We have arrived in that den of iniquity, Zanzibar. Mbubu hasn’t left the cabin since the first island could be seen on the horizon. Anhalt tells me that, before the strictures of Her Majesty’s well-intentioned Government came into play fifty years ago, the mass of human flesh flowing through these ports dwarfed the current deluge. I can only pray that, in coming years, we tighten the noose around this most repulsive of trades, and remove it altogether from the face of the earth.
It is odd, when you reflect on it, how the beauty of Nature obscures the evils of Man. Hides? No, hides is probably not the best way of describing it – throws into perverse relief is more akin to what I’m trying to express. The isles themselves, the sea around them, the clime itself, they are the most temperate and welcoming I’ve experienced in my decades of life. If there were ever a paradise remaining us here on Earth, this is how I imagine it would look. And yet, and yet… the azure of the sea is as ice in the heart, the plentiful heat of the air, so conducive to the growth of vegetation, lends its power equally to moral rot.
I go into the markets, not those of flesh, but rather that of more mundane vendibles – food-stuffs, ceramics, rare spices, intricate textiles – and I witness the smiling faces of the vendors, of the populace, happy in their commerce, drawing enjoyment from their to-and-fro haggling, each in their own way satisfied with the victories they have won. I look on their faces, and I see not the bright countenances. All at once, they contort, and it is as if I am surrounded by a horde of devils – their faces twist and redden, and their teeth grow into fangs, and horns sprout from their temples. It is as if the air itself, laden with the sins of their countrymen, infects them with its villainous potency.
I know not what it is that afflicts me so, if it isn’t my unusually capacious tendency for moral righteousness. I know, I know what evils eat away at the hearts of these men and women, stained as they are by their complicity, their penchant for looking in the other direction, or, worse still, accepting such a loathsome sin and being unworried by it in the least. How I long for a return to proper, civilized lands. How I look forward to once again being amidst our compatriots, those righteous Christians of Enlightened perspective!
When I first set out from Portsmouth those many months ago, I looked forward to seeing more of our great world, of being able to experience more of the pleasures and wonders that are provided us this side of Heaven. It is true that my separation from you rent my heart, but it was well-balmed by knowledge that my commercial duties would provide me opportunity to witness marvels, and that I could, in turn, relay them back to you. I am half way to reconsidering my good fortune in this travel, though, given what horrors I’ve had to face.
If there is one silver lining of the last few weeks, it is that that villain, Habib, that so monstrously attacked Mbubu, is no longer amongst us – fear not, he still has time to repent his heinous ways, he has not passed into the next life. No, it is rather that, whilst we were moored at Mombasa, the last port we visited before sailing on for Zanzibar, he was put ashore. Evidently, Mbubu’s spirited defence has impermanently crippled the wretch, and, with an extended convalescence owing, the captain Ihsan peremptorily put him ashore. The loss of a crewmember did cause some restive feelings on the captain’s part, but an explanation of the situation – it was Habib who assaulted Mbubu, after all! – and a bit of pecuniary assistance from me soon put him to rights. That is another thing I have noticed while abroad, one that has haunted me since entering the Mediterranean at Gibraltar: not a man seems to go about his business for the sake of his deserved pay. No, graft rules, and woe comes to he that can’t afford it! Lawlessness is lord, seemingly. I look forward to the day when the Empire is able to bring a respect for the proper way of things, and the proper place of each man comes to these turgid backwaters.
It is that thought, and that thought alone, that sustains me in this hellish place. I witnessed a particularly disturbing scene, just this morning, which I relate to you only in so far as to render my extreme mental distress intelligible, which must seem so out of keeping with my usual merry demeanour. I was taking my morning walk, as has become my habit while we are berthed here, strictly avoiding that quarter of the city I know to be the haunt of slavers and their debased clientele, when, out of a luxuriant villa flew a woman, skin as black as night and nude as the day she was born. Before I could avert my eyes to preserve what modesty I could for her, a fat Mohammedan came barreling after her, turban atop his head a-wobbling, sweat pouring down his distent face and into his dirty beard. It would seem that this poor woman was an escaped member of an Harem, a type of bondage designed for groups of women by Islamists for unutterable aims. In short, she was a slave. I was aghast to see that the man was armed with a bull-whip, that would better have been suited to the thrashing of dumb brutes than the offensive task he turned it to. Before I could leap to protect her, he lay about her defenceless body, chasing her down the street away from where I stood in shocked immobility. I could hear her cries for some time, though the pair quickly passed from my vision. Each wail was like a physical blow to me, shaking me to my core. Can you imagine the state I was in, gentle creature that I am, to have witnessed such a spectacle!? Suffice to say, my morning had been ruined, and all hope of a palliative walk amongst the Old City architecture rendered completely unthinkable. I returned to the ship directly once my stupefaction had worn off, and here I have remained ever since.
Thankfully, all this should be behind me, soon. We set out the day after next, and should reach the Colony in the early New Year. It will be inexpressibly good to be amongst good, English-speaking, British citizens once more. I dare say, its proximity is all that keeps me sane some hours.
I know that my next dispatch to you will find me in better spirits, in more wholesome environs, and in all-round happier circumstances than this current letter.
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
My Darling Josephine
I write to you now from the village of Suez, grown up at the mouth of the Canal as it pours into the Red Sea. The Red Sea! To think, long past, but still, just here-abouts, the tread of that Great Man lead the Chosen People to their God-Given Freedom! Oh, the sands of legend here hold their own against those numberless grains of the Pharaonic Desert!
Ha, the wonder of the locale makes me forget myself – the trip down the Canal, while relatively staid, if hot, did not prove unuseful. You recall that Ethiope I wrote of, last letter? The hard-working deck-hand? Well, impressed by him as I was, I spoke with the Captain of the Greenwich. For a moderate fee, I was able to purchase the Negro’s services. I have acquired myself a valet, the likes of which few before have had the fortune of!
Oh, to hear his story! Why, my man, he is something worthy of the great tales! Mbubu, his name is, with this queer click type of sound at the start of it. I find it impossible to utter smoothly, but he elides over it with as much ease as your or I might the wordtea or crumpet. I’ve come into some good luck with his service, as, if his rather wondrous story is to be believed, he hails from quite close to that part of Africa that I’m headed – a few leagues to the North of the Dutch Transvaal.
How he came to be found here, in Egypt, is, if it is indeed true, and I still harbour some doubts, quite a tale. He was borninto one of those half-barbarian tribes, neither knowing the Succour of our Lord nor the miracles of modern science. The heathens, they still send off their young men, like you hear sometimes of the equally brutish North American Indians, they send them off into the wild, to make a man of ’em. Truthfully, I suppose that a rude education in the ways of beasts and bush better suits them for their future days than a Grammar School, but I suspect that says more about what they have to look forward to than anything else!
And so, you can envision the scene – our young Mbubu, a youth of some fourteen summers, rail thin and granted only the loin cloth that was his sole possession, is marched out into the scorching veldt, miles from his village. Once his elders deemed the distance great enough, they left him, to live or die, for the next fortnight or more. Before he was allowed to return, he had to kill that King of Africa, the lion, and could only do so with weapons he made himself. Our intrepid explorers have trouble enough with the noble beasts while armed with guns – let alone mere sticks! There is an inestimable quality about these savages my dear, one I fear has been bred out of most Modern Men by our soft living, save for those rare few, born into our ranks, that rise above us. I speak mainly of that characteristic of valour – their are many brave men in the Empire, and none too few courageous ones, but a man of valour, that is a rare thing indeed! My dear Mbubu, facing down the lion those many years ago, armed only with sharpened stake and poorly-cured loincloth as armour, well, he proved that he was in possession of valour. A steely nerve, and a calm mind by Jove!
He tells me that he conquered the lion that day, and, truthfully, I’ve no reason to disbelieve him, if he was even half the strapping example of manhood he is now as a youth. Alas! Like so many who are born of that special breed, that of the hero, our poor Mbubu was not through his trials yet. For the most part, the tribes in his country had given up this practice of coming-of-age, this ritual for their young men – not, as you might be quick to think, because it was so trying on them, no – but because, given the thoroughness of Dr. Livingstone and our Good Government in their drive against the immoral bondage of fellow men, those dusky slavers of Mohammedan extraction had been travelling further afield, snapping up youths from more and more distant locales. Such it was that our dear Mbubu, after facing down his lion with no more than his latent bravery, found himself falling ill of these dark devils, captured as a zanj. Weakened as he was by his ordeals, delirious with hunger and thirst, he stood no chance against them!
The chain gang he was attached to, manacled about the ankles, was driven back North, towards the Taganyika, which, if the Lord hadn’t smiled upon him, Mbubu would have been marched out to Zanzibar and herded into the waiting halls of the Sultan of Oman, bedecked in the cruellest of all trappings, that of human flesh.
I do go on, though! I’m happy to recount that Mbubu escaped his captors, and, through further trial and tribulation, made his way after several meandering years to this river boat, at just this time, under just this captain. It is truly a work of benevolent fortune that he should be plying the canal on just this boat at the very time that I find myself in need of a guide, and that, for me, someone who knows so well the Interior and particularly the characteristics of my destination should become so readily available.
As I said, I spoke with the good Captain, and we negotiated Mbubu’s contract. He is, you see, working as an indentured labourer. However, outfitted as I am with a goodly sum for my maintenance during this voyage, I had more than enough to buy up the contract remaining. And thus, under my more even hand – the good Captain, a Christian man, is still, at times…rather brusque in his demeanour. To be sure, his is a stressful occupation, but I imagine you can understand that this is a turn of good fortune for dear Mbubu. So, fear not! Your affianced is now in the care of what must be one of the most experienced guides in all of Africa, given his great travels! Why, he must have traversed most of West Africa already, and he is but 20 and 8 years of age, by his rough reckoning!
We set out along the coast shortly, though I am wrought with misgivings – it appears I’ve set out at the wrong time of the year, or very nearly so. I’m very close to the shift in the monsoon, and the winds that blow down from Arabia will, within the next few weeks, turn on their head. With strong winds on a nor’ easterly heading beating up the coast, travel by dhow will be quite impossible. As I set my pen down, my main hope is that there is still some shipping hereabouts for hire. Alas, this is a small and miserly place, this village of Suez.
No time for gloom, though, my heart! There is no doubt in my mind that God would not follow up such a boon as the securing of Mbubu with disaster for our now-joined travels. I must trust to Providence in all things! Excelsior!
Your Ever-Loving Fiance,
Hugh Octavius Pleasant