Historical Notes on the Radix Galangae of Pharmacy.

(Reprint from the Linnean Society's Journal, xiij, communicated by the author.)

In discovering and describing the plant which yields the Radix Galangae minoris of pharmacy, Dr. Hance has added an interesting chapter to the history of a substance which for many centuries has been an object of trade between Europe and the East. Galangal does not, indeed, possess properties which can claim for it the rank of an important medicine, being simply a pungent aromatic of the nature of ginger; but it has so long held a place in the pharmacopoeias of Europe, and enters into so many ancient receipts, that I need hardly apologize for offering to the Linnean Society a few notes on its pharmacological history.

Galangal was apparently unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans; at least no mention of it can be found in the classical authors. Its introduction into Europe was due to the Arabians, in whose writings it is noticed at a very early period.

Thus Ibn Khurdádbah, an Arab geographer who served under the Khalif Mutammid, A.D. 869-885, has left some information respecting China, after which he speaks of the country of Sila, which exports . . . musk, aloes [i. e. aloes-wood], camphor, . . . porcelain, satin, cinnamon [cassia], and galangal. ("Le Livre des Routes et des Provinces, par Ibn Khordadbeh, traduit et annoté par C. Barbier de Meynard," Journ. Asiatique, sér. vi. tome v. (1865), p. 294.)

The celebrated geographer Edrisi, who wrote A.D. 1154, observes of Aden, that it is the port for Scinde, India and China, from which last country are brought musk, aloes-wood, pepper, cardamoms, cinnamom, galangal, mace, myrobalans, camphor, nutmegs, cloves and cubebs. ("Géographie d'Edrisi," traduite par A. Jaubert, Paris, 1836-40, 4to, tome i p. 51.)

The Arabian physicians, from Rhazes and Alkindi, in the tenth and eleventh centuries downwards, make frequent reference to galangal as an ingredient of the complicated medicines then in use.

Among the later Greeks I cannot find any mention made of this drug prior to Myrepsus, who probably resided as physician at the court of the Greek Emperors at Nicaea in the thirteenth century; though several authors declare it is referred to much earlier. It is constantly named by Actuarius, who may have been contemporary with Myrepsus.

In a work published some years ago in Paris, entitled "Assises de Jérusalem, ou Recueil des Ouvrages de Jurisprudence composs pendant le xiiie siécle dans les Royaumes de Jérusalem et de Chypre," (Paris, 1841-43, fol. tome ii. chap. 142.) there is a remarkable list of commodities liable to duty during the twelfth century at the port of Aeon in Syria (the modern Akka), at that period a great emporium of Mediterranean trade, in which many Indian spices and drugs, including galangal, are enumerated.

We find galangal also noticed, together with ginger and zedoary, as productions of India imported into Palestine, by Jaques de Vitri, Bishop of Aeon in the early part of the thirteenth century; (Vitriaco (Jac. de), "Historia Orientalis et Occidentalis," 1597, 8vo, p. 172.) and in the "Romance of Godefroi de Bouillon," a poem written in the twelfth century, it is named as one of the rarities of the East, which the Crusaders were deluded into believing would be found in plenty in the Holy Land. ("Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Chartes," tome ii. (1840-41), p. 437.)

Marco Polo, in his travels in Asia in the thirteenth century, observed galangal to be produced in Southern China (Province of Foochow?), as well as in Java. ("Le Livre de Marco Polo" (éd. Pauthier: Paris, 1866), pp. 522, 561.)

About this period it was also known in Western Europe. St. Hildegard, Abbess of Bingen, who died in A.D. 1179, names it as galgan, and comments upon its medicinal virtues. ("S. Hildegardis Abbatissae Opera omnia," accurante J. P. Migne, Paris, 1855, p. 1134.)

Galangal is catalogued with other spices (as ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmegs) in the tariff of duties levied in the port of Colibre (Collioure), in Roussillon, in A.D. 1252. (Capmany, "Memorias Historicas sobre la Marina, Comercio y Artes de la Ciudad do Barcelona," 1779, tome ii. p. 20.)

A more interesting notice of the drug is contained in the journal of expenses of John, King of France, from July 1, 1359, to July 8, 1360, during his residence in England, preserved in the "Comptes de l'Argenterie des Rois de France." Besides purchases of sugar, mace, ginger, cloves, pepper, cardamoms, calamus aromaticus, and many other drugs, we find three entries for galangal, namely, for ½ lb. 18d., for 2 lbs. 6s., and for 1 lb. 22d. (The original entries are as follows: "Lundy VIIe jour d'octobre. Jehan Kelleshulle, espicier à St. Boutoul, pour espices prises de li pour le Roy . . . Galingal, demie livre 18d. Jeudy XIIIe de février . . . Galingal, 2 livres, 6s. Samedy XXVIIe jour de juing . . . Berthélemi Mine, espicier . . . Galingal, une livre, 22d. . . ." L. Douet D'Arcq, " Comptes de l'Argenterie des Rois de France au XIVe siècle." Paris, 1851, 8vo. pp. 218, 232, 265, 266.) As the price of gold happens to be also mentioned in one part of the account, it is easy to form an estimate of the relative value of galangal. This shows the price of 3s. per pound to be equivalent to about 10s. of our present money—not extravagant for a commodity transported from the remotest Asia to the centre of England.

In Professor J. E. Thorold Rogers' "History of Agriculture and Prices in England," there are eleven entries indicating the price of galangal in England between A.D. 1264 and 1376. The highest was in 1307, when 2 lbs. of the spice purchased for the Crown were paid at the rate of 6s. 8d. The other entries indicate the price as from 1s. 6d. to 3s. per lb.

In the fifteenth century galangal was evidently in common use for Saladinus, physician to one of the Princes of Tarentum, circa A.D. 1442-1458, reckons it among the things necessaria et usitata, which should be found in the shop of every aromatarius. ("Compendium Aromatariorum," Bonon. 1488, fol.) As might be expected, it is included in all the older pharmacopoeias and antidotaria.

Garcia D'Orta, first physician to the Portuguese Viceroy of India at Goa, and a resident in India for thirty years, is, I think, the first writer to point out (1563) that there are two sorts of galangal—the one, as he says, of smaller size and more potent virtues brought from China, the other, a thicker and less aromatic rhizome, produced in Java. ("Colloquios dos Simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da India," Goa, 1563, Colloquio 24.)

This distinction is perfectly correct. The Greater Galangal, which is termed Radix galangae majoris, is yielded by Alpinia galanga, Willd., a plant of Java; (Maranta Galanga, Linn., Sp. Pl. and Swartz, Obs. Bot.) the lesser, called Radix galangae minoris or simply Radix galangae, is derived, as we now know, from the plant which Dr. Hance has described as A. officinarum. It is the latter drug alone that is at present found in European commerce. (Moodeen Sheriff, in his learned "Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia of India," (Madras, 1869), states that in the bazars of Hyderabad and in some other parts of India the rhizome of Alpinia calcarata, Rosc., is sold as a sort of galangal; and that a species of Alpinia growing in gardens about Madras, which, conceiving it to be new to science, he has described and named as A. Khulinjan, has a rhizome much resembling the Lesser Galangal of China.)

The name galangal, galanga or garingal, Galgant in German, is derived from the Arabic khanlanjan; whether that word may be a corruption of the Chinese name liang-kiang, signifying mild ginger, I must leave it to others to decide.

Let me say a few words regarding the uses of galangal. As a medicine, the manifold virtues formerly ascribed to it must be ignored; the drug is an aromatic stimulant, and might take the place of ginger, as indeed it does in some countries. That it is still in use in Europe is evident from the exports from China and from the considerable parcels offered in the public drug sales of London. (Three hundred bags, each 112 lbs., imported from Whampoa, were offered for sale by Messrs. Lewis and Peat, 27 Oct., 1870. The quantity was not thought remarkable; and I am assured that a single buyer will sometimes purchase such a lot at one time for shipment to the continent.) The chief consumption, however, is not in England, but in Russia. (Professor Regel, of St. Petersburg, and A. v. Bunge, of Dorpat, and Mr. Justus Eck, of London, have all obligingly supplied me with information as to the use of galangal in Russia. My thanks are also due to my friend, Professor Flückiger, who, on this as on other occasions, has kindly offered me valuable suggestions.) It is there used for a variety of purposes, as for flavoring the liquor called nastoika. The drug is also employed by brewers, and to impart a pungent flavor to vinegar, a use noticed by Pomet ("Histoire des Drogues," Paris, 1694, fol., part 1, p. 64.) so long ago as 1694. As a popular medicine and spice, it is much sold in Livonia, Esthonia, and in Central Russia; and by the Tartars it is taken with tea. It is also in requisition in Russia as a cattle-medicine; and all over Europe there is a small consumption of it in regular medicine.

There is doubtless some quantity of galangal of both sorts used in India. By a "Report on the External Commerce of the Presidency of Bombay for the year 1865-66," I find that there was imported into the port of Bombay of "Gallingall" from China 520 cwt., from Penang, Singapore, the Straits of Malacca and Siam 70 cwt., and from ports in Malabar 834 cwt. Of the total quantity (1424 cwt.), 716 cwt. was reshipped to the Arabian and Persian Gulfs.

According to Rondot, writing in 1848, the trade in this drug is on the decline; ("Commerce d'Exportation de la Chine," Paris, 1848, p.98) and the statistics which I have examined tend strongly to show that this is the fact.

The foregoing notes may be thus summarized:

  1. Galangal was noticed by the Arab geographer Ibn Khurdádbah in the ninth century as a production of the region which exports musk, camphor and aloes-wood.
  2. It was used by the Arabians and later Greek physicians, and was known in northern Europe in the twelfth century.
  3. It was imported during the thirteenth century with other eastern spices by way of Aden, the Red Sea and Egypt, to Akka, in Syria, whence it was carried to other ports of the Mediterranean.
  4. Two forms of the drug were noticed by Garcia d'Orta in 1563; these are still found in commerce, and are derived respectively from Alpinia Galanga, Willd., and A. officinarum, Hance.
  5. Galangal is still used throughout Europe, but is consumed most largely in Russia. It is also used in India, and is shipped to ports in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

The American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. XLIII, 1871, was edited by William Procter, Jr. (Issues 1-4) and John M. Maisch (Issues 5-12).