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Up the Nile

[In 1845, aged 23, Sir Francis Galton went up the Nile as a tourist to Khartoum. With two companions he hired a large Nile boat called a dahabeya and they all lived ‘luxuriously and in grand style.’ This account is from his autobiographical Memories of My Life.]

Arnaud Bey was a French geographer in the employ of the Egyptian government. He said to us: “Why do you content yourself like other tourists to go no farther than Wady Halfa? Why not travel overland by camel from this very place, Korosko, to Khartoum? The Sheikh of the intervening Bishari Desert is in the village at this very moment. I know him well, and can easily arrange that he shall take you to Berber at moderate cost. You will then find your way by boat to Khartoum.”

We were amazed at the proposition, for the very names of those places were unknown to us. He drew a map on a small piece of paper for us to keep, on which he marked bits of useful information. At length, after hours of eating and drinking and talking, we fell wholly into his plan. The Sheikh was sent for, and I shall never forget his entrance.

The cabin reeked with the smells of a recent carouse, when the door opened and there stood the tall Sheikh, marked with sand on his forehead that indicated recent prostration in prayer. The pure moonlight flooded the Bacchanalian cabin, and the clear cool desert air poured in. I felt swinish in the presence of his Moslem purity and imposing mien. For all that, we soon came to terms, and were to start the day after the morrow.

A more complete change can hardly be imagined than that from a luxurious cabin to nightly open-air bivouacs on the cold sand. The track we followed was presumably the same that has been followed since the most ancient days; it bore marks of its continued use during recent times in the whitened bones with which it was strewed. Sometimes we came across a camel whose skin had not yet disappeared, but formed a hollow shell including marrowless and porous bones. These desiccated remains were of most unexpected lightness. My arm is far from strong, but I easily lifted with one hand and held aloft the quarter of a camel in this dried-up state.

Many strangers joined our slowly moving caravan. One group consisted of a husband on foot, with his wife and child mounted on a donkey, like the often-painted subject of the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Another personage was a middle-aged and rather mild-looking individual, who possessed little more than a sword, and was on his way to Abyssinia, where some fighting was expected with neighbouring savage tribes.

He proposed to take part in it and to make his profit from the slaves he captured. He was an old hand at this, and his businesslike account of the process was explicit. It was a moot question with him on each occasion when a man had been captured, whether to castrate him at once or not. If so, the man was apt to die, and would certainly require costly attention for a long time; on the other hand, if he recovered, his market value was greatly increased.

After four days’ travel from morning to evening, we came to a half-way place where a brackish but drinkable water was to be had, which replaced the redolent stuff that our water-skins afforded, and so on for four more days, when we reached the Nile at Abu Hamed, having cut across its huge bend.

Oh! The delights to such tourists as we were, of a temporary exemption from the discomforts of the desert, and of unlimited rations of water. We travelled farther by the side of the Nile for another three days or so, till Berber was reached, when we paid our dues and said good-bye to the camels. The governor of Berber was very civil; the sherbet he gave us, though made from limes and not from lemons, tasted heavenly. He gave me a monkey, and I bought another, and these two were my constant companions on camel-back and everywhere else for many months, until I returned to England.

Another boat had here to be hired to take us up to Khartoum. We got one in which the part below decks was much too low to stand in, and it swarmed with cockroaches, but it sufficed. We set sail, and in due time passed Shendy, the scene of the recent massacre of Abbas Pasha, a younger son of Mehemet Ali. At Shendy Abbas Pasha and his soldiers had committed all sorts of outrages, and finally he demanded the daughter of the local tax-gatherer in a form of marriage that was equivalent to temporary concubinage, which was a grave insult to her father, the most important man in the place.

The tax-gatherer was unable to resist; so he resigned himself, but gave orders secretly. While Abbas Pasha with his suite were at dinner and stupid with what they had drunk, the Pasha noticed that great bundles of stalks of the native corn were being brought in and stacked about the tent. He asked and was told that it was forage and litter for his Highness’s horses. When enough of this straw had been brought in, a signal was given to fire it, and every man who attempted to break through was massacred, including of course Abbas himself.

Finally we reached Khartoum, then a group of huts with a wagon-roofed hall for the audiences of the Pasha. We heard of an extraordinary figure, believed to be English, who had arrived some weeks previously. We went to call on him, knocked at the door, were told to enter, and came into the presence of a white man nearly naked, as agile as a panther, with head shorn except for the Moslem tuft, reeking with butter, and with a leopard skin thrown over his shoulder.

He was recognised at once by my companions as an undergraduate friend, Mansfield Parkyns. He had got into a College scrape, and, leaving Cambridge prematurely, found his way to Abyssinia, where during years of adventure he met and made friends with the aforementioned tax-gatherer of Shendy. Of the many travellers whom I have known I should place Mansfield Parkyns (1823-1894) as perhaps the most gifted with natural advantages for that career. He easily held his own under difficulties, won hearts by his sympathy, and could touch any amount of pitch without being himself defiled. He was consequently an admirable guide in that sink of iniquity, Khartoum.

The saying was that when a man was such a reprobate that he could not live in Europe, he went to Constantinople; if too bad to be tolerated in Constantinople, he went to Cairo, and thenceforward under similar compulsion to Khartoum. Half a dozen or so of these trebly refined villains resided there as slave-dealers; they were pallid, haggard, fever-stricken, profane, and obscene. Mansfield Parkyns complacently tolerated and mastered them all.

The abominations of their habitual conversation exceeded in a far-away degree any other I have ever listened to, but it was clever. When one of them was out of the room, the others freely related his adventures to us, in which some anecdote like this was frequent:

So he said, ‘Let us be friends; come drink a cup of coffee and smoke a pipe’—then he put poison into the coffee.

There is a gourd whose dried seeds are said to be poisonous and not very unlike coffee in taste, which is particularly convenient in such cases. With all their villainy there was something of interest in their talk, but I had soon quite enough of it. Still, the experience was acceptable, for one wants to know the very worst of everything as well as the best.

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