Journals 7.6 – A Journey to Central Africa by Bayard Taylor (Part 6)

This is the conclusion of my article on Taylor’s journal.  For the previous parts, please see the entries posted on 22nd, 26th, 30th August, 3rd and 7th September 2015.

abu simbel

Abu Simbel, drawn by Amelia Edwards in 1870.

Travelling back towards Khartoum, Taylor had an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement. Perhaps he was suffering from the disappointment of failing to explore new territory. Perhaps his grief was returning as he headed back home instead of travelling away from his sadness. Perhaps surviving a potentially fatal experience had left him feeling reckless. Whatever the reason, for one strange moment, Bayard Taylor became an arsonist.

The wind was blowing towards the river, and as I stood in the midst, contemplating the wild, lawless grouping of the different trees and shrubs some imp of darkness whispered in my ear “What a magnificent conflagration this would make! and then, perhaps, you might have the satisfaction of burning out a brace of lions!” Without more ado, I whipped out a box of matches, and struck fire in one of the thickest tufts.

The effect was instantaneous, and so was my repentance. There was a crack and a crash, like the explosion of powder, and a sheet of red flame leaped into the air. In a few seconds it had spread to a broad swath of fire, rolling rapidly before the wind, and leaving the earth behind it as bare as the palm of my hand. The rank grass roared and snapped as the terrible power I had so thoughtlessly awakened, licked it away; and not the grass alone. It seized on the vines and tore them down, swung itself by them into the boughs of the trees, and found richer aliment in their gums and juices. It spread on both sides and against the wind, and soon the long spires of scarlet flame, twisting in the air, rose high and hot above the dome-like tops of the mimosa forests. Before we left the place, the volumes of smoke reached nearly to the other side of the Nile. As I heard its relentless feet trampling down the thickets, I tormented myself with pictures of the evil which I had perhaps originated. I fancied it spreading from day to day, lapping the woods in coils of flame and flinging their burning boughs from island to island, till of all the glory of vegetation which had filled me with such rapture, there was nothing but a few charred trunks standing in beds of ashes. I saw the natives with their flocks and herds flying before it, the wild beasts leaping into the flood for refuge from its red fangs, and all that glorious region given up to terror and desolation. As we moved slowly away, against the wind, I watched its progress with a troubled conscience and an anxious heart. Now it paused and I flattered myself that there was the end, but the next moment the black clouds rolled up denser than ever. Thus it wavered for some time, but at last, thank God! it seemed to fade gradually away, and I gave myself the hope that it had not extended beyond the jut of land whereon it was kindled.

Arriving back in Khartoum, Taylor visited Knoblecher again to share his experiences. He formed a very positive opinion of Knoblecher and his group of missionaries, ‘self-sacrificing men have willingly devoted themselves to a life — if life it can be called, which is little better than death — in the remote heart of Africa, for the sake of introducing a purer religion among its pagan inhabitants’. The prevailing opinion at the time was that the best way to help the local people was to educate and convert them. Taylor had a more progressive opinion when it came to slavery in the region, expressing approval of the decline in the trade, although pointing out that the government was benefiting just as much as ever from slavery by raising taxes, lessening the impact of the reduction in the amount of trade, ‘to satisfy the demands of some of the European powers.’

Taylor’s return journey from Sudan back into Egypt followed a different course. Instead of cutting off the Dongola bend in the river he struck out across the desert at an earlier point, avoiding the Shendy and Berber bend (where he had seen the Meroë ruins on he outward journey), rejoining the Nile at Merawe so that he could experience the Dongola bend in the river that he had previously avoided. This necessitated another camel ride across the desert. Taylor was less satisfied with the new group of guides.

On the morning after leaving Akaba Gerri, I had two altercations with my men. Mohammed had left Khartoum without a camel, evidently for the purpose of saving money. In a day or two, however, he limped so much that I put him upon Achmet’s dromedary for a few hours. This was an imposition, for every guide is obliged to furnish his own camel, and I told the old man that he should ride no more. He thereupon prevailed upon Said to declare that their contract was to take me to Ambukol, instead of Merawe. This, considering that the route had been distinctly stated to them by Dr. Reitz, in my presence, and put in writing by the moodir, Abdallah Effendi, and that the name of Ambukol was not once mentioned, was a falsehood of the most brazen character. I told the men they were liars, and that sooner than yield to them I would return to Khartoum and have them punished, whereupon they saw they had gone too far, and made a seeming compromise by declaring that they would willingly take me to Merawe, if I wished it…

Achmet and I rode for nearly two hours over a stony, thorny plain, before we overtook the baggage camels. When at last we came in sight of them, the brown camel was running loose without his load and Said trying to catch him. My provision-chests were tumbled upon the ground, the cafass broken to pieces and the chickens enjoying the liberty of the Desert. Said, it seemed, had stopped to talk with some women, leaving the camel, which was none too gentle, to take care of himself. Achmet was so incensed that he struck the culprit in the face, whereupon he cried out, with a rueful voice: “ya khosara !” (oh, what a misfortune!). After half an hour’s labor the boxes were repacked, minus their broken crockery, the chickens caught and the camel loaded.

Camping in the desert at night presented various dangers, and once again Taylor was lucky to escape with his life. One night he intervened to stop his dragoman Achmet pitching his tent ‘near some snaky-looking holes’, and settled down for the night assuming he was relatively safe in a ‘clearer spot’. He was mistaken.

I slept without interruption, but in the morning, as he was about to roll up my mattress, he suddenly let it drop and rushed out of the tent, exclaiming : “Oh master, come out! come out! There is a great snake in your bed!” I looked, and truly enough, there was an ugly spotted reptile coiled up on the straw matting. The men heard the alarm, and my servant Ali immediately came running up with a club. As he was afraid to enter the tent, he threw it to me, and with one blow I put the snake beyond the power of doing harm. It was not more than two feet long, but thick and club-shaped; and with a back covered with green, brown and yellow scales, very hard and bright. The Arabs, who by this time had come to the rescue, said it was a most venomous creature, its bite causing instant death.

The snake is likely to have been a highly poisonous viper. Had Taylor been bitten, death would not necessarily have been instant, but without the kind of medical treatment that was simply not available in the 1850s it would have been almost inevitable. Taylor watched with interest as nature took its course with the dead snake.

Although no birds were to be seen at the time, not ten minutes had elapsed before two large crows appeared in the air. After wheeling over us once or twice, they alighted near the snake. At first, they walked around it at a distance, occasionally exchanging glances, and turning up their heads in a shrewd manner, which plainly said: “No you don’t, old fellow! want to make us believe you’re dead, do you?” They bantered each other to take hold of it first, and at last the boldest seized it suddenly by the tail, jumped backward two or three feet and then let it fall. He looked at the other, as much as to say: “If he’s not dead, it’s a capital sham!” The other made a similar essay, after which they alternately dragged and shook it, and consulted some time, before they agreed that it was actually dead. One of them then took it by the tail and sailed off through the air, its scales glittering in the sun as it dangled downward.

Not only was the desert dangerous, it was also becoming more and more uncomfortable for Taylor, with ‘furious’ winds blowing sand in his face. He could ‘not see more than a hundred yards’ in any direction, and it was difficult to discern the route.

My eyes, ears, and nostrils were soon filled with sand, and I was obliged to bind my turban so as nearly to cover my face, leaving only space enough to take a blind view of the way we were going. At breakfast time, after two hours of this martyrdom, I found a clump of thorns so thick as to shut off the wind, but no sooner had I dismounted and crept under its shelter than I experienced a scorching heat from the sun, and was attacked by myriads of the black gnats. I managed to eat something in a mad sort of way, beating my face and ears continually, and was glad to thrust my head again into the sand-storm, which drove off the worse pests. So for hours we pursued our journey. I could not look in the face of the wind, which never once fell.

His constant companion on this leg of the journey was his faithful camel, whom he named Abou-Sin (the Father of Teeth). Taylor became quite attached to his dromedary friend.

He was a beast of excellent temper, with a spice of humor in his composition, and a fondness for playing practical jokes. But as I always paid them back, neither party could complain, though Abou-Sin sometimes gurgled out of his long throat a string of Arabic gutturals, in remonstrance. He came up to my tent and knelt at precisely the same hour every evening, to get his feed of dourra, and when I was at breakfast always held his lips pursed up, ready to take the pieces of bread I gave him.

Unfortunately, it was not practical to take a camel back to America! So sadly, Taylor had to sell his Abou-Sin, and he was saddened to dismount, ‘never, alas, to mount him again’. Like the departure of his German friend at Aswan, it must have been a moment that brought feelings of grief flooding back.

When all was finished, I delivered Abou-Sin into the hands of his rascally new master, with a sorrowful heart, for the old fellow and I were good friends. Had he known we were to be separated, I am sure those large black eyes of his would have dropped a few tears, and that capacious throat gurgled out a sound of lamentation. Achmet threw his arms around the beast’s big head and kissed him tenderly. I was about to do the same thing, when I remembered that the never-sweating skin of a dromedary exhales not the freshest of odors, and preferred caressing him with my hand rather than my lips. So farewell to Abou-Sin, and may he never want dourra and bean-vines, nor complain under too heavy loads: and should he die soon (for he is waxing in years), may some son of his strong loins be there to carry me, when next I visit Central Africa!

Setting sail once more on the Nile, there was still enjoyment and excitement to be derived from the journey, as one of the greatest ancient sites awaited Taylor: Abu-Simbel. As so often seemed to be the case during his travels, his first experience of the site was by moonlight.

About two hours after midnight I was awakened from a deep sleep by the shock of the boat striking the shore. I opened my eyes and saw, as I lay, without moving my head, a huge wall of rock before me, against which six enormous statues leaned as they looked from deep niches cut in its front. Their solemn faces were touched by the moon, which shone full on the cliff, and only their feet were wrapped in shadow. The lines, of deep-cut hieroglyphics over the portal of this rocky temple were also filled with shadow and painted legibly on the gray, moonlit rock. Below them yawned the door — a square of complete darkness. A little to the left, over a long drift of sand that sloped from the summit of the cliff nearly to the water’s edge, peered the mitred head of a statue of still more colossal proportions. I gazed on this broad, dim, and wonderful picture for a moment, so awed by its majesty that I did not ask myself where nor what it was. This is some grand Egyptian dream, was my first thought, and I closed my eyes for a few seconds, to see whether it would vanish. But it stood fast and silent as ever, and I knew it to be Abou-Simbel.

The journey back down the Nile to Luxor was marred by another near-shipwreck, when a rope holding an oar in place broke and the wind carried to boat towards dangerous rocks. Luckily the crew were able to steer the boat with the remaining oar just enough to avoid destruction. Back in Luxor, Taylor visited the English agent, and it transpired that Taylor had been wise to leave the city before the busiest season for the arrival of foreign visitors. Although these were very much the early days of tourism in Egypt, the publications of famous antiquarians had made the country an appealing and exciting destination for those who had the courage and the finances to travel there.

Mustapha Achmet Aga, the English agent at Luxor, had a great deal to tell me of the squabbles of travellers during the winter: how the beach was lined with foreign boats and the temples crowded day after day with scores of visitors; how these quarrelled with their dragomen and those with their boatmen, and the latter with each other till I thanked Heaven for having kept me away from Thebes at such a riotous period.

At Cairo there was one final parting of the ways before leaving the country. Achmet the guide had accompanied Taylor for virtually his entire journey, bravely and loyally facing danger with his employer in territory that was occasionally equally unfamiliar to both of them.

I left behind me my faithful dragoman, Achmet. He had found a new son in his home, but also an invalid wife, who demanded his care, and so he was obliged to give up the journey with me through Syria. He had quite endeared himself to me by his constant devotion, his activity, honesty and intelligence, and I had always treated him rather as a friend than servant. I believe the man really loved me, for he turned pale under all the darkness of his skin, when we parted at Boulak.

It was not yet time for Taylor to return home, as he decided to continue his travels with a tour of Palestine, Asia Minor and southern Europe, which were published in another volume, Lands of the Saracen. From there he went to Asia, and his account of that leg of what was becoming a world tour can be read in A Visit to India, China and Japan in the Year 1853. He went on to have many successes in his life, with a lecture tour in 1862, published novels and poetry, and a distinguished diplomatic career, and of course more travels around the world. Perhaps most importantly, he found a new love (not a German or a camel this time), and remarried.

Although not included in A Journey to Central Africa, Taylor wrote a poem during the course of his journey along the Nile, which is a fitting way to conclude this article.

Mysterious Flood,-that through the silent sands
Hast wandered, century on century,
Watering the length of green Egyptian lands,
Which were not, but for thee, —

Thou guardest temple and vast pyramid,
Where the gray Past records its ancient speech ;
But in thine unrevealing breast lies hid
What they refuse to teach.

What were to thee the Osirian festivals?
Or Memnon’s music on the Theban plain?
The carnage, when Cambyses made thy halls
Ruddy with royal slain ?

In thy solemnity, thine awful calm,
Thy grand indifference of Destiny,
My soul forgets its pain, and drinks the balm
Which thou dost proffer me.

We will start looking at another journal in a few days.  In the meantime, previous articles can be accessed from the Contents page, on the menu at the top of the page.  You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen.


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