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 XV

Revolt of the Provinces--Sham Campaign--Churches Pillaged--Retributive Vengeance--Wanton Atrocities--New Prison--Foot Chains--Domiciliary Arrangements--Despatch of Letters--Abyssinian Honesty--Our Prison Library--Instruction of Inquirers--Prayerless Amar--Sundays in Prison--Stirring Incident--Diplomatic Correspondence--Butchery in the Camp--Desertions--Reign of Terror--A Midnight Massacre--A Wise Messenger--The Tyrant Defeated--Cannon Foundry--Unfortunate Fugitives.

The dangers which had been looming in the distance approached nearer and nearer every day; Godjam, Lasta, Tigré, Woggera, and several other important provinces were in undisguised rebellion against the despot. Dembea, Begemeder, Belessa, and a few small districts, were the only territories in his once extensive realm that still acknowledged a doubtful allegiance to his sway. Housed by these ominous signs of a general revolution, he awoke to a consciousness of the dangers by which he was environed, bade farewell to debasing indulgences, and set out for the south.

It was now thought that the campaign had begun in earnest, and that a struggle, in which the fate of the realm was involved, would ensue in reality, when [297/298] lo, and behold, the straggling forces are ordered back to Debra Tabor, and the farce terminates by sending eight white defenceless captives to Magdala! Enemies were henceforth secure and friends in peril. Gondar, which more than once had felt the sanguinary violence of the despot, was again to smart beneath his pitiless ferocity. A rebel, whom the few impoverished and half-starved inhabitants were forced to accommodate in their huts, formed the pretext for this outburst. A sharp march of a night and day brought the despoiler to that ruined and ill-fated capital. The people, terrified and panic-stricken, in their confusion raised the wonted "li-li-li" of welcome. This the cruel tyrant construed into a warning note to the insurgents, and instantly every man, woman, and child found in the streets was seized and consumed beneath the burning rafters of the nearest houses. The private dwellings, which had been robbed on several previous occasions, offered no booty to the invaders; but the forty-four churches, which both Christian and Mahomedan marauders hitherto had left untouched, presented attractions not to be despised by the pillage-loving King Theodorus. The command was given, and simultaneously the profane scoundrels rushed into the sacred edifices (which had hitherto been deemed inviolate), and, unheedful of the supplications of the laity, and the deprecations of the clergy, carried off vestments, [289/299] mitres, crosses, pictures, and chalices; in fact, everything which, on account of its antiquity or value, had for ages been regarded with the utmost awe and veneration by the devout and superstitious. Many of the sacred edifices were wantonly set on fire, and burnt to the ground; and those that escaped the conflagration were vilely desecrated by the miscreants. The news of this infamous spoliation spread rapidly through the length and breadth of the land. "Death to the odious infidels!" shouted every voice but those of the myrmidons of the tyrant. But, although the stir, clamour, and tumult was intense, it all ended in empty demonstration and noise. The tyrant, after this inglorious achievement, returned with his shameless trophies to Debra Tabor, where the gibes and sneers of foes, and the contempt and disgust of friends, stung him to the quick, and raised a tempest in his heart that could only find relief in the wail of misery or the moans of distress. His military chiefs, the abettors of his crimes, in the absence of other victims, were selected to feel the pangs and agonies they had often enough mercilessly inflicted on the helpless and unoffending.

A charge of conspiracy and sedition was trumped up against them, and without trial or inquiry they were stripped, chained, and thrust into prison. An exorbitant fine was immediately imposed upon them, [299/300] and, when this was not forthcoming, they were subjected to the most excruciating tortures.

The perfidy of the savage tyrant against his chiefs was an unmistakable warning to their people. Confident in the strength of their spears, and the loyalty they had in every emergency exhibited, the threats of their king were recklessly unheeded, and their usual avocations were pursued with un-relaxing industry. The covetous and plundering Theodorus did not admire this tranquillity, as it deprived him of the plea of attacking the peaceably disposed peasantry. Want, distress, and famine, however, broke down the weak barriers, and to the surprise of every one the villages and hamlets in the neighbourhood of Debra Tabor were pillaged, rased, or burnt. The patient and docile people, who had submitted to starvation to feed the robber and his bands, now shook off indifference, and snatching up the weapons, which had hitherto lain concealed, they rose up to defend their rights, their lives, and homes. The beacon of insurrection lighted on the hills surrounding the king's camp met with a ready response from every promontory, nook, and corner of the weary and exhausted province. Frantic with demoniacal rage at this unexpected resistance to his power and authority, the infatuated savage sprang upon the weakest of the seven districts into which the province was divided, and perpetrated enormities not [300/301] to be thought of without a shudder. The weak and the strong, the aged and the young, all fell beneath the murderous knife or perished in the flames of their burning huts. Prayers and supplications, groans and shrieks, fell alike unheeded on deaf ears; and the cursed blade did not return to its scabbard until, from the Tzana or Dembea Lake up to Debra Tabor, the capital of Begemeder, all that could shelter man or beast was reduced to ashes.

Whilst the king was rioting in carriage and bloodshed, his white victims, to their joy and gratitude, were far away from him, on the world-wide known Amba Magdala. Our journey, which was fatiguing, occupied four good days. Near the fortress we were met by about two hundred men of the garrison; most were old acquaintances, and evidently not displeased to see us again. "May the Lord open you!"--the salutation with which they grinningly greeted us--was the key-note that told of chains and a prison. What the old prisoners most dreaded was, however, not fetters, but the common gaol. Our fears were speedily removed, and to our satisfaction we were, under a strong guard, escorted to a house near the royal fence, formerly the prison of his Majesty's disgraced friends.

We reached the Amba on July 12th, and on the 16th foot chains were hammered around our legs. The commandant, who had received some valuable [301/302] presents from Mr. Rassam, did not admire this harsh treatment of the liberal Frendjoj, and as he knew that the truth was an ugly fact, he had recourse to the palpable falsehood that chains were the inevitable condition of an Amba residence. It was a well-meant, but ludicrous and stupid lie.

A few days after we were shackled, the Ras, conjointly with his council--for without serious deliberation nothing could be done--enlarged our premises, and we got two huts more in addition to the one we already occupied. The real genuine prison, which faced the entrance to our compound, was assigned to Consul Cameron, Mr. Rosenthal, and myself. Opposite to this was the kitchen, a large rickety circular building; this was given to Messrs. Kerans, Pietro, the mission's Indian servants, and some hangers on. The entrances to the two building's were in such close proximity, that long before breakfast or dinner was ready, puffs of smoke, redolent with the fumes of seasoned viands, announced the bill of fare. This did not inconvenience us; on the contrary, the smell of roast, curry, and stew, after all the abominable odours we had inhaled in the common prison, was a luxury which our olfactory nerves most keenly appreciated.

Apart from the dwellings of the low and inferior prisoners, about a hundred yards to the right, in isolated grandeur, stood the abode of the envoy--[303] a hostage, as Theodore himself said, of no mean repute. It could not boast of much architectural beauty or taste, but it was well thatched, clean, and furnished. In a parallel line with "the residency," as in the peculiar jargon of Magdala we used occasionally to designate Mr. Rassam's dwelling, the eye fell on an immense cage, a kind of structure that might have been taken at a little distance for a haystack, and, on closer inspection, for a village circus. This formed the home of his two companions, Dr. Blanc and Lieut. Prideaux. The five old prisoners and the occupants of the kitchen during the night were guarded by soldiers, a nuisance from which the members of the mission were exempted. It was asserted that the king himself had given the order; but as we were more than a week allowed to sleep unwatched, the story lacked even the appearance of probability. Samuel was, no doubt, the contriver of the arrangement, as it enhanced his importance and tended to maintain an invidious distinction between the prisoners. A few months later Consul Cameron, who had succeeded in ingratiating himself with Samuel, got permission to sleep in a hut undisturbed by noisy guards; and in December, 18G7, at the kind request of Mr. Rassam and Dr. Blanc, a similar concession was extended to me.

Exiled and banished on a rocky fortress in the heart of Africa, the question which most agitated our [303/304] minds was the conveyance of letters down to the coast. During our first captivity we sent every month or two some messengers down to Massowah. They seldom met with an untoward accident, and, if they did not quarrel or fight, were almost sure to pass unmolested through the various provinces they had to traverse. Mr. Rassam availed himself of the same agencies, and as he had a whole host of followers, he could select the most trustworthy whenever he had important despatches to forward. The messengers were invariably warned of the dangers they would have to encounter if caught by the king's people--a precaution that kept them in a wholesome tremor till they were far beyond the rocks and ravines that encircle Magdala. It was humiliating to think that in the wilds of Africa a few unfortunate foreign captives should not be able to express their hopes and fears to distant relatives and friends without some risk and danger. The very idea of such a contingency appeared ridiculous; and yet it was not less strange than true, that a simple sentence--and that, too, couched in a foreign language--an evil-disposed European might have perverted into a most wicked, mischievous, and cruel offence. Happily, it only occurred once, and we have to thank our faithful native messengers that it did not occur again. The will existed, but the proofs were wanting. Our great difficulty very often consisted in [304/305] concealing letters after they were written. Generally the messengers departed so soon as they were finished, but sometimes it happened that on the very morning when they were to leave, intelligence reached us that the road was unsafe, or that some of the garrison had gone to a neighbouring district. In the beginning, when such an emergency arose, we entrusted them to our native friends on the Amba, but during the last few months of our captivity we concealed them in the bamboos that supported the thatched roofs of our huts.

The journey down to the coast and back to Magdala a tolerable pedestrian could accomplish in two months. Most of the messengers performed the first trip in less time than was expected. The second, however, was not so expeditious, and the third outrageously long. The causes of the delays were obvious. An Abyssinian without money is most obedient, industrious, and frugal, but with money lazy, arrogant, and luxurious. Now, as each man on his arrival at Massowah got twenty Maria Theresa dollars, and perhaps a gratuity on his return, he thought it necessary, after two, or the utmost three trips, to repay himself for his toil by a little indulgence in those gratifications which every Abyssinian village so abundantly offers. Tedj, arackee, and other pleasures did not, however, spoil their honesty, or make them indifferent to what was entrusted to their charge.

[306] Our money we got through the same channel; and out of the number that were employed only one man lost about eighty dollars; all the rest brought the sums entrusted to them quite intact. This honesty in our Abyssinians--a race proverbial for their thievish proclivities--frequently amazed us. It is true they could not easily abscond with two hundred dollars, the sum each man carried, as probably the rebels would speedily have relieved them of their dishonest wealth. But these I do not think were considerations that had much influence with them. They had, I believe, a kind of religious terror, blended with a slight attachment to their masters, and these united deterred them from decamping. Had they been rogues, we should have had a terrible existence at Magdala. It was said that the king had ordered rations for the members of the mission. I do not believe it; but even if it was true, they might have perished on the bounties that would have been doled out to them by the royal purveyors. I and my companions had experienced something of this mode of existence. Luckily, or rather providentially, we were seldom long without money, or else we might have gnawed our lips in the grim agonies of starvation.

Wearisome days and restless nights, constant anxiety and everlasting suspense, were a trial of our [306/307] faith and patience that required more than an ordinary degree of Divine grace to sustain us without sinking into utter abandonment or miserable idiocy.

We had only a few books, and these were neither very edifying nor agreeable reading in a prison. "M'Culloch's Commercial and Geographical Dictionaries," "Smith's Wealth of Nations," besides our Bibles, were, if I am not mistaken, our whole library. I had made myself conversant with every known spot in the universe; and as regards political economy, I could argue on supply and demand with a fluency that was perfectly awful. The Word of God, the comfort and solace, the prop and support of the suffering and sorrowing, was an inexhaustible treasure in the dungeon of the captive. With raptures the eye rested on its soul-thrilling pages, picturing to its view the cross, the emblem of redeeming love and mercy, or wandering, by faith, amidst scenes of glory and bliss, that poured a flood of gladness into the desponding heart. The weakened mind could not, however, for any great length of time sustain the effort of deep thought without serious injury. A religious movement among some of Mr. Rassam's people daily afforded me occupation for one or two hours. It commenced with Immer Ali, the dragoman, a Mahomedan, from the coast. He was a good, upright, and honest man. His knowledge was exceedingly limited--a defect which [307/308] he sought to remedy by an earnest application to the study of the Amharic Bible. His baptism induced six more of his countrymen to put themselves under my instruction. Two of them were serious and earnest men, but the other four I considered very unsatisfactory characters. They assented to all I said with a most provoking quiescence. On one occasion, after a long dissertation on prayer, I asked them whether they ever prayed before retiring, or on getting up. "Naam" ("Yes") was the response. Amar, I noticed, did not join in the reply; so, turning to him, I reiterated the question. He appeared embarrassed, but, after a pause, growled forth, in a harsh, guttural tone: "Ya sede" ("My lord") "what shall I pray for? I have got a good master--plenty to cat, health, strength, clothing, a wife . . . "I never again asked anyone whether he prayed till I had thoroughly impressed his mind with the great truth, that a holy and virtuous life here trains a man for a happy and glorious immortality hereafter.

Our Sundays were to the majority the best if not the happiest days in the week. The old prisoners, who had been robbed and plundered by the king and his people of all that they possessed, were reduced to great indigence in all those articles that adorn the outer man. Mr. Rassam and Dr. Blanc, who had their wardrobes nearly complete, [308/309] most liberally assisted us, and it was quite a luxury on the morning of the Lord's day to don clean and decent garments. At ten o'clock, we regularly had Divine service in the envoy's hut. Our worship consisted in the reading of the Liturgy, a short sermon, and a prayer adapted to our peculiar circumstances. A prison, and that, too, in Abyssinia, is not the best school for the cultivation of those graces which ennoble nature and refine the heart; nevertheless, we still endeavoured, more or less, according to our peculiar tempers, views, and sentiments, to maintain the decencies of civilised life, and to make quietness and confidence our strength.

Our existence, though monotonous and uniform, was not quite devoid of stirring and exciting incidents. In December, 1867, we heard that Mr. Flad had come back from his mission to England, accompanied by seven artisans and a quantity of machinery. We doubted the veracity of the latter statement, but the king's own communication to Mr. Rassam removed all scepticism. The letter of her Majesty the Queen, of which he forwarded an English copy, was firm, plain, and dignified. We perused it with the deepest emotions of gratitude, and I don't think there was one among the eight captives who did not, with the concluding sentence exclaim, "God bless the Queen."

Theodore did not anticipate such a despatch. [309/310] He was himself the impersonation of duplicity and craft, and he judged others by his own principles and actions. His letters to Mr. Rassani were a mixture of meekness and vanity, regret and indignation. He was hurt, he stated, that England had joined Turkey in opposing his schemes and in traducing his character. Had Britain become an ally of Abyssinia all misunderstandings might have been obviated. He was, however, averse to quarrels, and if the Queen would be the Hiram, he would act the Solomon, and wonderful feats might be achieved. The captives he only slightly touched on, and the chains and prison were utterly ignored. The pith of both epistles might be summed up in this brief sentence: "Procure me the artisans and machinery, those pledges of friendship, and I will prove to you that I am what all know me to be--a clever scoundrel."

In his interview with Mr. Flad he was more explicit. "Why does England not exterminate the Turks? Why did you leave the artisans? Why did you bring me a telescope through which I cannot see?" [General Merewether presented him, through Mr. Flad, with an excellent telescope, but he pretended that it was an insulting and worthless gift.] Mr. Flad intimated to him that he had powerful enemies, and that it would be for his interest to accept the hand of friendship [310/311] extended to him, or England would send troops. This roused his ire, and he ejaculated, "Let them come, and if I don't beat them, call me a woman."

The rebellion of Begemeder, the only province that had hitherto continued loyal, ought to have taught the tyrant to adopt a more conciliatory policy. Impelled by the demon of vengeance, he ruthlessly pursued his path athwart smouldering villages and grim and ghastly charnel-houses, the fell work of his own murderous hands. Cowed by the energetic resistance of frenzied peasants, he withdrew from the butcheries in the open field to the less dangerous carnage in his own fenced camp. On the 7th of June, upwards of six hundred and seventy of Wadela, Yedshou, and other troops, under the false pretext that they were to receive their pay, appeared unarmed before the tyrant. "Aha, you vile slaves," was the address, "I hear you want to join the rebels and fight against me. I will feed the hyenas with your foul carcases before you execute your designs. Off with the traitors." In an instant they were in the grasp of friends, companions, and kinsmen, who, strange as it may appear, readily performed the executioner's work.

These wholesale butcheries roused friend and foe to a sense of their danger. Ras Adalou, the chief of the Yedshou troops, on the eve after the massacre of the Wadeleans and their companions, [311/312] mounted his horse, and calling on his retainers to follow him, they all in a body marched out of the hedged-in camp. Theodore saw them turning their hacks upon him, but he had not heart to pursue the desperate bands, who were determined to sell their liberty and lives at no mean price.

The defection of Ras Adalou intensified the rage and despair of the tyrant, Day after day men, women, and children were indiscriminately subjected to the most appalling tortures, or condemned to a horrible death. Within four weeks, according to the statement of eye-witnesses, upwards of three thousand persons perished by the sword, the rope, whip, stick, and mutilating knife.

This homicidal mania became more ungovernable as the victims multiplied. No one was safe. The executioner of to-day bled on the morrow. Accuser and accused frequently perished by the same knife and hand. Near and around the camp all was one large field of death and corruption. The very air was tainted with the poison of the putresccnt corpses, and the slain themselves threatened the retributive-vengeance which the living were too recreant to inflict.

Terrorism had decimated the camp. The tyrant himself was amazed at the abject servility of the men who, to retain his favour, would betray friends and relations to a most appalling death without [312/313] remorse or regret. He had effectually crushed treachery and eradicated opposition. To go further he did not deem advisable. The chiefs and their retainers who still remained attached to him, any fresh violence he thought might justly awake from their stupid torpor, and prompt to acts of desperation he shuddered to contemplate. Where was he, however, to find victims to quell the fiery tempest that was devouring his soul?

In the plain of Efag, a day's journey to the north-west of Debra Tabor, nestled amidst groves and a few isolated hills that impart a picturesque-ness to the scene, there stood about a dozen villages, which by fortuitous circumstances escaped the general devastation. The infatuated people, confiding in the swiftness of their mules, the weakness of the de-spoiler, or, perhaps the support of a rebel chief, made no efforts to secure either their property or their lives. The rumoured approach of the tyrant, however, frightened them, and all hurried away in the direction of Woggera, where Taousie Gobasie, an insurgent leader, had his camp. Theodore, who was informed by his spies of the emigration of these peasants, despatched some of his chiefs with the most friendly and paternal messages. The insane victims of oppression and tyranny, instead of scorning the treacherous protestations of the false king, listened to them with unsuspecting trust. Back to [313/314] the deserted homes rolled the tide of the migratory host. Their mules were unloaded; their grain stowed into the empty godahs; and their flocks sent to graze on the adjacent rich meadows. No fear disturbed their repose. The solemn declaration of a master who had never kept his promise acted like a fatal spell on the doomed multitude. They spread their hides on the floors of their huts, and wrapped their shamas tightly round--and slept. It was their last repose on earth. The men of violence and blood were upon them, and before another grey dawn had dissipated the blackness of night they were all burnt and charred corpses. A few persons only escaped the fury of the destroyers, and the account they had to give of the scene surpassed in horror the most fiendish massacres ever enacted before. No one was spared; the weak and the strong, youth and age, were all mercilessly consumed beneath the roofs which had given them a shelter and a home. Little children, frightened by the conflagration, here and there rushed out of their huts in the vain hope of escaping the devouring element; instantly a cruel spear tossed them in the air, and they fell shrieking amidst the raging flames. From Efag the blood-drenched ruffianly band hurried on to Derita, a large village of wealthy Mahomedan merchants. Here they intended to perpetrate the same hideous atrocities, but the inhabitants had forestalled [314/315] them the savage pleasure by a timely flight up the Woggera plateau. It was in this very village that a messenger from Massowah with the ultimatum from England had taken refuge. He evidently intended to execute the errand on which he had been sent had not a wholesome terror of the tyrant's wrath deterred him. We were in raptures when the intelligence reached us. The tyrant was then in no mood to receive menacing despatches. He wanted blood, and the most cautiously worded communication would, humanly speaking, have decided our fate. God was always good and merciful to us.

Elated with his base and dastardly massacre of men, women, and children, the robber chief--he was in reality no longer king--thought that he might again try his fortune upon stronger and more honourable battle-fields. Belessa, two days' journey to the north-east of Debra Tabor, a small mountainous province, abounding in grain, flocks, and herds, offered the tempting bait. Stimulated by greed and rapacity, his pillage-loving bands pressed forward to seize the anticipated spoil. Lidj Abitou, the chief of our escort on the unfortunate day we left Quarata, but then a rebel, together with his father, a former prison companion at Magdala during our first captivity, and the brave peasants, anticipated the bloodthirsty depredators, and boldly confronted them. The cowardly braggart who could riot in the throes [315/316] of shackled captives and defenceless unarmed peasants, at the sight of a determined foe, poltroon like, shrunk from the contest. His followers, panting for booty, manifested even more daring than their swaggering leader. "Let us advance," shouted a few of the boldest chiefs, "and these rebels will be scattered to the wind." "I know what you want," said the grinning savage, as it was related to us by eye-witnesses, "but you shall not have your wish."

Chafed and galled in spirit, the worthy Theodore, followed by the imprecations and curses of an enraged people, retraced his steps back to Debra Tabor. "Light the fires, smelt the metal, cast the big Sebastopol, and I will destroy my enemies!" were the orders now issued to his servile European workmen, who some time before had been removed from their comfortable homes at Gaffat to the putrcscent camp at Debra Tabor. Up circled the flame of the heated furnace; down into the round-shaped form poured the molten metal. Oh! there was a hissing and battering, a whirling and whizzing in that Debra Tabor foundry that eclipsed all that had ever been seen in Abyssinia. The Frendjoj were perfect wizards. It could no longer be denied that they had deserved those dollars which oppressed subjects were so unwilling to resign, and envious soldiers--foolish men--grudged to see so worthily bestowed. There; look at the Sebastopol, that big yawning monster; [316/317] and does not the very sight amply repay all that was ever bestowed on its makers? The tyrant was in ecstacy. "Let the wide mouth of that glittering giant only vomit forth its contents, and death and destruction will hurl into everlasting darkness the foes who dare to fight for life and home."

The number of Europeans in the camp at this period amounted to twenty-seven, of whom fifteen were men, three women, and nine children. [The families of Bishop Gobat's agents are not included in this number, as they were natives and half-castes.] M. Makerer and McKelvie, who were formerly our Magdala companions, volunteered to enter the royal service, and this exempted them from chains and a second transportation to the fortress. Messrs. Staiger and Brandeis, the missionary agents of a Scotch Society, and two hunters, Schiller and Essler, after much hesitation and many excuses, were ordered to assist their brethren in the work of the foundry. Weary of a wretched bondage, and perhaps, too, a little apprehensive of coming events, the last four, together with Makerer, resolved to seek freedom and liberty in flight. M. Bardel, who had first suggested the plan, was admitted into the secret, and he manifested the utmost eagerness that its execution should not be delayed. Bardel, Staiger, and Brandeis, were to start together, and so also the rest, to avoid all observation. [317/318] With their money, which was very little, round the waist, and some bread in their pockets, they impatiently awaited the moment fixed for starting. The hour at last approached, and their hearts bounded with joy at the prospect of deliverance. Suddenly there is heard the tramp of feet, the hum of voices, and the rattle of shields and spears. The would-be fugitives turn paler the cold perspiration stands on their brows, they tremble, nay, almost faint, for the king-, with his myrmidons, and their accuser, Bar del, stands before them.

The tyrant's eye vindictively gleamed on the prisoners, while he sternly demanded why they were so ungrateful, and wanted to run away. The reply that they wished to see their country, of course did not satisfy their interrogator, and they were all put in chains. The poor servants, who were utterly ignorant of their intentions, did not get off so easily. Two of them were fearfully tortured, and ere the wounds had healed they were, together with four companions (one a native of Massowah), publicly executed. Their countrymen, and particularly their brethren, of whom four were the king's chief workmen, took not the slightest notice of them for many, many torturing months. They had incurred the royal displeasure, and like the Magdala captives, were to be shunned as if the very chains communicated a dangerous contagion.

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