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
Posted on September 26, 2014, in (Mis)Adventures in Matabeleland, Mauve Prose, Short(er) Stories and tagged British Raj, Colonialism, Imperialism, Ottoman Empire, Racism, Victorian Empire. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.