I must honestly confess my guilty negligence in having delayed until today to give Your Eminence an account of my journey in the Orient: neither having been extremely indisposed because of the hardships I suffered last winter nor the many duties incumbent upon me are sufficient reason to justify my negligence. I therefore implore benign forgiveness from Your Eminence’s bounty.
After obtaining a valid recommendation in Rome for the English Consul General in Egypt, I arrived early last January in Cairo where I fortunately found the Pro-Vicar Apostolic of Central Africa, FrMatteo Kirchner, with whom I have discussed everything your Eminence desired, about which you will have subsequently heard from him. I then continued my journey as far as Aden, where, with great difficulty, I was able to acquire from the vast tribe of the Gallas seven African boys whom I chose painstakingly from another sixteen. To their advantage and despite the great hostility between the English Governor and Fr Giovenale da Tortosa, Prefect Apostolic of that Mission, I managed to obtain the confidence and friendship of the former who granted me all I could wish to protect the responsibility I had assumed for the young men, and also to equip them with regular passports and English citizenship.
Then since the French frigate Du Chayla was passing through Aden, I tried in earnest to beg a free passage for me and the seven boys from Aden as far as Suez, from his Excellency Baron Gos, Ambassador Extraordinary of France in China. This was kindly granted tome by the worthy representative of that nation which is a true patron of Christianity in the Orient. After reaching Cairo and presenting the recommendation I had obtained in Rome from Lord John Pope-Hennessy to His Excellency Colgahoon (sic = Colquohoun), Consul General of Her Britannic Majesty in Egypt, I received a letter of recommendation in which the English Consul General, hostile to Fr Olivieri’s Work, ordered His Excellency Sir Sidney Smith Launders, English Consul General in Alexandria for Commercial Affairs, to undertake the necessary negotiations with the Pasha to ensure my young men a safe passage to Europe. In two days everything was completed with both Sydney Smith and with Rashid Pasha, Governor of Alexandria. However, on the morning of 6th March, when I reached the port where through the kind intervention of the French Consul General I was to embark on the French ship to sail to Genoa with all the young men for only 420 francs, I was arrested with them all at the customs.
It is pointless to explain to Your Eminence in detail all the obstacles, our sequestration and my heated discussions in the nine interviews I had with Pasha Rashid of Alexandria. The Egyptian Government, suspecting that I was a companion of Fr Olivieri, had disregarded my letters and the English passports declaring the young men English subjects from India, for this did not correspond with the colour of the boys, who were considered Abyssinian. The whole of the Pasha’s Diwan was up in arms against me as I adamantly maintained that the young men were Indians. In addition to the fortune of having declared them English subjects in Aden, in fact they also did speak a bit of Hindustani.
After a vehement argument with the Pasha, an Effendi, an Egyptian official, spoke up in the Pasha’s presence and did not mince his words saying: “These young men are not Indians but Abyssinians: I have been to India, and I did not see anyone there of this colour: the Indians’ faces are virtually white, while these are black.” To which I replied, “I do indeed believe you have been to India: but India is enormous; you have not been everywhere. Perhaps you only visited the ports of India, Bombay, Mangalore, Madras, Ceylon or Calcutta; but you have not been to the Indian hinterland. You have not been to… (and here I invented ten or twelve names which can certainly not be found on any map). “You are quite right,” he answered me, “I have not been to the places you mentioned.” Then the Pasha held out his hand to me, invited me to sit down on the sofa and had some coffee and a pipe brought in. “I see”, he said “that you are right, and your letters are perfectly consistent with what you say: these young men really are Indians. Another time, your word will be enough for me”. And he immediately ordered the head customs’ official, who was trembling with rage, to allow my young men to leave Alexandria.
Thanks to the Lord, from the moment I assumed responsibility for these young men in Aden they have not suffered the slightest indisposition. Moreover, they give me hope as regards the Mission’s goal that they will be considerably successful. I cannot say more than that. We shall see. I also brought a very talented Dinka girl from Cairo who will give us a hand in S. Croce with compiling a dictionary of the Dinka language, as best we can. I asked the Pro-Vicar for her, in order to introduce in our African Institutes in Verona the proper pronunciation of the Dinkas’ language, which is essential for the exercise of our Apostolic ministry in that perilous Mission.
I am teaching Arabic and Italian to the nine Gallas boys whom we now have in our Institute, but since from my experience I have only a slight knowledge of Gallas, I implore Your Eminence to grant me the favour of sending me the English-Gallas grammar and dictionary which I believe I saw at the Propaganda printing press, through Fr Filippo Torroni, the Minutante. Fr Torroni will then deliver it to wherever I ask him. Please forgive my eagerness Your Eminence, but I trust in the goodness you showed me when you were kind enough to speak to me.
My Superior, Fr Nicola Mazza, conveys his respects to you. By an almost constant miracle, he is now obliged to fight against the poverty caused by the present political circumstances, in order to maintain the free education for poor but intelligent boys offered by the Institute which now has 200 individuals, and the female Institute which now has 400 girls. But the marvels of Providence who has supported him for more than forty years, although he sometimes shows himself with a stern face, always keeps him secure in his works of Christian philanthropy.
In order not to bore Your Most Reverend Eminence, I have not given you an extensive account of my small but tricky expedition, as I did to Mgr Nardi and to His Excellency Cavaliere De-Hurter, President of the Society of Mary in Vienna; but I believe it is enough only to have mentioned my safe return from Aden, leaving all the rest for you to read in our Annals.
Letters written to me by Kirchner in Upper Egypt press me to return to Africa without delay to make the expedition up the White Nile in the Stella Mattutina, from Cairo to the Bari. However, since I am useful in the administration of the African Institute and in teaching the nine Gallas recently brought back from Aden, my Superior has refused to send me. He considers that for the time being the other Missionaries of Verona stationed in Shellal can go instead.
Imploring your kind sympathy, I kiss the sacred Purple and sign, with my deepest respect
Your most humble, obedient and unworthy son
Fr Daniel Comboni