post My Abyssinian Journey II

August 24th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 23:23





During the sea passage I discovered that my Somali, Assan, a rather tall, thin man, with a hooked nose,  was an inveterate gambler. His chief attainment was talking and, being gifted with an elastic imagination, he never tired of boasting of the great feats he had done and of the elephants and lions he had shot. Nor did he forget to tell me what a good man I was. These Somalis are expert flatterers, and Assan might easily have deceived a less experienced person than myself, who had already gained a fair insight into Native character. Assan, like all Somali, was a Muhammadan. Among his companions on the boat was a man who had been a soldier in the French army and was returning home from Madagascar. He was a kind of half-bred Somali and Abyssinian. Assan introduced him to me as likely to be a valuable addition to the expedition and, as he had been under European discipline, I engaged him.

When we dropped anchor at Jibouti, a number of Native shows, said to have been captured for gun-running, were lying in the harbor. Djibouti, a French port, consists of a small town, comprising a few European hotels, stores and other buildings. The Natives are mostly Muhammadan Somalis. The place gave me the impression that European influence had not yet made itself much felt; for dirt and crime prevailed, and only a few days before two Frenchmen while out
shooting had been assassinated by the Natives a few miles north of the town. So far as I could make out, the Government had not moved in the matter, either to investigate the case or punish the murderers.

The physical aspect of the town might be summed up in three words dry, sandy, and hot. The houses, except in one quarter, where there was a large Native population, were of the usual kind to be found in any Eastern country two-storey buildings of white-washed stone. The hotels were built in the Continental style, with large verandahs on which little tables were set out. Numbers of carriages driven by Somali were standing or plying for hire. I did not ride in one, chiefly out of sympathy for the horses, which were so poor that they scarcely seemed to have strength to drag their load along. They were the poorest animals I have ever seen, consequent, I suppose upon there being no grazing and fodder being very expensive.

The railway is run by a French company, and was at that time conducted on very unbusinesslike lines, while the track was, to say the least of it, badly constructed. We were told that some part of it was scoured away after every shower of rain, and we were fortunate enough just to escape one of these washouts. The day after we reached Dire Daoua railhead, the line was washed away and all traffic stopped for over a fortnight. The railway was then about three hundred kilometres in length, and what it lacked in comfort it made up in charges. I forget the exact fare, but I know that it was one of the most expensive railway journeys I have ever taken.

The familiarity of the Natives with the whites was very marked, to anyone who had been in South or East Africa. I was travelling second-class, and in the same compartment there were two French ladies and a gentleman going up to Dire Daoua. A Somali got in and began to make a cigarette. A white man would never have thought of doing such a thing with ladies present, but no one seemed to take any notice. Shortly afterwards the white guard came in, and I thought
to myself, ” Now there’s going to be a row, and I shall see Mr. Somali kicked out. But nothing of the kind happened. The guard simply sat down by the Somali and asked him for a cigarette; they both lighted up and had a smoke together !


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