1866-68 - Hormuzd Rassam
Captive of King Theodore
I shall proceed to describe my quarters when first made over to me. It was a round hut — more like a barn than a dwelling — twelve feet in diameter, constructed of branches of trees, with a straw roofing, and was still being used as a kitchen by two native families on our arrival at Magdala. As the fire-places were in the centre of the room, and there was no other vent for the smoke but through the crevices of the walls, the whole interior was begrimed with soot. The floor had never been levelled, and was furrowed here and there to make stands for water-jars. In fact, every part of the place was wretched and filthy in the extreme. One of my first cares was to make my prison-house tidy. Then, in order to get rid of the dust and soot which fell from the thatch whenever there was a strong breeze, I caused the old roof to be replaced by a new one, in which work the Abyssinian soldiers, who were always ready to assist the humblest prisoners, lent me a helping hand. Eventually, I had the whole structure pulled down, and a better room erected on the site, which I continued to occupy until the arrival of the British force.
There was one great inconvenience, however, beyond effectual remedy. The ground where our general quarters were located was so low and soft, that when the rains began the water oozed through the floor in all directions, despite all my efforts to divert it by having trenches dug round all the huts, and the inclosure well drained. The floor of my room, in particular, was always as yielding as mud, although I took the precaution of having it laid with rubble; and the water which collected in the trenches made to convey it to the main drain occasionally flowed day and night, as if issuing from a spring.
I was not successful, however, in my efforts to keep the general inclosure clean, which was invariably so filthy that the Chiefs frequently complained to me of the state in which it was allowed to remain. At first, I undertook the office of sanitary inspector myself, but was obliged to relinquish it on Samuel's [the local interpreter’s] representation that it would lower me in the estimation of the natives. I then appointed the interpreters to see that the public walks were swept, and kept clear of all nuisances. But the opposition which they encountered neutralized all their efforts.
Next, I tried the doorkeeper, who were charged to insist that all rubbish should be carried to the edge of the plateau and thrown over the precipice; but the arrangement gave rise to so many squabbles that I finally commissioned Aito Samuel to try his hand at the duty. He was eminently successful at the outset, by dint of an indiscriminate use of the whip, but on my strictly forbidding any such treatment of a female he resigned the task, saying, "How can I effect what you wish, when you will not allow me, after our own custom, to flog the women, who are as obstinate as mules, to make them do their work properly?" I never allowed a domestic of mine to have a hut within the enclosure of my house, or any Abyssinian male or female servants to stay there. Whenever the latter were employed on any special work during the day, I insisted on their quitting the premises at night. My Indian servants slept in the kitchen, as it was unadvisable that they should sleep beyond the inclosure, where tiny might have got into some affray with the natives.
As regards furniture, the members of the Mission had, luckily, lost nothing necessary to comfort. We had our own bedsteads, bedding, chairs and tables, and the King [Theodore] had provided us with carpets; but the old captives, who had been bereft of everything, were in a far less enviable plight in that respect. Even they, however, had it in their power to make themselves comfortable. As to food, all fared alike: all were well supplied with what the country afforded, and enjoyed a privilege above the natives of the place generally, for on several occasions, when certain articles were scarce in the market, the Chiefs directed that we should share what was procurable with the purveyors for the royal household. We made our own bread, always used table-cloths, and sometimes napkins, and never sat down to dinner, barring the first few days alter our arrival, without beginning with soup, which was occasionally followed by fish; then two or four entrés, then a joint, then a pudding or tart, winding up with anchovy-toast, or cream-cheese — the latter made by our Indian servants. In fact, a millionnaire could not have lived better than we did, under similar circumstances. My two associates in the Mission, Consul Cameron, Mr. Stern and I boarded together till the beginning of 1867, when Mr. Cameron and Dr. Blanc preferred messing each in his own hut. Lieut. Prideaux, Mr. Stern and I shared the same table until we were liberated. As to pecuniary and other means of living, we were much on a par, with the exception of those whom I had to support on the public account, as distressed Europeans. Whenever funds reached me from the coast, or by any other route, the amount was divided according to the requirements of each.
Not one of the captives can justly complain that his imprisonment, during my time, was aggravated by privations. It is true that we were fettered, to our no small discomfort; but our worst trials consisted in mental anxiety, protracted for nearly two years; in the ever-present consciousness that our lives hung upon a thread; that a mere caprice on the part of the ruthless despot who hold us in his grasp might lead him to order us to be mutilated, or to be hurled headlong from that fatal precipice, where hundreds as innocent as we were had met an untimely end. These fears were shared alike by all, and mine, I need hardly say, were intensified by a weight of responsibility which at times quite overpowered me.
Narrative of the British Mission to Theodore, King of Abyssinia
Vol. 2, London 1869