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.

On the afternoon of the 1st of December, Theodore started on his merciless errand, taking with him only the elite of his army, the best mounted and the best walkers amongst his men. He never halted until he came, the next morning, to the foot of the hill on which Gondar is built - a march of more than eighty miles in less than sixteen hours. But though he suddenly pounced upon his enemy, it was too late; the news of his approach had spread faster. The joyous elelta resounded from house to house; the anxious and terrified inhabitants desired to appear happy in presence of the dire calamity such a visit presaged. The rebel's deputy had left the palace in time, and accompanied by a few hundred horsemen, awaited, at some distance from the town, the result of Theodore's coming. He had not long to wait. The invaders searched every house, plundered every building, from the churches to the poorest hut, and drove away before them like cattle the 10,000 remaining inhabitants of that large city. Then, the work of destruction began: fire spread from house to house, the churches and palace, the only remarkable buildings the country possessed, became a heap of blackened ruins. But the priests looked sullen; some entreated, others murmured, a few were bold enough to curse; at an order given by Theodore, hundreds of aged priests were hurled into the flames. But his insatiate fury demanded fresh victims. Where were the young girls who had welcomed his entrance. Was it not their joyous shouts that had scared away the rebel? "Let them be brought!" cried the fiend, and these young girls were thrown alive into the fire!

The expedition had been successful; Gondar was utterly destroyed. Four inferior churches only had escaped destruction. Gold, silks, dollars were now abundant in the royal camp. Theodore was received on his return to Debra Tabor with all the triumphal honours bestowed on a victor; the Gaffat people went to meet him with lighted torches; and compared him to the pious Hozekiah. If Theodore's star had been dim before this wanton barbarity, it disappeared altogether from that day: all went against him - success never attended him more.

The burning of Gondar increased immensely the power of the rebels. They advanced steadily and cautiously, seizing district after district, until whole provinces acknowledged their sway, and all joined in anathematizing the sacrilegious monarch who had not hesitated to destroy churches that even the Mussulman Gallas had respected. As long as the soldiers had money the peasants willingly sold them their goods; but this could not last long: soon scarcity prevailed in the camp. Theodore applied to the chiefs; they must use their influence and force the "bad peasant" to bring in more supplies. The peasants would listen no longer; they told the chiefs, "Let the king set you free and then we will do anything you tell us, but now we know that you are only acting under compulsion." Theodore ordered the chiefs to be tortured: "If they cannot bring grain they must give money." Some who had a few savings sent them - for torture was worse than poverty; but this did not improve their condition. Theodore believed that they had more, and as they had nothing to give, many died under the daily repetition of the tortures Theodore now inflicted on his prisoners; amongst whom were his bravest soldiers, his staunchest supporters, nay, his bosom friends.

Desertions were now more frequent than ever; chiefs left in the open day with their followers; the gunman threw away his weapon, and joined his oppressed brother the peasant; great numbers of the Begemder soldiery daily abandoned his cause and returned to their villages. Theodore, in this plight, resorted to a former practice of his. He must plunder, and feed his army by plunder. But the Begemder men would not plunder their own countrymen, and he did not place much confidence in the bravery of his Dembea men: therefore he pitted the man of Gahinte against the peasant of Ifag, the sons of Mahdera Mariam against those of Este - all districts of the same province, but far distant from one another, and with long feuds existing between some of them. At first he succeeded, and returned from his expeditions with ample supplies; but his fearful cruelties at last aroused the peasants. Joined by the deserters they fought in their own way, cut off stragglers, sent their families to distant provinces, and for miles around Debra Tabor ceased cultivating the soil.

In March, 1867, Theodore started for Kourata, the third town in importance in Abyssinia, and the greatest commercial centre after Gondar and Adowa. But this time he failed completely; ever since his expedition to Gondar, the peasants of all the surrounding districts were always on the alert: beacon-fires were ready, the people telegraphed to each other in their rude way, and the victims evaded the tyrant.

At Kourata he found no one, and hardly any plunder; the rich merchants, priests, every one had embarked with all their goods in the small native boats, and, out of range of Theodore's rifles, quietly awaited his departure to return to their homes. Theodore was greatly disappointed; he expected to reap a rich harvest and found nothing. He must revenge himself; but here, again, he was frustrated. The soldiers deserteden masse; few, very few would remain with him, he was told, if he destroyed Kourata. The sacred town, houses, streets, trees, had all been dedicated to God's service; such a sacrilege was beyond the rascality of even the Abyssinian soldier. Theodore had to return to Debra Tabor. Sometimes once or twice a week he would go forth and plunder; but with little success: each time his difficulties increased; the peasants had lost their first great dread of him; they fought well at places, and defied the gaily-dressed chiefs: none as yet stood before him, but the day was not far off when his prestige had fallen so low that a man was found who challenged his anointed king.

The position of the Europeans near Theodore was, indeed, most painful. Always to please a ferocious, mad, enraged tiger, would have been trifling compared to what they had to undergo during the last year they served him. Theodore was quite changed; no one who had known him in former days would have now recognized the elegant and chivalrous young prince, or the proud, but just Emperor, in the homicidal monomaniac of Debra Tabor.

A few days before we left for Magdala (after the political trial), Messrs. Staiger, Brandeis, and the two hunters, foreseeing that captivity, and probably chains, would be our lot before long, availed themselves of a former permission they had obtained to remain near Mrs. Flad during her husband's absence, in order to keep clear of the coming storm. McKelvie (a former captive, and servant of Capt. Cameron,) pretended sickness, also remained behind, and shortly afterwards took service with his Majesty. Mackerer (also a former captive, and servant of Capt. Cameron,) had previously been in Theodore's service, and preferred to return to him rather than go through a second captivity at Magdala. Little were they aware at the time how much they would have to go through themselves.

Mrs. Rosenthal, on account of her health, could not accompany us then; afterwards she several times applied for leave to join her husband, but until a couple of months before our release, was always refused on some specious reason or the other. Mrs. Flad and children belonged to the same party, having been left by her husband on his departure, under the protection of the "Gaffat people."

Altogether the number of Europeans with his Majesty during the time of our captivity at Magdala, including Mr. Bardel, was fifteen, exclusive of the two ladies and several half-castes.

Theodore had no sooner returned to Debra Tabor, after sending us to Magdala, than he set to work, with the assistance of the Europeans, casting cannons of various shapes and sizes, and mortars of immense weight and calibre. Gaffat, where the foundry had been erected, was only a few miles from Debra Tabor, and every day Theodore was in the habit of riding down with a small escort and superintending the works. On these occasions, the four who had remained behind (Mr. Staiger and his party) usually came to present their respects, but did not work. Mackerer and McKelvie had been apprenticed to some of the Gaffat people, and did their utmost to please the Emperor, and he, to encourage them, presented them with a silk shirt and 100 dollars each. One morning when the four had come as usual to look on, Theodore, in an angry voice, asked them why they did not work with the others. They perceived by his tone and manner that it was imprudent to refuse; and accordingly bowed in acquiescence and set to work. Theodore, to mark his pleasure, ordered them to be invested with robes of honour, and sent them also 100 dollars each. For some time they worked at the foundry, but were afterwards sent with Mr. Bardel to make roads for the artillery; Theodore, with his usual caution, having two constructed at the same time, one in the direction of Magdala, the other leading towards Godjam, so as to leave every one, his people and the rebels, in doubt as to his movements.

At this time Mr. Brandeis and Mr. Bardel happened to meet at some hot springs not far from Debra Tabor, whither they had gone with his Majesty's permission for the benefit of their health. Though Bardel was not a favourite; being justly distrusted by all, it seems that a kind of intimacy sprung up between the two, and in an hour of confidence Mr. Brandeis revealed to Bardel a plot they had made to run away, proposing to him to join their party. Bardel accepted. A short time afterwards they returned to Debra Tabor, or rather to a short distance from it, where they were making the roads. They at once set to work to complete their arrangements, and at last, everything being ready for the route, they fixed upon the night of the 25th of February for their departure. Towards ten in the evening Bardel looked into the tent where all were assembled, and seeing at a glance that everything was ready, pretended to have forgotten something in his tent, and begged them to wait a few minutes for him. They agreed, and mounting his horse, Bardel started at full gallop to fetch Theodore. That man, so unprincipled that even Abyssinians looked upon him with contempt, had basely betrayed, out of mere love of mischief, those poor men who had trusted in him. Theodore was quite taken aback when Bardel told him that the four he had taken into his service, and Mackerer, were on the point of deserting. "But were you not also one of the party?" Theodore inquired. Bardel said that it was true; but if he had entered into the plot, it was only to be able to prove his attachment to his master by revealing it to him, when he could with his own eyes assure him of the correctness of the assertion. Theodore accompanied him to the tent where the others were anxiously expecting their companion's return. Fancy their dismay and astonishment when they saw the Emperor quietly walking in followed by their betrayer!

Theodore was calm, asked them why they were so ungrateful, and why they wanted to run away? They replied that they longed to see their country. They were given in charge to the soldiers who had accompanied Theodore, chained hand and foot, each of them to one of their servants; all their followers were stripped naked, tied with ropes, and several of them killed. Their condition ever since was most dreadful: they were confined at first with hundreds of starving and naked Abyssinians, witnessed the execution of thousands, many of whom had been their bed companions, and expected at any instant to be called upon to pay with their lives the penalty of their rash attempt. However, Theodore after a while made a difference between them and his people, he set apart a small tent for them, did not deprive them of all their clothes, and allowed them some servants to prepare their food.

The rebellion had by this time, April, 1867, become so universal, that apart from a few provinces in the neighbourhood of Magdala, that fortress and another one, Zer Amba, near Tschelga, he could only call his own the few acres on which his tents were pitched. His European workmen had cast some guns for him, and afraid that at Gaffat these might be seized by some rebel, he determined upon removing them to his camp. He took advantage of the receipt of a letter from Mr. Flad, to appear displeased at the news he had received, and thereby cover his ingratitude towards those faithful servants by a plausible excuse.

On the 17th of April Theodore went to Gaffat, stopped at the foot of the hillock on which it is built, sent for the Europeans, and told them that he had received a letter from Mr. Flad, containing serious matters, and that, as he could not trust them far from him, they must go to Debra Tabor until Mr. Flad's return, when all would be explained; he added that he had also heard that preparations for the reception of troops were being made at Kedaref, and that "if he was to be killed, they would die first." One of the Europeans, Moritz Hall, remonstrated against the unfair treatment he was subjected to, after long and faithful services: "Kill us at once," he exclaimed, "but do not degrade us in this way; if in the letter you have received, there is anything you can charge against us, then have it read out before your people. Death is better than unjust suspicion." Theodore, in angry tone, ordered him to be silent, and sent them all under escort to Debra Tabor; their wives and families followed; all their property was seized, but afterwards partly returned, and on the tools and instruments being given back to them, they were told to work. The Europeans and guns safe in his camp, Theodore left Debra Tabor on a plundering expedition; but in Begemder he met with such constant resistance from the peasantry, that his soldiers at last objected.

To please them, he led them towards Foggara, a fertile plain to the north-west of Begemder; but he found hardly anything there. All the grain had been buried, and the cattle removed to distant parts of the country. One of our messengers sent to him by Mr. Rassam found him there, and on his return, gave us the most dreadful description of the Emperor's temper: floggings, beatings, and executions were going on all day, and he was so badly off for money, that he had imprisoned several of his own personal attendants, fixing their release at 100 dollars each. During his absence, the Gaffat people had consulted amongst themselves as to the best means of regaining the Emperor's favour, and decided on proposing to cast an immense mortar for him. Theodore was delighted. A foundry was erected, and the "Great Sebastopol," which was destined to be the crushing blow for him, and the means of our salvation, was begun.