Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine — Volume 55, No. 341, March, 1844 online

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[1] _The Highlands of Ethiopa._ by Major W. CORNWALLIS HARRIS, H.E.
I.C. Engineers. 3 vols.

From the various circumstances of our day, the impression is powerfully
made upon intelligent men in Europe, that some extraordinary change is
about to take place in the general condition of mankind. A new ardour of
human intercourse seems to be spreading through all nations. Europe has
laid aside her perpetual wars, and seems to be assuming a _habit_ of peace.
Even France, hitherto the most belligerent of European nations, is
evidently abandoning the passion for conqest, and begining to exert her
fine powers in the cultivation of commerce. All the nations of Europe are
either following her example, or sending out colonies of greater or less
magnitude, to fill the wild portions of the world. Regions hitherto
utterly neglected, and even scarcely known, are becoming objects of
enlightened regard; and mankind, in every quarter, is approaching, with
greater or less speed, to that combined interest and mutual intercourse,
which are the first steps to the true possession of the globe.

But, we say it with the gratification of Englishmen, proud of their
country's fame, and still prouder of its principles - that the lead in this
noblest of all human victories, has been clearly taken by England. It is
she who pre-eminently stimulates the voyage, and plants the colony, and
establishes the commerce, and civilizes the people. And all this has been
done in a manner so little due to popular caprice or national ambition, to
the mere will of a sovereign, or the popular thirst of possession, that it
invests the whole process with a sense of unequaled security. Resembling
the work of nature in the simplicity of its growth, it will probably also
resemble the work of nature in the permanence of its existence. It is not
an exotic, fixed in an unsuitable soil by capricions planting; but a seed
self-sown, nurtured by the common air and dews, assimilated to the climate,
and strikig its roots deep in the ground which it has thus, by its own
instincts, chosen. The necessities of British commerce, the urgency of
English protection, and the overflow of British population, have been the
great acting causes of our national efforts; and as those are causes which
regulate themselves, their results are as regular and unshaken, as they
are natural and extensive. But England has also had a higher motive. She
has unquestionably mingled a spirit of benevolence largely with her
general exertions. She has laboured to communicate freedom, law, a feeling
of property, and a consciousness of the moral debt due by man to the Great
Disposer of all, wherever she has had the power in her hands. No people
have ever been the worse for her, and all have been the better, in
proportion to their following her example. Wherever she goes, oppression
decays, the safety of person and property begins to be felt, the sword is
sheathed, the pen and the ploughshare commence alike to reclaim the mental
and the physical soil, and civilization comes, like the dawn, however
slowly advancing, to prepare the heart of the barbarian for the burst of
light, in the rising of Christianity upon his eyes.

The formation of a new route between India and Europe by the Red Sea - a
route, though well known to the ancient world, yet wholly incapable of
adoption by any but an Arab horseman, from the perpetual tumults of the
country - compelled England to look for a resting-place and depot for her
steam-ships at the mouth of the Red Sea. Aden, a desolated port, was the
spot fixed on; and the steam-vessels touching there were enabled to
prepare themselves for the continuance of their voyage. We shall
subsequently see how strikingly British protection has changed the
desolateness of this corner of the Arab wilderness, how extensively it has
become a place of commerce, and how effectually it will yet furnish the
means of increasing our knowledge of the interior of the great Arabian

It is remarkable that Africa, one of the largest and most fertile portions
of the globe, remains one of the least known. Furnishing materials of
commerce which have been objects of universal desire since the
deluge - gold, gems, ivory, fragrant gums, and spices - it has still
remained almost untraversed by the European foot, except along its coast.
It has been circumnavigated by the ships of every European nation, its
slave-trade has divided its profits and its pollutions among the chief
nations of the eastern and western worlds; and yet, to this hour, there
are regions of Africa, probably amounting to half its bulk, and possessing
kingdoms of the size of France and Spain, of which Europe has no more
heard than of the kingdoms of the planet Jupiter. The extent of Africa is
enormous: - 5000 miles in length, 4600 in breadth, it forms nearly a
square of 13,430,000 square miles! the chief part solid ground; for we
know of no Mediterranean to break its continuity - no mighty reservoir for
the waters of its hills - and scarcely more than the Niger and the Nile for
the means of penetrating any large portion of this huge continent.

The population naturally divides itself into two portions, connected with
the character of its surface - the countries to the north and the south of
the mountains of Kong and the Jebel-al-Komr. To the north of this line of
demarcation, are the kingdoms of the foreign conquerors, who have driven
the original natives to the mountains, or have subjected them as slaves.
This is the Mahometan land. To the south of this line dwells the Negro, in
a region a large portion of which is too fiery for European life. This is
Central Africa; distinguished from all the earth by the unspeakable
mixture of squalidness and magnificence, simplicity of life yet fury of
passion, savage ignorance of its religious notions yet fearful worship of
evil powers, its homage to magic, and desperate belief in spells,
incantations and the _fetish_. The configuration of the country, so far as
it can be conjectured, assists this primeval barbarism. Divided by natural
barriers of hill, chasm, or river, into isolated states, they act under a
general impulse of hostility and disunion. If they make peace, it is only
for purposes of plunder; and, if they plunder, it is only to make slaves.
The very fertility of the soil, at once rendering them indolent and
luxurious, excites their passions, and the land is a scene alike of
profligacy and profusion. To the south of this vast region lies a
third - the land of the Caffre, occupying the eastern coast, and, with the
Betjouana and the Hottentot, forming the population of the most promising
portion of the continent. But here another and more enterprising race have
fixed themselves; and the great English colony of the Cape, with its
dependent settlements, has begun the first real conquest of African
barbarism. Whether Aden may not act on the opposite coasts of the Red Sea,
and Abyssinia become once more a Christian land; or whether even some
impulse may not divinely come from Africa itself, are questions belonging
to the future. But there can scarcely be a doubt, that the existence of a
great English viceroyalty in the most prominent position of South Africa,
the advantages of its government, the intelligence of its people, their
advancement in the arts essential to comfort, and the interest of their
protection, their industry, and their example, must, year by year, operate
in awaking even the negro to a feeling of his own powers, of the enjoyment
of his natural faculties, and of that rivalry which stimulates the skill
of man to reach perfection.

The name of Africa, which, in the Punic tongue, signifies "ears of corn,"
was originally applied only to the northern portion, lying between the
Great Desert and the shore, and now held by the pashalics of Tunis and
Tripoli. They were then the granary of Rome. The name Lybia was derived
from the Hebrew _Leb_, (heat,) and was sometimes partially extended to the
continent, but was geographically limited to the provinces between the
Great Syrtis and Egypt. The name Ethiopia is evidently Greek, (burning, or
black, visage.)

There is strong reason to believe that the Portuguese boast of the
sixteenth century - the circumnavigation of Africa - was anticipated by the
Phoenician sailors two thousand years and more. We have the testimony of
Herodotus, that Necho, king of Egypt, having failed in an attempt to
connect the Nile with the Red Sea by a canal, determine to try whether
another route might not be within his reach, and sent Phoenician vessels
from the Red Sea, with orders to sail round Africa, and return by the
Mediterranean. It is not improbable that, from being unacquainted with the
depth to which it penetrates the south, he had expected the voyage to be a
brief one. It seems evident that the navigators themselves did not
conceive that it could extend beyond the equator, from their surprise at
seeing the sun rise on their _right hand_. The narrative tells us - "The
Phoenicians, taking their course from the Red Sea, entered into the
Southern Ocean on the approach of autumn; they landed in Lybia, planted
corn, and remained till the harvest. They then sailed again. After having
thus spent two years, they passed the Columns of Hercules in the third,
and returned to Egypt." Herodotus doubted their story - "Their relation,"
says the honest old Greek, "may obtain belief from others, but to me it
seems incredible; for they affirmed, that, having sailed round Africa,
they _had the sun on their right hand_. Thus was Africa for the first time

Thus the very circumstance which the old historian regarded as throwing
doubt on the discovery, is now one of the strongest corroborations of its
truth.[2] There appear to have been several attempts to sail along the
west coast, by ancient expeditions; but to the Portuguese is due the
modern honour of having first sailed round the Cape. From 1412, the
Portuguese, under a race of adventurous princes, had extended their
discoveries; but it occupied them sixty years to reach the Line, and
nearly thirty years more to reach the Cape, which they first called Cabo
Tormentoso, (Stormy Cape.) But the king gave it the more lucky, though the
less poetical, title which it now bears.

[2] Reunell, p. 682.

The triumph of Columbus, in his discovery of the New World in 1493, raised
the emulation of the Portuguese, then regarded as the first navigators in
the world; yet it was not until four years after, that their expedition
was sent, to equalize the stupendous accession to the Spanish domains, by
the possession of the East. In July 1497, Gama sailed, reached Calicut May
2, 1498, and returned to Portugal, covered with well-earned renown, after
a voyage of upwards of two years.

Having given this brief outline of the divisions and character of the
mighty continent, which seemed important to the better understanding of
the immediate subject, we revert to the intelligent and animated volumes
of Captain (now Major) Harris.

A letter from the Bombay government, 29th April 1841, gave him this
distinguished credential: -

"SIR - I am directed to inform you that the Honourable the Governor in
Council, having formed a very high estimate of your talents and
acquirements, and of the spirit of enterprise and decision, united with
prudence and discretion, exhibited in your recently published travels
through the territories of the Maselakatze to the Tropic of Capricorn, has
been pleased to select you to conduct the mission which the British
Government has resolved to send to Sahela Selasse, the king of Shoa, in
Southern Abyssinia, whose capital, Ankober, is supposed to be about four
hundred miles inland from the port of Tajura, on the African coast."

[Then followed the mention of the vessels appointed to carry the mission.]

(Signed) "J.P. WILLOUGHBY,"

"Secretary to Government."

The persons comprising the mission were Major W.C. Harris, Bombay
Engineers, Captain Douglas Graham, Bombay army, principal assistant, with
others, naturalists, draftsmen, &c., and an escort of two sergeants and
fifteen rank and file, volunteers from H.M. 6th foot and the Bombay

On the afternoon of a sultry day in April, Major Harris, with his gallant
and scientific associates, embarked on board the East India Company's
steam ship Auckland, in the harbour of Bombay, on their voyage to the
kingdom of Shoa in Southern Abyssinia, in the year 1841. The steam frigate
pursued her way prosperously through the waters, and on the ninth day was
within sight of Cape Aden, after a voyage of 1680 miles. The Cape, named
by the natives, Jebel Shemshan, rises nearly 1800 feet above the ocean, is
frequently capped with clouds, a wild and fissured mass of rock, and
evidently intended by nature for one of those great beacons which announce
the approach to an inland sea. On rounding the Cape, the British eye was
delighted with the sight of the Red Sea squadron, riding at anchor within
the noble bay. The arrival of the frigate also caused a sensation on the
shore; and Major Harris happily describes the feelings with which a new
arrival is hailed by the British garrison on that dreary spot, their only
excitement being the periodical visits of the packets between Suez and
Bombay. In the dead of the night a blue light shoots up in the offing. It
is answered by the illumination of the block ship, then the thunder of her
guns is heard, then, as she nears the shore, the flapping of her paddles
is heard through the silence, then the spectral lantern appears at the
mast-head, and then she rushes to her anchorage, leaving in her wake a
long phosphoric train.

Wherever England drops an anchor a new scene of existence has begun. At
Aden, the supply of coals for the steam-ships has introduced a new trade;
gangs of brawny Seedies, negroes from the Zanzibar coast, but fortunately
enfranchised, make a livelihood by transferring the coal from the depots
on shore to the steamers. Though the most unmusical race in the world,
they can do nothing without music, but it is music of their own - a
tambourine beaten with the thigh-bone of a calf; but their giant frames go
through prodigious labour, carry immense sacks, and drink prodigious
draughts to wash the coal-dust down. Such is the furious excitement with
which they rush into this repulsive operation, that Major Harris thinks
that for every hundred tons of coal thus embarked, at least one life is
sacrificed; those strong savages, at once inflamed by drink, and overcome
with toil, throwing themselves down on the dust or the sand, to rise no
more. This shows the advantage of English philosophy: our coal-heavers in
the Thames toil as much, are nearly as naked, nearly as black, and
probably drink more; but we never hear of their dying in a fit of rapture
in the embrace of a coal-sack. When the day is done, drunk or sober,
washed or unwashed, they go home to their wives, sleep untroubled by the
cares of kings, and return to fresh dust, drink, and dirt, next morning.

The coast of Arabia has no claims to the picturesque: all its charms, like
those of the oyster, lie within the roughest of possible shells. Its first
aspect resembles heaps of the cinders of a glass-house - a building whose
heat seems to be fully realized by the temperature of this fearful place.
England has a resident there, Captain Haynes, named as political agent.
That any human being, who could exist in any other place, would remain in
Aden, is one of the wonders of human nature. An officer, of course, must
go wherever he is sent; but such is the innate love for a post, that if
this gallant and intelligent person were roasted to death, as might happen
in one of the coolest days of the Ethiopian summer, there would be a
thousand applications before a month was over, to the Foreign Office, for
the honour of being carbonaded on the rocks of Aden.

The promontory has all the marks of volcanic eruption, and is actually
recorded, by an Arab historian of the tenth century, to have been thrown
up about that period. "Its sound, like the rumbling of thunder, might then
be heard many miles, and from its entrails vomited forth redhot stones,
with a flood of liquid fire." The crater of the extinguished volcano is
still visible, though shattered and powdered down by the tread under which
Alps and Appennines themselves crumble away - that of Time. The only point
on which we are sceptical is the late origin of the promontory. Nothing
beyond a sandhill or a heap of ashes has been produced on the face of
nature since the memory of man. That a rock, or rather a mountain chain,
with a peak 1800 feet high, should have been produced at any time time
within the last four thousand years, altogether tasks our credulity. The
powers of nature are now otherwise employed than in rough-hewing the
surface of the globe. She has been long since, like the sculptor, employed
in polishing and finishing - the features were hewn out long ago. Her
master-hand has ever since been employed in smoothing them.

Aden's reputation for barrenness is an old one - "Aden," says Ben Batuta of
Tangiers, "is situate upon the sea-shore; a large city without either seed,
water, or tree." This was written five hundred years ago; yet the ruins of
fortifications and watch-towers along the rocks, show that even this human
oven was the object of cupidity in earlier times; and the British guns,
bristling among the precipices, show that the desire is undecayed even in
our philosophic age.

Yet the Arab imagination has created its wonders even in this repulsive
scene; and the generation of monkeys which tenant the higher portion of
the rocks, are declared by Arab tradition to be the remnant of the once
powerful tribe of Ad, changed into apes by the displeasure of Heaven, when
"the King of the World," Sheddad, renowned in eastern story,
presumptuously dared to form a garden which should rival Paradise. The
prophet Hud remonstrated; but his remonstrances went for nothing, and the
indignant monarch and his courtiers suddenly found their visages simious,
their tongues chattering, and their lower portions furnished with tails - a
species of transformation, which, so far as regards visage and tongue, is
supposed to be not unfrequent among courtiers to this day. But this showy
tradition goes further still. The Bostan al Irem (Garden of Paradise) is
believed still to exist in the deserts of Aden; though geographers differ
on its position. It still retains its domes and bowers - both of
indescribable beauty; its crystal fountains, and its walks strewed with
pearls for sand. It is true, that no living man can absolutely aver that
he has seen this place of wonders; but that is a mere result of our very
wicked age. This has not been always the case; for Abdallah Ibn Aboo
Kelaba passed a night in its palace in the reign of Moowiych, the prince
of the Faithful. Lucky the man who shall next find it, but unlucky the
world when he does; for then the day of the general conflagration will be
at hand. In the mean time, it remains, like the top of Mount Meru, covered
with clouds, or, like the inside of a Chinese puzzle, a work of unrivaled
art, conceivable but intangible by man.

In this pleasant mingling of fact, visible to his shrewd eye, and fiction
drawn from ancient fancy, Major Harris leads us on. But Aden is not yet
exhausted of wonders - an island in its bay, Seerah, (the fortified black
isle,) is pronounced to have been the refuge of Cain on the murder of Abel;
and its volcanic and barren chaos is no unequal competitor for the honour
with the rocks of the Caucasus.

But England, which changes every thing, is changing all this. Within the
next generation, the railway will run down the romances of Nutrib; a
cotton manufactory will send up its smokes to blot out the celestial blue
by day, and shoot forth its sullen illumination by night, over the
anointed soil; the minstrel will turn policeman, and the sheik be a
justice of peace; political economy will have its itinerant lecturers,
enlightening the Bedouins on the principles of rent and taxes; the city
will have a lord mayor and corporation of the deepest black; the volcano
will be planted with villas; turnpikes will measure out the sands; a hotel
will flourish on the summit of Jebel Shemshan; and Aden will differ from
Liverpool in nothing but being two thousand miles further from the smoke
and multitudes of London.

The Arab is still the prominent person among the native population of this
territory. Major Harris describes him well. The bronzed and sunburnt
visage, surrounded by long matted locks of raven hair; the slender but
wiry and active frame, and the energetic gait and manner, proclaimed the
untamable descendant of Ishmael. He nimbly mounts the crupper of his now
unladen dromedary, and at a trot moves down the bazar. A checked kerchief
round his brows, and a kilt of dark blue calico round his frame, comprise
his slender costume. His arms have been deposited outside the Turkish wall;
and as he looks back, his meagre, ferocious aspect, flanked by that
tangled web of hair, stamps him the roving tenant of the desert. It is
curious to find in this remote country a custom similar to that of the
fiery cross, which in old times summoned the Celtic tribes to arms. On the
alarm of invasion, a branch, torn by the priest from the _nebek_, (a tree
bearing a fruit like the Siberian crab,) is lighted in the fire, the flame
is then quenched in the blood of a newly slaughtered ram. It is then sent
forth with a messenger to the nearest clan. Thus, great numbers are
assembled with remarkable promptitude. In the invasion under Ibrahim Pasha,
sixteen thousand of these wild warriors were assembled from one tribe.
They crept into the Egyptian camp by night, and, using only their daggers,
made such formidable slaughter, that the Pasha was glad to escape by a
precipitate retreat.

The Jews form an important part of the population, as artizans and
manufacturers. Feeling the natural veneration for the Chosen People in all
their misfortunes, and convinced that the time will come when those
misfortunes will be obliterated, it is highly gratifying to find, that
even in this place of their ancient sufferings, they are beginning to feel
the benefit of British protection. Hitherto, through their indefatigable
industry, having acquired opulence in Arabia as elsewhere, they were
afraid either to display or to enjoy it; but now, under the protection of
the British flag, they not merely enjoy their wealth, but they publicly
practise the rights of their religion. Stone slabs with Hebrew
inscriptions mark the place of their dead. They have schools for the
education of their children; and their men and women, arrayed in their
holiday apparel, sit fearlessly in the synagogue, and listen to the
reading of the law and the prophets, as of old. It is a great source of
gratification to the philanthropist to find, that wherever England extends
her power, industry, commerce, and peace are the natural result. Aden,
barren as the soil is, is evidently approaching to a prosperity which it
never possessed even in its most flourishing days. Emigrants from Yemen
and from both shores of the Red Sea, are daily crowding within the walls,
through the security which they offer against native oppression. In the
short space of three years, the population has risen to twenty thousand
souls. Substantial dwellings are rising up in every quarter, and at all
the adjacent ports hundreds of native merchants are only waiting the
erection of permanent fortifications, in token of our intending to remain,
to flock under the guns with their families and wealth. The opinion of
this intelligent writer is, that Aden, as a free port, whilst she pours
wealth into a now impoverished land, must erelong become the queen of the
adjacent seas, and rank amongst the most useful dependencies of the

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Online LibraryVariousBlackwood's Edinburgh Magazine — Volume 55, No. 341, March, 1844 → online text (page 1 of 22)