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 IX

Jan Meeda--Unappreciated Scenery--Strange Companions--Warning Beacons--Descent into the Beshilo--A Feast of Air--Makerer in Trouble--Ascent to Magdala--Forewarning Symptoms--Amba Home--Change of Manacles--Precautionary Measures--Prisoners' Wives--Prison Life--New Dormitory--Limited Space--Nocturnal Squabbles--Sunny Visions Eclipsed--Theodore's Perfidy--Destructive Foray.

On the 8th we quitted Debra Tabor, the goal where we had confidently imagined that our manacles would be removed and our captivity come to an end. Our first place was Jan Meeda, the spot where the late Copt Patriarch, the ambassador of the Viceroy of Egypt, was incarcerated by the artful barbarian, whose smiles and suavity ought never to have duped a white man. Here Mr. Waldemaier, en passant, paid us a flying visit. He did not alight from his horse; and the noble steed, as it stood, neighing and stamping the ground outside the fence in which we were shut up, conjured up to our minds visions of freedom and liberty that made the irons burn like fire around the wrists. From this to Magdala is about a hundred and fifty miles, which a native can easily [193/194] perform in five days; but although we were mounted, it still took seven days to traverse that distance. The mountains, valleys, and deep ravines clad in bright verdure, and exhaling at the slightest breath a balmy fragrance, would, under ordinary circumstances, have ravished the senses; but suffering had dimmed our sight, and thrown a funereal pall over these matchless scenes. Villages and hamlets we saw very few; the puissant King had, since his accession to the throne, changed the aspect of these lovely regions, and transformed plains and slopes, once the abode of comfort and plenty, into wilds and deserts where the lion, leopard, and hyena roam unscared. Our party, which, since the departure from Begemeder, had considerably increased, did not much tend to beguile the fatigue and toil of the route. About a dozen criminals, almost all of whom were in a state bordering on in puris naturalibus, with long, heavy, wooden forks around their necks, are not exactly the companions a European in Africa, even in the greatest emergency, would ever dream of being obliged to have for associates, much as he might pity their lot; but the mighty name of Britain, respected as it is through the known universe, constituted no palladium, even to a consul, in the lawless realm of the boasted descendant of Solomon. Our fellow-criminals, for such, whether justly or unjustly, they were "reputed to be," experienced [194/195] even still harsher treatment than their white companions, and once, after halting, to our horror they had to form an acquaintance--only a slight acquaintance--with the torturing rope.

The Alpine ranges of the Wollo Galla, extending in fantastical and shapeless masses far beyond the verge of the horizon, grew more and more conspicuous on our approach to the flat-topped rock that was the limit of our journey. Blazing watch-fires, those primitive beacons to proclaim the advance of the foe, in eddying clouds rose high in the air, giving the whole scene the aspect of an active volcanic region. Descending 3,500 feet, we crossed the Beshilo, which, after its junction with the Djid-dah about thirty miles further south, debouches into the Abai, or Blue Nile. From thence the road lay through a shady defile, flanked on both sides by lofty ranges, which shut out from view every object except the nebulous sky, which, in pity to the worn-out prisoners, tempered the flaming rays of a tropical sun. Gradually the road widened, and a chaos of gigantic piles, heaved up by a terrible convulsion, in majestic confusion stood out in bold relief towards the southern horizon. Threading along a succession of almost perpendicular ascents, we at last reached a broad, grassy terrace, sheltered by the refreshing gloom of Nature's mighty ramparts; and here, to our delight, we were ordered to dismount. Our servants, [195/196] who had some provisions, not having yet arrived, we were reduced to feast on the pure air, which in fragrant gusts was wafted from the Galla heights across our camping-ground. Mrs. Rosenthal, who was more provident in her ménage than her neighbours, kindly sent us a tin of coffee, which, like the loving cup, circulated from hand to hand till it was drained to the very dregs. The following day we remained encamped, and then once more mounted our mules, to scale the steep sides of the lofty Amba. By oversight or design, the guards brought us only seven instead of nine mules, which caused a brief delay in our departure. Basha Sena--the commander of a thousand--a diminutive café-au-lait coloured Abyssinian snob, impatient to quaff the good old hydromel, which was profusely dispensed on the royal fortress, took umbrage at this detention., and, raising aloft his formidable stick, he rushed on the poor white prisoners, and dealt several heavy blows on the back of M. Makerer, who was accidentally the nearest. The mercurial temper of the old French soldier caught fire at this unprovoked violence, but the chain, and the many hundreds, nay thousands, of barbarians around us, reminded him that, under certain circumstances, discretion is valour; and so, pulling his companion fiercely along, he merely growled forth, in a voice hoarse with stifled passion: "If I die in this miserable country, I shall [196/197] transmit the name of that villain to my brother!" Climbing about 1,000 feet more, we came to Salamige, a dell hemmed in to the west by a flat-topped rock, called Salasie; and another, opposite to the south-east, bearing the distinguished name of Amba Magdala. On this spot we found all the state prisoners, in number about two hundred, awaiting the royal mandate to proceed to their isolated Amba home. Placed between files of troops, clad in their holiday garbs, many a painful spasm shot through the heart on reflecting on the past, and in contemplating the future. A group of chiefs in their flaunting rainbow-coloured shirts now came running towards us, and instantly the whole party was in motion. Many a sinister, black visage was turned upon us, and many an ill-boding sentence was uttered against us, as we were driven through a narrow gap up into the dreaded fortress. That his Majesty had been bragging about his European captives, was evident from the deportment of the wild hordes; and this idea, which was uppermost in the minds of a few of us, did not tend to soothe the agony of the lacerated heart. Grasping and panting, we at length emerged out of a rude, strong gateway on the summit of the Amba. Again a short halt was ordered, and then once more all hurried forward, towards a collection of sugar-loafed huts--the dwellings of his Majesty's court. All, in a twinkle, lay prostrate in [197/198] the dust; but the profound obeisance, instead of meeting a response, remained unnoticed amidst the boisterous shouts for arackee. The malefactors and their servile guards paused; but, as the Negoos indulged in his orgies, we were driven on to our lodging--the prison.

Exiled to an isolated rock, in the midst of a strange people, and in an inhospitable land, our position compelled us to banish all vain regrets in which sorrow loves to indulge. Impatience might have increased, but could not mitigate, our misery; and visions of a happy past would only have deepened, and not softened, the gloom of the terrible present. We were prisoners, and, with all the energy we could muster, we struggled against the troubles and difficulties of our sorrowful existence. The great object which, on nearing our Amba home, engaged our thoughts was the place where we should be confined. In the camp and on the march we had, if not a real tent, something of an apology for one; but now we were to be stationary, and the question naturally enough suggested itself to every one--"Where will be our home?" The common gaol, surrounded by a thorny fence, contained only two circular-shaped huts, and these, it was evident, would barely suffice to accommodate our two hundred fellow-prisoners, even if the fifty who occupied them on our arrival had their vainly-cherished hopes [198/199] of liberation verified. Intently we watched the proceedings of the chiefs, who, in undeviating order, handed their important charge over to the Amba authorities. Rulers of provinces who had unsuccessfully fought for their independence took the precedence; next followed hereditary chiefs of districts; then obnoxious governors, suspected military commanders; and finally common rebels, thieves, murderers, and all sorts of rabble. The poor Frendjoj, as the lowest of the low, held by their chains, were last of all led through the rickety but well-guarded door. Lik Maquas Gedana Miriam, the commandant of the Amba, and a relation of the king, [In April, 1867, he was arrested, and died, fettered, in the royal camp at Debra Tabor.] gave us a contemptuous glance, on being consigned to his care, and then hurried off with all the great chiefs to announce to his drunken master that the prisoners were all landed, lodged, and safe in the gaol. It is said that there is no pleasure without an admixture of pain, and no sorrow without an ingredient of comfort. This experience taught us during our first night's residence in our new convict settlement. We were vexed and irritated that white men who had committed no offence should be condemned to herd with a lot of hardened native criminals in the cold open air. The account, however, which the [199/200] occupants of the houses gave us next morning of their night's rest removed all soreness and heart-burning, and we were more than content to be ranked with the basest of King Theodore's subjects.

In the afternoon the royal blacksmiths and their assistants came to the gaol, and began their pleasant task of hammering on the foot chains, which on the journey had been removed. Some of the old prisoners on the Amba had fetters both around the wrists and the ankles, which made us fear that this double torture would also be inflicted on the new batch of convicts. Our apprehensions were groundless. His Majesty had not yet entirely thrown off all restraints, and become that merciless fiend into which he degenerated a few months later. He had still a great part of the country, and a large army, whose fidelity he was loth to forfeit by any wanton acts of cruelty towards chiefs who, though they were prisoners, had many powerful friends and numerous adherents. It is true he might have been indulgent towards the incarcerated aristocrat and severe towards the plebeian, but as this would have proved an odious and questionable distinction, all, indiscriminately of rank and crime, had the fetters wrenched off the wrists, and shackles fastened around the legs. The operation occupied three complete days, and even then the task would not have been accomplished, had not [200/201] a band of volunteers aided the sweating royal blacksmiths.

The arackee and tedj in the royal cellars during this interval diminished considerably; and till the new brew was dry, to use the technical term, it was deemed advisable to chastise the turbulent Wollo Gallas, and to quell a formidable insurrection in Shoa.

It was on the morning of November 25th, 1864, that the army quitted the environs of Magdala. His Majesty started a few hours later. Immediately on his departure a herald proclaimed, close to the gaol, that no prisoner was to have more than one servant, and that all the rest were to quit the Amba without delay. This precaution was quite requisite to ensure the safety of the fortress. At Tschelga, where all the great political prisoners were before incarcerated, assisted by their followers, they created a mutiny during the preceding year; and had they not stupidly set fire to the houses, and so roused the surrounding country, all who were brought to Magdala might have made their escape. To forestall a similar contingency, every one was restricted to one female servant, who had to attend to all her master's wants. Those who were what in Abyssinia is designated married, "could have their wives in a hut outside the prison compound, but it was enjoined that they were to [201/202] be no servants, nor to perform any menial work--an order which only a few strictly obeyed. Poor women! their existence on that rocky fortress deserved the deepest commiseration. Exposed to the maltreatment of cross husbands and brutal guards, their physical and mental sufferings must often have wrung with anguish their keen and sensitive hearts. Many would, no doubt, have gladly severed the slender ties which bound them to that arid Amba; but there was written over that home of sighs and grief: "Those that enter here never leave again."

The departure of the king removed the air of depression which had rested on our prison, and all looked, if not content, yet resigned. Condemned without law, and incarcerated without any hope of release, the majority of these victims of tyranny and oppression tried more or less, according to their means, to mitigate their hapless condition by procuring those comforts which their circumstances permitted. Thus, some immediately commenced building huts; others prepared the favourite hydromel. Here sat a group busily engaged in mending their tattered rags, which the journey had not improved; and there squatted a half-score nimbly plying their fingers to unmat their bushy wigs, ere the detestable layer of butter glittered and sparkled on the stiff-twisted plaits. We tried to imitate the example of our companions; [202/203] and whilst some procured materials to build huts where they might pass the day outside the prison, the rest, myself among the number, improvised an awning, which we attached to the eaves of the prison, and there whiled away our time in converse with Ethiopia's most notorious vagabonds and ruffians.

The daring character of the houseless criminals frightened the guards, and, after many consultations--for without counsels and joint responsibility under the suspicious rule of Theodore nothing could be attempted--it was decided to erect another house for the night accommodation of the unsheltered and dangerous class, to which we belonged. With horror we saw the heaps of poles, sticks, and bamboos swell before our eyes. It was bad enough to be in the narrow compound of our uncovered, foul prison, but to be shut up in a close hut, and to be compelled to inhale a pestilent atmosphere, appeared to us the acme of misery. We spoke to our guards, and in most coaxing terms entreated them to exempt us from the horrors of the new dormitory. Two kindly promised to befriend us, but the rest justly remarked: "The Negoos charged us to guard your person, and not to watch over your health and comfort. If you die we shall not be blamed, but if you escape we lose our heads." It was of no use to represent to them that we had [203/204] no wings to fly out of the Amba, nor claws to climb over perpendicular precipices; they dreaded our skill, and neither entreaties nor arguments were of any avail. In a week the house was finished, and a little before sunset all, not already domiciled, were driven pell mell into it.

Our native companions and associates, in anticipation of a scramble, installed themselves in their different places early in the afternoon, long before the usual hour for muster; and the close quarters they occupied gave us a glimmer of hope that the densely-packed hut, which rendered every accession to its numbers impossible, would be more gracious to us than the guards. We were deceived. Crowded in every nook and corner, the eight Frendjoj, despite all protestations, had to squeeze themselves in among the heaving and fighting, the squabbling and shouting mass. We were now eighty-one prisoners, in a house scarcely large enough to accommodate, with anything approximating to comfort, a fourth part of that number. McKelvey, whom we emphatically designated "L'enfant terrible," gave the key note of a boisterous altercation. "Tabaguee be Janehoi mout" ("Guards, by the death of the king") give us a place where to lie. The embarrassed watchmen did not dare to close their ears to such an adjuration, and indisposed as they appeared to be, they had to attend to the summons. "Move [204/205] your vile carcase, you murderer; get up, you rascally thief; draw up your knife-doomed legs, you cowardly deserter!" resounded far above the hum and din of the fettered throng, from the stentorian throats of half a dozen tabaguees, accompanied by the rattle of the long, knotty sticks, that fell discordantly on the chains and skulls of the unyielding, closely-wedged crowd. By dint of menace and blows, a small space was at last cleared, which enabled us to squat down. We had now to arrange the position in which we intended to sleep. This was indispensable, to obviate a disagreeable collision.

- Some thought that rational beings invariably slept on the right side; others, on the contrary, maintained that since they first opened their eyes to the light of day they had always slept on the left. A little discussion, however, settled this difficulty, and all unanimously agreed to follow the example of the majority. The intention was good, and had it merely depended on immobility, our comfortless nights might have glided on in perfect harmony. Unfortunately, now and then one or the other got tired of that forced method of repose, and, forgetful of the conditions imposed, veered round and rolled on his angry, and sometimes half smothered and gasping neighbour. These incidents produced a little hilarity, but did not effectually [205/206] mar our unity. Such, however, was not the result of an accidental encounter with the slumbering groups at our feet. Accustomed to a putrescent atmosphere, and indifferent about future contingencies, the poor fellows grunted and snored on their hard stone pillows as if they reposed on beds of down. Disgusted with the discordant noise and the crippling posture, the restless Frendjoj would now and then, to obtain a little comfort, stretch their limbs beyond the legitimate limits of five feet. Instantly there was a shout and a protest, the rattle of clanking fetters, and the sound of a hammering stone. Knocks and kicks, threats and abuse, in boisterous confusion, reverberated through the dimly-lighted prison. In a few minutes the shackled combatants were hors de combat, and, at the intercessions of friends, ready to conclude an armistice, which restricted the skull and feet of the belligerents within proper bounds, if not for ever, at least till dawn of day. A fortnight we had endured the horrors of this swarming, suffocating, and loathsome dormitory. During this interval we became intimate with most of the guards, which removed their apprehensions about our supernatural skill; and we obtained full permission to sleep under the awning outside the gaol. This favour was highly appreciated, and, when we had the means, substantially acknowledged. Our hours, [206/207] days, and weeks, if not broken by an occasional squabble or some other disagreeable exhibition, glided on in wearisome and unrelieved monotony.

Like our native comrades, we often imagined that our shackles would speedily drop, our prison open, and the captive exile hasten away to freedom and home. The sanguine and imaginative Ethiopian, more than the cool, deliberate, and reflecting Frendjoj, was always building castles in the air. For months and months delightful sunny pictures, never, perhaps, to be realised, danced before his eye. Suddenly a whisper circulated through the crowded huts, which shaded every face, and imparted an air of desolation to the careworn, swarthy countenances. The messenger of evil had arrived, and, without any previous intimation, hint, or warning, the deluded "prisoners of hope" were dragged away in dozens, and hurried--for the king's behest must be promptly executed--shriffcless and unprepared, into eternity. Frequently did I hear the guilty and innocent dilating, in glowing colours, on the future, when lo! and behold! instead of thongs and poles to wrench off the heavy irons, there gleamed over their devoted heads the sword and spear--the symbols of their woeful doom. Such sad and harrowing sights damped the ardour of the courageous, and filled with dismay the timid. An ostentatious indulgence in meat, drink, and even dress, which before [207/208] many delighted to display, was thenceforth carefully avoided; and expensive shamas, even if they were the reward of former services, as well as an exhibition of hydromel jars, for a long time after did not annoy the eye of the envious. Seriousness wonderfully increased; the saints quickly rose in estimation; and prayers, in Ethiopic, a language not understood, were, day and night, chanted. A few months without any alarm or panic restored the wonted confidence and serenity. Pleasing shadows once more played on the dungeon's dingy walls; joyous prospects once more loomed in the distance; the conversation, if not gayer, became more animated; the hydromel cup circulated more freely; and most, as if infatuated, gave themselves up to dreams of liberty, rank, and power, utterly forgetful that the sword of an unsleeping vengeance was still suspended over their guilty or innocent heads. A rumour that the king was coining, an order for more weighty chains, or the seizure of an aristocratic prisoner's concealed property--nay, even the torture of one or more of the greatest miscreants, produced an instantaneous change of sentiment, demeanour, and language amongst the medley crowds huddled together in that disgusting gaol. I was myself intimately acquainted with prisoners of rank who, if they had been free, might, in a short time, have raised forces enough either to support or to defy the despot's tottering power; [208/209] yet these men, whose very name precluded the remotest chance of their ever regaining, under Theodore's rule, their forfeited liberty, were so regardless of the symptoms which forewarned them of their approaching doom, and so wrapt in fanciful contemplations of battle-fields, victories, and triumphs, that they did not perceive the dangers which thickened around them, till the mutilating knife dimmed their sight and terminated their mortal career. Hallucinations like these might have been taken for madness, had it not been a well-known fact that the ruthless tyrant had obtained an almost undisputed influence over the captive and free, who had alike to dread his ire and vengeance, his blandishments and winning smiles.

The sad history of Imam Ahmadee, and his ill-fated companions, strikingly illustrates the fascinating power the tyrant exerted to inveigle the unsuspecting and confiding into his treacherous net. In the year 1856, shortly after the complete subjugation of Shoa and its southern dependencies, a few Pagan and Galla districts, King Theodore, the crowned ruler of Ethiopia, turned his victorious legions towards the fertile plains and well-stocked pastures of the Wollo Gallas. The proud, martial, and bigoted followers of the pseudo-Prophet, confident in their valour and the unfailing flight of their spears, smiled at a foe who, in his march southward [209/210] on Shoa, had not dared to linger on their wide-spreading plain, where, as they presumptuously imagined, their well-trained war-steeds might have trampled in the dust his undisciplined robber hordes. Theodore, by his emissaries, encouraged an illusion which he knew would be their ruin. The war in Shoa was successfully terminated. Hailu Malakot, the king, had sought safety in flight; but, ere he gained the appointed refuge, toils and cares, grief and despair, put an end to his chequered and unhappy career. "Forward to Jerusalem" was the command that now rang along the serried lines of the victor. Amazed and bewildered, the mute chiefs stared at each other in wondering surprise. "March on!" shouted once more the herald's stentorian voice; and, ere the echo had died away, several great military chiefs, weltering in their blood, lay stretched by the tyrant's spear close to his stamping feet. The Aboon, the true friend of the people, rushed out of his tent, and, with an uplifted cross, adjured the king not to touch a man. "Monk!" vociferated the exasperated monarch, "do you wish the cross for ever trampled in the dust, the Saviour's sepulchre for ever defiled, and David's city for ever in the infidel's accursed possession?" "No, let us fight," responded the politic Pontiff; "but do you, and not these men, lead the van." The crafty Theodore perceived that his artful trick to excite the ardour of [210/211] his forces against the hated Mahomedans, which had already cost several lives, was suspected by the Aboon; and, to forestall an exposure that might damp their enthusiasm, he called out, "My father is right. Let us crush the infidels at home, before we precipitate ourselves on those abroad." Almost spontaneously--and I heard it from the bishop's own lips--every face was turned in the direction of the fated provinces. The doomed tribes, unconscious of the destructive tempest that was brooding over their quiet and peaceful homes, pursued their usual occupations.

It was Tekemt, October, the second month in the Abyssinian spring, that the royal army quitted the lovely, verdant plains of Shoa. The season was propitious. Pastures and meadows, hills and dales, were all smiling in beauty, and blooming in a rich and abundant harvest. Not a field could be seen that did not wave to the balmy breeze its shocks of wheat and barley; not a mountain slope that did not exhibit a variegated collection of sweet tufting flowers and shrubs; whilst the meandering streams, still replenished from the copious torrents of the preceding rainy season, contributed not a little to enhance the lovely aspect of the ever-varying scenes. King Theodore had no eye to admire, and no heart to pity. His mission was proclaimed by his deed, and w to those who attempted to arrest his destructive, [211/212] onward progress. The Gallas--by their prowess far more than by their Mahomedan creed--had incurred the resentment of the implacable tyrant, and to annihilate these martial tribes was the longing ambition of his fiendish heart. Animated by a corresponding passion, blended, in the present instance, with an innate desire for rapine and bloodshed, the fanatical Amhara, avalanche-like, descended on the unsuspecting foe, spreading far and wide ruin and desolation, misery and death. Young and old, the strong and the weak, were indiscriminately subjected to a cruel death, or, what was perhaps still worse, brutal atrocities. The villages were burnt, the fields laid waste, and men, women, and children unsparingly butchered, or dragged into irredeemable captivity. Fell vengeance in a few hours had consummated its ruthless work, and the tyrant, elated with his infamous achievement, and accompanied by a weeping and disconsolate multitude of enslaved and helpless creatures, quitted the blood-stained battle-field.

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