Project Canterbury

The Captive Missionary
Being an Account of the Country and People of Abyssinia.

By the Rev. Henry A. Stern.

London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1868.

Chapter II

Theodore Triumphant--His Conduct towards Egypt--France and England--Social Condition of the Empire--His Hatred of the Egyptians and Turks--He imprisons the Viceroy's Ambassador, and is unappeased by the arrival of another Minister from Egypt--Arrival of Consul Cameron and M. Lejean--Imprisonment of the French Representative--Consul Cameron's return--Theodore's Hostility to the English is excited--Success of the English Missionary.

Theodore had gained his object, and was now sole ruler of Abyssinia. His army, which exceeded 150,000 fighting men, was devoted to his interests, and implicitly obedient to his will. "I am the barea (slave) of the king" rang through the air from morning till evening, and from evening till morning, and often enough interspersed with adulations so extravagant, that they degenerated into horrid blasphemies.

The incense of adulation so profusely offered before the shrine of the sable Moloch, inflated his pride and fed the devouring flame of ambition that was burning and flickering in his insatiable heart. Egypt he grossly insulted, and perhaps the Viceroy would never nave condescended to notice his coarse effusions, much less have honoured him with an embassy, had not [27/28] consular pressure made itself felt in the councils of that most conciliatory power. England he treated with a little more deference on account of the projected embassy which, under the guardianship of Consul Plowden, then a hostage in his power, was to visit the Court of St. James's. Towards France he openly avowed an intense hatred, and if he could have caught his former friend, Monsignor de Jacobi, he would have resented on him and his companions the sins they and the government whose protection they claimed had committed in his eyes. His foreign policy was not more crooked and perverse than his internal civil rule. Under the pretext of love to his people and solicitude for their welfare, he perpetrated with impunity the most atrocious deeds.

Nobles of renowned pedigree, and hereditary chiefs of powerful clans, for real or imaginary crimes, were, without trial or investigation of the charges alleged against them, put to death, their property confiscated, and their families distributed as slaves amongst favourites or a new-created aristocracy. The terrors pervading the upper classes found no responsive chord in the heart of the lower orders. The peasantry were weary of the incessant conflicts between rival chieftains, and the fate of those who had again and again disappointed their expectations did not concern them, so long as their harvest was unmolested, their homes secure, and their persons protected. Taxes, grievous [28/29] and most exorbitant, which were imposed upon them, they willingly paid, as experience--bitter experience?--had taught them that it was more advantageous to be subjected to the spoliation of one than of scores of oppressors. Here and there a district sought to assert its claims to a just and legal taxation. An appeal to law they knew was useless, since the king was above all law; and to submit to a perpetual grinding taxation, they felt was ruinous. In this emergency, they had recourse to the chiefs of their clans, or, rather, the lords of the land, and these were only too glad to encourage a rising against one far beneath them in origin or possessions, but who, by tact, energy, and daring, had swung himself into the seat of their ancient kings. Theodore, by the rapidity of his movements, and the slow proceedings of the insurgent leaders, generally nipped these outbursts of dissatisfaction before they could take deep root and effloresce. This was the case with Grerad, the murderer of Consul Plowden, who, together with sixteen hundred followers, was nominally immolated to the manes of his victim, Consul Plowden, and the outraged dignity of Britain, but, in reality, to the vengeance of the king, and the mortification of the many disaffected proud nobles. A rebellion in Tigré, under Agow Negusee, could not be so easily quelled; but duplicity and craft, blended with artful promises and bombastic proclamations, combined to secure the tyrant's triumph. [29/30] The punishments inflicted on the rebels and their abettors were unparalleled for their atrocity and brutality in the annals of Abyssinian history. Godjam, which had partially raised the standard of rebellion, was cowed by the feeble resistance of the rebels in the north-eastern provinces, and, in their dread of the royal vengeance, many deserted their chief, Tadlo Qualou, whilst those who adhered to him sought refuge on the inaccessible Amba Tshcbella.

Having thus by his own indomitable energy reduced the jarring elements of disorder, and diffused the blessings of peace and unity over a realm hitherto torn and distracted, he ought to have forestalled, had he possessed the requisite prudence, all future troubles that cast their ominous shadows over the present calm aspect of the discontented provinces. This he could have accomplished without weakening his power or creating any formidable foes. The peasantry, ground down by crushing taxation, without venturing openly to express it, longed for a relief from their heavy burdens. To modify the imposts without diminishing the rabble hosts that swelled, but did not strengthen, the ranks of the army, would have been an impossibility. "Let the people perish; if I hare troops, I can gain new countries and fresh subjects," was his response, whenever any one ventured to broach such a delicate topic. Besides his ambition for territorial aggrandizement, there rankled in his heart a deep [30/31] burning hate against the Egyptians, and that merely .because, half a score years before, they had inflicted so terrible a lesson on the impotent reasserter of Abyssinia's ancient domain. For the disastrous defeat of the 16,000 Ethiopians by 800 Bashe-Bezouks, the Egyptian government was not responsible, since Kasa himself, and not the governor of the Soudan, was the aggressor. This, however, the arrogant monarch would not admit, and day after day, and week after week, his rankling hostility against the Turks assumed more and more the form of a passion that seemed to absorb all his thoughts and feelings. The Viceroy did all that was consistent with his dignity to pacify a savage, unscrupulous neighbour. He dispatched to his court a most flattering embassy, represented by no less a personage than the Copt Patriarch, the acknowledged successor of St. Mark, and the Supreme Pontiff of the Abyssinian Church. Unfortunately, the successor of the apostle loved the aromatic weed of Latakia; animadverted a little freely on raw, reeking collops; censured, perhaps, in too severe terms the mode of life adopted by his spiritual children; and in many other matters gave offence, and brought upon himself the wrath and indignation of the monarch whose favour he was sent to conciliate. These assumptions the proud Theodore could not allow to pass unpunished, and the unguarded Patriarch, together with his subordinate, the Aboona Salama, had both [31/32] to do penance for their common indiscretion by five days' durance vile in an Abyssinian camp prison. Of course, his Majesty found numbers of apologisers for his harshness towards the representative of a friendly foreign power, and among these the few Europeans in the country were not the last to raise their voice. A Turkish ruler to send a Christian ambassador? What indignity! What insult! What contempt! Unfortunately, weak Egypt listened to the bawling of interested sycophants and selfish courtiers, and Abdul Rachman Bey, an orthodox Mahomedan, was dispatched with presents worth more than £10,000 to retrieve the errors of his impolitic apostolic predecessor. Alas! alas! for political acumen. This genuine, true, and faithful follower of the Prophet was addicted to what all good Moslems are addicted, and this the immaculate Theodorus deemed an offence worthy of the most condign severity. Poor Abdul Rachman Bey pleaded, and pleaded justly, that the morals of Egypt were superior to those of Abyssinia, and yet the "Effendina" did not subject a man to a prison, or mulct him in a fine if he indulged in greater excesses than his neighbours; and that, in particular, foreign diplomatists enjoyed in this respect the greatest immunity and the greatest privileges an exalted personage could possibly desire. The king's ear was deaf to all arguments, and the representative of Egypt had to repair to the well-known "Hotel des [32/33] Ambassadeurs," at Magdala. The English Consul, who had in the interval fallen a victim to a rebel's lance, escaped certain impending troubles, whilst the tyrant, robbed of his victim, adroitly applied the disappointment to his advantage in his direct and indirect intercourse with the British Government. Trance--glory-loving, progress-loving, idea-loving France--stimulated by a desire to emulate British influence in north-eastern Africa, immediately dispatched a consul with presents and a most courteous bland letter to the sensitive Negoos, who cherished an old grudge against "la grande nation," on account of the support extended to the late Tigré rebel. M. Lejean, the representative of the Emperor, who reached the Abyssinian coast a few months' later than Consul Cameron, his English confrere, met with the wonted courteous reception. The proud barbarian, admired by England, courted by France, wooed by Egypt, sought by Austria, and honoured and complimented by Prussia, began to believe that if he could not claim to be the real Prester John, or Solomon, he was certainly a being equal, if not superior, to these historic personages. Confident in his exalted position and fancied invincible power, he boldly burst the barriers which had hitherto restrained his impetuous temper, and threw aside the garb of sanctity which had disguised his true character. The veil of decency once cast aside, the hero, whose praise had so long been the theme and glory of [33/34] an enslaved people, daringly defied the opinion of men and the laws of God. Vice was henceforth rewarded, and virtue, such as Abyssinians can exhibit, punished. Deeds the most revolting were no longer subject to legal investigation, nor crimes the most heinous censured by royal lips. Every passion found an apology, and every atrocity a plea. The camp, heretofore, comparatively speaking, the purest spot in the land, was deluged with a polluting stream dark as night and black as hell. Provinces were pillaged, villages burnt, and thousands of defenceless people indiscriminately butchered. M. Lejean, to his horror, discovered that the atmosphere of the court of Theodorus was too hot for his French constitution, and, confiding in the wide-spread fame of his imperial master, he humbly craved permission to seek a more genial clime. The request was peremptorily denied, and its reiteration visited with strong and massive manacles. The missionaries of the London Jews' Society and the Scottish Church, during the whole of this stormy period, continued unmolested at their post in Genda. Schools were established, Scripture-readers engaged, itinerating tours initiated, tracts written, books translated, catechumens instructed, and other efforts for the enlightenment of the people, and the regeneration of their benighted land, were carried on without interruption or impediment.

An ominous dread--the prelude of coming troubles [34/35]--now and then clouded our visions, and imparted a pall-like tinge to our sunny views. During an interview with his Majesty in Dembea--when he had just chopped off the hands of two loitering soldiers, and inflicted the giraff on his faithful Asash Gabrio, the governor of the province--he was serious, but not sullen; taciturn, but not morose; nay, on inquiring whether I could visit the lowland province of Armatgioho, he politely rejoined: "You can go where you like, and if you want grain, money, or anything else, let me know, and you shall be supplied."

The impending catastrophe, though postponed, was, however, sure to come at last. In June, 1863, Consul Cameron came back to Abyssinia. His Majesty, on being informed that he had returned without a reply to the letter he had entrusted to him for her Majesty the Queen, was indignant, though he tried to conceal the wound which his pride had sustained. In his interviews with Consul Cameron--at which some, if not all, of the missionaries were generally present his conversation, bland as it was, betrayed that, beneath the soft words that fell so smoothly from his thin lips, there lurked a tone of asperity which all his craft could not effectually conceal. There was a calm, but the heaving of the under-current prognosticated to the experienced eye the approach of a storm. The mission-premises, on which Consul Cameron resided, quite unnoticed hitherto, now became the subject of severe [35/36] animadversion. The houses--though merely thatched conical huts--were too large, and their number--though limited to only seven, inclusive of a chapel and a school-house, too great. In fact, it was obvious that we had incurred his Majesty's displeasure, without being conscious of the cause. The spot we occupied, the houses we inhabited, the converts we made, the people we employed, and the schools we founded--all, all, as I heard from the Aboona, who had his spies around the king, were regarded with suspicion, and denounced as unlawful. Take care! take care! was the primate's admonition on July 3rd, 1863, that your people do not divulge to the Negoos the number of the proselytes or catechumens that you have gathered from among the Falashas! This intimation--kind, generous, and affectionate as it was--fell on my ear as the death-knell of our mission, and the funeral-note of our buried hopes. My only object now was to improve the brief period that we were still tolerated in disseminating over the troubled land those heaven-born truths which, even in the absence of the living teacher, if blessed from on High, could make those mountains and valleys redolent with a fragrance far more sweet than that of its scented shrubs and aromatic herbs. That such a period was approaching, unmistakable signs palpably indicated. A power invisible had touched the hearts of many, and awakened a responsive chord. There was now seen [36/37] what was never witnessed before, a thirst for the Divine Word, a yearning for Christian instruction, and an honest, confiding trust in the foreign teacher. I had wandered over many a tract, district, and province where the voice of the messenger of glad tidings had never fallen on fond, listening ears; but wherever I roamed and wherever I strayed--on the verdant plain, and on the picturesque mountain slope; in the sequestered wood, and beneath the isolated shady tree--every spot became a centre of attraction, and every retreat a temple for converse and communion with troubled, agitated, and alarmed truth-seeking fellow-men. The day of salvation had indeed dawned, the shadows of unregeneracy had indeed fled, and the morning of joy and praise was about to break over this region of sin and this home of spiritual night, when events fraught with anguish, affliction, and despair, marred our hopes, and disappointed our most hallowed anticipations.

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