post My Abyssinian Journey

August 21st, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 13:55




ABYSSINIA, Kenya’s mysterious, self-contained, and little ‘known neighbor, had always possessed a fascination for me, and
I had long hoped that some day the opportunity would come to explore the country far to the north of my earlier experiences in Africa.

When at length I made up my mind to journey into the unknown, the outlook was by no means good. I knew that with the limited funds at my disposal it was a gamble with fate, in which the penalty, if I failed, was certain bankruptcy. No one had a good word for my project. General opinion in Nairobi was dead against me. I was told that there was little chance of my getting to the border, six hundred miles away, across uninhabited and waterless wastes, or through tribes of hostile Natives, and that, should I succeed in my forlorn hope, it was most unlikely that the Abyssinians would permit me to cross
their frontier.

Some useful help came from one or two sources. Prince de ‘Chimay, a Belgian nobleman who was touring East Africa at the time, hearing of my proposed venture, asked if he might accompany me and offered his influence with the authorities. As it turned out, he was unable to come, but his co-operation at a critical time encouraged me, and is worthy of acknowledgment here.

A still more important factor was the advice and experience of Mr. W. N. (later Sir Northrup) McMillan, a well-known settler in Kenya Colony, who had travelled via Egypt and the Sudan into Abyssinia, and was a personal friend of the Emperor Menelik. A special permit from this august and dusky potentate was necessary to enter Abyssinia, and when a telegram arrived from Addis Ababa, its capital, saying, ” Emperor has given leave for Boyes and companion trading
expedition,” I knew this gentleman’s goodwill had translated itself into action. The companion referred to was the Prince de Chimay, who was staying with Mr. McMillan at the time.

However, I abandoned my plan of starting north overland from Nairobi a change in my original programme which I never regretted and decided to enter MeneHk’s country by sea via Mombasa and Jibouti. As it turned out, however, my change of plan resulted in a practical scheme which was within my compass, and enabled me to be the first trader to make the overland route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and pioneer thereby a new trade route.

My main idea to make the expedition pay its way was to buy mules and horses, which, report informed me, could be obtained for from £2 to £5 each respectively in Abyssinia, but had a market value of £20 or £30 each in Nairobi. There was also the prospect of adding to my gains by hunting.

My first move was to transfer, through the agency of the National Bank of India, about £200 to the Bank of Abyssinia at Addis Ababa for my use on arrival; with a smaller sum in hand I proceeded to get together a minimum outfit. An assistant was essential, so I cast around for a man of the type to be relied upon to bear his share of the inevitable toil and hardships, and who would not mind roughing it or periods of scanty food.

There was no lack of vohmteers once the news had circulated around Nairobi that I was in earnest, and from the many applicants I selected a young Scandinavian, named Selland, who had worked before the mast and had had some years’ experience of African life. He had taken part in several Native wars, besides going through the South African campaign. A good shot and a hard-working, conscientious type of man, he impressed me as being just the sort of companion I needed, and I booked him third class as a practical test of endurance before committing myself with him into the interior. Any time I prefer to be alone rather than put up with the grousings and incapacity of an unsuitable subordinate.

Necessity compelled me to cut my coat according to my cloth and a man not willing to accept uncomplainingly the consequent frugality and risks that I was prepared to undergo myself in this adventure was of no use to me. I gave Selland clearly to understand that it was purely a speculation. I was starting on a route entirely new to me, not knowing what luck I was going to have, or whether I should make anything out of the venture. It might be that I should return to Nairobi absolutely broke, with no money to pay wages. Selland appreciated the risk, and was quite prepared to take the chances, leaving it to me to do the right thing by him. I never regretted taking him, for he came fully up to my estimation of him in every respect.

It soon proved that I had not underestimated the difficulties of the undertaking. As no one understands Swahili in Abyssinia, there was the language difficulty, but I considered myself fortunate to pick up a Somali who said he had been through Abyssinia before and knew the language. I engaged him as guide and interpreter.

I left Nairobi for Jibouti towards the end of March, 1906. by the French steamer ” Oxus,” which carried a good many French passengers from Madagascar. Amongst them was an Italian priest, whom did not recognize and who did not know me, but when we began to talk I found he was the missionary to whom I had given my house and farm in the Kikuyu country when I left it. It was a pleasure to meet him, for I was naturally very much interested to know how things were going in the Kikuyu country. The mission, founded in this manner, was the first in the northern Kikuyu country and remains to this day an active center of religious propaganda amongst the Wakikuyu.

…to be continued


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