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Part II-Chapter I-A Description Of Abyssinia 


The history of Abyssinia. An account of the Queen of Sheba, and of Queen Candace. The conversion of the Abyssins.

The original of the Abyssins, like that of all other nations, is obscure and uncertain. The tradition generally received derives them from Cham, the son of Noah, and they pretend, however improbably, that from his time till now the legal succession of their kings hath never been interrupted, and that the supreme power hath always continued in the same family. An authentic genealogy traced up so high could not but be extremely curious; and with good reason might the Emperors of Abyssinia boast themselves the most illustrious and ancient family in the world. But there are no real grounds for imagining that Providence has vouchsafed them so distinguishing a protection, and from the wars with which this empire hath been shaken in these latter ages we may justly believe that, like all others, it has suffered its revolutions, and that the history of the Abyssins is corrupted with fables. This empire is known by the name of the kingdom of Prester-John. For the Portuguese having heard such wonderful relations of an ancient and famous Christian state called by that name, in the Indies, imagined it could be none but this of Aethiopia. Many things concurred to make them of this opinion: there was no Christian kingdom or state in the Indies of which all was true which they heard of this land of Prester-John: and there was none in the other parts of the world who was a Christian separated from the Catholic Church but what was known, except this kingdom of Aethiopia. It has therefore passed for the kingdom of Prester-John since the time that it was discovered by the Portuguese in the reign of King John the Second.

The country is properly called Abyssinia, and the people term themselves Abyssins. Their histories count a hundred and sixty-two reigns, from Cham to Faciladas or Basilides; among which some women are remarkably celebrated. One of the most renowned is the Queen of Sheba, mentioned in Scripture, whom the natives call Nicaula or Macheda, and in their translation of the gospel, Nagista Azeb, which in their language is Queen of the South. They still show the ruins of a city which appears to have been once of note, as the place where she kept her court, and a village which, from its being the place of her birth, they call the land of Saba. The Kings of Aethiopia draw their boasted pedigree from Minilech, the son of this Queen and Solomon. The other Queen for whom they retain a great veneration is Candace, whom they call Judith, and indeed if what they relate of her could be proved, there never was, amongst the most illustrious and beneficent sovereigns, any to whom their country was more indebted, for it is said that she being converted by Inda her eunuch, whom St. Philip baptised, prevailed with her subjects to quit the worship of idols, and profess the faith of Jesus Christ. This opinion appears to me without any better foundation than another of the conversion of the Abyssins to the Jewish rites by the Queen of Sheba, at her return from the court of Solomon. They, however, who patronise these traditions give us very specious accounts of the zeal and piety of the Abyssins at their first conversion. Many, they say, abandoned all the pleasures and vanities of life for solitude and religious austerities; others devoted themselves to God in an ecclesiastical life; they who could not do these set apart their revenues for building churches, endowing chapels, and founding monasteries, and spent their wealth in costly ornaments for the churches and vessels for the altars. It is true that this people has a natural disposition to goodness; they are very liberal of their alms, they much frequent their churches, and are very studious to adorn them; they practise fasting and other mortifications, and notwithstanding their separation from the Roman Church, and the corruptions which have crept into their faith, yet retain in a great measure the devout fervour of the primitive Christians. There never were greater hopes of uniting this people to the Church of Rome, which their adherence to the Eutichian heresy has made very difficult, than in the time of Sultan Segued, who called us into his dominions in the year 1625, from whence we were expelled in 1634. As I have lived a long time in this country, and borne a share in all that has passed, I will present the reader with a short account of what I have observed, and of the revolution which forced us to abandon Aethiopia, and destroyed all our hopes of reuniting this kingdom with the Roman Church.

The empire of Abyssinia hath been one of the largest which history gives us an account of: it extended formerly from the Red Sea to the kingdom of Congo, and from Egypt to the Indian Sea. It is not long since it contained forty provinces; but is now not much bigger than all Spain, and consists but of five kingdoms and six provinces, of which part is entirely subject to the Emperor, and part only pays him some tribute, or acknowledgment of dependence, either voluntarily or by compulsion. Some of these are of very large extent: the kingdoms of Tigre, Bagameder, and Goiama are as big as Portugal, or bigger; Amhara and Damote are something less. The provinces are inhabited by Moors, Pagans, Jews, and Christians: the last is the reigning and established religion. This diversity of people and religion is the reason that the kingdom in different parts is under different forms of government, and that their laws and customs are extremely various.

The inhabitants of the kingdom of Amhara are the most civilised and polite; and next to them the natives of Tigre, or the true Abyssins. The rest, except the Damotes, the Gasates, and the Agaus, which approach somewhat nearer to civility, are entirely rude and barbarous. Among these nations the Galles, who first alarmed the world in 1542, have remarkably distinguished themselves by the ravages they have committed, and the terror they have raised in this part of Africa. They neither sow their lands nor improve them by any kind of culture; but, living upon milk and flesh, encamp like the Arabs without any settled habitation. They practise no rites of worship, though they believe that in the regions above there dwells a Being that governs the world: whether by this Being they mean the sun or the sky is not known; or, indeed, whether they have not some conception of the God that created them. This deity they call in their language Oul. In other matters they are yet more ignorant, and have some customs so contrary even to the laws of nature, as might almost afford reason to doubt whether they are endued with reason. The Christianity professed by the Abyssins is so corrupted with superstitions, errors, and heresies, and so mingled with ceremonies borrowed from the Jews, that little besides the name of Christianity is to be found here; and the thorns may be said to have choked the grain. This proceeds in a great measure from the diversity of religions which are tolerated there, either by negligence or from motives of policy; and the same cause hath produced such various revolutions, revolts, and civil wars within these later ages. For those different sects do not easily admit of an union with each other, or a quiet subjection to the same monarch. The Abyssins cannot properly be said to have either cities or houses; they live either in tents, or in cottages made of straw and clay; for they very rarely build with stone. Their villages or towns consist of these huts; yet even of such villages they have but few, because the grandees, the viceroys, and the Emperor himself are always in the camp, that they may be prepared, upon the most sudden summons, to go where the exigence of affairs demands their presence. And this precaution is no more than necessary for a prince every year engaged either in foreign wars or intestine commotions. These towns have each a governor, whom they call gadare, over whom is the educ, or lieutenant, and both accountable to an officer called the afamacon, or mouth of the King; because he receives the revenues, which he pays into the hands of the relatinafala, or grand master of the household: sometimes the Emperor creates a ratz, or viceroy, general over all the empire, who is superior to all his other officers.

Aethiopia produces very near the same kinds of provisions as Portugal; though, by the extreme laziness of the inhabitants, in a much less quantity: however, there are some roots, herbs, and fruits which grow there much better than in other places. What the ancients imagined of the torrid zone being uninhabitable is so far from being true, that this climate is very temperate: the heats, indeed, are excessive in Congo and Monomotapa, but in Abyssinia they enjoy a perpetual spring, more delicious and charming than that in our country. The blacks here are not ugly like those of the kingdoms I have spoken of, but have better features, and are not without wit and delicacy; their apprehension is quick, and their judgment sound. The heat of the sun, however it may contribute to their colour, is not the only reason of it; there is some peculiarity in the temper and constitution of their bodies, since the same men, transported into cooler climates, produce children very near as black as themselves.

They have here two harvests in the year, which is a sufficient recompense for the small produce of each; one harvest they have in the winter, which lasts through the months of July, August, and September, the other in the spring; their trees are always green, and it is the fault of the inhabitants that they produce so little fruit, the soil being well adapted to all sorts, especially those that come from the Indies. They have in the greatest plenty raisins, peaches, sour pomegranates, and sugarcanes, and some figs. Most of these are ripe about Lent, which the Abyssins keep with great strictness.

After the vegetable products of this country, it seems not improper to mention the animals which are found in it, of which here are as great numbers, of as many different species, as in any country in the world: it is infested with lions of many kinds, among which are many of that which is called the lion royal. I cannot help giving the reader on this occasion a relation of a fact which I was an eye- witness of. A lion having taken his haunt near the place where I lived, killed all the oxen and cows, and did a great deal of other mischief, of which I heard new complaints every day. A servant of mine having taken a resolution to free the country from this destroyer, went out one day with two lances, and after he had been some time in quest of him, found him with his mouth all smeared with the blood of a cow he had just devoured; the man rushed upon him, and thrust his lance into his throat with such violence that it came out between his shoulders; the beast, with one dreadful roar, fell down into a pit, and lay struggling, till my servant despatched him. I measured the body of this lion, and found him twelve feet between the head and the tail.

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