Journals 7.5 – A Journey to Central Africa by Bayard Taylor (Part 5)

This is the continuation of my article on Taylor’s journal.  For the previous parts, please see the entries posted on 22nd, 26th, 30th August and 3rd September 2015.


The Shilluk village on Aba Island, as drawn by Bayard Taylor.

Taylor began the next leg of his journey on the Nile to the sound of a pistol salute, ‘so recklessly that I heard the sharp whistle of the bullets quite close to the vessel.’ The first major archaeological site of interest on this leg was Meroë, discovered by Frédéric Cailliaud in 1821, and detailed by Lepsius in 1844, just seven years before Taylor’s visit.

Our path led over a plain covered with thorny shrubs at first, but afterwards hard black gravel, and we had not gone more than a mile before the rais pointed out the pyramids of the ancient Ethiopian city. I knew it only from its mention in history, and had never read any description of its remains; consequently I was surprised to see before me, in the vapory morning air, what appeared to be the ruins of pylae and porticos, as grand and lofty as those of Karnak. Rising between us and the mountains, they had an imposing effect, and I approached them with excited anticipations. As we advanced, however, and the morning vapors melted away, I found that they derived much of their apparent height from the hill upon which they are built, and that, instead of being the shattered parts of one immense temple, they were a group of separate pyramids, standing amid the ruins of others which have been completely destroyed.

Once again, where Lepsius had been Taylor would find a trail of destruction. The pyramids at Meroë were solid structures, built over underground burial chambers, but Lepsius of course had no knowledge of this, and attempted to find chambers within the pyramid structures, causing considerable damage.

The last structure on the southern extremity of the hill is rather a tower than a pyramid, consisting of a high base or foundation, upon which is raised a square building, the corners presenting a very slight slope towards the top, which is covered with ruins, indicating that there was originally another and narrower story upon it. When complete, it must have borne considerable resemblance to the Assyrian towers, the remains of which are found at Nineveh. On this part of the hill there are many small detached chambers, all facing the east, and the remains of a large building. Here Lepsius appears to have expended most of his labors, and the heaps of stone and rubbish he has left behind him prevent one from getting a very clear idea of the original disposition of the buildings. He has quarried one of the pyramids down to its base, without finding any chamber within or pit beneath it.

Continuing along the Nile, Taylor found the river becoming ever more rapid and dangerous. For the first time, but not the last, his crew had a very narrow escape from shipwreck.

The wind blew strong from the north, as we reached a twist in the river, where our course for several miles lay to the north-west, obliging the men to take in sail and tow the vessel. They had reached the turning-point and the sail was blowing loose, while two sailors lay out on the long, limber yard, trying to reef, when a violent gust pulled the rope out of the hands of the man on shore, and we were carried into the stream. The steersman put the helm hard up, and made for the point of an island which lay opposite, but the current was so strong that we could not reach it. It blew a gale, and the Nile was rough with waves. Between the island and the southern shore lay a cluster of sharp, black rocks, and for a few minutes we appeared to be driving directly upon them. The rais and sailors, with many cries of “Prophet! Apostle!” gave themselves up to their fate; but the strength of the current saved us. Our bow just grazed the edge of the last rock, and we were blown across to the opposite shore, where we struck hard upon the sand and were obliged to remain two hours, until the wind abated. I was vexed and impatient at first, but remembering the effect of a pipe upon a similar occasion, I took one, and soon became calm enough to exclaim : “it is the will of Allah!”

Taylor and his crew survived the voyage to arrive at Khartoum and the point of the meeting between the Blue Nile and White Nile. This was the last bastion of civilisation for Taylor, and the last place of relative safety. Taylor found a bustling but small city, with ‘a curious compound of Christian, Turk and Barbarian’. The layout of the buildings made travelling around the city difficult, with each building surrounded by a mud wall, ‘regardless of its location with respect to others, and in going from one point to another, one is obliged to make the most perplexing zigzags.’ He also considered Khartoum an unhealthy place.

From the southern frontier of Nubia, where the tropical rains begin to fall, to the table-land of Abyssinia on the south, and as far up the White Nile as has yet been explored, Soudan is devastated by fevers of the most malignant character. The summers are fatal to at least one-half of the Turks, Egyptians and Europeans who make their residence there, and the natives themselves, though the mortality is not so great among them, rarely pass through the year without an attack of fever. I arrived during the most healthy part of the year, and yet of all the persons I saw, three-fourths were complaining of some derangement of the system. The military hospital, which I visited, was filled with cases of fever, dysentery and small-pox. I was in such good bodily condition from my journey through the Desert that I could scarcely conceive the sensation of sickness, and the generous diet and invigorating exercise I enjoyed secured me from all fear of an attack. Travellers are not agreed as to the cause of this mortality in Soudan. Some attribute it to the presence of infusoriae in the water; yet we drank the pure, mountain-born flood of the Blue Nile, and filtered it beforehand. I am disposed to side with Russegger, who accounts for it entirely by the miasma arising from decayed vegetation, during the intense heats.

In Khartoum, Taylor contacted Ignatius Knoblecher, a missionary who had explored further along the White Nile than any European, in 1850. He was a source of much useful information to help Taylor prepare for the final leg of his journey.

Until within a recent period, but little has been known of the geography and topography of the eastern portion of Central Africa. Few English travellers have made these regions the subject of their investigation, their attention having been principally directed towards the countries on the western coast. The Niger, in fact, has been for them a more interesting problem than the Nile.

Taylor predicted that, when the source of the Nile was eventually found, the river would be ‘not less than four thousand miles’ long, and will ‘rank with the Mississippi and the Amazon – a sublime trinity of streams!’ He was quite right. The Nile is in fact over 4200 miles long, comparable with the length of the Amazon (depending on how you measure them – either could be considered the longest in the world) and certainly longer than the Mississippi.

After spending several days exploring Khartoum and the surrounding area, time was pressing. If Taylor was to travel further along the Nile it needed to be soon, before the climate became insufferable.

The long journey I had already made in order to reach Soudan only whetted my desire of seeing more of the wild, barbaric life of Central Africa, and, owing to the good luck which had saved me from any delay on the road, I could spare three or four weeks for further journeys, before setting out on my return to Egypt. Some of my friends in Khartoum counselled one plan and some another, but after distracting myself in a maze of uncertainties, I returned to my first love, and determined to make a voyage up the White Nile.

Despite his best efforts, it proved impossible to find a sailor willing to take Taylor as far or further than Knoblecher, but he did manage to find a ‘fat old Turk named Abou-Balta’ who would take him as far as Aba Island. This was on the edge of the Shilluk Kingdom, which had had virtually no contact with outsiders and posed a serious danger. Although he could not travel further than his predecessors, he was setting another record that he could be proud of. No American had ever travelled down the White Nile.

The first American flag that ever floated over the White Nile, fluttered gayly at the mast-head, pointing to the south — to those vast, mysterious regions out of which the mighty stream finds its way.

Unfortunately, the flag did not survive the whole journey. One of the crew, attempting to hoist it one day, dropped it into the river. Had Taylor witnessed the accident he would have ordered the man to jump in and attempt to retrieve it, but by the time he realised what had happened it was too late.

We were then so far from the spot, that any attempt to recover it would have been useless, and so the glorious stars and stripes which had floated thus far triumphantly into Africa, met the fate of most travellers in those regions. They lay imbedded in the mud of the White Nile, and I sailed away from the spot with a pang, as if a friend had been drowned there. The flag of one’s country is never dearer to him than when it is his companion and protector in foreign lands.

Minus flag, Taylor and his crew finally arrived at the furthest point of his journey. Despite the presence of some of the native Shilluk people on the island of Aba, Taylor managed to persuade Abou-Balta to take him within sight of their village on the far end of the island. What followed was by far the single most dangerous situation of the journey, from which Taylor was very lucky to escape with his life.

The rais [captain of the vessel] finally descried the huts of the village at a distance, near the extremity of the island. We returned to the vessel, and were about putting off in order to proceed thither, when a large body of men, armed with spears, appeared in the forest, coming towards us at a quick pace. The rais, who had already had some intercourse with these people and knew something of their habits, advanced alone to meet them. I could see, through the trees, that a consultation was held, and shortly, though with some signs of doubt and hesitation, about a dozen of the savages advanced to within a short distance of the vessel, while the others sat down on the ground, still holding the spears in their hands. The rais now returned to the water’s edge, and said that the Shillooks had come with the intention of fighting, but he had informed them that this was a visit from the Sultan’s son, who came to see them as a friend, and would then return to his father’s country. Thereupon they consented to speak with me, and I might venture to go on shore. I landed again, with Achmet, and walked up with the rais to the spot where the men were seated. The shekh of the island, a tall, handsome man, rose to greet me, by touching the palm of his right hand to mine and then raising it to his forehead. I made a like salutation, after which he sat down…

Our negotiations were conducted in genuine diplomatic style. Whenever His Majesty of the Shillooks had any thing to say, he mentioned it to his vizier, who addressed Achmet, my vizier, who communicated it to me, the Sultan. The spectators observed the most profound silence, and nothing could surpass the gravity and solemnity of the scene…

The vizier, addressing me through Achmet, said : “Tell us what you want; if you come to fight, we are ready for you.” I assured the shekh through him that I came as a friend, and had no intention of molesting them, but he was not satisfied, and repeated three or four times, drawing a mark between us on the ground: “if you are really friends, we will be friends with you; but if you are not, we are ready to fight you.” Achmet at last swore by the Prophet Mohammed, and by the wisdom of Allah, that we had come in peace; that the Sultan wished to pay him a visit, and would then return home. At the request of the rais we had come on shore unarmed, but it had not the anticipated effect. “Why have you no arms?” said the shekh ; “are you afraid of us?” I told him that it was in order to show that I had no hostile intentions, but the people seemed to consider it as mark of either treachery or fear. I brought some tobacco with me, which I gave to the shekh, but he received it coldly, and said:

“Where is the dress which the Sultan has brought for me?” This reminded me that I had entirely neglected to provide myself in Khartoum with muslin and calico, for presents. I remedied the deficiency, however, by going on board and taking one of my shirts and a silk handkerchief, as well as some beads and ear-rings for the wives of the two dignitaries. Achmet added a shirt and a pair of Turkish drawers, and brought a fresh supply of tobacco for the warriors. The shekh took the presents with evident gratification, and then came the work of clothing him. He was entirely at a loss how to put on the garments, but Achmet and the rais unwound the cotton cloth from his loins, stuck his legs into the drawers, his arms into the shirt-sleeves, and tied the handkerchief about his head. Once clothed, he gave no more attention to his garments, but wore them with as much nonchalance as if he had never possessed a scantier costume.

So far, so good, but things soon took a turn for the worse. The tribe began to make demands. They all wanted ‘tobacco, clothes, and various other things’ that Taylor could not possibly supply in such quantities. Taylor noticed his own entourage were looking nervous, even the captain who ‘was a man of some courage.’ More and more men were arriving, and now Taylor was surrounded with at least 50 of the tribe, all armed with spears, clubs, or poles, and nearly all the men over six feet tall. With great presence of mind and his characteristic calm demeanour, Taylor changed the subject and asked for a tour of the village.

The shekh marched ahead, in his white garments and fluttering head-dress, followed by the warriors, each carrying his long spear erect in his hand. We walked in the midst of them, and I was so careful to avoid all appearance of fear that I never once looked behind, to see whether the vessel was following us. A violent dispute arose among some of the men in front, and from their frequent glances towards us, it was evident that we were in some way connected with the conversation. I did not feel quite at ease till the matter was referred to the shekh, who decided it in a way that silenced the men, if it did not satisfy them. As we approached the village, good-humor was restored, and their demeanor towards us was thenceforth more friendly…

While these things were going on, the shekh who had been observing me closely, saw the chain of my watch, which he seized. I took out the watch and held it to his ear. He started back in surprise, and told the men what he had heard, imitating its sound, in a most amusing manner. They all crowded around to listen, and from their looks and signs seemed to think the case contained some bird or insect. I therefore opened it, and showed them the motion of the balance-wheel and of the hand on the smaller dial of the face. Their astonishment was now changed to awe and they looked at it silently, without daring to touch it. I profited by this impression to make a move for starting, before their greed for presents should grow into a resolve to rob us by force.

Returning to the boat, Taylor found that one of the men from the tribe had attempted to kidnap a member of his crew, a female slave of the captain, who did all the cooking for the crew. Luckily they had managed to discourage him by saying she was one of Taylor’s wives, and because he was now a friend of the leader of the tribe she could not be taken. The whole experience had been fascinating for Taylor, but a lucky escape.

The rais afterwards informed me that if the shekh had not been satisfied with the dress I gave him, he would certainly have attempted to plunder the vessel.

Taylor was longing to continue up the White Nile and explore further into unknown territory, but he had now exhausted every possibility and there was simply no way for him to continue.

I knew there was certain danger in going further, and that I had no right to violate my agreement and peril others as well as myself; but there lay the great river, holding in his lap, to tempt me on, isles of brighter bloom and spreading out shores of yet richer foliage. I was in the centre of the Continent. Beyond me all was strange and unknown, and the Gulf of Guinea was less distant than the Mediterranean, which I left not three months before. Why not push on and attempt to grasp the Central African secret ? The fact that stronger, braver and bolder men had failed, was one lure the more. Happily for me, perhaps, my object on commencing the voyage had been rest and recreation, not exploration. Had I been provided with the necessary means and scientific appliances for making such an attempt useful, it would have been impossible to turn back at that point.

I climbed to the mast-head and looked to the south, where the forest archipelago, divided by glittering reaches of water, wove its labyrinth in the distance. I thought I saw — but it may have been fancy — beyond the leafy crown of the farthest isles, the faint blue horizon of that sea of water and grass, where the palm again appears and the lotus fringes the shores. A few hours of the strong north-wind, now blowing in our faces, would have taken me there, but I gave myself up to Fate and a pipe, which latter immediately suggested to me that though I was leaving the gorgeous heart of Africa, I was going back to Civilization and Home.

The final part of this article, in which Taylor makes his return journey and finds a snake in his bed, will follow in a few days.


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