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.

Life in common among men of different tastes and habits is, indeed, dreadful. There we were, eight Europeans, all huddled up in the same small place, a waiting-room, a dining-room, a dormitory; most of us entire strangers before, and only united by one bond - common misfortune. Adversity is but little fitted to improve the temper: on the contrary, it breaks down all social habits; the more so if education and birth do not enable the sufferer to contend against the greatest difficulties. We feared above all things that familiarity which creeps on so naturally between men of totally different social positions, and leads to harsh words and contempt. We had to live on terms of equality with one of the former servants of Captain Cameron; we had to be quiet if some remained talking part of the night, and put up silently with the defects of others in the hope that our own might meet with the same leniency.

A party of soldiers, varying from fifteen to twenty, came every evening a little before dusk, and pitched a small black tent almost opposite our door. As it frequently rained at night, the greater number of the soldiers remained in the tent; only two or three, supposed to be watching, went to sleep under the shelter of a projecting part of the roof. They did not disturb us, and, if we went out after dark, they merely watched where we went, but did not follow. In the daytime we had four guards, two taking it in turn to watch the gate of our inclosure. These men were never changed during all the time of our stay; but we had not much reason to be satisfied with the selection made, as, with one exception, our day guards were fearful rascals and dangerous spies.

We had already spent three days at Magdala, and were beginning to hope that our punishment would be limited to "simple imprisonment," when about noon on the 16th we perceived the chief, accompanied by a large escort, coming in the direction of our prison. Samuel was sent for, and a long consultation took place between him and the chief outside the gate. We were yet in ignorance of what was going on, and felt rather uncomfortable when Samuel returned to us with a serious countenance, and told us that we must all go into the room, as the chief had a "little business" with us. We obeyed, and shortly afterwards the Ras (Head of the mountain), the five members of council, and about eight or ten more presented themselves. The Ras and the principal chiefs, all armed to the teeth, squeezed themselves into the room, the others remaining outside. The ordinary Abyssinian conversation - that is to say, a great deal of talking about religion, looking pious, taking God's and the King's name in vain every minute - opened the proceedings. I was sitting near the door, and as the conversation did not interest me much, I was looking at the motley crowd outside, when all at once I perceived that two or three men were carrying large bundles of chains. I pointed them out to Mr. Rassam, and asked him if he believed they intended them for us; he spoke to Samuel in Arabic on the subject, and the affirmative answer he received revealed to us the subject of the long consultation that had taken place outside.

The Ras now dropped the desultory conversation he had been holding since his arrival, and in quiet terms informed us that it was the custom of the mountain to chain every prisoner sent there; that he had received no instructions from the Emperor, and would at once despatch a messenger to inform him that he had put us in irons, and he had no doubt that before long his master would send orders for our fetters to be removed, but that in the meanwhile we must submit to the rules of the amba; he added that in our case it was with regret that he felt himself obliged to enforce them. The poor fellow really meant well; he was kind-hearted and, for an Abyssinian, had gentlemanly manners; he had some hope that Theodore might have by that time regretted the unnecessary and cruel order, and would perhaps seize the opportunity he thus offered him and cancel it. I may as well add here that, not many months afterwards, the Ras was accused of being in correspondence with the king of Shoa; he was taken in irons to the camp, where he shortly afterwards died from the consequences of the many tortures inflicted upon him.

The chains were brought, and the real business of the day began; one after another we had to submit to the operation, the former captives being first served and favoured with the heaviest chains. At last my turn came. I was made to sit down on the ground, tuck up my trousers, and place my right leg on a large stone that had been brought for the purpose. One of the rings was then placed on my leg a couple of inches above the right ankle, and down came, upon the thick cold iron, a huge sledge-hammer: every stroke vibrated through the whole limb, and when the hammer fell not quite straight it pressed the iron ring against the bone, causing most acute pain. It took about ten minutes to fix on properly the first ring; it was beaten down until a finger could just be introduced between the ring and the flesh, and then the two pieces, where they overlapped one another, were hammered down until they perfectly joined. The operation was then performed on the left leg. I was always afraid of the blacksmith missing the iron and smashing my leg to pieces. All at once I felt as if the limb was being torn asunder; the ring had broken just when the operation was nearly completed. For the second time I had to submit to the hammering process, and this time the fetter was rivetted to the entire satisfaction of the smith and chief.

I was now told that I might rise and go to my seat; but that was no easy matter, and, having no practice in this, for me, quite new way of locomotion, I could hardly take the necessary three or four steps. Although I was in great bodily pain, and felt deeply the degradation we were subjected to, I would not give the officers of the man who was thus ill-treating us cause to believe that I cared in the least about it. On rising to my legs I lifted up my cap and shouted, to their great astonishment, "God save the Queen," and went on laughing and chatting as if I felt perfectly happy. As every detail of our life was reported to Theodore, and my contempt for his chains was public, he was at once informed of it: but he only mentioned the fact twenty-one months afterwards, when he alluded to it in conversation with Mr. Waldmeier, to whom he said that every one allowed themselves to be chained without saying a word; that even Mr. Rassam had smiled upon them; but that the doctor and Mr. Prideaux had looked at them with anger.

After the operation was over, and the witnesses of the scene had each favoured us with a "May God open thee," the messenger the chiefs were sending to Theodore (a fellow named Lib, a great spy, and confidant of the Emperor; the same who had brought our lettres de cachet,) was introduced to receive any message Mr. Rassam desired to convey to his Majesty. That gentleman, in quiet and courteous words, reproached his Majesty for his treachery, and cast upon him the onus of the consequences such unfair treatment would most likely bring upon him. Unfortunately Samuel, always timid, and at this time almost dead with fright, as he did not know whether chains were not in reserve for him also, declined to interpret, and simply sent the ordinary compliments instead.

When our gaolers had withdrawn, we looked at one another, and the sight was so ridiculous, so absurd, that for all our sorrow we could not help laughing heartily. The chains consisted of two heavy rings connected together by three small thick links, leaving just a span between one ring and the other; and these we wore for nearly twenty-one months! At first we could not walk at all; our legs were bruised and sore from the hammering on, and the iron pressing on the ankles was so painful that we were obliged to tie bandages under the chains during the daytime. At night I always took off the bandages, as the constant impediment to the circulation they occasioned, caused the feet to swell; yet at night we felt the weight and pressure even more than during the day: our legs seemed for a long time never to get rest; we could not move them about, and when in our sleep we turned from one side to the other, the links, by striking the bone of the leg, caused such acute pain as to awake us at once. Though after a time we got more accustomed to them, and could walk about our small inclosure with more ease, still every now and then we had to remain quiet for some days, as the legs got sore, and small ulcers appeared on the parts where the greatest pressure bore. Even since they have been removed, for months my legs were weaker than before, the ankles smaller, and the feet somewhat enlarged.

The evening we were put in chains we had to cut open our trousers as the only way of getting them off. During their former captivity at Magdala, Messrs. Cameron, Stern and others, either wore petticoats or native drawers, which they had been taught to pass between the leg and the chain. But we had no material at hand to make the first, and as for passing even the thinnest cambric through the rings in the swollen condition of the limb, that was quite out of the question. Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention: at all events I invented the "Magdala trousers." On taking off mine that evening, I cut them near the outward seam, and collecting all the buttons I could obtain, had them sewed on, and button-holes made along the Beam as near to one another as my limited supply allowed. Some weeks afterwards I was able, with the assistance of a native, to pass through the rings calico drawers; and as my legs grew thinner, in time, I was able to put on trousers made of thin Abyssinian cotton cloth; and such is the force of habit and practice, that at last I could take off or put on my trousers as quickly almost as if my legs were free.

We had gone to bed early that evening, not knowing what to do, when we heard a discussion going on outside our hut between Samuel and the chief of the guard that night, named Mara, a descendant of some Armenian and a great worshipper of his Imperial master. Samuel at last came in and told us that he had endeavoured to persuade the officer not to disturb us, but that he insisted on examining our chains to see if they were all right. We declined at first to submit to the inspection, and only consented, in order to get rid of the fellow, to shake our chains under the shama with which we were covered, as he passed from one to another.

As we expected to be at least six months in Magdala - giving time for the news to reach England, and the troops to arrive that we felt certain would immediately be despatched to set us free and punish the despot - Mr. Rassam endeavoured, through Samuel, to obtain a few more huts for our accommodation. Samuel spoke to the Ras and to the other chiefs, and they agreed to give us a small hut and two godjos, (small huts, the roof formed by the ends of the twigs being tied together at the free extremity, and the whole covered with straw,) when they would have collected wood enough to make a new fence. In the meanwhile two of us, Pietro and Mr. Kerans, were induced to live in the kitchen, where they would have more room and leave more space for ourselves.

Our first thought on reaching Magdala was to communicate the intelligence to our friends and to Government; since we had been chained we knew that every hour lost was a day added to our discomfort and misery, and that we ought to lose no time in sending a trusty messenger to Massowah. It was always very difficult for us to write, but more so in the beginning, as we were afraid even of Samuel, afterwards so useful in all that concerned our messengers. All the country up to Lasta still recognized Theodore, and we were obliged to be very guarded in our expressions, in case the letter should fall into the hands of some of his chiefs and be forwarded to him. On the 18th, our packet was ready; but, strange to say, it was the only time our letter came to grief. We could only trust servants that had been some time with us, - at least, so we thought at the time, - and therefore selected an old servant of Cameron who had been formerly, on several occasions, employed as messenger. He was a good man, a first-rate walker, but very quarrelsome; and to spite his adversary was capable of anything. To accompany him through the rebel country we obtained a servant from a political prisoner, Dejatch Maret: they were to travel together and return with an answer from Mr. Munzinger. Soon after, leaving Magdala, the two began to quarrel, and on reaching the rebels' outposts, a question of precedence between them led to the discovery of our packet; both messengers were seized, tied with ropes for a few days, and when released, our man was told to go back, and the letters were burnt. Afterwards we made better arrangements: the messengers carried in their belts the letters which were of a dangerous nature; otherwise we sewed them up in leather, in the shape of the amulets and charms worn by the natives, or had them stitched between patches on old trousers, or near the seams. Those writing from the coast used the same precautions; and though we must have sent about forty messengers with letters during our captivity, without mentioning those employed elsewhere, they all, with the one exception I have mentioned, reached in safety.

Next came the question so vital to us, how to get money. It so happened that Theodore, about that time, gave a thousand dollars to each of his workmen. Many of them, judging from the political condition of the country that the Emperor's power would soon fall entirely, were desirous of sending their money out of the country, and as we were only too anxious to get some, the matter was easily arranged to our mutual satisfaction. We sent servants to Debra Tabor; and as the road was still safe, and we had, by suitable presents, made friends of the chiefs of the districts that lay in the way, the servants were not molested or plundered. They carried the dollars either in bags, on mules, laden at the same time with grain or flour which the Gaffat people now and then sent us, or tied in the long cotton sash that Abyssinians wear as a belt. Directions were also given to Mr. Munzinger to forward money to Metemma, from whence we could draw it by sending servants. It was only during the second year of our captivity that we experienced any serious difficulty on that score. The Emperor's power became more and more limited; rebels and thieves infested the roads; the route between Metemma and Magdala was closed; the Gaffat people had none to spare; and at one time it seemed as if it was perfectly impossible for messengers to reach us. Though for months we were rather hard up, what by employing servants of political prisoners, friends or relatives of the rebels, by using the influence of the Bishop, or through the protection of Wagshum Gobaze, money again found its way to Magdala, and relieved us from our apprehensions. Theodore knew indirectly that we sent servants to the coast, but as it is the custom to allow prisoners' servants to go to their masters' families to beg for them, he could not well forbid us; the more so as he never gave us anything. If messengers had fallen into his hands he would probably have plundered the money, but not injured them. As for letters it was quite a different affair: if those we wrote had by accident come into his possession, he would have made short work of the messenger, and most certainly of us also.

It might appear strange that the Abyssinians - a race of thieves - should have proved themselves so honest on these occasions, and not absconded with the couple of hundred dollars entrusted to them: a fortune for a poor servant. Though it would be ungrateful to run down these men, who exposed themselves to great perils, often travelled the whole distance from Massowah to Magdala at night, and who, I may say, saved us from starvation; still I believe that they acted more on the old adage that honesty is the best policy, than from any innate virtue. First, they were handsomely rewarded, well treated, and expected a further reward (which they very properly received) should fortune once more smile upon us; Secondly, all the great rebel chiefs befriended us, and we should have had but to communicate with them directly, or, better still, through the Bishop; for them to have at once seized the delinquent, deprived him of his ill-gotten wealth, and punished him severely. This they knew perfectly well.

Looking back, I cannot imagine how I got through the long, dreary days of idleness, always the same, for twenty-one months. Chains were nothing compared to the fearful want of occupation. Suppose we had kept a daily diary, the entries would have been generally as follows: - "Took a bath (a painful operation, as the chains, unsupported by the bandages, hurt fearfully); small boy helps to pass my trousers between the chains. To-day, being dry, we crawled up and down our fifteen yards' walk. Breakfast; felt happier that task over. Sick came for medicine. As I am doctor and apothecary, prescribed and made the medicine myself. Samuel, or some trusty native friend who knows that my tej is ripe, came for a glass or two. Go now and smoke a pipe with Cameron. Lay down and read McCulloch's Commercial Dictionary; very interesting book, but sends me to sleep. Afternoon, lay down and got up again; tried once more the Commercial Dictionary. Dinner (I wonder what age the cock we ate had reached); crawled about for, an hour between the huts; lay down, took Gadby's Appendix; but as I knew it by heart, even his curious descriptions have no more attraction. Small boy lighted the fire; the wood was green, the smoke fearful. Had a game of whist with Rassam and Prideaux. I do not suppose they would play with our dirty cards in a guard-room. Lost twenty points. Small boy took off the trousers. The guards were cursing us because they had to sleep outside in the rain. Bravo, Samuel, you are a friend indeed!"

This imaginary page I might repeat ad infinitum. As a change, sometimes we wrote to our friends, or received letters and some scraps of newspapers - delightful days; few and far between. On Sundays we had divine service; Mr. Stern, though sick and weary, always did his utmost to comfort and encourage us. Such was, as a rule, our daily life: it is true we had our exciting times, perhaps too much of it at the end; we had also, now and then, a few other occupations, such as building a new hut, making a small garden, settling a quarrel amongst the servants: details that will come in our narrative as we proceed. I mentioned that the chiefs had promised to enlarge our fence; they kept to their word. Four or five days after we had undergone the chaining operation, they made us another visit, consulted, discussed for a long time, and at last agreed to make a small break in the fence and inclose the three huts they had promised us. Samuel, who had the distribution of the new premises, gave the small house to Rassam, took one of the godjos for himself, and gave the third one to Prideaux and myself. Kerans and Pietro were still to remain in the kitchen, so that our first house was left to Messrs. Cameron, Stern, and Rosenthal.

On the 23rd July, 1866, Prideaux and myself entered our new abode: and, without exaggeration, if a dog were tied up in a similar shed in England I may say that the owner would be prosecuted by the Society for the Protection of Animals. As it was, we were only too happy to get it, and at once went to work - not to make it comfortable, that was quite out of the question, but - to try to keep out the rain.