Our First House at Magdala - The Chief has a "little Business" with us - Feelings of an European when being put in Chains - The Operation described - The Prisoner's Toilet - How we Lived - Our first Messenger a Failure - How we obtained Money...
It was already dark when we had arrived the evening before. Our first thought in the morning was to examine our new abode. It consisted of two circular huts, surrounded by a strong thorny fence, adjoining the Emperor's Enclosure. The largest hut was in a bad state of repair; and as the roof, instead of being supported by a central pole, had about a dozen of lateral ones forming as many separate divisions, we made it over to our servants and to our balderaba Samuel. The one we kept for ourselves had been built by Ras Hailo, at one time a great favourite of Theodore, but who had unfortunately fallen under his displeasure. Ras Hailo was not chained during the time he remained in that house: for a time he was even "pardoned," and made chief of the mountain. But Theodore, after a while, again deprived him of his command and confidence, and sent him to the common gaol, chained like the other prisoners. For an Abyssinian house it was well built; the roof was almost the best I saw in the country, being made with small bamboos closely arranged and bound with rings of the same material. After Ras Hailo had been sent to the gaol, his house had been made over to the favourite of the day, Ras Engeddah; but, according to custom, Theodore took it away from him to lodge his English guests.
For us it was small: we were eight, and the place could not contain easily more than four. The evenings and nights were bitterly cold, and the fire occupying the centre of the room, some of us had to lay half the body in a recess that leaked, and half in the room. At first we felt our position bitterly. The rainy season had set in, and hailstorms occurred almost every day. Many of us (Prideaux and myself amongst them) had not even a change of clothes, no bedding, nor anything to cover ourselves with during the long cold damp nights; and I always shall remember with feelings of gratitude the Samaritan act of Samuel, who, pitying me, kindly lent me one of his shamas.
We had hardly any money, and we had not the remotest idea from whence we could obtain any. Though there was some talk of rations being supplied from the Imperial stores, the former captives only laughed at the idea; they knew, from bitter experience, that prisoners on Amba Magdala "were expected to give, but never to receive." The event proved that their surmises were right: we never received anything from the man who on all occasions loudly proclaimed himself our friend but a small jar of tej, that for some months was daily sent to Samuel: (I believe all the time it was intended for him; at all events, he and his friends drank it;) and on great feast days a couple of lean, hungry-looking cows, of which, I am delighted to say, I declined a share.
To the European, accustomed to find at his door every necessary of life, the fact that not a shop exists throughout the breadth and width of Abyssinia may appear strange; but still it is so. We had, therefore, to be our own butchers and bakers, and as for what is called grocery stores, we had simply to dispense with them. Our food was abominably bad; the sheep we purchased were little better than London cats; and as no flour-mill is to be found in Abyssinia, far less any bakers, we were obliged to purchase the grain, beat it to remove the chaff, and grind it between two stones - not the flat grinding-stones of Egypt or India, but on a small curved piece of rock, where the grain is reduced to flour by means of a large hard kind of pebble held in the hand. It was brown bread with a vengeance. On the mountain we might buy eggs and fowls; but as the first were generally bad when sold to us, we soon got disgusted with them; and though we put up with the fowls as a change of diet, their toughness and leanness would have made them rejected everywhere else. Being the rainy reason, we had great difficulty in purchasing a little honey. Wild coffee was now and then obtainable; but it made, in the absence of sugar, and with or without smoky milk, such a bitter, nauseous compound, that, after a while, I and others preferred doing without it. Such was then the amount of "luxuries" we had to depend on during our long captivity, - coarse, vitreous-looking, badly-baked bread; the ever-returning dish of skinny, tough mutton, the veteran cock, smoked butter, and bitter coffee. Tea, sugar, wine, fish, vegetables, &c., were not, either for love or money, to be obtained anywhere. The coarseness and uniformity of our food, however, was as nothing compared with our dread of being starved to death; for even the few and inferior articles I have mentioned would fail us when our money was expended.
I was very badly off for clothes. Before leaving Debra Tabor, I was told to leave everything behind in the charge of the Gaffat people, and only take with me the few things I required for the road. My only pair of shoes, what from rain, sun, and climbing, had become so thoroughly worn-out, and so hard, as to bring on a wound that took months to heal, so that until the arrival of one of my servants from the coast, many months afterwards, I had to walk, or rather crawl, about on naked feet.