Dr. Henri Blanc.

Narrative of Captivity in Abyssinia with Some Account of the Late Emperor the Late Emperor Theodore, His Country and People online

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M.R.C.S.E., F.A.S.L., ETC.,





The Emperor Theodore - His Rise and Conquests - His Army
and Administration - Causes of his Fall - His Personal
Appearance and Character - His Household and Private Life


Europeans in Abyssinia - Bell and Plowden - Their Career and
Deaths - Consul Cameron - M. Lejean - M. Bardel and Napoleon's Answer
to Theodore - The Gaffat People - Mr. Stern and the Djenda Mission - State
of Affairs at the End of 1863


Imprisonment of Mr. Stern - Mr. Kerans arrives with Letters and
Carpet - Cameron, with his Followers, is put in Chains - M. Bardel
returns from the Soudan - Theodore's Dealings with Foreigners - The
Coptic Patriarch - Abdul Rahman Bey - The Captivity of the Europeans


News of Cameron's Imprisonment reaches Home - Mr. Rassam is selected
to proceed to the Court of Gondar, and is accompanied by Dr.
Blanc - Delays and Difficulties in communicating with Theodore - Description
of Massowah and its Inhabitants - Arrival of a Letter from the Emperor


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


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


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 - Accompany his Majesty through Metsha - His Conversation
_en route_


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 at Zagé - Flattery before Coercion


Second Visit to Zagé - Arrest of Mr. Rassam and the English Officers
- Charges brought against Mr. Rassam - The former Captives are brought
in Chains to Zagé - Public Trial - Reconciliation - Mr. Flad's Departure
- The Imprisonment at Zagé - Departure for Kourata


Second Residence at Kourata - Cholera and Typhus break out in the
Camp - The Emperor resolves to march to Debra Tabor - Arrival at
Gaffat - The Foundry transformed into a Palace - Political Trial at
Debra Tabor - The Black Tent - Dr. Blanc and Mr. Rosenthal seized at
Gaffat - Another Public Trial - The Black Hole - March with the Emperor
to Aibankab - Sent to Magdala, and Arrival at the Amba


Our first House at Magdala - The Chief has a "little Business" with
us - Feelings of a European when being put in Chains - The Operation
described - The Prisoners' Toilette - How we Lived - Our first Messenger
a Failure - How we obtained Money and Letters - A Magdala Diary - A
Rainy Season in a Godjo


Description of Magdala - Climate and Water Supply - The Emperor's
Houses - His Harem and Magazines - The Church - Prison-house - Guards
and Gaol - Discipline - A previous Visit of Theodore to Magdala - Slaughter
of the Gullas - Character and Antecedents of Samuel - Our friends,
Zenab the Astronomer, and Meshisha the Lute-player - Day Guards - We
build new Huts - Abyssinian and Portuguese Servants - Our Inclosure
is enlarged


Theodore writes to Mr. Rassam about Mr. Flad and the Artisans - His
two Letters contrasted - General Merewether arrives at Massowah - Danger
of sending Letters to the Coast - Ras Engeddah brings us a few
Stores - Our Garden - Successful Results of Vaccination at Magdala - Our
Day Guard again - Second Rainy Season - The Chiefs are Jealous - The
Ras and his Council - Damash, Hailo, Daily Life during Rainy Season - Two
Prisoners attempt to Escape - The Knout in Abyssinia - A Dying Man's


Second Rainy Season ends - Scarcity and dearness of Provisions - Meshisha
and Comfou plot their Escape - They succeed - Theodore is robbed - Damash
pursues the Fugitives - The Night Attack - The Galla War-cry, and the
"Sauve qui peut" - The Wounded left on the Field - Hospitality of the
Gallas - Theodore's Letter on the Subject - Mastiate's Troubles - Wakshum
Gabra Medhin - Sketch of Gobaz's Career - He invites the Co-operation
of the Bishop in seizing Magdala - The Bishop's plan - All the rival
Chiefs intrigue for the Amba - Mr. Rassam's Influence overrated


Death of Abouna Salama - Sketch of his Life and Career - Grievances
of Theodore against him - His Imprisonment at Magdala - The Wallo
Gallas - Their Habits and Customs - Menilek appears with an Army in
the Galla Country - His Policy - Advice sent to him by Mr. Rassam - He
invests Magdala, and fires a _feu-de-joie_ - The Queen's behavior
- Steps taken by the Chiefs - Our Position not improved - The
Effects of Smoke on Menilek - Our Disappointment followed by great
Joy - We receive news of the Landing of British Troops


Theodore's Proceedings during our stay at Magdala - His treatment
of Begemder - A Rebellion breaks out - Forced March on Gondar - The
Churches are plundered and burnt - Theodore's Cruelties - The Insurgents
increase in Strength - The Designs of the Emperor on Kourata
frustrated - Mr. Bardel betrays the new Workmen - Theodore's Ingratitude
towards the Gaffat People - His Raid on Foggara unsuccessful


Arrival of Mr. Flad from England - Delivers a Letter and Message
from the Queen - The Episode of the Telescope - Our Property taken
care of - Theodore will not yield except to Force - He recruits his
Army - Ras Adilou and Zallallou desert him - He is repulsed at Belessa
by Lij Abitou and the Peasants - The Expedition against Metraha - His
Cruelties there - The great "Sebastopol" is cast - Famine and Pestilence
compel the Emperor to raise his Camp - The difficulties of his March
to Magdala - His arrival in Dalanta


Theodore in the Vicinity of Magdala - Our feelings at the Time - An
Amnesty granted to Dalanta - The Garrison of Magdala join the
Emperor - Mrs. Rosenthal and other Europeans are sent to the
Fortress - Theodore's Conversation with Flad and Waldmeier on the
Coming of the Troops - Sir Robert Napier's Letter to Theodore reaches
us - Theodore plunders Dalanta - He abuses Mr. Waldmeier - Reaches the
Bechelo - Correspondence between Mr. Rassam and Theodore - Mr. Rassam
is released from his Fetters - Theodore arrives at Islamgee - His
Quarrel with the Priests - His First Visit to the Amba - Trial of the
two Chiefs - He places a new Commandant over the Garrison


We are counted by the new Ras, and condemned to Sleep in one
Hut - Theodore's Second Visit to the Amba - He sends for Mr. Rassam,
and gives orders that Prideaux and myself should have our Chains
taken off - The Operation described - Our Reception by the Emperor - We
are sent for to see "Sebastopol" landed on Islamgee - Conversation
with his Majesty - The remaining Prisoners are freed from their
Fetters - Theodore is unable to plunder his own Property


All the Prisoners leave the Amba for Islamgee - Our Reception by
Theodore - He harangues his Troops, and releases some of the
Prisoners - He informs us of the Advance of the English - The
Massacre - We are sent back to Magdala - Effects of the Battle of
Fahla - Messrs. Prideaux and Flad sent to Negotiate - Release of the
Captives, and their narrow Escape - Their Arrival in the British

* * * * *


* * * * *


PASS OF LOOKUM (Frontispiece).








* * * * *

_The Fetters on the Cover of this Volume represent the Leg-chains
worn by Dr. Blanc. Their weight is about seven pounds._


* * * * *

With a view of gratifying the natural curiosity evinced by a large
circle of friends and acquaintance to obtain accurate information
as to the cause of our captivity, the manner in which we were
treated, the details of our daily life, and the character and habits
of Theodore, I undertook the task of writing this account of our
captivity in Abyssinia.

I have endeavoured to give a correct sketch of the career of Theodore,
and a description of his country and people, more especially of his
friends and enemies.

In order to make the reader familiar with the subject, it was also
necessary to say a few words about the Europeans who played a part
in that strange imbroglio - the Abyssinian difficulty. My knowledge
of them, and of the events that occurred during our captivity, was
acquired through personal experience, and also by intercourse with
well-informed natives, during long months of enforced idleness.

In preparing this work for the press, I found it necessary to the
completeness of the narrative, to incorporate some portions of my
Report to the Government of Bombay on Mr. Rassam's mission, which
appeared in an Indian newspaper, and was subsequently republished
in a small volume.

For the same reason I have also included a few articles contributed
by me to a London newspaper.

The sufferings of the Abyssinian captives will be ever associated,
in the annals of British valour, with the triumphant success of the
expedition, so skilfully organized by its commander, whose title,
Lord Napier of Magdala, commemorates the crowning achievement of a
glorious career.

_London, July 23, 1868._



The Emperor Theodore - His Rise and Conquests - His Army and
Administration - Causes of his Fall - His Personal Appearance
and Character - His Household and Private Life.

Lij Kassa, better known as the Emperor Theodore, was born in Kouara
about the year 1818. His father was a noble of Abyssinia, and his
uncle, the celebrated Dejatch Comfou, had for many years governed
the provinces of Dembea, Kouara, Tschelga, &c. On the death of his
uncle he was appointed by Ras Ali's mother, Waizero Menen, governor
of Kouara; but, dissatisfied with that post, which left but little
scope for his ambition, he threw off his allegiance, and occupied
Dembea as a rebel. Several generals were sent to chastise the young
soldier; but he either eluded their pursuit or defeated their forces.
However, on the solemn promise that he would, be well received, he
repaired to the camp of Ras Ali. This kind-hearted but weak ruler
thought to attach to his cause the brave chieftain, and to accomplish
that object gave him his daughter Tawavitch (she is beautiful). Lij
Kassa returned to Kouara, and for a time remained faithful to his
sovereign. He made several plundering expeditions in the low lands,
carried fire and sword into the Arab huts, and always returned from
these excursions bringing with him hordes of cattle, prisoners, and

The successes of Kassa, the courage he manifested on all occasions,
the abstemious life he led, and the favour he showed to all who
served his cause, soon collected around him a band of hardy and
reckless followers. Being ambitious, he now formed the project of
carving out an empire for himself in the fertile plains he had so
often devastated. Educated in a convent, he had not only studied
theological subjects, but made himself conversant with the mystic
Abyssinian history. His early education always exercised great
influence on his after-life, giving to his intercourse with others
a religious character, and impressed vividly upon his mind the idea
that the Mussulman race having for centuries encroached on the
Christian land, it should be the aim of his life to re-establish
the old Ethiopian empire. Urged on, therefore, both by ambition and
fanaticism, he advanced in the direction of Kedaref at the head of
16,000 warriors; but he had soon to learn the immense superiority
of a small number of well-armed and well-trained troops over large
but undisciplined bodies of men. Near Kedaref he came in sight of
his mortal foes the Turks, a mere handful of irregulars; yet they
were too much for him: for the first time, defeated and disheartened,
he had, for a while, to abandon his long-cherished scheme.

Instead of returning to the seat of his government, he was obliged,
on account of a severe wound received during the fight, to halt on
the frontier of Dembea. From his camp he informed his mother-in-law
of his condition, and requested that she would send him a cow - the
fee required by the Abyssinian doctor. Waizero Menen, who had
always hated Kassa, now took advantage of his fallen condition to
humble his pride still more; she sent him, instead of the cow, a
small piece of meat with an insulting message. Near the couch of
the wounded chieftain sat the brave companion who had shared his
fortunes, the wife whom he loved. On hearing the sneering message
of the Queen, her fiery Galla blood flamed with indignation. She
rose and told Kassa that she loved the brave but abhorred the coward;
and she could not remain any longer by his side if, after such an
insult, he did not revenge it in blood. Her passionate words fell
upon willing ears; vengeance filled the heart of Kassa, and as soon
as he had sufficiently recovered he returned to Kouara and openly
proclaimed his independence.

For the second time Ras Ali called him to his court; but the summons
met with a stern refusal. Several generals were sent to enforce
the command, but the young soldier easily routed these courtiers;
whilst their followers, charmed with Kassa's insinuating manners
and dazzled by his splendid promises, almost to a man enrolled
themselves under his standard. His wife again exerted her influence,
showing him how easily he might secure for himself the supreme
power, and, as he hesitated, again threatened to leave him. Kassa
resisted no longer; he advanced into Godjam, and carried all before
him. The battle of Djisella, fought in 1853, decided the fate of
Ras Ali. His army had been but for a short time engaged when,
panic-stricken, the Ras left the field with a body of 500 horse,
leaving the rest of his large host to swell the ranks of the
conqueror. Victory followed victory, and after a few years, from
Shoa to Metemma, from Godjam to Bogos, all feared and obeyed the
commands of the Emperor Theodore; for under that name he desired
to be crowned, after he had by the battle of Deraskié, fought in
February, 1855, subdued Tigré, and conquered his most formidable
opponent, Dejatch Oubié.

Shortly after the battle of Deraskié, Theodore turned his victorious
arms against the Wallo Gallas, possessed himself of Magdala, and
ravaged and destroyed so completely the rich Galla plain that many
of the chiefs joined his ranks, and fought against their own
countrymen. He had now not only avenged the long-oppressed Christians,
so often victims of the Galla inroads, but curbed for a long time
the haughty spirit of these clans. At the height of success, he
lost his brave and loving wife. He felt the cruel blow deeply. She
had been his faithful counsellor, the companion of his adventures,
the being he most loved; and he cherished her memory while he lived.
In 1866, when one of his artisans almost forced himself into his
presence to request permission for me to remain a few days near the
man's dying wife, Theodore bent his head, and wept at the remembrance
of his own wife whom he had so deeply loved.

The career of Theodore may be divided into three very distinct
periods: - First, from his early days to the death of his first wife;
secondly, from the fall of Ras Ali to the death of Mr. Bell; thirdly,
from this last event to his own death. The first period we have
described: it was the period of promise. During the second - which
extends from 1853 to 1860 - there is still much to praise in the
conduct of the Emperor, although many of his actions are unworthy
of his early career. From 1860 to 1868 he seems little by little
to have thrown off all restraint, until he became remarkable for
reckless and wanton cruelty. His principal wars during the second
period were with Dejatch Goscho Beru, governor of Godjam; with
Dejatch Oubié, whom he conquered, as we have already stated, at the
battle of Deraskié, and with the Wallo Gallas. He could, however,
still be merciful, and though he imprisoned many of the feudal
chiefs, he promised to release them as soon as the pacification of
his empire should be complete.

In 1860 he advanced against his cousin Garad, the murderer of Consul
Plowden, and gained the day; but he lost his best friend and adviser,
Mr. Bell, who saved the Emperor's life by sacrificing his own. In
January, 1861, Theodore marched with an overwhelming force against
a powerful rebel, Agau Negoussi, who had made himself master of all
northern Abyssinia; by cunning and skilful tactics, he easily
overthrew his adversary but tarnished his victory by horrid cruelties
and gross breach of faith. Agau Negoussi's hands and feet were cut
off, and though he lingered for days, the merciless emperor refused
him even a drop of water to moisten his fevered lips. His cruel
vengeance did not stop there. Many of the compromised chiefs, who
had surrendered on his solemn pledge of amnesty, were either handed
over to the executioner or sent to linger for life, loaded with
fetters, in some of the prison ambas. For the next three years
Theodore's rule was acknowledged throughout the land. A few petty
rebels had risen here and there, but with the exception of Tadla
Gwalu, who could not be driven from the fastness of his amba in the
south of Godjam, all the others were but of little importance, and
did not disturb the tranquillity of his reign.

But though a conqueror, and endowed with military genius, Theodore
was a bad administrator. To attach his soldiery to his cause, he
lavished upon them immense sums of money; he was therefore forced
to exact exorbitant tributes, almost to drain the land of its last
dollar, in order to satisfy his rapacious followers. Finding himself
at the head of a powerful host, and feeling either reluctant or
afraid to dismiss them to their homes, he longed for foreign
conquests; the dream of his younger days became a fixed idea, and
he believed himself called upon by God to re-establish in its former
greatness the old Ethiopian empire.

He could not, however, forget that he was unable to cope single-handed
with the well-armed and disciplined troops of his foes; he remembered
too well his signal failure at Kedaref, and therefore sought to
gain his long-desired object by diplomacy. He had heard from Bell,
Plowden, and others, that England and France were proud of the
protection they afforded to Christians in all parts of the world;
he therefore wrote to the sovereigns of those two countries, inviting
them to join him in his crusade against the Mussulman race. A few
passages selected from his letter to our Queen will prove the
correctness of this assertion. "By his power (of God) I drove away
the Gallas. But for the Turks, I have told them to leave the land
of my ancestors. They refuse!" He mentions the death of Plowden
and Bell, and then adds: - "I have exterminated those enemies (those
who killed Bell and Plowden), that I may get, by the power of God,
_your friendship_." He concludes by saying, "_See how the Islam
oppress the Christian!_"

Theodore's army at this time consisted of some 100,000 or 150,000
fighting men; and if we take as the average four followers for every
soldier, his camp must have numbered between 500,000 and 600,000
souls. Admitting, also, the population of Abyssinia to be nearly
3,000,000, about one fourth of the number had to be paid, fed, and
clothed by the contributions of the remainder.

During a few years, such was Theodore's prestige that this terrible
oppression was quietly accepted; at last, however, the peasants,
half-starved and almost naked, finding that with all their sacrifices
and privations they were still far from satisfying the daily
increasing demands of their terrible master, abandoned the fertile
plains, and under the guidance of some of the remaining hereditary
chiefs, retired to high plateaus, or concealed themselves in secluded
valleys. In Godjam, Walkait, Shoa, and Tigré, the rebellion broke
out almost simultaneously. Theodore had for a while to abandon his
ideas of foreign conquest, and did his utmost to crush the mutinous
spirit of his people. Whole rebel districts were laid waste; but
the peasants, protected by their strongholds, could not be reached:
they quietly awaited the departure of the invader and then returned
to their desolated homes, cultivating just enough for their
maintenance; thus, with only a few exceptions, the peasants evaded
the terrible vengeance of the now infuriate Emperor. His immense
army soon suffered severely from this mode of warfare. Each year
the provinces which the soldiers could plunder became fewer; severe
famines broke out; large districts such as Dembea, the granary of
Gondar and of central Abyssinia, lay waste and uncultivated. The
soldiers, formerly pampered, now in their turn half starved and
badly clad, lost confidence in their leader; desertions were numerous;
and many returned to their native provinces, and joined the ranks
of the discontented.

The fall of Theodore was even more rapid than his rise. He was still
unconquered in the battlefield, as, after the example of Negoussi's
fate, none dared to oppose him; but against the passive warfare of
the peasantry and the Fabian-like policy of their chiefs he could
do nothing. Never resting, almost always on the march, his army day
by day becoming reduced in strength, he went from province to
province; but in vain: all disappeared at his approach. There was
no enemy; but there was no food! At last, reduced by necessity, in
order to keep around him some remnants of his former immense army,
he had no alternative left but to plunder the few provinces still
faithful to him.

When I first met Theodore, in January, 1866, he must have been about
forty-eight years of age. His complexion was darker than that of
the majority of his countrymen, the nose slightly curved, the mouth
large, the lips so small as hardly to be perceived. Of middle size,
well knit, wiry rather than muscular, he excelled as a horseman,
in the use of the spear, and on foot would tire his hardiest
followers. The expression of his dark eyes, slightly depressed, was
strange; if he was in good humour they were soft, with a kind of
gazelle-like timidity about them that made one love him; but when
angry the fierce and bloodshot eye seemed to shed fire. In moments
of violent passion his whole aspect was frightful: his black visage
acquired an ashy hue, his thin compressed lips left but a whitish
margin around the mouth, his very hair stood erect, and his whole
deportment was a terrible illustration of savage and ungovernable

Yet he excelled in the art of duping his fellow-men. Even a few
days before his death he had still, when we met him, all the dignity
of a sovereign, the amiability and good-breeding of the most
accomplished "gentleman." His smile was so attractive, his words

Online LibraryDr. Henri BlancNarrative of Captivity in Abyssinia with Some Account of the Late Emperor the Late Emperor Theodore, His Country and People → online text (page 1 of 24)