Sufferings In Africa

by James Riley

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Chapter X

The author and four of his companions set out to cross the Desart—their sufferings—they come to a spring of fresh water—description of its singular situation.

From the time I was sold to Sidi Hamet, my old master and his family shunned me as they would a pestilence; and the old villain actually stole one piece of our meat from me,'or rather robbed me of it just as we were setting out; for he cut it off the string by which it was tied to the camel, in spite of my efforts to prevent him. Our masters were accompanied for a considerable distance by several men and women, who were talking and taking leave, going on very slowly. We were ordered to keep their camels together,which I thought I did; yet when they were finally ready to depart, they found their big camel had marched off a great distance, probably two miles from us, following a drove of camels going to the N. W. Sidi Hamet bade me fetch him back—pointing him out: notwithstanding my weak and exhausted state, I was obliged to run a great way to come up with him, but my rising spirits supported me, and I succeeded in bringing him back, where the other camels were collected by my shipmates.

Sidi Hamet and Seid had two old camels oa which they had rode, and they had bought also a young one that had not been broke for riding. We were joined here by a young Arab named Jlbdallah: he had been Mr. Savage’s master and owned a camel, and a couple of goat skins to carry water in; but these, as well as those of our masters were entirely empty. Sidi Hamet had a kind of a pack saddle for each of his old camels; but nothing to cover the bones of his young ones. Having fitted them as well as he could, (for he seemed to be humane) he placed Mr. Savage, Burns, and Horace, on the big one, and myself and Clark on the other old one. Seid and Abdallah took their seats on the one which belonged to Abdallah, and Sidi Hamet mounted the young one himself to break him, sitting behind the hump on his bare back; and thus arranged and equipped, we set off on a full and long striding trot. It was about nine A. M. w’hen we had mounted; and this trot had continued for about three hours, when we stopped a few minutes in a little valley to adjust our saddles. Here Sidi Hamet pulled out a check shirt from one of his bags and gave it me, declaring he had stolen it, and had tried to get another for Horace, but had not been able: “put it on,” said he, “your poor back needs a sovering(it being then one entire sore.) I kissed his hand in gratitude, and thanked him and my Heavenly Father for this mercy. Clark, a day or two before, had got a piece of an old sail, that partly covered him—Burns had an old jacket, and Horace and Mr. Savage, a small goat skin added to their dress—so that we were all, comparatively, comfortably clad. We did not stop here long, but mounted again, and proceeded on our course to the E. S. E. on a full trot, which was continued till night; when, coming to a little valley, we found some thorn bushes and halted for the night.

Here we kindled a fire, and our masters gave us a few mouthfuls of the camel’s meat, which we roasted and ate. As we had water for the last three days, except a very little of what we had taken from the camel’s paunch, and which was now reduced to about four quarts, we, as well as our masters, suffered exceedingly for the want of it, and it was thereupon determined to make an equal distribution of it among the whole party; which was accordingly done with an impartial hand. This we, poor sufferers, made out to swallow, foul and ropy as it was, and it considerably relieved our parched throats} and then, finding a good shelter under a thornbush, notwithstanding our unabated pains we got a tolerable night’s sleep. We had travelled this day steady at a long trot, at a rate, I judged, of between seven and eight miles an hour; making a distance of sixty-three miles at the lowest computation. Before daylight in the morning of the 28th, we were called up and mounted on the camels as before, and we set off on the lofi^rot, on the same course, i. e. E. S. E. as on the preceding day.

The same smooth hard surface continued, with now and then a little break, occasioned by the naked heads of rocks just rising above the plain, and forming, in some places, small ledges. Near one of these, we alighted a few minutes about noon, for our masters to perform their devotions; and we allayed our thirst by drinking some of the camels’ urine, which we caught jn our hands: our masters did the same, and told me it was good for our stomachs. The camels took very long steps, and their motions being heavy, our legs, unsupported by stirrups or any thing else, would fly backwards and forwards, 'chafing across their hard ribs at every step; nor was it possible for us to prevent it, so that !be remaining flesh on our posteriors, and inside of our thighs and legs was so beat, and literally pounded to pieces, that scarcely any remained on our bones; which felt as if they had been thrown out of their sockets, by the continual and sudden jerks they experienced during this longest of days. It seemed to me as though the sun would never go down, and when at last it did, our masters had not yet found a place to lodge in; for they wished, if possible, to find a spot where a few shrubs were growing, in order that,the camels might browse a little during the night. They stopped at last after dark in a very small valley, for they could find no better place; here they kindled a little fire, and gave us about a pound of meat between us, which we greedily devoured, and then allayed our thirst in a similar manner as before mentioned.

We had started before daylight this morning, and had made but one stop of about fifteen minutes in the course of the whole day until dark night, having travelled at least fifteen hours, and at the rate of seven miles the hour, making one hundred and five miles. Here in our barebone and mangled state, we were forced to lie on the naked ground, withouY the smallest shelter from the wind, which blew a violent gale all night from the north—suffering in addition to the cold, the cravings of hunger and thirst, and the most excruciating pains in our limbs and numerous sores; nor could either of us close our eyes to sleep; and I cannot imagine that the tortures of the tack can exceed, nor indeed hardly equal, those we experienced this night. Sidi Hamet and his two companions, who had been accustomed to ride in this manner, thought nothing of it; nor did they even appear to be fatigued; but when I showed him my sores in the morning, and the situation of my shipmates, he was much distressed, and feared we would not live. He told me we should come to good water soon, when we might drink as much as we wanted of it, and after that he would not travel so fast.

We were placed on our camels soon after daylight, (this was the 29th), having nothing to eat, and drinking a little camel’s water, which we preferred to our own : its taste, as I before observed, though bitter, was not salt; and they void it but seldom in this dry and thirsty country. Proceeding on our journey at'a long trot, about nine o’clock in the morning, we discovered before us what aeemed like high land, as we were seated on the camels; but on oar approach, it proved to be the opposite bank of what appeared once to have been a river or arm of the sea, though its bed was now dry. At about 10 o’clock, we came to the bank nearest us; it was very steep, and four or five hun- dreuYeet deep, and in most places perpendicular or overhanging. These banks must have been washed at some former period, either by the sea or a river; which river, if it was one, does not now ex'^t. After considerable search, our masters found a place where our camels could descend into it, and having first dismounted and made us do the same, we drove them down. When we had descended the most difficult part of the bank, Seid and Abdallah went forward (with their guns) to search for a spring of fresh water, which Sidi Hamet told me was not very far distant. He now made me walk along with him, and let the others drive on the camels slowly after us ;■ for they, as well as ourselves, were nearly exhausted. He then asked me a great many questions respecting my country, myself and family; and whether I had any property at home ; if I had been at Swearah , and if I told him the truth concerning my having a friend there, who would pay money for me ? He said also, that both himself and his brother had parted with all their property to purchase us, and wished me to be candid with him, for he was “ my friend.” “ God (said he) will deal with you, as you deal with me.” I persisted in asserting that I had a friend at Swearah, who would advance any sum of money I needed, and answered his other questions as well as I was able; evading some I did not choose to answer, pretending I did not understand them. “ Will you buy Clark and Burns ? (said he) they are good for nothing.” They certainly did look worse, if possible, than the rest of us. I told him they were my countrymen, and my brothers, and that he might depend upon it I would ransom them, if he would carry us to the empire of Morocco and to the Sultan. “ No, (said he) the Sultan will not pay for you, but I will carry you to Swearah, to your friend; what is his name ?” Consul,” said I. It seemed to please him to hear me name my friend so readily; and after teaching me to count in Arabic, and by my fingers, up to twenty, (which was ashreen ) he told me I must give him two hundred dollars for myself, two hundred dollars for Horace, and for the others I must pay one hundred dollars each; showing me seven dollars he had about him, to be certain that we understood each other perfectly; and he next made me understand that I must pay for our provisions on the road, over and above this sum. He then made me point out the way to Swearah, which I was enabled to do by the sun and trade wind, maki ng it about N. E. “ Now, (said he) if you will agree before God the most High, to pay what I have stated, in money, and give me a double-barrelled gun, I will take you up to Swearah; if not, I will carry you off that way,” pointing to the S. E. “ and sell you for as much as I can get, sooner than carry you up across this long desart, where we must risk our lives every day for your sakes; and if you cannot comply with yotyr agreement, and we get there safe, we must cut your f throat, and sell your comrades for what they will bring.” I assured him that 1 had told him the truth, and called God to witness the sincerity of my intentions, not in the least doubting if I could once arrive there, I should find some one able and willing to pay the sum they demanded. “ You shall go to Swearah, (said he, taking me by the hand) if God please.” He then showed me the broken pieces of my watch, and a plated candlestick, which he said he had bought from some person who had come from the wreck of my vessel. The candlestick had belonged to Mr. Williams—he said he bought the articles before he saw me, and wished to know what they were worth in Swearah : I satisfied him as well as I could on this point. During this conversation, we kept walking on about east, as the bed of the river ran near the northern bank, which was very high, and Sidi Harriet looked at me as if his eye would pierce my very soul, to ascertain the secrets of my heart, and discover whether I was deceiving him or not; and he became satisfied that I was sincere.

By this time, we had arrived nearly opposite the place where he calculated the spring was, and his brother and Abdallah, being not far off, he hailed them to know if they had found it; to which they answered in the negative. After searching about an hour in the bank, he discovered it, and calling to me, for I was below, bade me come Up to where he was, at the foot of a perpendicular cliff—I clambered up over the fragments of great rocks that had fallen down from above, as fast as my strength would permit, and having reached the spot, and seeing no signs of water, the tears flowed fast down my cheeks, for I concluded the spring was dried up,.and that we must now inevitably perish. Sidi Hamet looked at me, and saw my tears of despair—“ look down there, said he, (pointing through a fissure in the rock,) I looked and saw water, but tjie cleft was too narrow to admit of a passage to it; then showing me another place, about ten or fifteen yards distant, where I could get down, to another small spring—■“ Sherub Riley, (said he) it is sweet.” I soon reached it, and found it sweet indeed; and taking a copious draught, I called my companions, who scrambled along on their way up, exclaiming with great eagerness, “ where is the water ? for God’s sake ! where is it? Oh, is it sweet?” I showed it to them, and they were soon convinced of the joyful fact. This water was as clear and as sweet as any I had ever tasted.

Sidi Hamet now allowed us to drink our fill, while Seid and Abdallah were driving the four camels up the bank by a zig-zag kind of a foot way, from which the stones and other impediments had been before removed, apparently with great trouble and labour. This spring, the most singular perhaps in nature, Was covered with large rocks, fifteen to twenty feet high, only leaving a narrow crooked passage next the high bank behind it, by which a common sized man might descend to get at it. It might contain, I should calculate, not more than fifty gallons of water; cool, clear, fresh, and sweet, and I presume it communicated with the one that was first shown me between the rocks, which was much smaller. The camels had been driven to within fifty yards, below the-spring; our masters then took off the large bowl which they carried for the purpose of watering the camels: then bringing a goat skin near the spring, made me fill it with the water, my three shipmates passing it up to me in the bowl— ; I kept admonishing my companions to drink with moderation, but at the same time I myself continued to take in large draughts of this delicious water, without knowing .when to stop; in consequence of which I was seized witli violent pains in my bowels, but soon found relief.

It was here that I had an opportunity of ascertaining the quantity of water which a camel could drink at one draught. We filled a large goat skin fifteen times, containing at least four gallons, and every drop of this water was swallowed down by our largest camel, amounting to the enormous quantity of sixty gallons, or two barrels. The men kept crying out, “ has not that camel done yet ? he alone will drink the spring dry." It was in effect drained very low; but still held out, as the water kept continually running in, though slowly. This camel was a very large and old one, about nine feet high, stout in proportion, and had not drank any water for twenty days, as I was informed by Sidi Hamet: but the other camels did not drink as much in proportion.

Having finished watering them, we filled two goat skins with the water, which had now become thick and whitish; as the rock in which the bason was formed for holding it, appeared to be chalky, soft, and yielding. We descended this bank, and after preparing the camels, we were mounted thereon, and proceeded as before, but along to the eastward, in this arm of the sea’s bed. I call it an arm of the sea, because there could be no doubt in the mind of any one who should view it, that these high banks were worn and washed by water; they were from six to eight or ten miles distant from each other, and the level bottom was encrusted with marine salt. The bank rises four or five hundred feet, and nearly perpendicular, in most places. The broken fragments of rock, gravel and sand, that had been undermined by the water, and tumbled down, filled a considerable space near the cliffs, and did not appear to have been washed by the water for a great pumber of years. I could not account for the incrustation of salt (as we must have been at least three hundred miles from the sea; this bottom or bed running from east northwardly to the west or S. W.) in any other way, than by supposing the sea water had once overflowed this level; that it had since either retired from that part of the coast, or formed a bar across its mouth, or outlet, and thus excluded itself entirely, and that the sea air combining with the saline deposit or sediment, continued this encrustation.

The curious and interesting springs, before mentioned, are situated on the right or north side of this dry bay or river, about one hundred feet below the surface of the desart, and from three hundred and fifty to four hundred feet from the bed or bottom. There was not the smallest sign of their ever having overflowed their basons; thereby leaving it a mystery how they ever should have been discovered, as there was no rill to serve as a clue.

Our masters now hurried on to the eastward, to find a place to emerge from this dreary abyss, still more gloomy, if possible, than the face of the desart. As we passed along, the salt crust crumbled under the feet of our camels, like the thin crust of snow. We came at length to a spot in the bank at a kind of point, where we ascended gradually from one point to another until within, probably, two hundred feet of the top; here we were obliged to dismount, and drive, coax, and encourage the camels to go up. The ascent was very steep, though in zigzag directions, and the flat rock over which the camels were forced to climb, threw them down several times, when our masters Would encourage them to get up again, by singing and making repeated trials: helping them over the bad places by a partial lifting, and begging the assistance of God and his prophet most fervently, as well as of all the saints.

Having at length reached the surface of the de- sart, they stopped a few minutes to let the camels * breathe, and also that we might come up, for Mr. Savage and Clark could not keep pace with the rest of us, on account of their severe pains in consequence of overcharging their stomachs with water. The desart here had the same smooth appearance we had before observed: no rising of the ground, nor any rock, tree, or shrub, to arrest the view within the horizon—all was a dreary, solitary waste, and we could not but admire and wonder at the goodness of Providence in providing a reservoir of pure fresh water to quench the thirst of the traveller and his camel in this dry, salt, and torrid region, and we felt an inexpressible gratitude to the author of our being, for having directed our masters to this spot, where our lives had been preserved and refreshed by the cool delicious spring, which seemed to be kept, there by a continual miracle.

We had not gone more than eight miles from the bank (in a N. E. direction) before we stopped for the night: here we found no lee to screen us from the strong winds, nor bush for the camels to browse on. I judge we had travelled five hours this morning, at the rate of seven miles an hour, before reaching the bank, and five miles after getting down it, before we came to the spring; making it forty miles to, and ten miles from the spring to where we halted for the night, so that this day’s march was altogether at least fifty miles.

The dry bed or bottom before mentioned, had probably been an inlet or arm of the sea that never was explored by Europeans, or any other civilized men; yet it must have had an outlet; and that outlet must be to the southward of us, and if so, its mouth must have been at least three hundred miles distant.

Here we ate the remainder of our camel’s meat:— we had no milk; for neither of our masters’ camels yielded any, and our share of meat was not more than about an ounce each. |

I judged by the height of the north star above the horizon that we were in about the latitude of twenty degrees North. I now experienced that to have only one want supplied, made us feel the others as less supportable than before; for although we had drank as much fresh water as we could contain, and our thirst was in a great measure allayed, still we were rendered extremely uneasy by the gnawings of hunger, which, together with our sufferings from the cold and piercing winds, made this a long and restless night.


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