Leave the Emperor's Camp for Kourata - The Tana Sea - The Abyssinian Navy - The Island of Dek - Arrival at Kourata - The Gaffat People and former Captives join us - Charges preferred against the latter - First Visit to the Emperor's Camp...
On the 6th of February his Majesty sent us word to depart. We did not see him, but before we left he sent us a letter informing us that as soon as the prisoners joined us he would take steps to send us out of his country in "honour and safety." The officer ordered to proceed to Magdala to deliver the captives, and conduct them to us, was one of our escort; we were the bearers of an humble apology from Theodore to our Queen: all smiled upon us; and rejoiced beyond expression by the apparently complete success of our mission, we retraced our steps with a light and thankful heart through the plains of Agau Medar. On the afternoon of the 10th of February, we encamped on the shore of the Tana Sea, a large fresh-water lake, the reservoir of the Blue Nile. The river enters at the south-west extremity of the lake, and issues again at its south-east extremity, the two branches being only separated by the promontory of Zage.
The spot we pitched our camp upon was not far from Kanoa, a pretty village in the district of Wandige, Kourata being almost opposite to us, bearing N.N.E. We had to wait several days while boats were constructed for ourselves, escort, and luggage. These boats - of the most primitive kind of construction still in existence - are made of bulrushes, the papyrus of the ancients. The bulrushes are tied together so as to form a flat surface some six feet in breadth and from ten to twenty feet in length. The two extremities are then rolled up and tied together. The passengers and boatmen sit upon a large square bundle of bulrushes forming the essential part of the boat, which the outward cage serves only to keep in place, and by its pointed extremities to favour progression. To say that these boats leak is a mistake; they are full of water, or rather, like a piece of cork, always half submerged: their floating is simply a question of specific gravity. The manner in which the boats are propelled adds greatly to the discomfort of the traveller. Two men sit in front, and one behind. They use long sticks, instead of oars, beating the water alternately to the right and left; at each stroke they send in front and from behind jets of spray like a shower-bath, and the unfortunate occupant of the boat, who had beforehand taken off his shoes and stockings and well tucked up his trousers, finds that he would have been wiser had he adopted a more simple costume still, and followed the example of the naked boatmen.
The Abyssinian navy does not weigh heavily on the estimates, nor does it take years to construct a fleet; two days after our arrival fifty new vessels had been launched, and several hundreds had joined from Zage and the Isle of Dek.
The few days we spent on the shore of the Tana Sea were among the small number of happy ones we have seen in this country. Samuel, now our balderaba (introducer) and chief of the escort, did not allow the former crowds to invade my tent. Being an intelligent man, and his relatives and friends less numerous than those of his predecessor, he only brought to me those he knew would benefit by a few doses of medicine, or whom he was compelled to introduce; for by refusing the petty chiefs and important men of the several neighbouring districts he would have made serious enemies. It was now a recreation, instead of a fatigue; a study of the diseases of the country; a fact almost impossible, before, when I could only defend myself against the importunities of a crowd, and in peace not examine a single case. The remainder of my time was spent in shooting. Aquatic birds, ducks, geese, &c., were in abundance, and so tame that the survivors did not move away, but remained bathing, feeding, and cleaning their bright feathers around the dead bodies of their mates and companions.
On the morning of the 16th we started for Dek, the largest and most important island of the Tana Lake; it is situated about half-way from our starting-place and Kourata. We were shower-bathed for about six hours; our speed was about two and a half knots, so that the distance must be about fifteen miles. Dek is a very pretty island indeed; a long, flat volcanic rock, surrounded by conical hillocks, forming so many island pearls around a coronet. The whole island is well wooded, covered with the most luxuriant vegetation, dotted with numerous and prosperous villages, and proudly boasts of four old and revered churches - the shrines of many devoted pilgrims. We spent the night in the heart of the picturesque island - the ideal of an earthly abode. Alas! we knew only some time afterwards that the passage of the white men caused tears and distress among the Arcadian inhabitants of that peaceful land. The inhabitants of the island had been ordered to supply us with 10,000 dollars. The chiefs, almost despairing of being able to raise so large a sum, made a powerful appeal to their friends and neighbours; painted in true colours the wrath of the despot should he learn that his request had not been complied with, and the wilderness that would then replace their rich and happy isle. The eloquence of some, and the threats of others, were equally successful. All the savings of years were brought to the chiefs; silver rings and chains - the dower and fortune of many a young maiden - were added to the newly spun shama of the matron: all were reduced to poverty, and were trembling; though they smiled whilst making the sacrifice of all their worldly goods. How they must have cursed, in the bitterness of their grief, the poor white strangers who were the innocent cause of all their misfortunes!