Theodore's Proceedings during our Stay at Magdala - His Treatment of Begemder - A Rebellion breaks out - Forced March on Gondar - The Churches are Plundered and Burnt - Theodore's Cruelties - The Insurgents increase in Strength...
Theodore remained at Aibankab for only a few days after our departure, and returned to Debra Tabor. He had told us once, "You will see what great things I will achieve during the rainy season," and we expected that he would march into Lasta or Tigre before the roads were closed by the rains, to subdue the rebellion that for years he had allowed to pass unnoticed. It is very probable that if he had adopted that course he would have regained his prestige, and easily reduced to obedience those provinces. No one was so much Theodore's enemy as himself; he seems to have been possessed with an evil spirit urging him to his own destruction. Many a time he would have regained the ground he had lost, and put down to a certain extent rebellion; but all his actions, from the day we left him until he arrived at Islamgee, were only calculated to accelerate his fall.
Begemder is a large, powerful, fertile province, the "land of sheep" (as its name indicates), a fine plateau, some 7,000 or 8,000 feet above the sea, well watered, well cultivated, and thickly populated. The inhabitants are warlike, brave for Abyssinians, and often have repulsed the rebels venturing to invade their province, so firm in its allegiance to Theodore. Not many months before Tesemma Engeddah, a young man, hereditary chief Of Gahinte, a district of Begemder near its eastern frostier, with the aid of the peasants, attacked a force sent into Begemder by Gobaze, utterly routed it and put every man to death; except a few chiefs who were kept for the Emperor to deal with as he thought fit.
Begemder paid an annual tribute of 300,000 dols., and supplied at all times the Queen's camp with grain, cows, &c., and during the stay of the Emperor in the province liberally provided his camp. Moreover, it furnished 10,000 men to the army, all good spearmen, but bad shots. Theodore, therefore, preferred for his musketeers the men of Dembea, who showed more skill in the use of fire-arms.
Begemder, the proverb says, "is the maker and destroyer of kings;" certainly it was so in the case of Theodore. After the flight of Ras Ali, Begemder at once acknowledged him, and caused him to be looked upon as the future ruler of the land. Theodore was well aware of the difficult game he had to play, but believed his precautions were such that he would inevitably succeed. At first he was all smiles; chiefs were rewarded, peasants flattered; his stay would be short; every day he expected he would leave. The annual tribute was paid; Theodore gave handsome presents to the chiefs, honoured many with silk shirts, and swore that as soon as the cannons his Europeans were casting should be completed, he would start for Godjam, and with his new mortars destroy the nest of the arch-rebel Tadla Gwalu. He invited, all the chiefs to reside in his camp during his stay, to rejoice his heart. They were his friends, when so many rose against him. Would they advance him a year's tribute? could they not provide more liberally for the wants of his army? He was going away for a long time, and would not for years trouble them for tribute or supplies. The chiefs did their best; every available dollar, all the corn and cattle the peasants could spare, found its way into Theodore's treasury and camp. But the peasants at last got tired, and would not listen any longer to the entreaties of their chiefs. Good words Theodore perceived would be of no avail any more, so he adopted an imperious, menacing tone. One after the other, on some good ground, he imprisoned the chiefs; but it was only to test their fidelity: they would, he knew get for him what he wanted, and then he would not only release them, but treat them with the greatest honour. The poor men did their best, and the peasants, in order to obtain the deliverance of their chiefs, brought all they had as a ransom. At last, both chiefs and peasants found that all their efforts failed to satisfy their insatiable master.
This state of things lasted for more than eight months, and during that period, first by plausible and honeyed words, afterwards by intimidation, he kept himself and army without difficulty and without trouble. He made no expeditions during that time, except one against Gondar. He hated Gondar - a city of merchants and priests, always ready to receive with open arms any rebel: any robber chief might sit undisturbed in the halls of the old Abyssinian kings and receive the homage and tribute of its peaceful inhabitants. Several times before Theodore had vented his rage on the unfortunate city; he had already more than once sent his soldiers to plunder it, and the rich Mussulman merchants had only saved their houses from destruction by the payment of a large sum. It was no more the famous city of Fasiladas, nor the rich commercial town that former travellers had described; confidence could no longer dwell under the repeated extortions of king and rebel, nor could the metropolis of Abyssinia afford to answer the repeated calls made upon its wealth. But still the forty-four churches stood intact, surrounded by the noble trees that gave to the capital such a picturesque appearance; no one had dared extend a sacrilegious hand to those sanctuaries, and until then Theodore himself had shrunk from such a deed. But now he had made up his mind: the gold of Kooskuam, the silver of Bata, the treasures of Selassie should refill his empty coffers; her churches should perish with the doomed city: nothing would he leave standing as a record of the past, not a dwelling to shelter the people he despised.