On Saturday, the 7th April 1855, the H. E. I. Company's Schooner "Mahi," Lieut. King, I. N., commanding, entered the harbour of Berberah, where her guns roared forth a parting salute to the "Somali Expedition."
The Emporium of East Africa was at the time of my landing, in a state of confusion. But a day before, the great Harar caravan, numbering 3000 souls, and as many cattle, had entered for the purpose of laying in the usual eight months' supplies, and purchase, barter, and exchange were transacted in most hurried and unbusiness-like manner. All day, and during the greater part of night, the town rang with the voices of buyer and seller: to specify no other articles of traffic, 500 slaves of both sexes were in the market. (362) Long lines of laden and unladen camels were to be seen pacing the glaring yellow shore; rumours of plundering parties at times brought swarms of spear-men, bounding and yelling like wild beasts, from the town; already small parties of travellers had broken ground for their return journey; and the foul heap of mat hovels, to which this celebrated mart had been reduced, was steadily shrinking in dimensions.
Our little party consisted of forty-two souls. At Aden I had applied officially for some well-trained Somali policemen, but as an increase of that establishment had been urged upon the home authorities, my request was refused. We were fain to content ourselves with a dozen recruits of various races, Egyptian, Nubian, Arab and Negro, whom we armed with sabres and flint muskets. The other members of the expedition were our private servants, and about a score of Somal under our rival protectors Jami Hasan and Burhale Nuh. The Ras or Captain of the Kafilah was one Mahmud of the Mijjarthayn, better known at Aden as El Balyuz or the Envoy: he had the reputation of being a shrewd manager, thoroughly acquainted with the habits and customs, as well as the geography, of Somaliland.
Our camp was pitched near the site of the proposed Agency, upon a rocky ridge within musket-shot of the southern extremity of the creek, and about three quarters of a mile distant from the town. This position had been selected for the benefit of the "Mahi's" guns. Political exigencies required the "Mahi" to relieve the "Elphinstone," then blockading the seaboard of our old Arab foe, the Fazli chief; she was unable to remain upon the coast, and superintend our departure, a measure which I had strongly urged. Our tents were pitched in one line: Lieut. Stroyan's was on the extreme right, about a dozen paces distant was the "Rowtie" (363) occupied by Lieut. Herne and myself, and at a similar distance on the left of the camp was that in which Lieut. Speke slept. The baggage was placed between the two latter, the camels were tethered in front upon a sandy bed beneath the ridge our camping-ground, and in rear stood the horses and mules. During day-time all were on the alert: at night two sentries were posted, regularly relieved, and visited at times by the Ras and ourselves.
I had little reason to complain of my reception at Berberah. The chiefs appeared dissatisfied with the confinement of one Mohammed Sammattar, the Abban who accompanied Lieut. Speke to the Eastern country: they listened, however, with respectful attention to a letter in which the Political Resident at Aden enjoined them to treat us with consideration and hospitality.
There had been petty disputes with Burhale Nuh, and the elders of the Ísa Musa tribe, touching the hire of horse-keepers and camel-drivers: such events, however, are not worthy to excite attention in Africa. My friend at Harar, the Shaykh Jami, had repeatedly called upon us, ate bread and salt, recommended us to his fellow countrymen, and used my intervention in persuading avaricious ship-owners to transport, gratis, pauper pilgrims to Arabia. The people, after seeing the deaths of a few elephants, gradually lowered their loud boasts and brawling claims: they assisted us in digging a well, offered their services as guides and camel-drivers, and in some cases insisted upon encamping near us for protection. Briefly, we saw no grounds of apprehension. During thirty years, not an Englishman of the many that had visited it had been molested at Berberah, and apparently there was as little to fear in it as within the fortifications of Aden. (364)
Under these favourable circumstances we might have set out at once towards the interior. Our camels, fifty-six in number, had been purchased, (365) and the Ogadayn Caravan was desirous of our escort. But we wished to witness the close of the Berberah fair, and we expected instruments and other necessaries by the mid-April mail from Europe. (366)
About 8 P.M., on the 9th April, a shower, accompanied by thunder and lightning, came up from the southern hills, where rain had been falling for some days, and gave notice that the Gugi or Somali monsoon had begun. This was the signal for the Bedouins to migrate to the Plateau above the hills. (367) Throughout the town the mats were stripped from their frameworks of stick and pole, (368) the camels were laden, and thousands of travellers lined the roads. The next day Berberah was almost deserted except by the pilgrims who intended to take ship, and by merchants, who, fearful of plundering parties, awaited the first favourable hour for setting sail. Our protectors, Jami and Burhale, receiving permission to accompany their families and flocks, left us in charge of their sons and relations. On the 15th April the last vessel sailed out of the creek, and our little party remained in undisputed possession of the place.
Three days afterwards, about noon, an Aynterad craft en route from Aden entered the solitary harbour freighted with about a dozen Somal desirous of accompanying us towards Ogadayn, the southern region. She would have sailed that evening; fortunately, however, I had ordered our people to feast her commander and crew with rice and the irresistible dates.
At sunset on the same day we were startled by a discharge of musketry behind the tents: the cause proved to be three horsemen, over whose heads our guard had fired in case they might be a foraging party. I reprimanded our people sharply for this act of folly, ordering them in future to reserve their fire, and when necessary to shoot into, not above, a crowd. After this we proceeded to catechise the strangers, suspecting them to be scouts, the usual forerunners of a Somali raid: the reply was so plausible that even the Balyuz, with all his acuteness, was deceived. The Bedouins had forged a report that their ancient enemy the Hajj Sharmarkay was awaiting with four ships at the neighbouring port, Siyaro, the opportunity of seizing Berberah whilst deserted, and of re-erecting his forts there for the third time. Our visitors swore by the divorce-oath,--the most solemn which the religious know,--that a vessel entering the creek at such unusual season, they had been sent to ascertain whether it had been freighted with materials for building, and concluded by laughingly asking if we feared danger from the tribe of our own protectors. Believing them, we posted as usual two sentries for the night, and retired to rest in our wonted security.
Between 2 and 3 A.M. of the 19th April I was suddenly aroused by the Balyuz, who cried aloud that the enemy was upon us. (369) Hearing a rush of men like a stormy wind, I sprang up, called for my sabre, and sent Lieut. Herne to ascertain the force of the foray. Armed with a "Colt," he went to the rear and left of the camp, the direction of danger, collected some of the guard,--others having already disappeared,--and fired two shots into the assailants. Then finding himself alone, he turned hastily towards the tent; in so doing he was tripped up by the ropes, and as he arose, a Somali appeared in the act of striking at him with a club. Lieut. Herne fired, floored the man, and rejoining me, declared that the enemy was in great force and the guard nowhere. Meanwhile, I had aroused Lieuts. Stroyan and Speke, who were sleeping in the extreme right and left tents. The former, it is presumed, arose to defend himself, but, as the sequel shows, we never saw him alive. (370) Lieut. Speke, awakened by the report of firearms, but supposing it the normal false alarm,--a warning to plunderers,--he remained where he was: presently hearing clubs rattling upon his tent, and feet shuffling around, he ran to my Rowtie, which we prepared to defend as long as possible.
The enemy swarmed like hornets with shouts and screams intending to terrify, and proving that overwhelming odds were against us: it was by no means easy to avoid in the shades of night the jobbing of javelins, and the long heavy daggers thrown at our legs from under and through the opening of the tent. We three remained together: Lieut. Herne knelt by my right, on my left was Lieut. Speke guarding the entrance, I stood in the centre, having nothing but a sabre. The revolvers were used by my companions with deadly effect: unfortunately there was but one pair. When the fire was exhausted, Lieut. Herne went to search for his powder-horn, and that failing, to find some spears usually tied to the tent-pole. Whilst thus engaged, he saw a man breaking into the rear of our Rowtie, and came back to inform me of the circumstance.
At this time, about five minutes after the beginning of the affray, the tent had been almost beaten down, an Arab custom with which we were all familiar, and had we been entangled in its folds, we should have been speared with unpleasant facility. I gave the word for escape, and sallied out, closely followed by Lieut. Herne, with Lieut. Speke in the rear. The prospect was not agreeable. About twenty men were kneeling and crouching at the tent entrance, whilst many dusk figures stood further off, or ran about shouting the war-cry, or with shouts and blows drove away our camels. Among the enemy were many of our friends and attendants: the coast being open to them, they naturally ran away, firing a few useless shots and receiving a modicum of flesh wounds.
After breaking through the mob at the tent entrance, imagining that I saw the form of Lieut. Stroyan lying upon the sand, I cut my way towards it amongst a dozen Somal, whose war-clubs worked without mercy, whilst the Balyuz, who was violently pushing me out of the fray, rendered the strokes of my sabre uncertain. This individual was cool and collected: though incapacitated by a sore right-thumb from using the spear, he did not shun danger, and passed unhurt through the midst of the enemy: his efforts, however, only illustrated the venerable adage, "defend me from my friends." I turned to cut him down: he cried out in alarm; the well-known voice caused an instant's hesitation: at that moment a spearman stepped forward, left his javelin in my mouth, and retired before he could be punished. Escaping as by a miracle, I sought some support: many of our Somal and servants lurking in the darkness offered to advance, but "tailed off" to a man as we approached the foe. Presently the Balyuz reappeared, and led me towards the place where he believed my three comrades had taken refuge. I followed him, sending the only man that showed presence of mind, one Golab of the Yusuf tribe, to bring back the Aynterad craft from the Spit into the centre of the harbour (371). Again losing the Balyuz in the darkness, I spent the interval before dawn wandering in search of my comrades, and lying down when overpowered with faintness and pain: as the day broke, with my remaining strength I reached the head of the creek, was carried into the vessel, and persuaded the crew to arm themselves and visit the scene of our disasters.
Meanwhile, Lieut. Herne, who had closely followed me, fell back, using the butt-end of his discharged sixshooter upon the hard heads around him: in so doing he came upon a dozen men, who though they loudly vociferated, "Kill the Franks who are killing the Somal!" allowed him to pass uninjured.
He then sought his comrades in the empty huts of the town, and at early dawn was joined by the Balyuz, who was similarly employed. When day broke he sent a Negro to stop the native craft, which was apparently sailing out of the harbour, and in due time came on board. With the exception of sundry stiff blows with the war-club, Lieut. Herne had the fortune to escape unhurt.
On the other hand, Lieut. Speke's escape was in every way wonderful. Sallying from the tent he levelled his "Dean and Adams" close to an assailant's breast. The pistol refused to revolve. A sharp blow of a war- club upon the chest felled our comrade, who was in the rear and unseen. When he fell, two or three men sprang upon him, pinioned his hands behind, felt him for concealed weapons,--an operation to which he submitted in some alarm,--and led him towards the rear, as he supposed to be slaughtered. There, Lieut. Speke, who could scarcely breathe from the pain of the blow, asked a captor to tie his hands before, instead of behind, and begged a drop of water to relieve his excruciating thirst. The savage defended him against a number of the Somal who came up threatening and brandishing their spears, he brought a cloth for the wounded man to lie upon, and lost no time in procuring a draught of water.
Lieut. Speke remained upon the ground till dawn. During the interval he witnessed the war-dance of the savages--a scene striking in the extreme. The tallest and largest warriors marched in a ring round the tents and booty, singing, with the deepest and most solemn tones, the song of thanksgiving. At a little distance the grey uncertain light disclosed four or five men, lying desperately hurt, whilst their kinsmen kneaded their limbs, poured water upon their wounds, and placed lumps of dates in their stiffening hands. (372) As day broke, the division of plunder caused angry passions to rise. The dead and dying were abandoned. One party made a rush upon the cattle, and with shouts and yells drove them off towards the wild, some loaded themselves with goods, others fought over pieces of cloth, which they tore with hand and dagger, whilst the disappointed, vociferating with rage, struck at one another and brandished their spears. More than once during these scenes, a panic seized them; they moved off in a body to some distance; and there is little doubt that had our guard struck one blow, we might still have won the day.
Lieut. Speke's captor went to seek his own portion of the spoil, when a Somal came up and asked in Hindostani, what business the Frank had in their country, and added that he would kill him if a Christian, but spare the life of a brother Moslem. The wounded man replied that he was going to Zanzibar, that he was still a Nazarene, and therefore that the work had better be done at once:--the savage laughed and passed on. He was succeeded by a second, who, equally compassionate, whirled a sword round his head, twice pretended to strike, but returned to the plunder without doing damage. Presently came another manner of assailant. Lieut. Speke, who had extricated his hands, caught the spear levelled at his breast, but received at the same moment a blow from a club which, paralyzing his arm, caused him to lose his hold. In defending his heart from a succession of thrusts, he received severe wounds on the back of his hand, his right shoulder, and his left thigh. Pausing a little, the wretch crossed to the other side, and suddenly passed his spear clean through the right leg of the wounded man: the latter "smelling death," then leapt up, and taking advantage of his assailant's terror, rushed headlong towards the sea. Looking behind, he avoided the javelin hurled at his back, and had the good fortune to run, without further accident, the gauntlet of a score of missiles. When pursuit was discontinued, he sat down faint from loss of blood upon a sandhill. Recovering strength by a few minutes' rest, he staggered on to the town, where some old women directed him to us. Then, pursuing his way, he fell in with the party sent to seek him, and by their aid reached the craft, having walked and run at least three miles, after receiving eleven wounds, two of which had pierced his thighs. A touching lesson how difficult it is to kill a man in sound health! (373)
When the three survivors had reached the craft, Yusuf, the captain, armed his men with muskets and spears, landed them near the camp, and ascertained that the enemy, expecting a fresh attack, had fled, carrying away our cloth, tobacco, swords, and other weapons. (374) The corpse of Lieut. Stroyan was then brought on board. Our lamented comrade was already stark and cold. A spear had traversed his heart, another had pierced his abdomen, and a frightful gash, apparently of a sword, had opened the upper part of his forehead: the body had been bruised with war-clubs, and the thighs showed marks of violence after death. This was the severest affliction that befell us. We had lived together like brothers: Lieut. Stroyan was a universal favourite, and his sterling qualities of manly courage, physical endurance, and steady perseverance had augured for him a bright career, thus prematurely cut off. Truly melancholy to us was the contrast between the evening when he sat with us full of life and spirits, and the morning when we saw amongst us a livid corpse.
We had hoped to preserve the remains of our friend for interment at Aden. But so rapid were the effects of exposure, that we were compelled most reluctantly, on the morning of the 20th April, to commit them to the deep, Lieut. Herne reading the funeral service.
Then with heavy hearts we set sail for the near Arabian shore, and, after a tedious two days, carried to our friends the news of unexpected disaster.