Journals 7.1 – A Journey to Central Africa by Bayard Taylor (Part 1)

Alexandria

Alexandria

Bayard Taylor was a successful American poet, who used his earnings from his poetry to fund travels in Europe in the late 1840s. He wrote about his experiences, and his articles were published in the Tribune, the Saturday Evening Post and the United States Gazette, leading to career working as a correspondent for the Tribune during the California gold rush.

In 1850 tragedy struck, when his beloved wife died of tuberculosis. According to Russell Herman Conwell, in his Life of Bayard Taylor (published in 1879) the death of his wife led quite naturally to ‘a mental state somewhat akin to despair’.

In his endeavors to banish the gloomy spectre, he resorted to hard work. Hence, the first half of the year 1851 was one of the busiest seasons of his life. He wrote early and late. He composed poems and essays, wrote editorials, and edited correspondence, some of it being the labor attached to his profession, but a great share of it written to occupy his mind and shut out his affliction.

Throwing himself into his work had its consequences, and Taylor’s health began to suffer. He decided that what he most needed was a holiday, and no ordinary holiday would suffice.

He then recalled his exhilarating walks among the Alps and on the plains of Europe. He kindled anew his zeal for adventure. He studied the map of the world to decide where was presented the most favorable field for discovery. He wished for rest from sorrow, and rest from close application to literary work. Such a relief could only be found in a climate and among a people wholly different from his own.

The destination he chose was Africa, a continent that was still largely unexplored, with intentions to travel perhaps a little further into the heart of the continent than anybody had done before. This was undoubtedly a journey that would pose certain dangers, but perhaps a man who was caught in the grip of sadness to such an extent as Taylor valued diversion more than his own safety.

In writing about that undertaking afterwards, he said a trip into Africa would furnish good material for a travelling correspondent and hence that continent was selected. “But,” he said, “there were other influences acting upon me which I did not fully comprehend at the time, and cannot now describe without going too deeply into matters of private history.” But while in Central Africa, enjoying the invigorating breezes along the Nile, he reveals a part of that private history by an incidental exclamation published in a letter to the “Tribune.” “Oh! what a rest is this from the tantalizing and sorrowful suggestions of civilization.” He fled from sorrow — driven into the desert.

The resulting flight from sorrow was published in 1854, under the title A Journey to Central Africa (G.P. Putnam & Co, New York). Taylor’s own introduction to the book sets out his purpose, without reference to his wife, instead stating that ‘the journey was undertaken solely for the purpose of restoring a frame exhausted by severe mental labor.’

There is an old Italian proverb, which says a man has lived to no purpose, unless he has either built a house, begotten a son, or written a book. As I have already complied more than once with the latter of these requisitions, I must seek to justify the present repetition thereof, on other grounds. My reasons for offering this volume to the public are, simply, that there is room for it. It is the record of a journey which led me, for the most part, over fresh fields, by paths which comparatively few had trodden before me. Although I cannot hope to add much to the general stock of information concerning Central Africa, I may serve, at least, as an additional witness, to confirm or illustrate the evidence of others. Hence, the preparation of this work has appeared to me rather in the light of a duty than a diversion, and I have endeavored to impart as much instruction as amusement to the reader.

Taylor’s crossing of the Mediterranean began on 1st November, 1851. He made friends with a German, who agreed to accompany him on his travels down the Nile, for the first part of the trip. They were kindred spirits with similar opinions and interests, and became firm friends. Reading between the lines, it is quite clear that the German helped to a great extent to lessen Taylor’s feelings of sorrow. According to Conwell, ‘he little thought then, that while trying to shut out his sorrow by voluntary exile, he was opening the door to a second love. Mr. Taylor’s singular admiration and love for his companion is almost unaccountable, unless we adopt some theory of foreordination or providential design.’

My German friend, who had never seen palms, except as starveling exotics in Sorrento and Smyrna, lifted his hands in rapture, and even I, who had heard tens of thousands rustle in the hot winds of the Tropics, felt my heart leap as if their beauty were equally new to my eyes. For no amount of experience can deprive the traveller of that happy feeling of novelty which marks his first day on the soil of a new continent.

The unnamed German’s enthusiasm was infectious, because for the first leg of the trip Taylor spoke with great enthusiasm of all the sights he saw, however insignificant. After they parted company, the excitement of viewing ruins seems to fade somewhat.

Taylor and his friend found a boat to take them to Cairo, and employed the services of a ‘dragoman’ (a professional interpreter and guide). Neither of them had been to Egypt before, so a dragoman was essential, although they came well prepared with maps and books, and had considerable knowledge of ancient history and recent discoveries in Egypt. Along with that advantage, Taylor seemed to have a knack for picking up languages wherever he went, so was soon able to communicate with the locals himself to a reasonable extent.

There was time to be killed before the departure of the boat, and the dragoman, Ibrahim, suggested going to a bath house. The amusing experience that ensued is worth repeating here in full:

The bath to which he conducted us was pronounced to be the finest in Alexandria, the most superb in all the Orient, but it did not at all accord with our ideas of Eastern luxury. Moreover, the bath-keeper was his intimate friend, and would bathe us as no Christians were ever bathed before. One fact Ibrahim kept to himself, which was, that his intimate friend and he shared the spoils of our inexperience. We were conducted to a one-story building, of very unprepossessing exterior. As we entered the low, vaulted entrance, my ears were saluted with a dolorous, groaning sound, which I at first conjectured to proceed from the persons undergoing the operation, but which I afterward ascertained was made by a wheel turned by a buffalo, employed in raising water from the well. In a sort of basement hall, smelling of soap-suds, and with a large tank of dirty water in the centre, we were received by the bath-keeper, who showed us into a room containing three low divans with pillows. Here we disrobed, and Ibrahim, who had procured a quantity of napkins, enveloped our heads in turbans and swathed our loins in a simple Adamite garment. Heavy wooden clogs were attached to our feet, and an animated bronze statue led the way through gloomy passages, sometimes hot and steamy, sometimes cold and soapy, and redolent of any thing but the spicy odors of Araby the Blest, to a small vaulted chamber, lighted by a few apertures in the ceiling. The moist heat was almost suffocating; hot water flowed over the stone floor, and the stone benches we sat upon were somewhat cooler than kitchen stoves. The bronze individual left us, and very soon, sweating at every pore, we began to think of the three Hebrews in the furnace. Our comfort was not increased by the groaning sound which we still heard, and by seeing, through a hole in the door, five or six naked figures lying motionless along the edge of a steaming vat, in the outer room.

Presently our statue returned with a pair of coarse hair-gloves on his hands. He snatched off our turbans, and then, seizing one of my friends by the shoulder as if he had been a sheep, began a sort of rasping operation upon his back. This process, varied occasionally by a dash of scalding water, was extended to each of our three bodies, and we were then suffered to rest awhile. A course of soap-suds followed, which was softer and more pleasant in its effect, except when he took us by the hair, and holding back our heads, scrubbed our faces most lustily, as if there were no such things as eyes, noses and mouths. By this time we had reached such a salamandrine temperature that the final operation of a dozen pailfuls of hot water poured over the head, was really delightful. After a plunge in a seething tank, we were led back to our chamber and enveloped in loose muslin robes. Turbans were bound on our heads and we lay on the divans to recover from the languor of the bath. The change produced by our new costume was astonishing. The stout German became a Turkish mollah, the young Smyrniote a picturesque Persian, and I — I scarcely know what, but, as my friends assured me, a much better Moslem than Frank. Cups of black coffee, and pipes of inferior tobacco completed the process, and in spite of the lack of cleanliness and superabundance of fleas, we went forth lighter in body, and filled with a calm content which nothing seemed able to disturb.

Ibrahim had arranged a boat from among his contacts, in much the same way as he arranged the bath experience. Although it looked acceptable and clean, the price was a little high (presumably as Ibrahim was getting his cut of the profits). Taylor took advice from one of his own contacts, who dispatched a servant to engage a boat for a cheaper price, just 225 piastres (currently with a value of about 25p, or very approximately £250 in today’s terms).

Like all dragomen, Ibrahim had his private preferences, and conducted us on board a boat belonging to a friend of his, a grizzly rais, or captain. The craft was a small kangia, with a large lateen sail at the bow and a little one at the stern. It was not very new, but looked clean, and the rais demanded three hundred piastres for the voyage. The piastre is the current coin of the East. Its value is fluctuating, and always higher in Egypt than in Syria and Turkey, but may be assumed at about five cents, or twenty to the American dollar. Before closing the bargain, we asked the advice of M. de Gonzenbach, who immediately despatched his Egyptian servant and engaged a boat at two hundred and twenty-five piastres.

But what was our surprise on reaching the boat, to find the same kangia and the same grizzly rais, who had previously demanded three hundred piastres. He seemed no less astonished than we, for the bargain had been made by a third party, and I believe he bore us a grudge during the rest of the voyage.

On board the boat, Taylor had his first opportunity to survey the local villages and landscape in the Nile Delta region. They passed by a burial ground, ‘a collection of heaps of mud, baked in the sun’. There were paid mourners there, two women ‘who howled and sobbed, in long, piteous, despairing cries, which were most painful to hear.’ They comforts on board were the responsibility of Ibrahim, including providing food and drink, although his skills were limited to the rice dish pilaf, and coffee.

Moreover his habits and appearance were not calculated to make us relish his handiwork. The naivete with which he took the wash-basin to make soup in, and wiped our knives and forks on his own baggy pantaloons, would have been very amusing if we had not been interested parties. The Asian was one day crumbling some loaf sugar with a hammer, when Ibrahim, who had been watching him, suddenly exclaimed in a tone of mingled pity and contempt, “that’s not the way!” Thereupon he took up some of the lumps, and wrapped them in one corner of his long white shirt, which he thrust into his mouth, and after crushing the sugar between his teeth, emptied it into the bowl with an air of triumph.


The next part of this essay, in which Taylor has a dangerous encounter at the Great Pyramid, will follow in a few days.  Previous articles can be accessed by clicking on “Contents” on the menu at the top of the screen.

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About Windows into History

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