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 XIV

Sensation Scenes--Brag and Bluster--Zeghee Pillaged--Cholera in the Camp--Abrupt Departure--The Penitent Tyrant--Death in Pursuit--Raw Recruits--Vice Dangerous--Prelude of Ruin--New Homes--Transient Honours--Royal Craft--Grateful Counsellors--Murder of a Beggar--Doubtful Parentage--Undisputed Claims--Dismal Dungeon--Royal Visit.

THE camp, which was never a very agreeable home, after the blighted prospects of freedom became a perfectly loathsome abode. Those fond of sensation scenes could here have cloyed their strange taste. There at one time could be seen the cracking giraff (hippopotamus-whip, six feet long), as it descended on the bare back, cutting deep furrows with every stroke; next, the knotty stick rattled noisily above the bluster of heaving bands; and then, again, there were executions of every device and cunning, from the severing of the head to the amputating of hands and feet, and from the battering with stones to the braining of a supplicant for iustice, with a block of wood, by the delicate hands of a king. But it would be sickening to linger on the diversions of the Negoos, with which every [284/285] one in the position of a captive became, alas! too familiar and intimate.

Encamped on the confines of a country that had first raised the standard of rebellion and challenged the despot's power, it was naturally anticipated that an order to march against the insurgents would every moment resound through the long lines of black tents by which the king was surrounded. The enemy, undaunted by the herald's vaunting proclamation that ere long a rich booty would fall to each soldier's share, hovered in small divisions around the outlets of Zeghee, killing stragglers, and enticing deserters. Ashamed and irritated, the blustering despot indulged in all sorts of unmeaning brag. "Grodjam," he prated--and that, too, in the presence of his foreign guests--"Godjam I shall destroy, and its inhabitants I shall kill." Such were the outpourings of his heart; but, happily, the promptings of his ruthless spirit were not accomplished. His feelings were most merciless, and had his arm been equal to the task, the lion, the leopard, and the elephant might now occupy the homes where busy multitudes of human beings quietly pursue their peaceful and varied occupations. Godjam was spared, but Zeghee had to suffer.

This Kadom (asylum), embosomed in one of the woods that skirt the Maitsha plain, where [285/286 the Blue Nile, after a graceful sweep through the Lake Tzana, sends its muddy but prolific waters over dizzying cataracts and across fat pastures and dreary sands, down through regions of immortal fame, enjoyed, owing to its superstitiously-sacred character, a kind of immunity from the forays and exactions which so often blighted the prospects of the merchant and the labours of the husbandman in this misgoverned and distressed country.

King Theodorus acknowledged no such privileges, nor admitted any rules which did not coincide with his despotic will. The Church might, indeed, be sacred, but it must be stripped of its wealth; the homes of the peasantry might present charming retreats for an industrious and peaceful population, but they must be rifled and burnt for the benefit of the impoverished king, or the advantage of his hungry and pillage-loving hordes.

His was not a mission to teach subjects to live in the midst of charming bowers; no, they must learn to despise the sylvan beauty of the coffee and lemon-tree, the jasmin and myrtle, and be content with stinging weeds and pestilent wilds. He was, in all that involved ruin and misery, true to his character--a despot and a despoiler. And Zeghee will for years not recover from the horrors of its king's last visit.

[287] Whilst the despot, like a destroying angel, was scattering death and desolation, another, and a no less dangerous and unsparing foe, made its appearance.

For some days there had been rumours that the cholera was in the camp, but superstitious fear foolishly sought to suppress the ugly fact. A sudden death in the royal household, and the unmistakable symptoms that others would speedily follow, awed the tyrant, and induced him to hurry on to Quarata. The insidious enemy obstinately followed the weary hordes, marking the whole way with the corpses of its victims. Agha Faree Gholam, one day, whilst squatting in an easy attitude near me, was suddenly struck by the invisible shaft, and for ever deprived of the abused power of the hangman. The cemeteries round the monastery and churches in and near Quarata were choked with the dead, and still the terrible scourge did not abate in its violence. Everywhere, in the streets, in the tents, and in the fields, in fact, in all the surrounding places, there were heard the plaintive wails of the mourners, and the thrilling shrieks of the bereaved and dying. Few were exempted; hoary age and innocent childhood, the burly warrior and the tender maiden, all were--unmourned, and, I fear too frequently, unforgiven--consigned to the, silent tomb. The tyrant, [287/288] thinking that the clods might soon rattle upon his own coffin, read the Psalms, prayed, and appeared penitent. No longer was the ear startled by the crack of the "giraff," or the vociferous shouts for the Agha Farees. The executioner's post was in reality, what no rational being could have dreamt of, an absolute sinecure in King Theodore's camp, whilst the office of the priest became a most arduous and self-denying task.

"On to Debra Tabor, where the air is salubrious, and the hills breathe the vigour of health!" shouted the royal herald. Instantly tents were struck, horses and mules saddled, and every one scampering away from the pest-smitten spot; but the rider on the "pale horse" was as indefatigable on the march as he was during the halt, and multitudes who in flight sought to escape from his icy grasp were struck down, and never reached the desired goal. The whole road along which the army marched was strewn with the dead and the dying. Those who had no kind friends or kindred to alleviate or lighten their convulsive agonies, tottered along till their eyes became dim, their limbs stiff, and they sank down to rise no more. No sepulchral rites were awarded to their mortal remains; no funeral hymns were sung around their sleeping dust; a few handfuls of earth were thrown over their corpses, and then the indifferent multitude rushed from the [288/289] exposed village cemetery, or the isolated dell, careless and unconcerned whether before another sun rose the vultures of the air, or the hyenas of the forest, had gorged their voracious maws upon the lately breathing and thinking forms of their companions and relatives. Thus perished many hundreds on that dreary and dismal three days' march.

The epidemic had been most virulent in the army, and how to reinforce its diminished and broken ranks began to be a grave and serious question. Quara and Tschelga, to the north-west, had hitherto been privileged provinces; the former on account of its being the natal home of the despot, and the latter because it formerly contained the State prison, and also offered a formidable banner to any encroachments from the north-western Egyptian dominion. Necessity, however, admitted no exemption; and, reluctant as they felt, they had to furnish the requisite contingents. The raw recruits, fond of their sunny vales, where benignant nature with the least toil amply provides for every want, did not relish the bustle and excitement, and still less the privations of a camp; and so, without troubling their dull intellects about the king or the condition of his country, they girded their unwieldy swords upon their belts, and, during a bright moonlight night, bade adieu to the chilly upland plains, where they had been called to join the [289/290] army, and returned to their picturesque and fertile lowland homes.

The tyrant, instead of shaking off dull sloth, most recklessly abandoned himself to ease and vicious indulgences. Rebels, with their factious bands, defied him on all sides, and he had only to buckle on his faithful sword and all their contemptible brag would have terminated in a precipitate flight. His prestige was still unimpaired, and had he retained a spark of his former daring the spreading rebellion might in several provinces have been nipped in the very bud.

Besotted by an insane belief that his throne was secure, he wasted his days in fanciful speculations on contests, slaughters, and victories. "Let the insurgents get fat during the rainy season, we shall kill them afterwards," was his favourite expression. Impoverished and grievously taxed, Begemeder had during the whole of this time to bear the burden of providing for the king and his army. Military chiefs, governors, and even common soldiers, despairingly shook their greasy bushy wigs. The insurrection in the disaffected provinces assumed a wider range; the dangers far and near grew more and more pressing; and the prelude of impending ruin resounded from voices hitherto duly vocal to the tyrant's praise.

Infatuated by a foolish belief that like the fabled [290/291] phoenix he would rise, out of the ashes of his empire more glorious and powerful than any of Abyssinia's former sovereigns, he whiled away his time in the diversions offered by an extensive elfin, a good quantity of strong tedj, and the unfortunate white captives.

During the first few days his Majesty was exceedingly courteous and civil towards Mr. Rassam, his two companions, and the old prisoners. We were lodged in the houses of his European workmen; and when the latter on their arrival manifested some displeasure at this not very satisfactory arrangement, we were transferred to abodes not far distant. The mission were accommodated in tolerably good houses, but the rest had holes assigned to them so filthy and swarming, that the "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals" would prosecute a person, and that justly, if he placed a dog in such a kennel.

I ventured into the one that was to be my abode; but although I had regularly graduated in the common Magdala gaol, I recoiled from the offensive sight I encountered. Debterak Birrou, an excellent Falasha Christian whom I met on my return, stood aghast on beholding the condition of my garments. I gave him my shama to clean, whilst I toiled hard to restore my trousers to something like their original purity. Some of my [291/292] companions cleared the styes which they were condemned to occupy. I was under no such necessity, as I had a small tent that afforded me, if not protection against rain, perfect immunity from all kinds of vermin.

"Decorate his house, spread carpets, build a fence, do all to make my friend comfortable," were the orders issued by his Majesty concerning Mr. Rassam. Alas! alas! how transient are all earthly honours! how short-lived all sublunary glories! On the 18th, Cantiba Hailu, the governor of Gondar, Kera Meddin, the negad ras, or chief of the merchants, and several other persons of rank and dignity, were affixing gabees and shaman around the walls of the envoy's residence; and on the 25th he and his companions, together with the old captives, were prisoners in a black tent in the royal compound.

This sudden transition, from the height of royal favours to durance vile in a black tent, came upon us like a thunder-clap. We had often witnessed ups and downs in Abyssinia. We had seen rich governors reduced to poor beggars, great military chiefs to low menials, and ancient nobles to the degrading position of prisoners in chains; but we did not anticipate that a favourite ambassador, nor that any one of us, would, during Mr. Flad's mission to England, be subject to those alternations of fortune, [292/293] which were the inevitable reward of valour and fidelity in the great Negoos' realm.

The cause assigned for this unexpected change in our treatment, was a letter, purporting to have been brought from Jerusalem by a Greek priest, containing intelligence, as it was alleged, that England, France, and Turkey were about to invade Abyssinia. Mr. Rassam energetically protested against this and a few more trumped-up charges, but the Negoos was inflexible, and we were declared bonâ fide prisoners.

On July 3rd, his Majesty, who had again assumed a milder and more nattering tone towards his foreign guests, sent a message to Mr. Rassam full of tenderness and affection. "You are my friend, and I love you. If you wish to go out, you are at liberty to do so. With your permission, I now go to Gaffat, to inspect some work of my children, and on my return, or at any time, if you have a request to prefer, or a message to send, call one of the eunuchs, and they will convey it to me without delay."

This was kind and considerate. Theodore could please and offend, be civil and rough, gentle and monstrously cruel. Towards her Majesty's envoy he had for several days been exceedingly affable, for which we were all very grateful, as it indirectly had a reflective influence on our own position. The old prisoners were something like a safety-valve to the mission. If the king was benignant, they enjoyed [293/294] quiet and peace; and if, on the contrary, he was angry, they had to sustain the whole charge of terrors and alarm. The royal counsellors, who, for substantial reasons, befriended Mr. Rassam, were aware of this; and, as they most justly did not like to see a man who gave them handsome presents exposed to troubles and dangers, they strenuously opposed the king's original plan--to send us out of the country, and to keep only Mr. Rassam, and perhaps one of his companions. "If you let all the old prisoners depart," they remonstrated, on one occasion, as I heard from the very best authority, "on whom will you revenge yourself in case the British Government do not grant all you desire? Against Mr. Rassam you have no personal grudge, which is not the case with the Consul, Cocab, and Rosenthal, &c, on whom you can and should resent any disappointment you may experience."

The visit to Graffat grievously ruffled the placidity of his Majesty's temper. A beggar, by a fatal mistake, called his children, the European workmen, "Cfaitodj" (lords), an indiscretion that cost him his life; next, he was annoyed with some of his own people; then, with two or three of the Gaffatodj; and, finally, Dr. Blanc, but, above all, Mr. Rosenthal, who was by special permission allowed to live unguarded with his wife, came in for a giant share of the royal wrath.

[295] Mr. Rassam, Consul Cameron, Lieut. Prideaux, and myself, were in our prison tent when the despot came hack. Ignorant of all that had occurred during the interval, we did not notice his return, till Samuel, in a flurry, summoned us to repair into his presence. The sight of a number of soldiers, who, with their chiefs, were standing in groups all over the compound, indicated something serious. We had, however, no time to speculate, for the fierce voice of the tyrant concentrated our whole attentions. A variety of charges were preferred against Mr. Rassam, the consul, and myself. The stale story about his "pedigree" was the chief crime preferred against me. I tendered my wonted apology for this terrible offence, and he appeared, if not satisfied, at least appeased. His claims on India, Arabia, Constantinople (a name he egregiously mutilated), Jerusalem, and Senaar, were now rehearsed, for the edification of the envoy and the wondering court. Till that moment, I always thought that he claimed his descent from Solomon; but now, for the first time, I learnt that Constantine and Alexander the Great were both to blame for his existence. Mr. Rassam, who was requested to confirm the genealogical fact, extricated himself out of the dilemma by an evasive response. This did not satisfy the despot, and, turning his bloodshot eyes full on me, he said: "Aito Cocab, you know history; will you, therefore, tell me [295/296] whether I have an inheritance in Jerusalem?" "I know that there are Abyssinians living in a convent at Jerusalem," was my response.

Pleased that his claims on the universe, if not fully admitted, were at least not disputed, he suspended the order for chains, and imposed on us the less rigorous penalty of confinement in a black, dismal, dark dungeon. In the evening he honoured our dreary prison with a visit. To enliven our gloom, he brought a formidable horn of arackee for his friends, in which they were to drink his health. The cup that inebriates and does not cheer circulated round most decorously, and, when all with perfect éclat had drunk to the tyrant's health, he made fresh artful proffers of friendship to Mr. Rassam, and also told Mr. Rosenthal, and particularly myself, that we should not indulge in harrowing surmises, as he had nothing against us.

Project Canterbury