As a break from Carlyle’s dyspeptic account of the early life of Frederick the Great, Jerome Lobo’s account of his voyage to Abyssinia in the first half of the 16th century. Lobo, a Portuguese Jesuit, went a mission to reclaim the Abyssins from their corrupted form of Christianity to the True Catholic Faith. It’s an engaging account, at least in the translation/abridgement made by the young Samuel Johnson (the first piece he ever wrote for money). In an introduction, Johnson praises Lobo’s lack of exaggeration: there are no great wonders here, just a straightforward, occasionally flat account of some extraordinary experiences.
Lobo is interested in the wildlife:
The elephants of Æthiopia are of so stupendous a size, that when I was mounted on a large mule I could not reach with my hand within two spans of the top of their backs. In Abyssinia is likewise found the rhinoceros, a mortal enemy to the elephant. In the province of Agaus has been seen the unicorn,
that beast so much talked of, and so little known:
Ah, that unicorn.
the prodigious swiftness with which this creature runs from one wood into another has given me no opportunity of examining it particularly, yet I have had so near a sight of it as to be able to give some description of it.
A description follows. I admit I was a little disappointed. Something seems to be missing:
The shape is the same with that of a beautiful horse, exact and nicely proportioned, of a bay colour, with a black tail, which in some provinces is long, in others very short: some have long manes hanging to the ground.
He complains about the morals of the people he meets. He’s particularly unhappy with their marriages:
The marriages are in short no more than bargains, made with this proviso, that when any discontent shall arise on either side, they may separate, and marry whom they please, each taking back what they brought with them.
This is contrary to the teachings of the church! However, the Abyssins are far from irreligious:
No country in the world is so full of churches, monasteries, and ecclesiastics as Abyssinia; it is not possible to sing in one church or monastery without being heard by another, and perhaps by several. . . . They begin their concert by stamping their feet on the ground, and playing gently on their instruments; but when they have heated themselves by degrees, they leave off drumming, and fall to leaping, dancing, and clapping their hands, at the same time straining their voices to the utmost pitch, till at length they have no regard either to the tune or the pauses, and seem rather a riotous than a religious assembly. For this manner of worship they cite the psalm of David, “O clap your hands all ye nations.” Thus they misapply the sacred writings . . .
They are possessed with a strange notion that they are the only true Christians in the world;
Meanwhile, when not being pursued by hostile local rulers or schemed against by local monks, there is the danger from the natural world:
I set out on my journey, and on the road was in great danger of losing my life by my curiosity of tasting a herb, which I found near a brook,
Fortunately a passer-by tells him he is eating poison and he spits it out. Lobo duly thanks God for his deliverance. There are other dangers:
The crocodile is very ugly, having no proportion between his length and thickness; he hath short feet, a wide mouth, with two rows of sharp teeth, standing wide from each other, a brown skin so fortified with scales, even to his nose, that a musket-ball cannot penetrate it. His sight is extremely quick, and at a great distance. In the water he is daring and fierce, and will seize on any that are so unfortunate as to be found by him bathing, who, if they escape with life, are almost sure to leave some limb in his mouth.
However, Lobo tries to be a scrupulous observer:
Neither I, nor any with whom I have conversed about the crocodile, have ever seen him weep, and therefore I take the liberty of ranking all that hath been told us of his tears amongst the fables which are only proper to amuse children.
The hippopotamus, or river-horse, grazes upon the land and browses on the shrubs, yet is no less dangerous than the crocodile.
And then there are snakes:
as I lay on the ground, I perceived myself seized with a pain which forced me to rise, and saw about four yards from me one of those serpents that dart their poison at a distance;
A spitting cobra. There are several kinds in Africa. They spit in self defence.
This danger, however, was not much to be regarded in comparison of another which my negligence brought me into. As I was picking up a skin that lay upon the ground . . .
I was stung by a serpent that left his sting in my finger; I at least picked an extraneous substance about the bigness of a hair out of the wound, which I imagined was the sting. This slight wound I took little notice of, till my arm grew inflamed all over; in a short time the poison infected my blood, and I felt the most terrible convulsions, which were interpreted as certain signs that my death was near and inevitable.
He tries various cures:
I received now no benefit from bezoar, the horn of the unicorn, or any of the usual antidotes, but found myself obliged to make use of an extraordinary remedy, which I submitted to with extreme reluctance.
Interesting to see the horn of a unicorn listed among the usual antidotes. Lobo doesn’t, alas, tell us what the extraordinary remedy was, only that later he was obliged to take cloves of garlic.
But snakes aren’t the only threat. Even the fruit can be dangerous:
I found many trees loaded with a kind of fruit, called by the natives anchoy, about the bigness of an apricot, and very yellow, which is much eaten without any ill effect. I therefore made no scruple of gathering and eating it, without knowing that the inhabitants always peeled it, the rind being a violent purgative; so that, eating the fruit and skin together, I fell into such a disorder as almost brought me to my end. The ordinary dose is six of these rinds, and I had devoured twenty.
Later, he finds himself separated from his fellow believers:
I was not much at my ease, alone among six Mahometans, and could not help apprehending that some zealous pilgrim of Mecca might lay hold on this opportunity, in the heat of his devotion, of sacrificing me to his prophet.
Which suggests some misunderstanding about Islamic teaching. However, his fellow travellers turn out to be less dangerous than badly prepared food:
These apprehensions were without ground. I contracted an acquaintance, which was soon improved into a friendship . . .
Eventually he returns to Lisbon. Even that is not plain sailing:
Never had any man a voyage so troublesome as mine, or interrupted with such variety of unhappy accidents; I was shipwrecked on the coast of Natal, I was taken by the Hollanders . . .
Unfortunately, in this case, he (or his abridger) doesn’t give any details.