Leave the Emperor's Camp for Kourata - The Tana Sea - The Abyssinian Navy - The Island of Dek - Arrival at Kourata - The Gaffat People and former Captives join us - Charges preferred against the latter - First Visit to the Emperor's Camp...

On the 6th of February his Majesty sent us word to depart. We did not see him, but before we left he sent us a letter informing us that as soon as the prisoners joined us he would take steps to send us out of his country in "honour and safety." The officer ordered to proceed to Magdala to deliver the captives, and conduct them to us, was one of our escort; we were the bearers of an humble apology from Theodore to our Queen: all smiled upon us; and rejoiced beyond expression by the apparently complete success of our mission, we retraced our steps with a light and thankful heart through the plains of Agau Medar. On the afternoon of the 10th of February, we encamped on the shore of the Tana Sea, a large fresh-water lake, the reservoir of the Blue Nile. The river enters at the south-west extremity of the lake, and issues again at its south-east extremity, the two branches being only separated by the promontory of Zage.

The spot we pitched our camp upon was not far from Kanoa, a pretty village in the district of Wandige, Kourata being almost opposite to us, bearing N.N.E. We had to wait several days while boats were constructed for ourselves, escort, and luggage. These boats - of the most primitive kind of construction still in existence - are made of bulrushes, the papyrus of the ancients. The bulrushes are tied together so as to form a flat surface some six feet in breadth and from ten to twenty feet in length. The two extremities are then rolled up and tied together. The passengers and boatmen sit upon a large square bundle of bulrushes forming the essential part of the boat, which the outward cage serves only to keep in place, and by its pointed extremities to favour progression. To say that these boats leak is a mistake; they are full of water, or rather, like a piece of cork, always half submerged: their floating is simply a question of specific gravity. The manner in which the boats are propelled adds greatly to the discomfort of the traveller. Two men sit in front, and one behind. They use long sticks, instead of oars, beating the water alternately to the right and left; at each stroke they send in front and from behind jets of spray like a shower-bath, and the unfortunate occupant of the boat, who had beforehand taken off his shoes and stockings and well tucked up his trousers, finds that he would have been wiser had he adopted a more simple costume still, and followed the example of the naked boatmen.

The Abyssinian navy does not weigh heavily on the estimates, nor does it take years to construct a fleet; two days after our arrival fifty new vessels had been launched, and several hundreds had joined from Zage and the Isle of Dek.

The few days we spent on the shore of the Tana Sea were among the small number of happy ones we have seen in this country. Samuel, now our balderaba (introducer) and chief of the escort, did not allow the former crowds to invade my tent. Being an intelligent man, and his relatives and friends less numerous than those of his predecessor, he only brought to me those he knew would benefit by a few doses of medicine, or whom he was compelled to introduce; for by refusing the petty chiefs and important men of the several neighbouring districts he would have made serious enemies. It was now a recreation, instead of a fatigue; a study of the diseases of the country; a fact almost impossible, before, when I could only defend myself against the importunities of a crowd, and in peace not examine a single case. The remainder of my time was spent in shooting. Aquatic birds, ducks, geese, &c., were in abundance, and so tame that the survivors did not move away, but remained bathing, feeding, and cleaning their bright feathers around the dead bodies of their mates and companions.

On the morning of the 16th we started for Dek, the largest and most important island of the Tana Lake; it is situated about half-way from our starting-place and Kourata. We were shower-bathed for about six hours; our speed was about two and a half knots, so that the distance must be about fifteen miles. Dek is a very pretty island indeed; a long, flat volcanic rock, surrounded by conical hillocks, forming so many island pearls around a coronet. The whole island is well wooded, covered with the most luxuriant vegetation, dotted with numerous and prosperous villages, and proudly boasts of four old and revered churches - the shrines of many devoted pilgrims. We spent the night in the heart of the picturesque island - the ideal of an earthly abode. Alas! we knew only some time afterwards that the passage of the white men caused tears and distress among the Arcadian inhabitants of that peaceful land. The inhabitants of the island had been ordered to supply us with 10,000 dollars. The chiefs, almost despairing of being able to raise so large a sum, made a powerful appeal to their friends and neighbours; painted in true colours the wrath of the despot should he learn that his request had not been complied with, and the wilderness that would then replace their rich and happy isle. The eloquence of some, and the threats of others, were equally successful. All the savings of years were brought to the chiefs; silver rings and chains - the dower and fortune of many a young maiden - were added to the newly spun shama of the matron: all were reduced to poverty, and were trembling; though they smiled whilst making the sacrifice of all their worldly goods. How they must have cursed, in the bitterness of their grief, the poor white strangers who were the innocent cause of all their misfortunes!

The following morning we started for Kourata, the distance and inconvenience being about the same as on the preceding day. Once again on terra firma, we hailed with delight the end of our short and disagreeable passage. On the beach we were received by the clergy, who had turned out in full canonicals to welcome us with all the pomp usually accorded only to royalty; for such had been the Imperial command. Two of the wealthiest merchants of the place claimed us as their guests, in the name of their royal master, and, mounted on beautiful mules, we ascended the hill on which Kourata is built; the privilege of riding through the sacred streets having been conferred on, the honoured guests of the sovereign of the land.

Kourata is, after Gondar, the most important and wealthy city of Abyssinia; it is a town of priests and merchants, built on the sides of a conical hill and bathed by the waters of the Tana Sea. The houses, many of them built of stone, are superior to any we saw in Abyssinia. The church erected by the Queen of Socinius is held in such sanctity that the whole town is considered sacred, and none but the bishop or the emperor are allowed to ride through its narrow and steep lanes. From the sea it is almost impossible to see the town, so close and compact are the towering dark cedars and sycamores - the just pride of the inhabitants. The whole hillock is so completely covered with vegetation of every description, that the spot from a distance seems more like a luxuriant waste untouched by man's hand, than the abode of thousands, and the central mart of Western Abyssinia. For a few days we resided in the town, where several of the best houses had been put at our disposal; but the countless host of unmentionable insects fairly drove us away. We obtained permission to pitch our tents on the sea beach, on a pleasant spot only a few hundred yards from the town, where we enjoyed the double luxury of fresh air and abundance of water.

A few days after our arrival at Kourata we were joined by the "Gaffat people." The Emperor had written to them to come and remain with us during our stay, as he feared that we might feel lonely and unhappy in his country, separated from our own people. Agreeably to the instructions they had received, on arriving at a short distance from our encampment, they sent to inform us of their arrival, and requested permission to present themselves before us. I was never so much taken aback as at the sight of these Europeans wearing the Abyssinian gala dress, silk shirts of gaudy colours, trousers of the same material, the shama thrown over the left shoulder, many with naked feet, several without covering to their head. They had been so long in Abyssinia that I doubt not they considered themselves very smart; and, if we did not admire them, the natives certainly did. They pitched their camp a little distance in rear of ours. A few days later their wives and children arrived, and on more intimate acquaintance we soon perceived that several amongst them were well-educated and well-informed men - not at all despicable companions in that distant laud.

On the 12th of March our poor countrymen, so long in chains and misery, at last arrived. We provided tents for those who had none, and they remained in our inclosure. They all, more or less, bore traces of the many sufferings they had endured; but Messrs. Stern and Cameron more than the others. We endeavoured to cheer them up by the prospect of a speedy return to Europe, and only regretted that we could not show them more kindness; as Mr. Rassam did not think it advisable, on account of Theodore's suspicious character, to appear to be on too intimate terms with them. They knew the Emperor better than we did, and now and then expressed doubts as to the favourable issue of the affair. They had heard en route that they would have to make boats for Theodore, and were always anxious and nervous each time a messenger arrived from the Imperial camp.

Theodore, after plundering Metcha, the fertile province at the southern extremity of Lake Tana, destroyed the large and populous town of Zage, and pitched his camp on a small strip of land connecting the promontory of Zage with the mainland. The Emperor was very attentive; he sent us 5,000 dollars more, supplies in abundance, and put thirty milch cows at our disposal; he also sent us lion cubs, monkeys, &c., and almost every second day wrote civil and courteous letters to Mr. Rassam. All our interpreters, all the messengers, even Mr. Rassam's butler, went one after the other to Zag to be invested with "the order of the shirt." To the messenger who had brought us down the false intelligence of Captain Cameron's release, he gave a marguf (silk-bordered) shama, a title, and the government of a district; and requested Mr. Rassam to love him, and cause him to be loved by our Queen, as his stratagem had fortunately succeeded, and had induced us to come to him. When one of our interpreters, Omar Ali, a native of Massowah, went in his turn to be decorated, he found his Majesty sitting near the beach making cartridges. He told him, "You see my occupation; but I am not ashamed of it. I cannot make up my mind to let Stern and Cameron go; but, for the sake of your masters, I will. I like them because they are always so well behaved, hold their caps in their hand as soon as they approach my presence, and are respectful before me, whilst Cameron used to pull his beard about all the time."

If I mention these apparent trifles, it is to show that Theodore was still doubtful in his mind whether he would allow any one to depart or not. As he was still wavering, he might, perhaps, have allowed himself to be guided by his better qualities, had not a few incidents that occurred at the time worked upon his suspicious nature.

Theodore, always fond of showing himself as a just man before his people, desired a kind of trial of the former captives to take place, before him and us, and in presence of his soldiers; when, had they acknowledged that they were wrong, and begged his Majesty's pardon, he would probably have gone through the form of a public reconciliation, and after presenting them with a few gifts, allowed them to depart.

Mr. Rassam, on the contrary, believed it to be advisable that his Majesty should not see the former captives, as their sight might put him in a passion; and as everything appeared to progress so favourably, he considered it more prudent to do his utmost to avoid a meeting between the two.

Shortly after the arrival of the Magdala prisoners, who had been joined at Debra Tabor by those who had been detained there on parole, his Majesty, at Mr. Rassam's instigation, instead of calling them to him as he had intended, sent several of his officers, his secretary, etc., to Kourata, and requested us to have certain charges read publicly to the captives, who would declare whether he or they were in the wrong.

All the captives, the Gaffat people, and the Abyssinian officers, being assembled in Mr. Rassam's tent, the scribe read the charges. The first was against Captain Cameron. Theodore began by stating that Cameron, on his representing himself to be a messenger from the Queen, was received with all due honour and respect, and welcomed to the best of his ability. He accepted with humility the presents the Queen sent to him, and on Cameron explaining that an exchange of consuls between the two countries would be greatly to the interest of Abyssinia, Theodore, to use his own words, said, "I was glad on hearing this, and said, very well!" He continued by stating that he impressed upon the consul that the Turks were his enemies, and requested him to protect the mission and presents he intended to send to the Queen; that he gave him a friendly letter, and sent him away, but Cameron, instead of delivering the letter, went to the Turks who hated him, and before whom he insulted and lowered him; that on Cameron's return, he asked him, "'Where is the answer to the friendly letter I entrusted you with? what have you come for?' He answered: 'I do not know;' so I said to him, 'You are not the servant of my friend the Queen, as you had represented yourself to be,' and by the power of my creator I imprisoned him. Ask him if he can deny this."

The second charge was against Mr. Bardel; but he had evidently got tired of the affair, as the charges against Stern, Rosenthal, &c. are not specified; though on former occasion he several times referred to his grievances against them. They are included in a general charge which runs as follows: -

"The other prisoners have abused me, I am well aware, I used to love, and honour them. A friend ought to be a shield to his friend, and they ought to have shielded me. Why did they not defend me? On this account I disliked them.

"Now, by the power of God! for the sake of the Queen, and the British people, and yourselves, I cannot continue my dislike against them. I wish you to make between us a reconciliation from the heart. If I am in fault, do you tell me and I will requite them; but if you find that I am wronged, I wish you to get them to requite me."

After the charges had been read, the captives were asked if they had done wrong or not. It would have been absurd for them not to have acknowledged their faults, and begged for pardon. We knew that they were innocent, injured men, and that any errors of judgment they might have committed were so trivial compared to the sufferings they had undergone, that they could, under any other circumstances, have applied for the requital he offered them. In acknowledging that they were wrong they acted wisely: it was what we counselled, nay ordered.

The sitting concluded with the public reading of the Amharic translation of the Queen's letter, and of the reply which Theodore said he would send by us.

Though all seemed smooth and favourable, no doubt a storm was imminent; and shortly afterwards, though everything was as yet friendly, we should have been far less confident had our knowledge of Theodore been greater.

On our way to Kourata we had been asked indirectly by his servants whether we knew anything about boat-making? We replied in the negative. As I have stated, some of the escort had told Captain Cameron, that at Kourata he would be employed in ship-building. There was no doubt that his Majesty had made up his mind to have a small navy, and I believe that the real reason we were sent to Kourata, and the Gaffat people to keep us company there, was that Theodore imagined that we knew more about making boats than we wished to say, and hoped to coax us into undertaking the work. The Gaffat people, were told to make boats; they replied that they knew nothing about it, but would work with any one who could direct them: at the same time they intimated that his Majesty ought to take advantage of Mr. Rassam's friendship to ask him to write for some proper person and instruments; that they had no doubt that on Mr. Rassam making the application, his Majesty would obtain anything he required.

A few days later Theodore wrote to Mr. Rassam requesting him to write for workmen, and to await their return. Until that date all had been plain sailing. I acknowledged that the letter was rather a "damper" on Mr. Rassam. Two courses were left open to him: to decline, in courteous terms, on the ground that his instructions did not warrant his making such a request; or accept, on condition that the former captives should be allowed to depart, himself remaining with one of his companions until the workmen arrived. Instead of that Mr. Rassam took a half-way course; he told Theodore that it would be better for him if he was allowed to depart, as at home he could better represent the desires of his Majesty, but if the Emperor insisted upon it he would write.

Theodore was so far confirmed in the impression conveyed to him by his workmen that through the intervention of Mr. Rassam he could obtain anything he liked, that the only thing which for a few days longer remained undecided by him was - should he endeavour to gain his object by flatteries or by bullying? He at once went to work, and did the best to succeed by amicable measures. For this purpose he sent us a polite invitation to come and spend a day with him at Zage, ordering at the same time his workmen to accompany him. On the 25th of March we proceeded by native boats and reached Zage after a four-hours' shower-bath; at a short distance from the landing-place we dressed ourselves in uniform, and were met on our arrival by Ras Engeddah (Commander-in-Chief), the Master of the Horse, and several other high officials of the Imperial household. His Majesty had sent us by the Ras polite greetings, and mounting the beautiful mules sent from the royal stable, we proceeded to the Emperor's inclosure. We were at first conducted to some silk tents, which had been pitched at a short distance from his banqueting-hall, so that we might rest awhile and partake of the collation his Queen had forwarded to us. In the afternoon the Emperor sent us word that he would come and see us.

We shortly afterwards went out to meet him, and to our astonishment saw him coming towards us, his cloth folded and the right arm uncovered: a sign of inferiority, of high respect - an honour Theodore was never known to have paid to any man. He was all smiles, all amiability, sat down a few minutes on Mr. Rassam's couch, and when he left he shook hands in the most friendly manner with him. A little later we returned his call. We found him in the audience-hall, seated on a carpet; he gracefully saluted us, and made us sit down by his side. To his left stood his eldest son Prince Meshisha, and Ras Engeddah; his workmen were also present standing in the centre of the hall in front of him. He had before him quite an arsenal of guns and pistols; he spoke about and showed those we had brought with us, guns that had been made to order by the brother of a gunmaker in his service, a manufacturer at St. Etienne, near Lyons. He conversed on various topics, about the different ranks in his army, presented us to his son, and ordered him at the conclusion of the audience, together with the Gaffat people, to escort us back to our tent.

The following day Theodore sent repeated kind messages; but we did not see him. In the morning he called, all his chiefs together, and asked them to advise him as to whether he should allow the Europeans to depart or not. All exclaimed, "Let them go;" one only remarking that if once out, and they wanted to fight, "let them come, we will then have God on our side." As soon as he had dismissed his chiefs, he called the Gaffat people and asked them also what he should do. They told us that they had strongly advised him to let us depart. It was reported that on returning to his house; his valet said to him, "Every one tells you to let them go; you know that they are your enemies, and what will you have in your hands?" In the evening his Majesty was rather excited: he sent for the Gaffat people, and taking hold of the rude pillar of his hut, said: "Is that the dwelling fit for a king?" What conversation passed between them at the time, I cannot say; but a few days afterwards one of them told me that his Majesty was much put out, as Mr. Rassam had not mentioned to him the objects he had so dear at heart, viz.: the artisans and instruments, and that on our applying to be allowed to return to Kourata, his Majesty looked very black at first, and refused, and that they had had great fears that he might have forcibly detained us.

On our return to Kourata the correspondence between Theodore and Mr. Rassam began afresh. The letters, as a rule, contained nothing of importance, but the messages brought backwards and forwards were highly special, and had significant reference to the former captives, with whom Theodore was bent on having a reconciliation before their departure. Apprehensive that Theodore might get into a passion at the sight of them, Mr. Rassam endeavoured: by all means to avoid a meeting he so much dreaded; and, at last, his Majesty seemed to have been convinced by his friend's reasonings, and to all appearance gave in to him. Some of the former captives were naturally anxious, and would have much preferred the risk of having to bear a few harsh words rather than excite Theodore's suspicions. It was too late. He had already made up his mind to detain us forcibly, and at the time he pretended to agree not to see the former captives, he was all the while, building a fence for their reception.

Mr. Rassam, to divert the Emperor's mind, proposed to him to institute an order to be called the "Cross of Christ and Solomon's Seal;" the rules and regulations were drawn out, one of the workmen made a model of the badges according to Mr. Rassam's direction, his Majesty approved of them, and nine were ordered - three of the first, three of the second, three of the third orders. Mr. Rassam, together with Ras Engeddah and Prince Meshisha, were to be made knights of the first order; the English officers of the mission were to be second class; as for the third, I do not know for whom they were destined, unless for such as Bappo, his butler.

Quite unaware of all that was going on behind the scenes, we fancied that we had nothing more to fear, and that all obstacles had been cleverly removed; we were building castles in the air - seeing in imagination dear friendly faces once more, and, thinking we were homeward bound, we laughed at the scorching heat of the Soudan's hottest months: when suddenly all our plans, hopes, and expectations were cruelly crushed.