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Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911

London, 1889. September 30th

London, 1889. September 30th.

I arrived, a few days ago, in the P. & 0. Britannia, after a most interesting voyage. I went to Melbourne to join her, and had a day or two there to see the wonderful progress the city has made since I saw it in 1866. My first ocean voyage in a well-appointed steamer. What a contrast to the sailing ships in which I rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and Cape Horn! and what a delightful exchange of summer seas for the wintry storms of Southern Latitudes! I found a good friend in the Commander, Captain Hector, who was in command, some years ago, of the Southern Gross, Bishop Patteson's mission vessel. We had a day or two in Ceylon, my first glimpse of Indian tropical scenery, a perfect paradise of colour. Unlike other parts of India, showers fall almost every day in the year, which accounts for the lovely freshness page 227of its vegetation. Thence across the Arabian Sea, and a four days' passage up the Red Sea. Much depends, of course, when you first see scenes of great historic interest, in your travels, on weather, and the accidental advantage of light which enhances the view. I was in luck's way; at 5 a.m. in the Gulf of Suez we were slowly coasting along the rugged granite ranges which lie just in front of Mt. Sinai, hiding the actual mountain itself. Sunrise at hand, red yellow shafts of brilliant hue, shooting up behind the serrated range; in the foreground red granite rock in shadow, rising from a deep blue sea. The peak which shuts out the view of Sinai, Jebel Katherina, is over eight thousand feet in height,—on the other side, the Egyptian side, a magnificent mass of granite, Jebel Ghareb, rising above six thousand feet, just caught on its highest points the glory of the rising sun. Going slowly, for we were ahead of our time, I managed to get a rough water-colour sketch of the scene at its best. Under the glare of the mid-day sun it would all have been very different, for the coast line of the Gulf of Suez is as bare of vegetation as your hand, an arid wilderness, all light, with none of the mysterious beauty of colour of shade. By the way, I have seen no intenser blue than that of the Red Sea; whence came the old Greek name? Probably not from any seaweed coral, or the colour of the coast, but a literal Greek translation of the word "Edom," Red; some of the Edomites being dwellers in South Arabia, and the sea taking its title from them, "the Sea of the Red men."

I was the only passenger on deck at that early hour, and was rewarded, not only by the glorious view, but with a cup of coffee, brought me by a deck steward.

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Arriving at Suez, we anchored, to wait for passengers from shore, and to pass the health officers' examination before entering the Canal. Another scene of great interest. On the Arabian side, at no great distance, a great yellow stretch of desert, backed up by mountain ranges; in the foreground, near the water, a group of palm trees, and other vegetation, a few flat-topped houses, known as "the Wells of Moses"; yellow sands, opal tinted, misty mountains; a caravan of camels, slowly wending its way from inland to the Wells, and over all the intense silence of the desert brooding. The tradition that this was one of the halting places of the Children of Israel, as they journeyed towards Sinai, is probably true. On the Egyptian side of the Gulf, the characteristic rocks and cliffs here come to an end in a bold headland, Ras Mohammed, the reputed place of the crossing of the Israelites, but it is now well established that the crossing took place near the site of the bitter lakes, through which the Canal passes.

It was evening before we entered the Canal. At its mouth we passed a large steam dredge, full of the spoil of the Canal, with the word "Pharoah" on its bow! How are the mighty fallen!! Pharoah slaving for the Children of Japhet; 'Japhet dwelling in the tents of Shem! Along the banks of the Canal, in the evening light, strings of camels and asses, with their owners; here and there a small encampment, with women and children, all in the costume which has lasted from the days of Abraham and Moses. Complete silence, save for a few voices, and then the shades of night; stars like lamps hanging above in a blue-black sky, and on ahead our powerful searchlight, throwing its beams on each side of the Canal, page 229and giving the sand the effect of snow; the actual course of the deep water channel being marked out with gas-lit buoys. So we travelled very slowly all night, and on deck I re-read the story of Israel's departure from Egypt. Next morning, passing by Lake Menzaleh, with its squadrons of flamingoes and cranes, we reached Port Said.

At Suez we took on board some homeward-bound passengers, and there was much talk of the state of affairs in Egypt, the abandonment of the Sudan, the tragedy of Gordon's death at Khartoum, and the possible danger of a Dervish invasion of Egypt. Colonel Rhodes and Lieutenant D'Aguilar had just arrived from Wady Haifa, which is now the Frontier post of defence, situated in the valley of the Nile, at a point where an invading army would probably try to force its way. This fort is now held entirely by Egyptian troops, under English officers, who have trained them so well, that they can be trusted to hold their own, especially when fighting in defence of a fort. D'Aguilar mentioned that he had an Abyssinian orderly, and I asked him whether Christianity, such as it is in Abyssinia, influenced the man's character. "Well," he said, "I don't know much about his morality, but I can tell you one thing. I took him with me one day, amongst the sand-hills in the neighbourhood, to see if there were any of the enemy lurking about, and told him to go up on one of them and have a good look round. He had his rifle, and is a good shot, but, like most of them, loved to carry also several assegais, their favourite weapon at close quarters. Presently he signalled to me that he saw someone, and then, dropping his rifle and brandishing an assegai, he disappeared down the other side of the hill. He page 230returned triumphant, having killed his foe. 'Why did you not shoot?' I said. 'Ah, me like you,—me a Christian. He have no rifle; me like you,—fight fair.'" Abyssinian Christianity, I believe, is in many respects barbaric, but a fact like this seems to show that the salt has not entirely lost its savour.

What splendid work is being done in Egypt, both in the Army and Civil Service, and by men of whom little is heard, and not the least likely to blow their own trumpets. It seems there is a general opinion that the power of Mahdism,—an unknown quantity —is a serious menace to the whole country, and that the position has been brought about, in great measure, by the vacillation of the Home Government, and its almost criminal neglect of its proper responsibility. Acknowledging its responsibility for the good government of Egypt, it shut its eyes to the fact that the Sudan is practically a part of Egypt, and let matters drift into terrible loss and disaster. Something must, and no doubt will, be done,—and will succeed. Great Britain's mission in Egypt will pursue its destined course, as elsewhere, in the cause of true civilization, irrespective of political apathy, or political shortsightedness at Home.

Emerging from Port Said, I persuaded Captain Hector, as we were ahead of our time, to go up through the Ionian Isles and so make his course to Brindisi. He agreed to do so, if he could manage by daylight, as the Islands are not well lit. We soon found ourselves on St. Paul's track in his journey to Rome, "running under a certain Island called Clauda," though we had no need, as they had, "to take trouble to come by their boat." Clauda, now Gozzo, rises with a cliff sheer out of the sea, some five hundred feet, page 231with a light-house atop, a dangerous neighbour for that ship of Alexandria, in which the Apostle sailed, when caught in the tempestuous wind Euroclydon. Early in the morning we passed Cape Matapan, and mountains of Morea. Passing Zante, we caught a glimpse of the Gulf of Corinth, then coasted along the Island of Cephalonia, with its lofty mountain, Monte Nero, the Black Mountain, Homer's epithet for it, black in his day, as it is now, with pines, and its lower flanks dotted with currant vines grown espalier fashion. It reaches nearly six thousand feet in height. Then we entered the narrow channel between it and the Island of Ithaca, ten miles long, and little more than a mile in width. I was busy sketching a picturesque bay, where several Greek brigs were at anchor, when an American passenger came up, and said: "I'm told, sir, that you know all about these old Islands; is this the place where Ulysses used to hang out, and mustered his ships before he went to the war?" "Yes," I said, "it's Ulysses' Island, and tradition says that he used that harbour for his fleet." "Waal," he replied, "I don't think much of his location." "And that was," I said, "the opinion also of the poet Horace, who describes Ithaca as not fit for horses, with scarce any flat land, and scanty vegetation." Passing Santa Maura just before dark, we made a straight course for Brindisi.

Brindisi, in old Roman days, was the termination of the Via Appia, the highway from Rome; its harbour, as to-day, the point of departure for the East, much improved by the Italian Government, but practically what it was in Julius Cæsar's time. I had a few hours ashore, and saw the house in which, they say, Virgil died. Certainly he died in Brundusium, page 232but the house! Well, parts of it are not unlike the old Roman work which exists here. It was amusing to hear the inevitable guide, who probably had little idea of Virgil and his work, say, "Ecco, Casa di Virgilio, Signor." Some of our passengers left by the overland express, which carries the mails, including the Sultan of Johore, one of our feudatory princes, a fine specimen of a Malay, with marked resemblance to a Maori, but a little lighter in complexion. I believe the best authorities regard the Maori race as Malay in origin. Quite an accomplished linguist; he told me that the great impediment to the progress of his people was their indolence. Anxious to improve the production of sago, he had imported machinery, and experts to teach the use of it, but with little result. Like all Orientals, he was fond of travelling. As he stepped out of the Britannia, in an English tourist's suit, I caught sight under his waistcoat, of a broad waist-band of gold net-work, studded with jewels, and, at the end of the crook of his walking-stick, a ruby nearly as large as a nut. He is well known in London, and is, I believe, a persona grata with the Prince of Wales.

Then we went southward to Malta, with a glimpse on the way of Etna, snow tipped, lifting its head above wreaths of cloud; and at Malta found ourselves again in the track of St. Paul. There we had a long day full of interest. As you approach it, making for the harbour of Valetta, Malta looks like a mass of rock, shaped somewhat like a man's hand, slightly arched, with three inlets, flanked by rocky cliffs, like the spaces between the fingers. "One of the great paws of the British Lion," said a passenger to me, as we steamed slowly beneath the grand fortifications of Valetta. We landed and, by advice, secured a guide, page 233whose chief use, having secured us as his prey, was to save us from the beggars who infest the place. In a little toy carriage, drawn by tiny ponies, we went up and down streets hewn out of rock, a few yards only in width, in many places a mere succession of steps. St. John's Cathedral has a magnificent interior, formerly the Church of the Order of the Knights of St. John, who were banished from Rhodes by the Turks. Under them Malta was the bulwark of Christianity in the Mediterranean, and in 1555 repulsed, after a great siege, the whole naval Ottoman force. In St. John's there are chapels dedicated to each of the nine countries whose knights represented the Order, including England, and on the floor of the nave there are no less than nine hundred slabs of coloured marble, tombstones of knights. The Governor's Palace, formerly the Grand Master's, is full of relics of the great siege, armour, weapons, and huge stone cannon balls. It has also magnificent Gobelin tapestries, which were carried off by Napoleon when he took Malta, but afterwards restored. The tradition of St. Paul's visit is strong in the Island, and a little distance from Valetta, in a bay which still retains the old name of Melita, there is a statue of the Apostle. As we did not leave till past midnight, I went at a late hour to the great square in front of the Governor's Palace, and found it thronged with people, of all sorts, taking their ease; smoking, drinking coffee, listening to music, and lounging in every sort of attitude, under the soft, warm, starlit sky. Policemen were there, in plain serge dress, with a sort of dog-whip instead of baton. I asked one of them how long people remained there at night? "Long time; some sleep here all night." "And are there page 234ever fights amongst them?" "No, people here no fight much, use knife sometimes." They are a very mixed origin, Phœnician, Arab, Norman and Italian. Next day, passing in sight of Cape Le Bon, and the Coast of Tunis, we made straight for Gibraltar.