Entrance into Abyssinia - Altercation between Takruries and Abyssinians at Wochnee - Our Escort and Bearers - Applications for Medicine - First Reception by his Majesty - The Queen's Letter Translated, and Presents Delivered...

Heartily sick of Metemma, and longing to climb the high range so long a forbidden barrier to our hopes and wishes, we soon made our preparations, but were delayed a few days on account of the camels. Sheik Jumma, probably proud of his late achievements seemed to take his orders pretty coolly, and, had we not been more anxious ourselves to penetrate into the tiger's den than the Sheik to comply with the King's request, we should no doubt have remained many a day longer at the court of that negro potentate. By dint of courteous messages; promises, and threats, the required number of camels was at last forthcoming, so that on the afternoon of the 28th December, 1865, we passed the Ethiopian Rubicon, and halted for the night on Abyssinian ground. On the morning of the 30th we arrived at Wochnee, and pitched our tents under some sycamores at a short distance from the village. This, our first stage in Abyssinia, led us through woods of mimosas, acacias, and incense-trees; the undulating ground, waving like the ocean after a storm, was covered with high and still green grass. As we advanced, the ground became more irregular and broken, and we crossed several ravines, having each its small running rivulet of crystal water. By-and-by the rounded hillocks acquired a more abrupt and steep appearance; the grass was no longer tall and green, but fine and dry; the sycamore, the cedar, and large timber-trees began to appear. As we approached Wochnee, our route was a succession of ascents and descents more precipitous and very fatiguing, as we trudged through deep ravines and climbed the almost perpendicular sides of the first range of the Abyssinian mountains.

At Wochnee we found no one to welcome us. The cameleers, having unladen their camels, were going to depart, when a servant of one of the officers sent to receive us by his Majesty arrived. He brought us compliments from his master, who could not join us for a few days, as he was collecting bearers; he told us that we must proceed another stage by the camels, as no bearers could be obtained in the district of Wochnee. A serious altercation then took place between the governor of Wochnee and the cameleers. They declined to proceed any further, and after a short consultation between themselves, each man seized his camel and walked away. But the governor and the officer's servant had also been consulting together: seeing the cameleers departing, they went to the village, and, as it happened to be market-day, soon collected a good number of soldiers and peasants. As the cameleers were passing close to the village, on a given signal, the whole of the camels were seized. I regret to say, for the honour of the Arabs and Takruries, that, though well armed, they did not show fight, but on the contrary, ran away in every direction. Unwilling to lose their precious beasts of burden, the owners returned by twos and threes. More consultations followed: at last, on the promise of an extra dollar for each, and a cow for all, peace and harmony were satisfactorily restored. After a couple of hours' march, we reached Balwaha. I can understand the difficulties the cameleers raised, as the road is exceedingly bad for camels, passing as it does over two high and steep mountains and across two narrow ravines densely overgrown with tall bamboos.

At Balwaha we encamped in a small natural enclosure, formed by beautiful foliaged trees. Three days after our arrival, two of the officers sent by Theodore to meet us at last made their appearance, but no bearers. We had unfortunately arrived during the last days of the long feast before Christmas, and we must, said the chief of the escort, have patience till the feast was over.

On the 6th January about twelve hundred peasants were assembled, but the confusion was so great that no start could be made before the following day, and even then we only made the short stage of four miles. The greater part of the heavy baggage was left behind, and it required a reinforcement from Tschelga to allow us to proceed on our journey. On the 9th we made a better stage, and halted for the night on a small plateau opposite the high hill fort of Zer Amba.

We were now fairly in the mountains, and had often to dismount to descend some precipitous declivity, wondering how our mules could climb the opposite steep, wall-like ascent. On the 10th the same awful road, only worse and worse as we advanced; and when at last we had ascended the almost perpendicular precipice that leads to the Abyssinian plateau itself, and admired the grand vista that lay at our feet, we congratulated ourselves upon having at last reached the land of promise. We halted a few miles from the market town of Tschelga, at a place called Wali Dabba. Here we had to exchange bearers and consequently to wait several days till the new ones arrived, or anything like order could be introduced. From that day my troubles began.

I was at all hours of the day surrounded by an importuning crowd, of all ages and sexes, afflicted by the many ills that flesh is heir to. I had no more privacy, and no more rest. Did I leave our camp with my gun in search of game, a clamorous crowd followed me. On the march, at every halt from Wali Dabba to Theodore's camp in Damot, I heard nothing else from sunrise to sunset but the incessant cries of "Abiet, abiet; medanite, medanite." [Footnote: "Lord Master, medicine, medicine."] I did my best; I attended at any hour of the day those who would benefit from a few doses of medicine. But this did not satisfy the great majority, composed of old syphilitic cases, nor the leper, nor those suffering from elephantiasis, the epileptic, the scrofulous, or those who had been mutilated at the hands of the cruel Gallas. Day after day the crowd of patients increased; those who had met with refusal remained in the hope that on another day the "Hakeem's" boxes of unheard-of medicine might be opened, for them also. New ones daily poured in. The many cures of simple cases that I had been able to accomplish spread my fame far and wide, and even reached my countrymen at Magdala, who heard that an English Hakeem had arrived, who could break bones and instantly set them, so that the individual operated upon walked away like the paralytic in Holy Writ. At last the nuisance became intolerable, and I was obliged to keep my tent closed all day long; whenever I left it I was surrounded by an admiring crowd. The officers of the escort were obliged to place a guard round my tent, and only allowed their relatives and friends to approach. Still, these were often countless, and it was not till the dread of the despot overcame even their love of life and health, that successful and unsuccessful postulants returned to their homes.

On the 13th January we began our march towards the Emperor's camp, and passed successively through the provinces of Tschelga, part of Dembea, Dagossa, Wandige, Atchefur, Agau Medar, and Damot, leaving the Tana Sea on our left. The three first-named provinces had a few years before fallen under the wrath of the despot; every village had been burnt, every crop destroyed, and the inhabitants had either perished from famine or been absorbed into the Imperial army. A few had just then returned to their broken-down homes, on hearing of the pardon proclaimed by the Emperor; who, after three years, had relented, and allowed those who still wandered in distant provinces, destitute and homeless, to return again to the land of their fathers. Here and there, amongst the ruins of former prosperous villages, some half-starved and almost naked peasants were seen erecting small sheds on the ashes of their ancestral huts, near the land they were going again to cultivate. Alas, they knew not how soon the same merciless hand would be stretched upon them! Atchefur had also been plundered at the same date; but their "crime" not having been so great, the "father of his people" had been content to strip them of all their property, and did not call fire in aid to complete his vengeance. The villages of Atchefur are large and well built; some, such as Limju, can rank with small towns; but the people had a poor and miserable appearance. The small amount of cultivation indicated but too plainly that they expected another plunder, and just tilled the soil enough to meet their immediate wants.

The Agau Medars were always pets of the Emperor; he never plundered them, or, what is the same, he never made any lengthened "friendly stay" among them. The rich and abundant harvest ready for the sickle, the numerous herds of cattle grazing in the flower-speckled meadows, the large and neat villages, the happy look of the peasants, clearly proved what Abyssinia can do for its children if their rich and fertile soil was not laid waste in wanton destruction, and themselves driven by warfare and bloodshed to perish from misery and hunger.

Theodore's camp was at this time in Damot. He had already burnt, plundered, and slaughtered to his heart's content; it is therefore not astonishing that from Agau to his camp we saw, apart from our escort and bearers, not a human being: no sleek cattle, no smiling hamlet - a dire, contrast to the happy Agau that "St. Michael protects."

The 25th of January was our last stage. We had halted the night before at a short distance from the Imperial camp. The black and white tents of Theodore, pitched on a high conical hill, stood out in bold relief as the setting sun made the dark background darker still. A faint, distant hum, such as one hears on approaching a large city, came now and then to us, carried by the soft evening breeze, and the smoke that arose for miles around the dark hill crowned by its silent tents, left us no, doubt that we should before long find ourselves face to face with the African despot, and that we were even then almost in the midst of his countless host. As we approached, messenger after messenger came to meet us; we had to halt several times, march on again for a while, and then halt anew; at last the chief of the escort told us that it was time to dress. A small rowtie was accordingly pitched; we put on our uniforms, and, mounting again, we had hardly proceeded a hundred yards, when, coming to a sudden turn in the road, we saw displayed before us one of those Eastern scenes which brought back to our memory the days of Lobo and of Bruce.

A conical wooded hill, opposite to the one honoured by the Imperial tents, was covered to the very summit by the gunners and spearmen of Theodore; all in gala dress; they were clad in shirts of rich-coloured silks, the black, brown, or red lamd [Footnote: A peculiar mantle of fur or velvet.] falling from their shoulders, the bright iron of the lances glancing in the light of the midday sun which poured its rays through the dark foliage of the cedars. In the valley between the hills a large body of cavalry, about 10,000 strong, formed a double line, between which we advanced. On our right, dressed in gorgeous array, almost all bearing the silver shield and the Bitwa, their horses adorned with richly plated bridles, stood the whole of the officers of his Majesty's army and household, the governors of provinces and of districts, &c. All were mounted, some on really noble-looking animals, tribute from the plateaus of Yedjow and the highlands of Shoa. On our left, the corps of cavalry was darker, but more compact, than its aristocraticvis-a-vis. The horses, though on the whole, perhaps, less graceful, were strong and in good condition; and seeing their iron ranks, we could well understand how panic-stricken the poor scattered peasants must have been when Theodore, at the head of his well-armed and well-mounted band of ruthless followers, suddenly appeared among their peaceful homes, and, before his very presence was suspected, had come, destroyed, and gone.

In the centre opposite to us stood Ras Engeddah, the Prime Minister, distinguished from all by his gentlemanly appearance and the great simplicity of his attire. Bare-headed, the shama girded in token of respect, he delivered the Imperial message of welcome, translated into Arabic by Samuel, who stood by him, and whose finely chiselled features and intellectual countenance at once proclaimed his superiority over the ignorant Abyssinian. Compliments delivered, the Ras and ourselves mounted, and advanced towards the Imperial tents, preceded by the body of mounted grandees, and followed by the cavalry. Arrived at the foot of the hill, we dismounted, and were conducted to a small red flannel tent pitched for our reception on the ascent itself. There we rested for a while, and partook of a slight collation. Towards three o'clock we were informed that the Emperor would receive us; we ascended the hill on foot, escorted by Samuel and several other officers of the Imperial household. As soon as we reached the small plateau on the summit, an officer brought us renewed greetings and compliments from his Majesty. We advanced slowly towards the beautiful durbar-tent of red and yellow silk, between a double line of gunners, who, on a signal, fired a salute very creditable to their untaught skill.

Arrived at the entrance of the tent, the Emperor again inquired after our health and welfare. Having acknowledged with due respect his courteous inquiries, we advanced towards the throne, and delivered into his hands the letter from her Majesty the Queen. The Emperor received it civilly, and told us to sit down on the splendid carpets that covered the ground. The Emperor was seated on an alga, wrapped up to the eyes in a shama, the sign of greatness and of power in Abyssinia. On his right and left stood four of his principal officers, clad in rich and gay silks, and behind him watched one of his trusty familiars, holding a double-barrelled pistol in each hand. The King made a few complaints about the European prisoners, and regretted that by their conduct they had interrupted the friendship formerly existing between the two nations. He was happy to see us, and hoped that all would be well again. After a few compliments had been exchanged, on the plea that we must be tired, having come so far, we were allowed to depart.

The letter from the Queen of England, which we had handed over to his Abyssinian Majesty, was in English, and no translation had been affixed to it. His Majesty did not break the seal before us, probably on account of the presence of his high officers; as he would not have liked them to witness his disappointment had the letter not suited his views. As soon as we had reached our tent, the letter was sent to us to be translated; but as we had with us no European who understood the language of the country, it had to be rendered first by Mr. Rassam into Arabic to Samuel, and by him from that language into Amharic. There is much reason to regret that none of the Europeans in the country who were conversant with the Amharic language were sent for before that important document was made over to his Majesty; for I believe that not only the translation was - in many respects - a bad one, but, moreover, incorrect. A simple phrase was rendered into one of deep importance to the success of the mission - one of such serious meaning, considering Theodore's position, that I am still inclined to believe that it was introduced in the Amharic translation by Theodore's instructions. The English ran thus: - "And so, not doubting that you will receive our servant Rassam in a favourable manner, and give entire credit to all that he shall say to you on our part." This was rendered: - "He will do for you whatever you require," or words to that effect. His Majesty was greatly pleased, so his confidential servants said, with the Queen's letter; and intimated that he would before long release the captives.

On the following morning Theodore sent for us. He had no one near him except Ras Engeddah. He was standing at the entrance of his tent, leaning gracefully on his lance. He invited us to enter the tent; and there, before us, he dictated to his secretary, in presence of Ras Engeddah, Samuel, and our interpreter, a letter to the Queen, - an humble, apologizing letter, which he never intended to despatch.

In the afternoon we had the honour of another interview, in order to make over to him the presents we had brought with us. He first asked if the gifts came from the Queen or from Mr. Rassam himself. Having been informed that they had been purchased in the name of the Queen, he accepted them; remarking, at the same time, that he did so not for their value, but as a token from a friendly Power whose renewed friendship he was so happy to acknowledge. Amongst the presents there was a large looking-glass. Mr. Rassam, on presenting it, told his Majesty that he had intended it for the Queen. On that his Majesty looked rather serious; but calmly replied that he had not been happy in his married life, and that he was on the point of marrying another lady, to whom he would offer the splendid mirror. Soon after our arrival, cows, sheep, honey, tej, and bread were sent in abundance, and ourselves and followers were daily supplied with all necessaries of life from the Imperial kitchen.

His Majesty accompanied us several stages towards the Tana Sea, Kourata having been fixed upon as our place of residence until the arrival of our countrymen from Magdala. On the first day's march we were left behind, on account of our luggage, and had a good opportunity of experiencing what it is to travel with an Abyssinian army. The fighting men were in front with the king, but the camp-followers (numbering on that occasion about 250,000), encumbered as they were with the tents and provisions of the soldiers, came more slowly behind. It is almost impossible to describe the crush and confusion that frequently took place when a small river had to be forded, or when a single footpath led along a steep, incline of almost naked rocks. Thousands heaped together pushed, screamed, and vainly endeavoured to penetrate the living mass, which always increased as the mules and donkeys became more frightened, and the muddy banks of the stream more slippery and broken. Several times, driven to despair by hours of patient waiting, we went in search of another road, or some other ford, where the crush and crowd might be less. It was only late in the afternoon that we reached our encamping-ground: we had been the whole day upon a march that the Emperor accomplished in an hour and a half.

Theodore, having heard to what inconvenience we had been put, had the heavy luggage conveyed as before; but ourselves, with a few light articles, were allowed the privilege of riding with him in front of the army. During the few days he accompanied us we made but short stages, never more than ten miles a day. Theodore travelled with us for several reasons: he wanted to take us by a short cut by the Tana Sea, and as the country was depopulated, he was obliged to have our luggage carried by his soldiers. He had not as yet plundered that part of Damot; the inhabitants had fled, but the harvest ready for the sickle remained, and at a sign from the Emperor was reaped by thousands of hands. Whilst the greater part of his soldiers were thus employed, and the sword was practically used as an implement of peace, the King, with a large body of cavalry, left the camp, and shortly afterwards the smoke that arose far and wide proclaimed their merciless errand.

A few incidents that occurred during our short stay with Theodore deserve to be recorded, as they will illustrate his character during his friendly moods. On our second day's march with his Majesty, (February 1st,) the Blue Nile was crossed not far from its source; the banks were steep and slippery, the crush was fearful, and many a child or woman would have been drowned or otherwise killed had not Theodore sent some of the chiefs, who waited on him, to make steps on the slope with their spears, whilst he remained there until the last camp-follower had passed. When we arrived his Majesty sent us word not to dismount. We crossed the water on our mules; but the moment we reached the opposite bank we alighted, and climbed to the spot where his Majesty was standing. The road was so precipitous and slippery that Mr. Rassam, who was in front, had some difficulty in reaching the summit; Theodore; seeing his position, advanced, took him by the hand, and said, in Arabic, "Be of good cheer, do not be afraid."

The following day, during the march, Theodore sent Samuel backwards and forwards with questions, - such as: "Is the American war over? How many were killed? How many soldiers had they? Did the English fight with the Ashantees? Did they conquer them? Is their country unhealthy? Is it like this? Why did the King of Dahomey kill so many of his subjects? What is his religion?" He then gave one of hisexcuses for not having sent for us sooner. He had been disappointed, he said, with all the Europeans that had entered his country. None were good but Bell and Plowden; and he wanted to know, by report, if the Englishman who had landed at Massowah was like all the rest. His patience was such that he had believed him to be a good man, and had, therefore, decided upon sending for him.

On the 4th he again sent for us. He was alone, sitting in the open air. He made us sit down on a carpet near him, - and spoke at length about his former career. He told us how he dealt with the rebels: first he sent them word to pay tribute; if they refused, he went himself and plundered their, country. On the third refusal, to use his own words, "he sent their bodies to the grave; and their souls to hell." He also told us that Bell had spoken to him so much about our Queen, that for many years he had intended sending her an embassy; he had even everything ready when; Captain Cameron made him an enemy of his former friend. He had ordered, he said, some tokens of his regard to be made for us, as he had nothing with him fit to offer us; he had been pleased to see us, and considered us as "three brothers." The interview was long; when at last his Majesty dismissed us, he informed us that the following day he would send us to Kourata to await there the arrival of our countrymen from Magdala. Shortly after reaching our tent, Mr. Rassam received a polite note, informing him that he would receive 5,000 dollars, which he might spend as he liked, but always in a manner agreeable to the Lord. A verbal message was also sent to me to inquire if I knew anything about smelting iron, casting guns, etc.: to which I answered, in pursuance of friendly advice, that I was ignorant of everything except my own medical profession.