In his later years, the vigour King Shaka of the Zulu was renowned for was deserting him. Since his mother’s death his commands had become even more contentious and erratic. No crops to be planted. Any pregnant woman should be killed along with her husband. Also to be killed was anyone insufficiently grief-stricken. To top it all off, his hair was was getting thin and grey. For a man who’s military conquest was based on energy, stamina and most of all mobility, many saw this as signs that he was losing it. His enemies were circling. But there was a solution, and to obtain it he traded parts of his kingdom for a life-time supply. What was this mystery revitalising substance? It owed its existence to Fourth Anglo-Dutch war, the introduction of the romantic ‘windswept’ look to the fashionable gentlemen of London, and the bedding rituals of newlyweds in Celebes…
The Fourth Anglo-Dutch war wasn’t a huge affair, although it did span the globe. It was a side offering during the American War of Independence with the English and Dutch largely engaged in fights over trading interests in the East and West Indies. The Dutch had decided to join the First League of Armed Neutrality which was an alliance of European power who were strongly opposed to the Royal Navy boarding their ships to search for anything or anyone that might have been French. As the Dutch were supplying the French with arms and supplies and the British were therefore rather keen to search their ships, the British saw the Dutch joining as a move that might antagonise the other powers in the League (Russia, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden). Not wanting to fight against all of that lot as well as the French, Spanish and the Americans, the British declared war on the Dutch pre-emptively providing some possibly manufactured evidence that the Dutch weren’t really all that neutral after all. As the Dutch only had 20 ships, the war was very one-sided and largely resulted in the British over-running many of the Dutch trading posts around the world. To end the war, the Dutch were forced to allow the British free trade at all of their ports, one of which was Makassar on the island of Celebes (now called Sulawesi).
While all of this was going on, a revolution was taking place in London. A revolution in hairstyles that is. Wigs were out. Very much associated with the French court, the essential elaborate hairpieces that had dominated high-end men’s and women’s fashions for the bulk of the 18th century were flung on the fire in favour of a far more dashing and romantic look. The recently introduced tax on wig and hair powders only hurried the rush to ditch the wig. The Brutus cut was in. Wild, untramelled, windswept. Men combined this with mutton chops and sideburns of magnificent proportions to create that noble manly look beloved of Jane Austen adaptations. Now that their natural hair was one show, the well-groomed man about town needed hair products. Pomades and unguents to maintain their hair’s elegantly arranged impression of having recently been exposed to a storm at sea. A liquid preferably, to avoid the powder tax. Given that the preponderance for wigs for the decades preceding, such products were not common in the market place. There was a gap for a clever barber with a taste for the exotic.
And where more exotic that the East Indies? Where ylang-ylang flowers with aphrodisiac qualities were strewn upon the beds of newlywed couples the first night of their betrothal, as described by Margaret Mead, and whose Dutch trading ports had ever so recently been opened to British trade thanks to that short war. Ylang-Ylang is a tree that grows all over the islands of south-east Asia. It’s custard-apple fruits are the major source of food for the pigeons and doves of those countries. The flowers have a marvellous fragrance described as having deep notes of rubber and custard with bright hints of jasmine and neroli. How could it fail to be an aphrodisiac with a perfume like that? It also contains methyl benzoate which drug-sniffer dogs are trained to identify as cocaine, caryophyllene which drug-sniffer dogs are trained to recognise as cannabis and linalool an alcohol which can relief stress in rodents. This was all too much to resist for Alexander Rowland, a London barber with contacts in Makassar. He imported palm oil fragranced with the essential oil of ylang-ylang, called it Macassar Oil and sold it as the best oil for affix a gentleman’s hair in the style of his choosing.
Alexander Rowland had risen from apprentice to freeman of the Worshipful Company of Barbers to operating as barber in the Grays Inn Road. His final move was to The Thatched House Tavern in St. James’s Street, noted hub of the dandy and the gentleman’s club. The Thatched House Tavern itself hosted the Dilettanti Society in room lined with portraits of its notable members including Francis Dashwood, Joshua Reynolds and David Garrick. These were men who had been on Grand Tours round Europe and further afield. They were the jet-set of the late 18th century. Many of their portraits would be sporting hair artfully cut by Alexander Rowland from his premises in the Tavern. His clientele were the finest and most fashionable gentlemen of London, his charge for a trim was 5 shillings. An outrageous amount for the standards of the time. His Macassar Oil likewise became the hair treatment for gentlemen of discernment.
Alexander’s son, also called Alexander took over the family trade in the next century. He also took on the import and distribution of Macassar Oil, finding new ways to promote and sell it to an ever expanding audience. he wrote and well circulated tract entitled ‘A Practical and Philosophical Treatise on Human Hair’ which purported to be the cutting edge of knowledge regarding hair and its nature, and also happened to recommend the liberal application of Macassar Oil to prolong the life of hair, restore its natural colour and to promote the growth of hair on heads that had previously more richly thatched. By the second decade of the 19th century, Macassar Oil was well known throughout Great Britain and its colonies. It was claimed that it had annointed all the crowned heads of Europe. It was one of the first nationally promoted products with advertisements appearing in newspapers from London to Edinburgh, increasingly marketed at women as well as men. Such was the ubiquity of Rowland’s product, the antimacassar was invented to protect soft furnishings from the oily smears the heads of sitters deposited. They are still in use today. In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, Alice meets the White Knight who recites a poem the name of which is called “Haddocks’ Eyes”. In the poen, the White Knight claims he is responsible for creating some of the ingredients in Rowland’s Macassar Oil while repeatedly falling of his horse.
Such was the fame and the claims of Macassar Oil that King Shaka was willing to trade his kingdom so that he might enjoy its revitalising benefits. Unfortunately he was assassinated shortly afterwards by his half-brothers. His corpse was dumped in a grain pit and covered with stones. The location of his grave has never been discovered. What became of his supply of Macassar Oil is not related.