Departure from Kassala - Sheik Abu Sin - Rumours of Theodore's Defeat by Tisso Gobaze - Arrival at Metemma - Weekly Market - The Takruries at Drill - Their Foray into Abyssinia - Arrival of Letters from Theodore...

On the afternoon of the 10th November we started for Kedaref. Our route now lay in a more southerly direction. On the 13th we crossed the Atbara, a tributary of the Nile, bringing to the father of rivers the waters of Northern Abyssinia. On the 17th we entered Sheik Abu Sin, the capital of the province of Kedaref. [Footnote: From Kassala to Kedaref is about 120 miles.] Our cameleers belonged to the Shukrie-Arabs. They are a semi-pastoral, semi-agricultural tribe, and reside principally in the neighbourhood of and along the course of the Atbara, or wander over the immense plains that extend almost without limit from this river to the Nile. They are more degenerated than the Beni-Amers, having mixed more with the Nubian and other tribes that dwell around them. They speak an impure Arabic. Many have retained the features and general appearance of the original race, whilst others might be looked upon as half-castes, and some can with difficulty be distinguished from the Nubians or Takruries.

From Kassala to Kedaref we crossed interminable plains, covered with high grass, speckled here and there with woods of mimosas, too scanty to afford the slightest shade or protection during the fearful heat of the mid-day sun. Here and there on the horizon appeared a few isolated peaks; the Djbel Kassala, a few miles south of the capital of Takka. Eastward, the Ela Hugel and the Abo-Gamel were in sight for many days, whilst towards the west, lost almost in the misty horizon, appeared in succession the outlines of Derkeda and Kassamot.

The valley of the Atbara, luxuriant in vegetation, inhabited by all varieties of the feathered tribe, visited by the huge thirsty quadruped of the savannah, presented a spectacle so grand in its savage beauty that we could with difficulty tear ourselves from its shady groves; had it not been that "Forward" was our watchword, we would, braving malaria, have spent a few days near its green and fragrant banks.

Sheik Abu Sin is a large village; the houses are circular and built of wood and covered with straw; A small hut belonging to the firm of Paniotti, our host of Kassala, was placed at our disposal. We shortly afterwards received the visit of a Greek merchant, who came to consult me for a stiff joint brought on by a gun-shot wound. It appears, that some years before, whilst riding a camel on an elephant-hunting expedition, the gun, a large half-ounce bore, went off by itself, he never knew how. All the bones of the fore-arm had been smashed, the cicatrice of a dreadful flesh-wound showed what sufferings he had undergone, and it was indeed a wonder for me that, residing as he did in such a hot unhealthy climate, deprived of all medical advice, he had not succumbed to the effects of the wound, still more that he had been able to save the limb. I considered the cure so extraordinary, that, as there was nothing to be done, I advised him to leave well alone.

The governor also called upon us, and we returned his civility. Whilst sipping our coffee with him and other grandees of the place, we were told that Tisso Gobaze, one of the rebels, had beaten Theodore and made him a prisoner. He said he believed the news to be correct, but advised us to inquire into it on our arrival at Metemma, and should we find it untrue, to return on our steps and on no account to enter Abyssinia if Theodore was still the ruler. He then gave us some examples of the Emperor's cruelty and treachery; but we did not put much credence in his word, as we knew that of old a bad feeling existed between the Abyssinian Christians and their Mussulman neighbours of the plain. At Metemma that rumour was not even known; however, we had no choice, and never thought one instant of anything else but of accomplishing the mission intrusted to us, in face of all perils and dangers.

At Kedaref we were lucky enough to arrive on a market-day, consequently had no difficulty in exchanging camels. That very evening we were en route again, still towards the south, but this time making almost an angle with our former route, marching towards the rising sun.

Between Sabderat and Kassala, between that town and the Gash, we had for the first time seen some cultivation; but it was nothing compared to the immense vista of cultivated fields, beginning a day's journey from Sheik Abu Sin, and extending, almost without interruption, throughout the provinces of Kedaref and Galabat. Villages appeared in all directions, crowning every rounded hillock. As we advanced, these eminences increased in size until they gave place to hills and mountains, which ultimately blend with the uninterrupted chain of high peaks forming the Abyssinian table-land, now again, after so many days, rising before us.

We arrived at Metemma on the afternoon of the 21st of November. In the absence of Sheik Jumma, the potentate of these regions, we were received by his alter ego, who put one of the Imperial residences - a wretched barn - at the disposal of the "great men from England." If we deduct the seven days we were obliged to halt en route, on account of the difficulty we had in obtaining camels, we performed the whole journey between Massowah and Metemma, a distance of about 440 miles, in thirty days. Our journey on the whole was extremely dreary and fatiguing. Apart from a few pretty spots, such as from Ain to Haboob, the valleys of the Anseba and Atbara, and from Kedaref to Galabat, we crossed only endless savannahs, saw not a human being, not a hut, only now and then a few antelopes, or the tracks of elephants, and heard no sound but the roar of wild beasts. Twice our caravan was attacked by lions; unfortunately we did not see them, as we were on both occasions riding ahead, but every night we heard their awful roar, echoing like distant thunder in the still nights of those silent prairies.

The heat of the day was at times really painful. In order that the camels might start in time, our tents were packed early; sometimes we would sit for hours waiting the good pleasure of the cameleers under the scanty shade of a mimosa, vainly endeavouring to find in its dwarfed foliage a relief from the burning rays of the sun. Night after night, be it moonlight or starlight, on we went; the task was before us, and duty urged us on to reach the land where our countrymen were lingering in chains. Often in the saddle between three and, four P.M., we have jogged along on our wearied mules until the morning star had disappeared before the first rays of day. For several days we had no water but the hot and filthy fluid we carried in leathern skins; and even this nauseous decoction was so scanty and precious, that we could not afford to soothe the sun-burnt skin and refresh the exhausted frame by a timely ablution.

Notwithstanding the discomfort, inconveniences, nay, danger of crossing the Soudan in that unhealthy season of the year, by care and attention we reached Metemma without having had a single death to lament. Several of the followers and native servants, even Mr. Rassam, suffered more or less from fever. They all eventually recovered, and when a few weeks later we started for Abyssinia, the whole party was in better health than when we left the hot and sultry shores of the Red Sea.

Metemma, the capital of Galabat, a province situated on the western frontier of Abyssinia, is built in a large valley, about four miles from the Atbara. A small rivulet runs at the foot of the village, and separates Galabat from Abyssinia. On the Abyssinian side there is a small village, inhabited by the few Abyssinian traders who reside there during the winter months; at which period a large traffic is carried on with the interior. The round, conical hut is here again the abode of all classes the size and better state of repair being the only visible difference between the dwelling of the rich and that of his less fortunate neighbour. Sheik Jumma's palaces are inferior to many of his subjects' huts, probably to dispel the credited suspicion that he is rich, and that incalculable treasures are buried under the ground. The huts put at our disposal were, as I have already stated, his property; they are situated on one of the small hills that overlook the town; the Sheik removes there with his family during the rainy season, as it is in some degree less unhealthy than the swampy ground below.

Though following the creed of the Medina prophet, the capital of Galabat cannot boast of a single mosque.

The inhabitants of Galabat are Takruries, a negro race from Darfur. They number about 10,000; of these 2,000 reside in the capital, the remainder in the many villages that arise in all directions amidst cultivated fields and green meadows. The whole province is well adapted for agricultural purposes. Small rounded hillocks, separated by sloping valleys watered by many rivulets, impart a pleasing aspect to the whole district; and if it was not for the extreme unhealthiness of the place, it is possible to understand the selection made by the Darfur pilgrims: though it is no compliment paid to their own native land. The pious Darfur Mussulmans, on their way to Mecca, observed this favoured spot, and fancied it realized, minus the houris, some of the inferior Paradises of Mohammed. At last some remained; Metemma was built; other pilgrims followed the example; and soon, though a lazy and indolent race, owing to the extreme fertility of the soil, they formed a prosperous colony.

At the outset they acknowledged the Sultan of Darfur, paid him tribute, and were governed by one of his officers. But the Galabat colony soon found out that the Egyptians and Abyssinians were more to be feared than their distant sovereign, who could neither protect nor injure them; accordingly, they quietly murdered the viceroy from Darfur, and elected a Sheik from amongst themselves. The ruler at once made terms with both Egyptians and Abyssinians, and tendered yearly tribute to both. This wise but servile policy met with the best results; the colony increased and prospered, trade flourished, Abyssinians and Egyptians flocked to the well-supplied market, and the tribute of a few thousand dollars to each party fell lightly on the now rich and cunning negroes.

From November to May, on Mondays and Tuesdays, the market is held on a large open space in the centre of the village. Abyssinians bring horses, mules, cattle, and honey; the Egyptian merchant displays in his stall, calico, shirtings, hardware, and gaudy prints. Arabs and Takruries arrive with camels laden with cotton and grain. The market-place is now a crowded and exciting scene: horses are tried by half-naked jockeys, who, with whip and heel, drive at a furious pace their diminutive steeds, reckless as to the limbs and lives of the venturous spectators.

Here cotton is being loaded on donkeys, and will soon find its way to Tschelga and Gondar; here some fat Nubian girls, redolent with rancid castor-oil flowing from their woolly heads down their necks and shoulders, issue grinning from a Frank's store, holding in their hands red and yellow kerchiefs, the long-desired object of their dreams. The whole scene is lively; good-humour prevails; and though the noise is fearful, the bargaining being long and clamorous, and every one is armed with lance or club, still, all is peaceful: no blood is ever shed on these occasions but that of a few cows, killed for the many visitors from the high country who enjoy their raw beefsteak under the cool shadow of the willows that border the stream.

On Friday the scene changes. On that day the whole community is seized with martial ardour. Having no mosque, the Takruries devote their holy day to ceremonies more suited to their taste, and resort to the market-place, now transformed into a parade-ground, a few to drill, the greater number to admire. Some Takruries, having served for a time in the Egyptian army, returned to their adopted land full of the value of disciplined troops, and of the superiority of muskets over lances and sticks. They prevailed on their countrymen to form a regiment on the model of "master's," Old muskets were purchased, and Sheik Jumma had the glory to see during his reign the 1st, or Jumma's Own, rise to existence. A more ludicrous sight could not, I believe, be witnessed. About a hundred flat-nosed, woolly, grinning negroes march around the parade-ground in Indian file, out of step, for about ten minutes. Line is then formed, but not being as yet well up to the proper value of the words of command, half face on one side, half on the other. Still the crowd admires; white teeth are displayed from ear to ear. The yellow-eyed monsters now feel confident that with such support nothing is impossible, and no sooner is "stand at ease" proclaimed, than the spectators rush, forward to admire more closely, and to congratulate, the future heroes of Metemma.

Sheik Jumma is an ugly specimen of an ugly race: he is about sixty years of age, tall and lank, with a wrinkled face, very black, having a few grey patches on the chin, and the owner of a nose so flat that it requires time to see that he has one at all; He is generally drunk, and spends the greater part of the year carrying the tribute either to the Abyssinian Lion, or to his other master the Pasha of Khartoum. A few days after our arrival at Metemma he returned from Abyssinia, and politely paid us a visit, accompanied by a motley and howling train of followers. We returned his call; but he had got drunk in the interval, and was at least uncivil, if not positively rude.

During our stay we had occasion to witness the great yearly, festival of the re-election of the Sheik. Early in the morning a crowd of Takruries came pouring in from all directions, armed with sticks or spears, a few mounted, the majority on foot, all howling and screeching (I believe they call it singing), so that before even the dust raised by a new party could be seen, the ear was deafened by their clamour. Every Takrurie warrior - that is, every one who can howl and carry a bludgeon or lance - is entitled to a vote; for this privilege he pays a dollar. The polling consists in counting the money, and the amount decides the ruler's fate. The re-elected Sheik (such was the result of the election we witnessed) killed cows, supplied jowaree loaves, and, above all, immense jars of merissa (a kind of sour toast-and-water, intoxicating for all that), and feasted for two days the whole body of the electors. It is difficult to say which of the two is out of pocket, the elector or the Sheik. There is no doubt that every Takrurie will eat and drink to the full amount of his dollar; is content with paying his homage, and wishes to have the worth of his money. Bribery is unknown! The drums, the sign of royalty, have been silent for three days (during the interregnum), but the cows are no sooner slaughtered and the merissa handed round by black maidens or fair Galla slaves, than their monotonous beat is again heard; soon to be drowned under the howling chorus of two thousand intoxicated negroes.

The following morning the whole assembled "by orders" on a place some distance from the town. Arranged in a large crescent, Sheik Jamma addressed his warriors in these words: "We are a strong and mighty people, unequalled in horsemanship and in the use of the club and the spear!" Moreover, (said he), they had increased their power by adopting the system of fire-arms, the real strength of the Turks. He was all-confident that the very sight of their gunmen would strike terror into every neighbouring tribe. He ended by proposing a raid into Abyssinia, and said: "We will take cows, slaves, horses, and mules, and please our master the great Theodore by plundering his enemy Tisso Gobaze!" A wild feu-de-joie, and a terrible roar, from the excited crowd, informed the old Sheik that his proposal was accepted. That very same afternoon they started on their expedition, and probably surprised some peaceful district, as they returned after a few days, driving before them several thousand heads of cattle.

Metemma, from May to November, is very unhealthy. The principal diseases are continued, remittent, and intermittent fevers, diarrhoea, and dysentery. The Takruries are a tough race, and resist well the noxious influences of the climate; but not so the Abyssinian, or the white man: the first is almost certain to die should he attempt to spend the dreaded months in the malarious low country, the second most probably will suffer much in health, but resist for a season or two. During our stay, I had many demands for medicine. Large, cake-like spleens were greatly reduced by local applications of tincture of iodine, and the internal administration of small doses of quinine and iodine of potassium. Chronic diarrhoea yielded readily to a few doses of castor oil, followed by opium and tannic acid. Acute and chronic dysentery was treated by ipecacuanha, followed by astringents. One of my patients was the son and heir of the Sheik. He had been suffering for the last two years from chronic dysentery; and although under my care he entirely recovered, his ungrateful father never even thanked me for all my trouble. Simple ophthalmia, skin diseases, and glandular swellings were also common.

The Takruries have no knowledge whatever of medicine: charms are here, as throughout the Soudan, the great remedy. They are also used as preventatives to keep off the evil eye, bad spirits, and genii of different sorts; for these reasons almost every individual - nay, cattle, mules, and horses, are covered with amulets of all shapes and sizes.

The day after our arrival at Metemma we despatched two messengers with a letter to the Emperor Theodore, to inform him that we had reached Metemma, the place he had himself fixed upon, and were only waiting for his permission to proceed to his presence. We feared that the fickle despot might change his mind, and leave us for an unlimited period in the unhealthy Galabat. More than a month had elapsed, and we were giving way to despair, when, to our great joy, on the 25th of December (1865), the messengers we had despatched on our arrival, also those sent from Massowah at the time of our departure, returned, bringing for us civil and courteous answers from his Majesty. Sheik Jumma was also ordered by his Abyssinian master to treat us well, and to provide us with camels up to Wochnee. At that village, Theodore informed us, we should be met by an escort and by some of his officers, by whom arrangements would be made to convey our luggage to the imperial camp.