Monthly Archives: September 2014
To my life’s anchor, Josephine
We arrived in Zeila just before the breaking of a storm, which has since kept us shore-bound these last days.
To think of you, drawn up in front of a large fire in the house in London, or perhaps out at your father’s Estate, cozied with one of those fine mince pies Etty makes so well, fills me with a warmth I’m afraid I’ve found in short supply here. Zeila, it seems, is not what it used to be. Herr Anhalt tells me that it is known to have been frequented by the Ptolemaic Greeks in the era of the Diadochi, and has been inhabited ever since. Alas, much as time has worn away the grandeur of that mighty lineage, so too has it laid waste to their coastal neighbours. Two in three of the rude buildings hereabouts stand abandoned, and those that are occupied, well, occupation is rather too kind a description to the sort of care that is taken in most.
The locals, in their pidgin language, tell me that this is decidedly unseasonable weather, and that I should be pleased to have arrived at such a temperate occasion. From what they tell me, and what little one can see of the hinterland through the rain, there is little but desert and waste for many miles. Zeila, I am told, was once a thriving port for the surrounding countryside, the sluice-gate of the Horn of Africa in it’s entirety, spilling out the collected wealth of the region: the dates by their thousands, the rare and valuable perfumes, the beautiful ivory of the mighty elephant, and, though it pains me to say, many hapless souls forced into bondage. Now? Now the palaces of yore crumble into dust, the markets, not due to weather alone, stand empty. Even the few Muhammedan temples that still stand are but husks of their former glory. Once, the proud shipping of the Adalites, for this was their Capital, ventured as far as distant Cathay! Now, a mere stopover for rough dhows as they hunt for richer lands. It is a testament to the manifest failure of the centralised Ottoman state – to possess a jewel of history, rich with fame, and to squander it, and allow it to rest in such ignominy.
I am reassured that, even if we should come upon comparatively uncouth locales ourselves, Her Majesty’s ministers, in their humane wisdom, recognise the relative worth of all human endeavour, be it Christian or heathen, and hold it in trust for all citizens of the Empire. Whilst still in Port Said, entertained by that otherwise benighted Embassy man, I heard tell of some new efforts across the sea, in the Raj, apparently, democracy is flourishing! This follows on the heels of Her Majesty’s recognition of the duty she owes to the Indians, identical to the one that she owes to all her subjects. I look forward to the Indians taking up more of the responsibility in their own governing, and I can only see good things coming from a more mature home-rule on their part. I trust it will bring us closer together, as two brotherly peoples with a common destiny. How proud we must be as subjects of the Empire, as we draw back the curtains of ignorance and shine the beam of Enlightenment around the globe!
Alas, returning to our sodden state here, I have some grave news to relay. I am not the only one to have experienced a fraying of nerves in this our dreary predicament. Mbubu was well-pleased to have made land-fall, if only to get some further space between him and the Moorish crew. However, the day before last, there was an altercation – while fetching me some of the local fruit at an indoor market, he came across some three of the dhow’s crew, who, despite their religious creed, seemed to be under that most intemperate of influences – a state of utter drunkenness. I’m not sure how it is that they learned of Mbubu’s past – perhaps there is some mark about him that denotes a liberated thrall – suffice it to say, they set about harassing the poor Ethiope, with words that I daren’t repeat here lest I offend your good conscience.
Habib, seemingly their chief and the least affected of the group, pulled a blade on Mbubu, and attacked the unarmed man in a most scurrilous fashion. The suppositions I had made previously of Mbubu’s character held true – the man is a true lion! Despite being slashed most grievously across the left arm, Mbubu over-mastered Habib, lifting him bodily and dashing him against the ground, once, twice, thrice!
It is luckily that Hans, that man-servant of Anhalt’s I spoke of last, was also in the locale. He was drawn to the melee by the sounds of the startled locals, and was able to restrain Mbubu before the latter could further blast the deserving Mohammedan. The two left the dazed scoundrels to put their ringleader back together, and repaired swiftly to the ship. Mbubu, though he seems to have bled fiercely, was set to rights in quick order by another of Herr Anhalt’s entourage who had some menial training as battle-field surgeon. I do hope that this rain clears up, that we might leave this diminished anchorage all the sooner, before any more like occurrences.
I must turn my mind to brighter reflections! Given that the nature of the embroilment was not of a lethal nature, I rest assured that, with a few expeditious words to Captain Ihsan, the whole matter can be smoothed over with ease!
My thoughts fly over the miles of sea and land to be with you,
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
The dilettante sits.
He writes with ease
No blockage or freeze.
Steady stream, no fits.
His subject, loose.
The daily chores,
his daily bores.
Whatever, it suits.
“Art, it’s so easy!
I know not why they complain,
them with their effort and strain
Of talent, they must be needy!”
Scansion? He knows not the word
Poems? Of course they rhyme!
Alliteration? Always on time.
Sloppy metre, it leaves him undeterred.
Poetaster a comely mantle,
Charlatan a natural guise,
Accomplishment? Ha! Mere lies –
So counts the lyric vandal.
Late September, 187-
My heart, my Josephine
Just as I’d prayed, we were able to find passage from Suez, one of the last dhows of the season, recently arrived from Aqaba, and only in port for that tide! Our luck was immense, and I can only look upon it as proof of God’s smiling on our venture here. The captain of the ship, in stark contrast to the hard-working master of the Greenwich, is a sly, oily Mohammedan. As you’ll recall from my last letter, my dear Mbubu, well, he has a bit of a history with men of this sort, and has been…understandably…rather uncomfortable since we joined the crew. The dhow is of a larger variety, or so I’m told, better to traverse the sometimes raucous seas hereabouts. As such, Mbubu, much to my chagrin, has been slightly remiss in his duties to me, and has remained holed up in our cabin.
Without his constant company, I’ve had to seek out the companionship of the other members of the crew, in order that I might stave off the boredom that is the everpresent menace of sea travel. Aside from the captain, that unsavoury fellow, Ihsan, there are some 18 members of the crew. Most hail from Arabia, much like their swarthy captain, and, as such, speak even less of the Queen’s than he himself does. However, they go about their work with a, granted, admirable amount of efficiency, and so, despite their brooding silence as it is directed towards me, I cannot in good conscience name them lax.
Another blessing has fallen into my lap in the form of the other passenger, though. A German, of a good family, who is setting out to hunt the African Great Lakes, alongside some six retainers, name of Anhalt. He is a man of broad learning, having acquired a degree from the prestigious Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. I’d dare posit that it over-reaches his talent as a sportsman, as I find it difficult to think that an individual could be dedicated to such an extensive and thorough nature to two very disparate subjects. While his physiognomy is a pleasant, robust one – a strong chin, and high forehead, capped by lustrous blonde hair and possessing a mouth both expressive and well-formed – he is a relatively slight man, standing some five and a half feet, with a weight of maybe around 9 stone, if I had to make a wager. Equipped with his elephant gun, Dunkelblau, and topee, he still strikes a diminutive figure, I’m afraid to say. I’m no strapping specimen myself, but, like I mentioned a moment ago, I am wary of his shot – I fear it would set him on his rear before ever laying low any rude beast.
He has, however, brought with him a more exemplary model of the Teutonic vigour. His attendant, Hans, hails from peasant stock near the Black Forest, stands somewhere north of six feet, and sports the largest moustache I’ve seen on a man. I dare say, it hangs from his face in two thick ropes for a good several inches. His is a visage that would have put fear into the heart of even Caesar. A modern-day Vercingetorix, an Alaric reborn! No reason to doubt his potency, I assure you!
Thus, despite Mbubu’s antisocial behaviour, I’ve found myself quite content on our voyage. Herr Anhalt has a superb command of our tongue, and he is a consummate conversationalist. He tells me that there have been recent expeditions into the more hidden parts of the Dark Continent the findings of which have yet to be disseminated to the greater Academic world – and, if what they claim is true, I can only imagine that they’d be the talk of the Academy for some years to come! Fantastic tales they are, of great and forgotten cities, the likes of which, in their ancient pedigree, would challenge Babylon itself for the well-spring of mankind and society! Anhalt has confided to me that the corroboration of these far-fetched claims are his mainmotivation in leaving sunny Germania. He hopes to investigate these remote locales himself, and, if he can, get a jump on their promotion amongst the English-speaking Universities. The sport hunting, while it is assuredly a passion of his, is largely a legerdemain, to throw off the unwanted attention of his colleagues.
It appears, then, that I have secured another travelling companion, at least for a little while. Herr Anhalt seeks to make landfall some distance north of the Zambezi, and, while Mbubu and I will be travelling further south than that by a goodly few miles, I will appreciate the company.
We have been sailing for some few days now, and the captain, that viscous Ihsan, tells me we should be reaching the Ottoman port of Zeila at some point late tomorrow. It is from there that I shall post this letter, as I don’t know if we’ll make land again before reaching the slaving isles of Zanzibar. While I am well-pleased to have found such temperate company, I’ll be happy for the chance to stretch my legs for an evening, and leave behind the perpetual stench of pitch and sweat. Till then, I must pinch my nose!
Keeping you in my heart,
Hugh Octavius Pleasant