perfumes sold in the souk.

By Alison Bate

Screenshot Readers' Digest article

My Bint el Sudan article in Readers’ Digest Canada

My feature about my grandfather’s role in creating the perfume Bint el Sudan was published in Reader’s Digest Canada a while ago.

However, there wasn’t room to include all the info I collected during research and interviews.

Here then are more details from users of the perfume, family members, former perfumers at Bush Boake Allen, original makers of Bint El Sudan, and several others.

The view from Khartoum

Alawiyya Jamal, a Khartoum-based humanitarian officer, told me that no Sudanese wedding perfume is complete without Bint.

She adds: “While preparing for my nephew’s wedding, I found it also comes as an atomizer for everyday use. Personally it is one of my favorite smells, not only as in the perfume mix but also a daily freshener.

“The other use is that it is sprayed on broken down sandalwood for the bride and married women. It is also used on the pieces of the acacia seyal wood with white powered musk as scent. The wood makes the perfume last longer and improves its smell.

“When used with the Acacia wood, it is used to scent the house, bed covers, and for those who can not afford the sandalwood, they use it as an alternative to perfume the tobes (the brightly-colored sari-like clothes worn by many Sudanese women), dresses and cloth.”

From Pat Rigge, daughter of E.E. Burgess (my grandfather)

Her comments came after the Readers’ Digest Canada articles was published, referring to her grandfather H.A. Burgess and her father E. E. Burgess.

“The term “travelling salesmen” in Ali’s story jarred a bit. Gumpy and Grampy were always the Export Managers for Europe and the Middle East, and as such were always regarded with great respect, not only by the foreigners they entertained and knew so well and visited in their homes abroad, but by the firm, for their contacts and knowledge of foreign languages.

“I believe Daddy joined the firm and Gumpy, who was already there, at that level.

“His trips to the Sudan and Africa, down the Nile, were more buying trips than sales trips. It was Grampy’s (E. E. B.’s) expert “nose” that tracked down and chose all those exotic ingredients that W. J. Bush needed for their perfumes and other flavouring products and had them sent back to Hackney.

The iconic Bint el Sudan label

“It was his “nose” that chose the ingredients to make the perfume “Bint-el-Sudan” and he was, indeed, the creator of that perfume, and he found and photographed the three “princesses” he always said they were, from which one was chosen for the label.

“As I said, Gumpy and Daddy were always treated with great respect by everyone. They had a kind of elegant continental aura. As far as the foreigners they dealt with were concerned, the two Mr. Burgesses WERE the firm. Nobody else existed for them. The firm’s respect also extended to us, as children, when we visited the premises. We were always looked after with great attention and ceremony and at the annual Firm’s Sports Day, for which they took a whole sports stadium and was a whole-day event, we always sat in the presiding box with the Chairman and Directors.

“Daddy was the first European businessman to visit Ethiopia (see his article in National Geographic magazine).

“He loved the Sudanese people and he loved the Arabs he met in those parts and particularly enjoyed their sense of humour.”

The wedding perfume

Robert Kramer, Associate Professor of History at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, U.S., specializes in the social history of the Sudan.

He writes: “I have a bottle of Bint El Sudan in my office that I purchased in Omdurman in 1986 or 87.

I would guess that it came to be associated with weddings because the picture depicts a girl/young woman in the Rahat, a dress traditionally worn by unmarried girls (and probably since Mahdist times in the 19th century, by brides over their other clothing). i.e. I think it was marketed as “the wedding perfume” in the 20th century, whether it bore any resemblance as a fragrance to what various Sudanese ethnicities used at weddings or not.

The jewelry worn by the girl on the label resembles what I have seen worn by brides of the northern riverain Arabs (Ja’aliyin, Danagla, Shaygiyya).”

Not always topless

Modern Kenyan version of Bint el Sudan

Trevor McCauley, who held the license for Bint El Sudan in South Africa, sent me this picture of the packaging in Kenya, where the girl in the perfume label has been covered up.

He used to produce Bint in Zimbabwe and also recalls how popular it was, even in the most remote places: “Around 1993, I travelled to a very remote part of Mozambique and although there were virtually no westernized products available at that time, Bint was in the market, which consisted of a few locally fabricated tables from raw trees, mainly selling fish, millet and locally grown produce.

“The Bint had been purchased in Zimbabwe by informal traders (avoiding taxes) who carried it to the Inhassuro market in Mozambique via buses, carrying the Bint in their baggage. Inhassuro is some 1,000 kms. from the retail outlets within Zimbabwe where they would have made the original purchase.”

He notes that alcohol and non-alcohol versions are both still available.

“Whilst the oil-based perfume is aimed primarily at the Muslims, it is sold to many non-Muslims as well. It is not difficult to make perfume without alcohol, just more costly, as the dosage of actual fragrance needs to be higher than in alcohol-based perfumes. The alcohol and oil are merely carriers.”

Africa’s most successful perfume

Nicholas Evans, the IFF fragrance sales manager for Africa, writes: “Firstly I must state that Bint el Sudan and its label are a registered trademark of International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. (IFF). The brand was acquired along with several other brands when IFF purchased Bush Boake Allen (BBA) in 2000. Unfortunately much of the knowledge of the history of the perfume was lost at the time.

“The story goes that when a new employee joined BBA, a member of staff would ask them if they knew what was the top-selling perfume by bottle in the world. The new employee would naturally answer something like Chanel No.5 or another famous brand, only to be told by the member of staff that they were incorrect, that it was in fact Bint el Sudan, belonging to BBA.

“Although the fragrance was created in 1920, today’s fragrance is essentially the same except for certain modernisations mostly due to changes in raw material availability and toxicological rules and regulations.

“This is an important factor as Africa is a unique market: once a product is established, any changes in packaging, labelling or smell will result in immediate rejection by customers. This is a result of the many fake and adulterated products entering the market, Bint el Sudan is no stranger to this. From the beginning, even till today, we are at war against fake products.

“Why? Bint el Sudan is today still the biggest selling and most successful perfume Africa has ever known.

“It is packaged and distributed in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, and Zimbabwe as well as in Saudi Arabia for the Middle Eastern market.

“An average of 5.7 million bottles of Bint El Sudan are produced every year for Africa, 80 per cent coming out of Nigeria from the original W.J. Bush Company in Kano, Northern Nigeria.

“It is produced in a mineral oil base, not alcohol according to Muslim law, and has been extended into other products like body lotions, hair pomades, petroleum jelly, air fresheners, talcum powders and even soap bars.

“Bint el Sudan is not just a perfume that people use in order to just smell nice. On a continent where water is the most precious resource, perfume is needed in the sometimes long periods between bathing.

“The mineral oil is an excellent carrier for the perfume, giving it longevity for the wearer as well as helping to seal the skin against moisture loss in the hot climate and to smooth and soften the skin.

“However, Bint el Sudan is greater than just that: it is the unmistakable smell of Africa – a blend of floral odours with the emphasis of jasmine, lilac and lily of the valley, with undertones of woody notes supported by musk, amber and moss.”

Memories from the filling lines

Roger Duprey worked at Bush Boake Allen in England from 1965 to 1996, first as a laboratory chemist and later as a perfumer. He put me in touch with many of his former colleagues, many of them members of the British Society of Perfumers.

Phil Mernick worked as supervisor on the filling lines and in various other roles at Bush Boake Allen from 1966 and until the firm was bought out by IFF in 2000.

Pix Bint el Sudan alcoholic perfume

The alcohol version of Bint el Sudan is packaged in bottles like these.

He recalls that the non-alcoholic and alcoholic versions were packaged separately. “The non-alcoholic Bint No.3 was oil-based and packaged in a tall, thin 12-millilitre vial with a cork, while the alcohol-based Bint No.5 had a different-style bottle.

“When the alcoholic form was imported to Saudi Arabia, a bittering agent was added so that it couldn’t be drunk, to comply with Muslim customs.”

Mernick adds: “The U.K.-filled Bint was done in Bush days by their Potter & Moore subsidiary. Later, when that was sold to De Witt, production moved to Walthamstow and finally to Long Melford.

“More than a million bottles were filled in the U.K. every year for export to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Libya. Even larger quantities were packed in Nigeria using perfume concentrate supplied from the UK.

“There was also local manufacture at BBA sites or by BBA agents in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Liberia and Zaire. Not all these countries manufactured at the same time, many falling victim to the endemic instability of the region.”

Vince Skeels, a former colleague at Bush Boake Allen, wrote: “BES (Bint el Sudan) contained at one time many separate fragrance bases (could have been 48 intermediates), all of which themselves contained many ingredients.

“In terms of volume, BBA (Bush Boake Allen) London made something like 40 tons a year of perfume concentrate (i.e. without the alcohol etc.) and this was shipped to Bush Nigeria or Bush Ivory Coast.

“If you consider this was then diluted in alcohol at say 10 per cent, then total volume was something like 400 tons, which is huge for an alcoholic perfume. But be aware that maybe all of it did not end up in perfume (soaps etc were also produced).”

Peter Whipps worked at BBA Walthamstow from 1976 until 2001, when the site closed due to the IFF takeover. He started off as Fragrance Quality Control manager in the technical area, and later moved into the perfumery group as a technical perfumer, becoming a perfumer a couple of years later.

He writes: “As Vince has previously mentioned, Bint was originally a very complex perfume, but in latter years was simplified to make it easier to manufacture in London. I can’t say exactly what it contains now as IFF has
the formula but back in 2000 it contained the following oils and extracts:

Lemon, bergamot, orange, geranium, lavandin, patchouli, petitgrain, clary sage, clove, cedarwood & peppermint oils plus treemoss, labdanum & mimosa extracts.”

From the Bint el Sudan factory in Kano, Nigeria

Pix modern version of Bint el Sudan

The alcohol-free version is packaged like this nowadays

While researching for the article, I received a reply from the Managing Director of W.J.Bush & Co. (Nig.) Ltd.

Stephan Malaussne wrote: “This perfume is also a little bit part of my life as my father was the Deputy Managing Director of W.J.Bush & Co. (Nig.) Ltd., under the ownership of BBA London from around 1965 till 1991.

“So I used to go around the Factory in my childhood and smell all those Fragrances. After that, W.J.Bush Nigeria was sold in 1993 to an individual M.Francois A Akle who gave a second life to all the perfumes in W.J.Bush and Co.(Nig.) Ltd. In fact the Bint el Sudan perfume was down to about 250,000pcs sold in 1992, as at today the volumes are of 4.5 Million per year.

“I have been the Managing Director of W.J.Bush & Co. (Nig.) Ltd. since 1995. The Factory is quite big as we have since 1995 expanded to production of toilet and laundry soaps.”

* Related post: Bint el Sudan, my grandfather . . .and me

28 thoughts on “Memories of Bint el Sudan

  1. Pingback: 36 bottles of Bint el Sudan- Alison Bate

  2. I have Alot if any one want

    my names lubna ali am from sudan i sale a lot of sudanese perfume bit alsudan on of my coolectin any one awnt please contact me every things well be in by web soon
    my campnaey called Bitmakaly enterprice
    my contact : home 1604 421 0653
    cell:778 229 0863
    i live in vancouver bc

    Reply
  3. Valerie

    Hello! I just read your article in Reader’s Digest and enjoyed it very much. Now I wonder where I can find this perfume in the Toronto area. Wish me luck.

    Reply
  4. admin Post author

    Hi Valerie

    Thanks for this. Very kind! I’ve just received a small supply of Bint el Sudan from the manufacturers, so can send you a bottle. Will email you privately.

    Cheers

    Ali

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Where to buy Bint el Sudan in North America- Alison Bate

  6. dave

    Hello, I am interested in buying this product wholesale and any other similar products, large orders. Please contact me via the above email

    Reply
  7. Isabella Stefanescu

    I found your Reader’s Digest article while in a waiting room… It caught my eye because just the previous day I had seen an exhibition of Afrcan textiles and the response of some contemporary Canadian artists to this work. One of them, Jamelie Hassan, had a small instalation about Bint el Soudan (one could open a small wooden box and sniff the scent, among other things).

    Thank you for the article – most fascinating…

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Bint el Sudan, my grandfather. . .and me | Alison Bate

  9. mia

    hey guys to all those who want bint el sudan petroleum jelly in zimbabwe contact punchbowl quality products

    Reply
  10. ibrahim

    thank you it’s a wonderfull report but i’ve a question about the stars in the picture is it really that some times they are 5 and some times are 6 and some times are 7 ? and if so what’s the deferance . . Thanx again

    Reply
  11. alisonbate Post author

    Hi Ibrahim…I’ve just looked at the original label again, and assume you are talking about the little flowers just below the words “Bint el Sudan”. There should be six of them. Hope this helps, Ali

    Reply
  12. Pingback: Surprise in the souk | Alison Bate

  13. Pingback: My Bint el Sudan story in Brownbook | Alison Bate

  14. soniayorkpryce

    Hi Alison, I really enjoyed reading this article as it is related to me in the fact that WJ Bush was my great great Grandfather! I am fascinated by your story. I am a PhD researcher based in Australia and welcome all articles related to my family & Bush & Co. There is some fantastic stuff stored at the Hackney Archives that were rescued before the factory at Ashgrove was demolished. http://www.hackney.gov.uk or email: archives@hackney.gov.uk

    Reply
  15. Alison Bate Post author

    Hi Sonia..fascinating! I’ll email some links to articles you may be interested in….cheers, Ali

    Reply
  16. Ziad

    Hello,
    My father used to own a cosmetics factory in Freetown Sierra Leone that used to produce Bint El Sudan. As a kid I still remember spending time in the factory (Venus Factory) helping in packaging the small bottles. I wonder if you have come along any information about the factory and the product ( a picture, a label or any related item). I also remember visiting Bush Boake Allen’s office in London with my dad. The factory in Freetown used to produce perfume, powder, and other cosmetics.

    Reply
  17. Alison Bate Post author

    Hi! Wonderful to hear about your childhood days. I’m afraid I don’t have information about the Freetown factory. However, you might be interested to read the article I wrote about the factory in Kano, Nigeria for Brownbook magazine. It includes lots of pictures, too.

    It’s at http://brownbook.me/bint-el-sudan/

    Cheers, Ali

    Reply
  18. Pingback: The scent of revolution: The story behind Sudan’s legendary perfume label remix · Global Voices

  19. Pingback: The scent of revolution: The story behind Sudan’s legendary perfume label remix – Intercultural Resources

  20. Pingback: Il profumo della rivoluzione: la storia del leggendario profumo del Sudan e l’etichetta modificata dopo le proteste · Global Voices in Italiano

    1. Alison Bate Post author

      Hi Samuel

      I don’t sell Bint el Sudan myself, but can direct you to a Sudanese lady who does. I replied privately but your email address didn’t work. If you send me an email address that works, I’ll reply again.

      Reply
  21. Vincent K. Kago

    I like Bint El Sudan scent, it reminds me of the 60s as my mother would apply the powder quite often. That was during my childhood at Mombasa in Kenya and now i am a regular user of the perfume.
    When the perfume is consecrated by a priest it’s used as anointing oil in some religion hence it is believed to have strong spiritual meaning just like its scent.
    Bint El Sudan perfume is currently unavailable in the Kenya market for unknown reason unless one finds an old stock miraculously and at more than double the usual price.
    Your intervention to bring it back in the Kenyan market will be highly appreciated.

    Reply

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