From Massowah to Kassala - The Start - The Habab - Adventures of M. Marcopoli - The Beni Amer - Arrival at Kassala - The Nubian Mutiny - Attempt of De Bisson to found a Colony in the Soudan...

On the afternoon of the 15th October, all our preparations being apparently complete, the mission, composed of Mr. H. Rassam, Lieut. W.F. Prideaux, of her Majesty's Bombay Staff Corps, and myself, started on its dangerous enterprise. We were accompanied by a nephew of the Naib of Arkiko; and an escort of Turkish Irregulars had been graciously sent by the Pasha to protect our sixty camels, laden with our personal luggage, stores, and presents for the Ethiopian monarch. We also took with us several Portuguese and other Indian servants, and a few natives of Massowah as muleteers.

On a first march something is always found wanting. On this occasion many of the cameleers were unprovided with ropes: boxes, portmanteau-bags, were strewed all over the road, and night was far advanced before the last camel reached Moncullou. A halt was in consequence absolutely necessary, so that the actual start was only made on the afternoon of the 16th.

From Moncullou our route lay N.W. across the desert of Chab, a dreary wilderness of sand, intersected by two winter torrents, generally dry: but by digging in their sandy beds it is possible at all seasons to obtain some muddy water. The rapidity with which these torrents fill up is most astonishing.

During the summer of 1865, we had made a trip to Af-Abed, in the Hababs' country. On our return, whilst crossing the desert, we experienced a very severe storm. We had just reached our encamping-ground on the Southern bank of one of these water-courses, and half the camels had already crossed the dry bed of the river, when, on a sudden, a tremendous roar was heard, shortly afterwards followed by a fearful rush of water. In the former empty bed of the torrent now dashed a mighty stream, tearing down trees and rocks, so that no human being could possibly cross. Our luggage and servants were still on the opposite bank, and although we were only a stone's throw from the party so suddenly cut off from us, we had to spend the night on the bare ground, with no other covering than our clothing.

In the very centre of the desert of Chab, arises, Amba Goneb, a conical basaltic rock several hundred feet high, an advanced sentry detached from the now approaching mountains. On the evening of the 18th, we reached Ain, and from the glaring and dreary desert passed into a lovely valley, watered by a small winding stream, cool and limpid, shaded by mimosas and tamarinds, and glowing with the freshness and luxuriance of topical vegetation. [Footnote: The distance from Massowah to Ain is about forty-five miles.]

We were fortunate enough to leave the cholera behind us. Apart from a few cases of diarrhoea, easily checked, the whole party was in excellent health; every one in high spirits at the prospect of visiting almost unknown regions, and above all at having at last bid adieu to Massowah, where we had spent in anxious expectation long and dreary months.

From Ain to Mahaber [Footnote: From Ain to Mahaber (direction E. by N.) about twenty miles.] the road is most picturesque; always following the winding of the small river Ain, here and there compressed to only a few yards by perpendicular walls of trachyte, or basalt; further on expanding into miniature green plateaus, bordered by conical hills, covered to the very summit by mimosas and huge cactuses, alive with large hordes of antelopes (the agazin), which, bounding from rock to rock, scared by their frolics the countless host of huge baboons. The valley itself, graced by the presence of gaudy-feathered and sweet-singing birds, echoed to the shrill cry of the numerous guinea-fowls, so tame, that the repeated reports of our fire-arms did not disturb them in the least.

At Mahaber we were obliged to remain several days awaiting fresh camels. The Hababs, who had now to supply us, frightened by the presence of the hairy nephew of the Nab and the Bashi-hazouks, made themselves scarce, and it was only after much parley and the repeated assurance that every one would be paid, that the camels at last made their appearance. The Hababs are a large pastoral tribe, inhabiting the Ad Temariam, a hilly and well-watered district, about fifty miles north-west of Massowah, included between longitude 38.39 and latitude 16 to 16.30. They represent the finest type of the roving Bedouins; of middle height, muscular, well made, they claim an Abyssinian origin. With the exception of a darker hue of the skin, certainly in other respects they do not differ from the inhabitants of the table-land, and have but few characteristics of the aboriginal African races. Some fifty years ago they were a Christian tribe - nominally, at least - but were converted to Mohammedanism by an old Sheik, still alive, who resides near Moncullou, and is an object of great veneration all over the Samhar. Once their doubts removed, their suspicions lulled, the Hababs proved themselves friendly, willing, and obliging.

Gratitude is no common virtue in Africa, at least as far as my own experience goes. Its rarity brings back to my memory a fact that I will here record. On our previous trip to the Ad Temariam, I had seen several patients, amongst them a young man, suffering from remittent fever, and I gave him some medicine. Hearing of our arrival at Mahaber, he came to thank me, bringing as an offering a small skin of milk. He apologized for the absence of his aged father, who also, he said, wished to kiss my feet, but the distance (about eight miles) was too much for the old man's strength.

I may as well mention here that a young commercial traveller, Mr. Marcopoli, had accompanied us from Massowah. He was going to Metemma, via Kassala, to be present at the annual fairs held at that place in winter. He took advantage of our short stay at Mahaber, to proceed to Keren, in the Bogos, where he was called by business, intending to join again our party a few stages ahead. We looked at our map, and estimated the distance from our halting-place to the Bogos at the utmost eighteen miles. As he was provided with excellent mules, in four or five hours he naturally expected to reach his destination. He accordingly started at daybreak, and never halted once; but night was far advanced before he perceived the lights of the first village on the Bogos plateau: so much for travellers' maps. The poor man's anxiety had been great. Soon after dark he perceived - or, as I suspect, imagination worked to a high pitch of excitement through fear, conjured to his fancy the phantom of some huge animal - a lion, a tiger, he did not know very exactly; but, at all events, he saw some horrid beast of prey, glaring at him through the brushwood, with fiery and bloodshot eyes, watching all his movements for a suitable opportunity to fall upon his helpless prey. However, he reached Keren in safety.

He found that we were expected by the Bogos people, who believed that we were proceeding by the upper route. Flowers were to be strewed in our path, and our entrance was to be welcomed by dances and songs in our praise; the officer in command of the troops was to receive us with military honours, the civil governor intended to entertain us on a large scale: in a word, a grand reception was to be offered to the English friends of the mighty Theodore. The disappointment was no doubt great when Mr. Marcopoli informed the Bogosites that our route lay in an opposite direction to their fair province. On that the military commander decided on accompanying Mr. Marcopoli back, and paying us his respects at our halting-place. Marcopoli was delighted; he had a too vivid recollection of his lion not to be overjoyed at the idea of having companions with him.

Late in the evening they started, the Abyssinian officer and his men having before marching indulged in deep draughts of tej to keep out the cold. On their way down, the "warriors" cantered about in the most frantic manner; now riding at a full gallop up to poor Marcopoli, the lance in rest, and dexterously wheeling round when the weapon almost touched his breast; then charging upon him at full speed and firing off their loaded pistols quite close, and only a few feet above his head. Marcopoli felt very uncomfortable in the society of his bellicose and drunken escort, but not knowing their language, he had nothing to do but to appear pleased.

Early in the morning, at our second stage from Mahaber, these specimens of Abyssinian soldiers made their appearance, and a batch of more villanous-looking scoundrels I have never seen during my stay in Abyssinia: evidently Theodore was not very particular as to whom he selected for such distant outposts, unless he considered the roughest and most disorderly the fittest for such duties. They presented us with a cow they had stolen on the road, and begged us not to forget to mention to their master that they had come all the distance from Bogos to pay their respects to his guests. After having refreshed themselves with a few glasses of brandy and partaken of a slight collation, they kissed the ground in acknowledgment of the pleasant things they had received in return for their gift, and departed - to our great satisfaction.

On that 23rd we started from Mahaber, going due west, and following for eight miles longer the charming valley of Ain. Afterwards, we diverged to the left, going in a south-west direction, until we reached the province of Barka; when again our route lay west by north, until we came to Zaga. From this point to Kassala the general direction is west by south. [Footnote: The distance from Mahaber to Adart on the frontier of Barka is about fifty miles; from Adart to Kassala about 130 miles.] From Mahaber to Adart the road is very pleasant; for several days we continually ascended, and the more we advanced into the mountainous region the more agreeable and pleasant did we feel it, and we enjoyed the sight of splendid and luxuriant vegetation.

On the 25th we crossed the Anseba, a large river flowing from the high lands of Bogos, Hamasien, and Mensa, and joining the river Barka at Tjab. [Footnote: Tjab, lat. 17 10', long. 37 15'.]

We spent a pleasant day in the beautiful Anseba valley, but aware of the danger of remaining after sunset near its flowery but malarious banks, we pitched our tent on a rising ground at some distance, and the next morning proceeded to Haboob, the highest point we had to gain before descending into the Barka through the difficult pass of Lookum. After this abrupt descent of more than 2,000 feet, the roads generally slope towards the low land of Barka.

From Ain to Haboob [Footnote: The Anseba, at the point we crossed, is about 4,000 feet above the level of the sea; Haboob about 4,500.] the country is well wooded, and watered by innumerable small streams. The soil is formed of the detritus of the volcanic rocks, specially of feldspar; pumice abounds in the ravines. The channels of the rivulets are the only roads for the traveller. This mountain chain is, on the whole, a pleasant spot, more delightful for the reason that it rises between the arid shores of the Red Sea and the flat, hot, and level plains of the Soudan. The province of Barka is a boundless prairie, about 2,500 feet above the level of the sea, covered at the time of our journey with half-dried grass some five or six feet high, and dotted here and there with small woods of stunted mimosas.

From Barka to Metemma we find alluvium as the general formation.

Water is scarce; even a month after the rainy season all the rivers are dried up, and water is only obtained by digging in the sand of the dry beds of the river Barka and its tributaries. When we passed through these plains many spots were still green; but a few months later we should have crossed a parched-up prairie little better than the desert itself.

Our pretty songsters of Ain were no more to be seen. The guinea-fowl was seldom met with, and only a few tiny antelopes wandered over the solitary expanse. Instead, we were aroused by the roar of the lion, the laugh of the hyena, and we had to protect our sheep and goats, as the spotted leopard was lurking around our tents.

On the 31st of October we reached Zaga, a large sloping plain situated at the junction of the Barka and the Mogareib. Water can be obtained at that spot by digging wells in the dried-up beds of the rivers, in sufficient quantity to have induced the Beni Amer to make it their winter encamping-ground.

We had that day made a very long march, on account of the absence of water on the road. Starting at two P.M., we only reached our halting ground (the bed of a dried-up winter torrent, a few hundred yards below the Beni Amer's camp), a couple of hours before daybreak. We were so sleepy and tired that during the latter part of the stage it had been with great difficulty that we managed to keep in the saddle; and no sooner did our guide give us the grateful intelligence that we had arrived, than we stretched on the ground the piece of tanned cowhide we carried with us, and covering ourselves with our cloaks, lay down to rest until daybreak. I offered to Mr. Marcopoli to share my "bedding," as his own had not arrived, and in a few minutes we both fell into that deep slumber that follows the exhaustion of a long weary march. I remember my disgust at being violently shaken by my bed companion; who, in a faint and trembling voice, whispered into my ear: "Look there!" I understood at once his look of anguish and terror, for two splendid lions, not more than twenty paces from us, were drinking near the wells that had been sank by the Arabs. I thought, and told my companion, that as we had no fire-arms with us; the wisest plan was to go to sleep and remain as quiet as possible. I set him the example, and only woke up late in the morning, when the sun was already high up and pouring its burning rays over my uncovered head. Marcopoli, with an absent terrified look impressed on his countenance, was still sitting near me. He told me that he had not slept, but kept watching the lions: they had remained for a long time, drinking, roaring and beating their sides with their tails; and even when they departed he kept listening to their dreadful roar, sounding more distant as the first rays of day appeared.

We had, no doubt, had a narrow escape, as that night a lion had carried away a man and a child who had strayed from the Arab encampment. The Sheik of the Beni Amer, during the few days we remained at Zaga, with true Arab hospitality, always placed at night a strong guard around our tent, to watch the large fires that they kindle in order to keep at a respectful distance these unwelcome night rovers.

We had agreed with the Hababs that we would exchange camels at this spot, but none could be obtained for love or money. It was lucky for us that the Bedouins had by this time found out that all white men are not Turks, otherwise we should have been cast helpless in the very centre of Barka. The Beni Amers could never be induced even to acknowledge that they had camels, though more than 10,000 were grazing under our very eyes.

The Beni Amers are Arabs, speak the Arab language, and have preserved up to the present day all the characteristics of their race. A roving Bedouin of the Yemen and a Beni Amer are so much alike that it seems hardly credible that the Beni Amers possess no record of their advent on the African coast, or of the causes that induced them to leave the land of their ancestors. Their long, black, silky hair has not acquired the woolly texture of that of the sons of Ham, and the small extremities, the well-knit limbs, the straight nose and small lips, the dark bronzed complexion, distinguish them alike from the Shankallas and the Barias, and from the mixed races of the plateaus. They wear a piece of cloth a few yards in length, folded round the body, with an elegance peculiar to the savage. Even with this dirty rag, they must be admired, like the Italian beggar, not only for their beautiful forms, but also for the look of impudence and roguery displayed in the bright glare of their dark eyes. The Beni Amers retain to a high degree that nuisance so well described by a distinguished traveller in the East, and, like their brethren of the Arabian shore, they are une race bavarde et criarde. They pay a nominal tribute to the Egyptian Government, and the reason we could not obtain camels was that, troops being moved about, they feared that on their arrival at Kassala they would be pressed into the Government service, and not only receive no pay, but most likely in the end lose the greater number of their camels. This tribe roams along the banks of the Barka and its many tributaries. Zaga is only their winter station; at other times they wander over the immense plains north of Barka in search of pasture and water for their innumerable flocks. All over the district of Zaga camps appeared in every direction; the herds of cattle, especially camels, seemed without number: this all indicates that they form a wealthy, powerful tribe.

We encamped near their head-quarters, where resides the Sheik of all the Beni Amers, Ahmed, surrounded by his wives, children, and people. He is a man of middle age, conspicuous among his cunning followers by a shrewd and crafty look. He was friendly to us, and presented us with a few sheep and cows. His camp covered several acres of ground, the whole enclosed by a strong fence; the wigwams are built in a circle a few feet from the hedge; the open space in the centre being reserved for the cattle, always driven in at night. The chief's small circular wood and grass huts contrasted favourably with the dwellings of his followers. The latter, constructed in a circle, are formed by thrusting into the ground the extremities of small branches; a few pieces of coarse matting thrown over them complete the structure. They cannot be more than four feet high, and their average circumference is twelve feet; nevertheless, some eight or ten unwashed faces were seen peeping through the small door, staring with their black, frightened eyes at the strange white men. Small-pox was raging at the time with great virulence; fever also was daily claiming many victims. I gave medicine to several of the sufferers, and good hygienic advice to Sheik Ahmed. He listened with all becoming respect to the good things that fell from the Hakeem's lips: he would see; but they had never done so before, and with Mussulman bigotry and superstition he put an end to the conversation by an "Allah Kareem." [Footnote: "God is merciful"]

On the 3rd of November we were again on the march. On the 5th we arrived al Sabderat, the first permanent village we had met with since leaving Moncullou. This village - in appearance similar to those of the Samhar - is built on the side of a large granitic mountain, cleft in two from the summit to the base. Numerous wells are dug in the dried-up bed of the water-course that separates the village. The inhabitants of this divided village often contend between themselves for the possession of the precious fluid; and when the rushing waters have disappeared, human passions too often fill with strife and warfare the otherwise quiet bed of the stream.

On the morning of November 6 we entered Kassala. The Nab's nephew had preceded us, to inform the governor of our arrival, and present him with a letter recommending us to the care of the authorities, written by the Pasha of Egypt. To honour us according to his masters firman, the governor sent all the garrison to meet us a few miles from the town, with a polite apology for his absence, due to sickness. The senior partner of the Greek firm of Paniotti also came to welcome us, and afforded us the hospitality of his house and board.

Kassala, the capital of Takka, a walled town near the River Gash, containing about 10,000 inhabitants, is on the model of most modern Egyptian towns, public as well as private buildings being alike of mud. The arsenal, barracks, &c. are the only structures of any importance. Beautiful gardens have been made at a short distance from the town, near the Biver Gash, by the European portion of the community. Just before, and immediately after the rains, the place is very unhealthy. During those months malarious fever and dysentery prevail to a great extent.

Kassala, formerly a prosperous city, the centre of all the trade of the immense tract of country included from Massowah and Suakin to the Nile, and from Nubia to Abyssinia, was, at the date of our arrival, almost deserted, covered with ruins and rank vegetation, destitute of the most common necessaries of life, the spectre of its former self, haunted by its few remaining ghost-like and plague-stricken citizens. Kassala had just gone through the ordeal of a mutiny of Nubian troops. Pernicious fevers, malignant dysenteries and cholera had decimated both rebels and loyalists; war and sickness had marched hand in hand to make of this fair oasis of the Soudan a wilderness painful to contemplate. The mutiny broke out in July. The Nubian troops had not been paid for two years, and when they claimed a portion of their arrears, they only met with a stern refusal. Under these circumstances, it is not astonishing that they became ready listeners to the treasonable words and extravagant promises made to them by one of their petty chiefs, named Denda, a descendant of the former Nubian kings. They matured their plot in great secresy, and every one was horrified one morning to learn that the black troops had broken out in open mutiny and murdered their officers, and, no longer restrained, had followed their natural inclinations to revel in carnage and plunder. A few Egyptian regulars had, luckily, possession of the arsenal, and held it against these infuriated savages until troops could arrive from Kedaref and Khartoum. The Europeans and Egyptians gallantly defended their part of the town. They erected walls and small earthworks between themselves and the mutineers, and continually on the alert, though few in number, they repulsed with great gallantry the assault of the fiends thirsting for their lives and property. Egyptian troops poured in from all directions and relieved the besieged city. More than a thousand of the mutineers were killed near the gates of the town; nearly a thousand more were tried and executed; and those who attempted to escape the vengeance of the merciless pasha and fled for safety to the wilderness, were hunted down like beasts by the roving Bedouins. Though order was now restored, it was no easy matter to obtain camels. It required all the power and persuasion of the authorities to induce the Shukrie-Arabs to enter the town and convey us to Kedaref.

We heard at Kassala the miserable end of Le Comte de Bisson's mad enterprise. It appears that the Comte, formerly an officer in the Neapolitan army, had married at an advanced age a beautiful, accomplished and rich heiress, the daughter of some contractor; it was "a mariage de convenance," a title bought by wealth and beauty. In the autumn of 1864, De Bisson reached Kassala accompanied by some fifty adventurers, the scum of the outcasts of all nations, who had enrolled themselves under the standard of the ambitions Comte, "on the promised assurance that power and wealth would be, before long, their envied portion." De Bisson's idea seems to have been to personify a second Moses: he came not only to colonize, but also to convert. The wild roving Bedouin of the Barka plains would, he believed, not only at once and with gratitude acknowledge his rule, but would soon, abandoning his false creed, fall prostrate before the altar he intended to erect in the wilderness. About a hundred town Arabs were induced to join the European party, - a useless set of vagabonds, who adorned themselves with the regimental uniform, accepted the rifle, pistol, and sword, drew their rations, were punctual in their attendance and always ready to salaam, but showed much dislike to the drill and other civilized notions the Comte and his officers endeavoured to impress upon them.

Their departure from Kassala for the land of milk and honey was quite theatrical; in front rode on a camel, a gallant captain (who had taken his discharge from the Austrian service,) playing on the bugle a parting "fanfare;" behind him, the second in command, mounted on a prancing charger, and followed by the European part of the force, who with military step, and shoulder to shoulder, marched as men for whom victory is their slave. Behind came Le Comte himself, clad in a general's uniform, his breast covered with the many decorations which sovereigns had only been too proud to confer on such a noble spirit; next to him rode gracefully his beautiful wife, looking handsomer still in the picturesque kepi and red uniform of a French zouave; behind, closing the march, the well-knit Arabs, with plunder written in their dark bright eyes, marched with a quick elastic step and as much regularity as could be expected from men who abhorred order and had been drilled for so short a time. Need I say that the expedition failed utterly? The Arabs of the plains declined to accept another pontiff and king in the person of the gallant and noble Comte. They were even vicious enough to induce those of their brethren who had accepted service, to return to their former occupations, and forget to leave behind them on their departure the arms, clothes, etc., which had been dealt out to them on their entering the Comte's service.

The return to Kassala was humble: there was no trumpet this time; the brilliant uniforms had given way to soiled and patched raiments: even the general adopted a civilian's dress; the lady alone was still smiling, laughing, beautiful as ever; but no Arab in gaudy attire closed the hungry-looking and worn out cortege. De Bisson had failed: but why? - Because the Egyptian Government had not only afforded none of the assistance that had been promised to him, but all at once stopped the supplies he considered himself entitled to expect. A claim of I do not know how many millions was at once made on the Egyptian Government. A commissioner was sent out, who it appears took a very different view of the question, as he declared the "Comte's" pretensions absurd and unreasonable. The Comte soon afterwards, with his wife, returned to Nice, leaving at Kassala the remnant of his European army; the few who had not succumbed to fever or other malarious diseases.

At the time of the mutiny of the Nubian troops, a few not in hospital or on their way to Khartoum or Massowah, fought well; two even paid with their lives their gallant attempt at a sortie, and they had gained for themselves, by their bravery in those difficult times, the respect they had lost during the long days of inaction.

De Bisson was instrumental in spreading the most fallacious reports as to the condition of the captives held by Theodore, and even when an army was already marching to their rescue, "correct" accounts appeared of the repulse of the British by Theodore; at another time a mendacious report was spread that a great battle had been fought in Tigre between Theodore and a powerful rebel - a battle which was said to have lasted three days without any marked success having been gained by either side; and that Theodore, having perceived in the enemy's camp some Europeans, had sent orders for our immediate execution; the fulfilment of the sentence resting with the Empress, who was residing at Gondar, and that his (De Bisson's) agent was using his influence to stay the execution. Absurd and ridiculous as were these reports, they were not the less productive of great distress to the families and friends of the captives.

During the five days we spent at Kassala, I am happy to say that I was able to relieve many sufferers; amongst them our host himself, and one of his guests, a young, well-educated Egyptian officer, laid at death's door by a severe attack of dysentery.

A Nubian colonel called on us one morning; he strongly advised us to stop before it was too late. He had heard much about Theodore's doings, and assured us that we would meet but with deceit and treachery at his hands. On our telling him that we were officers and bound to obey, he said, nothing more, but bid us good-by in a sorrowful voice.